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'Constantinople,' Princess Theodora Doukaina murmured, staring into the dark over the ship's guardrail. 'At last we are home.' She clutched her baby to her chest, angling her so that she might have her first glance of the city at the heart of the Empire. Martina was busy sucking a corner of her blanket, her gaze caught by the glow of a lamp nailed to the mast amidships. As Theodora shifted her, easing the blanket from her mouth, Martina's eyes tracked the lamp, not the City. Theodora sighed.
'My lady, with your permission?' Sophia was hovering at her elbow and, as the galley rose on a gentle swell, she slipped a steadying arm under Theodora's cloak and wound it round her waist. The warmth of her lady-in-waiting's body was welcome. It was not yet Easter and out on the Sea of Marmara the wind had bite. 'Perhaps I should take the baby below?'
'No. The sea is calm and I would like Martina to see the city.'
Above them, the night sky glistened with stars. Moonlight from a full moon washed over the deck, playing with the shadows of sailors preparing to lower the sail, stretching and shrinking them with the rise and fall of each wave.
Over Constantinople itself, there was not a star to be seen, likely a bank of cloud lay over the City and was blotting them out.
The helmsman's voice rose sharply over the creak of timbers. 'Captain Brand!'
'My pardon, ladies.'
The captain pushed past them, heading for the stern. Theodora barely noticed, she was staring hungrily across the water, throat tight. We are home. Home. Her mind was in turmoil. Fear, guilt, hopeshe felt them all.
To the north, several lights were spaced out at intervals along a dark, indistinct skyline. That must be the palace wall, it was hard to see tonight. There were domed silhouetteschurchesglowing with an eerie radiance. Puzzled, Theodora stared at the domes; something was out of place, something was missing. She knotted her browwhy could she not get her bearings? She knew the City like the back of her hand. Was that the Palace? She ought to know. Holy Mother, she should be able to see the Boukoleon Palace; the entrance to the Imperial harbour should be lit by the braziers on top of the towers, and a little to the right of that the dome of Hagia Sophia
A gust of wind wrenched a strand of brown hair from her cloak hood. A chill went through her, a chill that had nothing to do with salt-laden sea breezes. There was something else in the air something that chilled more effectively than the wind, something other than salt. Theodora's skin prickled. Danger, danger.
'Sophia, can you smell something?'
Like Theodora, Sophia was looking landwards, towards the Imperial Palace. Her grip tightened, her nostrils flared as she inhaled. Wide eyes met Theodora's. 'Smoke! My lady, I can smell smoke!'
'The City is burning. Look at that dome, the gilding never glows like that, not even at sunrise. Parts of the city have been fired.' Even as Theodora watched, the dome winked out of sight. A pall of smoke was drifting over Constantinople. That was why no stars were visible in the north.
'My lady ' Sophia flung a worried glance at the stern '.perhaps we should get below.'
Behind them, a sailor swore. Captain Brand snapped an order; there was a sudden flurry of activity, and beneath their feet the galley altered course. Ropes groaned, wind filled the sail. It was then that Theodora heard the screams. Faint screams, borne by the wind across black briny water.
'Sophia, can you hear that?'
Sophia tugged at her arm. 'Please, my lady, I really think we should get below.'
Captain Brand marched up even as Theodora had opened her mouth to object. His face was grim. 'Ladies, it is time to retire, I believe.'
'What is happening, Captain?' Sophia asked.
Their Varangian escort shook his head. 'I have no idea, my lady, but the Palace lighthouse is out. I won't risk sailing into the Imperial harbour tonight.'
Theodora looked at the city skyline, mind racing. The Palace lighthouseof course, that was why she could not get her bearings! For years, the Palace lighthouse had stood like a sentry next to the Boukoleon Palace. It was lit at dusk each day and for it to have been extinguished before dawn, something appalling must have happened. The wind shifted, pushing at the smoke, and the sea wall swam into focus, a grey ribbon bathed in moonlight. Flames flared like bright flowers on the domed skyline. Then the smoke drifted and the flame flowers, the gilded domes and the sea walls vanished.
Shivering, Theodora hugged Martina close to her breast. 'The City is on fire.' She felt hollow inside.
'We cannot be sure, my lady. It is probably perfectly safe, but we shall not be entering the Imperial harbour tonight.'
The wind buffeted the galley and the sound of drumming reached them. Theodora gave the Captain a straight look. 'Battle drums, Captain?'
Captain Brand pressed his lips together. 'That seems most unlikely. However, I have been ordered to protect you ladies. My apologies for the delay, but you will not be sleeping in the Boukoleon Palace yet awhile.'
Theodora exchanged glances with Sophia. She wanted to laugh, she wanted to cry. Naturally, in her role as simple lady-in-waiting, Princess Theodora Doukaina did neither; she went meekly below deck, as she had been instructed. There was no sense rousing the good Captain's suspicions about her identity at this late stage.
'Have you decided what you will do with the baby, my lady?'
'Mmm?' Theodora lifted her gaze from the infant dozing in her lap. She and Lady Sophia were sharing a bench in an ill-lit guest chamber in St Michael's Abbey, a few miles outside Constantinople. They were waiting for word on what had happened in the City; they had been waiting for nigh on two weeks. Two weeks. Easter had come and gone.
Outside rain was falling, the air smelled dank. Wool-lined slippers made a poor shield against the wintry chill seeping up from the stone floor. Goose-bumps had formed on Theodora's legs and arms. Keeping firm hold of the baby in questionher daughter, Martinashe cocooned both herself and the child tightly in veil and shawl.
Theodora was grateful for this unexpected time alone with Martina, every moment spent with her was so precious. She was achingly conscious that Sophia, who was her friend and lady-in-waiting, believed that she and Martina would soon be separated. Permanently. Protocol would demand it. Protocol was an old foe. Theodora had fought it before, she would fight it again. She did not know how, but somehow she would win the right to keep her daughter.
Sophia gave her a sympathetic smile and tried again. 'Martina. What you will do with her when we reach the Imperial Palace?'
The Princess and Lady Sophia were alone; the other ladies were in a larger guest chamber. Theodora was almost certain that they had managed to secure privacy for herself and Sophia without arousing Captain Brand's suspicions; she was almost certain the good captain did not know she was the Princess Theodora Doukaina. They had taken great pains to make him think she was just one of the many ladies-in-waiting he was escorting to the Great Palace. A niggle of doubt remained. Has Captain Brand seen through our deception?
The accommodation at St Michael's was far from palatial, the guest chamber was little more than a monk's cell. The walls were whitewashed and the meagre furnishingssleeping pallets, benchwere dusty and decidedly rustic. The icon on the wall was shrouded in cobwebs. Since Captain Brand had decreed that none of the ladies could leave the monastery until they received confirmation it was safe to proceed to the Palace, the guest chamber had, in effect, become their prison. Thanks to the rain, even the Abbey courtyard was out of bounds.
Theodora held down a sigh. The voyage back to Constantinople had been fraught with difficulties, not least because none of the soldiers escorting them to the Imperial Palace could know that she was anything more than another lady-in-waiting. Only Theodora's waiting women realised the truth.
The day of reckoning is almost upon me. I am Princess
Theodora Doukaina and it is time for me to reclaim my proper identity.
Theodora sat on the bench, stroking her daughter's hair. The problem was that she did not want to reclaim her true identity. Outwardly, her expression was calmyears of training had ensured that. Inside, she felt as though her heart was made of glass, glass that had shattered into a thousand pieces. She could no longer remember what it felt like to be whole. Much as she loved Constantinople, she dreaded her return. If it was discovered that she had a daughter, the scandal would rock the City.
If they discover that Martina is mine, will they take her away? Holy Mother, that must not happen!
Captain Brandthe Varangian officer charged with ensuring their safety on their journey to the Great Palacehad assured them that St Michael's Abbey would be the ideal place to wait for news. They would not be allowed to set foot outside until he knew it was safe.
Safe. It had been hard not to laugh in the Captain's face. Safe. If only he knewTheodora had so many secrets she could never feel safe again.
The voyage from Dyrrachion on the Empire's western border had been nothing less than torture. Theodora had been obsessed with the thought that with every day that passed, they were a day closer to the moment when she might lose her daughter. On the one hand, she had wanted the journey to last for ever, so that she could enjoy being with Martina. On the other, pretence did not come easily to her. It was a challenge pretending to be just one lady-in-waiting among many, particularly when the other women knew her to be the Princess Theodora Doukaina and were in the habit of bowing to her every wish. The strain of the pretence was taking its toll on her.
We should be in the Boukoleon Palacewhat can have happened?
'Why was the Palace lighthouse out?' Theodora asked, not for the first time. 'It's unheard of. Unimaginable.'
'I do not know. Perhaps the wind.' Sophia trailed into silence.
'The wind no.' Theodora rocked her daughter and adjusted her wrappings. The bench creaked. Theodora thought about the fires they had seen and the acrid smell of smoke. The screams. The wind had not extinguished the Palace lighthouse that night, Sophia knew that as well as she. For the Palace lighthouse to have gone out, and for it to have remained out, something terrible, revolutionary, must have happened in the Palace itself.
'What can have happened?' Has there been a Palace coup? A revolt of some kind? Even in Dyrrachion they had heard the mutterings; the Emperorwho insisted on calling himself Theodora's unclewas not the most popular of men.
Sophia lifted her shoulders. 'My lady, I do not know.'
'It will take time for a messenger to reach the Palace and return, of course.'
'Time? The messenger is certainly taking an age,' Sophia said. 'I don't understand itisn't St Michael's used as a hostel by the Court because of its proximity to Constantinople?'
Sophia was in the right. St Michael's Abbey sat on a promontory overlooking the Gulf of Lasthenes where their galley was currently at anchor, it really was not far from the City. Theodora forced a smile. 'If something has happened in the Great Palace, we shall soon learn of it.'
She rested her hand gently on the top of her daughter's head, her thumb absently smoothing the baby-fine hair. Martina was snug in several layers of fine linen and silk.
Safe, my daughter is safe. God knows what is happening in the City, but He has granted Martina and I another day together. For now, Martina is safe.
Martina was infinitely precious to her, it was terrifying how much Theodora felt for this small bundle of life. Terrifying and marvellous. When Theodora had learned of her pregnancy, she had had no idea she was capable of such powerful feelings. Martina is mine, I will not let them take her away from me. Death might have broken the bond between Theodora and Prince Peternothing would break the bond between Theodora and her child.
Lady Sophia looked at her. 'It cannot be long until we are back at the Palace, my lady.' And then, even though she and Theodora were alone in the stark little cell, she lowered her voice. 'If you want to keep your secret, it is time to decide what you are going to do with her. You can put it off no longer.'
Tears burned at the back of Theodora's eyes, her heart ached. Sophia spoke the truth, she had hard decisions to make. There was no doubt in Sophia's mind as to what she ought to doprotocol demanded that Theodora give up her child. Theodora ought to pretend that she and Peter had not created this wonderful, mysterious scrap of humanity.
I cannot do it.
However, there were other reasons why Theodora should give up Martina, reasons known only to her, reasons which outweighed protocol, important though that was.
It might be safer for Martina if I do give her up.
It was a powerful reason, but powerful as it was, Theodora would not do it. There had to be a way to keep Martina safe without losing her. She squared her shoulders and looked directly at her lady-in-waiting. 'I cannot give her up.'
'My lady, you must! Think of the consequences if you are found out.'
'Sophia, I have been thinking of nothing else since we left Dyrrachion. I will not give her up.'
Lady Sophia's sigh was loud in the quiet. Outside, Theodora could hear the chanting of the monks; she could hear the scream of a gull as it flew over the gorge; she could hear the spring rain hissing on the paving outside the lodge. Several moments passed.
'Sophia, she's my daughter!'
'I understand, but what will you do? Confess you have had a child out of wedlock? An Imperial princess?' 'I cannot do that.'
'No.' Sophia blew out a breath. 'I suppose you could keep on running. The scouts Captain Brand sent to the City may already have learned if Katerina and Anna arrived safely. You could let Katerina continue the pretence a while longer.'