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By Susan Shwartz
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Susan Shwartz
All rights reserved.
Night rioters had set half the trees that bordered the Golden Horn ablaze. Their reflections burned in the dark water. Muffling himself in his hooded cloak, Marric slipped up from the harbor, gliding from shadow to shadow. The burning trees turned the defensive wails of Byzantium, its port stews, and the facades of its temples and great houses into eerie hell.
Hardly a prince's homecoming, he thought. There should be guards turned out on the quay, waiting with a horse bridled in pearls to bring me to the palace. But Alexa, Marric's sister, had sent for him in secret, so he had returned stealthily from Cherson, the rebellious Crimean province to which his father's orders had banished him.
He had no escort. His closest companions on the frontier had been younger officers, who were too closely watched to join him on this venture. He had not bothered to woo their superiors, preferring to ride free on the plains—wild as the Huns who relished fits of bravery and temper—to winning the experienced generals' favor or pacifying the rebellious province. What he really would have liked, he knew, was to ride to World's End, like his ancestor Alexander. But he had realized long ago that his father the emperor would never permit that.
Marric paused. He sniffed the air, his senses as keen as those of the great cats. Jealously, he surveyed his city.
Though he wore a plain uniform, Marric carried himself with the arrogance of the imperial line. Alexa had always compared him to the dusky jungle cats that the imperial beastmasters had never let the imperial heirs caress. But they had been denied little else. Far too little, reproved the white-robed Osiris priests, who were always reproving him. "Head of a beast on a man's body," his favorite tutor, a witty cynic, had consoled him by jeering. "Use your reason, prince." Turning reason on the state religion of his line, Marric had learned to be skeptical of all but skepticism itself. How the shaven-skulls had frowned!
Shouts echoed against the massive walls of the great houses and temples and down the twisted streets. Here in the lower city, the air reeked with smoke, rancid food, and the pungent scents of feral cats and wilder men. A file of fair-haired men passed, hands prudently near their axes: the northern fighters who served the emperor as a personal guard. "Miklagard" they called the great city Antony and divine Cleopatra had fortified. Home. The flaming tree to Marric's right danced in a rainbow haze as his eyes filled with joy at being back.
Marric had not seen his home since Emperor Alexander had departed beyond the horizon. His father ... the last time Marric had seen him, just before he set off on his journey, they had quarreled again.
"Almost thirty, and with less sense than a recruit!" Alexander had shouted. "I'll grant you've the skills of a free-captain. But you've got to learn that there's more to being a prince than leading armies—and not leading them well."
"I've never lost a battle!" Marric knew he was as fine a strategist as soldier, but his father's criticism stung. Alexander had a serenity Marric knew he lacked.
"Nor won a conquered people's hearts. Go learn how. Cherson will school you. Or kill you."
He had seen the consort Irene's look of triumph when the sentence of banishment was first handed down: the more chance for her son Ctesiphon, especially if Marric died in Cherson.
The province had tried to kill him—and, gods knew, come close enough. Gradually it learned to obey him as the lion does its trainer—as long as hand, voice, and courage hold firm. Just as he had begun to take pride in this achievement, he had received word of his father's death. His sister's messenger said that Irene had been out of the city when Alexander died. Other informants hinted darker things. But unless the priests' mumblings were right, Marric's father would never see how his son had turned out.
Like his father and the Macedonian who had begun their line, half man and half god, Marric's name was Alexander. And it was Antony too, after the Cosmocrator who had defeated the Roman Octavian at Actium and built the imperial city as a link between East and West. But Marric was what he called himself. He had taken the name from an ancestor who had traveled to Byzantium from the West. Unlike Alexander or Antony, no one knew much of the first Marric. That way, no one would reproach him with his ancestor's steadfastness ... especially the priests.
"Irene!" Some imbecile bellowed a paean to the usurper. Other drunken voices took it up, and the street rang with shouts. "Irene! Hail, Empress!"
Marric's lips curled back from his teeth. Irene an empress? She was a usurper, had never been more than a Syrian consort jumped up to wife, a woman of scant royalty and scanter character. It was Marric who should rule in Byzantium with his sister Alexa, in the old way of the pharaohs.
"Irene!" Three more men roistered by. Each wore a strip of cloth tied round his arm. So Irene had been bribing the charioteers again, had she? Judging from appearances, the hippodrome riots had gotten worse. Irene's tactics might make herself acceptable to the mob. Glut them with wine and winning horses, and they would howl her name until their throats closed. Was that all there was to it? His informants said no. But he had no proof.
Marric spied a body in the gutter. As he approached, a figure slipped away into an alley, but not before moonlight glinted off the stained dagger the assassin clutched in a mittened paw. The victim was quite dead. Great bloodstains encrusted the luxurious dalmatic from which all the gems had been slashed. Beneath the bloodstains was the richness of murex dye. About the corpse's arm was still twisted a strip of blue cloth—blue, for the aristocratic faction, who wagered fortunes on the chariots and had never really trusted Alexander's upstart second wife. So that feud was heating up, too?
Avoiding the too well-lit Mese, Byzantium's great central avenue, Marric moved down a side street. He spared a glance for the Arch of Antony. Beyond it lay the palace and the twin temples of Isis and Osiris. Beyond them was the necropolis. Forgive me, my father, for neglecting your tomb. When I rule as Horus-on-Earth, it shall not lack for offerings.
He could still hear his father's voice. "Achilles you fancy yourself. But let me tell you, my son, Achilles would have made a poor king!"
A shadow whipped across his path into a gateway.
"Ho!" Two men ran by him, cursing and shouting. "You there!" They carried their yard-long swords unsheathed.
"You! Have you seen a grayrobe lurking hereabouts?"
"One of the accursed druids," explained the second, an evil-visaged man with the elaborate diction of a drunk. "We ought to kennel them all or send them back into the damned Mists that spawned them."
Like the Varangian mercenaries, the druids had come from the West. Many in the empire, which worshipped Isis and Osiris and their imperial manifestations on earth, regarded druids as spies. But Marric's father had always let them live unmolested, deeming them harmless fortunetellers who eked out a living by snaring coppers from foolish adolescents. That odd tolerance was the only softness his father had ever shown. He had been, Marric remembered with pride and sorrow, all Hellene, as proud of his rationality as he had been of his titles: Horus, Pharaoh, Emperor. He had made the precarious compromise between faith and reason. Marric, relentlessly secular, could not force himself into the same mold.
Upon a time, his father had told him, the title Horus had enabled the emperors to summon powers. But in these latter years, the rites that turned an emperor into a semi-divine priest-king had fallen into abeyance. And just as well. Father would never have trusted me with such secrets, and he'd have been right. For Marric, power was a matter of armies, weapons, and plotting, not the sonorous murmurs of priests in bare cells. They knew nothing of real life, life on the knife's edge. Much as Marric hated Cherson, the danger had exhilarated him. Twice he nearly had been murdered like his two predecessors. Once a friend had saved him, once a courtesan.
Intent on their druid hunt, the soldiers ran on ahead.
"I know you're there," Marric called to the shadows. "Come out, or I'll shout for the watch."
What could a gray-robed, decrepit old fraud do to him anyhow?
The druid slipped from the battered doorway of a shrine. Above the entryway, a fish—two crudely joined semi-circles—had been scratched in stucco. Another of the mystery cults with which the lower city seethed. Judging from that sign, the old spy had been skulking under the shelter of a cult most hostile to all the others. Marric shrugged disdainfully. Barbarian priests were even less acceptable to him than the priests of Osiris. They were less clean.
The druid's hood fell back. He was an old man. Unlike the priests of the Great Temple, who went shaven-skulled as they had since the mysteries had been revealed at Heliopolis, he had long hair and a longer beard. But his eyes were as keen as those of the high priest himself, and as critical. Marric was used to such criticism.
"May the Goddess light your way," the druid began courteously enough.
"Save it!" Marric snapped. More guardsmen haft-ran, half-lurched down the street. Several turned toward the Temple of Min. Its gate swung wide, and Marric's nose tingled from the scents of incense and musk. Min's worship would definitely distract those men. But their fellows would not miss Marric or the druid.
"Get back." He didn't wait to see himself obeyed, but strode forward, one hand on his sword hilt, to intercept the group.
"What are you men doing here?" He had had the tone of command since he was a boy.
"Chasing druids, sir," one man answered.
His fellow muttered, "Who is this man anyhow? Don't tell him a damn thing."
"On such a night, and with the Greens winning?" Marric asked. He deliberately roughened his own speech to approximate the men's common accents. Then he laughed easily, sensually. "Your friends had the right idea. They headed straight for the Temple of Min."
From his earliest days in military training, Marric had had a girl for anticipating events. Now he fixed his will and his hopes on the Temple of Min, where bright torches seemed to make the erotic paintings daubed on the walls dance suggestively.
The temple's gate opened again and a woman ran out. She caromed off one of the soldiers into Marric's arms. In the lurid shadows of the burning trees, Marric saw her painted eyes and nipples. She was one of Min's sacred prostitutes—and his rescuer.
He laughed again and kissed her, tasting wine and the heaviness of opium as his lips parted hers. Unbidden, his senses stirred, and he bent her body back until she staggered and clung to him for support. His hand cupped her breast, smoothed with oil of myrrh, and for a weak moment Marric burned to abandon the druid, to forget all missions, and compel this woman to fulfill what her mouth and bands promised. Then he freed himself. He had already made promises to two women: to Irene, a promise of retribution; to Alexa, his loyalty.
"I'm changing your game," he told the soldiers. "Catch!" He spun the woman toward them. Ironically he bowed to the woman, who wound her arms sinuously about the waist of the nearest soldier. "I am sure these soldiers will ... amuse you. Unless, of course, they prefer druid hunts—" Another laugh, knife-edged to slash at their male pride, completed his statement. What half-drunken guard—or what prince—would not choose to rut rather than pursue an elusive old druid? And if Alexa had not summoned him ...
After the group staggered past, Marric beckoned the druid out of hiding.
"If you want to live ..."
"I would be on the next ship for the Isles of the Mists," the druid agreed. "But where the Goddess' will is concerned, what is my life? So I remain here. By her will, it seems I owe you a debt. So listen to me, prince—"
Marric grasped the man's robe at the throat. A ropy-veined hand restrained him. Marric raised his eyebrows: many had claimed that the druids were strong.
"Look." The old man turned, and Marric turned with him. "Beware the port."
He raised hands over a scummy puddle in the alley. Were there accomplices lurking hereabouts? Marric doubted it, and followed the druid's motions as if this were foreordained.
The druid's lips moved in an invocation to the Goddess Marric had always called Isis. Intrigued, he bent forward to watch; conjury had always amused him. Surely he saw figures forming in the oil on the water.
"By the Hawk!" The priests of Osiris required extensive preparations before they scryed, but this shabby barbarian performed his magic in the streets. Clear images were indeed forming: a man and a woman fighting, light erupting from her form; a body falling; another man, bleeding from many wounds, swinging a blade, then falling near a ship.
A prowling cat wailed in the background, and Marric's dark hair roughened with fear. Was the body that fell Alexa's? Ever since their mother had departed beyond the horizon so shortly after Alexa's birth, his father had kept the imperial heirs close to his side. With Alexander dead, there were few people Marric trusted, and only one whom he loved beyond all measure. Even as a child, he had been so devoted to Alexa that her servants had called him the imperial nurse. Alexa—the thought of his sister-queen waiting for him—had sustained him in his exile. When he gained the throne from Irene, Alexa would share Empire with him as Isis, sister, wife, and mother of the next heir.
"Is that your sister, prince?" The druid chuckled. "Love is like fire. It nourishes, or burns. Take care that yours, and hers, are of the right kind."
All right, so the druid recognized him. All these tricksters have craft. Aillel, a Varangian he had taken a fancy to in childhood, had told him that. But Marric resented his loose talk about Alexa.
"The gods rot you!" He raised a lean fist, and the druid chuckled again.
"I show you but a possible future, and you would wreak the very vengeance on me that you denied those soldiers?"
Stymied by the fearless old man, Marric stepped back. Actually, there had been no real insult given. Except for the vision. But the druid would hardly babble that all over the stews. He glanced down at the puddle again. Tiny figures still struggled atop the water. Now guards were dragging the wounded man to lie across a horse. They rode toward a building that looked like a prison. It was all illusion. Marric brought his foot down across the puddle. He would not believe it.
"Prince, prince, you scorn my warning because you are untested."
Untested? What could the druid know of the strain, the discipline, and the pain Marric had suffered? The last strategos of Cherson had been murdered by his own guard. The one before him had died screaming in a flux unlike any his physicians had ever seen. And the assassination attempt on Marric before Alexander's death had left him debating whether to invoke stark justice on the troops or simply leave half the province's nobles without heirs. He had done neither, dimly aware that such choices represented an irrevocable step from law to tyranny.
And then the news had come of his father's death, Irene's seizure of the regency, and Alexa's summons. Marric's grief had been fresh and silent; his fears for Byzantium, left to Irene's slender, beringed hands, grew overwhelming. He had dallied far too long here, wasting time Alexa might need. She might be thinking him captured now, just like the prince in the vision.
Marric heard himself breathing harshly. Though he had never trembled before army or assassin, now he shook before a man thrice his age, an old man whose neck might be snapped by a single blow—assuming he allowed it to fall. Perhaps the druid was referring to the great tests of centuries ago, in the days of the pharaohs. But the gifts of healing, of power over fire, of summoning the Elder Gods, had fallen from Marric's line. Emperors were no longer initiates into the mysteries, able to command divine powers ... assuming they ever had been.
What I could do with such powers, Marric thought. Gods ... His mouth twisted sardonically. After Alexander announced to the court he was a god, he had run mad through the streets and died. No one was fit to be trusted with such gifts.
"You have your life," Marric spoke at last. "Leave me before I regret the gift."
Excerpted from Byzantium's Crown by Susan Shwartz. Copyright © 1987 Susan Shwartz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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