Agent of Byzantium

Agent of Byzantium

by Harry Turtledove


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From the New York Times–bestselling “standard-bearer for alternate history”: A spy takes on the enemies of the Byzantine Empire (USA Today).

In another, very different timeline—one in which Mohammed embraced Christianity and Islam never came to be—the Byzantine Empire still flourishes in the fourteenth century, and wondrous technologies are emerging earlier than they did in our own.

Having lost his family to the ravages of smallpox, Basil Argyros has decided to dedicate his life to Byzantium. A stalwart soldier and able secret agent, Basil serves his emperor courageously, going undercover to unearth Persia’s dastardly plots and disrupting the dark machinations of his beautiful archenemy, the Persian spy Mirrane, while defusing dire threats emerging from the Western realm of the Franco-Saxons.

But the world Basil so staunchly defends is changing rapidly, and he must remain ever vigilant, for in this great game of empires, the player who controls the most advanced tools and weaponry—tools like gunpowder, printing, vaccines, and telescopes—must certainly emerge victorious.
A collection of interlocking stories that showcase the courage, ingenuity, and breathtaking derring-do of superspy Basil Argyros, Agent of Byzantium presents the great Harry Turtledove at his alternate-world-building best. At once intricate, exciting, witty, and wildly inventive, this is a many-faceted gem from a master of the genre.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504052320
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 05/29/2018
Pages: 310
Sales rank: 324,057
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Harry Turtledove is an American novelist of science fiction, historical fiction, and fantasy. Publishers Weekly has called him the “master of alternate history,” and he is best known for his work in that genre. Some of his most popular titles include The Guns of the South, the novels of the Worldwar series, and the books in the Great War trilogy. In addition to many other honors and nominations, Turtledove has received the Hugo Award, the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and the Prometheus Award. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles, earning a PhD in Byzantine history. Turtledove is married to mystery writer Laura Frankos, and together they have three daughters. The family lives in Southern California.

Read an Excerpt

Agent of Byzantium

By Harry Turtledove


Copyright © 1994 Harry Turtledove
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-0944-7


Etos Kosmou 6814

The steppe country north of the Danube made Basil Argyros think of the sea. Broad, green, and rolling, it ran eastward seemingly forever, all the way to the land of Serinda, from which, almost eight hundred years before, the great Roman Emperor Justinian had stolen the secret of silk.

The steppe was like the sea in another way. It offered an ideal highway for invaders. Over the centuries, wave after wave of nomads had dashed against the frontiers of the Roman Empire: Huns and Avars, Bulgars and Magyars, Pechenegs and Cumans, and now the Jurchen. Sometimes the frontier defense would not hold, and the barbarians would wash over it, even threatening to storm into Constantinople, the imperial capital.

With a deliberate effort of will, Argyros drew back from the extended nautical metaphor into which he had fallen. What with the motion of his horse beneath him, it was threatening to make the scout commander seasick.

He turned to his companion, a blond youngster from Thessalonike named Demetrios after the city's patron saint. "Nothing so far. Let's ride on a little farther."

Demetrios made a face. "Only if you say so, sir. I don't think the devils are anywhere around. Couldn't we just head back to camp? I could use a skin of wine." Demetrios fit three of the military author Maurice's four criteria for a scout: he was handsome, healthy, and alert. He was not, however, markedly sober.

Argyros, for his part, did not quite pass the first part of Maurice's test. For one thing, his eyebrows grew in a single black bar across his forehead. For another, his eyes were strangely mournful, the eyes of a sorrowing saint in an icon or of a man who has seen too much too soon. Yet he was only in his late twenties, hardly older than Demetrios.

He said, "We'll go on another half mile. Then, if we still haven't found anything, we'll call it a day and turn around."

"Yes, sir," Demetrios said resignedly.

They rode on, the tall grass brushing at their ankles and sometimes rising to tickle their horses' bellies. Argyros felt naked in his long goat's-hair tunic. He wished he had not had to leave his mail shirt behind; the Jurchen were ferociously good archers. But the jingle of the links might have given him away, and in any case the weight of the iron would have slowed his mount.

He and Demetrios splashed across a small stream. There were hoofprints in the mud on the far bank: not the tracks of the iron-shod horses the Romans rode, but those made by the shoeless hooves of steppe ponies.

"Looks like about half a dozen stopped here," Demetrios said. His head swiveled as though he expected all the Jurchen in creation to burst out from behind a brush and ride straight for him.

"Probably their own scouting party," Argyros judged. "The main body of them can't be far behind."

"Let's go back," Demetrios said nervously. He took his bow out of its case, reached over his shoulder for an arrow to set to the string.

"Now I won't argue with you," Argyros said. "We've found what we came for." The two Roman scouts wheeled their mounts and trotted back the way they had come.

The army's hypostrategos—lieutenant-general—was a small, hawk-faced man named Andreas Hermoniakos. He grunted as he listened to Argyros's report. He looked sour, but then he always did; his stomach pained him. "Fair enough," he said when the scout commander was through. "A good trouncing should teach these chicken-thieves to keep to their own side of the river. Dismissed."

Argyros saluted and left the lieutenant-general's tent. A few minutes later, a series of trumpet calls rang out, summoning the army to alert. As smoothly as if it were a drill, men donned mail shirts and plumed helmets; saw to bows and lances, swords and daggers; and took their places for their general's address and for prayer before going into battle.

As was true of so many soldiers, and especially officers, in the Roman army, John Tekmanios was Armenian by blood, though he spoke the Latin-flavored Greek of the army without eastern accent. From long experience, he knew the proper tone to take when speaking to his troops:

"Well, lads," he said, "we've beaten these buggers before, on our side of the Danube. Now all that's left is finishing the job over here, to give the barbarians a lesson they'll remember awhile. And we can do it, too, sure as there's hair on my chin." That drew a laugh and a cheer. His magnificent curly whiskers reached halfway down the front of his gilded coat of mail.

He went on, "The Emperor's counting on us to drive these damned nomads away from the frontier. Once we've done it, I know we'll get the reward we deserve for it; Nikephoros, God bless him, is no niggard. He came up from the ranks, you know; he remembers what the soldier's life is like."

Having made that point, Tekmanios used it to lead to another: "Once the battle's won, like I said, you'll get what's coming to you. Don't stop to strip the Jurchen corpses or plunder their camp. You might get yourselves and your mates killed and miss out on spending your bonus money."

Again, he got the tension-relieving laugh he was looking for. He finished, "Don't forget—fight hard and obey your officers. Now join me in prayer that God will watch over us today."

A black-robed priest, his hair drawn back in a bun, joined the general on the portable rostrum. He crossed himself, a gesture Tekmanios and the whole army followed. "Kyrie eleison," the priest cried, and the soldiers echoed him: "Lord, have mercy!"

They chanted the prayer over and over. It led naturally to the hymn of the Trisagion—the Thrice-holy—sung each morning on arising and each evening after dinner: "Holy God, holy mighty one, holy undying one, have mercy on us!"

After the Trisagion usually came the Latin cry of "Nobiscum Deus!"—God with us. Tekmanios's priest, though, had imagination. Instead of ending the prayer service so abruptly, he led the army in a hymn composed by that great author of religious poetry, St. Mouamet.

"There is no God but the Lord, and Christ is His son," Argyros sang with the rest. St. Mouamet was a favorite of his, and after Paul probably the most zealous convert the church had ever known. Born a pagan in an Arabian desert town, he came to Christianity while trading in Syria and never went home again. He dedicated his life to Christ, producing hymn after impassioned hymn, and rose rapidly in the church hierarchy. He ended his days as archbishop of New Carthage in distant Ispania. Canonized not long after his death, he was, not surprisingly, venerated as the patron saint of changes.

Once the service was done, the army formed up, each of the three divisions behind the large, bright banner of its commanding merarch. The moirarchs or regimental commanders had smaller flags, while the banners of the tagmata—companies—were mere streamers. The tagmata were of varying size, from two hundred to four hundred men, to keep the enemy from getting an accurate estimate of the army's size by simply counting banners. A small reserve force stayed behind to protect the camp and the baggage train.

The horses kicked up clods of earth and a thick cloud of dust. Argyros was glad to be a scout, well away from the choking stuff. The men in the second battle line would hardly be able to breathe after an hour on the move.

The scouts rode ahead, looking for the dust plume that would betray the Jurchen army, just as their own was being revealed to the enemy. Argyros chewed a handful of boiled barley meal and ate a strip of tough smoked beef. He swigged water from his canteen. From the way Demetrios grinned and smacked his lips when he drank in turn, Argyros suspected that his flask, contrary to orders, held wine. He scowled. Combat was too important a business to undertake drunk.

To give credit where due, the wine did not affect Demetrios's alertness. He was the first to spot the gray-brown smudge against the sky in the northeast. "There!" he shouted, pointing. When several of his comrades were sure they saw it too, a scout raced back to give the word to Tekmanios.

The rest of the party advanced for a closer look at the Jurchen. All the nomad tribes were masters at spreading out their troops to seem more numerous than they really were. Given over to disorder, they did not fight by divisions and regiments as did civilized folk like the Romans or Persians, but mustered by tribes and clans, forming their battle lines only at the last minute. They also loved to set ambushes, which made careful scouting even more important.

The terrain sloped very gently upward. Squinting ahead to lengthen his sight as much as he could. Argyros spied a group of plainsmen at the top of a low rise: undoubtedly the Roman scouts' opposite numbers. "Let's take them out," he said. "The high ground there will let us see their forces instead of them being able to watch us."

Nocking arrows, the scouts kicked their horses into a trot. The Jurchen saw them coming and rode out to defend their position, leaving behind a few men to keep observing the Roman army.

The nomads rode smaller horses than their foes. Most of them wore armor of boiled leather instead of the heavier chain mail the Romans favored. Curved swords swung at their sides, but they had more confidence in their horn-reinforced bows.

A Jurchen rose in his stirrups (which were short, plainsman-style) and shot at the Roman scouts. The arrow fell short, vanishing into the tall steppe grass. "Hold up!" Argyros called to his men. "Their bows outrange ours, so we can't possibly hit them from this far away."

"I'm stronger than any damned scrawny Jurchen!" Demetrios shouted back as he let fly. All he accomplished was to waste an arrow.

A horse screamed as a shaft pierced its flank. The beast ran wild, carrying the scout who rode it out of the fight. A moment later a Jurchen clutched at his throat and pitched from the saddle. The Romans raised a cheer at the lucky shot.

An arrow flashed past Argyros's ear with a malignant, wasp-like buzz. He heard someone grunt in pain close by. From the inspired cursing that followed, he did not think the wound serious. Along with the rest of the scouts, he shot as fast as he could. Forty arrows made a heavy quiver, but they were spent so fast in combat.

The Jurchen also filled the air with hissing death. Men and horses fell on both sides. The Romans bored in, knowing their mounts and armor would give them the edge in a hand-to-hand fight. Argyros expected the plainsmen to break and run like a lump of quicksilver smashed with the fist. Instead they drew their sabers, standing fast to protect the little group that still stood on the rise.

One of those nomads—an older man, his hair almost white—was holding a long tube to his face; its other end pointed toward the main Roman force. Argyros would have crossed himself had he not held his sword in his right hand. It looked as though some Jurchen wizard had invented a spell for projecting the evil eye.

Then he had no attention to spare for the wizard, if that was what he was. A nomad in a sheepskin coat and fox-fur hat was slashing at his face. He turned the stroke awkwardly, cut down at the Jurchen. The plainsman leaned away. He grinned at his narrow escape, teeth white in a swarthy face made darker still by grease and dirt.

They traded blows for a minute or so, neither able to hurt the other. Then out of the corner of his eye Argyros saw a tall lance bearing seven oxtails coming over the rise: the standard of the Jurchen army. "Break off!" he shouted to the rest of the scouts. "Break off, before they're all on top of us!"

Unlike the Franco-Saxons of northern Gallia and Germany, the Romans did not make war for the sake of glory. They felt no shame in pulling back in the face of superior force. Their opponents, who had been hard-pressed, were glad enough to let them go.

Argyros looked around to make sure all his surviving men had disengaged. "Demetrios, you fool, come back!" he screamed. The scout from Thessalonike had succeeded in breaking through the picket line of Jurchen and, perhaps buoyed by the grape into thinking himself invincible, was charging single-handed at the little group of nomads that included the man with the tube.

His folly got what folly usually gets. He never came within fifty yards of the Jurchen; their arrows killed him and his mount in quick succession.

There was nothing Argyros could do to avenge him, not with the whole nomad army coming up. He led the scouts off to another small rise, though not one with as good a view of the upcoming battlefield as the one the Jurchen held. He sent one of his men to report the situation to Tekmanios and another to bring back more arrows. He hoped the fellow would return before the plainsmen took too great an interest in his little band.

Whenever he got the chance, he kept an eye on the Jurchen scouting party, which was now a good mile away. Riders went back and forth in a steady stream. Squint though he would, he could not quite make out the nomad with the tube. He frowned. He had never seen anything like that before, which automatically made it an object of suspicion.

The scouts cheered. Argyros's head whipped around. The Roman army was coming into sight. Seen from the side, as the scouts did, Tekmanios's plan was plain. He had a couple of tagmata on the right wing riding slightly ahead of the rest, concealing a strong force behind them that would dart out to outflank the Jurchen once the two armies were engaged. From the nomads' angle of view, the outflankers should have been invisible.

But they were not. Maneuvering without the neat evolutions of the Roman cavalry, but with great rapidity, the Jurchen shifted horsemen to the left side of their line. "They've spotted the screen!" Argyros exclaimed in dismay. "Gregory, off to Tekmanios, fast as your horse will take you!"

The scout galloped away, but battle was joined before he reached the general. The Roman outflankers never got a chance to deploy; they came under such heavy attack that both they and a detachment of troops from the second line had all they could do to keep the Jurchen from flanking them.

Nothing if not resourceful, Tekmanios tried to extend the left end of his line to overlap the nomads' right. The Jurchen khan, though, might have been reading his mind. The attempt was countered before it had fairly begun. It was not that the nomads outnumbered the Roman forces; they did not. But they seemed to be spotting every move as fast as Tekmanios made it.

The scout returned with the arrows. "I'm just as glad to be here," he said, tossing bundles of shafts from his saddlebags. "They're too fornicating smart for us today."

A horn call sounded over the din of battle: the order to retreat. Withdrawal was always risky; it turned with such ease to panic and rout. Against the nomads it was doubly dangerous. Unlike the Romans and Persians, the plainsmen, more mobile than their foes, liked to press pursuit to the limit in the hope of breaking the opposing army.

Even if he had been beaten, though, Tekmanios knew his business. In a retreat it mattered less for the Jurchen to be able to anticipate his movements; they were obvious anyway. His goal was simply to keep his forces in some kind of order as they fell back to their camp. And they, recognizing holding together as their best hope, obeyed his orders more strictly than they would have in victory.

With the Jurchen between them and their countrymen, the Roman scouts swung wide of the running fight. Away from landmarks familiar to him, Argyros steered by the sun. He was surprised to notice how low in the west it had sunk. At last he spotted a line of willows growing along a riverbank. They were also visible from camp. "Upstream," he said, pointing.

The scouts were the first troops to reach the camp: not surprising, for they did not have to fight their way back. The men of the tagmata guarding the baggage train crowded around them, firing anxious questions. They cried out in alarm when Argyros and his comrades gave them the bad news. Then, as they were trained to do, they hitched their oxen to the wagons and moved the wains into place behind the camp ditch to serve as a barricade against arrows.

That work, in which the scouts lent a hand, was not finished when the Roman army, still harassed by the Jurchen, drew near. Several oxen were shot and had to be killed with axes before their rampaging upset the wagons to which they were yoked.


Excerpted from Agent of Byzantium by Harry Turtledove. Copyright © 1994 Harry Turtledove. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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