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Though Shwartz's sympathies and interests manifestly lie with Anna, much of the book is simply a fictionalized account of the First Crusade. The upshot is schizophrenic and only moderately engaging.
Byzantium panted for breath in the late summer heat. The deep green of the trees in the gardens wilted and sagged in the heat. The Golden Horn held a molten shimmer; sails bellied out, then collapsed. Even the statues, bull and lion, which gave the Bucoleon Palace its name, seemed to gasp: touching them burnt the careless hand.
A haze, more oppressive than the veil that clung to Anna's face, hung over New Rome. As much as the heat, apprehension and delight at her own bravery made her breath come faster.
She half expected the bull and lion guarding the palace to roar out that the Caesarissa Anna, eldest daughter of Emperor Alexius Comnenus and his wife, Irene, was stealing out of her home. When the creatures actually allowed her silent passage, she closed her eyes in relief and brief escape from the glare.
"You scuttle like a thief!" she hissed to make her maid hurry. She could threaten and swear the woman into obedience, even into silence, but not into composure. Obedience would do.
They turned away from the broad Mese that split and enriched the City into a side street. As the barrier of old houses blocked them from the Mese, the clamor of bargaining, theological quarrels, and political gossip that was Byzantium at work subsided.
Argument was as much a passion in Byzantium as racing; and, like racing or any other passion, dispute could turn deadly in the twinkling of an eye. Byzantium not only argued within itself, but about its enemies: Turks, heretics, or this latest wave of Western heretics, bandits, and tramps who had run riot in the suburbs. Anna's father, the Emperor Alexius, had taken his guard and his archers and putthem down, then sent them on their way. They claimed to be pilgrims to the Holy Land; most Byzantines hoped they were on their way to hell.
The priests had compared the Franks or Celts or whatever they were calling themselves this year to a plague of locusts that swept across the Empire. Anna's own doctrine was sound; still, she preferred to put her trust in her father, his archers, and the tall, ax-bearing Varangians rather than in portents like locusts, shimmers around the sun, and eclipses of the moon. Still, the appearance of so many portents was a fact in itself. No educated person ignored facts, and Anna had received an education fit for the Empress she still dreamed of becoming.
The houses on this narrow street loomed overhead like weathered fortresses, many with jutting balconies that almost turned street into shadowed tunnel. Beneath the clinging silk of Anna's veil, her face cooled and her breath came more easily. Even though she and her maid were practically alone on this street, she did not dare to free herself from the veil's confinement. Not quite.
She could not remember how long it had been--if ever--since she had left the luxurious confinement of the Imperial palace, except for processions, which were simply walking imprisonment, studded with jewels. She would not count her move as a little girl, a child betrothed to the Imperial heir Constantine, to Maria Alania's palace so that the former Basilissa could raise her as a fit wife for her son. That was just more of the same type of life in a different women's quarters. Besides, it had come to naught, and with it, Anna's own hopes for the Purple after her father Alexius went--may the day be far off--to his undoubted and glorious salvation.
When news of her birth in the porphyry chamber had been proclaimed, how the people of Byzantium had shouted her name in the streets, she had been told as a child. And how quickly they forgot, this dark, volatile people so like her in looks and mood, who had shoved past her in the Mese, arguing, worrying, or denouncing the rabble from the West.
How long would it be before her absence was discovered? Gesturing at her maid to hurry, Anna tried to walk as swiftly as any of the men who had jostled her. She found the turn in the street just where the servant she had bribed told her a turn would be.
She scowled, her eyes filling with ready tears. She had been acclaimed not just as Caesarissa, but as Basilissa-to-be: she and Constantine. She was almost fourteen now and had reluctantly consented to another betrothal. The old longing stabbed at her even so long after Constantine's death. She had loved him as an intense, brilliant girlchild may adore an amiable, handsome boy conscious that he is older than she, but willing to smile at her and accept her adoration. Oh, he had been so charming.
The birth of Anna's brother Ioannes, that homely, interloping baby, had wrecked Anna's hopes. Constantine was no longer to be Emperor; and Anna, although still hailed as Caesarissa, realized that she would never be hailed as Empress. Constantine being Constantine, he hardly cared when they stripped the honors from him, but Anna cared for his sake--and for her own. She had cried in his mother's arms, and his mother had cried too. Then, it was back to Anna's parents for her: back to standards so rigorous that she might as well have lived in Old Rome, if it had had the blessings of Christianity.
Anna's father was the Emperor Alexius Comnenus. He could not be wrong. But he was very wrong if he thought she had forgotten that his eldest child shared his dreams of Empire.
She had been bred to rule, educated for it with the help of Michael Psellus, advisor to her grandfather, tutor to an Emperor: why would her father give her an Emperor's education if she were not to rule?
Perhaps, if she showed him how brave and devoted she was--See, Father, I went to the Jews' market to find herbs for you!--he would finally appreciate her as more than a charming, accomplished eldest daughter and marriage pawn, and restore her birthright to her.
Heaven grant, though, that the time when she might grasp the diadem be far off. The City had weathered its plague of tramps. Now, it prepared to withstand another, this one composed of great lords, if you could call any of the Western barbarians truly noble. They would be hungry: when were the Westerners not starving for food, gold, land, anything they could snatch? How could they see the splendor of Anna's home and not covet it?
If she asked one of the aristocratic young officers of the Scholae what he thought, he would lie or try to curry favor. She did not know Nicephorus Bryennius, to whom she was betrothed, well enough to trust him yet. Perhaps, she should ask one of the Varangians, the tall Northerners with their red tunics and gleaming axes. They seemed to enjoy talking to their "little Caesarissa," and she liked them. They preened, and then they bent over double lest they tower rudely over her, a tiny lady, overpowered by her Purple, as she looked up to them, her eyes deliberately round and admiring. They told her stories, with frequent pauses to supply words or replace ones they knew her father would hate to have her learn and, because she was Anna, probably use at the worst possible moment.
One or two told her indulgently that she would grow to be like her father and her mother. Her father was only moderately tall, though he had powerful shoulders and eyes that could take you prisoner across a room. Her mother, Irene, was the beauty. Anna knew she would never look like her, so she must be wise.
Her grandfather Andronicus had fought against the Turks. Sometimes, she had nightmares about the dreadful day when an Emperor, even one as worthless as Romanus, had been taken captive, and it was only by the grace of God that the Turks had not rushed from Manzikert across all Anatolia to the Golden Horn.
When she was younger, the dreams used to make her wake crying. Then, Maria Alania would come and hold her and sing to her those strange songs from her native land. After Maria's son Constantine died and Anna had returned to her mother's care, the Empress Irene had schooled her not to cry at those dreams, but to kneel and pray until God--and not her mother--comforted her.
To keep the crescent from polluting the dome of the Church of the Holy Wisdom, to preserve her father's life until she could take up his work, Anna would do anything. If that meant paying lip service to John as Caesar, so be it: her time would come. If that meant wedding Nicephorus Bryennius, she knew she must marry at some point. It was her parents' wish that Anna marry--besides which a convent was hardly the ideal place from which to reach for a throne. The husband her parents had chosen for her seemed handsome enough. Calm, her mother told her. Mature. He would--what was the word?--steady her, be a steadying influence.
Anna snorted. Her veil fluttered briefly.
Her maid gestured: turn here. She did.
Anna had studied medicine along with the seven liberal arts. Her father's physician, studying her father's mood, indulged her. She knew where to find the true remedies, the Alexandrian cures. She would buy herbs and compound her own potions to lift her father's pain and her mother's burden of caring for him, even though as Basilissa she might have delegated the task to her maids. Then, her father would see, he would finally see that Anna--unlike the unspeakable, licentious women who had tried during Byzantium's long history to rule--was worthy of a crown and proclaim it, and the people of the city would shout her name once more.
As long as they acclaimed her, she would allow them to acclaim her consort too: an Empress could afford to be generous.
At the end of the street, sunlight and market noise struck her ears like hammers upon brass. The stalls of the perfume sellers in the Imperial quarter were very different from the tumult that sprawled out before her, all of it demanding attention, wariness, purchase, and watch out, something's coming through here! She smelled water and sweat, ships being unloaded and repaired, frying fish, and the lairs of exceedingly aggressive cats. Her maid coughed.
"The sooner I get what I want, the sooner we go home," she told her maid. Pressing her veil against her mouth, Anna picked her way through the filth into the market itself.
Gradually, clean-swept stones replaced the squalor. The stinks of fish, drying wool, and a thousand unmentionable objects gave way to the cool pungency of the herbs she sought.
She followed her nose and an increasing sobriety of robes toward a building in better repair than most. Here, the language changed along with the garments. Anna shivered with excitement and more than a little fear. The Greek she heard here was more strongly accented, as if the merchants had not grown up speaking it. Some indeed spoke languages no doubt drawn from almost the length of the great silk roads. Persian? Aramaic? How strange it must be to speak as one's birth speech the very language that Christ used. She was not certain at all that it should be allowed to unbelievers.
In the manner of merchants everywhere, these men gossiped about the war to come. The lords of the West were coming--the son-in-law of the Northerner who had conquered that island ... she rather thought it was near Thule; a man with a name like an angel--Isangeles, was it?--married to a princess from near the Gates of Hercules. A prince of the Western church. And Bohemond.
The light seemed to dim as it lanced through the narrow windows whenever she heard his name. Marcus Boamundus. Bohemond, son of Robert the Wily. Fox and son of fox from a land of foxes, who had fought her father to a standstill and would not be satisfied with anything less than a throne to repay him for all the years he had been little more than a mercenary no decent strategos would hire. If, as the stories went, he had torn his best crimson cloak into tiny crosses to adorn his kinsmen's garments in token of this madness the Westerners termed a pilgrimage, being Bohemond, he expected to be repaid for the sacrifice--in Purple.
She wondered that the chain had not yet been stretched across the Horn to close it. Her father had sent out a fleet. No doubt they were waiting for its return and for the plague of human locusts that would follow. And for Bohemond, who had once come close to defeating her father in a day that would have been as dreadful as a second Manzikert.
The churches of Byzantium rang with prayer. How frightening it must be for the Jews, who refused the comfort and protection of Christ. They looked frightened, these bearded men, who clustered together, their heads bent over scraps of parchment and papyrus. Occasionally, one would beat his breast as if in repentance; another would lay hand upon his shoulder; they would nod, visibly gathering composure, then separate, to go about their work.
Anna kept her head down, her steps tiny, a veritable icon of ladyship. She entered the building into which the most sober of the merchants and bearded men who would have looked like priests if they were not probably Jews vanished. In its shelter, her head came up. It was scrupulously clean, and it smelled of herbs she could recognize, had put hand to, had seen her father's physicians use for his aching joints and shortness of breath.
The long, polished rooms held nothing the merchants did not need: a box could serve as well as a table and was scrubbed as clean. Anna followed her nose and her instinct. Her maid followed with the purse. Even through their veils, Anna could see how fearfully the woman's eyes bulged.
The merchants whispered and drew away from her. And they watched, always watched, from those dark eyes that, even more than the Byzantines', were scholars' eyes. She had heard servants' whispers that these people used the blood of Christian children in whatever unimaginable rites her father and his predecessors had not suppressed. She did not really believe that.
It was not as if her father had oppressed the Empire's Jews. He was a kindly master. When the Jews' old dwellings near the bronze workers, the old Chalkoprateia, had burned, he had even helped them find new homes.
Alexius's daughter put up her chin through her veils and swallowed. In an instant more, she would summon the courage to demand that these ... these clients of her father procure what herbs she required.
The men kept staring at her.
"A girl just that age," one of them whispered in husky Greek.
"Hundreds, all gone now. May millstones grind the bones of those evil men."
Perhaps Anna would need two instants longer.
Her maid put her hands on the purse she carried, a spectacularly stupid gesture that practically shouted "Come rob me!" and edged behind Anna.
"Caesarissa, what if they..." The maid's voice broke. Anna hissed pure fury at her. Thank God her mother had instilled in her the virtue of self-control.
The bearded men--it was impossible that they be taller than the Varangians; no one was taller than a Varangian--loomed up between Anna and the boxes and bales that had been her quarry. Three more stood in the door, blocking sunlight, sound, air ... and escape. They still watched her, but now their eyes filled with what Anna realized was terror.
She had seen men stare and back away like that as if they saw a leper, the time they brought the son of the blinded Emperor Romanus before her father and his Varangians. People backed away until the traitor stood all alone. And then the guards closed in, bringing him to the prison where the brazier and the hot irons for blinding waited.
Now Anna and her maid stood isolated. The merchants stared at her and whispered in Greek and those older tongues, poplar leaves and branches rustling against each other. Sometimes, poplars fell on people, Anna recalled.
"I'll bring him."
Footsteps--rapid but a trifle uneven--pounded out of the hall. Anna forced herself not to crane her neck. It sounded as if the man who fled the hall might have a very slight limp. She would remember that when she was rescued. If she were rescued.
Anna waited. A moment more, and the footsteps returned, this time accompanied by others.
The princess touched her veils lest she be exposed in the presence of her enemies. She should cross herself, she knew. Instead, she reached for the tiny knife she had brought along. Her maid sank to her knees.