Krispos of Videssos
by Harry Turtledove
To Constantine VII
(who liked rice pudding)
and Leo the Deacon
The gold flan was flat and round, about as wide as Krispos' thumb—a blank surface, about to become a coin. Krispos passed it to the mintmaster, who in turn carefully set it on the lower die of the press. "All ready, your Majesty," he said. "Pull this lever here, hard as you can."
Your Majesty. Krispos hid a smile. He'd been Avtokrator of the Videssians for only eight days, and still was far from used to hearing his new title in everyone's mouth.
He pulled the lever. The upper die came down hard on the flan, whose soft gold was squeezed and reshaped between it and the one beneath.
The mintmaster said, "Now if you please, your Majesty, just ease back there so the die lifts again." He waited until Krispos obeyed, then took out the newly struck goldpiece and examined it. "Excellent! Had you no other duties, your Majesty, you would be welcome to work for me." After laughing at his own joke, he handed Krispos the coin. "Here, your Majesty, the very first goldpiece of your reign."
Krispos held the coin in the palm of his hand. The obverse was uppermost: an image of Phos, stern in judgment. The good god had graced Videssos' coinage for centuries. Krispos turned the goldpiece over. His own face looked back at him, neatly bearded, a bit longer than most, nose high and proud. Yes, his image, wearing the domed imperial crown. A legend ran around his portrait, in letters tiny but perfect: Krispos Avtokrator.
He shook his head. Seeing the goldpiece brought home once more that he was Emperor. He said, "Thank your die-maker for me, excellent sir. To cut the die so fast, and to have the image look like me—he did splendidly."
"I'll tell him what you've said, your Majesty. I'm sure he'll be pleased. We've had to work in a hurry here before, when one Avtokrator replaced another rather suddenly, so we, ah—"
The mintmaster found an abrupt, urgent reason to stare at the coin press. He knew he'd said too much, Krispos thought. Krispos' own ancestry was not remotely imperial; he'd grown to manhood on a peasant holding near Videssos' northern frontier—and spent several years north of that frontier, as a serf toiling for the nomads of Kubrat.
But after a cholera outbreak killed most of his family, he'd abandoned his village for Videssos the city, the great imperial capital. Here he'd risen by strength and guile to the post of vestiarios—chamberlain—to the Emperor Anthimos III. Anthimos had cared for pleasure more than for ruling; when Krispos sought to remind him of his duties, Anthimos tried to slay him by sorcery. He'd slain himself instead, with a bungled spell... And so, Krispos thought, my face goes on goldpieces now.
"We're cutting more dies every day, both for this mint and those out in the provinces," the mintmaster said, changing the subject. "Soon everyone will have the chance to know you through your coins, your Majesty."
Krispos nodded. "Good. That's as it should be." He'd been a youth, he remembered, when he first saw Anthimos' face on a goldpiece.
"I'm glad you're pleased, your Majesty." The mintmaster bowed. "May your reign be long and happy, sir, and may our artisans design many more coins for you."
"My thanks." Krispos had to stop himself from bowing in return, as he would have before the crown came to him. A bow from the Avtokrator would not have delighted the mintmaster; it would have frightened him out of his wits. As Krispos left the mint, he had to hold up a hand to keep all the workers from stopping their jobs to prostrate themselves before him. He was just learning how stifling imperial ceremony could be for the Emperor.
A squad of Halogai stood outside the mint. The imperial guardsmen swung up their axes in salute as Krispos emerged. Their captain held his horse's head to help him mount. The big blond northerner was red-faced and sweating on what seemed to Krispos no more than a moderately warm day; few of the fierce mercenaries took Videssos' summer heat well.
"Where to now, Majesty?" the officer asked.
Krispos glanced down at a sheet of parchment on which he'd scrawled a list of the things he had to do this morning. He'd had to do so much so fast since becoming Avtokrator that he'd given up trying to keep it all in his head. "To the patriarchal mansion, Thvari," he said. "I have to consult with Gnatios—again."
The guardsmen formed up around Krispos' big bay gelding. He touched the horse's flanks with his heels, twitched the reins. "Come on, Progress," he said. The imperial stables held many finer animals; Anthimos had fancied good horseflesh. But Progress had belonged to Krispos before he became Emperor, and that made the beast special.
When the Halogai reached the edge of the palace quarter and came to the plaza of Palamas, they menacingly raised their axes and shouted, "Way! Way for the Avtokrator of the Videssians!" As if by magic, a lane through the crowded square opened for them. That was an imperial perquisite Krispos enjoyed. Without it, he might have spent most of an hour getting to the other side of the plaza—he had, often enough. Half the people in the world, he sometimes thought, used the plaza of Palamas to try to sell things to the other half.
Though the presence of the Emperor—and the cold-eyed Halogai—inhibited hucksters and hagglers, the din was still dreadful. He rubbed an ear in relief as it faded behind him.
The Halogai tramped east down Middle Street, Videssos the city's chief thoroughfare. The Videssians loved spectacle. They stopped and stared and pointed and made rude remarks, as if Krispos could not see or hear them. Of course, he realized wryly, he was so new an Avtokrator as to be interesting for novelty's sake, if nothing else.
He and his guards turned north toward the High Temple, the grandest shrine to Phos in all the Empire. The patriarch's home stood close by. When it came into view, Krispos braced himself for another encounter with Gnatios.
The meeting began smoothly. The ecumenical patriarch's aide, a lesser priest named Badourios, met Krispos at the mansion door and escorted him to Gnatios' study. The patriarch sprang from his chair, then went to his knees and then to his belly in full proskynesis—so full, indeed, that Krispos wondered, as he often did with Gnatios, if he was being subtly mocked.
Though his shaven pate and bushy beard marked him as a cleric, they did not rob the patriarch of his individuality, as often happened with priests. Krispos always thought of him as foxlike, for he was clever, elegant, and devious, all at the same time. Had he been an ally, he would have been a mighty one. He was not an ally; Anthimos had been a cousin of his.
Krispos waited for Gnatios to rise from his prostration, then settled into a chair across the desk from the patriarch. He motioned Gnatios to sit and plunged in without preamble. "I hope, most holy sir, you've seen fit to reverse yourself on the matter we discussed yesterday."
"Your Majesty, I am still engaged in a search of Phos' holy scriptures and of canon law." Gnatios waved to the scrolls and codices piled high in front of him. "But I regret to say that as yet I have failed to find justification for performing the ceremony of marriage to join together you and the Empress Dara. Not only is her widowhood from his late Majesty the Avtokrator Anthimos extremely recent, but there is also the matter of your involvement in Anthimos' death."
Krispos drew in a long, angry breath. "Now see here, most holy sir, I did not slay Anthimos. I have sworn that again and again by the lord of the great and good mind, and sworn it truthfully." To emphasize his words, his hand moved in a quick circle over his heart, the symbol of Phos' sun. "May Skotos drag me down to the eternal ice if I lie."
"I do not doubt you, your Majesty," Gnatios said smoothly, also making the sun-sign. "Yet the fact remains, had you not been present when Anthimos died, he would still be among men today."
"Aye, so he would—and I would be dead. If he'd finished his spell at leisure, it would have closed on me instead of him. Where in Phos' holy scriptures does it say a man may not save his own life?"
"Nowhere," the patriarch answered at once. "I never claimed that. Yet a man may not hope to escape the ice if he takes to wife the widow of one he has slain, and by your own statements you were in some measure a cause of Anthimos' death. Thus my continued evaluation of your degree of responsibility for it, as measured against the strictures of canon law. When I have made my determination, I assure you I shall inform you immediately."
"Most holy sir, by your own statements there can be honest doubt about this—men can decide either way. If you find against me, I am sure I can discover another cleric to wear the patriarch's blue boots and decide for me. Do you understand?"
"Oh, indeed, painfully well," Gnatios said, putting a wry arch to one eyebrow.
"I'm sorry to be so blunt," Krispos said, "But it strikes me your delays have more to do with hindering me than with Phos' sacred words. I will not sit still for that. I told you the night you crowned me that I was going to be Emperor of all Videssos, including the temples. If you stand in my way, I will replace you."
"Your Majesty, I assure you this delay is unintentional," Gnatios said. He gestured once more to the stacks of volumes on his desk. "For all you say, your case is difficult and abstruse. By the good god, I promise to have a decision within two weeks' time. After you hear it, you may do with me as you will. Such is the privilege of Avtokrators." The patriarch bowed his head in resignation.
"Two weeks?" Krispos stroked his beard as he considered. "Very well, most holy sir. I trust you to use them wisely."
"Two weeks?" Dara gave her head a decisive shake. "No, that won't do. It gives Gnatios altogether too much time. Let him have three days to play with his scrolls if he must, but no more than that. Tomorrow would be better."
As he often had, Krispos wondered how Dara fit so much stubbornness into such a small frame. The crown of her head barely reached his shoulder, but once she made up her mind she was more immovable than the hugest Haloga. Now he placatingly spread his hands. "I was just pleased I got him to agree to decide within any set limit. And in the end I think he'll decide for us—he likes being patriarch and he knows I'll cast him from his throne if he tells us we may not wed. That amount of time we can afford."
"No," Dara said, even more firmly than before. "I grudge him every grain of sand in the glass. If he's going to find for us, he doesn't need weeks to do it."
"But why?" Krispos asked. "Since I've already agreed to this, I can't change my mind without good reason, not unless I want him preaching against me in the High Temple as soon as I leave him."
"I'll give you a good reason," Dara said: "I'm with child."
"You're—" Krispos stared at her, his mouth falling open.
Then he asked the same foolish question almost every man asks his woman when she gives him that news: "Are you sure?"
Dara's lips quirked. "I'm sure enough. Not only have my courses failed to come, but when I went to the privy this morning, the stench made me lose my breakfast."
"You're with child, all right," Krispos agreed. "Wonderful!" He took her in his arms, running a hand through her thick black hair. Then he had another thought. It was not suited for the moment, but passed his lips before he could hold it back: "Is it mine?"
He felt her stiffen. The question, unfortunately, was neither idle nor, save in its timing, cruel. Dara had been his lover, aye, but she'd also been Anthimos' Empress. And Anthimos had not been immune to the pleasures of the flesh—far from it.
When at last she looked up at him, her dark eyes were troubled. "I think it's yours," she said slowly. "I wish I could say I was certain, but I can't, not really. You'd know I was lying."
Krispos thought back to the time before he'd seized the throne; as vestiarios, he'd had the bedchamber next to the one Dara and Anthimos had shared. The Emperor had gone carousing and reveling many nights, but not all. Krispos sighed, stepping back and wishing life did not give him ambiguity where he most wanted to be sure.
He watched Dara's eyes narrow and her mouth thin in calculation. "Can you afford to disown a child of mine, no matter who it looks like in the end?" she asked.
"I just asked myself the same question," he said, respect in his voice. Nothing was wrong with Dara's wits, and just as Gnatios liked being patriarch, she liked being Empress. She needed Krispos for that, but he knew he also needed her— because she was Anthimos' widow, she helped confer legitimacy on him by connecting him to the old imperial house. He sighed again. "No, I don't suppose I can."
"By the good god, Krispos, I hope it's yours, and I think it is," Dara said earnestly. "After all, I was Anthimos' Empress for years without quickening. I never knew him to get bastards on any of his tarts, either, and he had enough of them. I have to wonder at the strength of his seed."
"That's so," Krispos said. He felt relieved, but not completely. Phos he took on faith. His years in Videssos the city had taught him the danger of similar faith in anything merely human. Yet even if the child was not his by blood, he could set his mark on it. "If it's a boy, we'll name him Phostis, for my father."
Dara considered, nodded. "It's a good name." She touched Krispos' arm. "But you do see the need for haste, not so? The sooner we're wed, the better; others can count months as well as we can. A babe a few weeks early will set no tongues wagging. Much more, though, especially if the child is big and robust—"
"Aye, you're right," Krispos said. "I'll speak to Gnatios. If he doesn't like being hurried, too bad. It's just deserts for surprising me and making me speak unprepared when he was crowning me. By the good god, I know he was hoping I'd flub."
"Just deserts for that piece of effrontery would be some time in the prisons under the government office buildings on Middle Street," Dara said. "I've thought so ever since you first told me of it."
"It may come to that, if he says me nay here," Krispos answered. "I know he'd sooner see Petronas come out of the monastery and take the throne than have me on it. Being Anthimos' cousin means he's Anthimos' uncle's cousin, too."
"He's not your cousin, that's for certain," Dara said grimly. "You ought to have your own man as patriarch, Krispos. One who's against you can cause you endless grief."
"I know. If Gnatios does tell me no, it'll give me the excuse I need to get rid of him. Trouble is, if I do, I'd likely have to replace him with Pyrrhos the abbot."
"He'd be loyal," Dara said.
"So he would." Krispos spoke without enthusiasm. Pyrrhos was earnest and able. He was also pious, fanatically so. He was a far better friend to Krispos than Gnatios ever would be, and far less comfortable to live with.
Dara said, "Now I hope Gnatios does stand up on his hind legs against you, if you truly mean to slap him down for it."
All at once, Krispos was tired of worrying about Gnatios and what he might do. Instead he thought of the child Dara would have—his child, he told himself firmly. He stepped forward to take her in his arms again. She squeaked in surprise as he bent his head to kiss her, but her lips were eager against his. The kiss went on and on.
When at last they separated, Krispos said, "Shall we go to the bedchamber?"
"What, in the afternoon? We'd scandalize the servants."
"Oh, nonsense," Krispos said. After Anthimos' antic reign, nothing save perhaps celibacy could scandalize the palace servants, though he did not say so aloud. "Besides, I have my reasons."
"Name two," Dara said, mischief in her voice.
"All right. For one, if you are pregnant, you're apt to lose interest for a while, so I'd best get while the getting's good, as they say. And for another, I've always wanted to make love with you with the sun shining in on us. That's one thing we never dared do before."
She smiled. "A nice mix of the practical and the romantic. Well, why not?"
They walked down the hall hand in hand. If maidservants or eunuch chamberlains gave them odd looks, neither one noticed.
Barsymes bowed to Krispos. "The patriarch is here, your Majesty," the eunuch vestiarios announced in his not-quite-tenor, not-quite-alto voice. He did not sound impressed. Few things impressed Barsymes.
"Thank you, esteemed sir," Krispos answered; palace eunuchs had their own honorifics, different from those of the nobility. "Show him in."
Gnatios prostrated himself as he entered the chamber where Krispos had been wrestling with tax documents. "Your Majesty," he murmured.
"Rise, most holy sir, rise by all means," Krispos said expansively. "Please be seated; make yourself comfortable. Shall I send for wine and cakes?" He waited for Gnatios' nod, then waved to Barsymes to fetch the refreshments.
When the patriarch had eaten and drunk, Krispos proceeded to business. "Most holy sir, I regret summoning you so soon after I promised you would have your two weeks, but I must seek your ruling on whether Dara and I may lawfully wed."
He had expected Gnatios to splutter and protest, but the patriarch beamed at him. "What a pleasant coincidence, your Majesty. I was going to send you a message later in the day, for I have indeed reached my decision."
"And?" Krispos said. If Gnatios thought this affable front would make a rejection more palatable, Krispos thought, he was going to get a rude awakening.
But the ecumenical patriarch's smile only grew broader. "I am delighted to be able to inform you, your Majesty, that I find no canonical impediments to your proposed union with the Empress. You may perhaps hear gossip at the haste of the match, but that has nothing to do with its permissibility under ecclesiastical law."
"Really?" Krispos said in glad surprise. "Well, I'm delighted to hear you say so, most holy sir." He got up and poured more wine for the two of them with his own hands.
"I am pleased to be able to serve you with honor in this matter, your Majesty," Gnatios answered. He lifted his cup. "Your very good health."
"And yours." Avtokrator and patriarch drank together. Then Krispos said, "From what you've just told me, I don't suppose you'd mind celebrating the wedding yourself." If Gnatios was just going along for the sake of going along, Krispos thought, he ought to balk or at least hesitate.
But he replied at once, "It would be my privilege, your Majesty. Merely name the day. From your urgency, I suppose you will want it to come as soon as possible."
"Yes," Krispos said, still a bit taken aback at this wholehearted cooperation. "Will you be able to make everything ready in—hmm—ten days' time?"
The patriarch's lips moved. "A couple of days after the full moon? I am your servant." He inclined his head to the Emperor. "Splendid," Krispos said. When he rose this time, it was a sign Gnatios' audience was done. The patriarch did not miss the signal. He bowed himself out. Barsymes took charge of him and escorted him from the imperial residence.
Krispos gave his attention back to the cadasters. He smiled a little as he took up his stylus to scrawl a note on a waxed tablet. That had been easier than he'd figured it would be, he thought with a twinge of contempt for Gnatios. The patriarch seemed willing to pay whatever price he had to in order to keep his position. A firm line with him would get Krispos anything he required.
Nice to have one worry settled, he thought, and went on to the next tax register.
"Don't worry, your Majesty. We have plenty of time yet," Mavros said.
Krispos looked at his foster brother with mixed gratitude and exasperation. "Nice to hear someone say so, by the good god. All of Dara's seamstresses are having kittens, wailing that they'll never be able to have her dress ready on the day. And if they're having kittens, the mintmaster is having bears—big bears, with teeth. He says I can send him to Prista if I like, but that still won't get me enough goldpieces with my face on them to use for largess."
"Prista, he?" Amusement danced in Mavros' eyes. "Then he probably means it." The lonely outpost on the northern shore of the Videssian Sea housed the Empire's most incorrigible exiles. Few people went there willingly.
"I don't care if he means it," Krispos snapped. "I need to have that gold to pass out to the people. We grabbed power too quickly the night I was crowned. This is my next good chance. If I don't do it now, the city folk will think I'm mean, and I'll have no end of trouble from them."
"I daresay you're right," Mavros said, "but does it all have to be your gold? Aye, that would be nice, but you hold the treasury as well as the mint. So long as the coin is good, no one who gets it will care whose face it bears."
"Something to that," Krispos said after a moment's thought. "The mintmaster will be pleased. Tanilis would be, too, to hear you; you're your mother's son after all."
"I'll take that for a compliment," Mavros said.
"You'd better. I meant it for one." Krispos had nothing but admiration for Mavros' mother. Tanilis was one of the wealthiest nobles of the eastern town of Opsikion, and seer and mage, as well. She'd foretold Krispos' rise, helped him with money and good advice, and fostered Mavros to him. Though she was a decade older than Krispos, they'd also been lovers for half a year, until he had to return to Videssos the city—Mavros did not know about that. She was still the standard by which Krispos measured women, including Dara— Dara did not know about that.
Barsymes politely tapped at the open door of the chamber where Krispos and Mavros were talking. "Your Majesty, eminent sir, your presence is required for another rehearsal of assembling for the wedding procession." In matters of ceremony, the vestiarios ordered the Avtokrator about.
"We'll be with you shortly, Barsymes," Krispos promised. Barsymes withdrew, a couple of paces' length. He did not go away. Krispos turned back to Mavros. "I think I'll use the wedding to declare you Sevastos."
"You will? Me?" Mavros was in his mid-twenties, a few years younger than Krispos, and had a more openly excitable temperament. Now he could not keep his surprised delight from showing. "When did you decide to do that?"
"I've been thinking about it ever since this crown landed on my head. You act as my chief minister, so you should have the title that says what you do. And the wedding will be a good public occasion to give it to you."
Mavros bowed. "One of these days," he said slyly, "you ought to tell your face what you're thinking, so it'll know, too."
"Oh, go howl," Krispos said. "Naming you Sevastos will also make you rich, even apart from what you stand to inherit. It'll also set you up as my heir if I die without one." As he said that, he wondered again whether Dara's child was his. He suspected—he feared—he would keep on wondering until the baby came, and perhaps for years afterward as well.
"I see that, since you're Emperor, you don't have to listen to people anymore," Mavros said. Realizing he hadn't been listening and had missed something, Krispos felt himself flush. With the air of someone doing an unworthy subject a great favor, Mavros repeated himself. "I said that if you die without an heir, it will likely mean you've lost a civil war, in which case I'll be a head shorter myself and in no great position to assume the throne."
In his breezy way, Mavros had probably hit truth there, Krispos thought. He said, "If you don't want the honor, I could bestow it on Iakovitzes."
They both laughed. Mavros said, "I'll take it, then, just to save you from that. With his gift for getting people furious at him, you'd lose any civil war where he was on your side, because no one else would be." Then, as if afraid Krispos might take him seriously, he added, "He is in the wedding party, isn't he?"
"Of course he is," Krispos answered. "Do you think I want the rough side of his tongue for leaving him out? He gave it to me often enough in the days when I was one of his grooms— and to you, too, I'd bet."
"Who, me?" Mavros assumed a not altogether convincing expression of innocence.
Before Krispos could reply, Barsymes stepped back into view. Implacably courteous, he said, "Your Majesty, the rehearsal will commence at any moment. Your presence—and yours, eminent sir—" He turned to Mavros, "—would be appreciated."
"Coming," Krispos said obediently. He and Mavros followed the vestiarios down the hall.
Barsymes bustled up and down the line, clucking like a hen not sure all her chicks were where they belonged. His long face was set in doleful lines made more than commonly visible by his beardless cheeks. "Please, excellent sirs, eminent sirs, your Majesty, try to remember all we've practiced," he pleaded.
"If the army had its drill down as well as we do, Videssos would rule the bloody world," Iakovitzes said, rolling his eyes. The noble stroked his graying beard. "Come on, let's get this nonsense done with, shall we?"
Barsymes took a deep breath and continued as if no one had spoken. "Smooth and steady and stately will most properly awe the people of Videssos the city."
"Phos coming down from behind the sun with Skotos all tied up in colored string wouldn't properly awe the people of Videssos the city," Mavros said, "so what hope have we?"
"Take no notice of any of my comrades," Krispos told Barsymes, who looked about ready to burst from nerves. "We are in your capable hands."
The vestiarios sniffed, but eased a little. Then he went from mother hen to drillmaster in one fell swoop. "We begin—now," he declared. "Forward to the plaza of Palamas." He marched east from the imperial residence, past lawns and gardens and groves, past the Grand Courtroom, past the Hall of the Nineteen Couches, past the other grand buildings of the palace quarter.
Dara and her companions, Krispos knew, were traversing the quarter by another route. If everything went as planned, his party and hers would meet at the edge of the plaza. It had happened in rehearsals. Barsymes acted convinced it would happen again. To Krispos, his confidence seemed based on sorcery, but so far as he knew, no one had used any.
Magic or not, when his party turned a last corner before the plaza of Palamas, he saw Dara and the noblewomen with her round an outbuilding and come straight toward him. Once they got a few steps closer, he also saw the relief on her face; evidently she'd worried, too, about whether their rendezvous would go as planned.
"You look lovely," he said as he took her right hand with his left. She smiled up at him. A light breeze played with her hair; like him, she wore no golden crown today. Her gown, though, was of dark gold silk that complemented her olive complexion. Fine lace decorated cuffs and bodice; the gown, cinched tight at the waist, displayed her fine figure.
"Forward!" Barsymes called again, and the newly united wedding party advanced into the plaza. The palace quarter had been empty. The plaza was packed with people. They cheered when they saw Krispos and his companions, and surged toward them. Only twin rows of streamers—and Halogai posted every ten feet or so along them—kept the way open.
Instead of his sword, Krispos wore a large leather sack on the right side of his belt. He reached into it, dug out a handful of goldpieces, and threw them into the crowd. The cheers got louder and more frantic. All his groomsmen were similarly equipped; they also flung largess far and wide. So did a dozen servants, who carried even larger bags of coins.
"Thou conquerest, Krispos!" people shouted. "Many years!" "The Avtokrator!" "Many sons!" "Hurrah for the Empress Dara!" "Happiness!" They also shouted other things: "More money!" "Throw it this way!" "Over here!" And someone yelled, "A joyous year to the Emperor and Empress for each goldpiece I get!"
"What an ingenious combination of flattery and greed," Iakovitzes said. "I wish I'd thought of it."
The fellow was close; Krispos saw him waving like a madman. He pulled on a servant's sleeve. "Give him a hundred goldpieces."
The man screamed with delight when the servant poured gold first into his hands, then into a pocket that looked hastily sewn onto his robe—he'd come ready for any good that might happen to him. "That was kindly done, Krispos," Dara said, "but however much we wish it, we won't have a hundred years."
"I'll bet that chap won't have a hundred goldpieces by the time he gets out of the plaza, either," Krispos answered. "But may he do well with those he manages to keep, and may we do well with so many years."
The wedding party pushed out of the plaza of Palamas onto Middle Street. Long colonnades shielded the throngs there from the sun. More servants—these accompanied by an escort of armored Halogai—brought up fresh bags of goldpieces. Krispos dug deep and threw coins as far as he could.
As he had when visiting Gnatios, he turned north off Middle Street with his companions. This time they bypassed the patriarchal mansion with its small dome of red brick for the High Temple close by. Mavros tapped Krispos on the shoulder. "Remember the last time we saw the forecourt here so packed with people?"
"I should hope so," Krispos said. That had been the day he'd taken the throne, the day Gnatios had set the crown on his head in the doorway to the High Temple.
Dara sighed. "I wish I could have been here to see you crowned."
"So do I," Krispos said. They both knew that would not have looked good, though, not when he was replacing the man to whom she'd been wed. Even this ceremony would stir gossip in every tavern and sewing circle in the city. But Dara was right— with a child in her belly, they could not afford to wait.
More Halogai stood on the steps of the High Temple, facing outward to protect Krispos and his comrades as they had when he'd been crowned. At the top of the steps, Gnatios stood waiting. The patriarch looked almost imperially splendid in his blue boots and pearl-encrusted robe of cloth-of-gold and blue. Mere priests in less magnificent raiment swung thuribles on either side of him; Krispos' nose twitched as he caught a whiff of the sweet smoke that wafted from them.
When he and Dara started to climb the low, broad stairs, he held her hand tightly. He wanted not the slightest risk of her falling, not when she was pregnant. The wedding party followed. Behind them, servants flung the last handsful of gold coins into the crowd.
Gnatios bowed when Krispos reached the top step but did not prostrate himself. The temple was, after all, his primary domain. Krispos returned the bow, but less deeply, to show he in fact held superior rank even here. Gnatios said, "Allow me to lead you within, your Majesty." He and his acolytes turned to enter the narthex. The last time Krispos had gone in there, it was for Barsymes to robe him in the coronation regalia.
"A moment," he said now, holding up a hand.
Gnatios stopped and turned back, a small frown on his face. "Is something wrong?"
"No, not at all. I just want to speak to the people before we go on."
The ecumenical patriarch's frown grew deeper. "Your doing so is not a planned part of the ceremony, your Majesty."
"No, eh? That didn't bother you when you asked me to speak before you would crown me." Krispos kept his tone light, but he was sure he was glaring at Gnatios. The patriarch had tried to ruin him then, to make him sound like a bumbler in front of the people of the city, the most critical and fickle audience in the world.
Now Gnatios could only bow in acquiescence. "What pleases the Avtokrator has the force of law," he murmured.
Krispos looked out to the packed forecourt and held up his hands. "People of Videssos," he called, then again, "People of Videssos!" Little by little they gave him quiet. He waited until it had grown still enough for everyone to hear. "People of Videssos, this is a happy day for two reasons. Not only am I to be wed today—"
Cheers and applause drowned him out. He smiled and let them run their course. When they were through, he resumed, "Not only that, but today before you all I can also name my new Sevastos."
The crowd remained quiet, but suddenly the quiet became alert, electric. A new high minister was serious business, the more with a new, as yet little-known, and childless Emperor on the throne. Into that expectant hush, Krispos said, "I give you as Sevastos my foster brother, the noble Mavros."
"May his Highness be merciful!" the people called, as if with one voice. Krispos blinked; he hadn't thought there would be a special cry for the proclamation of a Sevastos. He was beginning to suspect Videssian ceremonial had a special cry or ritual for everything.
Grinning enormously, Mavros waved to show himself to the crowd. Krispos nudged him. "Say something," he whispered. "Who, me?" Mavros whispered back. At Krispos' nod, the new Sevastos waved again, this time for quiet. When he got it, or at least enough of it to speak through, he said, "The good god willing, I will do as well in my office as our new Avtokrator does in his. Thank you all." As the crowd cheered, Mavros lowered his voice and told Krispos, "Now it's on your shoulders, your Majesty. If you start going astray, I have every excuse to do the same thing."
"Oh, to the ice with you," Krispos said. He dipped his head to Gnatios. "Shall we get on with it?"
"Certainly, your Majesty. By all means." Gnatios' expression reminded Krispos the delay had not been his idea in the first place. Without another word, he strode into the High Temple.
As Krispos followed him into the narthex, his eyes needed a moment to adjust to the dimmer light. The antechamber was the least splendid portion of the High Temple; it was merely magnificent. On the far wall, a mosaic depicted Phos as a beardless youth, a shepherd guarding his flock against wolves that fled, tails between their legs, back to their dark-robed master Skotos. The evil god's face was full of chilling hate.
Other mosaics set into the ceiling showed those whom Skotos' blandishments had seduced. The souls of the lost stood frozen into eternal ice. Demons with outstretched black wings and mouths full of horrid fangs tormented the damned in ingenious ways.
Not an inch of the High Temple was without its ornament. Even the marble lintel of the doorway into the narthex was covered with reliefs. Phos' sun stood in the center, its rays nourishing a whole forest of broad-toothed pointed leaves that had been carved in intricate repeating interlaced patterns.
Krispos paused to glance over to a spot not far from the doors. There by torchlight Barsymes had invested him with the leggings and kilt, the tunic and cape, and the red boots that were all part of the imperial coronation regalia. The boots had been tight; Anthimos' feet turned out to be smaller than Krispos'. Krispos was still wearing tight boots, though the cordwainers promised him pairs cut to his measure any day now.
Gnatios took a couple of steps before he noticed Krispos had stopped. The patriarch turned back and asked, "Shall we get on with it?" He did such an exquisite job of keeping irony from his voice that it was all the more ironic for being less so.
Unable to take offense no matter how much he wanted to, Krispos followed Gnatios out of the narthex and into the main chamber of the High Temple. Seated within were the high secular lords and soldiers of Videssos and their ladies, as well as the leading prelates and abbots of the city. They all rose to salute the Avtokrator and patriarch.
The nobles' rich robes, brightly dyed, shot through with gold and silver thread, and encrusted with gems hardly less glittering than those that adorned the soft flesh and sparkled in the hair of their wives and consorts, would irresistibly have drawn the eye to them in any other setting in the world. Within the High Temple, they did not dominate. They had to struggle to be noticed.
Even the benches from which the lords and ladies rose were works of art in themselves. They were blond oak, waxed to shine almost as brightly as the sun, and inset with ebony and red, red sandalwood; with semiprecious stones; and with mother of pearl that caught and brightened every ray of light.
Indeed, the huge interior of the High Temple seemed awash with light, as was only fitting for a building dedicated to Phos. "Here," Krispos had read in a chronicle that dealt in part with the raising of the Temple, "the immaterial became material." Had he seen the phrase in some provincial town far from the capital, he never would have understood it. In Videssos the city, the example lay before him.
Silver foil and gold leaf worked together with the mother of pearl to reflect light softly into every corner of the High Temple, illuminating with an almost shadowless light the moss-agate-faced columns that supported the building's four wings. Looking down, Krispos could see himself reflected in the polished golden marble of the floor.
More marble, this white as snow, gleamed on the interior walls of the Temple. Together with sheets of turquoise and, low in the east and west, rose quartz and ruddy sardonyx, it reproduced indoors the brilliance and beauty of Phos' sky.
Viewing the sky led the eye imperceptibly upward, to the twin semidomes where mosaics commemorated holy men who had been great in the service of Phos. And from those semidomes, it was impossible not to look farther yet, up and up and up into the great central dome overhead, from which Phos himself surveyed his worshipers.
The base of the dome was pierced by dozens of windows. Sunlight streamed through them and coruscated off the walls below; the beams seemed to separate the dome from the rest of the Temple below. The first time Krispos saw it, he'd wondered if it really was linked to the building it surmounted or if, as felt more likely, it floated up there by itself, suspended, perhaps, from a chain that led straight up into the heavens.
Down from the heavens, then, through the shifting sunbeams, Phos gazed upon the mere mortals who had gathered in his temple. The Phos portrayed in the dome was no smiling youth. He was mature, bearded, his long face stern and somber, his eyes ... The first time Krispos had gone into the High Temple to worship, not long after he came to Videssos the city, he had almost cringed from those eyes. Large and omniscient, they seemed to see straight through him.
That was proper, for the Phos in the dome was judge rather than shepherd. In the long, spidery fingers of his left hand, he held to his chest a bound volume wherein all of good and evil was inscribed. A man could but hope that good outweighed the other. If not, eternity in the ice awaited, for while this Phos was just, Krispos could not imagine him merciful.
The tesserae that surrounded the god's head and shoulders in the dome were glass filmed with gold, and set at slightly varying angles. Whenever the light shifted, or whenever an observer below moved, different tiny tiles gleamed forth, adding to the spiritual solemnity of the depiction.
As it always did, tearing his eyes away from Phos' face cost Krispos a distinct effort of will. Temples throughout the Empire of Videssos held in their central domes images modeled on the one in the High Temple. Krispos had seen several. None held a fraction of the brooding majesty, the severe nobility, of this archetype. Here the god had truly inspired those who portrayed him.
Even after Krispos looked to the great silver slab of the altar that stood below the center of the dome, he felt Phos' gaze pressing down on him with almost physical force. Not even sight of the patriarchal throne of carven ivory behind the altar, a breathtaking work of art in its own right, could bring Krispos fully back to himself, not while everyone stood in silent awe, waiting for the ceremony to proceed.
Then Gnatios raised his hands to the god in the dome and to the god beyond the dome and beyond the sky. "We bless thee, Phos, lord with the great and good mind," he intoned, "by thy grace our protector, watchful beforehand that the great test of life may be decided in our favor."
Krispos repeated Phos' creed along with the ecumenical patriarch. So did everyone else in the High Temple; beside him he heard Dara's clear soprano. His hand tightened on hers. She squeezed back. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her smile.
Gnatios lowered his hands. The assembled grandees seated themselves. Krispos felt their gaze on him, too, but in a way different from Phos'. They were still wondering what sort of Avtokrator he would make. The good god already knew, but left to Krispos the working out of his fate.
Gnatios waited for quiet, then said what had been in Krispos' thoughts: "The eyes of all the city are on us today. Today we see joined in marriage the Avtokrator Krispos and the Empress Dara. May Phos bless their union and make it long, happy, and fruitful."
The patriarch began to pray again, now and then pausing for responses from Krispos and Dara. Krispos had memorized some of his replies, for the long-set language of the liturgy was growing apart from the tongue spoken in the streets of the city.
Gnatios delivered a traditional wedding sermon, touching on the virtues that helped make a good marriage. Then the patriarch said, "Are the two of you prepared to cleave to these virtues, and to each other, so long as you both may live?"
"Yes," Krispos said, and then again, louder, so that people besides himself and Dara could hear, "Yes."
"Yes," Dara agreed, not loudly but firmly.
As they spoke the words that bound them together, Mavros set a wreath of roses and myrtle on Krispos' head. One of Dara's attendants did the same for her.
"Behold them decked in the crowns of marriage!" Gnatios shouted. "Before the eyes of the entire city, they are shown to be man and wife!"
The grandees and their ladies rose from their benches to applaud. Krispos hardly heard them. He cared only about Dara, who was looking back at him with that same intent expression. Although it was no part of the ceremony, he took her in his arms. He smelled the sweet fragrance of her marriage crown as she held him tightly.
The cheers got louder and more sincere. Someone shouted bawdy advice. "Thou conquerest, Krispos!" someone else yelled, in a tone of voice altogether different from the usual solemn acclamation.
"Many heirs, Krispos!" another wit bawled. Iakovitzes came up to Krispos. The noble was short and had to stand on tiptoe to put his mouth near Krispos' ear. "The ring, you idiot," he hissed. Perhaps because he had no interest whatever in women, he was immune to the joy of the marriage ceremony and cared only that it be correctly accomplished.
Krispos had forgotten the ring and was so relieved to be reminded of this that he took no notice of how Iakovitzes spoke to him; for that matter, Iakovitzes relished playing the gadfly no matter whom he was talking to. Krispos had the ring in a tiny pouch he wore on the inside of his belt so it would not show. He freed the heavy gold band and slipped it onto Dara's left index finger. She hugged him with renewed strength.
"Before the eyes of the whole city, they are wed!" Gnatios proclaimed. "Now let the people of the city see the happy pair!" With the patriarch at their side, Krispos and Dara walked down the aisle by which they had approached the altar, through the narthex, and out onto the top of the stairway. The crowd in the forecourt cheered as they came down the steps. It was a smaller crowd now, even though the wedding attendants had fresh, full bags in their hands. They would not fling gold, but figs and nuts, fertility symbols from time out of mind.
Even the often dour Halogai were grinning as they formed up around the wedding party. Geirrod, the first of the northerners to acknowledge Krispos as Emperor, told him, "Do not fail me, Majesty. I have big bet on how many times tonight."
Dara squawked in indignation. Krispos' own humor was earthier, but he said, "How do you hope to settle that? By the good god, it's something only the Empress and I will ever know."
"Majesty, you served in the palaces before you ruled them," Geirrod said, his gray eyes knowing. "Was there anything servants could not learn when they needed to?"
"Not that," Krispos said, then stopped, suddenly unsure he was right. "At least, I hope not that."
"Huh," was all Geirrod said.
Giving his guardsman the last word, Krispos paraded with his new bride and their companions back the way they had come. Even without expectations of more money, a fair crowd still lined the streets and filled the plaza of Palamas; the folk of the city loved spectacle almost as well as largess.
After the plaza, the calm of the palace quarter came as a relief. Most of the Halogai departed for their barracks; only the troops assigned to guard the imperial residence accompanied the wedding party there. Save for Krispos and Dara, everyone stopped at the bottom of the steps. They pelted the newlywed couple with leftover figs and gave Krispos more lewd advice.
He endured that with the good humor a new groom is supposed to show. When he didn't feel like waiting any longer, he slid his arm round Dara's waist. Led by Mavros, the groomsmen and bridesmaids whooped. Krispos stuck his nose in the air and turned away from them, drawing Dara with him. They whooped louder than ever.
The happy shouts of the wedding party followed Dara and him down the hall to the bedchamber. The doors were closed. He opened them and found that the servants had turned down the bedcovers and left a jar of wine and two cups on the night table by the bed. Smiling, he closed the doors and barred them.
Dara turned her back on him. "Would you unfasten me, please? The maidservant took half an hour getting me into his gown; it has enough hooks and eyelets and what-have-you for a jail, not something you'd wear."
"I hope I can get you out of it faster than half an hour," Krispos said. He did, but not as fast as he might have; the more hooks he undid, the more attention his hands paid to the soft skin he was revealing and the less to the fasteners that remained.
Finally the job was done. Dara turned to him. They kissed for a long time. When at last they broke apart, she ruefully looked down at herself. "Every pearl, every gem, every metal thread on that robe of yours has stamped itself into me," she complained.
"And what will you do about that?" he asked. A corner of her mouth quirked upward. "Let's see if I can keep it from happening again." Her disrobing of him also proceeded more slowly than it might have, but he did not mind.
The two of them hung their crowns of marriage on the bedposts for luck, then lay down together. Krispos caressed Dara's breasts, lowered his mouth to one of them. She stirred, but not altogether in pleasure. "Be gentle, if you can," she said. "They're sore."
"Are they?" Under the fine skin, he could see a new tracery of blue veins. He touched her again, as carefully as he could. "Another sign you're carrying a child."
"I don't have much doubt, not anymore," she said.
"All those nuts and figs did a better job than they know," he said, straight-faced.
Dara started to nod, then snorted and poked him in the ribs. He grabbed her and held her close to keep her from doing it again. They did not separate, not until they were both spent. Then, his breath still coming quick, Krispos reached for the wine jar and said, "Shall we see what they gave us to keep us going?"
"Why not?" Dara answered. "Pour a cup for me, too, please."
Thick and golden, the wine gurgled out of the jar. Krispos recognized the sweet, heady bouquet. "This is that Vaspurakaner vintage from Petronas' cellars," he said. When Anthimos broke his ambitious uncle's power, he'd confiscated all of Petronas' lands, his money, his horses, and his wines. Krispos had drunk this one before. He raised the cup to his lips. "As good as I remember it."
Dara sipped, raised an eyebrow. "Yes, that's quite fine—sweet and tart at the same time." She drank again.
Krispos held his cup high. "To you, your Majesty."
"And to you, your Majesty," Dara answered, returning his salute with vigor—so much that a few drops flew over the rim and splashed on the bedclothes. As she looked at the spreading stain, she started to laugh.
"What's funny?" Krispos said.
"I was just thinking that this time no one will expect to find a spot of blood on the sheet. After my first night with Anthimos, Skombros marched in, peeled that sheet off the bed—he almost dumped me out to get it—then took it outside and waved it about. Everyone cheered, but it was a ritual I could have done without. As if I were a piece of raw meat, checked to make sure I hadn't spoiled."
"Ah, Skombros," Krispos said. The fat eunuch had been Anthimos' vestiarios before Petronas got Krispos the post. An Emperor's chamberlain was in a uniquely good position to influence him, and Petronas had wanted no one but himself influencing Anthimos. And so Skombros had gone from the imperial residence to a bare monastery cell; Krispos wondered if Petronas had ever thought the same fate could befall him.
"I liked you better than Skombros as vestiarios," Dara said with a sidelong look.
"I'm glad you did," Krispos answered mildly. All the same, he understood why imperial chamberlains were most of them eunuchs, and was not sorry his own vestiarios followed that rule. Since Dara had cheated for him, how could he be sure she would never cheat against him?
He glanced toward his Empress, wondering again whether the child she carried was his or Anthimos'. If even she could not say, how would he ever know?
He shook his head. Doubts at the very beginning of a marriage did not bode well for contentment to come. He tried to put them aside. If ever a husband had given his wife reason to be unfaithful, he told himself, Anthimos had provoked Dara with his orgies and his endless parade of paramours. As long as he treated her well himself, she should have no reason to stray.
He took her in his arms again. "So soon?" she said, startled but not displeased. "Here, let me set my wine down first." She giggled as his weight pressed her to the bed. "I hope your Haloga bet high."
"So do I," Krispos said. Then her lips silenced him.
Krispos woke, yawned, stretched, and rolled over onto his back. Dara was sitting up in bed beside him. By the look of her, she'd been awake for some time. Krispos sat up, too. He glanced at where sunbeams hit the far wall. "Phos!" he exclaimed. "What hour is it, anyway?"
"Somewhere in the fourth, I'd say—more than halfway to noon," Dara told him. The Videssians gave twelve hours to the day and another twelve to the night, reckoning them from sunrise and sunset respectively. Dara gave him a quizzical look. "What do you suppose you were doing last night that left you so tired?"
"I can't imagine," Krispos said, only partly in irony. He'd grown up a peasant, after all, and what labor was more exhausting than farming? Yet he'd risen with the sun every day. On the other hand, he'd gone to bed with the sun, too, and he'd been up considerably later than that the night before.
Yawning again, he got up, ambled over to the bureau to put on some drawers, then opened a tall wardrobe, picked out a robe, and pulled it on over his head. Dara watched him bemusedly. He was reaching for a pair of red boots when she asked, "Have you forgotten you have a vestiarios to help you with such things?"
He paused. "As a matter of fact, I did," he said sheepishly. "That was foolish of me, wasn't it? But it's also foolish for Barsymes to help me just because I'm Avtokrator. I didn't need his help before." As if to defy custom, he tugged on his own boots.
"It's also foolish not to let Barsymes do his job, which is to serve you," Dara said. "If you don't allow him to perform his proper function, then he has none. Is that what you want?"
"No," Krispos admitted. But having done entirely without service most of his life, and having given it first as groom in Iakovitzes' and Petronas' stables, then as Anthimos' vestiarios, he still felt odd about receiving it.
Dara, a western noble's daughter, had no such qualms. She reached for a green cord that hung by her side of the bed and pulled down on it. A couple of rooms away, a bell tinkled. Moments later, a maidservant tried to open the doors to the imperial bedchambers. "They're still locked, your Majesties," she said.
Krispos walked over and lifted the bar. "Come in, Verina," he said.
"Thank you, your Majesty." The serving maid stared at him in surprise and no little indignation. "You're dressed!" she blurted. "What are you doing being dressed?"
He did not turn around to see the I-told-you-so look in Dara's eyes, but he was sure it was there. "I'm sorry, Verina," he said mildly. "I won't let it happen again." A scarlet bellpull dangled next to his side of the bed. He pulled it. This bell was easier to hear—the vestiarios' chamber, the chamber that had until recently been his, was next door to the bedchamber.
Barsymes' long pale face grew longer when he saw Krispos. "Your Majesty," he said, making the title into one of reproach. "I'm sorry," Krispos said again; though he ruled the Empire of Videssos, he wondered if he was truly master of the palaces.
"Even if I did dress myself, I'm sure I'm no cook. Will you be less angry at me after you escort me to breakfast?"
The vestiarios' mouth twitched. It could have been a smile. "Possible a trifle, your Majesty. If you'll come with me?"
Krispos followed Barsymes out of the bedchamber. "I'll join you soon," Dara said. She was standing nude in front of her wardrobe, chattering with Verina about which gown she should wear today. Barsymes' eyes never went her way. Not all eunuchs were immune from desire, even if they lacked the capacity to satisfy it. Krispos wondered whether the vestiarios felt no stirring or was just a discreetly excellent servant. He knew he could never ask.
Barsymes fussed over seating him in a small dining room. "And how would you care to break your fast this day, your Majesty?"
"A big hot bowl of porridge, a chunk of bread and some honey, and a couple of rashers of bacon would do me very well," Krispos said. That was the sort of hearty breakfast he'd had back in his home village when times were good. Times hadn't been good often enough. Sometimes breakfast had been a small bowl of porridge, sometimes nothing at all.
"As you wish, your Majesty," Barsymes said tonelessly, "though Phestos may be disappointed at having nothing more elaborate to prepare."
"Ah," Krispos said. Anthimos had gloried in the exotic; he'd thought his own more mundane tastes would be a relief to everyone. But if Phestos wanted a challenge ... "Tell him to make the goat seethed in fermented fish sauce and leeks tonight, then."
Barsymes nodded. "A good choice."
Dara came in, asked for a stewed muskmelon. The vestiarios went to take her request and Krispos' to the cook. With a wry smile, she patted her belly. "I just hope it stays down. The past couple of days, I've hardly wanted to look at food."
"You have to eat," Krispos said.
"I know it full well. My stomach's the one that's not convinced."
Before long, Barsymes brought in the food. Krispos happily dug in and finished his own breakfast while Dara picked at her melon. When Barsymes saw Krispos was done, he whisked away his dishes and set in front of him a silver tray full of scrolls. "The morning's correspondence, your Majesty."
"All right," Krispos said without enthusiasm. Anthimos, he knew, would have pitched a fit at the idea of handling business before noon—or after noon, for that matter. But Krispos had impressed on his servants that he intended to be a working Avtokrator. This was his reward for their taking him at his word. He pawed through the proposals, petitions, and reports, hoping to begin with something moderately interesting. When he found a letter still sealed, his eyebrows rose. How had the secretaries who scribbled away in the wings that flanked the Grand Courtroom let it slip past them unopened? Then he exclaimed in pleasure.
Dara gave him a curious look. "You don't usually sound so gleeful when you go over those parchments."
"It's a letter from Tanilis," he said. Then he remembered that, for a variety of reasons, he'd told Dara little about Tanilis, so he added, "She's Mavros' mother, you know. She and Mavros were both kind to me when I went there with Iakovitzes a few years ago; I'm glad to hear from her."
"Oh. All right." Dara took another bite of muskmelon. Krispos supposed that hearing Tanilis described—truthfully—as Mavros' mother made her picture the noblewoman—most untruthfully—as plump, comfortable, and middle-aged. Though she had to be nearly forty now, Krispos was sure Tanilis retained all the elegant sculpted beauty she'd had when he knew her.
He began to read aloud. " 'The lady Tanilis to his Imperial Majesty Krispos, Avtokrator of the Videssians: My deepest congratulations on your accession to the throne and on your marriage to the Empress Dara. May your reign be long and prosperous.' " Then his glance happened to stray to the date above the salutation. "By the good god," he said softly, and sketched Phos' sun-circle above his heart. "What is it?" Dara asked.
He passed her the letter. "See for yourself." He pointed to the date.
For a moment, it meant nothing to her. He watched her eyes widen. She made the sun-sign, too. "That's the day before you took the throne," she whispered.
"So it is," he said, nodding. "Tanilis—sees things. When I was in Opsikion, she foresaw that I might become Emperor. By then I was Iakovitzes' spatharios—his aide. A couple of years before, I'd been a farmer laboring in the field. I thought I'd already risen as high as I could." Some days he could still be surprised he was Avtokrator. This was one of them. He reached across the table and took Dara's hand. A brief squeeze reminded him this was no dream.
She gave the letter back to him. "Read it out loud, if you don't mind."
"Of course." He found his place and resumed. " 'May your reign be long and prosperous. My gratitude for your naming Mavros Sevastos—' " He broke off again.
"If she knew the rest, no reason she wouldn't know that," Dara pointed out.
"I suppose not. Here, I'll go on:'... for your naming Mavros Sevastos. I am sure he will serve you to the best of his ability. One favor I would beg of you in regard to my son. Should he ever desire to lead troops against the northern barbarians, I pray that you tell him no. While he may win glory and acclaim in that pursuit, I fear he will not have the enjoyment of them. Farewell, and may Phos bless you always.' "
Krispos set down the parchment. "I don't know that Mavros ever would want to go out on campaign, but if he does, telling him no won't be easy." He made a troubled sound with tongue and teeth.
"Not even after this?" Dara's finger found the relevant passage in the letter. "Surely he knows his mother's powers. Would he risk defying them?"
"I've known Mavros a good many years now," Krispos said. "All I can say is that he'll do as he pleases, no matter who or what gets defied in the doing. The lord with the great and good mind willing, the matter won't ever come up. Tanilis didn't say it was certain."
"That's true," Dara agreed.
But Krispos knew—and knew also Dara knew—the matter might very well arise. Having overthrown the khagan of Kubrat on Videssos' northern frontier, an adventurer called Harvas Black-Robe and his band of Haloga mercenaries had begun raiding the Empire, as well. The generals on the border had been having little luck with them; before too long, someone would have to drive them back where they belonged.
One of the palace eunuchs stuck his head into the dining chamber. "What is it, Tyrovitzes?" Krispos asked.
"The abbot Pyrrhos is outside the residence, your Majesty," Tyrovitzes said, puffing a little—he was as fat as Barsymes was lean. "He wants to speak with you, at once, and will not speak with anyone else. For your ears alone, he insists."
"Does he?" Krispos frowned. He found Pyrrhos' narrow piety harsh and oppressive, but the abbot was no one's fool, "Very well, fetch him in. I'll hear him."
Tyrovitzes bowed as deeply as his rotund frame would permit, then hurried away. He soon returned with Pyrrhos. The abbot bowed low to Dara, then prostrated himself before Krispos. He did not seek to rise, but stayed on his belly. "I abase myself before you, your Majesty. The fault is mine, and let my head answer for it if that be your will."
"What fault?" Krispos said testily. "Holy sir, will you please get up and talk sense?"
Pyrrhos rose. Though a graybeard, he was limber as a youth, a kinder reward of the asceticism that also thinned his face to almost skeletal leanness and left his eyes dark burning coals. "As I told your Majesty, the fault is mine," he said. "Through some error, whether accidental or otherwise I am investigating, the count of the monks in the monastery dedicated to the memory of the holy Skirios may have been inaccurate last night. It was surely one too low this morning. We do indeed have a runaway monk."
"And who might this runaway be?" Krispos inquired, though he was sickly certain he knew the answer without having to ask. No trivial disappearance would make the abbot hotfoot it to the imperial residence with the news.
Pyrrhos saw his certainty and gave a grim nod. "Aye, your Majesty, it is as you fear—Petronas has escaped."
Trying to meet bad news with equanimity, Krispos said, "I don't think he's going to be very pleased with me."
Only after the words were out of his mouth did he realize what an understatement that was. Petronas had virtually ruled the Empire for a decade and more while his nephew Anthimos reveled; he had raised Krispos to the post of vestiarios. Finally Anthimos, worried lest his uncle supplant him on the throne, a worry abetted by Krispos and Dara, clapped him into the monastery ... for good, Krispos had thought.
Dara said bitterly, "While all the eyes of the city were on us yesterday, Petronas took the chance to get out."
Krispos knew she was just echoing Gnatios' words, but what she said raised echoes in his own mind, echoes of suspicion. He'd wondered why Gnatios had suddenly become so obliging about the wedding. Now maybe he knew. "The patriarch did keep harping on that, didn't he? He and Petronas are cousins, too, and if anyone could arrange to have a monk taken from his monastery without the abbot's knowledge, who better than Gnatios?"
"No one better, your Majesty," Pyrrhos said, following Krispos' line of thought. His sharp-curved nose, fierce eyes, and shaven head made him resemble a bird of prey.
"Tyrovitzes!" Krispos shouted. When the fat eunuch reappeared, Krispos told him, "Take a squad of Halogai and fetch Gnatios here at once, no matter what he's doing."
"Your Majesty?" Tyrovitzes said. At Krispos' answering glare, he gulped and said, "Yes, your Majesty."
Tyrovitzes had hardly left before Krispos shouted, "Longinos!" As soon as that eunuch responded, Krispos said, "Go to Captain Thvari. Take all the Halogai save enough to guard me here, take whatever other troops are in the city, and start a search. Maybe Petronas has gone to ground inside the walls."
"Petronas?" Longinos said, staring.
"Yes; he's escaped, curse him," Krispos answered impatiently. The chamberlain started to go. Then Krispos had an afterthought. "If Thvari does use our own troops along with the northerners, have him make sure he puts more Halogai than Videssians in each party. I know his men are loyal."
"As you say, your Majesty." Longionos bowed deeply and departed.
He was scarcely gone when Krispos yelled, "Barsymes!" The vestiarios might have been waiting right outside; he came in almost at once. "Go to the house of Trokoundos the wizard and bring him here, if you please."
"Certainly, your Majesty. I suppose you'll want him to interrogate Gnatios," Barsymes said calmly. At Krispos' expression of surprise, he went on, "You have not kept your voice down, you know, your Majesty."
Krispos thought about that. "No, I suppose I haven't. Go get me Trokoundos now, if you please. If Gnatios did have a hand in Petronas' escape—" He pounded a clenched fist down on the tabletop. "If that's so, we'll have a new ecumenical patriarch before the day is out."
"Your pardon, Majesty, but perhaps not so quickly as that," Pyrrhos said. "You may of course remove a prelate as you wish, but the naming of his successor lies in the hands of a synod of clerics, to whom you submit a list of three candidates for their formal selection."
"You understand that all that rigmarole would just delay your own choice," Krispos said.
Pyrrhos bowed. "Your Majesty is gracious. All the same, however, observances must be fulfilled to ensure the validity of any patriarchal enthronement."
"If Gnatios helped Petronas get away, he deserves worse than being deposed," Dara said. "Some time with the torturers might be a fit answer for his treason."
"We'll worry about that later," Krispos said. With peasant patience, he settled down to see whether Gnatios or Trokoundos would be brought to the imperial residence first. When Pyrrhos began to look restive, he sent him back to his monastery. Sitting quietly, he kept on waiting.
"How can you be so easy about this?" demanded Dara, who was pacing back and forth.
"Nothing would change if I fussed," he said. Dara snorted and kept pacing.
Rather to Krispos' surprise, Tyrovitzes' party fetched back Gnatios before Barsymes arrived with Trokoundos. "Your Majesty, what is the meaning of this?" the patriarch said indignantly after the eunuch chamberlain escorted him into Krispos' presence. "I find it humiliating to be seized in the street like some low footpad and fetched here with no more consideration for my feelings than such a criminal would receive."
"Where's Petronas, Gnatios?" Krispos asked in a voice like iron.
"Why, in the monastery sacred to the holy Skirios." Gnatios' eyebrows rose. "Or are you telling me he is not? If you are, I have no idea where he is."
The patriarch sounded surprised and curious, just as he would if he were innocent. But Krispos knew he had no small rhetorical talents; sounding innocent was child's play for him. "While all the eyes of the city were on us yesterday, Gnatios, Petronas was spirited out of the monastery. To be blunt, I know you have scant love for me. Do you wonder that I have doubts about you?"
"Your Majesty, I can see that you might." Gnatios smiled his most engaging smile. "But after all, your Majesty, you know where I was yesterday. I could hardly have helped Petronas escape at the same time as I was performing the wedding ceremony for you and your new Empress." He smiled again, this time at Dara. She stared stonily back. His smile faded.
"No, but you could have planned and arranged a rescue," Krispos said. "Will you take oath on your fear of Skotos' ice that you had no part of any sort in Petronas' getting out of the monastery?"
"Your Majesty, I will swear any oath you wish," Gnatios answered at once.
Just then, Krispos saw Barsymes standing in the hall with a short spare man who shaved his head like a priest but wore a red tunic and green trousers. He carried a bulging carpetbag.
"Your Majesty," Trokoundos said. The mage started a proskynesis, but Krispos waved for him not to bother. "How may I serve you, your Majesty?" he asked, straightening. His voice was deep and rich, the voice to be expected of a man a head taller and twice as wide through the shoulders.
"Most holy sir, I will require no oath of you at all," Krispos said to Gnatios. "You might throw away your soul for the sake of advantage in this world, and that would be very sad. Instead, I will ask you the same questions you have already heard, but with this wizard standing by to make sure you speak the truth."
"I will need a little while to ready myself, your Majesty," Trokoundos said. "I have here some of the things I may use, if your vestiarios spoke accurately about your requirements." He began taking mirrors, candles, and stoppered glass vials of various sizes and colors out of the carpetbag.
Gnatios watched him prepare with indignation but no visible fear. "Your Majesty, I will even submit to this outrage, but I must inform you that I protest it," he said. "Surely you cannot imagine that I would violate my oath."
"I can," Dara said.
Krispos took a different line. "I can imagine many things, most holy sir," he told the patriarch. "I can even imagine giving you over to the torturers to find out what I must know. A mage, I think, will hurt your body and your pride less, but I can go the other way if you'd rather."
"As you will, your Majesty," Gnatios said, so boldly that Krispos wondered if he was indeed innocent. The patriarch added, "My thanks for showing consideration for me, at least to the extent you have."
"Just stay right there, if you would, most holy sir," Trokoundos said. Gnatios nodded regally as the mage set up a mirror on a jointed stand a few feet in front of him. Between mirror and patriarch, Trokoundos lit a candle. He opened a couple of his vials and shook powder from them onto the flame, which changed color and sent up a large cloud of surprisingly sweet-smelling smoke.
Muttering to himself, Trokoundos set up another mirror a few feet behind Gnatios and slightly to one side: this one faced the one he'd set up before. He fussily adjusted the two squares of polished silver until Gnatios' face, reflected from the first, was visible in the second. Then he lit another candle between the second mirror and Gnatios' back. He sprinkled different powders over this flame, whose smoke proved as noxious as the other's had been pleasant.
Coughing a little, the mage said, "Go ahead, your Majesty; ask what you will."
"Thank you." Krispos turned to the patriarch. "Most holy sir, did you help Petronas escape from the monastery dedicated to the holy Skirios?"
He watched Gnatios' lips shape the word "No" but did not hear him speak it. At the same time, the patriarch's second reflection, the one in the mirror behind him, loudly and clearly said, "Yes."
Gnatios jerked as if stung. Krispos asked, "How did you do it?"
He thought the patriarch tried to say "I had nothing to do with it." The reflection answered for him: "I sent in a monk who rather resembled him to take his place while he was at solitary prayer and to stay into the evening. Then, last night, I sent a priest who asked for the substituted monk by his proper name and brought him out of the monastery once more."
"What is the name of this monk?" Krispos demanded.
This time Gnatios stood mute. His reflection answered for him nonetheless. "Harmosounos."
Krispos nodded to Trokoundos. "This is an excellent magic." The wizard's heavy-lidded eyes lit up.
Gnatios shifted from foot to foot, awaiting the next question. "Where did Petronas plan to go?" Krispos asked him.
"I do not know," he answered, out of his own mouth.
"A moment, your Majesty," Trokoundos said sharply. He fiddled with the mirrors again. "He sought to move enough to shift his image from the second mirror."
"Don't play such games again, most holy sir. I promise you would regret it," Krispos told Gnatios. "Now I will ask once more, where did Petronas plan to go?"
"I do not know," Gnatios repeated. This time, strangely, Krispos heard the words both straight from him and from the mirror at his back. He glanced toward Trokoundos.
"He speaks the truth, your Majesty," the wizard said.
"I was afraid that was what that meant," Krispos said. "Let's try something else, then. Answer me this, most holy sir: you being kinsman to Petronas, where would you go in his boots?"
Gnatios plainly tried to lie again; his lips moved, but no sound came out of his mouth. Instead, his doubly reflected image replied, "Petronas' greatest estates are in the westlands, between the towns of Garsavra and Resaina. There he would find the most support for any bid to take the crown."
"You expect him to do that, eh?" Krispos said.
The answer to that question was so obvious, Krispos did not expect Gnatios to bother giving it aloud. And, indeed, the patriarch stayed silent. But under Trokoundos' spell, his second image spoke for him. "Don't you expect it, your Majesty?"
Krispos' chuckle was dry. "Well, yes, as a matter of fact." He turned to Trokoundos. "I'm in your debt once more, it seems."
Trokoundos waved that away. "I'm happy to do what I can for you, your Majesty. Your warning saved me from Anthimos' wrath a couple of years ago."
"And your wizardry let me live through the enchantment with which Petronas would have killed me otherwise," Krispos said. "Don't be shy when you name your fee for today."
"Your Majesty, people have accused me of many things, but never of being shy about my fees," Trokoundos said.
Whether anxious over his fate or simply resentful at being forgotten for me moment, Gnatios burst out, "What will you do with me, your Majesty?"
"A good question," Krispos said musingly. "If helping to set up a rival Emperor isn't treason, what is? Shall I put your head on the Milestone as a warning to others, Gnatios?"
"I'd rather you didn't," the patriarch answered, coolly enough to win Krispos' reluctant admiration.
"I think you should, Krispos," Dara said. Gnatios winced as she went on, "What does a traitor deserve but the axe? What would Petronas do to you, and to me, and to our child, if—Phos prevent it—he beat you?"
Gnatios missed very little. Though he could not have known of Dara's pregnancy before she mentioned it, he used it at once, saying, "Your Majesty, would you slay the man who performed your marriage ceremony and so made your heir legitimate?"
"Why not," Dara shot back, "when part of the reason you married us was to draw attention away from the holy Skirios' monastery so you could loose Petronas against us?" The patriarch winced again.
"I don't think I'll kill you now," Krispos said. Gnatios looked delighted, Dara disappointed. Krispos went on, "I do cast you down from the patriarchal throne. In your place I intend to propose the name of the abbot Pyrrhos."
Gnatios winced a third time. "I'd almost rather you killed me, if afterwards you named in my place someone not a fanatic."
"I can trust the clerics of his faction. If I thought I could trust one from yours, I'd take you up on that."
"I did say 'almost,' your Majesty," the patriarch reminded him quickly.
"So you did. Here's what I will do. Till the synod names Pyrrhos, I will send you to the monastery of the holy Skirios. There you will be under his hand as abbot. That should be enough to keep you out of mischief for the time being." Krispos watched Gnatios open his mouth to speak. "Think twice if you are about to say again that you'd rather be dead, most holy sir—no, holy sir, for you are but a monk now. I just may oblige you."
Gnatios glared at him but said nothing.
Krispos turned to Tyrovitzes. "You heard what I ordered?" The eunuch nodded. "Good. Take this monk to the monastery, then, and tell the abbot he is not to leave no matter what happens. Take the Halogai with you as you go, too, to make sure the man doesn't get stolen on the way."
"As you say, your Majesty." Tyrovitzes nodded to Gnatios. "If you will come with me, holy sir?" Unlike Krispos, Tyrovitzes adjusted to changing honorifics without having to think twice. Still in his patriarch robe, Gnatios followed the chamberlain away.
"I wish you'd slain him," Dara said.
"He may still have some use alive," Krispos said. "Besides, I don't think he'll be going anywhere, not now. He and Pyrrhos have despised each other for years. Now that he's in Pyrrhos' clutches, he'll be locked up tighter and watched better than if he was in prison—and fed worse, too, I'd wager."
He sighed. "All this would be much easier if I really believed the soldiers would turn up Petronas still inside the city. If they don't—" Krispos stood thinking for a while, trying to work out what he would have to do to hunt down Petronas loose in the countryside.
"I fear they won't," Dara said.
"So do I," Krispos told her. Petronas was both clever and nervy. The only flaw Krispos had ever noted in him was a streak of vanity; because he could do so much, he thought he could do anything. Some time in the monastery might even have cured him of that, Krispos reflected gloomily.
"You should proclaim him outlaw," Dara said. "A price on his head will make folk more likely to betray him to you."
"Aye, I'll do that," Krispos said. "I'll also send a troop of cavalry out to the estates that used to be his. Though Anthimos took them over, I expect most of the men on them will still be people Petronas chose, and they may still be loyal to him."
"Be careful of the officer you choose to command that troop," Dara warned. "You won't want anyone who served under him."
"You're right," Krispos said. But Petronas had headed the imperial army while his nephew frittered away the days. That meant every Videssian officer had served under him, at least indirectly. The commanders in the city had sworn oaths of loyalty to Krispos. Those in the field were sending in written pledges; a couple arrived every day. How much would such pledges mean, when measured against years of allegiance to a longtime leader? Krispos was convinced oaths and pledges were only as reliable as the men who gave them. He wished he'd had time to learn more about his officers before facing a challenge like this.
As is the way of such things, wishing failed to furnish him the time he needed. He sighed again. "I'll pick as carefully as I can."
Days passed. The search of the city failed to yield any trace of Petronas. At Krispos' order, scribes calloused their fingers writing scores of copies of a proclamation that branded Petronas outlaw, rebel, and renegade monk. They posted them in the plaza of Palamas, in the lesser square called the forum of the Ox, in the forecourts to the High Temple, and at each of the gates in Videssos the city's walls. Before long, dozens of people claimed to have seen Petronas. So far as Krispos could tell, no one really had.
Imperial couriers galloped east and west from the city with more copies of the proclamation. A cavalry troop also galloped west. Other couriers took ship to carry word of Petronas' escape to coastal towns more quickly than horses could reach them.
Despite the worry that gnawed at him, Krispos carried on with the routine business of the Empire. Indeed, he threw himself into it; the busier he was, the less chance he had to notice Petronas was still free.
He also wasted no time in organizing the synod that would ratify his choice of Pyrrhos to succeed Gnatios as ecumencial patriarch. That was connected to Petronas' disappearance, but gave Krispos satisfaction nonetheless; on Gnatios, at least, he could take proper vengeance.
Yet even the synod proved more complicated than he'd expected. As custom required, he summoned to it abbots and high-ranking priests from the capital, as well as the prelates of the larger suburbs on both sides of the Cattle-Crossing, the strait that separated Videssos the city from its western provinces. Having summoned them, he assumed the rest of the process would be a formality. After all, as Avtokrator he headed the ecclesiastical hierarchy no less than he did the state.
But many of the prelates who gathered at his command in the chapel in the palace quarter owed their own appointments to Gnatios, were of his moderate theological bent, and did not take kindly to choosing the head of the more zealous faction to replace him.
"May it please your Majesty," said Savianos, prelate of the western suburb known simply as Across because it lay directly opposite Videssos the city, "but the abbot Pyrrhos, holy though he is, is also a man of harsh and severe temper, perhaps not ideally suited to administering all aspects of ecclesiastical affairs." By the way Savianos' bushy eyebrows twitched, he would have said a good deal more than that had he dared. Talking to his fellow clerics, he probably had said a good deal more than that.
Krispos said politely, "I have, after all, submitted three names to this holy synod." He and all the clerics knew he'd done so only because the law required it of him. Moreover, he'd taken no chances with his other two candidates.
Savianos understood that, too. "Oh, aye, your Majesty, Traianos and Rhepordenes are very pious," he said. Now his eyebrows leapt instead of twitching. The two clerics, one the prelate of the provincial town of Develtos, the other an abbot in the semidesert far southwest, were fanatical enough to make even Pyrrhos seem mild by comparison.
"Never having known discipline, the holy Savianos may fear it more than is warranted," observed a priest named Lournes, one of Pyrrhos' backers. "The experience, though novel, should prove salutary."
"To the ice with you," Savianos snapped.
"You are the one who will know the ice," Lournes retorted. The clerics on either side yelled and shook their fists at those on the other. Krispos had seen little of prelates till now, save in purely ceremonial roles. Away from such ceremony, he discovered, they seemed men like any others, if louder than most.
He listened for a little while, then slammed the flat of his hand down on the table in front of him. Into sudden quiet he said, "Holy sirs, I didn't think I'd need the Halogai to keep you from one another's throats." The hierarchs looked briefly shamefaced. He went on. "If you reckon the holy Pyrrhos a heretic or an enemy of the faith, do your duty, vote him down, and give the blue boots to one of the other men I've offered you. If not, make that plain with your vote, as well."
"May it please your Majesty," Savianos said, "my questions about the holy Pyrrhos do not pertain to his orthodoxy; though I love him not, I will confess he is most perfectly orthodox. I only fear that he will not recognize as orthodox anyone who fails to share his beliefs to the last jot and tittle."
"That is as it should be," said Visandos, an abbot who supported Pyrrhos. "The truth being by definition unique, any deviation from it is unacceptable."
Savianos shot back, "The principle of theological economy grants latitude of opinion on issues not relating directly to the destination of one's soul, as you know perfectly well."
"No issue is unrelated to the destination of one's soul," Visandos said. The ecclesiastics started yelling louder than ever. Krispos whacked the table again. Silence came more slowly this time, but he eventually won it. He said, "Holy sirs, you have more wisdom than I in these matters, but I did not summon you here to discuss them. Gnatios has shown himself a traitor to me. I need a patriarch I can rely on. Will you give him to me?"
Since even Savianos had admitted Pyrrhos was orthodox, the result of the synod was a foregone conclusion. And since no cleric cared to risk the Avtokrator's wrath, the vote for Pyrrhos was unanimous. The priests and abbots began arguing all over again, though, as they filed out of the chapel.
As Savianos rose to depart, he told Krispos, "Majesty, I pray that you always recall we did this only at your bidding."
"Why? Do you think I will regret it?" Krispos said. Savianos did not reply, but his eyebrows were eloquent. In spite of the prelate's forebodings, Krispos remained convinced he had done a good day's work. But his satisfaction lasted only until he finished the walk from the chapel to the imperial residence. There he found an imperial courier waiting for him. The man's face was drawn with fatigue and pain; a bloodstained bandage wrapped his left shoulder.
Looking at him, Krispos wondered where disaster had struck now. The last time a courier had waited for him like this, it was with word that Harvas Black-Robe's savage followers had destroyed the village where he'd grown up and that his sister, brother-in-law, and two nieces were gone forever. Did this man bring more bad news from the north, or had things gone wrong in the west?
"You'd best tell me," Krispos said quietly.
The courier saluted like a soldier, setting his clenched right fist over his heart. "Aye, your Majesty. The troops you sent to Petronas' estates—well, sir, they found him there. And their captain and most of the men ..."He paused, shook his head, and went on as he had to: "They went over to him, sir. A few fled that night. I heard what happened from one of those. We were being pursued; we separated to try to make sure one of us got to you with the news. I see I'm the first, sir. I'm sorry."
Krispos did his best to straighten his face; he hadn't realized he'd let his dismay show. "Thank you for staying loyal and bringing it to me ..." He paused to let the courier give his name.
"I'm called Themistios, your Majesty," the fellow said, saluting again.
"I'm in your debt, Themistios. First find yourself a healer-priest and have that shoulder seen to." Krispos pulled a three-leafed tablet from the pouch on his belt. He used a stylus to write an order. Then he drew out the imperial sunburst seal and pushed it into the wax below what he had written. He closed the tablet, handing it to Themistios. "Take this to the treasury. They'll give you a pound of gold. And if anyone tries to keep you from getting it, find out his name and give it to me. He won't try twice, I promise."
Themistios bowed. "I was afraid my head might answer for bringing you bad news, your Majesty. I didn't expect to be rewarded for it."
"Why not?" Krispos said. "How soon good news comes makes no difference; good news takes care of itself. But the sooner I hear of anything bad, the longer I have to do something about it. Now go find a healer-priest, as I told you. You look as if you're about to fall over where you stand."
Themistios saluted once more and hurried away. One of the Halogai with Krispos asked, "Now that you know where Petronas is, Majesty, and now you have longer to do something about it, what will you do?"
Krispos had always admired the big, fair-haired barbarians' most un-Videssian way of coming straight to the point. He did his best to match it. "I aim to go out and fight him, Vagn."
Vagn and the rest of the guardsmen shouted approval, raising their axes high. Vagn said, "While you were still vestiarios, Majesty, I told you you thought like a Haloga. I am glad to see you do not change now that you are Avtokrator."
The other northerners loudly agreed. Forgetting Krispos' imperial dignity, they pounded him on the back and boasted of how they would hack their way through whatever puny forces Petronas managed to gather, and how they would chop the rebel himself into pieces small enough for dogs to eat. "Small enough for baby dogs," Vagn declared grandly. "For puppies straight from bitches' teats."
For as long as he listened to them, Krispos grinned and, buoyed by their ferocity, almost believed disposing of Petronas would be as easy as they thought. But his smile was gone by the time he got to the top of the stairs that led into the imperial residence.
Barsymes stood behind Krispos' back, fumbling with unfamiliar catches. "There," he said at last. "You look most martial, your Majesty."
"I do, don't I?" Krispos sounded surprised, even to himself. His shoulders tightened to bear the weight of the mail shirt the vestiarios had just finished fastening. He suspected he'd ache by the time he took it off. He had fought before, against Kubrati raiders, but he'd never worn armor.
And such armor! His was no ordinary mail shirt. Even in the pale light that sifted through the alabaster ceiling panels of the imperial residence, its gilding made it gleam and sparkle. When the Avtokrator of the Videssians went on campaign with his troops, no one could doubt for an instant who was in command.
He set his conical helmet on his head, fiddled with it until it fit comfortably over his ears. The helmet was gilded, too, with a real gold circlet soldered around it at about the level of the top of his forehead. His scabbard and sword belt were also gilded, as was the hilt of the sword. About the only things he had that were not gilded were the sword's blade, his red boots, and the stout spear in his right hand. He'd carried that spear with him when he walked from his native village to Videssos the city. Along with a lucky goldpiece he wore on a chain round his neck, it was all he had left of the place where he'd grown up.
Dara threw her arms around him. Through the mail and the padding beneath it, he could not feel her body. He hugged her, too, gently, so as not to hurt her. "Come back soon and safe," she said—the same wish women always send with their men who ride to war.
"I'll come back soon enough," he answered. "I'll have to. With summer almost gone, the fighting season won't last much longer. I only hope I'll be able to beat Petronas before the rains come and turn the roads to glue."
"I wish you weren't going at all," Dara said.
"So do I." Krispos still had a peasant farmer's distaste for soldiering and the destruction it brought. "But the soldiers will perform better under my eye than they would otherwise." Better than they would under some general who might decide to turn his coat, Krispos meant. The officers of the regiment he would lead out were all of them young and ambitious, men who would rise faster under a young Emperor weeding rebels from the army than they could hope to if an old soldier with old cronies wore the crown. Krispos hoped that would keep them loyal. He avoided thinking about his likely fate if it didn't.
Dara understood that, too. "The good god keep you."
"May that prayer fly from your mouth to Phos' ear." Krispos walked down the hall toward the doorway. As he passed one of the many imperial portraits that hung on the walls, he paused for a moment. The long-dead Emperor Stavrakios was shown wearing much the same gear Krispos had on. Blade naked in his hand, Stavrakios looked like a soldier; in fact, he looked like one of the veterans who had taught Krispos what he knew of war. Measuring himself against that tough, ready countenance, he felt like a fraud.
Fraud or not, though, he had to do his best. He walked on, pausing in the doorway to let his eyes get used to the bright sunshine outside—and to take a handkerchief from his belt pouch to wipe sweat from his face. In Videssos the city's humid summer heat, chain mail was a good substitute for a bathhouse steam room.
A company of Halogai, two hundred men strong, saluted with their axes as Krispos appeared. They were fully armored, too, and sweating worse than he was. He wished he could have brought the whole regiment of northerners to the westlands with him; he knew they were loyal. But he had to leave a garrison he could trust in the city, or it might not be his when he returned.
A groom led Progress to the foot of the steps. The big bay gelding stood quietly as Krispos lifted his left foot into the stirrups and swung aboard. He waved to the Halogai. "To the harbor of Kontoskalion," he called, touching his heels to Progress' flanks. The horse moved forward at a walk. The imperial guards formed up around Krispos.
People cheered as the Emperor and his Halogai paraded through the plaza of Palamas and onto Middle Street. This time they turned south off the thoroughfare. The sound of the sea, never absent in Videssos the city, grew steadily louder in Krispos' ears. When he first came to the capital, he'd needed some little while to get used to the endless murmur of waves and then-slap against stone. Now he wondered how he would adjust to true quiet once more.
Another crowd waited by the docks, gawking at the Videssian troops drawn up on foot there. Sailors were loading their horses onto big, beamy transports for the trip to the west side of the Cattle-Crossing; every so often, a sharp curse cut through the low-voiced muttering of the crowd. Off to one side, doing then-best to look inconspicuous, were Trokoundos and a couple of other wizards.
Along with the waiting soldiers stood the new patriarch Pyrrhos. He raised his hands in benediction as he saw Krispos approach. The soldiers stiffened to attention and saluted. The noise from the crowd got louder. Because the horses did not care that the Emperor had come, the sailors coaxing them onto and along the gangplanks did not care, either.
The Halogai in front of Krispos moved aside to let him ride up to the ecumenical patriarch. Leaning down from the saddle, he told Pyrrhos, "I'm sorry we had to rush the ceremony of your investiture the other day, most holy sir. What with trying to deal with Petronas and everything else, I know I didn't have time to do it properly."
Pyrrhos waved aside the apology. "The synod that chose me was well and truly made, your Majesty," he said, "so in the eyes of Phos I have been properly chosen. Next to that, the pomp of a ceremony matters not at all; indeed, I am just as well pleased not to have endured it."
Only so thoroughgoing an ascetic as Pyrrhos could have expressed such an un-Videssian sentiment, Krispos thought; to most imperials, ceremony was as vital as breath. Krispos said, "Will you bless me and my warriors now, most holy sir?"
"I shall bless you, and pray for your victory against the rebel," Pyrrhos proclaimed, loud enough for the soldiers and city folk to hear. More softly, for Krispos' ears alone, he went on, "I first blessed you twenty years ago, on the platform in Kubrat. I shall not change my mind now."
"You and Iakovitzes," Krispos said, remembering. The noble had gone north to ransom the farmers the Kubratoi had stolen; Pyrrhos and a Kubrati shaman were there to make sure Phos and the nomads' false gods heard the bargain.
"Aye." The patriarch touched the head of his staff, a gilded sphere as big as a fist, to Krispos' shoulder. Raising his voice, he declared, "The Avtokrator of the Videssians is the good god's vice-regent on earth. Whoso opposes him opposes the will of Phos. Thou conquerest, Krispos!"
"Thou conquerest!" people and soldiers shouted together. Krispos waved in acknowledgment, glad Pyrrhos was unreservedly on his side. Of course, if Petronas ended up beating him, that would only prove Phos' will had been that he lose, and then Pyrrhos would serve a new master. Or if he refused, it would be from distaste at Petronas' way of life, not because Petronas had vanquished Krispos. Determining Phos' will could be a subtle art.
Krispos did not intend that Pyrrhos would have to weigh such subtleties. He aimed to beat Petronas, not to be beaten. He rode down the dock to the Suncircle, the ship that would carry him across to the westlands. The captain, a short, thickset man named Nikoulitzas, and his sailors came to attention and saluted as Krispos drew near. When he dismounted, a groom hurried forward to take charge of Progress and lead the horse aboard.
Once on the Suncircle, Progress snorted and rolled his eyes, not much caring for the gently shifting planks under his feet. Krispos did not much care for them, either. He'd never been on a ship before. He told his stomach to behave itself; the imperial dignity would not survive hanging over the rail and giving the fish his breakfast. After a few more internal mutterings, his stomach decided to obey.
Nikoulitzas was very tan, but years of sun and sea spray had bleached his hair almost as light as a Haloga's. Saluting again, he said, "We are ready to sail when you give the word, your Majesty."
"Then sail," Krispos said. "Soonest begun, soonest done."
"Aye, your Majesty." Nikoulitzas shouted orders. The Suncircle's crew cast off lines. Along with its sail, the ship had half a dozen oars on each side for getting into and out of harbors. The sailors dug in at them. That changed the motion of the Suncircle and Progress snorted again and laid his ears back. Krispos spoke soothingly to the horse—and to his stomach. He fed Progress a couple of dried apricots. The horse ate them, then peered at his hands for more. Nothing was wrong with his digestion, at any rate.
The voyage over the Cattle-Crossing took less than half an hour. The Suncircle beached itself a little north of the western suburb called Across; none of Videssos the city's suburbs had docks of their own, lest they compete with the capital for trade. The sailors took out a section of rail and ran out the gangplank from the Suncircle's gunwale to the sand. Leading Progress by the rein, Krispos walked down to the beach. His feet and the horse's hooves echoed on the planks.
The rest of the transports went aground to either side of the Suncircle. Some Halogai had sailed on Krispos' ship; those who had not hurried up to join their countrymen and form a protective ring around him. The Videssian troops, by contrast, paid more attention to recovering their horses. The afternoon was well along before the regimental commander rode up to Krispos and announced, "We are ready to advance, your Majesty."
"Onward, then, Sarkis," Krispos said.
Sarkis saluted. "Aye, your Majesty." He shouted orders to his men. His Videssian had a slight throaty accent; that, along with his wide face, thick beard, and imperious promontory of a nose, said he was from Vaspurakan. So were a good many of his troopers—the mountain land bred fine fighting men.
A small strain of Vaspurakaner blood also flowed in Krispos' veins, or so his father had always said. That was one of the reasons Krispos had chosen Sarkis' regiment. Another was that the "princes"—for so every Vaspurakaner reckoned himself— were heretics in Videssian eyes and found fault, themselves, with the imperial version of Phos' faith. As outsiders in Videssos, they, like the Halogai, had little reason to favor an old-line noble like Petronas—or so Krispos hoped.
Scouts trotted ahead of the main line of soldiers. Still surrounded by the Halogai, Krispos rode along near the middle of that line. Mule-drawn baggage wagons rattled along behind him, followed by the rearguard.
The Cattle-Crossing and its beach vanished as they moved west down a dirt road toward Petronas' lands. From the road, Krispos could see farms and farming villages as far as his eyes reached; the western coastal lowlands held perhaps the most fertile soil in all the Empire. After a while Krispos dismounted, stepped into a field, and dug his hand deeps in to the rich black earth. He felt of it, smelled it, tasted it, and shook his head.
"By the good god," he said, as much to himself as to any of his companions, "if I'd worked soil like this, nothing could have made me leave it." Had the soil of his native village been half this good, he and his fellows there could easily have grown enough to meet the tax bill that forced him to seek his fortune in the city. On the other hand, had the soil there been better, the tax bill undoubtedly would have been worse. Videssos' tax collectors let nothing slip through their fingers.
A few farmers and a fair number of small boys stayed in the fields to gape at the soldiers and Avtokrator as they went by. More did what Krispos would have done had he worn their sandals: they turned and fled. Soldiers did not always plunder, rape, and kill, but the danger of it was too great to be taken lightly.
As the crimson ball of the sun neared the western horizon, the army camped in a field of clover not far from a grove of fragrant orange trees. Cookfires drew moths, and the bats and nightjars that preyed on them.
Krispos had ordered that he be fed the same as any soldier. He stood in line for hard cheese, harder bread, a cup of rough red wine, and bowl of stew made from smoked pork, garlic, and onions. The cook who ladled out the stew looked nervous. "Begging your pardon, your Majesty, but I'm afraid this isn't so fine as what you're used to."
Krispos laughed at him. "The gravy's thicker than what I grew up with, by the good god, and there's more in the kettle here, too." He spooned out a piece of pork and chewed thoughtfully. "My mother would have thrown in some thyme, I think, if she had it. Otherwise I can't complain."
"He's an army cook, your Majesty," one of the Videssian cavalrymen said. "You expect him to know what he's doing?" Everyone who heard jeered at the cook. Krispos finished quickly and held out his bowl for a second helping. That seemed to make the luckless fellow sweating over his pots a little happier.
Three mornings later, as the army drew near a small town or large village called Patrodoton, one of the scouts came riding back at a gallop. He spoke briefly to Sarkis, who led him to Krispos. "You'd best hear this yourself, your Majesty," the general said.
At Krispos' nod, the scout said, "A couple of the farmers up ahead warned me there's already soldiers in that town."
"Did they?" Krispos clicked his tongue between his teeth.
"Can't expect Petronas just to sit back and let us do as we like," Sarkis remarked.
"No, I suppose not. I wish we could." Krispos thought for a few seconds. He asked the scout, "Did these farmers say how many men were there?"
The scout shook his head. "Can't be too many, though, I figure, or we'd have some idea they were around before this."
"I think you're right." Krispos turned to Sarkis. "Excellent sir, what if we take a couple of companies of our horsemen here and ..."He spent a couple of minutes explaining what he had in mind.
But for one broken tooth in front, Sarkis' smile was even and very white. His closed fist thumped against his mail shirt over his heart as he saluted Krispos. "Your Majesty, I think I just may enjoy serving under you."
At the general's command, the panpipers blew "Halt." Sarkis chose his two best company commanders and gave them their orders. They grinned, too; like Sarkis and Krispos, they were young enough to enjoy cleverness for its own sake. Before long, their two contingents trotted down the road toward Patrodoton. The men rode along in loose order, as if they had not a care in the world.
The rest of the army settled down to wait. After a bit, Sarkis ordered them into a defensive position, with the Halogai in the center blocking the road and the remaining Videssian cavalry on either wing. Glancing apologetically over at Krispos, the general said, "We ought to be ready in case it goes wrong."
Krispos nodded. "By all means." Both Tanilis and Petronas had taught him not to take success for granted. But he'd never led large numbers of troops before; he didn't automatically know the right way to insure against mischance. That was why he had Sarkis along. He was glad the general had prudence to go with his dash.
Waiting stretched. The soldiers drank wine, gnawed bread, sang songs, and told each other lies. Krispos stroked his beard and worried. Then one of the Halogai pointed southwest, in the direction of Patrodoton. Krispos saw the dust rising over the roadway. A good many men were heading this way. The Halogai raised their axes to the ready. The Videssians were first and foremost archers. They quickly strung their bows, set arrows to them, and made sure sabers were loose in their scabbards.
But one of Sarkis' two picked company commanders, a small, lean fellow named Zeugmas, rode in front of the oncoming horsemen. His wave was full of exuberance. "We've got 'em!" he shouted. "Come see!"
Krispos touched his heels to Progress' flanks. The horse started forward. Thvari and several other Halogai stepped close together to keep Krispos from advancing. "Let me through!" he said angrily.
The northerner's captain shook his head. "No, Majesty, not by yourself, not when it could be a trap."
"I thought you were my guards, not my jailers," Krispos said. Thvari and the others stood implacable. Krispos sighed. In his younger days, he hadn't wanted to be a soldier, but if he had taken up sword and spear, no one would have kept him from risking his life. Now that he wanted to go into action, the Halogai would not let him. He sighed again, struck by the absurdity of it, but could only yield. "As you wish, gentlemen. Will you come with me?"
Thvari saluted. "Aye, Majesty. We come."
Accompanied by a squad of Halogai—not that they'll do me much good if the bowmen shoot a volley at me, he thought— Krispos went out to see what the companies he'd sent out had accomplished. The troopers didn't seem to find that cowardly. They yelled and grinned and waved—and laughed at the glum, disarmed riders in their midst.
"There, you see?" Krispos told Thvari. "It's safe enough."
Thvari's broad shoulders went up and down in a slow, deliberate shrug. "We did not know. Your duty is to rule, Majesty. Ours is to guard." Shamed by the reproach in the captain's voice, Krispos had to nod.
Then Zeugmas came up. "Couldn't have worked better, your Majesty," he said happily. "We bagged the lot of 'em and didn't lose a man doing it. Just like you said, we rode on in cursing you for a bloody usurper and everything else we could think of, and their leader—that sour-faced bastard with the thick mustaches over there; his name's Physakis—figured we'd come to join the rebels, too. Seeing as we had twice his numbers, he was glad to see us. He posted us with his men and didn't take any precautions. We just passed the word along, made sure we got the drop on 'em all at the same time, and—well, here we are."
"Wonderful." Krispos found himself grinning, too. He was no professional soldier, but his stratagem had taken in a man who was. He pointed to Physakis. "Bring him here. Let's see what he knows."
At Zeugmas' orders, a couple of troopers made the rebel officer dismount and marched him over to Krispos. He peered up at Krispos from under lowered brows. "Your Majesty," he mumbled. As Zeugmas had said, his mustaches were luxuriant; Krispos could hardly see his lips move when he spoke.
"You didn't call me 'Majesty' before you got caught," Krispos said. "What shall I do with you now?"
"Whatever you want, of course," Physakis answered. He did indeed look sour, not, Krispos judged, from fear, but more as if his stomach pained him.
"If I decide your parole is good, I'll send you north to serve against Harvas Black-Robe and his cutthroats," Krispos said.
Physakis brightened; he must have expected to meet the axe traitors deserved. With the threat Harvas posed, though, Krispos could not afford to rid himself of every officer who chose Petronas. "You have mages with you, then?" Physakis asked.
"Aye." Krispos contented himself with the bare word. He'd almost gone west without sorcerous aid. Because of the passions that filled men in combat, battle magic was notoriously unreliable. But Petronas had tried before to slay him with sorcery; he wanted protection close at hand if Anthimos' uncle tried again. Wizards were also useful for such noncombat tasks as testing the sincerity of paroles and oaths.
The troopers took Physakis back to Trokoundos and his comrades. One by one, the rest of the captured officers and underofficers of the troop followed him. The common soldiers were another matter. Krispos did not merely want their pledge to fight him no more; he wanted them to take service with him.
When he put that to them, most agreed at once. So long as they had leadership and food, they cared little as to which side they were on. A few, stubbornly loyal to Petronas, refused. As Physakis had before them, they waited nervously for Krispos to decree their fate.
"Take their horses, their mail shirts, and all their weapons but one dagger each," he told his own men. "Then let them go. I don't think they'll be able to do us much harm after that."
"Leave us our money, too, Majesty?" one of them called.
Krispos shook his head. "You earned it by opposing me. But you've shown yourselves to be honest men. You'll find the chance to make more."
While his soldiers disarmed those of Krispos' men who refused to go over to him, the wizards listened to the rest of the troopers from Patrodoton give their oaths of allegiance. When that ceremony was done, Trokoundos approached Krispos. A squad of Halogai followed, along with three increasingly unhappy-looking Videssians.
Trokoundos pointed to them, each in turn. "These three, Majesty, swore falsely, I am sorry to say. While they granted you their pledges, in their hearts they still intended to betray you."
"I might have guessed that would happen," Krispos said. He turned to the Halogai. "Strip them, give them a dozen lashes well laid on, and send them on their way naked. Such traitors are worse than honest foes."
"Aye, Majesty," said Narvikka, the leader of the squad. One of the Videssians tried to bolt. The Halogai grabbed him before he could even break out of their circle. They drove tent pegs into the ground, tied the three captives to them facedown, and swung the whip. The troopers' shrieks punctuated its harsh, flat cracks. When the strokes were done, the Halogai cut the men loose and let them stagger away.
That night the wind began to blow from the northwest. It swept away the hot, humid air that had hung over the coastal lowlands and had made travel in armor an even worse torment than usual. When Krispos came out of his tent the next morning, he saw dirty gray clouds stacked along the northern horizon.
He frowned. Back in his village, fall was on the way when those clouds started piling up over the Paristrian Mountains. And with fall came the fall rains that turned dirt roads to quagmires. "They'd be early if they started so soon."
He didn't realize he'd spoken aloud until Sarkis, who was emerging from the tent next to his, nodded and answered, "Aye, so they would, Majesty. And wouldn't we have a jolly time trying to run Petronas down when we're all squelching through mush?"
Krispos spat, rejecting Sarkis' words as if the officer had invoked Skotos. Sarkis laughed, but they both knew it was no joke. Krispos said, "We'll have to push harder, that's all. The lord with the great and good mind willing, I want to bring Petronas to bay now, while he's still on the run. I don't want him to have the winter to get in touch with all his old cronies and build up his strength."
"Sensible." Sarkis nodded. "Aye, sensible, Majesty. Come next year, you'll have Harvas Black-Robe to worry about; you won't want to split time between Petronas and him."
"Exactly." Krispos' estimation of Sarkis went up a notch. Not many soldiers worried about Harvas, or about the northern frontier in general, as much as he did. Then he wondered if Sarkis was agreeing with his concern just to curry favor. Being Avtokrator meant making an unending string of such judgments. He hadn't expected that. He didn't care for it, either.
He lined up for breakfast, taking a thick slice of bread and a handful of salted olives. He spat out the last olive pit from atop Progress. His soldiers drove toward Petronas' estates as fast as they could. The suddenly milder weather helped keep men and horses fresh, but every time Krispos looked northward over his shoulder he saw more clouds building up. He could not even urge the troops to better speed, not unless he wanted to leave the Halogai in the cavalry's dust. He could grumble, and he did.
Nor were his spirits lifted when an imperial courier caught up with the army from behind; that only reminded him he could have been going faster. The rolled-up parchment the rider delivered was sealed with sky-blue wax. "From the patriarch, eh?" Krispos said to the courier. "Did he give you the gist of it?" People who sent messages sometimes did, to make sure that what they had to say got through even if their written words were lost.
But the courier shook his head. "No, your Majesty."
"All right, I'll see for myself." Krispos broke the seal. Florid salutations and greetings from Pyrrhos took up half the sheet. Krispos skipped over them, looking for meat. At last he found it, two chunks: Gnatios was still immured in the monastery, where he had begun to compile a chronicle to help pass the time, and Pyrrhos had seen fit to depose an abbot and two prelates for false doctrines and another abbot for refusing to acknowledge his authority.
Krispos rubbed the side of his head with his hand. He'd expected Pyrrhos to be contentious; why should he be surprised now to have the man prove him right?
"Is there a reply, Majesty?" the courier asked. He took out a waxed tablet and stylus.
"Yes." Krispos paused to order his thoughts, then said, " 'Avtokrator Krispos to the patriarch Pyrrhos: Greetings. I hope you will keep peace among the priests and monks, prelates and abbots of the temples. With a rebel in the field and an enemy on our border, we have no need for more strife.' That's all. Let me hear it, if you would."
The courier read the message back. At Krispos' nod, he closed the tablet. He carried a stick of sealing wax. Someone not far away had a torch going; easier to bring fire along than to start it fresh every night. The soldier fetched the torch; in a moment, melted wax dripped down onto the closed tablet. While the wax was still soft, Krispos sealed it with the imperial sunburst. The courier saluted and rode away.
Because of his complete success at Patrodoton, Krispos gained another day and a half to advance unopposed. He knew he was nearing Petronas' estates. He also knew that was fortunate. Rain began to fall toward evening of the first day out of Patrodoton and showed no sign of letting up during the night.
At first the rain was welcome, for it kept down the choking clouds of dust the horses would otherwise have raised. But as the next day wore on and the rain kept coming, Krispos felt Progress begin to work to pick up his feet and heard the horse's hooves pull loose from the thickening mud with wet, sucking sounds.
In the fields, farmers worked like men possessed as they battled to get in their crops before the rains ruined them. They were even too frantic to be afraid of Krispos' army. Remembering the desperation the folk of his village had felt once or twice because of early fall rains, he knew what they were going through and wished them well.
Just after noon on the second day of the rains, Krispos and his soldiers came to the Eriza River, a fair-size stream that ran south into the Arandos. A wooden bridge should have spanned the Eriza. In spite of the rain, the bridge was burned. Peering across to the western bank, Krispos made out patrolling riders.
In spite of the rain, they saw him and his men, too. They shook their fists and shouted insults Krispos could barely hear through the rain and across a hundred years of water. One cry, though, he made out clearly: "Petronas Avtokrator!"
Rage ripped through him. "Give them a volley," he barked to Sarkis.
The general's bushy eyebrows came together above his nose as he frowned. "With the bows we have, the range isn't short, and we'll get our bowstrings wet when we shoot," he said. "If they have men on this side of the river, too, that could leave us in a nasty spot."
Reluctantly, Krispos nodded. "A company, then," he said. "Just something to shut their mouths."
"Aye, why not?" Sarkis rode down the line to the troopers Zeugmas led. Krispos watched Zeugmas object as the regimental commander had, watched Sarkis talk him round. The horsemen in Zeugmas' company quickly strung their bows, plucked arrows from quivers, and let fly. Some tried second shots, a few third. Then, fast as they'd taken them out, they put away their bowstrings to protect them from the rain.
On the far side of the Eriza, the jeers abruptly turned to cries of alarm and pain. Krispos saw one man slide from the saddle. The rest set spur to their horses and drew away from the riverbank. A couple of Petronas' troopers shot back. An arrow buried itself in the mud not far from Krispos. Another clattered off a Haloga's axe. No one on this side of the river seemed hurt.
"We can't cross here," Krispos said.
"Not unless we want to swim," Sarkis agreed, watching the brown waters of the Eriza foam creamily against the pilings of the burned bridge. The regimental commander was not downhearted. "The farmers hereabouts will know where the fords are, I expect."
"So they will," Krispos said; he'd known all the best places to cross the streams near his old village. "But we'd best not waste time finding one. This river's going to start rising, and it's big enough that if it does, we won't be able to cross anywhere."
The peasants hereabouts were stolid, serious people, altogether unlike the clever magpie men who called Videssos the city home. The sight of gold in Krispos' palm quickly turned them voluble, though. "Aye, lord, there's a good place to ford half a league north of here, there is, by the dead elm tree," a farmer said. "And there's another, not so good, rather more than that southward, where the Eriza takes a little jog, if you know what I mean."
"My thanks." Krispos gave the peasant two goldpieces. To his embarrassment, the fellow clumsily prostrated himself in the mud. "Get up, you fool! Ten years ago I was just a farmer myself, working a field not near so fine as this one."
The peasant scrambled to his feet, filthy and dripping, his eyes puzzled. "You—were a farmer, lord? How could you be a farmer? You are Avtokrator!"
Krispos gave it up. He would only be sure of staying Avtokrator if he got across the Eriza. He turned Progress away from the farmer. His captains, who had gathered round to hear his exchange with the man, were already shouting orders. "North half a league to a dead elm tree!"
They squelched along by the river, moving more slowly than they would have when the weather was good. Normally, a local landmark like a dead elm would have been easy to find. In the rain, they almost rode past it. Krispos urged Progress into the river. The water rose to the horse's belly before he was a quarter of the way across. "This isn't as easy as that peasant made it out to be," he said.
"So it isn't." Sarkis pointed across to the western bank of the river. Horsemen with bows and lances waited there. More came trotting up while he and Krispos watched.
"We outnumber them," Krispos said without conviction.
"So we do." Sarkis sounded unhappy, too. He pointed out what Krispos had also seen. "We can't bring our numbers to bear, though, not by way of a narrow ford. Where numbers count, they have more than we do."
"They knew where this ford was," Krispos said, thinking aloud. "As soon as we came to the bridge, they started gathering here."
Sarkis nodded mournfully. "They're probably at the other one, as well, the one where the Eriza jogs."
"Curse these early rains!"- Krispos snarled.
"Just have to hunt up some more farmers," Sarkis said. "Sooner or later we'll find a ford that's unguarded. Once we're across, we may be able to roll up the rebels all along the river." The regimental commander was not one to stay downcast long.
Krispos' spirits lifted more slowly. The rain that splashed against his face and trickled through his beard did nothing to improve his mood. "If the river keeps rising, there won't be any fords, no matter what we learn from the farmers."
"True enough," Sarkis said, "but if we can't get at them for a while, they can't get at us, either."
Though Krispos nodded, that thought consoled him less than it did Sarkis. As was fitting and proper, the regimental commander thought like a soldier. As Avtokrator, Krispos had to achieve a wider vision. All the Empire of Videssos was his by right; any part that did not obey his will diminished his rule, in an odd way diminished him personally.
"We'll find a ford," Sarkis said.
Finding one that Petronas' men were not covering took two days and wore Krispos' patience to rags. At last, though, squad by squad, his troopers began making their way across the Eriza. Though the peasant who'd told of the ford swore it was an easy one, the horses had to fight to move forward against the rain-swollen stream.
The Halogai waited with Krispos. When they crossed, they would hang onto the tails of the last cavalry company's horses; the Eriza might well have swept away a man who tried that ford afoot. They found the fall rains funny. "In our country, Majesty, rain is for the end of spring and for summer," Vagn said. The rest of the northerners around Krispos chorused agreement.
"No wonder so many of you come south," he said.
"Aye, that's the way of it, Majesty," Vagn said. "To a Haloga, even the weather in Kubrat would seem good."
Having spent several years in Kubrat, Krispos found that prospect appalling. It gave him a measure of how harsh life in Halogaland had to be—and a new worry. He asked, "With Harvas Black-Robe and his mercenaries holding Kubrat, does that mean more Halogai might come south to settle there?"
"It could, Majesty," Vagn said after a thoughtful pause. "That would bear hard on Videssos, were it so."
"Yes," was all Krispos answered. He already knew he could not rely on all his Videssian soldiers against Petronas. When he took the field against Harvas, would he be able to trust his own Haloga guards?
One thing at a time, he told himself. After he dealt with Petronas, almost all the rank-and-file troopers in Videssian service would rally to him, especially if he campaigned against a foreign foe.
"Your Majesty?" someone called. "Your Majesty?"
"Here," Krispos answered. The Halogai who had been about to cross the Eriza turned back and formed up around him, weapons ready. That unthinking protective move told him more plainly than any oaths that these were loyal troops.
The man who asked for Krispos proved to be an imperial courier who sat soaked and bedraggled atop a blowing horse. "I have a dispatch from the Sevastos Mavros, your Majesty," he said, holding out a tube of waxed and oiled leather. "If you like, I can give you the news it bears. I must tell you, it is not good."
"Let me hear it, and I will judge," Krispos said, wondering how bad it would be. It was bad enough, he saw, to make the courier nervous. "Speak! By the good god, I know you only bring news; you don't cause it."
"Thank you, your Majesty." Even in the rain, the courier licked his lips before he went on. And when he did, the word he gave was worse than any Krispos had imagined. "Majesty, Harvas and his raiders have sacked the town of Develtos."
Krispos noticed he was grinding his teeth. He made himself stop. All the same, he felt pulled apart. How was he supposed to deal with Petronas if Harvas Black-Robe invaded the Empire? And how could he deal with Harvas if Petronas clung to his revolt?
"Majesty?" the courier said when he was some time silent. "What is your will, Majesty?"
A good question, Krispos thought. He laughed harshly. "My will is that Harvas go to Skotos' ice, and Petronas with him. Neither of them seems as interested in my will as you do, though, worse luck for me."
Taking the liberty the courier dared not, Sarkis asked, "What will you do, Majesty?"
Krispos pondered that while the rain muttered down all around. Not the least part of his pondering was Sarkis himself. If he left the regimental commander here by the Eriza alone, would he stay loyal or desert to Petronas? If he did go over, all the westlands save perhaps the suburbs across from Videssos the city would be lost. But if Krispos gave his attention solely to overthrowing Petronas, how much of the Empire would Harvas ravage while he was doing it?
He realized that was but a different phrasing for the unpalatable questions he'd asked himself before. As if he had no doubt Sarkis would remain true—as if the notion that Sarkis could do otherwise had never crossed his mind—he said, "I'll go back to the city. I can best deal with Harvas from there. Now that we've pushed over the Eriza, I want you to go after Petronas with everything you have. If you can seize him this winter, few rewards would be big enough."
The regimental commander's eyes were dark and fathomless as twin pools reflecting the midnight sky. Nevertheless, Krispos thought he saw a faint light in them, as if a star were shining on those midnight pools. Saluting, Sarkis said, "You may rely on me, your Majesty."
"I do," Krispos said simply. He wished he did not have to. He hoped Sarkis did not know that, but suspected—half feared— the Vaspurakaner soldier was clever enough to grasp it.
Thvari said, "My men will escort you back to the city, Majesty."
"A squad will do," Krispos said. "I want the rest of you to stay with Sarkis and help him run Petronas to earth."
But Thvari shook his head. "We are your guardsmen, Majesty. We took oath by our gods to ward your body. Ward it we shall; our duty is to you, not to Videssos."
"The eunuchs in the palace think they have the right to tell the Avtokrator what to do," Krispos said, his voice somewhere between amusement and chagrin. "Do you claim it, too, Thvari?"
The Haloga captain folded his arms across his broad chest. "In this, Majesty, aye. Think you—you travel a land in revolt. A squad, even a troop, is not enough to assure your safety."
Krispos saw Thvari would not yield. "As you wish," he said, reflecting that the longer he held the throne, the less absolute his power looked.
As it happened, he and the Halogai met not a single foeman on their long, muddy slog back to Videssos the city. They did see one fellow, though, who plainly took them for enemies: a monk going west on muleback, the hood of his blue robe drawn up over his shaven pate to protect him from the rain. He kicked his mount into a stiff-legged trot and rode far around the oncoming soldiers before he dared return to the highway.
The Halogai snickered at the monk's fear. With delicate irony, Krispos asked, "Bold captain Thvari, do you think a squad of your heroes would have been enough to save me from that desperado?"
Thvari refused to be baited. "By the look of him, Majesty, belike he would have set on a mere squad." Krispos had to laugh. The northerner went on more seriously. "Besides, who's to say that if you had only the squad, you mightn't have come across a whole horde of Petronas' rogues? The gods delight in sending woe to folk who scant their safety. No man outwits his fate, but it may entrap him before his time."
"I know why that monk turned aside from us," Krispos said: "for fear of having to argue theology with you."
"Few Halogai turn to Phos, but not for the priests' lack of trying," Thvari said. "Your god suits you of the Empire, and our gods suit us." Krispos remained convinced the northerners' gods were false, but could not deny the quality of the men who followed them.
He and his guards reached the suburbs across from the imperial city two days later. The courier had preceded them; boats were waiting to take them over the Cattle-Crossing. The short trip left Krispos green-faced and gulping, for the northerly winds that brought the fall rains had also turned the strait choppy. He sketched the sun-circle over his heart when he was back on dry land. Through the thick, gray rain clouds, though, Phos' sun could not be seen.
Long faces greeted him when he entered the imperial residence. "Cheer up," he said. "The world hasn't ended." He tapped the message tube the courier had brought him. "I know losing Develtos is a hard blow, but I think I have a way around it, or at least a way to keep Harvas quiet until I've settled Petronas."
"Very good, your Majesty. I am pleased to hear it." But Barsymes did not seem pleased, nor did his features lighten. Well, Krispos told himself, that's just his way—he never looks happy. Then the vestiarios said, "Majesty, I fear the evil news does not stop at Develtos."
Krispos stiffened. Just when he could hope he'd solved one problem, another came along to throw him back again. "You'd better tell me," he said heavily.
"I hear and obey, Majesty. No doubt you can comprehend that the most holy Pyrrhos' elevation to the patriarchate entailed some confusion for the monastery dedicated to the memory of the holy Skirios. So forceful an abbot as Pyrrhos, I daresay, would not have suffered others there to gain or exercise much authority. Thus no one, it appears, paid close enough attention to the comings and goings of the monks. In fine, your Majesty, the former patriarch Gnatios is nowhere to be found."
Krispos grunted as if he'd taken a blow in the belly. All at once he remembered the westbound monk who'd been so skittish on seeing him and the Halogai. He had no way of knowing whether that was Gnatios, but the fellow had been going where Gnatios, if free, was likeliest to go—toward land Petronas controlled. He said that aloud, adding, "So now Petronas will have a patriarch of his own, to crown him properly and to call Pyrrhos' appointment illegal."
"That does seem probable," Barsymes agreed. He dipped his head to Krispos. "For one new to the throne—indeed, to the city and its intrigues—you show a distinct gift for such maneuvers. "
"It's what I'd do, were I in Petronas' boots," Krispos said, shrugging.
"Indeed. Well, Petronas is no mean schemer, so you have not contradicted me."
"I know that only too well. From whom do you think I learned?" Krispos thought for a while, then went on. "When you go, Barsymes, send in a secretary. I'll draft a proclamation of outlawry against Gnatios and offer a reward for his capture or death. I suppose I should also have Pyrrhos condemn him on behalf of the temples."
"The ecumenical patriarch has already seen to that, your Majesty," Barsymes said. "Yesterday he issued an anathema against Gnatios and read it publicly at the High Temple. It was quite a vituperative document, I must say, even for one of that sort. Some of the phrases that stick in the mind are 'perverter of the patriarchate,' 'spiritual leper,' and 'viper vilely hissing at the altar.' "
"They never were fond of each other," Krispos observed. Barsymes let one eyebrow rise in understated appreciation for the understatement. Sighing, Krispos continued, "Trouble is, Gnatios will just fling his own anathemas right back at Pyrrhos, so neither set will end up accomplishing anything."
"Pyrrhos' will appear first, and he does control the ecclesiastical hierarchy and preach from the High Temple. His words should carry the greater weight," Barsymes said.
"That's true," Krispos said. The thought consoled him a little. As it was the only consolation he'd had for the last several days, he cherished it as long as he could.
The general Agapetos rubbed a raw new pink scar that puckered his right cheek. In size and placement, it almost matched an old pale one on the other side of his face. He looked relieved to be reporting his failure in a chamber off the Grand Courtroom rather than from a prison cell to an unsympathetic jailer. "By the good god, Majesty, I still don't know how the bugger got past me to Develtos with so many men," he said, his deep voice querulous. "I don't know how he took the place so quick, either."
"That puzzles me, too," Krispos said. He'd been through Develtos, a cheerless gray fortress town that helped ward the road between the capital and the eastern port of Opsikion. Its walls had seemed forbiddingly tall and solid.
"I hear magic toppled one of the towers and let the savages in," Iakovitzes said.
Agapetos snorted. "That's always the excuse of those who run first and fastest. They lie as fast as they run, too. If battle magic worked even a quarter of the time, wizards would fight wars and soldiers could go home and tend their gardens."
"As far as I know, the only ones who got out of Develtos alive were the ones who ran first and fastest," Mavros put in. "All the rest are dead."
"Aye, that's so," Agapetos said. "The Halogai are bloodthirsty devils, and this Harvas strikes me as downright vicious. Still and all, my lads were keeping the raiders to their side of the frontier. Then somehow he slid a whole army past us. Maybe it was magic, your Majesty. I don't see how else he could have done it. May the ice take me if I lie."
"I've heard that claimed of Harvas before," Krispos said. "I never really believed it; whenever a man has great good fortune, people naturally think he's a mage. But now I do begin to wonder."
"The Halogai slew all the priests in the city, it's said," Mavros observed. "If Harvas is a wizard, he is not one who works by the power of Phos."
"Of course a heathen Haloga doesn't work magic by the power of Phos," Iakovitzes said. "And if the savages were killing everyone in the city, I doubt they'd have bothered to spare anyone just because he was wearing a blue robe. Would you?" He lifted an elegantly arched eyebrow.
Mavros knew better than to take him seriously. "I'm sorry, excellent sir, but I must confess that, never having sacked a town, I really couldn't say."
A little of Iakovitzes' sarcasm was bracing. More than a little had a way of disrupting things. Not wanting that to happen now, Krispos said, "The real question is, what to do next? If I fight Petronas and Harvas at the same time, I split my forces and can't concentrate on either one. But if I neglect one and just fight the other, the one I ignore has free rein."
"Are you wondering why you ever wanted to be Avtokrator in the first place?" Iakovitzes asked with malicious relish.
"I didn't particularly want to be Avtokrator," Krispos retorted, "but letting Anthimos go ahead and kill me didn't look all that good, either."
"You're going to have to buy time with one of your foes so you can crush the other one, Krispos," Mavros said. "If you hadn't already been at war with Petronas, I could have led a fresh force out from the city and joined Agapetos against Harvas. As it was, I didn't dare, in case you were defeated in the westlands and needed aid."
"I'm glad you stayed here," Krispos said quickly, remembering Tanilis' letter. He went on, "It galls me, but I fear you're right. And it galls me worse that the one I'll have to buy off is Harvas. Petronas paid him to invade Kubrat, so I know he takes gold. And once I've beaten Petronas—why, then, the good god willing, master Harvas may just have to give that gold back, among other things. If he thinks I'll ever forget Develtos, or forgive, he's mistaken."
"Still, you're making the right choice," Iakovitzes said, nodding vigorously. "You can't afford to treat with Petronas; that would be as much as recognizing him as your equal. A reigning Avtokrator has no equals inside Videssos. But paying off a foreign prince who's made a nuisance of himself—why, it happens all the time."
Krispos glanced to Mavros, who also nodded. Agapetos said, "Aye, Majesty, settle the civil war first. Once the whole Empire is behind you, then you can have another go at Harvas when the time is ripe."
"How much did Petronas pay Harvas to bring his murderers south into Kubrat?" Krispos asked.
"Fifty pounds of gold—thirty-six hundred goldpieces," Iakovitzes answered at once.
"Then you can offer him up to twice that much if you have to, and buy me a year's peace with him," Krispos said. "I trust you'll be able to get him to settle for less, though, being the able dickerer you are."
Iakovitzes glared at him. "I was afraid you were leading up to that."
"You're the best envoy I have," Krispos said. "How many embassies to the folk of the north have you headed? We first met in Kubrat, remember? I still wear that goldpiece you gave the old khagan Omurtag when you were ransoming the lot of kidnapped peasants I was part of. So you know what you need to do, and I know I can rely on you."
"If it were a mission to the Kubrat that was, or to Khatrish, or even Thatagush, I'd say aye without thinking twice, though all those lands are bloody barbarous," Iakovtizes said slowly. "Harvas, now ... Harvas is something else. I tell you frankly, Krispos—your Majesty—he alarms me. He wants more than just plunder. He wants slaughter, and maybe more than that."
"Harvas alarms me, too," Krispos admitted. "If you think you're going into danger, Iakovtizes, I won't send you."
"No, I'll go." Iakovtizes ran a hand through his graying hair. "After all, what could he do? For one thing, he may have to send an embassy here one fine day, and I know—and he'd know—you'd avenge any harm that came to me. And for another, I'm coming to pay him tribute, lots of tribute. How could I making him angry doing that?"
Mavros leered at the short, feisty noble. "If anyone could manage, Iakovitzes, you're the man."
"Ah, your Highness," Iakovitzes said in a tone of sweet regret, "were you not suddenly become second lord in all the land, be assured I would tell you precisely what sort of cocky, impertinent, jumped-up little snipsnap bastard son of a snake and a cuckoo you really are." By the time he finished, he was shouting, red-faced, his eyes bulging.
"Kind and gracious as always," Krispos told him, doing his best not to laugh.
"You, too, eh?" Iakovitzes growled. "Well, you'd just better watch out, your Majesty. As best I can tell, I can call you anything I bloody well please for a while and not worry a bit about lese majeste, because if you send me to the chap with the axe, you can't send me to Harvas."
"That depends on where I tell him to cut," Krispos said.
Iakovitzes grabbed his crotch in mock horror. Just then Barsymes brought in a fresh jar of wine and a plate of smoked octopus tentacles. The eunuch looked down his long nose at Iakovitzes. "There are not many men to whom I would say this, excellent sir, but I suspect you would be as much a scandal without your stones as with them."
"Why, thank you," Iakovitzes said, which made even the imperturbable vestiarios blink. Krispos raised his cup in salute. So long as Iakovitzes had his tongue, he was armed and dangerous.
Iakovitzes set out on his mission to Harvas a few days later. Krispos promptly put him in a back corner of his mind; what with the state of the roads during the fall rains and the blizzards that would follow them, he did not expect the noble to be back before spring.
Of more immediate concern was Sarkis' continuing campaign against Petronas. By his dispatches, the regimental commander was making progress, but at a snail's pace thanks to the weather. The rains were still falling when he reached the first of Petronas' estates. "Drove off to westward the cavalry who sought to oppose us," he wrote, "then attempted to fire the villa and outbuildings we had taken. Too wet for a truly satisfactory job, but no one will be able to use them for a good long while yet."
When Krispos was a youth, the world in winter had seemed to contract to no more than his village and the fields around it. Even as Avtokrator, something similar happened. Though news came in from all Over the Empire, everything beyond Videssos the city seemed dim and distant, as if seen through thick fog. Not least because of that, he paid more attention to the people closest to him.
By Midwinter's Day, Dara was visibly pregnant, though not in the thick robes she wore to the Amphitheater to watch the skits that celebrated the sun's swing back toward the north. Midwinter's Day was a time of license; a couple of the pantomime shows lewdly speculated on what Dara's relationship with Krispos had been before Anthimos died. Krispos laughed even when the jokes on him weren't funny. After looking angry at first, Dara went along, though she said, "Some of those so-called clowns should be horsewhipped through the plaza of Palamas."
"It's Midwinter's Day," Krispos said, as if that explained everything. To him, it did.
Some of the servants had started a bonfire in front of the steps that led into the imperial residence. It still blazed brightly when the imperial party returned from the Amphitheater. Krispos dismounted from Progress. He tossed the reins to a groom. Then, holding the crown on his head with one hand, he dashed toward the fire, sprang into the air. "Burn, ill luck!" he shouted as he flew over the flames.
A moment later he heard more running feet. "Burn, ill luck!" Dara called. Her jump barely carried her across the fire. She staggered when she landed. She might have fallen, had Krispos not reached out a quick hand to steady her.
"That was foolish," he said, angry now himself. "Why have you been traveling in a litter the past month, but to keep you from wearing yourself out or hurting yourself? Then you go and risk it all—and for what? Holiday hijinks!"
She pulled away from him. "I'm not made of pottery, you know. I won't shatter if you look at me sideways. And besides—" She lowered her voice, "—what with Petronas, Gnatios, and Harvas Black-Robe, don't you think more ill luck is out there than one alone can easily burn away?"
His anger melted, as the snow had around the campfire. "Aye, that's so." He put an arm round her shoulder. "But I wish you'd be more careful."
She shook him off. He saw he'd somehow annoyed her again. Then she said, "Is that for my sake, or just on account of the child in my belly?"
"For both," he answered honestly. Her eyes stayed narrowed as she studied him. He said, "Come on, now. Have you seen me building any minnow ponds?"
She blinked, then found herself laughing. "No, I suppose not." Minnows had been a euphemism Anthimos used for one of the last of his debauched schemes—one of the few times Anthimos bothered with euphemism, Krispos thought. Dara went on, "After living with such worries so long, do you wonder that I have trouble trusting?"
By way of answer, he put his arm around her again. This time she let it stay. They walked up the steps and down the hallway together. When they got to their bedchamber, she closed and barred the doors behind them. At his quizzical look, she said, "You were the one who was talking about it being Midwinter's Day."
They wasted no time undressing and sliding under the blankets. Though brick-lined ducts under the floor brought warm air from a central furnace, the bedchamber was still chilly. Krispos' hand traced the small bulge rising around Dara's navel. Her mouth twisted into a peculiar expression, half pride, half pout. "I liked myself better flat-bellied," she said.
"I like you fine the way you are." To prove what he said, Krispos let his hand linger.
She scowled ferociously. "Did you like me throwing up every morning and every other afternoon? I'm not doing that as often now, the good god be praised."
"I'm glad you're not," Krispos said. "I—" He stopped. Under his palm, something—fluttered? rolled? twisted? He could not find the right word. Wonder in his voice, he asked, "Was that the baby?"
Dara nodded. "I've felt him—" She always called the child to come him. "—moving for a week or ten days now. That's the hardest wiggle yet, though. I'm not surprised you noticed it."
"What does it feel like to you?" he asked, all at once more curious than aroused. He pressed lightly on her belly, hoping the baby inside would stir again.
"It's rather like—" Dara frowned, shook her head. "I started to say it felt like gas, like what would happen if I ate too much cucumber and octopus salad. It did, when he first started moving. But these bigger squirmings don't feel like anything, if you know what I mean. You'd understand, if you were a woman."
"Yes, I suppose I would. But since I'm not, I have to ask foolish questions." As if on cue, the baby moved again. Krispos hugged Dara close. "We did that!" he exclaimed, before he recalled he might not have had anything to do with it at all.
If Dara remembered that, too, she gave no sign. "We may have started it," she said tartly, "but I'm the one who has to do the rest of the work."
"Oh, hush." The feel of Dara's warm, smooth body pressed against his own reminded Krispos why they were in bed together. He rolled her onto her back. As they joined, he looked down at her and said, "Since you're complaining, I'll do the work tonight."
"Fair enough," she said, her eyes glowing in the lamplight. "We won't be able to do it this way too much longer anyhow— someone coming between us, you might say. So let's—" She paused, her breath going short for a moment, "—enjoy it while we can."
"Oh, yes," he said, "Oh, yes."
The message Iakovitzes had sent out well before Midwinter's Day arrived several weeks after the festival was over. All the same, Krispos was glad to have it. "Harvas wants to take the tribute. We've been haggling over how much. His is not simple Haloga greed; he fights for every copper like a prawn-seller in the city (not a prawn to be had here, worse luck—nothing but bloody mutton and bloody beef). By the lord with the great and good mind, Majesty, he nearly frightens me: he is very fierce and very clever. But I give as good as I get, I think. Yours in frigid resignation from the blizzards of Pliskavos—"
Krispos smiled as he rolled up the parchment. He could easily summon a picture of Iakovitzes' sharp tongue carving strips off a barbarous warlord too slow-witted to realize he'd been insulted. Then Krispos read the letter again. If Harvas Black-Robe was clever—and everything Krispos knew of him pointed that way—Iakovitzes' acid barbs might sink deep.
He closed the letter once more and tied a ribbon around it. Iakovitzes had been treating with barbarians for close to thirty years—for as long as Krispos had been alive. He'd know not to go too far.
What had been a quiet winter in matters ecclesiastical heated up when Pyrrhos abruptly expelled four priests from their temples. Seeing the blunt announcement in with the rest of the paperwork, Krispos summoned the patriarch. "What's all this in aid of?" he asked, tapping the parchment. "I thought I told you I wanted quiet in the temples."
"So you did, Majesty, but without true doctrine and fidelity, what value has mere quiet?" Pyrrhos, as Krispos had long known, was not one to compromise. The patriarch went on, "As you will note in my memorandum there, I had reason in each case. Bryones of the temple of the holy Nestorios was heard to preach that you were a false Avtokrator and I a false patriarch."
"Can't have that," Krispos agreed. He wished Gnatios had never gotten out of his monastic cell. Not only did he confer legitimacy on Petronas' revolt, but as patriarch-in-exile he also provided a focus for clerics who found Pyrrhos' strict interpretation of ecclesiastical law and custom unbearable.
"To continue," the patriarch said, ticking off the errant priests' transgressions on his fingers, "Norikos of the temple of the holy Thelalaios flagrantly cohabited with a woman, an abuse apparently long tolerated thanks to the laxness that prevailed under Gnatios. The priest Loutzoulos had the habit of wearing robes with silk in the weave, vestments entirely too luxurious for one of his station. And Savianos ..." Pyrrhos' voice sank in horror to a hoarse whisper. "Savianos has espoused the Balancer heresy."
"Has he?" Krispos remembered Savianos speaking out against Pyrrhos' nomination as patriarch. He was sure Pyrrhos had not forgotten, either. "How do you know?" he asked, wondering how vindictive Pyrrhos was: more than a little, he suspected.
"By his own words I shall convict him, Majesty," Pyrrhos said. "In his sermons he has declared that Skotos darkens Phos' radiant glory. How could this be so unless the good god and the master of evil—" He spat in renunciation of Skotos. "—stand equally matched in the Eternal Balance?"
Imperial orthodoxy preached that in the end Phos was sure to vanquish Skotos. The eastern lands of Khatrish and Thatagush also worshiped Phos, but their priests maintained no man could know whether good or evil would triumph in the end—thus their concept of the Balance.
Krispos knew the Balance had its attractions even for some Videssian theologians. But he asked, "Are you sure that's the only meaning you can put on what Savianos said?"
Pyrrhos' eyes glittered dangerously. "Name another."
Not for the first time, Krispos wished his formal education went farther than reading and writing, adding and subtracting. "Maybe it was just a fancy way of saying there is still evil in the world. Phos hasn't won yet, you know."
"Given the sad state of sinfulness I see all around me, I am but too aware of that." Pyrrhos shook his head. "No, Majesty, I fear Savianos' speech cannot be interpreted so innocently. When a man of that stripe admires Skotos' strength, his remarks must have a sinister import."
"Suppose a priest who had always supported you spoke in the same way," Krispos said. "What would you do then?"
"Upbraid him, chastise him, and expel him," Pyrrhos said at once. "Evil is evil, no matter from whose lips it comes. May the lord with the great and good mind guard against it." He drew the sun-circle over his heart.
Krispos also signed himself. He studied the ecumenical patriarch he had created. At last, reluctantly, he decided he had to believe Pyrrhos. The patriarch was narrow, aye, but within his limits just. Sighing, Krispos said, "Very well, then, most holy sir, act as you think best."
"I shall, your Majesty, I assure you. These four are but the snow-covered tip of a mountain of corruption. They are the ones who shine most brightly when Phos' sun lights their misdeeds, but their glitter shall not blind me to the rest of the mountain, either."
"Now wait one moment, if you please," Krispos said hastily, holding up his hand. "I did not name you to your office to have you spread chaos through the temples."
"What is the function of the patriarch but to root out sin where he finds it?" Pyrrhos said. "If you think some other duty comes before it, then cast me down now." He bowed his head to show his acceptance of that imperial prerogative.
Krispos realized that in Pyrrhos he had at last found someone more stubborn than he was. Seeing that, he also realized he had been naive to hope the greater responsibilities of the patriarchate would temper Pyrrhos' pious obstinacy. And finally, he understood that since he could not afford to oust Pyrrhos from the blue boots—no other man, hastily set in place, could serve as much of a counterweight to Gnatios—he was stuck with him for the time being.
"As I told you, most holy sir, you must act as you think best," he said. "But, I pray you, remember also the—" What had Savianos called it? "—the principle of theological economy."
"Where the principle applies, Majesty, rest assured that I shall," Pyrrhos said. "I must warn you, though, its application is less sweeping than some would claim."
No, Krispos thought, Pyrrhos was not a man to yield much ground. He gave a sharp, short nod to show the audience was over. Pyrrhos prostrated himself—whatever his flaws, disrespect for the imperial office was not one of them—and departed. As soon as he was gone, Krispos shouted for a jar of wine.
Looking at a map of the Empire, Krispos observed, "I'm just glad Harvas' murderers decided to withdraw after they took Develtos. If they'd pressed on, they could have reached the Sailors' Sea and cut the eastern provinces in half."
"Yes, that would have spilled the chamber pot into the soup, wouldn't it?" Mavros said. "As is, though, you're still going to have to restore the town, you know."
"I've already begun to take care of it," Krispos said. "I've sent word out through the city guilds that the fisc will pay double the usual daily rate for potters and plasterers and tilemakers and carpenters and stonecutters and what have you willing to go to Develtos for the summer. From what the guildmasters say, we'll have enough volunteers to make the place a going concern again by fall."
"The guilds are the best way to get the people you'll need," Mavros agreed. Labor in Videssos the city was as minutely regulated as everything else; the guildmasters reported to the eparch of the city, as if they were government functionaries themselves. Mavros pursed his lips, then went on. "Stonecutters, aye; they'll need more than a few of those, considering what happened to Develtos' wall."
"Yes," Krispos said somberly. The reports from survivors of the attack and later witnesses told how one whole side of the fortifications had been blasted down, most likely by magic. Afterwards Harvas' northern mercenaries swarmed into the stunned town and began their massacre. "Till now, I thought battle magic was supposed to be a waste of time, that it didn't work well with folk all keyed up to fight."
"I thought the same thing," Mavros said. "I talked with your friend Trokoundos and a couple of other mages. From what they say, the spell that knocked over the wall wasn't battle magic, strictly speaking. Harvas or whoever did it must have spirited his soldiers past the frontier and got them to Develtos with no one the wiser. That made the sorcery a lot easier, because the garrison wasn't expecting attack and didn't get into that excited state until the stones came crashing down onto them."
"Which was too late," Krispos said. Mavros nodded. Krispos added, "The next question is, how did Harvas get his army over the border like that?"
Mavros had no answer. Neither did anyone else. Krispos knew Trokoundos had interrogated Agapetos with the same double mirror arrangement he'd used on Gnatios. Even sorcerously prodded, the general had no idea how Harvas' men eluded his. Maybe magic had played a part there, too, but nobody could be sure.
Krispos said, "By the good god, I hope Harvas and his murderers can't spring out of nowhere in front of Videssos the city and smash through the walls here." The imperial capital's walls were far stronger than those of a provincial town like Develtos, so much so that no foreign foe had ever taken the city. Nor had any Videssians, save by treachery. Harvas Black-Robe, though, was looking like a foe of an uncommon sort.
"Now we'll have wizards ever on the alert here," Mavros said. "Taking us by surprise won't be as easy as it was in Develtos. And surprise, the mages say, was the main reason he succeeded there."
"Yes, yes." Krispos still fretted. Maybe that was because he was so new on the throne, he thought; with more experience, he might have a better sense of just how dangerous Harvas truly was. All the same, like any sensible man, he preferred to be ready for a threat that wasn't there than to ignore one that was. He said, "I wish Petronas wouldn't have picked now to rebel. If he gave up, I'd be happy to let him keep his head. Harvas worries me more."
"Even after you're buying Harvas off?"
"Especially after I'm buying Harvas off." Krispos plucked at his thick, curly beard, men snapped his fingers in sudden decision. "I'll even tell Petronas as much, in writing. If he and Gnatios will come back to the monastery, I won't take any measures against them." He raised his voice to call for a secretary.
Before the scribe arrived, Mavros asked, "And if he says no?"
"Then he says no. How am I worse off?"
Mavros considered, then judiciously pursed his lips. "Put that way, I don't suppose you are."
When the secretary came in, he set down his tablet and stylus so he could prostrate himself before Krispos. Krispos waited impatiently till the man had got to his feet and taken up his writing tools once more. He had given up on telling underlings not to bother with the proskynesis. All it did was make them uneasy. He was the Avtokrator, and the proskynesis was the way they were accustomed to showing the Avtokrator their respect.
After he was done dictating, Krispos said, "Let me hear that once more, please." The secretary read him his words. He glanced over at Mavros. The Sevastos nodded. Krispos said, "Good enough. Give me a fair copy of that, on parchment. I'll want it today." The scribe bowed and hurried away.
Krispos rose, stretched. "All that talking has made me thirsty. What do you say to a cup of wine?"
"I generally say yes, and any excuse will do nicely," Mavros answered, grinning. "Are you telling me your poor voice is too worn and threadbare to call Barsymes? I'll do it for you, then."
"No, wait," Krispos said. "Let's scandalize him and get it ourselves." He knew it was a tiny rebellion against the stifling ceremony that hedged him round, but even a tiny rebellion was better than none.
Mavros rolled his eyes. "The foundations of the state may crumble." Not least because he had trouble taking things seriously himself, he sympathized with his foster brother's efforts to keep some of his humanity intact.
Chuckling like a couple of small boys sneaking out to play at night, Avtokrator and the Sevastos tiptoed down the hall toward the larder. They even stopped chuckling as they sneaked past the chamber where Barsymes was directing a cleaning crew. The vestiarios' back was to them; he did not notice them go by. The cleaners needed his direction, for thick dust lay over the furnishings inside the chamber and the red-glazed tile that covered its floor and walls. The Red Room was only used—indeed, was only opened—when the Empress was with child. The baby— Krispos' heir, if it was a boy—would be born there.
I wonder if it's mine, he thought for the thousandth time. For the thousandth time, he told himself it did not matter—and tried to make himself believe it.
The wine, successfully gained and successfully drunk, helped him shove the unanswerable question to the back of his mind once more. He picked up the jar. "Another cup?" he asked Mavros.
"Thank you. That would be lovely."
Barsymes stalked into the larder while Krispos was still pouring. The eunuch's long smooth disapproving face got longer and more disapproving. "Your Majesty, you have servants precisely for the purpose of serving you."
Had he sounded angry, Krispos would have gotten angry in return. But he only sounded sad. Absurdly, Krispos felt guilty. Then he was angry, angry at his own feeling of guilt. "You'd like to wipe my arse for me, too, wouldn't you?" he snarled.
The vestiarios said nothing, did not even change his expression. Krispos felt his own face go hot with shame. Barsymes and the other chamberlains had wiped his arse for him, and tended all his other needs, no matter how ignoble, a couple of summers before when he lay paralyzed from Petronas' wizardry. He hung his head. "I'm sorry," he mumbled.
"Many men would not have remembered," Barsymes said evenly. "I see you do. Can we bargain, your Majesty? If your need to be free of us grows so pressing from time to time, will you tolerate us more readily the rest of the time on account of these occasional escapes?"
"I think so," Krispos said.
"Then I will essay not to be aggrieved when I see you occasionally serving yourself, and I hope you will remain sanguine when I and the rest of your servants perform our office." Bowing, Barsymes withdrew.
Once the vestiarios was gone, Mavros said, "Who rules here, you or him?"
"I notice you lowered your voice before you asked me that," Krispos said, laughing. "Is it for fear he'll hear?"
Mavros laughed, too, but soon sobered. "There have been vestiarioi who controlled affairs far beyond the palaces— Skombros, for one."
"Me for another," Krispos reminded him. "I haven't seen any of that from Barsymes, the lord with the great and good mind be praised. As long as he runs the palace, he's content to let me have the rest of the Empire."
"Generous of him." Mavros emptied his cup and picked up the jar of wine. "I'm going to pour myself another. Can I do the same for you? That way he'll have nothing with which to be offended."
Krispos held out his own cup. "Go right ahead."
The imperial courier sat gratefully in front of a roaring fire. Outside, mixed sleet and rain poured down. Krispos knew that meant spring was getting closer. Given a choice between snow and this horrible stuff, he would have preferred snow. Instead, he would get weeks of slush and glare ice and mud.
The courier undid his waterproof message pouch and handed Krispos a rolled parchment. "Here you are, your Majesty."
Even had the fellow's face not warned Krispos that Petronas was not about to come back to his monastery, the parchment would have done the job by itself. It was bound with a scarlet ribbon and sealed with scarlet wax, into which had been pressed a sunburst signet. It was not the imperial seal—Krispos wore that on the middle finger of his right hand—but it was an imperial seal.
"He says no, does he?" Krispos asked.
The courier set down the goblet of hot wine laced with cinnamon from which he'd been drinking. "Aye, Majesty, that much I can tell you. I haven't seen the actual message, though."
"Let's see how he says no, then." Krispos cracked the sealing wax, slid the ribbon off the parchment, and unrolled it. He recognized Petronas' firm, bold script at once—his rival had responded to him in person.
The response sounded like Petronas, too, Petronas in an overbearing mood: " 'Avtokrator of the Videssians Petronas, son of Agarenos Avtokrator, brother of Rhaptes Avtokrator, uncle to Anthimos Avtokrator, crowned without duress by the true most holy ecumenical patriarch of the Videssians Gnatios, to the baseborn rebel, tyrant, and usurper Krispos: Greetings.' "
Krispos found reading easier if he did it aloud in a low voice. He didn't realize the courier was listening until the man remarked, "I guess he wouldn't say you aye after a start like that, would he?"
"Doesn't seem likely." Krispos read on: " 'I know that advice is a good and goodly thing: I have, after all, read the books of the learned ancients and Phos' holy scriptures. But at the same time, I reckon that this condition obtains when matters may be remedied. But when the times themselves are dangerous and drive one into the worst and most terrible circumstances, then, I think, advice is no longer so useful. This is most true of advice from you, impious and murderous wretch, for not only did you conspire to confine me unjustly in a monastery, but you also pitilessly slew my nephew the Avtokrator.'
"That, by the way, is not so," Krispos put in for the courier's benefit. He resumed. " 'So, accursed enemy, do not urge me to deliver my life into your hands once more. You will not persuade me. I, too, am a man with a sword at my belt, and I will struggle against one who has sought to lay my family low. For either I shall regain the imperial glory and furnish you, murderer, a full requital, or I shall perish and gain freedom from a disgusting and unholy tyranny.' "
The courier's eyes were wide by the time Krispos rolled up the parchment once more. "That's the fanciest, nastiest 'no' I ever heard, your Majesty."
"Me, too." Krispos shook his head. "I didn't really think he'd say yes. A pity you and your comrades got drenched carrying the letters there and back again, but it was worth a try."
"Oh, aye, Majesty," the courier said, "I've done my soldiering time, fighting against Makuran on the Vaspurakaner frontier. Anything you can try to keep from having a war is worth doing."
"Yes." But Krispos had begun to wonder just how true that was. He'd certainly believed it back in his days at the farming village. Now, though, he was sure he would have to fight Petronas. Just as Petronas could not trust him, he knew a victory by his former patron would only bring him to a quick end, or more likely a slow one.
And he would have to fight a war against Harvas Black-Robe. Though he paid Harvas tribute for the moment, that was only buying time, not solving the problem. If he let a wild wolf like Harvas run loose on his border, more peasants who wanted nothing but peace would be slaughtered or ruined than if he fought to keep them safe. He also knew the ones who were ruined and the loved ones of those slaughtered in his war would never understand that. He wouldn't have himself, back in the days before he wore a crown.
"That's why the Empire needs an Emperor," he said to himself: "to see farther and wider than the peasants can."
"Aye, Majesty. Phos grant that you do," the courier said. Krispos sketched the sun-circle over his heart, hoping the good god would hear the fellow's words.
The rains dragged on. In spite of them, Krispos sent out couriers ordering his forces to assemble at Videssos the city and in the westlands. Spies reported that Petronas were also mustering troops. Krispos was glumly certain Petronas had spies of his own. He did his best to confuse them, shuttling companies back and forth and using regimental standards for companies and the other way round.
Thanks to the civil war, his strength in the north and east were less than it should have been. Thus he breathed a long sigh of relief when Iakovitzes wrote: "Harvas has agreed to a year's truce, at the highest price you would suffer me to pay him. By the lord with the great and good mind, Majesty, I would sooner gallop a ten-mile steeplechase with a galloping case of the piles than chaffer again with that black-robed bandit. I told him as much, in so many words. He laughed. His laugh, Majesty, is not a pleasant thing. Skotos might laugh so, to greet a damned soul new-come to the ice. Never shall I be so glad as the day I leave his court to return to the city. Phos be praised, that day will come soon."
When Krispos showed Mavros the letter, the Sevastos whistled softly. "We've both seen Iakovitzes furious often enough, but I don't think I ever heard him sound frightened before."
"Harvas has done it to him," Krispos said. "It's been building all winter. Just one more sign we should be fighting Harvas now. May the ice take Petronas for keeping me from what truly needs doing."
"We settle him this year," Mavros said. "After that, Harvas will have his turn."
"So he will." Krispos glanced outside. The sky was still cloudy, but held patches of blue. "Before long we can move on Petronas. One thing at a time, I learned on the farm. If you try to do a lot of things at once, you end up botching all of them."
Mavros glanced at him, mobile features sly. "Perhaps Videssos should draw its Emperors from the peasantry more often. Where would a man like Anthimos have learned such a simple lesson?"
"A man like Anthimos wouldn't have learned it on the farm, either. He'd have been one of the kind—and there are plenty of them, the good god knows—who go hungry at the end of winter because they haven't raised enough to carry them through till spring, or because they were careless with their storage pits and let half their grain spoil."
"You're probably right," Mavros said. "I've always thought—"
Krispos never found out what his foster brother had always thought. Barsymes came into the chamber and said, "Forgive me, your Majesty, but her Majesty the Empress must see you at once."
"I'll come as soon as I'm done with Mavros here," Krispos said.
"This is not a matter that will wait on your convenience, your Majesty," Barsymes said. "I've sent for the midwife."
"The—" Krispos found his mouth hanging open. He made himself shut it, then tried again to speak. "The midwife? The baby's not due for another month."
"So her Majesty said." Barsymes' smile was always wintry, but now, like the weather, it held a promise of spring. "The baby, I fear, is not listening."
Mavros clapped Krispos on the shoulder. "May Phos grant you a son."
"Yes," Krispos said absently. How was he supposed to stick to his one-thing-at-a-time dictum if events kept getting ahead of him? With some effort, he figured out the one thing he was supposed to do next. He turned to Barsymes. "Take me to Dara."
"Come with me," the vestiarios said.
They walked down the hall together. As they neared the imperial bedchamber, Krispos saw a serving maid mopping up a puddle. "The roof stayed sound all winter," he said, puzzled, "and it's not even raining now."
"Nor is that rain," Barsymes answered. "Her Majesty's bag of waters broke there."
Krispos remembered births back in his old village. "No wonder you called the midwife."
"Exactly so, your Majesty. Fear not—Thekla has been at her trade more than twenty years. She is the finest midwife in the city; were it otherwise, I should have sent for someone else, I assure you." Barsymes stopped outside the bedchamber door. "I will leave you here until I come to take her Majesty to the Red Room."
Krispos went in. He expected to find Dara lying in bed, but instead she was pacing up and down. "I thought I would wait longer," she said. "I'd felt my womb tightening more often than usual the last couple of days, but I didn't think anything of it. Then—" She laughed. "It was very strange—it was as if I was making water and couldn't stop myself. And after I was done dripping ... now I know why they call them labor pains."
No sooner had she finished speaking than another one took her. Her face grew closed, secret, and intent. Her hands found Krispos' arms and squeezed hard. When the pain passed, she said, "I can tolerate that, but my labor's just begun. I'm afraid, Krispos. How much worse will they get?"
Krispos helplessly spread his hands, feeling foolish and useless and male. He had no idea how bad labor pains got—how could he? He remembered village women shrieking as they gave birth, but that did not seem likely to reassure Dara. He said, "Women are meant to bear children. It won't be worse than you can take."
"What do you know?" she snapped. "You're a man." Since he had just told himself the same thing, he shut up. Nothing he said was apt to be right, so he leaned over her swollen belly to hug her. That was a better idea.
They waited together. After a while, a pain gripped Dara. She clenched her teeth and rode it out. Once it had passed, though, she lay down. She twisted back and forth, trying to find a comfortable position. With her abdomen enormous and labor upon her, there were no comfortable positions to find. Another pain washed over her, and another, and another. Krispos wished he could do something more useful than hold her hand and make reassuring noises, but he had no idea what that something might be.
Some time later—he had no idea how long—someone tapped on the bedchamber door. Krispos got up from the bed to open it. Barsymes stood there with a handsome middle-aged woman whose short hair was so black, Krispos was sure it was dyed. She wore a plain, cheap linen dress. The vestiarios said, "Your Majesty, the midwife Thekla."
Thekla had a no-nonsense air about her that Krispos liked. She did not waste time with a proskynesis, but pushed past Krispos to Dara. "And how are we today, dearie?" she asked.
"I don't know about you, but I'm bloody awful," Dara said.
Unoffended, Thekla laughed. "Your waters broke, right? Are the pangs coming closer together?"
"Yes, and they're getting harder, too."
"They're supposed to, dearie. That's how the baby comes out, after all," Thekla said. Just then Dara's face twisted as another pain began. Thekla reached under Dara's robes to feel how tight her belly grew. Nodding in satisfaction, she told Dara, "You're doing fine." Then she turned to Barsymes. "I don't want her walking to the Red Room. She's too far along for that. Go fetch the litter."
"Aye, mistress." Barsymes hurried away. Krispos judged Thekla's skill by the unquestioning obedience she won from the vestiarios.
Barsymes and a couple of the other chamberlains soon returned. "Put the edge of the litter right next to the side of the bed," Thekla directed. "Now, dearie, you just slide over. Go easy, go easy—there! That's fine. All right, lads, off we go with her." The eunuchs, faces red but step steady, carried the Empress out the door, down the hall, and to the Red Room.
Krispos followed. When he got to the entrance of the Red Room, Thekla said firmly, "You wait outside, if you please, your Majesty."
"I want to be with her," Krispos said.
"You wait outside, your Majesty," Thekla repeated.
This time the midwife's words carried the snap of command. Krispos said, "I am the Avtokrator. I give orders here. Why should I stay out?"
Thekla set hands on hips. "Because, your most imperial Majesty, sir, you are a pest-taken man, that's why." Krispos stared at her; no one had spoken to him like that since he wore the crown, and not for a while before then, either. In slightly more reasonable tones, Thekla went on, "And because it's woman's work, your Majesty. Look, before this is done, your wife is liable to shit and piss and puke, maybe all three at once. She's sure to scream, likely a lot. And I'll have my hands deeper inside her than you ever dreamed of being. Do you really want to watch?"
"It is not customary, your Majesty," Barsymes said. For him, that settled the matter.
Krispos yielded. "Phos be with you," he called to Dara, who was carefully wiggling from the litter to the bed in the Red Room. She started to smile at him, but a pain caught her and turned the expression to a grimace.
"Here, your Majesty, come with me," Barsymes said soothingly. "Come sit down and wait. I'll bring you some wine; it will help ease your worry."
Krispos let himself be led away. As he'd told Mavros, he ruled the Empire but his servants ruled the palaces. He drank the wine Barsymes set before him without noticing if it was white or red, tart or sweet. Then he simply sat.
Barsymes brought in a game board and pieces. "Would your Majesty care to play?" he asked. "It might help pass the time."
"No, not now, thank you. "Krispos' laugh was ragged. "Besides, Barsymes, you'd have a hard time losing gracefully today, for my mind wouldn't be on the board."
"If you notice how I lose, Majesty, then I don't do so gracefully enough," the vestiarios said. He seemed chagrined, Krispos noted, as if he thought he had failed in the quest for perfect service.
"Esteemed sir, just let me be, if you would," Krispos said. Barsymes bowed and withdrew.
Time crawled by. Krispos watched a sunbeam slide across the floor and start to climb the far wall. A servant came in to light lamps. Krispos only noticed him after he was gone.
He was not close to the Red Room. Barsymes, clever as usual, had made sure of that. Moreover, the door to the birthing chamber was closed. Whatever cries and groans Dara made, for a long time he did not hear them. But as the lamps' flickering light grew brighter than the failing day, she shrieked with such anguish that he sprang from his chair and dashed down the hall.
Thekla was indeed a veteran of her trade. She knew who pounded on that door, and why. "Nothing to worry about, your Majesty," she called. "I was just turning the baby's head a little so it'll pass through more easily. The babe has dark hair, a lot of it. Won't be too much longer now."
He stood outside the door, clenching and unclenching his fists. Against Petronas or Harvas, he could have charged home at the head of his troops. Here he could do nothing—as Thekla had said, this was woman's work. Waiting seemed harder to bear than battle.
Dara made a noise he had never heard before, part grunt, part squeal, a sound of ultimate effort. "Again!" he heard Thekla say. "Hold your breath as long as you can, dearie—it helps the push." That sound burst from Dara once more. "Again!" Thekla urged. "Yes, that's the way."
Krispos heard Dara gasp, strain—and then exclaim in excitement. "Your Majesty, you have a son," Thekla said loudly. A moment later, the high, thin, furious cry of a newborn baby filled Krispos' ears.
He tried the door. It was locked. "We're not ready for you yet, your Majesty," Thekla said, annoyance and amusement mixed in her voice. "She still has the afterbirth to pass. You'll see the lad soon enough, I promise. What will you call him?"
"Phostis," Krispos answered. He heard Dara say the name inside the Red Room, too. Sudden tears stung his eyes. He wished his father had lived to see a grandson named for him.
A few minutes later Thekla opened the door. The lamplight showed her dress splashed with blood—no wonder she hadn't worn anything fancy, Krispos realized. Then Thekla held out to him his newborn son, and all such thoughts vanished from his mind.
The baby was swaddled in a blanket of soft lamb's wool. "Five fingers on each hand, five toes on each foot," Thekla said. "A little on the scrawny side, maybe, but that's to be expected when a child comes early." The midwife fell silent when she saw Krispos wasn't listening.
He peered down at Phostis' red, wrinkled little face. Part of that was the awe any new father feels on holding his firstborn for the first time. Part, though, was something else, something colder. He searched those tiny, new-formed features, trying to see in them either Anthimos' smooth, smiling good looks or his own rather craggier appearance. So far as he could tell, the baby looked like neither of its possible fathers. Phostis' eyes seemed shaped like Dara's, with the inner corner of each lid folding down very slightly.
When he said that out loud, Thekla laughed. "No law says a boy child can't favor his mother, your Majesty," she said. "Speaking of which, she'll want another look at the baby, too, I expect, and maybe a first try at nursing him." She stepped aside to let Krispos go into the Red Room.
The chamber stank; Thekla had meant her warning. Krispos did not care. "How are you?" he asked Dara, who was still lying on the bed on which she had given birth. She looked pale and utterly exhausted; her hair, soaked with sweat, hung limply. But she managed a worn smile and held out her hands for Phostis. Krispos gave her the baby.
"He doesn't weigh anything," Dara exclaimed.
Krispos nodded; his arms hardly noticed Phostis was gone. He saw Dara giving Phostis the same careful scrutiny he had, no doubt for the same reason. He said, "I think he looks like you."
Dara's eyes went wary as she glanced at him. He smiled back, though he wondered if he would ever be sure who Phostis' father really was. As he had so often before, he told himself it did not matter. As he had so often before, he almost made himself believe it.
"Hold him again, will you?" Dara said. Phostis squalled at being passed back and forth. Krispos clumsily rocked him in his arms. Dara unfastened her dress and tugged it off one shoulder to bare a breast. "I'll take him now. Let's see if this will make him happy."
Phostis rooted, found the nipple, and began to suck. "He likes them," Krispos said. "I don't blame him—I like them, too."
Dara snorted. Then she said, "Ask the kitchen to send me supper, would you, Krispos? I'm hungry now, though I wouldn't have believed it if you'd told me I would be."
"You haven't eaten for quite a while," Krispos said. As he hurried off to do what Dara had asked, he paused and thanked Thekla.
"My pleasure, your Majesty," the midwife said. "Phos grant that the Empress and your son do well. No reason she shouldn't, and he's not too small to thrive, I'd say."
Chamberlains and maidservants congratulated Krispos on having a son as he walked to the kitchens. He wondered how they knew; a baby girl's cry would have sounded the same as Phostis'. But palace servants had their own kind of magic. The moment Krispos walked through the door, a grinning cook pressed into his hands a tray with a jar of wine, some bread, and a covered silver dish on it. "For your lady," the fellow said.
Krispos carried the tray to Dara himself. Barsymes saw him and said not a word. When he got back to the Red Room, he helped her sit up and poured wine for her. He poured for himself, as well; the cook had thoughtfully set two goblets on the tray. He raised his. "To Phostis," he said.
"To our son," Dara agreed. That was not quite what Krispos had said, but he drank her toast.
Dara attacked her meal—it proved to be roast kid in fermented fish sauce and garlic—as if she'd had nothing for days. Krispos watched her eat and watched Phostis, who was dozing on the bed next to her, turn his head from side to side. Thekla had been right; for a baby, Phostis did have a lot of hair. Krispos stood up and reached out a gentle hand to touch it. It was soft and fine as goose down. Phostis squirmed. Krispos took his hand away.
Dara sopped up the last of the sauce with the heel of her bread. She finished her wine and set the goblet down with a sigh. "That helped," she said. "A bath and about a month of sleep and I'll be—not good as new, but close enough." She sighed again. "Thekla says it's better for a baby to nurse with his own mother the first few days, so I won't get that sleep right away. Afterward, though, a wet nurse can get up with him when he howls."
"I've been thinking," Krispos said in an abstracted tone that showed he'd hardly heard what she said.
"What about?" she asked cautiously. Without seeming to notice what she did, she moved closer to Phostis, as if to protect him.
"I think we ought to declare the baby co-Avtokrator even before I go out on campaign against Petronas," he answered. "It will let the whole Empire know I intend my family to hold this throne for a long time."
Dara's face lit up. "Yes, let's do that," she said at once. Even more gently than Krispos had, she touched Phostis' head, murmuring, "Sleep well, my tiny Emperor." Then, after a little while, she added, "I was afraid you were thinking something else."
Krispos shook his head. Even since he'd known Dara was pregnant, he'd also known he'd have to act as if her child was surely his. Now that the boy was born, he would not stint. If anything, he would make a show of favoring him, to make sure no one else had any doubts—or at least any public doubts—about Phostis' paternity.
What he did was everyone's affair. What he thought was his own.
Barsymes carried a medium-size silver box and a folded sheet of parchment in to Krispos. The vestiarios looked puzzled and a bit worried. "The Halogai just found this on the steps, your Majesty. As they do not read, they asked me what the parchment said. I saw it had your name on the outside, so I brought it here."
"Thank you," Krispos said. Then he frowned. "What do you mean, the Halogai found it on the steps? Who brought it there?"
"I don't know, your Majesty. Neither do the guardsmen. From what they say, it wasn't there one moment and was the next."
"Magic," Krispos said. He stared suspiciously at the box. After almost killing him once by sorcery, did Petronas think he would fall into the trap again? If so, he would be disappointed. "Send someone for Trokoundos, Barsymes. Until he tells me it's all right, that box will stay closed."
"No doubt you are wise, your Majesty. I shall send someone directly."
Krispos even wondered if unfolding the parchment was safe. He grew impatient waiting for Trokoundos to come, though, and opened it up. Nothing lethal or sorcerous—nothing at all-happened when he did. The note inscribed within was written in a crabbed, antique hand. Though it was not signed, it could only have come from Harvas Black-Robe; it read: "I accept your purchase of a year's peace with gold. Your envoy has left my court and wends his way homeward. I believe you will find him much improved on account of that which is enclosed herewith."
When Trokoundos arrived, Krispos showed him the parchment and explained his own suspicions. The mage nodded. "Quite right, your Majesty. If that box hides sorcery, be sure I shall bring it to light."
He set to work with powders and jars of bright-colored liquids. After a few minutes one of the liquids suddenly went from blue to red. Trokoundos grunted. "Ha! There is magic here, your Majesty." He made quick passes, all the while chanting under his breath.
Krispos watched the red liquid turn blue again. He asked, "Does that mean the spell is gone?"
"It should, your Majesty." But Trokoundos did not sound sure. He explained. "The only spell I detected was one of preservation, such as some fancy fruiterers use to let rich clients have their wares fresh but out of season. Forgive me, but I cannot imagine how such a spell could be harmful in any way. Whether it was or not, though, I have dispersed it."
"Then nothing should happen if I open the box?" Krispos persisted.
"Nothing should." Trokoundos took out more sorcerous apparatus. "If anything does, I am prepared to meet it."
"Good." Krispos flipped the catch that held the box shut. As he did so, Trokoundos stepped up to protect him from whatever was inside. He opened the lid. Inside the box was a curiously curved piece of meat, bloody at the thick end.
Trokoundos' brows came together at the anticlimax. "What is that?" he demanded.
Krispos needed a minute to recognize it, too. But he had butchered a good many cows and sheep and goats in his farming days. This was too small to have come from a cow, but a sheep had one much like it... "It's a tongue," he said. Then horror ran through him as he remembered the note that had accompanied this gift. "It's—Iakovitzes' tongue," he choked out. He slammed the lid shut, turned his head, and vomited on the fine mosaic floor.
Near the south end of Videssos the city's wall was a broad field where soldiers often exercised. Several regiments of horsemen, lancers and archers both, were drawn up in formation there. Their banners rippled in the spring breeze. They saluted as Krispos and Agapetos rode past in review.
Krispos was saying "Draw out whatever garrison troops you think the towns can spare, if they're men who'd be any good in the field. The Kubrati nomads always liked to play the raid-and-run game. Now it'll be our turn. If Harvas thinks he can sell us peace at the price of maiming an ambassador, we'll teach him different. The way I see it, he's stolen a hundred pounds of gold. We'll take it back from his land."
"Aye, Majesty," Agapetos said. "But what happens if one of my raiding bands comes up against too many men for them to handle?"
"Then pull back," Krispos told him. "Your job is to keep Harvas and his cutthroats too busy in their own country to come down into the Empire. I won't be able to send you much support, not until Petronas is beaten. After that, the whole army will move to the northern frontier, but until then, you're on your own."
"Aye, Majesty. I shall do as you require." Agapetos saluted, then raised his right arm high. Trumpets brayed brassily, pipes skirled, and drums thuttered. The cavalry regiments rolled forward. Krispos knew they were good troops. Agapetos was a good soldier, too; Videssian generals made a study of the art of war and learned scores of tricks for gaining the most with the smallest expenditure of manpower.
Then why am I worried? Krispos asked himself. Maybe it was because the competent, serious Videssian soldiers had not faced warriors like Harvas' Halogai before. Maybe it was because competent, serious Agapetos had already let Harvas trick him once. And maybe, Krispos thought, it's for no reason at all. No matter how well he acts the part, Harvas isn't Skotos come again. He can be beaten. In the end, even Skotos will be beaten.
Then why am I worried? he asked again. Angry at himself, he yanked Progress' head around sharply enough to draw a reproachful snort from the horse. He rode back to the city at a fast trot. He knew he should already have been in the westlands, moving against Petronas. But for Harvas' latest outrage, that campaign would have begun a fortnight before.
Krispos rode not to the palaces, but to the Sorcerers' Collegium north of the palace quarter. Iakovitzes had reached the capital the night before, more dead than alive. The Empire's most skillful healer-priests taught at the Collegium, passing on their art to each new generation in turn. The desperately ill came there, too, in hope of cures no one less skilled could give. Iakovitzes fell into the latter group.
"How is he?" Krispos demanded of Damasos, the head of the healing faculty.
The skin under Damasos' eyes was smudged with fatigue, part of the price a healer-priest paid for his gift. "Majesty," he began, and then paused to yawn. "Your pardon, Majesty. I think he may yet recover, Majesty. We are at last to the point where we may attempt the healing of the wound itself."
"He's been here most of a day now," Krispos said. "Why haven't you done anything before this?"
"We have done a great deal, Majesty," Damasos said stiffly. He was of middle height and middle years, his pate tan, his untrimmed beard going gray. He continued, "We've had to do a great deal, much of it in conjunction with sorcerers who are not healers, for added to this mutilation was something I have never before encountered and pray to the good god I never see again: a spell specifically intended to thwart healing. First discovering and then defeating that spell has occupied us up to this time."
"A spell against healing?" Krispos felt queasy; the very idea was an abomination worse than the torture Harvas had inflicted on Iakovitzes. "Who could conceive such a wicked thing?"
"For too long, we did not, Majesty," Damasos said. "Even after we realized what we faced, we needed no small space of time to overcome the wizardry. Whoever set it on the wound bound it with the power of the victim's blood, making it doubly hard to banish. It was, in effect, a deliberate perversion of my own ritual." Tired though he was, Damasos set his jaw in outrage.
Krispos asked, "You are ready to heal now, you say?" At the healer-priest's nod, he went on. "Take me to Iakovitzes. I would see him healed, as best he may be." He also wanted Iakovitzes to see him, to know how guilty he felt for sending him on an embassy about which he'd had misgivings.
He gasped when Damasos ushered him into Iakovitzes' chamber. The little noble, usually so plump and dapper, was thin, ragged, and filthy. Krispos coughed at the foul odor that rose from him: not just that of a body long unwashed, but worse, a ripe stench like rotting meat. Yellow pus dribbled from the corner of his mouth. His eyes were wide and blank with fever.
Those blank eyes slid past Krispos without recognizing him. A healer-priest sat beside the bed where Iakovitzes thrashed. Four beefy attendants stood close by. Damasos spoke to the priest. "Are you ready, Nazares?"
"Aye, holy sir." Nazares' glance rested on Krispos for a moment. When Krispos showed no sign of leaving, the healer-priest shrugged and nodded to the attendants. "Commence, lads."
Two of the men seized Iakovitzes' arms. A third grabbed his head to pull down his lower jaw, then wedged a stout stick padded with cloth between his teeth. Iakovitzes had not seemed aware of his surroundings till then. But the instant the stick touched his lips, he began to struggle like a man possessed, letting out blood-curdling shrieks and a string of gurgles that tried to be words.
"Poor fellow," Damasos whispered to Krispos. "In his delirium, he must think we're about to cut him again." Krispos' nails bit into his palms.
In spite of the battle Iakovitzes put up, the fourth attendant forced a metal gag into his mouth, of the sort horse doctors used to hold an animal's jaws apart so they could trim its teeth. When the gag was in place, Nazares reached into Iakovitzes' forcibly opened mouth. Seeing Krispos still watching, the healer-priest explained, "For proper healing, I must touch the wound itself."
Krispos started to answer, then saw Nazares was dropping into a healer's trance. "We bless thee, Phos, lord with the great and good mind, watchful beforehand that the great test of life may be decided in our favor." The priest repeated the creed again and again, using it to distract his conscious mind and to concentrate his will solely on the task of healing before him.
As always, Krispos felt awed to watch a healer-priest at work. He could tell just when Nazares began to heal by the way the man suddenly went rigid. Iakovitzes continued to moan and kick, but he could have burst into flames without turning Nazares from his purpose. Almost as if lightning were in the air, Krispos felt the current of healing as it passed from Nazares to Iakovitzes.
Then, all at once, Iakovitzes quit struggling. Krispos took a step forward in alarm, afraid his one-time patron's heart had given out. But Iakovitzes continued to breathe and Nazares continued to heal; had something been wrong, the healer-priest surely would have sensed it.
At last Nazares withdrew his hand. He wiped pus-smeared fingers on his robe. The attendant removed the gag from Iakovitzes' mouth. Krispos saw the noble was in full possession of his senses again. Now when he moved in the grip of the two men who held him, they let him go.
He bowed low to the healer-priest, then made a series of yammering noises. After a moment, he realized no one could understand him. He signed for something to write with. One of the attendants brought him a waxed wooden tablet and stylus. He scribbled and handed the tablet to Nazares.
" 'What are you all standing around for?' " Nazares read, his voice slow and dragging from the crushing fatigue that followed healing. " 'Take me to the baths—I stink like a latrine. I could use some food, too, about a year's worth.' "
Krispos could not help smiling—Iakovitzes might never speak an intelligible word again, but he still sounded like himself. Then Iakovitzes wrote some more and handed the tablet to him. "Next time, send someone else."
Sobered, he nodded, saying "I know gold and honor will never give you back what you have lost, Iakovitzes, but what they can give, you will have."
"I'd better. I earned them," Iakovitzes wrote.
He felt inside his mouth with his fingers, poking and prodding, then let out a soft grunt of wonder and bowed again to Nazares. He scrawled again, then handed the healer-priest the tablet. " 'Holy sir, the wound feels as if it happened years ago. Only the memory is yet green,' " Nazares read. Behind the brassy front Iakovitzes habitually assumed, Krispos saw the terror that still lived in his eyes.
An attendant touched Iakovitzes on the arm. He flinched, then scowled at himself and dipped his head in apology to the man. "Excellent sir, I just wanted to tell you I would take you to a bathhouse now, if you like," the attendant said. "There's one close by the Sorcerers' Collegium here."
Iakovitzes tried to speak, scowled again, and nodded. Before he left with the attendant, though, Krispos said, "A moment, Iakovitzes, please. I want to ask you something." Iakovitzes paused. Krispos went on. "By the messages you sent me, you and Harvas traded barbs all winter long. What did you finally say that made him do—that—to you?"
The noble flinched again, this time from his own thoughts. But he bent over the tablet and wrote out his reply. He gave it to Krispos when he was done. "I didn't even intend to insult him, worse luck. We'd settled on a price for the year's truce and were swearing oaths to secure it. Harvas would not swear by the spirits, Kubrati-style, nor would he take oath by the Haloga gods of his followers. 'Swear by Phos, then,' I told him—a truce is no truce without oaths, as any child knows. Better I had told him to go swive his mother, I think. In a voice like thunder, he cried out, "That name shall never be in my mouth again, nor in yours either.' And then—" The writing stopped there, but Krispos knew what had happened then.
He sketched the sun-sign over his heart. Iakovitzes did the same. Krispos promised, "We'll avenge you, avenge this. I've just sent out a force under Agapetos to harry Harvas' land. When I'm done with Petronas, Harvas will face the whole army."
Again Iakovitzes tried to reply with spoken words, again he had to stop in frustration. He nodded instead, held up one finger while he pointed to the west, then two while he pointed northeastward. He nodded again, to show he approved of Krispos' course. Krispos was glad of that; while Iakovitzes had helped him form his priorities the winter before, he could hardly have blamed the noble for changing his mind after what had befallen him. That he hadn't helped convince Krispos he was on the right course.
Iakovitzes turned to the attendant and mimed scrubbing himself. The man led him out of the chamber.
"I am in your debt," Krispos said to Nazares.
"Nonsense." The healer-priest waved his words away. "I praise the good god that I was able to end Iakovitzes' agony. I only regret his injury is such that it will continue to trouble him greatly despite being healed. And the charm set on the wound to keep from healing it ... that was most wicked, your Majesty."
"I know." Krispos opened the waxed tablet and read again the words that had cost Iakovitzes his tongue. No man unwilling to say Phos' name, or even to hear it, was likely to be good. If only Harvas were as inept as he was evil, Krispos thought, and if only Petronas would disappear, and if only Pyrrhos would grow mild, and if only I could be certain I'm Phostis' father, and if only I could rule by thinking "if only" ...
Even in early spring, the coastal lowlands were hot and sticky. The roads were still moist enough, though, that armies on the march kicked up only a little dust—as good a reason as any for campaigning in the spring, Krispos thought as he trotted along on Progress toward the Eriza River.
The army in whose midst he traveled was the biggest he had ever seen, more than ten thousand men. Had Sarkis captured or killed Petronas over the winter, this new round of civil war would not have been needed. By keeping Anthimos' uncle from gaining ground, though, the Vaspurakaner soldier had managed the next best thing: he'd convinced the generals of the local provinces that Krispos was the better bet. Those generals and their troopers rode with the force from Videssos the city now.
Krispos saw the inevitable host of farmers busy in their fields on either side of the road. Though the force with which he traveled was far larger than the one that had fought Petronas the previous fall, fewer farmers fled. He took that for a good sign. "They know we'll keep good order," he remarked to Trokoundos, who rode nearby. "Peasants shouldn't fear soldiers."
"This far before harvest, they have little to steal anyhow," Trokoundos said. "They know that, too, and take courage from it."
"You've been drinking sour wine this morning," Krispos said, a trifle startled; such cynicism was worthy of Iakovitzes.
"Maybe so," Trokoundos said. "We also have supplies for the army well arranged, this being territory that stayed loyal to you. We'll see how the men behave when we enter country that had been under Petronas' hand."
"Oh, aye, we'll do a bit of plundering if our supply train has trouble," said Mammianos, one of the provincial generals who had at last cast his lot with Krispos. He was in his mid-fifties and quite round, but a fine horseman for all that. "But we'll do a bit of fighting, too, which makes up for a lot."
Krispos started to say nothing could make plundering his own people right. He kept the words to himself. If folk farther westward worked for his rival and against him, they and their fields became fair targets for his soldiers—Petronas' men, he was sure, would not hold back if they reached territory he controlled. Either way, the Empire and the fisc would suffer.
When he did speak aloud, he said, "Civil war," as if it were a curse.
"Aye, the times are hard," Mammianos agreed. "There's but one thing worse than fighting a civil war, and that's losing it." Krispos nodded.
Two days later he and his army forded the Eriza—the ruined bridges were yet to be rebuilt. This time the crossing was unopposed, though Krispos found himself looking back over his shoulder lest some imperial courier come riding up with word of a new disaster. But no couriers appeared. That in itself buoyed Krispos' spirits.
He began seeing traces of the fighting Sarkis had done the previous winter: wrecked villages, fields standing idle and unplanted, the shells of burned-out buildings. Peasants on this side of the Eriza, those who were left, fled his soldiers as if they were so many demons.
The land began to rise toward the westlands' rugged central plateau. The rich, deep black earth of the lowlands grew thinner, dustier, grayer. Because of the early season, the countryside was still bright green, but Krispos knew the sun would bake it dry long before summer was done. In the lowlands, they sometimes raised two crops a year. On the central plateau, they were lucky to get one; broad stretches of land were better suited to grazing cattle than growing crops.
Krispos' advance stopped being a walkover about halfway between the Eriza and the town of Resaina. He had started to wonder if Petronas would ever stand and right. Then, all at once, the scouts who rode ahead of his army came pelting back toward the main body of men. He watched them turn to shoot arrows back over their shoulders, then saw other horsemen pursuing them.
"Those must be Petronas' men!" he exclaimed, pointing. Only by the way they attacked his own cavalry could he be sure: Their gear was identical to what his own forces used. One more hazard of civil war that hadn't occurred to him, he thought uneasily.
"Aye, by the good god, those are the rebels," Mammianos said. "A whole bloody great lot of them, too." He turned his head to shout orders to the musicians whose calls set the army in motion. As martial music blared out and units hurried from column to line of battle, Mammianos sped them into place with bellowed commands. "Faster there, the ice take you! Here's the fight we've been waiting for, the chance to smash the stinking traitor once for all. Come on, deploy, deploy, deploy!"
The fat general showed more energy in a couple of minutes than he had used all through the campaign thus far, so much more that Krispos stared at him in surprise. The curses he kept calling down on Petronas' head, and the spleen with which he hurled them forth, were also something new. When Mammianos paused to draw breath, Krispos said, "General, forgive me for ever having doubted your loyalty."
Mammianos' eyes were shrewd. "In your boots, Majesty, I'd doubt my own shadow if it wasn't in front of me. May I speak frankly?"
"I hope you will."
"Aye, you seem to," Mammianos said judiciously. "I know I didn't lend you much aid last fall."
"No, but you didn't aid Petronas, either, for which I'm grateful."
"As well you might be. Truth to tell, I was sitting tight. I won't apologize for it, either. If you'd stolen the throne without deserving it, Petronas would've made quick hash of you. Likely I would have joined him afterward, too; the Empire doesn't need a weakling Avtokrator now. But since you did well enough against him, and since most of the decrees you've issued have made sense—" Mammianos clapped his hands together in savage glee. "—I'll help you nail the whoreson's hide to the wall instead. Put me on the shelf, will he?"
"On the shelf?" Krispos echoed, perplexed. "But you're the general of—"
"—a province that usually needs a general about as much as a lizard needs a bathtub," Mammianos interrupted. "I was with Petronas when he invaded Vaspurakan a couple of years ago. I told him to his face he didn't have the wherewithal to push the Makuraners out."
"I told him the same, back at the palaces," Krispos said.
"What'd he do to you?" Mammianos asked.
"He tried to kill me." Krispos shivered, remembering Petronas' sorcerous assault. "He almost did, too."
Mammianos grunted. "He told me that if I didn't want to fight, he'd send me someplace where I wouldn't have to, which is how I got stuck in the lowlands where nothing ever happens. Except now it has, and I get a chance to pay the bastard back." He shook his fist at Petronas' horsemen. "You'll get yours, you lice!"
Krispos watched the oncoming soldiers, too. His military eye was still unpracticed, but he thought his rival's army was about the size of his own. His lips skinned back from his teeth. That was only likely to make the battle more expensive but less decisive.
A blue banner with gold sunburst flew above the center of Petronas' force, a twin to the one a standardbearer carried not far from Krispos. He shook his head. This sort of fight was worse than confusing. It was as if he battled himself in a mirror.
A great shout rose from his men: "Krispos! Krispos Avtokrator!" Petronas' men shouted back, crying out the name of their commander.
Krispos drew his sword. He was no skilled soldier, but had learned that did not always matter in the confusion of the battlefield. A company of Halogai, the sharpened edges of their axe blades glittering in the spring sunshine, formed up in front of him to try to make sure he did no fighting in any case. He'd given up arguing with them. He knew he might see action in spite of them; not even a captain of guardsmen could always outguess combat.
Arrows flew in beautiful, deadly arcs. Men fell from their saddles. Some thrashed and tried to rise; others lay still. Horses fell, too, crushing riders beneath them. Animals and men screamed together. More horses, wounded but not felled, ran wild, carrying the soldiers on them out of the fight and injecting chaos into their comrades' neat ranks.
The two lines closed with each other. Now, here and there, men thrust with light lances and slashed with sabers rather than shooting arrows at one another. The din of shouts and shrieks, drumming hooves, and clashing metal was deafening. Peering this way and that, Krispos could see no great advantage for either side.
He looked across the line, toward that other imperial banner. With a small shock, he recognized Petronas, partly by the gilded armor and red boots his rival also wore, more by the arrogant ease with which Anthimos' uncle sat his horse. Petronas saw him, too; though they were a couple of hundred yards apart, Krispos felt their eyes lock. Petronas swung his sword down, straight at Krispos. He and the men around him spurred their mounts forward.
Krispos dug his roweled heels into Progress' flanks. The big bay gelding squealed in pain and fury and bounded ahead. The Halogai, though, were waiting for Krispos. One big man after another grabbed at Progress' reins, at his bridle, at the rest of his trappings. "Let me through, curse you!" Krispos raged.
"No, Majesty, no," the northerners yelled back. "We will settle the rebel for you."
Petronas and his companions were very close now. He had no Haloga guards, but the men who rode with him had to be his closest retainers, the bravest and most loyal of his host. Sabers upraised and gleaming, lances poised and ready, they crashed into the ranks of the imperial bodyguards.
For all the tales he had heard, Krispos had never actually seen the Halogai fight before. Their first couple of ranks simply went down, bowled over by their foes' horses or speared before they were close enough to swing their axes. But Petronas' men fell, too; their chain mail might have been linen for all it did to keep those great axes from their flesh. Their horses, which wore no armor, suffered worse. The axes abbatoir workers used to slaughter beeves were shorter, lighter, and less keen than the ones in the northerners' strong hands. One well-placed blow dropped any horse in its tracks; another usually sufficed for its rider.
A barricade of flesh, some dead, some writhing, quickly formed between Krispos' men and Petronas'. The Halogai hacked over it. Petronas' mounted men kept trying to bull their way through. The ranks of the guardsmen thinned. Krispos found himself ever closer to the fighting front. Now the Halogai, battling for survival themselves, could not keep him away.
And there was Petronas! Red smeared his saber; no one had told him he was too precious to risk. Krispos spurred Progress toward him. With warrior's instinct, Petronas' head whipped round. He snarled at Krispos, blocked his cut, and returned one that clattered off Krispos' helmet.
They cursed each other, the same words in both their mouths. "Thief! Bandit! Bastard! Robber! Whoreson!"
More Halogai still stood than Petronas' companions. Shouting Krispos' name, they surged toward the rebel. Petronas was too old a soldier to stay and be slaughtered. Along with those of his guards who yet lived, he pulled back, pausing only to shake his fist one last time at Krispos. Krispos answered with a two-fingered gesture he'd learned on the streets of Videssos the city.
The center had held. Krispos looked round to see how the rest of the battle was doing. It still hung in the balance. His own line sagged a little on the left, Petronas' on the right. Neither commander had enough troops to pull some out of line and exploit his small advantage without the risk of giving his foe a bigger one. And so men hacked and thrust and hit and swore and bled, all to keep matters exactly as they had been before the battle started.
That tore at Krispos. To his way of thinking, if war had any purpose whatsoever, it was to make change quick and decisive. Such suffering with nothing to show for it seemed a cruel waste.
But when he said as much to Mammianos, the general shook his head. "Petronas has to go through you before he can move on the capital. A drawn fight gains him nothing. This is the first real test of fighting skill and loyalty for your men. A draw for you is near as good as a win, because you show the Empire you match him in those things. Given that, and given that you hold Videssos the city, I like your chances pretty well."
Reluctantly Krispos nodded. Mammianos' cool good sense was something he tried to cultivate in himself. Applying it to this wholesale production of human agony before him, though, took more self-possession than he could easily find.
He started to tell that to Mammianos, but Mammianos was not listening. Like a farmer who scents a change in the wind at harvesttime and fears for his crop, the general peered to the left. "Something's happened there," he said, certainty in his voice. Krispos also stared leftward. He needed longer than Mammianos to recognize a new clumping of men at the wing, to hear the new shouts of alarm and fury and, a moment later, triumph. The sweat that dripped from the end of his nose suddenly went cold. "Someone's turned traitor."
"Aye." Mammianos packed a world of meaning into a single word. He bellowed for a courier and started a series of frantic orders to plug the gap. Then he broke off and looked again. As if against his will, a grin of disbelief stretched itself over his fat face. "By the good god," he said softly. "It's one of theirs, going over to us."
Since he felt it himself, Krispos understood Mammianos' surprise. He'd feared the reliability of his own troops, not Petronas'. But sure enough, a sizable section—more than a company, perhaps as much as a regiment—of Petronas' army was now shouting "Krispos!"
And the defectors did more than shout. They turned on the men to their immediate right, the men who held the rightmost position in Petronas' line. Beset by them as well as by Krispos' own supporters, the flank guards broke and fled in wild confusion.
Mammianos' amazement did not paralyze him for long. Though he'd done nothing to force the break in Petronas' line, he knew how to exploit it once it was there. He sent the left wing of Krispos' army around Petronas' shattered right, seeking to roll up the whole rebel army.
But Petronas also knew his business. He did not try to salvage a battle already lost. Instead, he dropped a thin line back from the stump of his army's broken right wing, preventing Krispos' men from surrounding too many more of his own. His forces gave ground all along their line now, but nowhere except on the far right did they yield to panic. They were beaten, but remained an army. Breaking off combat a little at a time, they retreated west toward Resaina. Krispos wanted to press the pursuit hard, but still did not feel sure enough of himself as battlefield commander to override Mammianos, who kept the army under tight control. The bulk of Petronas' troops escaped to the camp they had occupied before they came out to fight, leaving Krispos' men in possession of the field.
Healer-priests went from man to wounded man, first at a run, then at a walk, and finally at a drunken shamble as the exhaustion of their trade took its toll on them. More mundane leeches, men who worked without the aid of magic, saw to soldiers with minor wounds, here sewing up a cut, there splashing an astringent lotion onto flesh lacerated when chain mail was driven through padding and leather undertunic alike.
And Krispos, surrounded not only by the surviving Halogai of the imperial guard but also by most of Sarkis' cavalry regiment, approached the troopers whose defection had cost Petronas the fight. He and all his men stayed ready for anything; Petronas was devious enough to throw away a battle to set up an assassination.
The leader of the units that had changed sides saw Krispos coming. He rode toward him. Krispos had the odd feeling he'd seen the fellow before, though he was sure he had not. The middle-age officer, plainly a noble, was short and slim, with a narrow face, a thin arched nose, and a neat beard the color of his iron helmet. He set his right fist over his heart in salute to Krispos. "Your Majesty," he said. His voice was a resonant tenor.
"My thanks for your aid there, excellent sir," Krispos said. He wondered how big a reward the officer would want for it. "I fear I don't know your name."
"I am Rhisoulphos," the fellow said, as if Krispos ought to know who Rhisoulphos was.
After a moment, he did. "You're Dara's father," he blurted. No wonder the man looked familiar! "Your daughter takes after you, excellent sir."
"So I've been told." Rhisoulphos let out a short bark of laughter. "I daresay she wears the face better than I do, though."
Mammianos studied Dara's father, then said, "What was the Avtokrator's kinsman by marriage doing in the ranks of the Avtokrator's foes?" Suspicion made his tone harsh. Krispos leaned forward in his saddle to hear how Rhisoulphos would reply.
The noble dipped his head first to Mammianos, then to Krispos. "Please recall that, until Anthimos walked the bridge between light and ice, I was also Petronas' kinsman by marriage. And after Anthimos did die—" Rhisoulphos looked Krispos full in the face. "—I was not sure what sort of arrangement you had with my daughter, your Majesty."
Sometimes Krispos also wondered what sort of arrangement he had with Dara. He said, "You have a grandson who will be Emperor, excellent sir." That remained true no matter who Phostis' father was, he thought. He felt like giving his head a wry shake, but was too well schooled to reveal himself so in front of Rhisoulphos.
He saw he had said the right thing. Rhisoulphos' eyes, so like Dara's with their slightly folded inner lids, softened. His father-in-law said, "So I heard, and it set me thinking: what would that boy be if Petronas won the throne? The only answer I saw was an obstacle and a danger to him. I showed Petronas none of my thoughts, of course. I pledged him my loyalty again and again, loudly and rather stupidly."
"A nice touch," Mammianos said. His eyes slid toward Krispos. Krispos read them without difficulty: if Rhisoulphos could befool Petronas, he was a man who needed watching.
Krispos had already worked that out for himself. Now, though, he could only acknowledge Rhisoulphos' aid. "Our first meeting was well timed, excellent sir," he said. "After Petronas is beaten, I will show you all the honor the Avtokrator's father-in-law deserves."
Rhisoulphos bowed in the saddle. "I will do my best to earn that honor on the field, your Majesty. I know my soldiers will support me—and you."
"I'm sure they will," Krispos said, resolving to use Rhisoulphos' men but not to trust them with any truly vital task until Petronas was no longer a threat. "Now perhaps you will join my other advisors as we plan how to take advantage of what we've won with your help."
"I am at your service, your Majesty." Rhisoulphos slid down from his horse and walked over to the imperial tent. Seeing that Krispos did not object, the Halogai in front of the entrance bowed and let him pass. Krispos also dismounted. Grunting and wheezing with effort, so did Mammianos.
Along with Rhisoulphos, Sarkis and Trokoundos the mage waited inside the tent for Krispos. They rose and bowed when he came in. "A fine fight, your Majesty," Sarkis said enthusiastically. "One more like it and we'll smash this rebellion to bloody bits." The rest of the soldiers loudly agreed. Even Trokoundos nodded. "I don't want another battle, not if I can help it," Krispos said. The other men in the tent stared at him. He continued. "If I can, I want to make Petronas give up without more fighting. Everyone who falls in the civil war, on my side or his, could have fought for me against Harvas. The fewer who fall, then, the better."
"Admirable, your Majesty," Mammianos rumbled. "How do you propose to bring it off?" His expression said he did not think Krispos could.
Krispos spoke for several minutes. By the time he was done, he saw Rhisoulphos and Sarkis running absentminded fingers through their beards as they thought. Finally Rhisoulphos said, "It might work, at that."
"So it might," Sarkis said. He grinned at Krispos. "I wasn't wrong, your Majesty—you are a lively man to serve under. We have a saying in Vaspurakan about your kind—'sneaky as a prince out to sleep with another man's princess.' "
Everyone in the tent laughed. "I have a princess of my own, thank you," Krispos said, which won him an approving glance from Rhisoulphos. His own mirth soon faded, though; he remembered the days when Dara had not been his, and how the two of them had both done some sneaking to be able to sleep with each other. Sarkis' Vaspurakaner saying held teeth the officer did not know about.
Mammianos' yawn almost split his head in two. "Let's get on with it," he said. "The Emperor's scheme has to move tonight if it moves at all, and afterward I aim to sleep. If the scheme doesn't come off—maybe even if it does—we'll have more fighting in the morning, and I for one am not so young as I used to be. I need rests between rounds, in battle as in other things."
"Sad but true," said Rhisoulphos, who was within a few years of the fat general's age. He yawned, too, less cavernously.
"Go get some of your scouts, Sarkis," Krispos said. "They're the proper men for the plan." Sarkis saluted and hurried away. Along with the rest of his companions, Krispos stepped outside the tent to await his return. A couple of Halogai stayed almost within arm's length of him, their axes at the ready, their eyes never leaving Rhisoulphos. He must have known they were watching him, and why, but gave no sign. Krispos admired his sangfroid.
A few minutes later Sarkis returned with fifteen or twenty soldiers. "All young and unmarried, as you asked," he told Krispos. "They don't care if they live or die."
The scouts thought that was very funny. Their teeth gleamed whitely in their dirty faces as they chuckled. Krispos realized that what Sarkis had said was literally true for most of them; they did not believe in the possibility of their own deaths, not down deep. Had he been so foolish himself, ten or twelve years before? He probably had.
"Here's what I want you to do," he said, and the scouts drew closer to listen. "I want you to get into Petronas' camp tonight, when everything there is still in disorder. I don't care whether you pretend to be his soldiers or you take off your armor and make as if you're farmers from around here. Whatever you do, you need to get among his men. I don't order this of you. Anyone who doesn't care to risk it may leave now."
No one left. "What do we do once we're in there, Majesty?" one of the scouts asked. The light from the campfires played up the glitter of excitement in his eyes. To him it was all a game, Krispos thought. He breathed a prayer to Phos that the youngster would come through safe.
"Here's what," he answered. "Remind Petronas' soldiers that I offered him amnesty, and tell them they can have it, too, for the asking ... if they don't wait too long. Tell them I'll give them three days. After that, we'll attack again, and we'll treat any we capture as enemies."
The young men looked at one another. "Sneaky as a prince out to sleep with another man's princess," one of them said with a strong Vaspurakaner accent. As Sarkis had, he sounded admiring.
When they saw Krispos was done, the scouts scattered. Krispos watched them slip out of camp, heading west. Some rode out, armed and armored; others left on foot, wearing knee-length linen tunics and sandals.
Mammianos watched them go, too. After the last one was gone, he turned to Krispos and asked, "Now what?"
"Now," Krispos said, picking a phrase more likely in Barsymes' mouth than his own, "we await developments."
The flood of deserters he'd hoped for did not materialize. A few riders came over from the rebel camp, but Petronas' cavalry pickets stayed alert and aggressive. If they'd given up on the chief they followed, they showed no sign of it.
To Krispos' relief, all his own scouts managed to return safely. He would have felt dreadful, sacrificing them without gaining the advantage he'd expected. On the third day after he'd sent them out, he began readying his forces for an attack on the morrow. "Since I warned Petronas' men, I can't make myself out a liar now," he told Mammianos.
"No, your Majesty," Mammianos agreed mournfully. "I might wish, though, that you hadn't been so exact. Since Petronas must know we're coming, who can guess what sort of mischief he'll have waiting for us?" Without words, his round face said, You wouldn't be in this mess if you'd listened to me.
Krispos did not need to be reminded of that. Thinking to save lives, he'd probably cost Videssos—and his own side in particular—a good many men instead. As he sought his tent that evening, he told himself that he had generals along for a reason, and kicked himself for ignoring Mammianos' sage advice to pursue his own scheme.
Thanks to his worry, he took awhile to fall asleep. Once slumber took him, he slept soundly; he had long since learned to ignore the usual run of camp noises. The commotion that woke him was nothing usual. He grabbed sword and shield and clapped a helmet on his head before he peered out through the tentflap to see what was going on.
His first thought was that Petronas had decided to beat him to the punch with a night attack. But while the noise outside was tremendous, it was not the din of battle. "It sounds like a festival," he said, more than a little indignant.
Geirrod and Vagn stood guard in front of his tent. They turned to look at him. "Good you're up, Majesty," Geirrod said. "We'd have roused you any time now, had the clamor not done it for us. Two of Petronas' best generals just came into camp."
"Did they?" Krispos said softly. "Well, by the good god." Just then Mammianos came out of his tent, which was next to Krispos'. Krispos felt like putting his thumbs in his ears, twiddling his fingers, and sticking out his tongue at the fat general. Instead, he simply waited for Mammianos to notice him.
The general's own guards must have given him the news. He glanced over toward the imperial tent and saw Krispos there. Slowly and deliberately, he came to attention and saluted. A moment later, as if deciding that was not enough, he doffed his helm as well.
Krispos waved back, then asked the guards, "Who are these generals, anyway?"
"Vlases and Dardaparos, their names are, Majesty," Geirrod said.
To Krispos they were only names. He said, "Have them fetched here. What they can tell me of Petronas and his army will be beyond price." As the Haloga walked off to do his bidding, Krispos waved Mammianos over. He was sure his general would know everything worth knowing about them.
Guards brought up the pair of deserters within a couple of minutes. One officer was tall and thickset, though muscular rather than fat like Mammianos. He proved to be Vlases. Dardaparos, on the other hand, was small, skinny, and bowlegged from a lifetime spent in the saddle; by looks, he might have been father to some of Sarkis' scouts. He and his comrade both went down in proskynesis before Krispos, touching their foreheads to the ground. "Majesty," they said together.
Krispos let them stay prostrate a beat longer than he would have with men he fully trusted. After he told them to rise, he asked, "How long ago did you last give Petronas imperial honors?"
Dardaparos spoke for both of them. "Earlier this evening. But we came here trusting your amnesty, your Majesty. We'll serve you as loyally as ever we served him."
"There's a fine promise," Mammianos growled. "Does it mean you'll desert the Avtokrator just when he needs you most?"
"Surely not, Mammianos," Krispos said smoothly, seeing Dardaparos and Vlases stiffen. To them he added, "And my promise is good—you'll not be harmed. Tell me, though, what made you decide to come over to me now?"
"Majesty, we decided you'd likely win with us or without us," Vlases answered. His voice made Krispos blink. It was a high, sweet tenor, as surprising from such a big man as Trokoundos' bass from a small one. He went on. "Petronas said you were nothing but a jumped-up stable boy, begging your pardon, your Majesty. The campaign you've run against him showed us different, though."
Dardaparos nodded. "Aye, that's how it was, your Majesty. Any time an able man holds Videssos the city, a rebel's in deep from the get-go. You're abler than we thought when we first picked Petronas. We were wrong, and own it now."
Krispos drew Mammianos to one side. "What do you think?" he asked quietly.
"I'm inclined to believe them." Mammianos sounded as if he regretted his inclination. "If they'd told you they couldn't stand the idea of being traitors any more, or some such high-sounding tripe, I'd keep 'em under guard—in irons, too, most likely. But I've known both of 'em for years, and they have a keen-honed sense of where their interest lies."
"That's about as I saw it." Krispos walked back over to the generals. "Very well, excellent sirs, I welcome you to my cause. Now tell me how you think Petronas will dispose his forces to meet the attack I intend to make tomorrow."
"He won't dispose them so well, with us gone," Dardaparos said at once. Krispos had no idea how good a general he was, but he certainly had a high officer's sense of self-worth.
"Likely he won't," Krispos said. He found himself yawning enormously. "Excellent sirs, on second thought I'm going to leave the rest of your questioning to Mammianos here. And I hope you will forgive me, but I intend to keep you under guard until after the fighting is done tomorrow. I don't know what harm you could do me there, but I'd sooner not find out."
"Spoken like a sensible man, your Majesty," Vlases said. "You may welcome us, but you have no reason to trust us. By the lord with the great and good mind, we'll give you reason soon enough."
He stooped, found a twig, and started drawing in the dirt. Grunting with the effort it cost him, Mammianos also stooped. Krispos watched for a few minutes as Vlases laid out Petronas' plans, then yawned again, even more widely than before. By the time he sought his cot, though, he'd learned enough to decide that the movements he and Mammianos had already devised would still serve his aims.
They would, that is, if Vlases and Dardaparos spoke the truth. He suddenly realized he could find out if they did. He sprang from bed once more, shouting for Trokoundos. The mage appeared shortly, dapper as ever. Krispos explained what he wanted.
"Aye, the two-mirror trick will tell whether they lie," Trokoundos said, "but it may not tell you everything you need to know. It won't tell you what changes Petronas has made in his plans because they deserted. And it won't tell whether he encouraged them to go over to you, maybe so subtly they don't even grasp it themselves, just for the sake of putting you in confusion and doubt like this."
"I can't believe that. They're two of his best men." But Krispos sounded unsure, even to himself. Petronas was a master of the game of glove within glove within glove. He'd twisted Anthimos round his finger for years. If he wanted to manipulate a couple of his generals, Krispos was convinced he could.
Angrily Krispos shook his head. A fine state of affairs, when even learning the truth could not tell him whether to change his plans or keep them. "Find out what you can," he told Trokoundos.
Once Trokoundos had gone, Krispos lay down again. Now, though, sleep was slower coming. And after Krispos' eyes closed and his breathing grew deep and regular, he dreamed he followed Petronas down a path that twisted back on itself until Petronas was following him ...
After a night of such dreams, waking to the certainty of morning was a relief. Krispos found himself looking forward to battle in a way he never had before. For good or ill, battle would yield but one outcome, not the endlessly entrapping webs of possibility through which he had struggled in the darkness.
As Krispos gnawed a hard roll and drank sour wine from a leather jack, Trokoundos came up to report: "So far as Dardaparos and Vlases know, they're honest traitors, at any rate."
"Good," Krispos said. Trokoundos, duty done, departed, leaving Krispos to chew on his phrasing. Honest traitors? The words could have come straight from his near nightmare.
Scrambling up into Progress' saddle gave him the same feeling of release he'd known on waking, the feeling that something definite was about to happen. The Haloga guardsmen had to stay tight around him to keep him from spurring ahead of the army to the scouts who led its advance.
Before the day was very old, those scouts began trading arrows with the ones Petronas had sent out. Petronas' men drew back; they were far in advance of their own army, while Krispos' main body of troops trotted on, close behind his scouting parties. Had he not already known where Petronas' force lay, the retreating scouts would have led him to it.
Petronas' camp was in the middle of a broad, scrubby pasture, placed so no one could take it unawares. The rebel's forces stood in line of battle half a mile in front of their tents and pavilions. Petronas' imperial banner flapped defiantly at the center of their line.
Mammianos glanced at Krispos. "As we set it up?"
"Aye," Krispos said. "I think we'll keep him too busy to cut us in half." He showed his teeth in what was almost a smile. "We'd better."
"That's true enough." Mammianos half grunted, half chuckled. He yelled to the army musicians. Horns, drums, and pipes sent companies of horsemen galloping from the second rank to either wing as they bore down on Petronas' force.
The rebels were also moving forward; the momentum of horse and rider played a vital part in mounted warfare. Petronas had musicians of his own. Their martial blare shifted his deployments to match Krispos'.
"Good," Krispos said. "He's dancing to our tune for a change." He'd most feared Petronas trying to smash through his army's deliberately weakened center. Now—he hoped—the fight would be on his terms.
Arrows flew. So did war cries. The rebels still acclaimed Petronas. Along with Krispos' name, his men had others to hurl at their foes—those of Rhisoulphos, Vlases, and Dardaparos. They also shouted one thing more. "Amnesty! We spare those who yield!"
The armies collided first at the wings. Saber and lance took over for the bow. Despite defections, Petronas' men fought fiercely. Krispos bit his lip as he watched his own troops held in place. The treachery he'd looked for simply was not there.
When he complained of that, Mammianos said, "Can't be helped, your Majesty. But aren't you glad to be worrying over the loyalty of the other fellow's army and not your own?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact," Krispos said. Only last fall he'd wondered if any Videssian soldiers at all would cleave to him. Only days before he'd wondered if his army would hold together through combat. Now Petronas' bowels were the ones that griped at each collision of men. Amazing what a victory could do, Krispos thought.
The fight ground on. Thanks to Rhisoulphos' defection, Krispos had more men in it than Petronas. Rhisoulphos' men were not in a hotly engaged part of the line—they held the middle of the right wing. But their presence freed up other warriors for the attack. The men on the extreme right of Petronas' line found themselves first outnumbered, then outflanked.
They bent back. That was not enough to save them; Krispos' horsemen, scenting victory, folded round them like a wolf's jaws closing on a tasty gobbet of meat. Petronas' men were brave and loyal. For half an hour and more, they fought desperately, selling themselves dear for their comrades' sake. But flesh and blood will only bear so much. Soldiers began casting swords and lances to the ground and raising their hands in token of surrender.
Once the yielding started—and once Petronas' men saw that, as promised, those who yielded were not butchered—it ran from the end of Petronas' line toward the middle. The line shook, like a man with an ague. Shouting, Krispos' warriors pressed hard.
All at once Petronas' army broke into fragments. Some men fled the field, singly and in small groups. More, sometimes whole companies at a time, threw down their weapons and surrendered. A hard core of perhaps three thousand men, Petronas' firmest followers, withdrew in a body toward hill country that corrugated the horizon toward the northwest.
"After them!" Krispos cried in high excitement, pounding his fist against Mammianos' armored shoulder. "Don't let a one of them get away!"
"Aye, Majesty." Mammianos shouted for couriers and stabbed his finger out toward Petronas' retreating soldiers. He roared orders that, properly carried out, would have bagged every fugitive.
Somehow, though, the pursuit did not quite come off. Some of Krispos' men rode after Petronas' hard core of strength. But others were still busy accepting surrenders, or relieving of their portable property soldiers who had surrendered. Still others made for Petronas' camp, which lay before them, tempting as a naked woman with an inviting smile. And so Petronas' followers, though in a running fight all the way, reached the hills and set up a rear guard to hold the gap through which they fled.
By the time the column that had given chase to Petronas returned empty-handed, night was falling. Krispos swore when he found out they had failed. "By the lord with the great and good mind, I'd like to send the fools who stopped to plunder straight to the ice," he raged.
"And if you did, you'd have hardly more men left than those who escaped with Petronas," Sarkis said.
"They should have chased Petronas first and plundered later," Krispos said.
Sarkis answered with a shrug. "Common soldiers don't grow rich on army pay, your Majesty. They're lucky to hold their own. If they see the chance to steal something worth stealing, they're going to do it."
"And think, your Majesty," Mammianos added soothingly, "had everyone gone after Petronas, who would have protected you if his men decided all at once to remember their allegiance?"
"I should have gone after Petronas myself," Krispos said, but then he let the matter drop. What was done was done; no matter how he complained, he could not bring back an opportunity lost. That did not mean he forgot. He filed the failure away in his mind, resolving not to let it happen again with any army of his.
"Any way you look at it, Majesty, we won quite a victory," Mammianos said. "Here's a great haul of prisoners, Petronas' camp taken—"
"I'll not deny it," Krispos said. He'd hoped to win the whole war today, not just a battle, but, as he'd just reminded himself, one took what one got. He was not so mean-spirited as to forget that. He undid his tin canteen from his belt, raised it, then swigged a big gulp of the rough wine the army drank. "To victory!" he shouted.
Everyone who heard him—which meant a good part of the army—turned at the sound of his voice. In a moment, bedlam filled the camp. "To victory!' soldiers roared. Some, like Krispos, toasted it. Others capered round campfires, filled with triumph or simple relief at being alive.
And others, the crueler few, taunted the prisoners they had taken. The former followers of Petronas, disarmed now, dared not reply. From taunts, some of the ruffians moved on to roughing up their captives. Krispos did not care to think about how far their ingenuity might take them if he gave them free rein.
Hand on sword hilt, he stalked toward the nastiest of the little games nearby. Without his asking, Halogai formed up around him. Narvikka said, "Aye, Majesty, there's a deal of us in you, I t'ink. You look like a man about to go killing mad."
"That's how I feel." Krispos grabbed the shoulder of a trooper who had been amusing himself by stomping on a prisoner's toes. The man whirled round angrily when his sport was interrupted. The curse in his mouth died unspoken. Quickly, shaking with fear, he prostrated himself.
Krispos waited till he was flat on his belly, then kicked him in the ribs. Pain shot up his leg—the fellow wore chain mail. By the way he twisted and grabbed at himself, he felt the kick, too, through links, leather, and padding. Krispos said, "Is that how you give amnesty: tormenting a man who can't fight back?"
"N-no, Majesty," the fellow got out. "Just—having a little fun, is all."
"Maybe you were. I don't think he was." Krispos kicked the trooper again, not quite so hard this time. The man grunted, but otherwise bore it without flinching. Krispos drew back his foot and asked, "Or do you enjoy it when I do this? Answer me!"
"No, Majesty." Overbearing while on top, the soldier shrank in on himself when confronted with power greater than his petty share.
"All right, then. If you ever want to get mercy, or deserve it, you'd best give it when you can. Now get out of here." The soldier scrambled to his feet and fled. Krispos glared around. "Hurting a man who's yielded, especially one who's promised amnesty, is Skotos' work. The next trooper who's caught at it gets stripes and dismissal without pay. Does everyone understand?"
If anybody had doubts, he kept them to himself. In the face of Krispos' anger, the camp went from boisterous to solemn and quiet in moments. Into that sudden silence, the fellow he'd rescued said, "Phos bless you, your Majesty. That was done like an Avtokrator."
"Aye." Several Halogai rumbled agreement.
"If I have the job, I should live up to it." Krispos glanced over at the prisoner. "Why did you fight against me in the first place?"
"I come from Petronas' estates. He is my master. He was always good to me; I figured he'd be good for the Empire." He studied Krispos, his head cocked to one side. "I still reckon that might be so, but looks to me now like he's not the only one."
"I hope not." Krispos wondered how many men throughout the Empire of Videssos could run it capably if they somehow found themselves on the throne. He'd never had that thought before. More than a few, he decided, a little bemused. But he was the one with the job, and he aimed to keep it.
"What is it, Majesty?" Narvikka asked. "By the furrow of your brow, I'd guess a weighty thought."
"Not really." Laughing, Krispos explained.
Narvikka said, "Bethink yourself on your good fortune, Majesty: of all those might-be Avtokrators, only Petronas wears the red boots in your despite."
"Even Petronas is one man too many in them." Krispos turned to go back to his tent, then stopped. A grin of pure mischief slowly spread over his face. "I know just how to get him out of them, too." His voice rose. "Trokoundos!"
The mage hurried over to him. "How may I serve your Majesty?" he asked, bowing.
Krispos told Trokoundos what he needed, then said anxiously, "This isn't battle magic, is it?"
Trokoundos' heavy-lidded eyes half closed as he considered. At last he said, "It shouldn't be. And even if Petronas' person is warded, as it's sure to be, who would think of protecting his boots?" His smile was a slyer version of Krispos'. "The more so as we won't do them a bit of harm."
"So we won't," Krispos said. "But, the lord with the great and good mind willing, we'll do some to Petronas."
Petronas, as was his habit, woke soon after dawn. His back and shoulders ached; too many years of sleeping soft in Videssos the city—aye, and even when he took the field—left him unused to making do with a single blanket for a bedroll. At that, he was luckier than most of the men who still clove to him, for he had a tent to shelter him from the nighttime chill. Theirs were lost, booty now for the army that followed Krispos.
"Krispos!" Petronas mouthed the name, making it into a curse. He cursed himself, too, for he had first taken Krispos into his own household, then introduced him into Anthimos'.
He'd never imagined Krispos' influence with his nephew could rival his own—till the day he found himself, his head shorn, cast into the monastery of the holy Skirios. He ran a hand through his hair. Only now, most of a year after he'd slipped out of the monastery, did he have a proper man's growth once more.
He'd never imagined Krispos would dare seize the throne, or that Krispos could govern once he had it—everyone, he'd been sure, would flock to his own banner. But it had not happened so. Petronas cursed himself again, for putting that fat fool of a Mammianos in a place that had proven so important.
And with that fat fool, Krispos had beaten him twice now— and by the good god, Petronas had never imagined that! Just how badly he'd underestimated Krispos, and Krispos' knack for getting other people to do what he needed, was only now sinking in, when it was on the very edge of being too late.
Petronas clenched a fist. "No, by Phos, not too late!" he said out loud. He pissed in a chamber pot—likely the last of those left to his army—then decked himself in the full imperial regalia.
Seeing him in the raiment rightfully his could only hearten his men, he told himself.
He stooped to go out through the tent flap and walked over to his horse, which was tied nearby. He sprang onto the beast's back with a surge of pride—he might be nearing sixty, but he could still ride. He smiled maliciously to think of Gnatios, who quivered atop anything bigger than a mule.
But as Petronas rode through the camp, his smile faded. Years of gauging armies' tempers made him worry about this one. The men were restive and discouraged; he did not like the way they refused to meet his eye. When a soldier did look his way, he liked the fellow's stare even less. "By the ice, what are you gaping at?" he snarled.
The trooper looked apprehensive at being singled out. "B-begging your pardon, your Majesty, but why did you don black boots to wear with your fine robe and crown?"
"Are you mad?" Petronas took his left foot from the stirrup and kicked his leg up and down. "This boot's as red as a man's arse after a week in the saddle."
"Begging your pardon again, Majesty, but it looks black to me. So does the right one, sir—uh, sire. May the ice take me if I lie."
"Are you telling me I don't know red when I see it?" Petronas asked dangerously. He looked down at his boots. They were both a most satisfactory crimson, the exact imperial shade. Petronas had seen it worn by his father, by his brother, and by his nephew; it was as familiar to him as the back of his hand— more familiar than his own face, for sometimes he did not see a mirror for weeks at a stretch.
Instead of answering him directly, the trooper turned to his mates. "Tell his Majesty, lads. Are those boots red or are they black?"
"They're black," the soldiers said in one voice. Now it was Petronas' turn to stare at them; he could not doubt they meant what they said. One man added, "Seems an unchancy thing to me, wearing a private citizen's boots with all that fancy imperial gear."
Another said, "Aye, there's no good omen in that." Several troopers drew Phos' sun-circle over their hearts.
Petronas glanced at his boots again. They still looked red to him. If his men did not see them so—he shivered. That omen seemed bad to him, too, as if he had no right to the imperial throne. He clenched his teeth against the idea that Phos had turned away from him and toward that accursed upstart Krispos ...
The moment his rival's name entered his mind, he knew Phos was not the one who had arranged the omen. He shouted for his wizard. "Skeparnas!" When the mage did not appear at once, he shouted again, louder this time. "Skeparnas!"
Skeparnas picked his way through the soldiers. He was a tall, thin man with a long, lean face, a beard waxed to a point, and the longest fingers Petronas had ever seen. "How may I serve you, your Majesty?"
"What color are my boots?" Petronas demanded.
He'd seldom seen Skeparnas taken aback, but now the wizard blinked and drew back half a step. "To me, your Majesty, they look red," he said cautiously.
"To me, too," Petronas said. But before the words were out of his mouth, the soldiers all around set up a clamor, insisting they were black. "Shut up!" he roared at them. To Skeparnas he went on, more quietly, "I think Krispos magicked them, the stinking son of a spotted snake."
"Ahh." Skeparnas leaned forward, like a tower tilting after an earthquake. "Yes, that would be a clever ploy, wouldn't it?" His hands writhed in quick passes; those spidery fingers seemed almost to knot themselves together.
Suddenly Petronas' soldiers called out: "They're red now, your Majesty!"
"There, you see?" Petronas said triumphantly.
"A lovely spell, most marvelously subtle," Skeparnas said with a connoisseur's appreciation. "Not only did it have no hold on you, it was also made to be invisible to anyone who perceived it with a mage's eye, thus perhaps delaying its discovery and allowing it to work the maximum amount of confusion."
"Very fornicating lovely," Petronas snapped. He raised his voice to address his men. "You see, my heroes, there's no omen here. This was just more of Krispos' vile work, aiming to make you think something's wrong when it's not. Just a cheap, miserable trick, not worth fretting over."
He waited, hoping for an answering cheer. It did not come. Determinedly, though, he rode through the army as if it had. He waved to the men, making his horse rear and caracole.
"How do we know those boots weren't really black till the mage spelled 'em red again?" one soldier asked another as he came by. He rode on, but keeping his face still after that was as hard as if he'd taken a lance in the guts.
Trokoundos staggered, then steadied himself. "They've broken the spell," he gasped. "By the good god, I could do with a cup of wine." Greasy sweat covered his fine-drawn features.
Krispos poured with his own hand. "How much good do you think it's done?"
"No way to guess," Trokoundos said, gasping again after he'd drained the cup at a single long draft. "You know how it is, Majesty: If the soldiers are truly strong for Petronas, they'll stay with him come what may. If they're wavering, the least little thing could seem a bad omen to 'em."
"Aye." More and more, Krispos was coming to believe the art of leading men was a kind of magic, though not one sorcerers studied. What folk thought of a ruler, oftentimes, seemed more important than what he really was.
"Shall I try the spell again this afternoon, Majesty, or maybe tomorrow morning?" Trokoundos asked.
After some thought, Krispos shook his head. "That would make them sure it was our sorcery, I think. If it only happens the once, they can't be certain quite what it is."
"As you wish, of course," Trokoundos said. "What then?"
"I'm going to let Petronas stew in his own juice for a couple of days," Krispos answered. "When I do hit him again, I'll hit hard. People who know this country have already told me of other passes through the hills, and he doesn't have enough men to cover them all. If he stays where he is, I can leave enough men here to keep him from bursting out onto the plain again, while I take the rest around to hit him from behind."
"What if he flees?"
"If he flees now, after losing to me twice, he's mine," Krispos said. "Then it's just a matter of running him to earth."
While Petronas—he hoped—stewed, Krispos spent the next few days catching up on the dispatches that never stopped coming from the capital. He approved a commercial treaty with Khatrish, scribbled minor changes on an inheritance law before he affixed his seal to it, commuted one death sentence where the evidence looked flimsy, and let another stand.
He wrote to Mavros of his second victory, then read through his foster brother's gossipy reports of doings in Videssos the city. From them, and from Dara's occasional shorter notes, he gathered that Phostis, while still small, was doing well. That filled him with sober satisfaction; whether a baby lived to grow up was always a roll of the dice.
Mavros also forwarded dispatches from the war against Harvas Black-Robe. Krispos read and reread those. Agapetos' preemptive attack had bogged down, but he still stood on enemy soil. Maybe, Krispos thought, the peasants near the northern border would be able to get in a crop in peace.
Other documents also came from the city. Krispos began to dread opening the ones sealed with sky-blue wax. Every time he did, he read that Pyrrhos had deposed another priest or abbot for infractions that seemed ever more trivial. Casting a man from his temple for trimming his beard too close, for instance, left Krispos shaking his head. He wrote a series of increasingly blunt notes to the patriarch, urging Pyrrhos to show restraint.
But restraint did not seem to be part of Pyrrhos' vocabulary. Letters of protest also came to Krispos from ousted clerics, from clerics afraid they would be ousted, and from delegations of prominent citizens from several towns seeking protection for their local priests.
More and more, Krispos wished he could have retained Gnatios as ecumenical patriarch. He'd never imagined that one of his strongest allies could become one of his greatest embarrassments. And yet Pyrrhos remained zealous in his behalf. With Petronas and Gnatios still to worry about, Krispos put off a decision on his rigorist patriarch.
He sent a holding force under Sarkis against the pass through which Petronas had fled, then led the rest of the army north and west through another gap to get behind his rival. His part of the army was just entering that second pass when a courier from Sarkis galloped up on a blowing, foam-spattered horse. The man was panting as hard as if he'd done all that running himself. "Majesty!" he called. "Rejoice, Majesty! We're through!"
"You're through?" Krispos stared at him. "Sarkis forced the pass, you mean?" That was good luck past all expectation. Petronas knew how to find defensive positions. A handful of determined men could have held the pass for days, so long as they were not outflanked.
But the courier said, "Looks like Petronas' army's gone belly-up, the lord Sarkis told me to tell you. Some have fled, more are yielding themselves up. The fight isn't in 'em anymore, Majesty."
"By the good god," Krispos said softly. He wondered what part—if any—the magic he'd suggested had played. Have to ask some prisoners, he told himself before more urgent concerns drove the matter from his mind. "What's become of Petronas, then? Has he surrendered?"
"No, Majesty, no sign of him, nor of Gnatios, either. The lord Sarkis urges speed on you, to help round up as many flying soldiers as we may."
"Yes." Krispos turned to Thvari, the captain of his Haloga guards. "Will you and your men ride pack horses, brave sir, to help us move the faster?"
Thvari spoke to the guardsmen in their own slow, rolling speech. They shouted back, grinning and waving their axes. "Aye," Thvari said unnecessarily. He added, "We would not miss being in at the kill."
"Good." Krispos called orders to the army musicians. The long column briefly halted. The baggage-train handlers shifted burdens on their animals, freeing up enough to accommodate the Halogai. They waved away soldiers who wanted to help; men without their long-practiced skill at lashing and unlashing bundles would only have slowed them down.
The musicians blew At the trot. The army started forward again. The Halogai were no horsemen, but most managed to stay on their mounts and keep them headed in the right direction. That was plenty, Krispos thought. If they needed to fight, they would dismount.
"Where do you think Petronas will go if his army has broken up?" Krispos asked Mammianos.
The fat general tugged at his beard as he thought. "Some failed rebels might flee to Makuran, but I can't see Petronas as cat's-paw for the King of Kings. He'd sooner leap off a cliff, I think. He might do that anyway, your Majesty, to keep you from gloating over him."
"I wouldn't gloat," Krispos said.
Mammianos studied him. "Mmm, maybe not. But he would if he caught you, and we always reckon others from ourselves. Likeliest, though, Petronas'll try and hole himself up somewhere, do what he can against you. Let me think ... There's an old fortress not too far from here, place called—what in the name of the ice is the place called? Antigonos, that's what it is. That's as good a guess as any, and better than most."
"We'll head there, then," Krispos said. "Do you know the way?"
"I expect I could find it, but you'll have men who could do it quicker, I'll tell you that."
A few questions called to the soldiers showed Krispos that Mammianos was right. With a couple of locally raised men in the lead, the army pounded toward Antigonos. Krispos spent a while worrying what to do if Petronas was not in the fortress. Then he stopped worrying. His column was heading in the right direction to cut off fugitives anyhow.
The riders ran into several bands from Petronas' disintegrating army. None included the rival Emperor; none of his men admitted knowing where he had gone. From what they said, he and some of his closest followers had simply disappeared the morning before, leaving the rest of the men to fend for themselves. One trooper said bitterly, "If I'd known the bugger'd run like that, I never would have followed him."
"Petronas thinks of his own neck first," Mammianos said. Remembering his own dealings with Anthimos' uncle, Krispos nodded.
He and his men reached the fortress of Antigonos a little before sunset. The fortress perched atop a tall hill and surveyed the surrounding countryside like a vulture peering out from a branch on top of a high tree. The iron-faced wooden gate was slammed shut; a thin column of cooksmoke rose into the sky from the citadel.
"Somebody's home," Krispos said. "I wonder who." Beside him, Mammianos barked laughter. Krispos turned to the musicians. "Blow Parley."
The call rang out several times before anyone appeared on the wall to answer it. "Will you yield?" Krispos called, a minor magic of Trokoundos' projecting his voice beyond bowshot. "I still offer amnesty to soldiers and safe passage back to the monastery for Petronas and Gnatios."
"I'll never trust myself to you, wretch," shouted the man on the wall.
Krispos started slightly to recognize Petronas' voice. It, too, carried; Well, Krispos thought, I've known he had a mage along since he broke the spell on his boots. He touched the amulet he wore with his lucky goldpiece. Petronas used wizards for purposes darker than extending the range of his voice. Without Trokoundos by him, Krispos would have feared to confront his foe so closely.
"I could have ordered you killed the moment I took the throne." Krispos wondered if he should have done just that. Shrugging to himself, he went on, "I have no special yen for your blood. Only pledge you'll live quietly among the monks and let me get on with running the Empire."
"My Empire," Petronas roared.
"Your empire is that fortress you're huddling in," Krispos said. "The rest of Videssos acknowledges me—and my patriarch." If he was stuck with Pyrrhos, he thought, he ought to get some use out of him, even if only to make Petronas writhe in his cage.
"To the ice with your patriarch, the Phos-drunk fanatic!"
Krispos smiled. For once, he and Petronas agreed on something. He had no intention of letting his rival know it. He said, "You're walled up as tightly here as you would be in the monastery of the holy Skirios. How do you propose to get away? You might as well give up and go back to the monastery."
"Never!" Petronas stamped down off the wall. His curses remained audible. He must have noticed that and signaled to his magician, for they cut off in the middle of a foul word.
Krispos nodded to Trokoundos, who chanted a brief spell. When Krispos spoke again, a moment later, his voice had only its usual power once more. "He won't be easy to pry out of there."
"Not without a siege train, which we don't have with us," Mammianos agreed. "Not unless we can starve him out, anyway."
Rhisoulphos stood close by, looking up at the spot on the wall that Petronas had just vacated. He shook his head at Mammianos' words. "He has supplies for months in there. He spent the winter strengthening the place against the chance that the war would turn against him."
"Smart of him." Mammianos also glanced toward the fortress of Antigonos. "Aye, he's near as clever as he thinks he is."
"We'll send for a siege train, by the good god, and sit round the fortress till it gets here," Krispos said. "If Petronas wants to play at being Avtokrator inside till the rams start pounding on the walls, that's all right with me."
"Your sitting here may be just what he wants," Trokoundos said. "Remember that he tried once to slay you by sorcery. Such an effort would be all the easier to repeat with you close by. We've just seen his mage is still with him."
"I can't very well leave before he's taken, not if I intend to leave men of mine behind here," Krispos said.
Mammianos and Rhisoulphos both saluted him, then looked at each other as if taken by surprise. Mammianos said, "Majesty, you may not be trained to command, but you have a gift for it."
"As may be." Krispos did not show how pleased he was. He turned to Trokoundos. "I trust you have me better warded than I was that night."
"Oh, indeed. The protections I gave you then were the hasty sort one uses in an emergency. I thank the lord with the great and good mind that they sufficed. But since you gained the throne, I and my colleagues have hedged you round with far more apotropaic incantations."
"With what?" Krispos wanted to see if the wizard could repeat himself without tripping over his tongue.
But Trokoundos chose to explain instead: "Protective spells. I believe they will serve. With magecraft, one is seldom as sure as one would like,"
"Come to that, we aren't sure Petronas and his wizard will attack me," Krispos said.
"He will, your Majesty," Rhisoulphos said positively. "What other chance in all the world has he now to become Avtokrator?"
"Put that way—" Krispos clicked his tongue between his teeth. "Aye, likely he will. Here I stay, even so. Trokoundos will keep me safe." What he did not mention was his fear that, if he returned to Videssos the city, Petronas might suborn some soldiers and get free once more.
"Maybe," Mammianos said hopefully, "he hasn't had the chance to fill the cisterns in there too full. Summers hereabouts are hot and dry. With luck, his men will get thirsty soon and make him yield."
"Maybe." But Krispos doubted it. He'd seen that Petronas could be matched as a combat soldier. For keeping an army in supplies, though, he had few peers. If he'd taken refuge in the fortress of Antigonos, he was ready to stand siege there.
Krispos ringed his own army round the base of the fortress' hill. He staged mock attacks by night and day, seeking to wear down the defenders. Trokoundos wore himself into exhaustion casting one protective spell after another over Krispos and over the army as a whole. That Petronas' mage bided his time only made Trokoundos certain the stroke would be deadly when it came.
The siege dragged on. The healer-priests were much busier with cases of dysentery than with wounds. A letter let Krispos know that a train of rams and catapults had set out from Videssos the city for Antigonos. Behind a white-painted shield of truce, a captain approached the fortress and read the letter in a loud voice, finishing "Beware, rebels! Your hour of justice approaches!" Petronas' men jeered him from the walls.
Trokoundos redoubled his precautions, festooning Krispos with charms and amulets until their chains seemed heavier than chain mail. "How am I supposed to sleep, wearing all this?" Krispos complained. "The ones that don't gouge my back gouge my chest."
With a look of martyred patience, Trokoundos said, "Your Majesty, Petronas must know he cannot hope to last long once the siege engines arrive. Therefore he will surely try to strike you down before that time. We must be ready."
"Not only will I be ready, I'll be stoop-shouldered, as well," Krispos said. Trokoundos' martyred look did not change. Krispos threw his hands in the air and walked off, clanking as he went.
But that night, alone at last in his tent, he tossed and turned until a sharp-pointed amethyst crystal on one of his new amulets stabbed him just above his right shoulder blade. He swore and clapped his other hand to the injury. When he took it away, his palm was wet with blood.
"That fornicating does it!" he snarled. He threw aside the light silk coverlet and jumped to his feet. He took off the offending chain and flung it on the floor. It knocked over one of the other charms that ringed the bed like a fortress' wall. Finally, breathing hard, Krispos lay down again. "Maybe Petronas' wizard will pick tonight to try to kill me," he muttered, "but one piece more or less shouldn't matter much. And if he does get me, at least I'll die sound asleep."
What with his fury, naturally, he had trouble drifting off even after the chain was gone. He tossed and turned, dozed and half woke. His shoulder still hurt, too.
Some time toward morning, a tiny crunch made him open his eyes yet again. He was frowning even as he came fully awake— the crunch had sounded very close, as if it was inside the tent. A servant who disturbed him in the middle of the night—especially the middle of this miserable night—would regret the day he was born.
But the man crouching not three paces away was no servant of his. He was all in black—even his face was blacked, likely with charcoal. His right hand held a long knife. And under one of his black boots lay the crushed remains of one of Trokoundos' charms. Had he not trod on it, Krispos would never have known he was there until that knife slid between his ribs or across his throat.
The knifeman's dark face twisted in dismay as he saw Krispos wake. Krispos' face twisted, too. The assassin sprang toward him. Krispos flung his coverlet in the fellow's face and shouted as loud as he could. Outside the tent, his Haloga guard also cried out.
While the assassin was clawing free of the coverlet, Krispos seized his knife arm with both hands. His foe kicked him in the shin, hard enough to make his teeth click together in anguish. He tried to knee the knifeman in the crotch. The fellow twisted to one side and took the blow on the point of his hip.
With a sudden wrench, he tried to break Krispos' grip on his wrist. But Krispos had wrestled since before his beard came in. He hung on grimly. The assassin could do what he pleased, so long as he did not get that dagger free.
Thunnk! The abrupt sound of blade biting into flesh filled Krispos' ears and seemed to fill the whole tent. Hot blood sprayed his belly. The assassin convulsed in his arms. A latrine stench said the man's bowels had let go. The knife dropped from his hands. He crumpled to the ground.
"Majesty!" Vagn cried, horror on his face as he saw Krispos spattered with blood. "Are you hale, Majesty?"
"If my leg's not broken, yes," Krispos said, giving it a gingerly try. The pain did not get worse, so he supposed he'd taken no real damage. He looked down at the knifeman and at the spreading pool of blood. He whistled softly. "By the good god, Vagn, you almost cut him in two."
Instead of warming to the praise, the Haloga hung his head. He thrust his dripping axe into Krispos' hands. "Kill me now, Majesty, I beg you, for I failed to ward you from this, this—" His Videssian failed him; to show what he meant, he bent down and spat in the dead assassin's face. "Kill me, I beg you."
Krispos saw he meant it. "I'll do no such thing," he said.
"Then I have no honor." Vagn drew himself up, absolute determination on his face. "Since you do not grant me this boon, I shall slay myself."
"No, you—" Krispos stopped before he called Vagn an idiot. Filled with shame as he was, the northerner would only bear up under insults like a man bearing up under archery and would think he deserved each wound he took. Krispos tried to get the shock of battling the assassin out of his mind, tried to think clearly. The harsh Haloga notion of honor served him well most of the time; now he had to find a way around it. He said, "If you didn't ward me, who did? The knifeman lies dead at your feet. I didn't kill him."
Vagn shook his head. "It means nothing. Never should he have come into this tent."
"You were at the front. He must have got in at the back, under the canvas." Krispos looked at the assassin's contorted body. He thought about what it must have taken, even dressed in clothes that left him part of the night, to come down from the fortress and sneak through the enemy camp to its very heart. "In his own way, he was a brave man."
Vagn spat again. "He was a skulking murderer and should have had worse and slower than I gave him. Please, Majesty, I beg once more, slay me, that I may die clean."
"No, curse it!" Krispos said. Vagn turned and walked to the tent flap. If he left, Krispos was sure he would never return alive. He said quickly, "Here, wait. I know what I'll do—I'll give you a chance to redeem yourself in your own eyes."
"In no way can I do that," Vagn declared.
"Hear me out," Krispos said. When Vagn took another step toward the flap, he snapped, "I order you to listen." Reluctantly the Haloga stopped. Krispos went on, "Here's what I'd have you do: first, take this man's head. Then, unarmored if you like, carry it up to the gates of Antigonos and leave it there to show Petronas the fate his assassin earned. Will that give you back your honor?"
Vagn was some time silent, which only made the growing hubbub outside the imperial tent seem louder. Then, with a grunt, the Haloga chopped at the knifeman's neck. The roof of the tent was too low to let him take big, full swings with his ax, so the beheading required several strokes.
Krispos turned away from the gory job. He threw on a robe and went out to show the army he was still alive. The men whom his outcry had aroused shouted furiously when he told how the assassin had crept into his tent. He was just finishing the tale when Vagn emerged, holding the man's head by the hair. The soldiers let out such a lusty cheer that the guardsman blinked in surprise. Their approval seemed to reach him where Krispos' had not; as the cheering went on and on, he stood taller and straighten Without a word, he began to tramp toward the fortress of Antigonos.
"Wait," Krispos called. "Do it by daylight, so Petronas can see just what gift you bring him."
"Aye," Vagn said after a moment's thought. "I will wait." He set down the assassin's head, lightly prodding it with his foot. "So will he." The joke struck Krispos as being in poor taste, but he was glad to hear the Haloga make it.
Trokoundos plucked at Krispos' sleeve. "We were right in guessing Petronas aimed to treacherously slay you," he said, "wrong only in his choice of stealth over sorcery. But had we relied on his using stealth, he surely would have tried with magic."
"I suppose so," Krispos said. "And as for that, you can cheer up. Without your magecraft, I'd be a dead man right now."
"What do you mean?" Trokoundos scratched his shaven head. "After all, Petronas did but send a simple knifeman against you."
"I know, but if the fellow hadn't stepped on one of those charms you insisted on scattering everywhere, I never would have woke up in time to yell."
"Happy to be of service, your Majesty," Trokoundos said in a strangled voice. Then he saw how hard Krispos' face was set against laughter. He allowed himself a dry chuckle or two, but still maintained his dignity.
Too bad for him, Krispos thought. He laughed out loud.
When the siege train reached the fortress of Antigonos, Krispos watched the soldiers on the walls watching his artisans assemble the frames for stone-throwing engines, the sheds that would protect the men who swung rams against stones or boiling oil from above.
The assassin's head still lay outside the gate. Petronas' men had let Vagn come and go. By now even the flies had tired of it.
As soon as the first catapult was done, the craftsmen who had built it recruited a squad of common soldiers to drag up a large stone and set it in the leathern sling at the end of the machine's throwing arm. Winches creaked as the crew tightened the ropes that gave the catapult its hurling power.
The throwing arm jerked forward. The catapult bucked. The stone flew through the air. It crashed against the wall of the fortress with a noise like thunder. The soldiers began to haul another rock into place.
Krispos sent a runner to the engines' crew with a single word: "Wait." Then one of his men advanced toward the fortress with a white-painted shield of truce. After some shouting back and forth, Petronas came up to the battlements.
"What do you want of me?" he called to Krispos, or rather toward Krispos' banner. As at the last parley, his wizard amplified his voice to carry so far.
Trokoundos stood by Krispos to perform the same service for him. "I want you to take a good look around, Petronas. Look carefully—I give you this last chance to yield and save your life. See the engines all around. The rams and stone-throwers will pound down your walls while the dart-shooters pick off your men from farmer than they can shoot back."
Petronas shook his fist. "I told you I would never yield to you?"
"Look around," Krispos said again. "You're a soldier, Petronas. Look around and see what chance you have of holding out. I tell you this: once we breach your walls—and we will— we'll show no mercy to you or anyone else." Maybe, he thought, Petronas' men would force him to give up even if he did not want to.
But Petronas led his tiny empire still. He made a slow circuit of the wall, then returned at last to the spot from which he had set out. "I see the engines," he said. By his tone, he might have been discussing the heat of the day.
"What will you do, Petronas?" Krispos asked.
Petronas did not answer, not with words. He scrambled up from the walkway to the wall itself and stood there for most of a minute looking out at the broad expanse of land that, so unaccountably, he did not rule. Then, slowly and deliberately, with the same care he gave to everything he did, he dove off.
Inside and outside the fortress of Antigonos, men cried out in dismay. But when some of Krispos' soldiers rushed toward the crumpled shape at the base of the wall, Petronas' men shot at them. "The truce is still good," Krispos shouted. "We won't hurt him further, by the good god—we'll save him if we can."
"There's a foolish promise," Mammianos observed. "Better to put him out of his misery and have done. I daresay that's what he'd want."
Krispos realized he was right. The pledge, though, was enough to give the rebels an excuse to hold their fire. When his own men did nothing but crowd round Petronas, Krispos thought they were only showing their share of Mammianos' rough wisdom. Then a sweating, panting trooper ran up to him and gasped out, "Majesty, he landed on his head, poor sod."
Of itself, Krispos' hand shaped the sun-circle over his heart. "The war is over," he said. He did not know what to feel. Relief, yes, that so dangerous a foe was gone. But Petronas had also raised him high, in his own household and then in Anthimos'. That had been in Petronas' interest, too, but Krispos could not help remembering it, could not help remembering the years in which he and Petronas had worked together to manage Anthimos. He sketched the sun-sign again. "I would have let him live," he murmured, as much to himself as to the men around him.
"He gave you his answer to that," Mammianos said. Krispos had to nod.
Without their leader, Petronas' men felt the urge to save their lives. The strong gate to the fortress of Antigonos opened. A soldier came out with a shield of truce. The rest of the garrison filed slowly after him. Krispos sent in troopers to make Antigonos his own once more.
The gleam of a shaven pate caught his eye. He smiled, not altogether kindly. To his bodyguards, he said, "Fetch me Gnatios."
Now in sandals and a simple blue monk's robe rather than the patriarchal regalia Krispos would have bet he'd had inside the fortress, Gnatios looked small, frail, and frightened between the two burly Halogai who marched him away from his fellows. He cast himself down on the ground in front of Krispos. "May your Majesty's will be done with me," he said, not lifting his face from the dust.
"Get up, holy sir," Krispos said. As Gnatios rose, he went on, "You would have done better to keep faith with me. You would still wear the blue boots now, not Pyrrhos."
A spark of malicious amusement flared in Gnatios' eyes. "From all I've heard, Majesty, your patriarch has not succeeded in delighting you."
"He's not betrayed me, either," Krispos said coldly.
Gnatios wilted again. "What will you do with me, your Majesty?" His voice was tiny.
"Taking your head here and now would likely cause me more scandal than you're worth. I think I'll bring you back to the city. Recant—say, in the Amphitheater, with enough people watching so you can't go back on your word again—and publicly recognize Pyrrhos as patriarch, and for all of me you can live out the rest of your days in the monastery of the holy Skirios."
Gnatios bowed in submission. Krispos had been sure he would. Pyrrhos now, Pyrrhos would have gone to the headsman singing hymns before he changed his views by the breadth of a fingernail paring. That made him stronger than Gnatios; Krispos was less ready to say it made him better. It certainly made him harder to work with.
"If ever you're outside the monastery without written leave from me and Pyrrhos both, Gnatios, you'll meet the man with the axe then and there," Krispos warned.
"That walls me up for life," Gnatios said, a last, faint protest.
"Likely it does." Krispos folded his arms. He was ready to summon an executioner at another word from Gnatios. Gnatios saw that. He bit his lip till a bead of blood showed at the corner of his mouth, but he nodded.
"Take him away," Krispos told the Halogai. "While you're about it, put him in irons." Gnatios made an indignant noise. Krispos ignored it, continuing, "He's already escaped once, so I'd sooner not give him another chance." Then he turned to Gnatios. "Holy sir, I pledged I would not harm you. I said nothing of your dignity."
"I can see why," Gnatios said resentfully.
"A chopped dignity grows back better than a chopped neck," Krispos said. "Remember that. Soon enough you'll be back at your chronicle."
"There is that." Krispos was amused to see Gnatios brighten at the thought. Political priest and born intriguer though he was, he was also a true scholar. He went off with the Halogai without another word of complaint.
Krispos scanned the men still emerging from the fortress of Antigonos. When at last they stopped coming, he frowned. He walked toward them. Halogai fell in around him. "Where's Petronas' wizard?" he demanded.
The men looked around among themselves, then back toward the fortress. "Skeparnas?" one said with a shrug. "I thought he was with us, but he doesn't seem to be." Others spoke up in agreement.
"I want him," Krispos said. He wondered if he looked as savagely eager as he felt. Petronas' wizard had cost him a season of lying in bed limp as a dead fish; only Trokoundos' counter-magic kept the fellow from taking his life. Sorcery that aimed at causing death was a capital offense.
When Krispos summoned him, Trokoundos studied with narrowed eyes the group of ragged, none too clean men who had come out of the fortress. "He might be hiding in plain sight," he explained to Krispos, "using another man's semblance to keep from being seen."
The mage took out two coins. "The one in my left hand is gilded lead. When I touch it against the true goldpiece in my right hand while reciting the proper spell, by the law of similarity other counterfeits will also be exposed."
He began to chant, then touched the two coins, false and true, together. A couple of men's hair suddenly went from black to gray, which made the Halogai round Krispos guffaw. But other than that, no one's features changed. "He is not here," Trokoundos said. He frowned, his eyes suddenly doubtful. "I do not think he is here—"
He touched the coins of gold and lead against each other once more and held them in his closed fist. Now he used a new chant, harsh and sonorous, insisting, demanding.
"By the good god," Krispos whispered. In the crowd of soldiers and others who had come out of the fortress, one man's features were running like wax over a fire. Before his eyes, the fellow grew taller, leaner. Trokoundos let out a hoarse shout of triumph.
The disguised wizard's face worked horribly as he realized he was discovered. His talonlike fingers stabbed at Trokoundos. The smaller mage groaned and staggered; goldpiece and lead counterfeit fell to the ground. But Trokoundos, too, was a master mage: had he been less, Anthimos would never have chosen him as instructor in the sorcerous arts. He braced himself against empty air and fought back. A moment later Skeparnas bent as if under a heavy weight.
The sorcerers' duel caught up both men—they were so perfectly matched that neither could work great harm unless the other blundered. Neither had any thought for his surroundings; each, of necessity, focused solely on his foe.
Krispos shoved his Halogai toward Skeparnas. "Capture or slay that man!" The imperial guardsmen obeyed without question or hesitation.
They were almost upon the wizard before he knew they were there. He started to send a spell their way, but in tearing his attention from Trokoundos, he left himself vulnerable to the other mage's sorcery. He was screaming as he turned and tried to run. The axes of the Halogai rose and fell. The scream abruptly died.
Trokoundos lurched like a drunken man. "Wine, someone, I beg," he croaked. Krispos undid his own canteen and passed it to the mage. Trokoundos drained it dry. He sank to his knees, then to his haunches. Worried, Krispos sat beside him. He had to lean close to hear Trokoundos whisper, "Now I understand what getting caught in an avalanche must be like."
"Are you all right?" Krispos asked. "What do you need?"
"A new carcass, for starters." With visible effort, Trokoundos drew up the corners of his mouth. "He was strong as a plow mule, was Skeparnas. Had the northerners not distracted him ... well, your Majesty, let me just say I'm glad they did."
"So am I." Krispos glanced over to Skeparnas' body. The rest of the men from the fortress had pulled back as if the wizard were dead of plague. "I think we can guess his conscience was troubling him."
"He didn't seem anxious to meet you, did he?" Trokoundos' smile, though still strained, seemed more firmly attached to his face now. He got to his feet, waving off Krispos' effort to help. Trokoundos' gaze also went to Skeparnas' sprawled corpse. He wearily shook his head. "Aye, your Majesty, I'm very glad the Halogai distracted him."
Krispos looked over the Cattle-Crossing east to Videssos the city. Behind its seawalls, nearly as massive as the great double rampart that shielded its landward side, the city reared on seven hills. Gilded spheres atop the spires of innumerable temples to Phos shone under the warm summer sun, as if they were so many tiny suns themselves.
As he climbed down into the imperial barge that would carry him across the strait to the capital, Krispos thought, I'm going home. The notion still felt strange to him. He'd needed many years in Videssos the city before it, rather than the village from which he sprang, seemed his right and proper place in the world. But his dwelling was there, his wife, his child. Probably his child, at any rate—certainly his heir. Sure as sure, that all made home.
The rowers dug in. The barge glided through the light chop of the Cattle-Crossing toward the city. Krispos was so happy to see it draw near that he ignored his stomach's misgivings over being at sea.
The barge drew to a halt in front of the westernmost gate in the seawall, the gate closest to the palaces. The two valves swung open just as the barge arrived. By now Krispos had come to expect imperial ceremonial to operate so smoothly. The barge captain waved to his sailors. They tied up the barge, set a gangplank in place, then turned and nodded to Krispos. He strode up the plank and into the city.
Along with some of his palace servitors, a delegation of nobles awaited Krispos within the gate. They prostrated themselves before him, shouting, "Thou conquerest, Krispos Avtokrator!" For once, he thought, bemused, the ancient acclamation was literally true. "Thou conquerest!" his greeters cried again as they rose.
Among them he saw Iakovitzes. Clad in bright silks, impeccably groomed, the noble looked himself again, though he was no longer plump. But he perforce stood mute while his companions cried out praise for the Emperor. The unfairness of that tore at Krispos. He beckoned to Iakovitzes, giving him favor in the eyes of his fellows. Iakovitzes' chest puffed out with pride as he came up to Krispos and bowed before him.
"Now the small war, the needful war, is done," Krispos said. "Now we can start the greater fight and give you the vengeance you deserve. By the lord with the great and good mind, I pledge again that you will have it."
He'd thought that would give the nobles and servants another chance to cheer. Instead they stood silently, as if bereft of their tongues as Iakovitzes. Iakovitzes himself unhooked from his belt a tablet ornamented with enamelwork and precious stones; his stylus looked to be made of gold. When the noble opened the tablet, Krispos' nose told him the wax was perfumed. Maimed Iakovitzes might be, but he'd adapted to his injury with panache.
He wrote quickly. "Then you haven't heard, your Majesty? How could you not have?"
"Heard what?" Krispos said when he'd read the words.
Several people guessed what he meant and started to answer, but Iakovitzes waved them to silence. His stylus raced over the wax with tiny slithery sounds. When he was done, he handed the tablet to Krispos. "About ten days ago, Agapetos was heavily defeated north of Imbros. Mavros gathered what force he could and set out to avenge the loss."
Krispos stared at the tablet as if the words on it had betrayed him. "The good god knows, enough couriers brought me dispatches from the city while I was in the westlands. Set against this news, every word they carried was so much gossip and fiddle-faddle. So why was I not told?" His gaze fastened on Barsymes.
The vestiarios' face went pale as milk. "But Majesty," he quavered, "the Sevastos assured me he was keeping you fully informed before he departed for the frontier and promised to continue doing so while on campaign."
"I don't believe you," Krispos said. "Why would he do anything so—" He groped for a word "—so foolhardy?" But that was hardly out of his mouth before he saw an answer. His foster brother had known Krispos did not want him to go out of the city to fight, but not why. If Mavros thought Krispos doubted his courage or ability, he might well have wanted to win a victory just to prove him wrong. And he would have to do it secretly, to keep Krispos from stopping him.
But Krispos knew Mavros was able and brave—would he have named him Sevastos otherwise? What he feared was for his foster brother's safety. Tanilis was not the sort to send idle warnings.
The taste of triumph turned bitter in his mouth. He turned and dashed back through the seawall gate, ignoring the startled cries that rose behind him. The captain and crew of the imperial barge gaped to see him reappear. He ignored their surprise, too. "Row back across the Cattle-Crossing fast as you can," he told the captain. "Order Mammianos to ready the whole army to cross to this side as fast as boats can bring it here. Tell him I intend to move north against Harvas the instant the whole force is here. Do you have all that?"
"I—think so, your Majesty." Stammering a little, the barge captain repeated his orders. Krispos nodded curtly. The captain bawled orders to his men. They cast off the ropes that held the barge next to the wall, then backed oars. As if it were a fighting galley, the imperial barge pivoted almost in its own length, then streaked toward the westlands.
Krispos stood back. Barsymes stood in the gateway. "What of the celebratory procession down Middle Street tomorrow, your Majesty?" he said. "What of the festival of thanksgiving at the High Temple? What of the distribution of largess to the people?"
"Cancel everything," Krispos snapped. After a moment he reconsidered. "No, go on and pay out the largess—that'll keep the city folk happy enough for a while. But with the northern frontier coming to pieces, I don't think we have much to celebrate."
"As you wish, your Majesty," Barsymes said with a sorrowful bow: he lived for ceremonial. "What will you do with your brief time in the city, then?"
"Talk with my generals," Krispos said—the first thing that entered his mind. He went on, "See Dara for a bit." Not only did he miss her, he knew he had to stay on good terms with her, the more so now that her father was with him. As something close to an afterthought, he added, "I'll see Phostis, too."
"Very well, your Majesty." Now Barsymes sounded as if all was very well; with no chance for a child of his own, the eunuch doted on Phostis. "As your generals are still on the far side of the Cattle-Crossing, shall I conduct you to the imperial residence in the meantime?"
"Good enough." Krispos smiled at the vestiarios' unflagging efficiency. Barsymes waved. A dozen parasol-bearers—the imperial number—lined up in front of Krispos. He followed the colorful silk canopies toward the grove of cherry trees that surrounded his private chambers—not, he thought, that anything having to do with the Emperor's person was what would be reckoned private for anyone else.
The Halogai outside the residence sprang to attention when they saw the parasol-bearers. "Majesty!" they shouted.
"Your brothers fought bravely, battling the rebel," Krispos said.
Grins split the northerners' faces. "Hear how he speaks in our style," one said. Krispos grinned, too, glad they'd noticed. He climbed the steps and strode into the imperial residence.
Barsymes bustled past him. "Let me fetch the nurse, your Majesty, with your son." He hurried down the hall, calling for the woman. She came out of a doorway. Phostis was in her arms.
She squeaked when she saw Krispos. "Your Majesty! We hadn't looked for you so soon. But come see what a fine lad your son's gotten to be." She held out the baby invitingly. Krispos took him. The bit of practice he'd had holding Phostis before he went on campaign came back to him. He had a good deal more to hold now.
He lifted the baby up close to his face. As he always did, he tried to decide whom Phostis resembled. As if deliberately to keep him in the dark, Phostis still looked like his mother—and like himself. His features seemed far more distinctly his own than they had when he was newborn. He did have his mother's eyes, though—and his grandfather's.
Phostis was looking at Krispos, too, without recognition but with interest. When his eyes met Krispos', he smiled. Delighted, Krispos smiled back.
"See how he takes to you?" the nurse crooned. "Isn't that sweet?"
The baby's face scrunched up in fierce concentration. Krispos felt the arm he had under Phostis' bottom grow warm and damp. He handed him back to the nurse. "I think he's made a mess." A moment later any possible doubt left him.
"They have a habit of doing that," the nurse said. Krispos nodded; with a farm upbringing, he was intimately familiar with messes of every variety. The nurse went on, "I'll clean him up. I expect you want to see your lady, anyhow."
"Yes," Krispos said. "I don't think I'll be in the city very long." That did not surprise the nurse, but then, she'd known about the disaster near Imbros longer than he had.
Barsymes said, "Her Majesty will be at the needle this time of day." He led Krispos past the portrait of Stavrakios. Krispos wondered how the tough old Avtokrator would have judged his first war.
The sewing room had a fine north-facing window. Dara sat by it, bent close to her work. The tapestry on which she labored might not be finished in her lifetime; when one day it was, it would hang in the Grand Courtroom. She knew sober pride that the finest embroiderers in the city judged her skill great enough to merit inclusion in such a project.
She did not notice the door open behind her. Only when Krispos stepped between her and the window and made the light change did she look up; even after that, she needed a moment to return from the peacock whose shining feathers spread wider with each stitch she took.
"It's beautiful work," Krispos said.
She heard the praise in his voice, nodded without false modesty. "It was going well today, I thought." She jabbed needle into linen, set the tapestry aside, and got to her feet. "Which doesn't mean I can't put it down to hail a conqueror." Smiling now, she squeezed him hard enough to make the air whoosh from his lungs, then tilted her face up for a kiss.
"Aye, one victory won," he said after a bit. His hands lingered, not wanting to draw away from her. He saw that pleased her, but saw also by the way her eyebrows lowered slightly and pinched together that she was not altogether content. He thought he knew why. His tone roughened. "But, also, I learn just now, a loss in the north to balance it."
That further sobered her. "Yes," she said. Then, after a pause, she asked, "How do you mean, you just now learn?
Surely Mavros sent word on to you of what had happened to Agapetos."
"Not a whisper of it," Krispos said angrily, "nor that he aimed to take the field himself. I think he hid it from me on purpose because he knew I'd forbid him on account of his mother's letter."
"I'd forgotten that." Dara's eyes went wide. "What will you do, then?"
"Go after him and—I hope—rescue him from his folly." Krispos scowled, irritated as much with himself as with Mavros. "I wish I'd flat-out told him what Tanilis wrote. But I was afraid he'd sally forth then just to prove he wouldn't let her run his life. And so I didn't spell things out—and he's sallied forth anyhow."
He misliked that; it had the air of the working out of some malign fate. He drew the sun-circle over his heart to turn aside the evil omen.
Dara also signed herself. She said, "Not all foretelling is truth, for which the lord with the great and good mind be praised. Who could bear to live, knowing that someone less man the good god knew what was to come? Maybe Tanilis felt a mother's fear and made too much of it. Now that I have Phostis, I know how that can be."
"Maybe." But Krispos did not believe it. Tanilis had called him "Majesty" when only a madman could have imagined he would ever dwell in the imperial residence, wearing imperial robes. Only a madman—or one who saw true.
"Have you further need for my services, Majesties?" Barsymes asked. Krispos and Dara, their eyes on each other, shook their heads at the same time. "Then if you will excuse me—" The vestiarios bowed his way out.
No sooner had he gone than Dara demanded, "And how many willing, pretty country girls kept your bed warm while you were away in the westlands?"
It might have been a joke; she kept her tone light. But Krispos did not think it was. After being married to Anthimos, Dara could hardly be blamed for doubting his fidelity when he was not under her eye—maybe even when he was. After a little thought he answered, "Do you think I'd be stupid enough to do anything like that when your father was in camp with me for most of the campaign?"
"No, I suppose not," she said judiciously. She set hands on hips and looked up as she had to do to meet his eyes. "You slept alone, then, all the time you were away from the city?"
"I said so."
Krispos let a long, exasperated breath hiss out. "How am I supposed to—?" In the middle of his sentence, he saw a way. Four quick steps took him to the door. He slammed and barred it. As quickly, he returned to her side and took her in his arms. His lips came down on hers.
Some while later she said, "Get off me, will you? Not only is the floor hard, it's cold, and I expect I have the marks of mosaic tiles on my backside, too."
Krispos sat back on his haunches. Dara drew one leg up past him and rolled away. He said, "Yes, as a matter of feet, you do."
"I thought as much," she said darkly. But in spite of herself, she could not contrive to sound annoyed. "I hadn't looked for your proof to be so—vehement."
"That?" Krispos raised an eyebrow. "After going without for so long, that was just the beginning of my proof."
"Braggart," she said before her eyes left his face. Then her brows also lifted. "What have we here?" Smiling, she reached out a hand to discover what they had there. That, too, rose to the occasion. Before they began again, she said, "Can the second part of your proof wait till we go to the bedchamber? It would be more comfortable there."
"So it would," Krispos said. "Why not?" An advantage of the imperial robes was that they slid off—and now on—quickly and easily. Their principal disadvantage became obvious when the weather got cold. Peasants sensibly labored in tunics and trousers. Krispos shivered when he thought of rounding up sheep in winter with an icy wind whistling up a robe and howling around his private parts.
That was not a worry at the moment. Serving maids grinned as Krispos and Dara headed for the bedchamber hand in hand. Krispos carefully took no notice of the grins. He had begun to resign himself to the prospect of a life led with scant privacy. That had been easy for Anthimos, who'd owned no inhibitions of any sort. It could still sometimes unnerve Krispos. He wondered if the servants kept count.
When he was behind a closed door again, such trivial concerns vanished. He doffed his robe a second time, then helped Dara off with hers. They lay down together. This time they made slower, less driven love, kissing, caressing, joining together, and then separating once more to spin it out and make it last.
As the afterglow faded, Krispos said, "I think I'll bring your father along with me when I take the army north."
Beside him, Dara laughed. "You needn't do it for my sake. I couldn't hope for more or better proof than you've given me. Or could I?" Her hand lazily toyed with him. "Shall we see what comes up?"
"I think you'll have to get your comeuppance another time," he said.
She snorted, gave him an almost painful squeeze, then sat up. Abruptly she was serious. "As I think on it, having my father with you might be a good idea. If he stayed here in the city while you were away, he could forget on whose head the crown properly belongs."
"I can see that," Krispos said. "He's an able man, and able, too, to keep his own counsel. Maybe that comes of his living by the western frontier; from all I've seen, it's rare among folk here in the city. People here show off what they know, to make themselves seem important."
"You've always been able to keep secret what needs keeping," Dara said. Krispos nodded; the very bed in which they lay testified to that. Dara went on, "Why are you surprised others can do the same?"
"I didn't say that." Krispos paused to put what he felt into words. "It was easier for me because people looked down at me for so long. They didn't take me seriously for a long time— I don't think Petronas took me seriously until the siege train came up to Antigonos. But he'd known your father for years, and your father managed to keep his trust till the instant he came over to me."
"He's always held things to himself," Dara said. "He can be ... surprising."
"I believe you." Krispos did not want Rhisoulphos to surprise him. The more he thought about it, the more keeping his father-in-law under his eye seemed a good idea. He let out a long sigh.
"What's the matter?" Dara asked in some concern. "You're not usually one to be sad afterward."
"I'm not—not about that. I just wish I could have more than moments stolen now and again when I didn't have to fret about every single thing that went on in the palaces and in the city and in the Empire and in all the lands that touch on the Empire— and in all the lands that touch on those lands, too, by the good god," Krispos added, remembering that the first he'd heard of Harvas Black-Robe was when his raiders ravaged Thatagush, far to the northeast of Videssian territory.
Dara said, "You could do as Anthimos did, and simply not fret about things."
"Look where that got Anthimos—aye, and the Empire, too," Krispos said. "No, I'm made so I have to fret over anything I know of that needs fretting over."
"And over things you don't know but wish you could find out," Dara said.
Krispos' wry chuckle acknowledged the hit. "Think how much grief I could have saved everyone if I'd known Gnatios was going to help Petronas escape from his monastery. As it worked out in the end, I'd even have saved Petronas grief."
Dara shook her head. "No. He lived for power, not for the trappings but for the thing itself. You saw that. You would have let him live on as a monk, but he'd sooner have died—and he did."
Krispos thought about it and decided she was right. "If he'd given me the same choice, I'd have yielded up my hair and forgotten the world."
"Even though that means giving up women, as well?" Dara asked slyly. She slid her thigh over till it brushed against his.
He blinked at her. "Which of us missed the other more?"
"I don't know. That we missed each other at all strikes me as a good sign. We have to live with each other; more pleasant if we're able to enjoy it."
"Something to that," Krispos admitted. He took stock of himself. "If you wait just a bit longer, I might manage another round of proof."
"Might you indeed?" Dara got up on hands and knees, bent her head over him. "Maybe I can help speed that wait along."
"Maybe you can... Oh, yes." He reached out to stroke her. Her curls twisted round his fingers like black snakes.
Later, he lay back and watched the bedchamber grow shadowy as afternoon slid toward evening. Hunger eventually overcame his lassitude. He started to reach up to the scarlet bellpull, then stopped and got into his robe first. He was not Anthimos, after all.
Moving just as slowly, Dara also dressed. "What will you do after supper?" she asked once he'd told Barsymes what he wanted.
"Spend the night staring at maps with my generals," Krispos said. To please her, he tried to sound glum. But he looked forward, not to the campaign that lay ahead, but to the planning that went into it. He'd never seen a map before he came to Videssos the city. That there could be pictures of the world fascinated him; establishing on one of those pictures where he would be day by day gave him a truly imperial feeling of power.
"Think what you could be doing instead," Dara said.
"If you think so, you flatter me," he told her. "I'm surprised I can walk." She stuck out her tongue at him. He laughed. Despite the hard news that began it, this had not been a bad day.
Krispos shaded his eyes with a hand as he looked northward. The horizon ahead was still smooth. He sighed and shook his head. "When I start seeing the mountains, I'll know I'm close to the country where I grew up," he said.
"Close also to where the trouble is," Sarkis observed.
"Aye." Krispos' brief nostalgia deepened to true pain and anger. The summer before, Harvas' raiders had gone through the village where he'd grown up. His sister, her husband, and their two girls had still lived in the village. No one lived there now.
Ungreased wheels squeaked—sometimes screamed—as supply wagons rattled along. Horses, mules, and men afoot kicked up choking clouds of dust. Soldiers sang and joked. Why not? Krispos thought. They're still in their own country. If they sang as they came home again, he would have done something worth remembering.
Sarkis said, "The riders we sent ahead toward Mavros' army should get back to us in the next couple of days. Then we'll know how things stand."
"They'll get back to us in a couple of days if all's gone well and Mavros has pressed forward," Mammianos said. "If he's taken a reverse, they won't have had so far to travel to meet up with him, so they'll be back sooner."
But none of them—Mammianos, Sarkis, or Krispos—expected the riders to begin coming back that afternoon, the third of their march out from Videssos the city. Yet come back they did, with horses driven to bloody-mouthed exhaustion and with faces grim and drawn. And behind them, first by ones and twos, then in larger groups, came the shattered remains of Mavros' army.
Krispos ordered an early halt for his troops as evening neared. Advancing farther would have been like trying to make headway against a strong-flowing stream. A stream, though, did not infect with fear the men who moved against it. Seeing what had befallen their fellows, Krispos' soldiers warily eyed every lengthening shadow, as if screaming northern warriors might erupt from it at any moment.
While the army's healer-priests did what they could for the wounded, Krispos and his generals questioned haler survivors, trying to sift fragments of order from catastrophe. Not much was to be found. A young lieutenant named Zernes told the tale as well as anyone. "Majesty, they caught us by surprise. They waited in the brush along either side of the road south of Imbros and hit us as we passed them by."
"By the good god!" Mammianos exploded. "Didn't you have scouts out?" He muttered something into his beard about puppies who imagined they were generals.
"The scouts were out," Zernes insisted. "They were, by the lord with the great and good mind. The Sevastos knew he was not fully trained to command and left all such details to his officers. They might not have been so many Stavrakioi come again, but they knew their craft. The scouts found nothing."
Mammianos wheezed laughter at the lieutenant's youthful indiscretion. Krispos had ears only for the long string of past tenses the man used. "The Sevastos knew? He left these details? Where is Mavros now?"
"Majesty, on that I cannot take oath," Zernes said carefully. "But I do not think he was one of the people lucky enough to break free from the trap. And from what we saw, the Halogai wasted time with few prisoners."
"May he bask in Phos' light forevermore," Mammianos said. He sketched the sun-sign over his breast.
Mechanically Krispos did the same. The young officer's words seemed to reach him from far away. Even with the foreboding he'd had since he learned Mavros was on campaign, he could not believe his foster brother dead. Mavros had been always at his side for years, had fought Anthimos with him, had been first to acknowledge him as Avtokrator. How could he be gone?
Then he found another question, a worse one because it dealt with the living. How was he to tell Tanilis?
While he grappled with that, Mammianos asked Zernes, "Were you pursued? Or don't you know, having fled so fast no foes afoot could keep up with you?"
The lieutenant bristled as he set a hand to the hilt of his saber. He forced himself to ease. "There was no pursuit, excellent sir," he said icily. "Aye, we were mauled, but we hurt the northerners, too. When they broke off with us, they headed back toward the mountains, not south on our tails."
"Something," Mammianos grunted. "What of Imbros, then?"
"Excellent sir, that I could not say, for we never reached Imbros," Zernes answered. "But since Agapetos was beaten north of the town and we to the south, I fear the worst."
"Thank you, Lieutenant. You may go," Krispos said, trying to make himself function in the face of disaster. First Mavros throwing his life away, now Imbros almost surely lost... Imbros, the only city he'd ever known till he left his village and came south to the capital. He'd sometimes sold pigs there, and thought it a very grand place, though the whole town was not much larger than the plaza of Palamas in Videssos the city.
"What do we do now, your Majesty?" Mammianos asked.
"We go on," Krispos said. "What other choice have we?"
As the army advanced, scouts not only examined stands of brush and other places that might hold an ambush—they also shot arrows into them. Some of the lesser mages who served under Trokoundos rode with the scouting parties to sniff out sorcerous concealments. They found none. As Zernes said, Harvas' army had headed back to its northern home after crushing Mavros.
Flocks of ravens and vultures and crows, disturbed from then-feasting, rose into the air like black clouds when Krispos' men came to that dolorous field. The birds circled overhead, screeching and cawing resentfully. "Burial parties," Krispos ordered.
"It will cost us the rest of the day," Mammianos said.
"Let it. I don't think we'll catch them on this side of the frontier anyhow," Krispos said. Mammianos nodded and passed the command along. As the soldiers began their grim task, a twist of breeze brought Krispos the battlefield stench, worse than he had ever smelled it before. He coughed and shook his head.
He walked the field despite the stench, to see if he could find Mavros' body. He could not tell it by robes or fine armor; Harvas' men had stayed long enough to loot. After several days of hot sun and carrion birds, no corpse was easy to identify. He saw several that might have been his foster brother, but was sure of none.
The soldiers were quiet in camp that night, so quiet that Krispos wondered if pausing to bury Mavros' dead had been wise. A sudden attack might well have broken them. But the night passed peacefully. When morning came, priests led the men in prayers of greeting to Phos' new-risen sun. Perhaps heartened by that, they seemed in better spirits than they had before.
Before the morning was very old, a pair of scouts came galloping back to the main body of men. They rode straight to Krispos. Saluting, one said, "Majesty, ahead is something you must see."
"What is it?" Krispos asked.
The scout spat in the dust of the roadway, as if to show his rejection of Skotos. "I won't dirty my tongue with the words to tell you, your Majesty. My eyes have been soiled; let my mouth stay clean." His comrade nodded vigorously. Neither would say more.
Krispos traded glances with his officers. After a moment he nodded and urged Progress forward. The Halogai of the imperial guard came with him. So did Trokoundos. The wizard muttered to himself, choosing charms and readying them in advance against need.
"How far is it?" Krispos asked the scouts. "Round this bend in the road here, your Majesty," answered the horseman who had spoken before. "Just past these oaks." While the fellow was not watching, Krispos made sure his saber was loose in its scabbard. A troop of guardsmen pushed ahead of him as the party swung past the trees. Even so, from atop his horse he could see well enough.
First he noticed only the bodies, a hundred or so, and that their gear proclaimed them to be Videssian soldiers. Then he saw that each man's hands had been tied behind his back. The dead soldiers' feet were toward him, so he needed a few seconds more than he might have otherwise for his eyes to travel beyond the bodies to the neat pyramid of heads that lay beyond them. "You see, your Majesty," said the scout who liked to talk. "I see," Krispos answered. "I see helpless prisoners butchered for the sport of it." He clutched Progress' reins so hard, his knuckles whitened.
"Butchered, aye. That is well said, Majesty." Krispos had never heard a Haloga recoil from war and its consequences.
Now Geirrod did. Without prompting, the guardsman explained why: "Where is the honor, where even is the rightness, in using captives so? This is the work of one more used to slaying cattle than men."
"It's of a piece with what we've seen from Harvas and those who follow him." Krispos hesitated before he went on, but what he had to say needed saying sooner or later. "Most of those who follow Harvas come out of Halogaland. Will you have qualms about fighting them?"
The guardsmen shouted angrily. Geirrod said, "Majesty, we knew this. We talked among ourselves, aye we did, on how such a fight might be, swapping axe strokes with our own kind. But no man who could slaughter so, or stand by to see others slaying, is kin of mine." The other northerners shouted again, this time in loud agreement.
"Shall we start burying this lot, Majesty?" the scout asked.
Krispos slowly shook his head. "No. Let the whole army see them, and with them the sort of foe we fight." He knew he was running a risk. The massacred prisoners had been set in the road to terrify, and his men were none too steady after listening to the survivors from Mavros' force. But he thought—he hoped— this cold-blooded killing would raise in all his soldiers the same fury he and the Halogai felt.
A few minutes later the head of the long column rounded that bend in the road. Krispos gave the guards quick orders. They formed up in the roadway and directed the leading horsemen off the track and onto the grass and shrubs that grew alongside. Some of the troopers began to argue until they saw Krispos with the Halogai, also waving them off.
He watch closely as his men came upon the grisly warning Harvas had left behind. They all stared. Horror filled their faces, as was only natural, but on most outrage soon ousted it. Some soldiers swore, others sketched the sun-sign; not a few did both at once.
Their eyes swung from the bodies—and from that ghastly pyramid beyond them—to Krispos. He raised his voice. "This is the enemy we have loose in our land. Shall we run back to Videssos the city now, with our tails between our legs, and let him do as he likes in the northlands?"
"No." The word came, deep and determined, from many throats at once, like the growl of some enormous wolf. Krispos wished Harvas could have heard it. Soon enough, in effect, he would. Krispos set clenched right fist over his heart to salute his soldiers.
He stayed by the slain Videssians until the last wagon jounced past. The troops from the middle and back of the column had an idea of what lay ahead of them; if armies traveled at the speed of whispers, they could cross the Empire in a day and a night. But knowing and seeing were not the same. Company by company, men stared at the sorry spectacle—first, even knowing, in disbelief, then with ever-growing anger.
"Now we may bury them," Krispos said when everyone had seen. "They've given us their last service by showing what our enemy is like." He saluted the dead men before he rode on to retake his place in the advance.
The mood in camp that night was savage. No speech Krispos made could have inspired his troops like the fete of their fellows. Hoping against hope, he asked his generals, "Is there any chance we'll catch up with Harvas' men on our side of the mountains?" Mammianos plucked at his beard as he examined the map. "Hard to say. They're footsoldiers, so we move faster than they do. But they have some days' start on us, too."
"Much depends on what's happened at Imbros," Sarkis added. "If the garrison there still holds firm, that might help
"I think Imbros still stands," Krispos said. "If it had fallen, wouldn't we be seeing fugitives from the sack, the way we did from Mavros' army?" Even now, a day after he knew the worst, he found himself forgetting his foster brother was dead, only to be brought up short every so often when he was reminded of it: As if he had taken a wound, he thought, and the injured part pained him every time he tried to use it.
Rhisoulphos said, "My best guess is that you're right, your Majesty. There are always refugees from a city that falls: the lucky; the old; sometimes the young, if an enemy has more mercy than Harvas looks to own." His mouth tightened as he went on, "That we've seen no one from Imbros at all tells me its people are still safe behind their wall." He waved to a plan of the town. "It seems well enough fortified."
"It's like your holding, Rhisoulphos," Mammianos said. "On the border, we still need our walls. Some of the towns in the lowlands in the west, though, where they haven't seen war for a couple of hundred years, they've knocked most of 'em down and used the stone for houses."
"Fools," Rhisoulphos said succinctly.
Krispos turned the talk back to the issue at hand. "Suppose we find Harvas' men, or some of them, still besieging Imbros? What's the best way to hurt them then?"
"Pray to Phos the Lord who made the princes first that we catch them so, your Majesty," Sarkis said; the strange epithet he used for the good god made Krispos recall his Vaspurakaner blood. He went on, "If we do, they'll be smashed between our hammer and an anvil of the garrison."
"May it be so," Krispos said. All the generals murmured in agreement.
Pragmatic as usual, Rhisoulphos had the last word. "One way or the other, we'll know for certain in a couple of days."
Half a day south of Imbros, the land began to look familiar to Krispos. That was as far as he'd ever traveled, back in the days before he set out for Videssos the city. He took it as a signal to order the army to full battle alert. That brought less change than it might have under other circumstances, for the men had kept themselves ready to fight since they'd seen the slaughtered prisoners.
Scouts darted ahead to sniff out the enemy. When they returned, their news brought a sober smile to Krispos' face, for they'd spied hundreds, perhaps thousands of people outside Imbros. "What could that be, save Harvas' besieging force?" he exulted. "We have them!"
Trumpets shouted. Krispos' army knew what that meant, knew what it had to mean. The Videssian soldiers, thoroughgoing professionals the lot of them, waved their lances and yowled like so many horse nomads off the steppes of Pardraya. Against a foe Like Harvas, even professionals grew eager to fight.
Smooth with long practice, the troops swung themselves from column to line of battle. Forward! cried horns and drums. The army surged ahead, wild and irresistible as the sea. Officers shouted, warning men to keep horses fresh for combat.
"We have them!" Krispos said again. He drew his saber and brandished it over his head.
Mammianos stared, a trifle goggle-eyed at the ferocity the soldiers displayed. "Aye, Majesty, if Harvas truly did sit down in front of Imbros, we just may. I'd not reckoned him so foolish."
The general's words set off a warning bell in Krispos' mind. Harvas had shown himself cruel and vicious. Never yet, so far as Krispos could see, had he been foolish. Counting on his stupidity now struck Krispos as dangerous.
He said as much to Mammianos. The fat general looked thoughtful. "I see what you mean, Majesty. Maybe he wants us to come haring along so he can serve us as he did Mavros. If we miss an ambush—"
"Just what I'm thinking," Krispos said. He called to the musicians. Soldiers cursed and shouted when At a walk rang out. Krispos yelled for Trokoundos. When the mage rode up, he told him, "I want you out in front of the army. If you can't sense sorcerous screening for an ambush, no one can."
"As may be so, your Majesty," Trokoundos answered soberly. "Harvas has uncommon—and unpleasant—magical skill. Nevertheless, I shall do what I can for you." He clucked to his horse, using reins and his boot heels to urge the animal into a trot. With the rest of the army walking, he was soon up among the scouts. The advance continued, though more slowly than before.
No cunningly hidden sorcerous pit yawned in the roadway. No hordes of Halogai charged roaring from the shelter of brush or trees. The only damage was to the fields the army trampled as it moved ahead in line of battle. Looking off to left and right, Krispos saw ruined villages and suspected few farmers were left to work those fields in any case.
A gray smudge on the northern horizon, light against the green woods and purple mountains behind it: Imbros' wall. Now it was Krispos' turn to yowl. He turned to Mammianos and showed his teeth like a wolf. "We're here, excellent sir, in spite of all our worries."
"By the good god, so we are." Mammianos glanced first to Krispos, then to the musicians. Krispos nodded. "At the trot, gentlemen," Mammianos said. The musicians passed along the command. The soldiers cheered.
Imbros drew nearer. Krispos saw in the distance the people outside the walls that his scouts had reported. His wolf's grin grew wide ... but then slipped from his face. Why did Harvas' men simply hold their position? If he saw them, surely they had seen him. But no one around the walls moved, nor did anyone seem to be on those walls.
Up ahead with the scouts, Trokoundos suddenly wheeled his horse and galloped back toward Krispos. He was shouting something. Over the noise any moving army makes, Krispos needed a few seconds to hear what it was. "Dead! They're all dead!"
"Who? Who's dead?" troopers yelled at the wizard. Krispos echoed them. For a heady moment, he imagined disease had struck down Harvas' host where they stood. They deserved nothing better, he thought with somber glee.
But Trokoundos answered, "The folk of Imbros, all piteously slain." He reined in, leaned down onto his horse's neck, and wept without shame or restraint.
Krispos spurred his horse forward. After Trokoundos' warning, after the way the wizard, usually so self-controlled, had broken down, he thought he was braced for the worst. He needed only moments to discover how little he had imagined what the worst might be. The people of Imbros were not merely slain. They had been impaled, thousands of them—men, women, and children—each on his own separate stake. The stakes were uniformly black all the way to the ground with old dried blood.
The soldiers who advanced with Krispos stared in disbelieving horror at the spectacle Harvas had left behind for them. They were no strangers to dealing out death; some of them, perhaps, were no strangers to massacre, on the sordid but human scale of the butchered prisoners farther south. But at Imbros the size of the massacre was enough to daunt even a monster of a man.
Sarkis swatted at the flies that rose in buzzing clouds from the swollen, stinking corpses. "Well, your Majesty, now we know why no fugitives came south from Imbros to warn us of its fall," he said. "No one was able to flee."
"This can't be everyone who lived in Imbros," Krispos protested. He knew his heart was speaking, not his mind; he could see how many people squatted on their stakes in a ghastly parody of alertness.
In a way, though, he was proven right. As the army made its way through the neat concentric rows of bodies to Imbros' wall, the men soon discovered how Harvas' warriors had entered the city: the northern quadrant of those walls was cast down in ruins, down to the very ground.
"Like Develtos," Trokoundos said. His eyes were red; tears still tracked his cheeks. He held his voice steady by force of will, like a man controlling a restive horse. "Like Develtos, save that they must have been hurried there. Here they had the time to do their proper job."
When Krispos entered Imbros, he found what had befallen the rest of the folk who had dwelt there. They lay dead in the streets; the town had been burned over their heads after they fell.
"Mostly men in here, I'd say," Mammianos observed. "And look—here's a mail shirt that missed getting stolen. These must have been the ones who tried to fight back. Once they were gone, looks like Harvas had his filthy fun with everyone else."
"Aye," Krispos said. Calmly discussing the hows and whys of wholesale slaughter as he went through its aftermath struck him as grotesque. But if he was to understand—as well as an ordinary man could ever grasp such destruction—what else were he and his followers to do?
He walked the dead streets of the murdered city, Trokoundos at his side and a troop of Halogai all around him to protect against anything that might lurk there yet. The northerners peered every which way, their pale eyes wide. They muttered to themselves in their own tongue.
At last Narvikka asked, "Majesty, why all this—this making into nothing? To sack a town, to despoil a town, is all very well, but for what purpose did our cousins slay this town and then cast the corpse onto the fire?"
"I'd hoped you could tell me," Krispos said. The guardsman, as was the Haloga way, had stripped the problem to its core. War for loot, war for belief, war for territory made sense to Krispos. But what reason could lie behind war for the sake of utter devastation?
Narvikka made a sign with his fingers—had he been a Videssian, Krispos guessed he would have drawn the sun-circle over his heart. That guard said, "Majesty, I cannot fathom the minds of the men who fought here. That they are of my folk raises only shame in me. Renegades and outlawed men would not act so, much less warriors from honest holdings." Other northerners nodded.
"But they did act so," Krispos said. Every time he breathed, he took in the miasma of dead flesh and old smoke. He let his feet lead him through Imbros; even after so many years away, they seemed to remember how the bigger streets ran. Before long, he found himself in the central market square, looking across it toward the temple.
Once he'd thought that temple the grandest building he'd ever seen. Now he knew it was but a provincial imitation of Phos' High Temple in Videssos the city, and not a particularly impressive one, either. But even fire-ravaged as it was now, it still raised memories in him, memories of awe and faith and belief.
Those memories clashed terribly with the row of impaled bodies in front of the temple, the first he'd seen inside Imbros who had received that treatment rather than the quicker, cleaner death of axe or sword or fire. What with the stains of blood and smoke, he needed a moment to realize those victims all wore the blue robe. He sketched the sun-sign.
So did Trokoundos beside him. "Did I not hear they were savage to priests in Develtos, as well?" the wizard asked quietly.
"Aye, so they were." Krispos' boots clicked on flagstones as he walked across the square toward the temple. He stepped around a couple of corpses of the ordinary, crumpled sort. By now, numb with the scale of the butchery here, he found them hardly more than obstacles in his path.
But what the priests had suffered penetrated even that numbness. Though some days dead, their bodies still gave mute testimony to those special torments. As if impalement were insufficient anguish, some had had their manhood cut away, other their guts stretched along the ground for the carrion birds, still others their beards—and their faces—burned away.
Krispos turned his back on them, then made himself look their way once more. "May Phos take their souls into the light."
"So may it be," Trokoundos said. "But Skotos seems to have had his way with their bodies." Together, he and Krispos spat.
Krispos said, "All this ground will have to be blessed before we can rebuild. Who would want to live here otherwise, after this?" He nodded to himself. "I'll suspend taxes for the new folk I move in, and keep them off for a while, to try another way to make people want to stay once they've come."
"Spoken like an Emperor," Trokoundos said.
"Spoken like a man who wants Imbros to be a living city again soon," Krispos said impatiently. "It's a bulwark against whoever raids down from Kubrat, and in peacetime it's the main market town for the land near the mountains."
"And now, Majesty?" Trokoundos said. "Will you pause to bury the dead here?"
"No," Krispos said, impatient still. "I want to come to grips with Harvas as soon as I can." He glanced toward the sun, which stood low in the west—days were shorter now than they had been while he laid siege to Petronas. Again he cursed the time he'd had to spend in civil war. "There's not a lot of summer left to waste."
"No denying that, your Majesty," Trokoundos said. "But—" He let the word hang.
Krispos had no trouble finishing for him. "But Harvas knows that, too. Aye, I'm all too sure he does. I'm all too sure he has some deviltry brewing, too, just waiting for us. I trust my soldiers to match his. As for magic—how strong can Harvas be?"
Trokoundos' lips twisted in a grin that seemed gayer than it was. "I expect, your Majesty, that before too long I shall find out."
More eager for fighting than any army Krispos had known, his force stormed north up the highway after Harvas' raiders. "Imbros!" was their cry; the name of the murdered city was never far from their lips.
The Paristrian Mountains towered against the northern horizon now, the highest peaks still snow-covered even in later summer. Some of the men from the western lowlands exclaimed at them. To Krispos they were—not old friends, for he remembered the kind of weather that blew over them through half the year, but a presence to which he was accustomed all the same.
Everything hereabouts seemed familiar, from the quality of the light, paler and grayer than it was in Videssos the city, to the fields of ripening wheat and barley and oats—worked now only by the few farmers lucky enough to have escaped Harvas' men— to the way little tracks ran off the highway, now to the east, now to the west.
Krispos pulled Progress out of the line of march when he came to one of those roads. He stared west along it for a long time, his mind ranging farther than his eyes could reach.
"What is it, Majesty?" Geirrod asked at last. He had to speak twice before Krispos heard him.
"My village lies down this road," Krispos answered. "Or rather it did; Harvas' bandits went through here last year." He shook his head. "When I left, I hoped I'd come back with money in my belt pouch. I never dreamed it would be as Avtokrator— or that the people I grew up with wouldn't be here to greet me."
"The world is as it is, Majesty, not always as we dream it will be."
"Too true. Well, enough time wasted here." Krispos tapped Progress' flanks with his heels. The big bay gelding walked, then went into a trot that soon brought Krispos back to his proper place in the column.
The road ran straight up toward the gap in the mountains, past empty fields, past stands of oak and maple and pine, past a small chuckling stream, and, as the ground grew higher, past more and more outcroppings of cold gray stone. Though Krispos had not seen it since he was perhaps nine years old, the gray landscape seemed eerily familiar. He and his parents and sisters had come down this road after Iakovitzes ransomed them and hundreds of other Videssian peasants from captivity in Kubrat. He must have been keyed up almost to fever pitch then, for fear the Kubratoi would change their minds and swoop down again, for everything on that journey remained as vivid in his mind as if he'd lived it yesterday. The way water splashed from that clump of rocks in the stream had not changed at all in the two decades since, save that frogs had perched on them then.
The mountains themselves ... I've always been happier to see them getting smaller, Krispos thought. They were not getting smaller now, worse luck. Krispos peered up and ahead. Now he could see the opening of the pass that led to Kubrat. Agapetos got through with less force than I have, he thought. I will, too.
When he said that aloud, Mammianos grunted. "Aye, Agapetos got through, but he couldn't maintain himself north of the mountains.' And Harvas beat him again on this side, then came down first on Imbros and then onto Mavros' army. Strikes me he's been able to defeat us in detail, if you know what I mean."
"Are you telling me I shouldn't attack?" Krispos asked, scowling. "After all he's done to us, how can I halt now?"
The image of thousands of bodies, each gruesomely buggered by its own stake, shoved itself forward in his mind. With it came a new vision, that of hundreds of men matter-of-factly cutting and sharpening those stakes. How could they have kept to their work, knowing what the stakes would be used for? Even Kubratoi would have gagged on such cruelty, he thought. And Halogai, judging by long experience with the imperial guards, were harsh but rarely vicious. What made Harvas' men so different? Mammianos' reply brought him back to the here-and-now. "All I'm saying, your Majesty, is that Harvas strikes me as dangerous enough to need hitting with everything the Empire has. The more I see, the more I think that. What we have with us is strong, aye, but is it strong enough?"
"By the good god, Mammianos, I aim to find out," Krispos said. Mammianos bowed his head in submission. He could suggest, but when the Avtokrator decided, his lot was to obey. Or to mutiny, Krispos thought. But Mammianos had seen plenty of better chances than this for mutiny. His disagreement with Krispos lay in how best to hurt Harvas, not whether to.
The army camped just out of bowshot of the foothills that night. Peering north in the darkness, Krispos saw the slopes of the mountains ahead dimly illuminated by orange, flickering light. He summoned Mammianos and pointed. "Does that mean what I think?"
"Bide a moment, Majesty, while the campfire glare leaves my eyes." Like Krispos, Mammianos stood with his back to the imperial camp. At last he said, "Aye, it does. They're encamped there, waiting for us."
"Forcing the pass won't be easy," Krispos said.
"No, it won't," the general agreed. "All kinds of things can go wrong when you try to barge through a defended pass. A holding force at the narrowest part will plug it up while they roll rocks down from either side, or maybe come charging down from ambush—that'd be easy for Harvas' buggers, because they're footsoldiers."
"Perhaps I should have listened to you before," Krispos said.
"Aye, Majesty, perhaps you should," Mammianos said—as close to criticism of the Emperor as he would let himself come.
Krispos plucked at his beard. He could not pull back, not having come so far, not having seen Imbros, not unless he wanted to forfeit the army's faith in him forevermore. Going blindly forward, though, was a recipe for disaster. If he had some idea of what lay ahead ... He whistled to one of his guardsmen. "Fetch me Trokoundos," he said.
The wizard was yawning when he arrived, but cast off sleepiness like an old tunic when Krispos explained what he wanted. He nodded thoughtfully. "I know a scrying spell that should serve, your Majesty, one subtle enough that no barbarian mage, no mage not formally trained, should even be able to detect it, let alone counteract it. Against Petronas it would not have sufficed, for Skeparnas was my match, near enough. But against Harvas it should do very well; however strong in magic he may be, he is bound to be unschooled. If you will excuse me—"
When Trokoundos returned, he held in his hand a bronze bracelet. "Haloga workmanship," he explained as he showed it to Krispos. "I found it outside of Imbros; I think we may take it as proven that one of Harvas' raiders lost it. By the law of contagion, it is still bonded to its one-time owner, a bond we may now use to our advantage."
"Spare the lecture, sir mage," Mammianos said. "So long as you learn what we need to know, I care not how you do it."
"Very well," Trokoundos said stiffly. He held the bracelet out at arm's length toward the north, then started a slow, soft chant. The chant went on and on. Krispos was beginning to get both worried and annoyed when Trokoundos finally lowered the bracelet. As he turned, the campfire shadowed the lines of puzzlement on his face. "Let me try again, with a variant of the spell. Perhaps the owner of the bracelet was slain; nonetheless, it remains affiliated, albeit more loosely, with the army as a whole."
He began to chant once more. Krispos could not tell any difference between this version of the spell and the other, but was willing to believe it was there. But he found no difference in the result: after some time, Trokoundos halted in baffled frustration.
"Majesty," he said, "so far as I can tell by my sorcery, there's no one at all up ahead."
"What? That's absurd," Krispos said. "We can see the fires—"
"They could be a bluff, your Majesty," Mammianos put in.
"You don't believe that," Krispos said.
"No, your Majesty, I don't, but it could be so. I tell you what, though: I'll send out a couple of scouts. They'll come back with what we need to know."
"Good. Do it," Krispos said.
"Aye, do it," Trokoundos agreed. "By the good god, excellent sir, I hope it is a bluff ahead, as you say. The alternative is believing that Harvas has a renegade Videssian mage in his service, and after Imbros I would sooner not believe that." The wizard made a sour face, decisively shook his head. "No, it can't be. I'd have sensed that my spell was being masked. I didn't have that feeling, only the emptiness I'd get if there truly were no men ahead."
The scouts slipped out of camp. They looked to be ideal soldiers for their task; had Krispos met them on the streets of Videssos the city, he would have unhesitatingly guessed they were thieves. Small, lithe, and wary, they carried only daggers and vanished into the night without a sound.
Yawning, Krispos said, "Wake me as soon as they get back."
Worn though he was, he did not sleep well. Thoughts of Imbros would not leave his mind or, worse, his dreams. He was relieved when a guardsman came in to rouse him and tell him the scouts had returned.
A thin crescent moon had risen in the east; dawn was not far away. The scouts—there were three of them—prostrated themselves before him. "Get up, get up," he said impatiently. "What did you see?"
"A whole great lot of Halogai, your Majesty," one of them answered in a flat, up-country accent like the one Krispos had had before he came to Videssos the city. The other two scouts nodded to confirm his words. He went on, "And you know how the pass jogs westward so you can't see all the way up it from here? Just past the jog, they've gone and built themselves a breastwork. Be nasty getting past there, your Majesty."
"Their army's real, then," Krispos said, more than a little surprised. Trokoundos would not be pleased to learn his sorcery had gone astray.
"Majesty, we sneaked close enough to smell the shit in their slit trenches," the scout answered. "You don't get a whole lot realer than that."
Krispos laughed. "True enough. Two goldpieces to each of you for your courage. Now go get what rest you can."
The scouts saluted and hurried off toward their tents. Krispos thought about going back to bed, too, decided not to bother. Better to watch the sun come up than to toss and turn and think about stakes ...
The eastern rim of the sky grew gray, then the pale bluish-white that seems to stretch the eye to some infinite distance, then pink. When the sun crawled above the horizon, Krispos bowed to it as if to Phos himself, recited the creed, and spat between his feet to show he rejected Skotos. Most of the time, he hardly thought about that part of the ritual. Not now. Imbros reminded him of what he was rejecting.
The camp stirred with the sun, at first slowly, blindly, like a plant's silent striving toward light, but then with greater purpose as horns rang out to rout sleepers from tents and prod them into the routine of another day. They lined up with bowls in front of cookpots where barley porridge bubbled; gnawed at hard bread, cheese, and onions; gulped wine under the watchful eyes of underofficers who made sure they did not gulp too much; and tended to their horses so the animals would also be ready for the day's work ahead.
Krispos went back to his tent and armed himself. He swung himself up onto Progress and rode over to the musicians. At his command, they played Assemble. The troopers gathered before them. Krispos raised a hand for silence and waited until he had it.
"Soldiers of Videssos," he said, hoping everyone could hear him, "the enemy waits for us ahead. You've seen the kind of foe he is, how he loves to slay those who can't fight back." A low growl ran through the army. Krispos went on, "Now we can pay Harvas back for everything, for the slaughters in Develtos last year and Imbros now, and for Agapetos' men, and Mavros', too. Will we turn aside?"
"No!" the men roared. "Never!"
"Then forward, and fight bravely!" Krispos drew his saber and held it high overhead. The soldiers whooped and cheered. They were eager to fight; Krispos needed no fancy turns of phrase to inspire them today. That was as well—he knew Anthimos, for instance, had been a far better speaker than he would ever be. He owned neither the gift nor the inclination for wrapping around his ideas of the flights of fancy that Videssian rhetoric demanded. His only gift, such as it was, was for plain thoughts plainly spoken.
As the army left camp, Krispos told Sarkis, "We'll want plenty of scouts out in front of us, and farther ahead than usual."
"It's taken care of, your Majesty," the Vaspurakaner officer said with a small, tight smile. "The country ahead reminds me all too much of the land where I grew up. You soon learn to check out a pass before you send everyone through, or you die young." He chuckled. "I suppose, over the generations, it improves the breed."
"Dismount some of those scouts, too," Krispos said as a new worry struck him. "We'll want to spy out the sides of the pass, not just the bottom, and they can't very well do that very well from horseback." He stopped, flustered. So much for plain thoughts plainly spoken. "You know what I mean."
"Aye, your Majesty. It's taken care of," Sarkis repeated. He sketched a salute. "For one who came so late to soldiering, you've learned a good deal. Have I told you of the saying of my People, 'Sneaky as a prince—?' "
Krispos cut him off. "Yes, you have." He knew he was rude, but he was also nervous. The scouts had just followed the western jog of the pass and disappeared from sight. He clucked to Progress, leaned forward in the saddle, and urged the gelding up to a fast trot with the pressure of knees and heels.
Then he rounded that jog himself. The breastwork, of turf and stones and brush and whatever else had been handy, stood a few hundred yards ahead, blocking the narrowest part of the pass.
Behind it, Krispos saw at last the warriors who had ravaged the Empire so savagely.
The big, fierce, fair-haired men saw him, too, or the imperial banner that floated near him. They jeered and brandished— weapons? No, Krispos saw; Harvas' men were holding up stout stakes carved to a point at both ends—impaling stakes.
Fury filled him, rage more perfect and absolute than any he had ever known. He wanted to slay with his own sword every marauder in front of him. Only a wild charge by all his men seemed a bearable second best. He filled his lungs to cry out the order.
But something cold and calculating dwelt within him, too, something that would not let him give way to impulse, no matter how tempting. He thought again and shouted, "Arrows!"
Bowstrings thrummed as the Videssian archers went to work from horseback. Instead of their stakes, the Halogai lifted yard-wide shields of wood to turn aside the shafts. They were not bowmen; they could not reply.
Here and there, all along the enemy line, men crumpled or lurched backward, clutching at their wounds and shrieking. But the raiders wore mail shirts and helms; even shafts that slipped between shields and over the rampart were no sure kills. And however steeped in wickedness they might have been, Harvas' followers were not cowards. The archery stung them. It could do no more.
By the time he saw that, Krispos had full control of himself once more. "Can we flank them out?" he demanded of Mammianos.
"It's steep, broken ground to either side of that breastwork," the general answered. "Better going for foot than for horse. Still, worth a try, I suppose, and the cheapest way to go about it. If we can get in their rear, they're done for."
Despite his doubts, the general yelled orders. Couriers dashed off to relay them to the soldiers on both wings. Several companies peeled off to try the rough terrain on the flanks. Harvas' Halogai rushed men up the slopes of the pass to head them off.
The northerners had known what they were about when they built their barricade; they had walled off all the ground worth fighting on. The horses of their Videssian foes had to pick their way forward step by step. Afoot, Harvas' men were rather more agile, but they, too, scrambled, stumbled, and often fell.
Some did not get up again; now that the foe was away from cover and concerned more with his footing than his shield, he grew more vulnerable to archery. But the Videssians could not simply shoot their way to victory. They had to force the northerners from their ground. And at close quarters, the footsoldiers gave as good as they got, or better.
Saber and light lance against axe and slashing sword— Krispos watched his men battle the Halogai who followed Harvas. Sudden pain made him wonder if he was wounded until he realized he had his lip tight between his teeth. With a distinct effort of will, he made himself relax. A moment later the pain returned. This time he ignored it.
For all the encouragement he shouted, for all the courage the Videssian cavalry displayed, the terrain proved too rugged for them to advance against determined foes. Krispos wished Harvas' northerners were less brave than his own guardsmen. They did not seem so. He watched a Haloga with a lance driven deep into his side hack from the saddle the man who had skewered him before he, too, toppled.
"No help for it," Mammianos bawled in his ear. "If we want 'em, we'll have to go through 'em, not around."
"We want 'em," Krispos said. Mammianos nodded and turned to the musicians. They raised horns and pipes to their lips, poised sticks over drums. The wild notes of the charge echoed brassily from the boulders that studded both slopes of the pass. The Videssians in the front rank raised a cheer and spurred toward the breastwork that barred their way north.
The front was too narrow for more than a fraction of the imperial army to engage the enemy at once. Rhisoulphos, who led the regiments just behind the van, shouted for his troops to hold up. A gap opened between them and the men ahead.
When Krispos looked back and saw that gap, his own suspicions about his father-in-law and Dara's warning came together in a hard certainty of treason. He slapped a courier on the shoulder. "Fetch me Rhisoulphos, at once. If he won't come, either drag him here or kill him." The rider stared, then set spurs to his horse. With an angry squeal, the beast bounded away.
Krispos' fist gripped the hilt of his saber as tightly as if that were Rhisoulphos' neck. Leave the head of the army to face Harvas' howling killers by itself, would he? Krispos was so sure Rhisoulphos would not willingly accompany his courier that, when his father-in-law did ride up to him, the best he could do was splutter, "By the good god, what are you playing at?"
"Giving our troops room to retreat in, of course, your Majesty," Rhisoulphos answered. If he was a traitor, he did it marvelously well. So what? I already know he's good at that, Krispos thought. But Rhisoulphos went on, "It's a standard ploy when fighting Halogai, your Majesty. Feigning a withdrawal will often lure them out of their position so we can wheel about and take them while they're in disorder."
Krispos glanced over at Mammianos. The fat general nodded. "Oh," Krispos said. "Good enough." His ears were hot, but his helmet covered them so no one could see the flame.
The Videssians at the barriers slashed and thrust at Harvas' men, who chopped at them and their horses both. The shrieks and oaths dinned through the pass. Then above them rose a long, mournful call. The horsemen wheeled their mounts and broke off combat.
The northerners screamed abuse in their own language, in the speech of the Kubratoi, and in broken Videssian. A couple of men started to scramble over the breastwork to pursue the retreating imperials. Their own comrades dragged them back by main force.
"Oh, a plague on them!" Mammianos said when he saw that. "Why can't they make it easy for us?"
"That's better discipline than they usually show," Rhisoulphos said. "The military manuals claim that tactic hardly ever fails against the northerners."
"I don't think Harvas shows up in the military manuals," Krispos said.
One corner of Rhisoulphos' mouth twitched upward. "I suspect you're right, your Majesty." He pointed. "But there he stands, whether he's in the manuals or not."
Krispos' eyes followed Rhisoulphos' finger. Of course that tall figure behind the enemy line had to be Harvas Black-Robe; none of his followers was garbed in similar style. Despite the chieftain's sobriquet, Krispos had looked for someone gaudily clad—a ruler needed to stand out from his subjects. So Harvas did, but by virtue of plainness rather than splendor. Had his hooded robe been blue rather than black, he could have passed for a Videssian priest.
Regardless of how he dressed, no doubt he led. Halogai heavily ran here and there at his bidding, doing their best to ignore the weight of mail on their shoulders. And when Harvas raised his arms—those wide black sleeves flapped like vultures' wings—the northerners held their places. For Halogai, that was the more remarkable. Mammianos glowered at the northerners as if their good order personally affronted him. With a wheezy sigh, he said, "If they won't come out after us, we'll have to get in there nose to nose with them and drive them away." The words plainly tasted bad in his mouth; getting in there nose to nose was not a style of fighting upon which the subtle imperials looked kindly.
But when subtlety failed, brute force remained. As captains dressed their lines and troopers reached over their shoulders to see how many arrows their quivers held, the fierce notes of the charge rang out once more. The Videssians thundered toward the breastwork ahead. "Krispos!" they shouted, and "Imbros!"
Harvas raised his arms. This time he pointed not toward his soldiers or their rampart, but up the slope of the pass. Not far from Krispos, Trokoundos reeled in the saddle. "Call the men back, Majesty!" he cried, clinging to his seat more by determination than anything else. "Call them back!"
Krispos and his generals stared at the mage. "By the good god, why should I?" Krispos demanded angrily.
"Battle magic," Trokoundos croaked. The roar of boulders bounding downslope drowned him out.
Because he was looking at Trokoundos, Krispos did not see the first great stones leap free of the ground on which they had placidly rested for years, perhaps for centuries. That night one of the soldiers who had seen them said, "You ever watch a rabbit that's all of a sudden spooked by a hound? That's what those rocks were doing, except they didn't jump every which way. They came down on us."
The noise the boulders made as they crashed into the Videssian cavalrymen was the noise that might have come from a smithy in the instant a giant stepped on it. Horses went down as if scythed, pitching riders off their backs. The beasts behind them could not stop fast enough and crashed into them and into the stones. That only made the chaos worse.
The men and horses of the very foremost ranks were almost upon the breastwork when the avalanche began. Soldiers turned their heads to gape at what had happened to their comrades. Some drew rein in consternation; other pressed on toward the barricade. Now the Halogai, howling with ferocious glee, swarmed over it to meet them. The imperials at the head of the charge fought back desperately. No one could come to their aid through the writhing tangle behind them.
Krispos watched and cursed and slammed a fist against his thigh as Harvas' northerners overwhelmed his men one by one.
Harvas raised his arms and pointed again. More boulders sprang from their proper places and crashed down on the Videssian army's van.
"Make them stop!" Krispos screamed to Trokoundos.
"I wish I could." The wizard's face was haggard, his eyes wild. "He shouldn't be able to do this. The stress, the excitement of combat weaken magic's grip, even if the sorceries are readied in advance. I've tried counterspells—they go awry, as they should."
"What can we do, then?"
"Majesty, I have not the power to stand against Harvas, not even with my colleagues here." Trokoundos sounded as if admitting that cost him physical pain. "Perhaps with more mages, masters from the Sorcerers' Collegium, he may yet be defeated."
"But not now," Krispos said.
"No, Majesty, not now. He screened his encamped army so I could not detect it, he works battle magic so strong and unexpected that it almost broke me when he unleashed it ... Majesty, a good many years have passed since I owned myself daunted by any sorcerer, but today Harvas daunts me."
Ahead at the barricade, almost all the Videssians were down. They and the crushed soldiers behind them blocked the army's way forward. Krispos' glance slid to the slopes of the pass. Who could guess how many more boulders needed only Harvas' sorcerous command to smash into the imperials, or what other magics Harvas had waiting?
"We retreat," Krispos said, tasting gall.
"Good for you, your Majesty," Mammianos said. Startled, Krispos turned in the saddle to stare at him. "Good for you," the fat general repeated. "Knowing when to cut your losses is a big part of this business. I feared you'd order us to press on regardless, and turn a defeat into a disaster."
"It's already a disaster," Krispos said.
Even as the call to retreat rang mournfully through the pass, Mammianos shook his head. "No, Majesty. We're still in decent order, there's no panic, and the men will be ready to fight another day—well, maybe another season. But if that he-witch ahead does much more to us, they'll turn tail every time they see his ruffians, whether he's with 'em or not."
Cold comfort, but better—a bit better—than none. Krispos' own Halogai closed around him as rearguard while the army withdrew from the pass. If the northerners wanted to slay him and go over to their countrymen, they would never have a better chance. The imperial guardsmen looked back only to shake fists at Videssos' foes.
And yet, in a way, the guards were the least of Krispos' worries. His eyes, like those of so many others with him, kept sliding up the sides of the pass while he wondered whether more great stones would smash men and horses to jelly. If Harvas had time to ready stones through the whole length of the pass, disaster great enough to satisfy even Mammianos' criteria might yet befall the army.
Somehow, retreat did not become rout. The boulders on the slopes held their places. At last those slopes grew lower and farther apart as the pass opened out into the country below the mountains. "Back to our old campsite?" Mammianos asked.
"Why not?" Krispos said bitterly. "That way we can pretend today never happened—those of us who are still alive, at any rate."
Mammianos tried to console him. "We can't do these little tricks without losses."
"Seems we can't even do them with losses," Krispos said, to which the general only grunted by way of reply.
Any camp is joyless after a defeat. Wounded men scream round winners' tents, too, but they and their comrades who come through whole know they have accomplished what they set out to do. Losers enjoy no such consolation. Not only have they suffered, they have suffered and failed.
Failure, Krispos remembered, made Petronas' army break up. He ordered stronger sentry detachments posted south of the camp than to the north. The officers to whom he gave the command did not remark on it, but nodded knowingly as they saw to carrying it out.
Krispos walked to the outskirts of the camp, where badly wounded men lay waiting for healer-priests to attend to them. The soldiers not too far gone in their own anguish saluted him and tried to smile, which made him feel worse than he had before. But he made sure he saw all of them and spoke to as many as he could before he went back to his own tent.
Darkness had fallen by then. Krispos wanted nothing more than to sleep, to forget about the day's misfortunes, if only for a few hours. But a duty harder even than visiting the wounded lay ahead of him. He'd kept putting off writing to Tanilis of Mavros' death; he'd hoped to be able to say he had avenged it. Now that hope had vanished—and how much, in any case, would it have mattered to her? Her only son was gone. Krispos inked his pen and sat staring at the blank parchment in front of him. How to begin?
"Krispos Avtokrator of the Videssians to the excellent and noble lady Tanilis: Greetings." Thus far formula took him, but no farther. He needed the smooth phrases that came naturally to anyone who had the rhetorical training that went with a proper education. He did not have them, and would not entrust this letter to a secretary.
"Majesty?" Geirrod's deep voice came from outside the tent.
"What is it?" Krispos put down the pen with a strange mixture of relief and guilt.
The guardsman's reply warned him he had known relief too soon. "A matter of honor, Majesty."
The last Haloga to speak of honor in that tone of voice had been Vagn, talking about killing himself. Krispos ducked out through the tent flap in a hurry. "What's touched your honor, Geirrod?" he asked.
"Not my honor alone, your Majesty, but the honor of all my folk who take your gold," Geirrod said. Krispos was tall for a Videssian. He still had to look up at Geirrod as the stern northerner went on, "I am chosen to stand for all of us, since I was first to bow before you as lord."
"So you were," Krispos agreed, "and I honor you for that. Do you doubt it?" Geirrod shook his massive head. Exasperated, Krispos snapped, "Then how have I failed you—aye, and all the other Halogai, too?"
"By not sending us forth in combat this day against those who follow Harvas, and holding us back despite what we told you on the road south of Imbros," Geirrod said. "It struck many among us as a slur, as a token you lack trust in us. Better we fare home to Halogaland than carry our axes where we may not blood them. Videssians delight in having troops for show. We took oath to fight for you, Majesty, not to look grand in your processions."
"If you truly think I held you back for fear you would betray me, blood your axe now, Geirrod." Not without second thoughts—the Halogai could be grimly literal—Krispos bent his head and waited. When no blow came, he straightened up and looked at Geirrod again. "Since you do not think so, how can you have lost any honor on account of me?"
The guardsman stiffened to attention. "Majesty, you speak sooth. I see this cannot be so. I shall say as much to my countrymen. Any who doubt me may measure their doubt against this," He hefted his axe.
"Good enough," Krispos said. "Tell them also that I didn't send them forward because I hoped I could clear the Halogai— Harvas' Halogai, I mean—away from the barricade with archery. If it had worked, we would have won the fight without costing ourselves too dear."
Geirrod let out a loud snort. "You may think partway as we Halogai do, Majesty, but I see that at bottom you're a Videssian after all. As it should be, I guess; can't be helped, come what may. But a fight has worth for its own sweet sake. The time for reckoning up the cost is afterward, not before."
"As you say, Geirrod." To Krispos, the northerner's words were insanely reckless. He knew the Halogai knew most Videssians thought as he did, and also knew the Halogai reckoned imperials overcautious at best in war, at worst simply dull. The Halogai fought for the red joy of it, not to gain advantage. That, he supposed, was why no Videssians served a northern chieftain as bodyguards, nor likely ever would.
As he went back into the tent, Geirrod resumed his post outside, evidently satisfied with their exchange. Krispos allowed himself the luxury of a long, quiet sigh. He hadn't lied to Geirrod, not quite, but he had entertained doubts about the Halogai. But by asking Geirrod if he believed his countrymen were held back from fear of treachery, Krispos had taken the onus off himself. The next time he faced Harvas' men, though, he did not think he would have to hold back his guardsmen.
He sat down at the little folding table that served him for a desk in the field. Parchment and pen were where he'd left them when Geirrod called. But for the salutation, the parchment remained blank. Krispos sighed again. He wished Trokoundos knew a spell to make unpleasant letters write themselves, but that probably went beyond sorcery into out-and-out miracle-working.
After one more sigh, Krispos inked the pen again. As was his habit, he plunged straight ahead with what he had to say. "My lady, while I was fighting Petronas in the westlands, Mavros heard Agapetos had been beaten and took an army north from Videssos the city to stop Harvas Black-Robe from moving farther forward. I grieve to have to tell you that, as you foresaw, your son was also beaten and was killed."
Setting down the words brought back to him afresh the loss of his foster brother. He studied what he'd written. Was it too bald? He decided it was not. Tanilis approved of straightforward truth ... and in any case, he thought, she might well already know Mavros was dead, being who and what she was.
He thought for a while before he wrote more. "I loved Mavros as if he were my brother by birth. I would have kept him from attacking Harvas if I'd known that was in his mind, but he hid it from me till too late. You will know better than I do that going ahead no matter what was always his way."
He spread fine sand over the letter to dry the ink. Then he turned over the parchment and wrote on the reverse, "The excellent and noble lady Tanilis, on her estate outside Opsikion." He sanded those words dry, too, then rolled the letter up into a small tube with them on the outside. After tying it shut, he let several large drops of sealing wax fall across the ribbon that closed it. While the wax was still soft, he pressed his signet into it. He stared at the imperial sunburst for a long time. It remained as perfect as if his armies had won three great victories instead of being thrashed three times running and seeing a city sacked and its populace destroyed.
He stuck his head out of the tent to call for a courier. As the fellow stuffed the letter into a waterproof tube, Krispos promised himself that before the war with Harvas was done, the Empire would again become as whole and complete as its seal. He was glad he'd made the vow, but would have felt easier about it had he been surer he could bring it to pass.
Videssos the city mourned. Along with the mourning came no little fear. Not since the wild days three centuries before, when the Khamorth tribes swarmed off the steppes of Pardraya to carve Kubrat, Khatrish, and Thatagush from the Empire of Videssos, had the folk of the capital felt threatened from the north.
"People act as if we're going to be besieged tomorrow," Krispos complained to Iakovitzes a few days after he'd returned to the city. "Harvas' killers are on their own side of the Paristrian Mountains; they'll likely stay there till spring."
Iakovitzes scribbled in his tablet and passed it to Krispos. "Not even Harvas is wizard enough to stop the fall rains." He pointed upward, cocking a hand behind his ear.
Krispos nodded; raindrops were drumming on the roof. "Last year I cursed the rains when they came early, because they kept me from going after Petronas. Now I bless mem, because they keep Harvas out of the Empire."
Iakovitzes took back the tablet and wrote some more. "Phos closes his ears to curses and blessing both, as far as weather goes. He hears too many of each."
"No doubt you're right," Krispos said. "It doesn't stop people from sending them up, though. And Harvas' being a couple of hundred miles from here doesn't stop people from looking north over their shoulders every time they hear a loud noise in the next street."
"It won't last," Iakovitzes wrote with confident cynicism. "Remember, city folk are fickle. Pyrrhos will give them something new to think about soon enough."
Krispos winced. "Don't remind me." More than ever, he wished Gnatios had stayed loyal to him. Gnatios was politician as well as priest, which made him pliable. Pyrrhos chose a course and pursued it with all the power he had—and as ecumenical patriarch he had more power, perhaps, than anyone save Krispos. He also cared not a copper whether the course he chose raised the hackles of every other ecclesiastic in the Empire. Sometimes Krispos thought he aimed at just that. Whether he did or not, he was accomplishing it.
"I've known him longer than you have, if you'll remember," Iakovitzes wrote. "After all, he's my cousin. He doesn't approve of me, either. Of course, he doesn't approve of anything much, as you'll have noticed." He made the throaty noise he used for laughter.
"No wonder he doesn't approve of you!" Krispos laughed, too. Iakovitzes' sybaritic habits and unending pursuit of handsome youths did not endear him to his stern, ascetic cousin. Krispos went on, "I notice you haven't slowed down, either. If anything, you're squiring more lads around than ever." Krispos wondered if, after his mutilation, Iakovitzes had plunged so deeply back into the world of the senses to remind himself he was still alive.
The noble made that throaty noise again. "Backward, your Majesty," he wrote. "These days they squire me."
Krispos started to laugh once more, too, but stopped when he saw Iakovitzes' face. "By the good god, you mean it," he said slowly. "But how—why? You know I mean you no disrespect, excellent sir, but you've baffled me."
Iakovitzes wrote one word, in big letters: "unique." Grinning, he pointed to himself, then wrote again. "Where else would they find the like? And like it they do." He leered at Krispos.
Krispos did not quite know whether to laugh some more or to be revolted. Barsymes came in and saved him from his dilemma. "I have here a petition for your Majesty," the vestiarios said, holding out a folded piece of parchment. "It is from the monk Gnatios." Nothing in his voice showed that Gnatios had ever held high rank.
"Speak of him and he pops up," Krispos observed. He took the parchment from Barsymes. The eunuch bowed his way out. Krispos glanced toward Iakovitzes as he opened the petition. "Do you want to hear this?"
At Iakovitzes' nod, Krispos read aloud: " 'The humble, sinful, and repentant monk Gnatios to his radiant and imperial Majesty Krispos, Avtokrator of the Videssians: Greetings.' " He snorted. "Likes to lay it on thick, doesn't he?"
"He's a courtier," Iakovitzes wrote, which seemed to say everything he thought necessary.
Krispos resumed. " 'I beg leave to request the inestimable privilege of a brief interruption in my sojourn in the monastery dedicated to the memory of the holy Skirios so that I might enjoy the boon of your presence and acquaint you with the results of certain of my historical researches, these having been resumed at your behest, as the said results, reflections of antiquity though they be, also appear of significance in the Empire's current condition.' " He put down the parchment. "Whew! If I have trouble understanding his request, why should I expect his historical researches, whatever those are, to make any better sense?"
"Gnatios is no one's fool," Iakovitzes wrote.
"I know that," Krispos said. "So why does he take me for one? This must be some sort of scheme to have him escape again. He'd pop up all over the countryside till we caught him again; he'd preach against Pyrrhos and do his best to raise a schism among the priests. With Harvas to worry about, trouble in the temples is the last thing I need. That can lead to civil war."
"You won't hear him?" Iakovitzes wrote.
"No, by the lord with the great and good mind." Krispos raised his voice: "Barsymes, fetch me pen and ink, please." When he had the writing tools, he scrawled "I forbid it—k." at the bottom of Gnatios' petition, using letters even bolder than the ones Iakovitzes had employed to call himself unique. Then he folded the parchment and handed it to Barsymes. "See that this is delivered back to the monk Gnatios." He made Gnatios' title deliberately dismissive.
"It shall be done, your Majesty," the vestiarios said.
"Thank you, Barsymes." As the eunuch chamberlain started to leave, Krispos added, "When you're done with that, could you bring me something from the kitchen? I don't much care what, but I feel like a snack. You, too, excellent sir?"
Iakovitzes nodded. "And some wine, if you would, esteemed sir," he wrote, holding up his tablet so Barsymes could read it. Before long, the vestiarios carried in a silver tray with a jar of wine, two cups, and a covered serving dish. When he lifted the cover, savory steam rose. "Quails cooked in a sauce of cheese, garlic, and oregano, your Majesty. I hope they will do?"
"Fine," Krispos assured him. He attacked his little bird with gusto and finished it in a few bites.
Iakovitzes made slower going of his quail. He had to cut the meat into very small pieces, and he washed down each little mouthful by tilting back his head and taking a swallow of wine: without a tongue, he could not push food around inside his mouth or move it toward his throat. Here, though, as in other things, he evidently managed, for he'd regained most of the weight his ordeal had taken from him.
As the noble sucked the last scrap of meat from a leg bone, Krispos raised his cup in salute. "I'm glad to see you doing so well," he said.
"I'm glad to see myself doing so well, too," Iakovitzes wrote. Krispos snorted. They drank together.
Dara straightened, her face pale. A maidservant wiped the Empress' mouth and chin with a damp cloth, then stooped to pick up the basin at her feet and carry it away. "I wish I just had morning sickness," Dara said wearily, "but I seem to be vomiting any time of the day or night."
Krispos handed her a cup of wine. "Here, get the taste out of your mouth."
Dara took a small, cautious sip. She cocked her head and waited, gauging the wine's effect on her stomach. When the first swallow sat well, she drank more. She said, "Maybe I should have nursed Phostis myself after all. The midwives say it's harder for a nursing mother to conceive."
"I've heard that," Krispos said. "I don't know whether it's so. Whether or not, I hope you're better soon."
"So do I." Dara rolled her eyes. "But if I do with this baby as I did with Phostis, I'll keep on puking for the next two months."
"Oh, I hope not." But Krispos knew he would keep a close eye on the date Dara's morning sickness stopped and on the day the baby was born. He did not doubt her, not really. Though he'd been in Videssos the city only a couple of days between the campaigns against Petronas and Harvas, he and she'd been anything but idle during that little while, and her sickness had begun about the right length of time after it—no use reckoning by her courses, which were still disrupted after Phostis' birth.
But he'd watched the days, all the same. Dara had cheated with him, which meant she might cheat against him. He thought that unlikely, but Avtokrators who ignored the unlikely did not reign long.
Dara said, "Phostis sat up by himself yesterday."
"So his nurse told me." Krispos did his best to sound pleased. Try as he would, he had trouble warming to Phostis. He could not help wondering if he was raising a cuckoo's chick. If this next child is a boy ... he said to himself, and in thinking how much he would enjoy raising it, he discovered he was sure it was his.
Dara changed the subject. "How are the tax revenues looking?"
"From the westlands, pretty well. From the island of Kalavria, from the peninsula of Opsikion, from the lands right around the city, pretty well. From the north—" Krispos did not need to go on. Only carrion birds found anything worth picking over anywhere near the Paristrian Mountains.
"Will we have enough to fight Harvas next spring?" Dara asked. She was a general's daughter; she knew armies needed money and everything it bought as much as they needed men.
"The logothetes in the treasury say we should," Krispos answered. "And with Petronas gone at last, we'll be able to bring all our soldiers to bear against him." He shook his head. "How I wish we could have done that this year. We might have saved Imbros. Phos be praised that the Empire is united now."
That might have been a mime show cue. The eunuch Longinos came bustling into the room, moving so fast that sweat beaded his fat, beardless face. "Majesty," he gasped. "There's word of rioting around the High Temple, Majesty."
Krispos got up and glared at him so fiercely that the eunuch flinched back in alarm. With an effort, he took hold of his temper. "Tell me about it," he said.
"Save the news itself, your Majesty, I know no more," Longinos quavered. "A soldier carried the report here; I've brought it to you fast as I could."
"You did right, Longinos; thank you," Krispos said, in control of himself again. "Take me to this soldier. I'll hear what he has to say for myself."
The eunuch turned and left. As Krispos followed him out the door, Dara spoke one word. "Pyrrhos."
"That thought had crossed my mind, yes," Krispos said over his shoulder. He trotted down the hall after Longinos.
When Krispos came out of the imperial residence, the soldier prostrated himself, then quickly got to his feet. He looked like a man who had been caught in a riot; his tunic was torn, the crown of his wide-brimmed hat had been caved in, his nose was bloody, and a bruise purpled his right cheekbone. "By the good god, man, what happened?" Krispos said.
The man shook his head and ran a sleeve under his nose. "The ice take me if I know, your Majesty. I was goin' along mindin' my own business when this crowd boiled out of the forecourt to the High Temple. They was all screamin' and whalin' each other with whatever they had handy. Then they lit into me. I still don't have no notion of what it's all about, but I figured you got to hear of it straightaway, so I came here." He wiped his nose again.
"I'm grateful," Krispos said. "Give me your name, if you would."
"I'm Tzouroulos, your Majesty, file closer in Mammianos' command—Selymbrios is captain of my company."
"You're file leader now, Tzouroulos, and you'll have a reward you can spend, too." Krispos turned to the Halogai, who had listened to the exchange with interest. "Vagn, go to, hmm, Rhisoulphos' regiment in the barracks. Get them over to the High Temple as fast as they can march. Tell them it's riot duty, not combat—if they start slaying people out of hand, the whole city's liable to go up in smoke."
"Aye, Majesty. Rhisoulphos' regiment it is." Vagn saluted and jogged away. His long fair braid flapped against his back at every step he took.
Krispos said to Longinos, "After we get order back—by the good god's mercy, we will—I'll also want to speak with the most holy ecumenical patriarch Pyrrhos, to see if he can shed some light on what might have touched off this fighting. Be so good, esteemed sir, as to draft for my signature a formal summons for him to come to the Grand Courtroom and explain himself."
"Of course, your Majesty. Directly. To the Grand Courtroom, you say? Not here?"
"No. Riots round the temples are a serious business. I want to remind Pyrrhos just how dim a view I take of them. Making my inquiries in the Courtroom should help him understand that."
"Very well, your Majesty." Lips moving as he tasted phrases, Longinos went back into the imperial residence.
Krispos stared east and north, toward the High Temple. The residence and the other buildings of the palace quarter hid its great dome and the gilded spheres that topped its spires, but arson often went with riot. He did not see the black column of smoke he feared. It was the rainy season, after all, he thought hopefully. Even if it was only drizzling today, walls and fences would still be damp.
He went inside. Longinos approached him with the summons. He read it over, nodded, and signed and sealed it. The chamberlain took the parchment away. Krispos waited and worried. He knew he'd given the proper orders. But even the imperial power had limits. He needed others to turn those orders into reality.
The sun was low in the west when a messenger came from Rhisoulphos with word that the disturbances had been quelled. "Aye," the fellow said cheerfully, "we broke some heads. The city folk don't have the gear to stand against us and, besides, they keep on fighting each other. Civilians," he finished with a sneer, "I'll want to see some prisoners, so I can find out what got these civilians started," Krispos said.
"We have some," the messenger agreed. "They're sending them back to the jail in the government office building on Middle Street."
"I'll go there, then," Krispos said, glad of something he could do. But he could not simply walk over to the big red granite building, as any private citizen might. Before he set out from the imperial residence, he required a squad of Halogai and the dozen parasol-bearers. Gathering the retinue took awhile, so that by the time he set out, he needed torchbearers, too.
One of the palace eunuchs must have sent word ahead of his procession, for the warders and soldiers at the government offices were ready when he arrived. They escorted him to a chamber on the ground level, one floor above the cells. As soon as he was settled, two warders hauled in a captive whose hands were chained in front of him. "On your belly before his Majesty," they growled. He went to his knees, then awkwardly finished the prostration. One of the warders said, "Majesty, this here is a certain Koprisianos. He tried to smash in a trooper's skull, he did."
"Would've done it, too, your Majesty, 'cept the bastard was wearing a helmet," Koprisianos said thickly. He had an engagingly ugly face, though now his Up was swollen and split and a couple of teeth looked to be freshly gone.
"Never mind that," Krispos said. "I want to know what started the fighting in the first place."
"So do I," Koprisianos said. "All I know is, somebody hit me. I turned around and hit him back—at least I think it was him; lots of people were running by just then, all of 'em screaming about heretics and Skotos-lovers and Phos knows what all else. I was giving as good as I got till some stupid soldier broke a spearshaft over my head. After that, next thing I know is, I wake up here."
"Oh." Krispos turned to the warders. "Take him away. He just looks to have found himself in the middle of a brawl and enjoyed it. Bring me people who saw the riot start, or who made it start, if you can find any who'll admit to that. I want to get to the bottom of how it began."
"Yes, your Majesty," the warders said together. One of them added, "Come on, you," as they led away Koprisianos. They were gone for some time before they returned with an older man who wore the tattered remnants of what had been a fine robe. "This here is a certain Mindes. He was captured inside the forecourt to the High Temple. On your belly, you!"
Mindes performed the proskynesis with the smoothness of a man who had done it before. "May it please your Majesty, I have the privilege of serving as senior secretary to the ypologothete Gripas," he said as he rose.
A mid-level treasury official, Krispos thought. He said, "Having men sworn to uphold the state captured rioting pleases me not at all, Mindes. How did you come to disgrace yourself that way?"
"Only because I wanted to hear the most holy patriarch Pyrrhos preach, your Majesty," Mindes said. "His words always inspire me, and he was particularly vigorous today. He spoke of the need for holy zeal in routing out the influence of Skotos from every part of our lives and from our city as a whole. Even some priests, he said, had tolerated evil too long."
"Did he?" Krispos said with a sinking feeling.
"Aye, your Majesty, he did, and a great deal of truth in what he said, too." Mindes drew the sun-sign as well as he could with his hands chained. He went on, "People talked about the sermon afterward, as they often do while leaving the High Temple. Several priests notorious for their laxness were named. Then someone claimed Skotos could also profit from too much rigor in the holy hierarchy. Someone else took that as a deliberate insult against Pyrrhos, and—" Mindes' chains clanked as he shrugged.
"And your own part in this was purely innocent?" Krispos asked.
"Purely, your Majesty," Mindes said, the picture of candor.
One of the wanders coughed dryly. "When captured, your Majesty, he was carrying five belt pouches, not counting the one on his own belt."
"A treasury official indeed," Krispos said. The warders laughed. Mindes looked innocent—with the smoothness of a man who has done it before, Krispos thought. He said, "All right, take him back to his cell and bring me someone else who was there at the start of things."
The next man told essentially the same story. Just to be sure, Krispos had one more summoned and heard the tale over again. Then he went back to the imperial residence and spent the night pondering what to do with Pyrrhos. Ordering the patriarch to wear a muzzle at all times struck him as a good idea, but he suspected Pyrrhos would find some theological justification for disobeying.
"He might not, you know," Dara said when he mentioned his conceit out loud. "He might take it for some wonderful new style of asceticism and try to enforce it on the whole clergy." She chuckled.
So did Krispos, but only for a moment. Knowing Pyrrhos, there was always the chance Dara was right.
The Grand Courtroom was heated by the same kind of system of ducts under the floor that the imperial residence used. It was far larger than any room in the residence, though; the ducts kept one's feet warm, but not much more.
Krispos' throne stood on a platform a man's height above the floor; not even his feet were warm. Some of the courtiers who flanked the double row of columns that led up to the throne shivered in their robes. The Haloga guards were warm—they wore trousers. Back in his old village, Krispos would have been wearing trousers, too. He cursed fashion, then smiled as he imagined Barsymes' face if he'd proposed coming to the Grand Courtroom in anything but the scarlet robe custom decreed.
The smile went away when Pyrrhos appeared at the far end of the hall. The patriarch advanced toward the throne with the steady stride of a much younger man. He was entitled to vestments of blue silk and cloth-of-gold, vestments almost as rich as the imperial raiment. All he wore, though, was a monk's simple blue robe, now soaked and dark. As he drew near, Krispos heard his feet squelching in his blue boots; he refused to acknowledge the rain by covering himself against it.
He prostrated himself before Krispos, waiting with his forehead on the ground till given leave to rise. "How may I serve your Majesty?" he asked. He did not hesitate to meet Krispos' eye. If this conscience troubled him, he concealed it perfectly. Krispos did not think it did; unlike most Videssians, Pyrrhos had no use for dissembling.
"Most holy sir, we are not pleased with you," Krispos said in the formal tone he'd practiced for occasions such as this. He stifled a grin of pleasure at remembering to use the first-person plural.
"How so, your Majesty?" Pyrrhos said. "In my simple way, I have striven only to speak the truth, and how can the truth displease any man who has no reason to fear it?"
Krispos clamped his teeth together. He might have known this would not be easy. Pyrrhos wore righteousness like chain mail. Krispos answered, "Stirring up quarrels within the temples serves neither them nor the Empire as a whole, the more so as Harvas Black-Robe alone will profit if we fight among ourselves."
"Your Majesty, I have no intention of stirring up dissent," Pyrrhos said. "I merely aim to purify the temples of the unacceptable practices that have entered over years of lax discipline."
What Krispos wanted to do was scream, "Not now, you cursed idiot!" Instead he said, "Since these practices you don't approve of have been a long time growing, maybe you'd be wiser to ease them out of the ground instead of jerking them up by the roots."
"No, your Majesty," Pyrrhos said firmly. "These are the webs Skotos spins, the tiny errors that grow larger, more flagrant month by month, year by year, until at last utter wickedness and depravity become acceptable. I tell you, your Majesty, thanks to Gnatios and his ilk, Videssos the city is a place where the dark god roams free!" He spat on the polished marble floor and traced the sun-circle over the sodden wool above his heart.
Several courtiers imitated the pious gesture. Some looked fearfully toward Krispos, wondering how he dared ask the patriarch to restrain his attack on evil.
But Krispos said, "You are wrong, most holy sir." His voice was hard and certain. That certainty made Pyrrhos' eyes widen slightly; he was more used to hearing it in his own voice than from another. Krispos said, "No doubt Skotos sneaks about in Videssos the city, as he does all through the world. But I have seen a city where he roamed free; I see Imbros still in my dreams."
"Exactly so, your Majesty. It is to prevent Videssos the city from suffering the fate of Imbros that I strive. The evil within us, given time, will devour us unless, to use your phrase, we root it out now."
"The evil Harvas Black-Robe loves will devour us right now unless we root it out," Krispos said. "How do you propose to minister to the soul of an impaled corpse? Most holy sir, think which victory is more urgent at the moment."
Pyrrhos thought; Krispos gave him credit for it. At length the patriarch said, "You have your concerns, Majesty, but I have mine, as well." He sounded troubled, as if he had not expected Krispos to make him admit even so much. "If I see evil and do nothing to rid the world of it, I myself have done that evil. I cannot pass it by in silence, not without consigning my soul to the eternal ice."
"Not even if other men, men of good standing in the temples, fail to see anything evil in it?" Krispos persisted. "Do you say that anyone who disagrees with you in any way will spend eternity in the ice?"
"I would not go so far as that, your Majesty," Pyrrhos said, though by the look in his eyes, he wanted to. Reluctantly he continued, "The principle of theological economy does apply to certain beliefs that cannot be proven actively pernicious."
"Then while we are at war with Harvas, stretch it as wide as you can. If you did not go out of your way to make enemies in the temples, most holy sir, you would find many who might be your friends. But think again now and answer me truly: can you see stretching economy to fit Harvas or his deeds?"
Again Pyrrhos paused for honest thought. "No," he admitted, the word expressionless. As much as he wanted to keep his face straight, he looked like a man who suspected, too late, he'd been cheated at dice. He bowed stiffly. "Let it be as you say, your Majesty. I shall essay to practice economy where I can, for so long as this Harvas remains in arms against us."
One or two courtiers burst into applause, amazed and impressed that Krispos had wrung any concession from Pyrrhos. Krispos was amazed and impressed, too, but did not let on; he also noted the qualifying phrases the patriarch used to keep those concessions as small as possible. He said, "Excellent, most holy sir. I knew I could rely on you."
The patriarch bowed again, even more like an automaton than before. He started to prostrate himself once more so he could leave the imperial presence.
Krispos held up a hand. "Before you go, most holy sir, a question. Did the monk Gnatios ask leave of you to come out of his monastery not long ago?"
"Why, so he did, your Majesty—and in proper form, too," Pyrrhos added grudgingly. "I rejected the petition even so, of course: no matter what reasons he gives for wishing to come forth, no doubt he mainly seeks to work mischief."
"As you say, most holy sir. I thought the same."
Pyrrhos' face twisted. For a moment he seemed about to smile. In the end, as befit his abstemious temperament, he contented himself with a sharp, short nod. He performed the proskynesis, rose, and backed away from the throne until he was far enough from it to turn his back on Krispos without giving offense. No sooner had he gone than a servitor with a rag scurried out to wipe up the rainwater that had dripped from his robe.
Krispos surveyed the Grand Courtroom with a broad, benign smile. The courtiers were not shouting, "Thou conquerest, Krispos!" at him, but he knew he'd won a victory, just the same.
Phostis rolled from belly to back, from back to belly. The baby started to roll over one more time. Krispos grabbed him before he went off the edge of the bed. "Don't do that," he said. "You're too smart to be a farmer, aren't you?"
" 'Too smart to be a farmer'?" Dara echoed, puzzled.
"The only way a farmer ever learns anything is to hit himself in the head," Krispos explained." He held Phostis close to his face. The baby reached out, grabbed a double handful of beard, and yanked. "Ow!" Krispos said. He carefully worked Phostis' left hand free, then the right—by which time, the left was tangled in his beard again.
After another try, he was able to put down the baby. Phostis promptly tried to roll off the bed. Krispos caught him again. "I told you not to do that," he said. "Why don't babies listen?"
"You're very gentle with him," Dara said. "I think that's good, especially considering—" She let her voice trail away.
"Not much point to whacking him till he's big enough to understand what he's being whacked for," Krispos said, deliberately choosing to misunderstand. Considering he might be another man's son, Dara had started to say. She wondered, too, then. Phostis refused to give either of them much in the way of clues.
The baby tried to roll off the bed once more. This time he almost made it. Krispos snagged him by an ankle and dragged him back. "You're not supposed to do that," he said. Phostis laughed at him. He thought being rescued was a fine game.
"I'm glad you'll be here the winter long," Dara said. "He'll get a chance to know you now. When you were out on campaign the whole summer, he'd forgotten you by the time you came back again."
"I know." Part of Krispos wanted to keep Phostis by him every hour of the day and night, to leave the child, if not Krispos himself, no doubt they were father and son. Another part of him wanted nothing to do with the boy. The result was an uneasy blend of feelings that grew only more complicated as day followed day.
The baby started to fuss, jamming fingers into his mouth. "He's cutting a tooth, poor dear little one," Dara said. "He's probably getting hungry, too. I'll ring for the wet nurse." She tugged the green bell cord that rang back in the maidservants' quarters.
A minute later someone tapped politely on the bedchamber door. When Krispos opened it, he found not the wet nurse but Barsymes standing there. The vestiarios bowed. "I have a letter for you."
"Thank you, esteemed sir." Krispos took the sealed parchment from him. Just then the wet nurse came bustling down the hall. She smiled at Krispos as she brushed past him and hurried over to the baby, who was still crying.
"Who sent the letter?" Dara asked as the wet nurse took Phostis from her.
Krispos did not need to open it to answer. He had recognized the seal, recognized the elegantly precise script that named him the addressee. "Tanilis," he said. "You remember—Mavros' mother."
"Yes, of course." Dara turned to the wet nurse. "Iliana, could you carry him someplace else for a bit, please?" Anthimos had been good at acting as if servants did not exist when that suited him. Dara had more trouble doing so, and Krispos more still—he'd had no servants till he was an adult. Diana left; Barsymes, perfect servitor that he was, had already disappeared. Dara said, "Read it to me, will you?"
"Certainly." Krispos broke the seal, slid off the ribbon around the letter, unrolled the parchment. " 'Tanilis to his imperial Majesty Krispos, Avtokrator of the Videssians: Greetings. I thank you for your sympathy. As you say, my son died as he lived, going straight ahead without hesitating to look to either side of the road.' "
The closeness of the image to the way Mavros' army had actually been caught made Krispos pause and reminded him how Tanilis saw more than met the ordinary man's eye. He collected himself and read on: " 'I have no doubt you did all you could to keep him from his folly, but no one, in the end, can be saved from himself and his will. Therein lies the deadly danger of Harvas Black-Robe, for, having known the good, he has forsaken it for evil. Would I were a man, to face him in the field, though I know he is mightier than I. But perhaps I shall meet him even so; Phos grant it may be. And may the good god bless you, your Empress, and your sons. Farewell.' "
Dara seized on one word of the letter. "Sons?"
Krispos checked. "So she wrote."
Dara sketched the sun-circle over her heart. "She does see true, you say?"
"She always has." Krispos reached out to set a hand on Dara's belly. The child did not show yet, not even when she was naked, certainly not when she wore the warm robes approaching winter required. "What shall we name him?"
"You're too practical for me—I hadn't looked so far ahead." As Dara frowned in thought, the faintest of lines came out on her forehead and at the corners of her mouth. They hadn't been there when Krispos first came to the imperial residence as vestiarios. She was the same age as he, near enough; her aging, minor though it was, reminded him he also grew no younger. She said, "You named Phostis. If this truly is a son, shall we call him Evripos, after my father's father?"
"Evripos." Krispos plucked at his beard as he considered. "Good enough."
"That's settled, then. Another son." Dara drew the sun-sign again. "A pity Mavros had none of his mother's gift." Her eyes went to the letter Krispos was still holding.
"Aye. He never showed a sign of it that I saw. If he'd had it, he wouldn't have gone out from the city. I know he didn't fear for himself; he was wild to be a soldier when I met him." Krispos smiled, remembering Mavros hacking at bushes as they rode from Tanilis' villa into Opsikion. "But he never would have taken a whole army into danger."
"No doubt you're right." Dara hesitated, then asked, "Have you thought about appointing a new Sevastos?"
"I expect I'll get around to it one of these days." The matter seemed less urgent to Krispos than it had when he'd named Mavros to the post. Now that no rebel was moving against him, he had less need to act in two places at the same time, and thus less need for so powerful a minister. Thinking out loud, he went on, "Most likely I'd pick Iakovitzes. He's served me well and he knows both the city and the wider world."
"Oh." Dara nodded. "Yes, he would make a good choice."
The words were commonplace. Something in the way she said them made him glance sharply at her. "Did you have someone else in mind?"
She was swarthy enough to make her flush hard to spot, but he saw it. Her voice became elaborately casual. "Not that so much, but my father was curious to learn if you were thinking of someone in particular."
"Was he? He was curious to learn if I was thinking of him in particular, you mean."
"Yes, I suppose I do." That flush grew deeper. "I'm sure he meant nothing out of ordinary by asking."
"No doubt. Tell him this for me, Dara: tell him I think he might make a good Sevastos, if only I could trust him with my back turned. As things are now, I don't know that I can, and his sneaking questions through you doesn't make me think any better of him. Or am I wrong to be on my guard?" Dara bit her lip. Krispos said, "Never mind. You don't have to answer. That question puts you in an impossible spot."
"You already know my father is an ambitious man," Dara said. "I will pass on to him what you've told me."
"I'd be grateful if you would." Krispos let it go at that. Pushing Dara too hard was more likely to force her away than to bind her to him.
To give himself something impersonal to do, he read through Tanilis' letter again. He wished she could face Harvas in the field. If anyone could best him, she might be that person. Not only would her gifts of foreknowledge warn her of his ploys, but the loss he'd inflicted on her would focus her sorcerous skill against him as a burning glass focused the rays of the sun.
Then Krispos put the letter aside. From what he'd seen thus far, unhappily, no Videssian wizard could face Harvas Black-Robe in the field. That left Krispos a cruel dilemma: how was he to overcome Harvas' Halogai if the evil mage's magic worked and his own did not?
Posing the question was easy. Finding an answer anywhere this side of catastrophe, up till now, had been impossible.
Trokoundos looked harassed. Every time Krispos had seen him this fall and winter, he'd looked harassed. Krispos understood that. As much as he could afford to, he even sympathized with Trokoundos. He kept summoning the wizard to ask him about Harvas, and Trokoundos had no miracles to report.
"Your Majesty, ever since I returned from the campaign, the Sorcerers' Collegium has hummed like a hive of bees, trying to unravel the secrets behind Harvas' spells," Trokoundos said. "I've had myself examined under sorcery and drugs to make sure my recall of what I witnessed was perfectly exact, in the hope that some other mage, given access to my observations, might find the answer that has eluded me. But—" He spread his hands.
"All your bees have made no honey," Krispos finished for him.
"No, your Majesty, we have not. We are used to reckoning ourselves the finest wizards in the world. Oh, maybe in Mashiz the King of Kings of Makuran has a stable to match us, but that a solitary barbarian mage should have the power to baffle us—" Trokoundos' heavy-lidded eyes flashed angrily. Being beaten so ate at his pride.
"You have no idea, then, how he does what he does?" Krispos asked.
"I did not quite say that. What makes his magic effective is easy enough to divine. He is very strong. Strength may accrue to any man of any nation—even, perhaps, such strength as his. But he also possesses technique refined beyond any we can match here in Videssos the city. How he acquired that, and how we may meet it... well, an answer there will go far toward piecing the puzzle together. But we have none."
Krispos said, "Not too long ago I got a note from our dear friend Gnatios. He claims he has your answers all tied up with a scarlet ribbon. Of course, he would claim dung was cherries if he thought he saw a copper's worth of advantage in it."
"He's a trimmer, aye, but he's no fool," Trokoundos said seriously, echoing Iakovitzes. "What answer did he give? By the lord with the great and good mind, I'll seize whatever I can find now."
"He gave none," Krispos said. "He just claimed he had one. As best I could tell, his main aim was escaping the monastery. He thinks I forget the trouble he's caused me. If he hadn't got Petronas loose, I could have turned on Harvas close to half a year sooner. "Would you have won on account of that?" Trokoundos asked.
"Up till this instant I'd thought so," Krispos answered. "If I couldn't beat him then with the full power of Videssos behind me, how may I hope to next spring? Or are you telling me I shouldn't go forth at all? Should I wait here in the city and stand siege?"
"No. Better to meet Harvas as far from Videssos the city as you may. How much good did walls do either Develtos or Imbros?"
"None at all." Krispos started to say something more, then stopped, appalled, and stared at Trokoundos. Videssos the city's walls were incomparably greater than those of the two provincial towns. Imagining them breached was almost more than Krispos could do. That was not quite the mental image that dismayed him. Winter was the quiet time of year on the farm, the time when people would do minor repairs and get ready for the busyness that would return with spring. In his mind's eye he saw Harvas' Halogai sitting round their hearths, some with skins of ale, others with their feet up, and every last one of them sharpening stakes, sharpening stakes, sharpening stakes ... Of itself, his anus tightened.
"What is it, your Majesty?" Trokoundos asked. "For a moment there you looked—frightened and frightening at the same time."
"I believe it." Krispos was glad he'd had no mirror in which to watch his features change. "This I vow, Trokoundos: we'll meet Harvas as far from Videssos the city as we can."
Progress paced down Middle Street at a slow walk. Beside the big bay gelding, eight servants tramped along with the imperial litter. Their breath, the horse's, and Krispos' rose in white, steaming clouds at every exhalation.
The city was white, too, white with new-fallen snow. Over his imperial robes, Krispos wore a coat of soft, supple otter furs. He still shivered; he'd lost track of his nose a while before. Dara had a brazier inside the litter. Krispos hoped it did her some good.
Only the Haloga guardsmen who marched ahead of and behind Krispos and his lady literally took winter in their stride. Marched, indeed, was not the right word: they strutted, their heads thrown back, chests thrust forward, backs as resolutely straight as the columns that supported the colonnades running along either side of Middle Street. Their breath fairly burst from their nostrils; they took in great gulps of the air Krispos reluctantly sipped. This was the climate they were made for.
Narvikka turned his head back. "W'at a fine morning!" he boomed. The rest of the northerners nodded. Some of them wore braids like Vagn's, tied tight with crimson cords; these bobbed like horses' tails to emphasize their agreement. Krispos shivered again. Inside the litter, Dara sneezed. He didn't like that. With her pregnant, he wanted nothing out of the ordinary.
The small procession turned north off Middle Street toward the High Temple. When they arrived, one of the Halogai held Progress' head while Krispos dismounted. The litter-bearers and all but two of the guardsmen stayed outside with the horse. The pair who accompanied Krispos and Dara into the temple had diced for the privilege—and lost. Halogai cared nothing for hymns and prayers to Phos.
A priest bowed low when he saw Krispos. "Will you sit close by the altar as usual, your Majesty?" he asked.
"No," Krispos answered. "Today I think I'll hear the service from the imperial niche."
"As you will, of course, your Majesty." The priest could not keep a note of surprise from his voice, but recovered quickly. Bowing again, he said, "The stairway is at the far end of the narthex there."
"Yes, I know. Thank you, holy sir." One Haloga fell in in front of Krispos and Dara, the other behind them. Both guards held axes at the ready, though the service was still an hour away and the narthex deserted but for themselves, the Avtokrator and Empress, and a few priests.
As she went up the stairs, Dara complained, "I'd much rather stay down on the main level. Inside the niche, you have trouble seeing out through the grillwork, you're too far away anyhow, and half the time you can't hear what the patriarch is saying."
"I know." Krispos climbed the last stair and walked forward into the imperial niche. The blond oak benches there were bedecked with even more precious stones than those on which less exalted worshipers sat. Mother-of-pearl and gleaming silver ornamented the floral-patterned grillwork. Krispos stood by it for a moment. He said, "I can see well enough, and Pyrrhos is loud enough so I won't have trouble hearing him. I want to find out what goes on when I'm not at the temple, the kind of things Pyrrhos says when I'm not here to listen."
"Spies would do that just as well," Dara said reasonably.
"It's not the same if I don't hear it myself." Krispos didn't know why it wasn't the same—probably because he'd been Emperor for less than a year and a half and still wanted to do as much as he could for himself. Come to that, Pyrrhos was not the sort to change his words because Krispos was in the audience.
"You just want to play spy," Dara said.
His grin was sheepish. "Maybe you're right. But I'd feel even more foolish going down now than I would staying." Dara's eyes rolled heavenward, but she stopped arguing.
Down below, worshipers filed into their places. When they all rose, Krispos and Dara stood, too: the patriarch was approaching the altar. "We bless thee, Phos, lord with the great and good mind, by thy grace our protector, watchful beforehand that the great test of life may be decided in our favor," Pyrrhos declaimed. Everyone recited with him, everyone save the two Halogai in the niche, who stood as silent and unmoving—and probably as bored—as if they were statuary.
More prayers followed Phos' creed. Then came a series of hymns, sung by the congregation and by a chorus of monks who stood against one wall. "May Phos hear our entreaties and the music of our hearts," Pyrrhos said as the last echoes died away in the dome far above his head.
"May it be so," the worshipers responded. Then, at the patriarch's gesture, they sank back onto their benches. Dara let out a small sigh of relief as she sat.
Pyrrhos paused to gather his thoughts before he began to preach. "I shall begin today by considering the thirtieth chapter of Phos' holy scriptures," he said. " 'If you understand the commands the good god has given, all hereafter will be for the best: well-being and suffering, the one for the just, the other for the wicked. Then in the end shall Skotos cease to flourish, while those of good life shall reap the promised reward and bask forevermore in the blessed light of the lord with the great and good mind.'
"Again, in the forty-sixth chapter we read, 'But he who rejects Phos, he is a creature of Skotos, who in the sight of the evil one is best.' And yet again, in the fifty-first: 'He who seeks to destroy for whatever cause, he is a son of the creator of evil, and an evildoer to mankind. Righteousness do I call to me to bring good reward.'
"How do we apply these teachings? That the vicious foe who prowls our borders is wicked is plain to all. Yet note how perfectly the holy scriptures set forth his sin: he is a destroyer, an evildoer to mankind, a son of the creator of evil, and one who gives no thought to the commands of the good god. And indeed, one day the eternal ice shall be his home. May it be soon."
"May it be soon," Krispos said. Beside him, Dara nodded. A low mutter also rose from the congregation below.
Pyrrhos went on, "Aye, with Harvas Black-Robe and the savage barbarians who follow him, the recognition of what is good and what evil comes easily enough. Would that Skotos knew no guises more seductive. But the dark god is a trickster and a liar, constantly seeking to ensnare and deceive men into thinking they do good when in fact their acts lead only toward the ice.
"What shall we say, for example—" The patriarch loaded his voice with scorn, "—of priests and prelates who make false statements for their own advantage, or who condone the sins of others, or who remain in concord with those who condone the sins of others?"
"He's whipping Gnatios again," Dara said. "So he is," Krispos said. "Trouble is, he's using Gnatios to whip all the priests in the whole hierarchy who don't spend every free moment mortifying their flesh, and I told him not to do that." Now he wished he was down by the altar. He could rise up in righteous wrath and denounce the patriarch on the spot— and wouldn't that make a scandal to resound all through the Empire! He laughed a little, enjoying the idea.
The laughter left his lips as Pyrrhos repeated, "What shall we say of these men who have blinded themselves to Phos' sacred words? By the Lord with the great and good mind, here is my answer: a man of such nature no longer deserves the appellation of priest. He is rather a wild animal, an evil scoundrel, a sinful heretic, a whore, one who does not deserve and is not worthy to wear a blue robe. He will spend all eternity in the ice with his true master Skotos. His tears of lamentation shall freeze to his cheeks—and who would deny this is his just desert?"
The patriarch sounded grimly pleased at the prospect. He went on, "This is why we root out misbelievers when and where we find them. For a priest who errs in his faith condemns not only himself to Skotos' clutches, but gives over his flock as well. Thus a misbelieving priest is doubly damned and doubly damnable, and must not be suffered to survive, much less to preach."
Krispos did not like the buzz of approval that rose to the imperial niche. Religious strife was meat and drink to the folk of Videssos the city. Pyrrhos might have promised to exercise economy, but the promise went too much against his nature for him to keep it: he was a controversialist born.
"I'll have to get rid of him," Krispos said, though saying it aloud made him wince. Pyrrhos had given him his start in the city. Driven by some mystic vision, the then-abbot had taken him to Iakovitzes, thus starting the train of events that led to the throne. But now that Krispos was on the throne, how could he afford a patriarch who kept doing his best to turn Videssos upside down?
"With whom would you replace him?" Dara asked. Krispos shook his head. He had no idea.
Pyrrhos was finishing his sermon. "As you prepare to leave the temple and return to the world, offer up a prayer to the Avtokrator of the Videssians, that he may lead us to victory against all who threaten the Empire."
That only made Krispos feel worse. Pyrrhos remained solidly behind him. But the patriarch threatened the Empire, too. Krispos had tried to tell him so, every way he knew how. Pyrrhos had not listened—more accurately, had refused to hear. As soon as Krispos could decide on a suitable replacement, it would be back to the monastery for the zealous cleric.
The congregation recited Phos' creed a last time to mark the end of the service. "This liturgy is accomplished," Pyrrhos declared. "Go now, and may each of you walk in Phos' light forevermore."
"May it be so," the worshipers said. They rose from their benches and began filing out to the narthex.
Krispos and Dara also rose. The Halogai behind them unfroze from immobility. One of the northerners muttered something in his own tongue to the other. The second guardsman started to grin until he saw Krispos watching him. His face congealed into soldierly immobility. Laughing at the ceremony, Krispos guessed. He wished the Halogai would see the truth of Phos. On the other hand, an Avtokrator who proselytized too vigorously was liable to see the size of his bodyguard shrink.
The Halogai preceded the imperial couple down the stairs. The men and women in the narthex bowed low as Krispos emerged. No proskynesis was required, not here: this was Phos' precinct first. Flanked by watchful guardsmen fore and aft, Krispos and Dara went out to the forecourt.
With a flourish, the chief litter-bearer opened the door to the conveyance so Dara could slip in. Narvikka came over to hold Progress' head. Krispos had his left foot in the stirrup when somebody not far away shouted, "You'll go to the ice with the lax priest you follow!"
"Too much pickiness will send you to the ice, Blemmyas, for condemning those who don't deserve it," someone else shouted back.
"Liar!" Blemmyas shouted.
"Who's a liar?" Fist smacked flesh with a meaty thwock. In an instant, people all over the forecourt were screaming and cursing and pounding and kicking at one another. Wan sunlight sparkled off the sharpened edge of a knife. "Dig up Pyrrhos' bones!" someone yelled. The ice that walked Krispos' spine had nothing to do with chilly weather—digging up somebody's bones was the call to riot in the city.
A stone whizzed past his head. Another clattered off the side of Dara's litter. She let out a muffled shriek. Krispos sprang into the saddle. "Give me your axe!" he shouted to Narvikka. The Haloga stared, then handed him the weapon. "Good!" Krispos said. "You, you, you, and you—" He pointed to guardsmen. "—stay here and help the bearers keep the Empress' litter safe. The rest of you, follow me! Try not to kill, but don't let yourselves get hurt, either."
He spurred Progress toward the center of the forecourt. The Halogai gaped, then cheered and plunged after him.
The axe was an impossible weapon to swing from horseback—too long, too heavy, balanced altogether wrong. Had Progress not been an extraordinarily steady mount, Krispos' first wild swipe would have pitched him out of the saddle. As it was, he missed the man at whom he'd aimed. The flat of the axehead crashed into the side of a nearby man's head. The fellow staggered as if drunk, then went down.
"Go back to your homes. Stop fighting," Krispos yelled, again and again. Behind him, the armored Halogai were happily felling anyone rash enough to come near them or too slow to get out of the way. From the cries of anguish that rose into the sky, Krispos suspected they weren't paying much heed to his urge of caution.
The riot, though, was murdered before it had truly been born People in the forecourt broke and ran. They were too afraid of the fearsome northerners to remember why they had been battling one another. That suited Krispos well enough. He held the axe across his knees as he brought Progress to a halt.
When he looked back, he saw about what he'd expected: several men and a woman down and unmoving. The Halogai were busy slitting belt pouches. Krispos looked the other way. Things could have got very sticky had they not waded into the crowd in his wake.
From the top of the steps, priests peered down in dismay at the blood that splashed the snow in the forecourt. Under that snow, old blood still stained the flagstones from the last riot Pyrrhos had inspired. Enough was enough, Krispos thought.
He leaned down from the saddle and returned Narvikka's axe to him. "Maybe one day I show you what to do with it," the Haloga said with a sly smile.
Krispos' ears heated; that stroke had looked as awkward as it felt, then. He pointed to a couple of corpses. "Take their heads," he said. "We'll set them at the foot of the Milestone with a big placard that says 'rioters.' The good god willing, people will see them and think twice."
"Aye, Majesty." Narvikka went about his grisly task with no more concern than if he'd been slaughtering swine. He glanced over to Krispos when he was done. "You go at them like a northern man."
"It needed doing. Besides, if I hadn't, the fighting just would have spread and gotten worse." That was a most un-Halogalike notion. To the northerners, fighting that spread was better, not worse.
Krispos rode the few steps to the litter. The bearers saluted.
One of them had a cut on his forehead and a blackened eye. He grinned at Krispos. "Thanks to you, Majesty, we were only at the edge of things. They plumb stopped noticing us when you charged into the middle of 'em."
"Good. That's what I had in mind." Krispos leaned down and spoke into the small window set into the litter door. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Dara answered at once. "I was in the safest place in the whole forecourt, after all." The safest place as long as the bearers didn't run away, Krispos thought. Well, they didn't.
Dara went on, "I'm just glad you came through safe."
He could hear that she meant it. He'd worried about her, too.
This was not the fiery sort of love about which lute players sang in wineshops, this marriage of convenience between them. All the same, bit by bit he was coming to see it was a kind of love, too.
"Let's get back to the palaces," he said. The litter-bearers stooped, grunted, and lifted. The Halogai fell into place. Narvikka swaggered along, holding by their beards the two heads he'd taken. City folk either stared at the gruesome trophies or turned away in horror.
Narvikka had fought to defend the Emperor whose gold he'd taken, and had enjoyed every moment of it. How, Krispos wondered uncomfortably, did that make him different from the Halogai who followed Harvas? The only answer he found was that Narvikka's violence was under the control of the state and was used to protect it, not to destroy.
That satisfied him, but not altogether. Harvas could trumpet the same claim for his conquests, no matter how vicious they were. The difference was, Harvas lied.
"A petition for you, your Majesty," Barsymes said.
"I'll read it," Krispos said resignedly. Petitions to the Avtokrator poured in from all over the Empire. Most of them he did not need to see; he had a logothete in aid of requests who dealt with those. But even the winter slowdown did not keep them from coming into the city, and the logothete could not handle everything.
He unrolled the parchment His nostrils twitched, as if at the smell of bad fish. "Why didn't you tell me it was from Gnatios?"
"Shall I discard it, then?"
Krispos was tempted to say yes, but had second thoughts. "As long as it's in my hands, I may as well read it through." Not the smallest part in his decision was Gnatios' beautifully legible script.
" 'The humble monk Gnatios to his imperial Majesty Krispos, Avtokrator of the Videssians: Greetings.' " Krispos nodded to himself—gone were the fawning phrases of Gnatios' first letter. Having seen they did no good, the former patriarch was wise enough to discard them. They were not his proper style anyhow. Krispos read on:
" 'Again, your Majesty, I beg the boon of an audience with you. I am painfully aware that you have no reason to trust me and, indeed, every reason to mistrust me, but I write nonetheless not so much for my own sake as for the sake of the Empire of Videssos, whose interest I have at heart regardless of who holds the throne.' "
That might even be true, Krispos thought. He imagined Gnatios scribbling in the scriptorium or in his own monastic cell, pausing to seek out the telling phrase that would make Krispos relent, or at least read further. He'd succeeded in the latter, if not in the former; Krispos' eyes kept moving down the parchment.
" 'Let me speak plainly, your Majesty,' " Gnatios wrote. " 'The cause of Videssos' present crisis is rooted three hundred years in the past, in the theological controversies that followed the invasions off the Pardrayan steppe, the invasions that raped away the lands now known as Thatagush, Khatrish, and Kubrat. As a result, you will need to consider those controversies and their consequences in contemplating combat against Harvas Black-Robe.' "
The jingling alliteration, though very much the vogue in sophisticated Videssian circles, only irritated Krispos. So did Gnatios' confident "as a result..." Of course the past shaped the present. Krispos enjoyed histories and chronicles for exactly that reason. But if Gnatios claimed the Empire's current problems were in fact three hundred years old, he also needed to say why he thought so.
And he did not. Krispos tried to find his reasons for holding back. Two quickly came to mind. One was that the deposed patriarch was lying. The other was that he thought he had the truth, but feared to set it down on parchment lest Krispos use it and keep him mewed up in the monastery all the same.
If that was what troubled him, he was naive—Krispos could send him back to the monastery of the holy Skirios after hearing what he had to say as easily as he could after reading his words. Gnatios was many things, Krispos thought, but hardly naive. Most likely, that meant he was lying.
"Bring me pen and ink, please, Barsymes," Krispos said. When the eunuch returned, he took them and wrote, "I still forbid your release. Krispos Avtokrator." He gave the parchment to Barsymes. "Arrange to have this returned to the holy sir, if you would."
"Certainly, your Majesty. Shall I reject out of hand any further petitions from him?"
"No," Krispos said after thinking it over. "I'll read them. I don't have to do anything about them, after all." Barsymes dipped his head and carried the petition away.
Krispos whistled between his teeth. Gnatios was everything Pyrrhos was not: he was smooth, suave, rational, and tolerant. He was also pliable and devious. Krispos had taken great and malicious glee in confining him to the monastery of the holy Skirios for a second time after Petronas' rebellion failed. Now he wondered whether Gnatios had learned enough humility in the monastery to serve as patriarch once more.
When that occurred to him, he also wondered whether he'd lost his own mind. The monastery had changed Petronas not at all, save only to fill him with a brooding desire for vengeance. If Pyrrhos was intolerable on the patriarch throne, what would Gnatios be but intolerable in some different way? Surely it would be better to replace Pyrrhos with an amiable nonentity, the priestly equivalent of barley porridge.
Yet somehow the idea of restoring Gnatios, once planted, would not go away. Krispos got up, still whistling, and went to the sewing room to ask Dara what she thought of it. She jabbed her needle into the linen fabric on her lap and stared up at him. "I can see why you want Pyrrhos out," she said, "but Gnatios has kept trying to wreck you ever since you took the crown."
"I know," Krispos said. "But Petronas is dead, so Gnatios has no reason—well, less reason—for treachery now. He made Anthimos a good patriarch."
"You should have struck off his head when he surrendered at Antigonos. Then your own wouldn't be filled with this moonshine now."
Krispos sighed. "No doubt you're right. His petitions are probably moonshine, too."
"What petitions?" Dara asked. After Krispos explained, her lip curled in a noblewoman's sneer. "If he knows so much about these vast secrets he's keeping, let him tell them. They'd have to be vast indeed to earn him his way out of his cell."
"By the good god, so they would." Krispos bent down to kiss Dara. "I'll summon him and hear him out. If he has nothing, I can send him back to the monastery for good."
"Even that's better than he deserves." Dara did not sound quite happy at having her sarcasm taken literally. "Remember where you'd be, remember where we'd all be—" She patted her belly. "—if he'd had his way."
"I'll never forget it," Krispos promised. He made a wry face. "But I also remember what Iakovitzes told me, and Trokoundos, too: that Gnatios is no one's fool. I don't have to like him, I don't have to trust him, but I have the bad feeling that I may need him." Dara stabbed her needle into the cloth again. "I don't like it."
"I don't either." Krispos raised his voice to call for Barsymes. When the eunuch came into the sewing room, he said, "Esteemed sir, I'm sorry, but I've changed my mind. I think I'd best talk, or rather listen, to Gnatios after all."
"Very well, your Majesty. I shall see to it at once." Barsymes could make his voice toneless as well as sexless, but Krispos had now had years to learn to read it. He found no disapproval there. More than anything else, that convinced him he was doing the right thing.
Freezing rain pelted down. Gnatios shivered in his blue robe as he walked up to the imperial residence. The troop Halogai who surrounded him—Krispos was taking no chances on any schemes the ex-patriarch might have hatched—bore the nasty weather with the resigned air of men who had been through worse.
Krispos met Gnatios just inside the entranceway to the residence. Wet and dripping, Gnatios prostrated himself on the chilly marble floor. "Your Majesty is most gracious to receive me," he said through chattering teeth.
"Rise, holy sir, rise." Gnatios looked bedraggled enough to make Krispos feel guilty. "Let's get you dry and warm; then I'll hear what you have to say." At his nod, a chamberlain brought towels and furs to swaddle Gnatios.
Krispos led Gnatios down the hall and into a chamber fitted out for audiences. Gnatios' step was sure, but then, Krispos remembered, he'd been here many times before. Iakovitzes waited inside the chamber. He rose and bowed as Krispos led in the former patriarch. Krispos said, "Since I intend to name Iakovitzes as Sevastos to succeed Mavros, I thought he should hear you along with me."
Gnatios bowed to Iakovitzes. "Congratulations, your Highness, if I may anticipate your coming into your new office," he murmured.
Iakovitzes' stylus raced over wax. He held up what he'd written so Krispos and Gnatios both could read it. "Never mind the fancy talk. If you know how to hurt Harvas, tell us. If you don't, go back to your bleeding cell."
"That's how it is, holy sir," Krispos agreed.
"I am aware of it, I assure you," Gnatios said. For once his clever, rather foxy features were altogether serious. "In truth, I do not know how to hurt him, but I think I know who—'what' may be the better word—he is. I rely on your Majesty's honor to judge the value of that."
"I'm glad you do, since you have no other choice save silence," Krispos said. "Now sit, holy sir, and tell me your tale."
"Thank you, your Majesty." Gnatios perched on a chair. Krispos sat down beside Iakovitzes on the couch that faced it. Gnatios said, "As I have written, this tale begins three hundred years ago."
"Go on," Krispos said. He was glad he had Iakovitzes with him. He'd enjoyed the histories and chronicles he'd read, but the noble was a truly educated man. He'd know if Gnatios tried to sneak something past.
Gnatios said, "Surely you know, your Majesty, of the Empire's time of troubles, when the barbarians poured in all along our northern and eastern frontiers and stole so many lands from us."
"I should," Krispos said. "The Kubratoi kidnapped me when I was a boy, and I aided Iakovitzes in his diplomatic dealings with Khatrish some years ago. I know less of Thatagush, and worry about it less, too, since its borders don't touch ours."
"Aye, we deal with them as nations now, like Videssos if neither so old nor so mighty," Gnatios said. "But it was not always so. We had ruled for hundreds of years the provinces they invaded. We—the Empire of Videssos—had a comfortable world then. Save for Makuran, we knew no other nations, only tribes on the Pardrayan steppe and in frigid Halogaland. We were sure Phos favored us, for how could mere tribes do us harm?"
Iakovitzes scribbled, then held up his tablet. "We found out."
"We did indeed," Gnatios said soberly. "Within ten years of the borders being breached, a third of Videssos' territory was gone. The barbarians rode where they would, for once past the frontier they found no forces to resist them. Videssos the city was besieged. Skopentzana fell."
"Skopentzana?" Krispos frowned. "That's no city I ever heard of." Wondering if Gnatios had invented the place, he glanced toward Iakovitzes.
But Iakovitzes wrote, "It's ruins now. It lies in what's Thatagush these days, and the folk there still have but scant use for towns. In its day, though, it was a great city, maybe next greatest in the Empire after Videssos; in no way were more than two towns ahead of it."
"Shall I go on?" Gnatios asked when he saw Krispos had finished reading. At Krispos' nod, he did: "As I said, Skopentzana fell. From what the few survivors wrote afterward, the sack was fearsome, with all the usual pillage and slaughter and rape magnified by the size of the city and because no one had imagined such a fate could befall him till the day. Among the men who got free was the prelate of the city, one Rhavas."
Krispos sketched the sun-circle over his heart. "The good god must have kept him safe."
"Under other circumstances, your Majesty, I might agree with you. As is—well, may I digress briefly?"
"The whole business so for has seemed pretty pointless," Krispos said, "so how am I to know when you wander off the track?" The story Gnatios spun was interesting enough—the man had a gift for words—but seemed altogether unconnected to Harvas Black-Robe. If he could do no better, Krispos thought, he'd stay in his monastery till he was ninety.
"I hope to weave my threads together into a whole garment, Majesty," Gnatios said.
"Whole cloth, you mean," Iakovitzes wrote, but Krispos waved for Gnatios to go on.
"Thank you, your Majesty. I know you have no special training in theology, but you must be able to see that a catastrophe like the invasion off the steppes brought crisis to the ecclesiastical hierarchy. We had believed—comfortably, again—that just as we went from triumph to triumph in the world, so Phos could not help but triumph in the universe as a whole. That remains our orthodoxy to this day—" Gnatios sketched the sun-sign. "—but it was sorely tested in those times.
"For, you see, now so many folk made the acquaintance of misfortune and outright evil that they began to doubt Phos' power. Out of this eventually arose the Balancer heresy, which still holds sway in Khatrish and Thatagush—aye, and even in Agder by Halogaland, which though still Videssian by blood has its own king. But worse than that heresy arose, as well. As I said, Rhavas escaped the sack of Skopentzana."
Krispos' eyebrows rose. "Worse came from the man who was prelate of an important city?"
"It did, your Majesty. Rhavas, I gather, was connected not too distantly to the imperial house of the time, but earned his position by ability, not through his blood. He might have been ecumenical patriarch had Skopentzana not fallen, and he might have been a great one. But when he made his way to Videssos the city, he was ... changed. He had seen too much of evil when the Khamorth took Skopentzana; he concluded Skotos was mightier than Phos."
Even Iakovitzes, whose piety ran thin, drew the sun-sign when he heard that. Krispos said, "How did the priests of the time take to that?"
"With poor grace, as you might expect." Pyrrhos' reply would have been fierce and full of horror. Gnatios let understatement do the same job. Krispos found he preferred Gnatios' way. The scholarly monk went on, "Rhavas, though, was become as great a zealot for the dark god as he had been for Phos. He preached his new doctrine to all who would listen, first in the temples and then in the streets after the patriarch of the day banned him from the pulpit."
Now Krispos was interested in spite of himself. "They didn't let that go on, did they?" The thought of Videssos the city filled with worshipers of evil filled him with dread.
"No, they didn't," Gnatios said. "But because Rhavas was well connected, they had to try him publicly in an ecclesiastical court, which meant he had the privilege of defending himself against the charges they lodged. And because he was able—well, no, he was more than able; he was brilliant. I've read his defense, your Majesty. It frightens me. It must have frightened the prelates of the day, too, for they sentenced him to death."
"I ask you again, holy sir—how does this apply to the trouble we're in now? If this Rhavas is three centuries dead, then evil as he may have become—"
"Your Majesty, I am not at all sure Rhavas is three centuries dead," Gnatios said heavily. "I am not sure he is dead at all. He laughed when the court sentenced him, and told them they had not the power to be his death. He was left in his cell for the night, to brood on his misbelief and on the crimes he had committed in the belief they furthered his god's ends. Guards came the next morning to take him to the headsman and found the cell empty. The lock had not been tampered with, there were no tunnels. But Rhavas was gone."
"Magic," Krispos said. The small hairs on his forearms and the back of his neck prickled erect.
"No doubt you are right, your Majesty, but because of the nature of Rhavas' offense the cell was warded by the finest sorcerers of the day. Afterward they all took oath their wards were undisturbed. Yet Rhavas was gone."
Iakovitzes bent over his tablet. He held it up to show what he had written. "You're saying this Rhavas is Harvas, aren't you?" He screwed up his face to show what he thought of that. But then he lowered the tablet so he could see it himself. When he raised it again, he pointed with his stylus to each name in turn.
For a moment, Krispos had no idea what he was driving at. Harvas was an ordinary Haloga name, Rhavas an ordinary Videssian one. But was it coincidence that both of them were formed from the same letters? The renewed prickle of alarm he felt told him no.
Gnatios stared at the two names as if he'd never seen them before. His eyes flicked from one to the other, then back again. "I didn't notice—" he breathed.
Iakovitzes set the tablet in his lap so he could write. He passed it to Krispos, who read it aloud: " 'No wonder he wouldn't swear by Phos.' " Iakovitzes believed, too, then.
"But if we're battling a ... a three-hundred-year-old wizard," Krispos faltered, "how do we, how can we hope to beat him?"
"Your Majesty, I do not know. I was hoping you could tell me," Gnatios said. His voice held no irony. Krispos was the Avtokrator. Defeating foreign foes came with the job.
Iakovitzes wrote again. "If we do face an undying wizard who worships Skotos and hates everything Phos stands for, why hasn't he troubled Videssos long before now?"
That made Krispos doubt again. But Gnatios answered, "How do we know he has not? By the lord with the great and good mind, your Highness, the Empire has suffered its full share of disasters over the years. How many of them might Rhavas have caused or made worse? Our ignorance of the force behind the misfortune fails to prove the force did not exist."
"Holy sir, I think—I fear—you are right," Krispos said. Only a man—or whatever this Rhavas or Harvas was, after so long— who loved Skotos could have inflicted such brutal savagery on Imbros. And only a man who had studied sorcery for three centuries could have so baffled a clever, well-trained mage like Trokoundos. The pieces fit as neatly as those of a wooden puzzle but Krispos cringed from the shape they made.
Gnatios said, "Now do with me as you will, your Majesty. I know you have no reason to love me, nor, truth to tell, have I any to love you. But this tale needed telling for the Empire's sake, not for yours or mine.
"How peculiar," Iakovitzes wrote. "I thought him a man completely without integrity. Shows you can't rely on adverbs, I suppose."
"Er, yes." Krispos handed the tablet back to Iakovitzes. When Gnatios saw he would not be invited to read Iakovitzes' comment, one eyebrow arched. Krispos ignored it. He was thinking hard. At last he said, "Holy sir, this deserves a reward, as you well know."
"Being out of the monastery, even if but for a brief while, is reward in itself." Gnatios raised that eyebrow again. "How ever did you arrange for the most holy ecumenical patriarch of the Videssians—" Gnatios put irony in his voice with a scalpel, not a shovel, "—to acquiesce in my release?"
"That's right, we both had to agree to it, didn't we?" Krispos grinned sheepishly. "As a matter of fact, holy sir, I forgot to ask him, and I gather an imperial summons for you was enough to overawe your abbot."
"Evidently so." Gnatios paused before continuing. "The most holy patriarch will not be pleased with you for having enlarged me so."
"That's all right. I haven't been pleased with him for some time." Only after the words were out of his mouth did Krispos wonder how impolitic it was for him to run down the incumbent patriarch to a former holder of the office.
Not even Gnatios' eyebrow stirred; Krispos admired that. Gnatios chose his words with evident care: "Exactly how great a reward did your Majesty contemplate?"
Iakovitzes gobbled. Gnatios turned his way in surprise; Krispos, by now, was used to the noble's strange laugh. He felt like laughing himself. "So you want your old post back, do you, holy sir?"
"I suppose I should feel chagrin at being so obvious, but yes, your Majesty, I do. To be frank—" Krispos wondered if Gnatios was ever frank, "—the idea of that narrow zealot's possessing the patriarchal throne makes my blood boil."
"He loves you just as well," Krispos remarked.
"I'm aware of that. I respect his honesty and sincerity. Have you not found, though, your Majesty, that an honest fanatic poses certain problems of his own?"
Krispos wondered how much Gnatios knew of Pyrrhos' summons to the Grand Courtroom, of the riots outside the High Temple. Quite a lot, he suspected. Gnatios might be confined to his monastic cell, but Krispos was willing to bet he heard every whisper in the city.
"Holy sir, there is some truth in what you say," he admitted. He leaned forward, as if he were in the marketplace of Imbros— back in the days when Imbros' marketplace held life—haggling over the price of a shoat. "How can I hope to trust you, though, after you've betrayed me not once but twice?"
"Always an interesting question." Gnatios sighed, spreading his hands in front of him. "Your Majesty, I have no good answer for it. I will say that I would be a better patriarch than the one you have now."
"For as long as you take to decide someone else would make a better Emperor than the one you have now."
Gnatios bowed his head. "An argument I cannot counter."
"Here is what I will do, holy sir: from now on, you may come and go as you will, subject to the wishes of your abbot. I daresay you'll need something in writing." Krispos called for pen and parchment, wrote rapidly, signed and sealed the document, and handed it to Gnatios. "I hope you'll overlook faults of style and grammar."
"Your Majesty, for this document I would overlook a great deal," Gnatios said. In one sentence, that summed up the difference between him and Pyrrhos. Pyrrhos never overlooked anything for any reason.
"If you find anything more in your histories, be sure to let me know at once," Krispos said.
Gnatios understood the audience was over. He prostrated himself, rose, and started for the door. Barsymes met him there. The vestiarios asked, "Shall the Halogai accompany the holy sir back to his monastery?"
"No, let him go back by himself," Krispos said. He succeeded in surprising his chamberlain, no easy feat. With a bow of acquiescence and an expression that spoke volumes, Barsymes led Gnatios toward the door of the imperial residence.
Krispos listened to the two sets of footsteps fading down the hall. He turned to Iakovitzes. "Well, what now?"
"Do you mean, what now as in giving Gnatios the High Temple back, or what now as in Harvas?" Iakovitzes wrote.
"I don't know," Krispos said, "and by the good god, I never expected the two questions to be wrapped up with each other." He sighed. "Let's talk about the patriarch first. Pyrrhos must go." In the two weeks since Krispos went up into the imperial niche at the High Temple, two more fights had broken out there— both of them, fortunately, small.
Iakovitzes scribbled. "Aye, my dear cousin's not the most yielding sort, is he? If you do want Gnatios back, maybe you can keep him in line by threatening to feed him to the Halogai the first time the word treason so much as tiptoes across the back of his twisty little mind."
"Something to that." Krispos remembered how Gnatios had cringed from a guardsman's axe the night he seized the Empire. He looked down at the tablet in his lap, then admiringly over to Iakovitzes. "Do you know, I hear your voice whenever I read what you write. Your words on wax or parchment capture the very tone of your speech. Whenever I try to set thoughts down, they always seem so stiff and formal. How do you do it?"
"Genius," Iakovitzes wrote. Krispos made as if to break the tablet over his head. The noble reclaimed it, then wrote a good deal more. He handed it to Krispos. "If you must have a long answer, for one thing, I came to writing earlier in life than you and have used it a good deal longer. For another, this is my voice now. Shall I be silent merely because I can no longer utter the more or less articulate croaks that most men use for speech?"
"I see the answer is no," Krispos said, thinking that Iakovitzes was about as unyielding as his cousin Pyrrhos. Refusing to yield to adversity struck him as more admirable than refusing to yield to common sense. The thought of Iakovitzes' adversity led to the one who had caused it. "Now, what of Harvas?"
Bright fear widened Iakovitzes' eyes, then left them as he visibly took a grip on himself. He bent over the tablet, used the blunt end of his stylus to smooth down the wax and give himself room to write. At last he passed Krispos his words. "Fight him as best we can. What else is there? Now that we have some notion of what he is, perhaps the wizards will better be able to arm themselves against him."
Krispos thumped himself on the forehead with the heel of his hand. "By the lord with the great and good mind, I haven't any mind at all. Gnatios has to tell his tale to Trokoundos before the day is through." He shouted for Barsymes again. The vestiarios transcribed his note and took it to a courier for delivery to Trokoundos.
That accomplished, Krispos leaned back on the couch. He had the battered feeling of a man to whom too much had happened too fast. If Harvas or Rhavas or whatever his proper name was had been perfecting his dark sorcery over half a dozen men's lives, no wonder he'd overcome a mere mortal like Trokoundos.
"To the ice with Harvas or Rhavas or whatever his proper name is," he muttered.
"What about Pyrrhos?" Iakovitzes wrote.
"You like to poke people with pointy sticks, just to see them jump," Krispos said. Iakovitzes' look of shocked indignation might have convinced someone who hadn't met him more than half a minute before. Krispos went on, "I don't wish the ice for Pyrrhos. I just wish he'd go back to his monastery and keep quiet. I'm not even likely to get that, worse luck. He won't bend, the stiff-necked old—"
Krispos stopped. His mouth hung open. His eyes went wide. "What are you gawping at?" Iakovitzes wrote. "It had better be Phos' holy light, to account for that idiotic expression you're wearing."
"It's the next best thing," Krispos assured him. He raised his voice: "Barsymes! Are you still there? Ah, good. I want you to draft me a note to the most holy patriarch Pyrrhos. Here's what you need to say—"
Barsymes stuck his head into the audience chamber. "The most holy patriarch Pyrrhos is here to see you, your Majesty."
"Good. He should be done to a turn by now." Krispos had put off four days of increasingly urgent requests from the patriarch for an audience. He turned to Iakovitzes, Mammianos, and Rhisoulphos. "Excellent and eminent sirs, I ask you to bear careful witness to what takes place here today, so that you may take oath on it at need."
The three nobles nodded, formally and solemnly. Mammianos said, "This had better work."
"The beauty of it is, I 'm no worse off if it doesn't," Krispos answered. "Now to business. I hear Pyrrhos coming."
The patriarch prostrated himself with his usual punctiliousness. He glanced at the three high-ranking men who sat to Krispos' left, but only for a moment. His eyes sparked as he swung them back to Krispos. "Your Majesty, I must vehemently protest this recent decision of yours." He drew out the note Krispos had sent him. "Oh? Why is that, most holy sir?"
Pyrrhos' jaw set. He knew when he was being toyed with. With luck, he did not know why. He ground out, "Because, your Majesty, you have restored to the monk Gnatios—the treacherous, wicked monk Gnatios—as much liberty as is enjoyed by the other brethren of the monastery dedicated to the sacred memory of the holy Skirios. Moreover, you have done so without consulting me." Plainer than words, his face said what he would have answered had Krispos consulted him.
"The monk Gnatios did a great service for me and for the Empire," Krispos said. "Because of that, I've decided to overlook his past failings."
"I haven't," Pyrrhos said. "This interference in the internal affairs of the temples is unwarranted and intolerable."
"In this special case, I judged not. And let me remind you that the Avtokrator is Avtokrator over all the Empire, cities and farms and temples alike. Most holy sir, I have the right if I choose to use it, and I choose to use it here."
"Intolerable," Pyrrhos repeated. He drew himself up. "Your Majesty, if you persist in you pernicious course, I have no choice but to submit to you my resignation in protest thereof."
Off to Krispos' left, someone sighed softly. He thought it was Rhisoulphos. It was all the applause he would ever get, but it was more than enough. "I'm sorry to hear that from you, most holy sir," he said to Pyrrhos. Just by a hair's breath, the patriarch began to relax. But Krispos was not finished. "I accept your resignation. These gentlemen will attest you offered it of your own free will, with no coercion whatsoever."
Iakovitzes, Mammianos, and Rhisoulphos nodded, formally and solemnly.
"You—planned this," Pyrrhos said in a ghastly voice. He saw everything, too late.
"I did not urge you to resign," Krispos pointed out. "You did it yourself. Now that you have done it, Barsymes will prepare a document for you to sign."
"And if I refuse to set my signature upon it?"
"Then you have resigned even so. As I said, holy sir—"
Pyrrhos scowled at the abrupt devaluation of his title. "—you resigned of your own accord, in front of witnesses. That may be smoothest all around. I would have removed you if you insisted on staying on—you promised to practice theological economy and tolerate what you could, but none of your sermons has shown even one drop of tolerance."
Pyrrhos said, "I see everything now. You will replace me with that panderer to evil, Gnatios. Without your knowing it, the dark god has taken hold of your heart."
Krispos leaned forward and spat on the floor. "That to the dark god! Look at your cousin here, holy sir. Remember what Harvas Black-Robe did to him. Would he fall into any trap Skotos might lay?"
"Were it baited with a pretty boy, he might," Pyrrhos said.
Iakovitzes used a two-fingered gesture common on the streets of Videssos the city. Pyrrhos gasped. Krispos wondered when that gesture had last been aimed at a patriarch—no, an ex-patriarch, he amended. Iakovitzes wrote furiously and passed his tablet to Rhisoulphos. Rhisoulphos read it: " 'Cousin, the only bait you need is the hope of tormenting everyone who disagrees with you. Are you sure you have not swallowed it?' "
"I know I believe the truth; thus anyone who holds otherwise embraces falsehood," Pyrrhos said, "I see now that that includes those here. Majesty, you may ban me from preaching in the High Temple, but I shall take my message to the streets of the city—"
Now Krispos knew Pyrrhos was no intriguer. A man wiser in the ways of stirring up strife would never have warned what he planned to do. Krispos said, "If what you believe is the truth, holy sir, and if I have fallen into evil, how do you explain the vision that bade you help me like a son?"
Pyrrhos opened his mouth, then closed it again. Rhisoulphos leaned over to whisper to Krispos, "If nothing else, your Majesty, you've confused him."
Grateful even for so much, Krispos nodded. He told Pyrrhos, "Holy sir, I'm going to give you an honor guard of Halogai to escort you to the monastery of the holy Skirios. If you do decide to yell something foolish to the people in the street, they'll do what they have to, to keep you quiet." Pyrrhos could not terrify the heathen northerners with threats of Skotos' ice.
He could not be intimidated, either. "Let them do as they will."
"The monastery of the holy Skirios, eh?" Mammianos said. One eyelid rose, men fell. "I'm sure the holy sir and Gnatios will have a good deal to say to each other."
Having planted his barb, the fat general leaned back to enjoy it. Pyrrhos did not disappoint him. The cleric's glare was as cold and withering as the fiercest of ice storms. Mammianos affected not to notice it. He went on, "Of course, Gnatios will have the blue boots back soon enough."
'The good god shall judge between us in the world to come," Pyrrhos said. "I rest content with that." He turned to Krispos. "Phos shall judge you, as well, your Majesty."
"I know," Krispos answered. "Unlike you, holy sir, I'm far from sure of my answers. I do the best I can, even so."
Pyrrhos surprised him by bowing. "So the good god would expect of you. May your judgment be better in other instances than it is with me. Now summon your northerners, if you feel you must. Wherever you send me, I shall continue to praise Phos' holy name." He sketched the sun-circle over his heart.
In an abstract way, Krispos respected Pyrrhos' sincere piety. He did not let that respect blind him. When Pyrrhos departed from the imperial residence, he did so under guard. Iakovitzes nodded approval. "Just because someone sounds humble is no sure reason to trust him," he wrote.
"From what I've seen at the throne, there's no sure reason to trust anyone."
To his secret dismay, both Rhisoulphos and Mammianos nodded at that. Iakovitzes wrote, "You're learning." Krispos supposed he was, but did not care for the lessons his office taught him.
For the first time since Harvas' magic turned back the imperial army on the borders of Kubrat, Trokoundos seemed something more than gloomy. "I hope you intend to reward Gnatios for what he ferreted out," he told Krispos. "Without it, we'd still be stumbling around like so many blind men."
"I have a reward in mind, yes," Krispos said; at that moment, a synod of prelates and abbots was contemplating Gnatios' name for the patriarchate once more, along with those of two other men whom the assembled clerics knew they had better ignore. "Now that you know more of Harvas, will he be easier to defeat?"
"Knowing a bear has teeth, your Majesty, doesn't take those teeth away," Trokoundos said. At Krispos' disappointed look, he went on, "still, since we know where he grew them, perhaps we can do something more about them. Perhaps."
"Such as?" Krispos asked eagerly.
"It's a fair guess, Majesty, that if he follows Skotos and draws his power from the dark god, his spells will invert the usages with which we're familiar. That may make them easier to meet than if he, say, truly clove to the Haloga gods or the demons and spirits the steppe nomads revere. Magic from the nomads or the northerners can come at you from any direction, if you know what I mean."
"I think so," Krispos said. "But if their mages or shamans or what have you can invoke their gods and demons and have magic work, does that make those gods and demons as true as Phos and Skotos?"
Trokoundos tugged thoughtfully at his ear. "Majesty, I think that's a question better suited to the patriarch's wisdom, or that of an ecumenical synod, than to one who aspires to nothing more than competent wizardry."
"As you wish. In any case, it takes us off the track. You know the direction from which Harvas' spells will come, you say?"
"So I believe, your Majesty. This aids us to a point, but only to a point. Harvas' strength and skill must still be overcome.' The one, I have already seen, is formidable. As for the other, three centuries ago it sufficed to free him from a warded cell. He can only have refined it in all the years since. That he remains alive to torment us proves he has refined it."
"What shall we do, then?" Krispos asked. He'd hoped having a handle on Harvas would give the mages of Videssos the means to defeat him with minimal risk to themselves or to the Empire. But he'd long since found that things in the real world had a way of being less simple and less easy than in storytellers' tales. This looked like another lesson from that school.
Trokoundos' words confirmed his own thoughts. "The best we can, your Majesty, and pray to the lord with the great and good mind that it be enough."
Bad weather settled in not long before Midwinter's Day. Blizzard after blizzard roared into Videssos the city from the northwest, off the Videssian Sea. On Midwinter's Day itself, the snow blew so hard and quick that even Krispos, with the best seat in ; the Amphitheater, made out little of the skits performed on the track before him. The people in the upper reaches of the huge oval stadium could have discerned only drifting white.
The final troupe of mimes changed its act at the last minute. They came out carrying canes and tapped their way through their routine, as if they'd all suddenly been stricken blind. On the spine of the Amphitheater, Krispos laughed loudly. So did many in his entourage, and in the first few rows of seats around the track. Everyone else must have wondered what was funny—which was just the point the mimes were making. Krispos laughed even more when he worked that out.
On the way back to the palaces after the show in the Amphitheater was done, he leaped over a bonfire to burn away misfortune for the coming year. That fire was but one of many that blazed each Midwinter's Day. This year, though, the good-luck bonfires brought misfortune with them. Whipped by winter gales, two got out of control and ignited nearby buildings.
Now Krispos saw through swirling snow the smudges of smoke he'd feared during the religious riots Pyrrhos had caused. The snow did little to slow the flames. Fire-fighting teams dashed through the city with hand pumps to shoot water from fountains and ponds, with axes and sledgehammers to knock down homes and shops to build firebreaks. Krispos had no great hope for them. When fire got loose, it usually pleased itself, not any man.
The teams amazed him. They succeeded in stopping one of the fires before it had eaten more than a block of buildings. The other blaze, by luck, had started near the city wall. It burned what it could, then came to the open space inside the barrier and died for lack of fuel.
Krispos presented a pound of gold to the head of the team that beat the first fire, a middle-age fellow with a fine head of silver hair and a matter-of-fact competence that suggested years as a soldier. Nobles and logothetes in the Grand Courtroom applauded the man, whose name was Thokyodes.
"Along with this reward from the grateful state," Krispos said, "I also give you ten goldpieces from my private purse."
More applause rose. Thokyodes clenched his right fist over his heart in salute—he was a veteran, then. "Thank you, your Majesty," he said, pleased but far from obsequious.
"Maybe you'll use one of those ten on a potion to make your eyebrows grow back faster," Krispos said, soft enough that only he and the team leader heard.
Not a bit put out, Thokyodes laughed and ran the palm of his hand across his forehead. "Aye, I do look strange without 'em, don't I? They got singed right off me." He made no effort to keep his voice down. "Fighting fires is just like fighting any other foe. The closer you get, the better you do."
"You did the city a great service," Krispos said.
"Couldn't've done it without my crew. By your leave, your Majesty, I'll share this with all of them." Thokyodes held up the sack of goldpieces.
"It's your money now, to do with as you please," Krispos said. The applause that rang out this time was unrehearsed, sincere, and startled. Few of the courtiers, men who had far more than this fireman, would have been as generous, and they knew it. Krispos wondered if he would have matched the man had fate led him to an ordinary job instead of the throne. He hoped so, but admitted to himself that he was not sure.
"I think you would have," Dara said when he wondered again later in the day, this time aloud. "This I'll tell you—Harvas wouldn't."
"Harvas? Harvas would have stood next to the fire with his cheeks puffed out, to blow it along." Krispos smiled at his conceit. A moment later the smile blew out. He sketched Phos' sun-circle. "By the good god, how do I know his magic didn't help the blazes spread?"
"You don't, but if you start seeing him under our bed whenever anything goes wrong, you'll have your head down there all the time, because we don't need Harvas to know misfortune."
"That's true," Krispos said. "You have good sense." His smile came back, this time full of gratitude. Harvas was quite bad enough without a fearful imagination making him worse.
Dara said, "I do try. It's nice that you notice. I remember when—" She stopped without telling Krispos what she remembered when. It had to do with Anthimos, then. Krispos did not blame her for steering away from that time; it had not been happy for her. But that meant several years of her life, the ones before Krispos became vestiarios, were almost blank to him, which occasionally led to awkward pauses like this one.
He wondered if every second husband and second wife endured them. Probably, he thought. It would have been more awkward yet had her marriage to Anthimos been a good one. A lot more awkward, he realized with an inward chuckle, because then she would not have told him Anthimos intended to kill him.
"Can't get much more awkward than that," he muttered under his breath.
"Than what?" Dara asked. "Nevermind."
Whenever fat Longinos burst in on him on the dead run, Krispos braced for trouble. The chamberlain, to his disappointment, did not disappoint him. "Majesty," Longinos gasped, wiping his brow with a silken kerchief—only a fat eunuch could have been sweaty after so trivial an exertion; it was freezing outside and not a great deal warmer inside the imperial residence. "Majesty, the most holy patriarch Pyrrhos—I'm sorry, your Majesty, I mean the monk Pyrrhos—is preaching against you in the street."
"Is he, by the good god?" Krispos sprang up from his desk so quickly that a couple of tax registers fluttered to the floor. He let them lie there. So Pyrrhos' indignation at being removed from the patriarchal throne really had overcome his longtime loyalty, had it? "What's he saying?"
"He's spewing forth a great vomit of scandal, your Majesty, over, ah, over your, ah, your relationship with her Majesty the Empress Dara before you, ah, rose to the imperial dignity." Longinos sounded indignant for his master's sake, though he had known Krispos and Dara were lovers long before they were man and wife.
"Is he?" Krispos said again. "He'll spew forth his life's blood before I'm through with him."
Longinos' eyes went large with dismay. "Oh, no, your Majesty. To cut down one but lately so high in the temples, one still with many backers who—begging your pardon, your Majesty—deem him more holy than the present wearer of the blue boots ... your Majesty, it would mean more blood than Pyrrhos' alone. It would mean riots."
He'd found the word he needed to stop Krispos in his tracks. Dividing the city—dividing the Empire—against itself was the one thing Krispos could not afford. "But," he said, as if arguing with himself, "I can't afford to let Pyrrhos defame me, either. If that nonsense goes on for long, it'll bring some would-be usurper out of the woodwork, sure as sure."
"Indeed, your Majesty," Longinos said. "Were you ten years on the throne rather than two—not even two—you might let him rant, confident he would be ignored. As it is—"
"Aye. As it is, people will listen to him. They'll take him seriously, too, thanks to his piety." Krispos snorted. "As if anyone could take Pyrrhos any way but seriously. I've hardly seen him smile in all the years I've known him, the somber old—" He stopped, laughing out loud. When he could speak again, he asked, "Where is Pyrrhos giving this harangue of his?"
"In the Forum of the Ox, your Majesty," Longinos said.
"All right; he should be easy enough to find there. Now, esteemed sir, this is what I want you to do—" He spoke for several minutes, finishing. "Do you think you should have something in writing from me, to make sure my orders get carried out?"
"Yes, that would be best." Longinos looked half amused, half scandalized. Krispos wrote quickly and handed him the scrap of parchment. The eunuch read it over, shook his head, then visibly pulled himself together. "I shall have this delivered immediately, your Majesty."
"See that you do," Krispos said. Longinos hurried away, calling for a courier. Krispos prided himself on not wasting time, so he reviewed another tax document before he ambled out to the entrance to the imperial residence. The Halogai there stood to stiff attention. "As you were, lads," he told them. "We're going for a walk."
"Where are your parasol-bearers, then, Majesty?" Geirrod asked.
"They'd just get in the way today," Krispos said. The Halogai stirred at that. A couple of them ran fingers down the edges of their axeblades to make sure the weapons were sharp. One must have found a tiny nick, for he took out a whetstone and went to work with it. When he checked again, the axe passed his test. He put away the stone.
"Where to, Majesty?" Geirrod said.
"The Forum of the Ox," Krispos answered lightly. "Seems the holy Pyrrhos isn't taking kindly to not being patriarch any more. He's saying some rather rude things about me there."
The Halogai stirred again, this time in anticipation. "You want us to curb his tongue for him, eh?" said the one who had sharpened his axe. He examined his edge anew, as if to make certain it could bite through a holy man's neck.
But Krispos said, "No, no. I don't aim to harm the holy sir, just to shut him up."
"Better you should kill him," Geirrod said. "Then he'll not trouble you ever again." The rest of the guardsmen nodded.
Krispos wished he could view the world with the ferocious simplicity the Halogai used. In Videssos, though, few things were as simple as they seemed. Without answering Geirrod, Krispos strode down the stairs. The northerners came after him, surrounding him to hold potential assassins at bay.
The Forum of the Ox was a mile and half, perhaps two miles east down Middle Street from the palace quarter. Krispos walked briskly to keep warm. He was glad of his escort as he passed through the plaza of Palamas; as usual, the Halogai marched in a way that said they would trample anyone who did not get clear. Crowds melted before them, as if by magic.
He hurried down Middle Street. He wanted to catch Pyrrhos in the act of preaching against him; whatever punishment he might mete out after the fact, no matter how savage, would not have the effect he wanted. Making a martyr out of the prelate was the last thing he had in mind.
A few hundred yards past the government office building, Middle Street jogged to the south. The Forum of the Ox lay not far ahead. Krispos sped up till he was almost trotting. To have Pyrrhos get away from him now would be unbearably frustrating. He hoped again that his orders had gone through on time.
In ancient days, the Forum of the Ox had been Videssos the city's chief cattle market. It was still an important trading center for goods bulkier, more mundane, and less expensive than those sold in the plaza of Palamas: livestock, grain, cheap pottery, and olive oil. People here stared at Krispos' escort before they got out of the way. In the plaza of Palamas, close by the palaces, they were used to seeing the Avtokrator. He was a much less frequent visitor in this poorer part of the city.
A quick glance around the square showed him what he sought: a knot of men and women gathered around a man in a blue monk's robe. The monk—even across the square, Krispos recognized Pyrrhos' tall, thin frame and lean face—stood on a barrel or box or stone that raised him head and shoulders above his audience. Krispos pointed. "Over there." The Halogai nodded. They moved on Pyrrhos with the directness of a pack of wolves advancing on a wisent.
Pyrrhos was a trained orator. Long before he reached the rear edge of the crowd that listened to the cleric, Krispos could hear what he was saying. So could half the people in the Forum of the Ox. "He must have learned his corruption from the master he formerly served, for surely depravity was the name by which Anthimos was better known. Yet in his own way, Krispos outdid Anthimos in vice, first seducing the previous Avtokrator's wife,' then using her against her husband to climb over his dead body to the throne. How will—how can—Phos bless our efforts with such a man inhabiting the palaces?"
Pyrrhos must have seen Krispos and his bodyguards approach, but he did not pause in his address. Krispos already knew he had courage. Pyrrhos also did not suddenly break off his speech to point out to his audience that the adulterous monster he had been denouncing was here. That, in his sandals, Krispos might have tried, if he truly aimed to overthrow some-one. But Pyrrhos did not deviate from what he had decided to say: his mind was made up, which left no room in it for change.
Krispos folded his arms to listen. Pyrrhos continued his harangue as if the Avtokrator were not there. He paid even less attention to the squad of firemen who dashed into the Forum of the Ox. Others round the square glanced up in some alarm at the sight of the men armed with Haloga-style axes and with a hand pump carried by two men who were sweating even in the chill of winter. Especially after the close escape on Midwinter's Day, fire was a constant fear in the city.
But the fire team made straight for the crowd round the gesticulating monk. "Make way!" the fire captain shouted.
People tumbled away from the crew. "Where's the fire?" somebody yelled.
"Right here!" Thokyodes yelled back. "Leastways, I got orders to put out this incendiary here." He waved to his crew. One of them swung the pump handle up and down. The other turned his hose toward Pyrrhos.
Cold water from the hand pump's wooden tub gushed forth. The people nearest Pyrrhos stampeded away from him, cursing and spluttering as they went. Pyrrhos himself tried to speak on through his drenching, but started to sneeze whether he wanted to or not. The fire team kept hosing him down until the tub was empty. Then Thokyodes looked over to Krispos. "Shall we fill 'er up again, your Majesty?"
Pyrrhos looked as if a little more would drown him. "No, that's fine, Thokyodes, thank you," Krispos said. "I think he's been cooled down very nicely."
"Cooled down—ahhehoo!—am I?" Pyrrhos shouted. Water dripped from his beard and from the end of his nose. "Nay, I've just—ahhehoo!—begun to speak the truth about our imperial adulterer. Now hear me, people of Videssos—"
"Go home and dry off, holy sir," someone called, not unkindly. "You'll take a flux on the lungs if you go on like this." "Aye, your tale's as soggy as your robe anyhow," someone else said. A woman added, "Save the fire in your belly to warm yourself."
"No, the crew just doused that fire," a man said. He chuckled at his own wit.
Pyrrhos had lived all his adult life in monasteries or attached to one temple or another. He was used to respect from the laity, no