Edge of the Empire: Byzantine Historical fiction

 

Edge of the Empire

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

It had been six years since Alexios Choniates last saw Constantinople.  It hadn’t changed and even looked more glorious than he remembered.  The Queen of Cities was always an awe inspiring vision.  He had travelled all around the Roman Empire in service of the Army and no where had he seen anything that comes close to the spectacle of Constantinople.

It was dusk and the sun was setting.  Up ahead he could see the towering land walls and the golden sparkle of the setting sun on the Bosphorus and the domes of the cathedrals.  It was the gem of the Empire.

The merchant caravan he was traveling with began to pick up pace as their excitement grew.  For many of them this was their first sight of the greatest city on Earth.  He had met them on the road.  They were all traveling to Constantinople and they liked the idea of an Army officer traveling with them as protection.  They had wanted to pay him, but he had refused.  He had plenty of money and didn’t feel the need or desire to take money from people that required it more.  He was in his full military dress and armor so perhaps that had scared off some highway robber or two.

His helmet was hanging from his saddle and his shield with his unit colors was on his back.  Both his swords, the straight spathion and curved paramerion hung from his hip and his officer’s mace hung from his saddle.  He used to have two other maces but they had broken in battle.  His black shield and surcoat that covered his lamellar armor told what unit he was from.

Alexios was glad that the merchants traveled slowly and took many breaks because with all the equipment he had he doubted that his horse could go any faster.  Poor Scipio.  He had been a good war horse and they had been through many terrible times.  That was all behind him now.  No more war and no more death.

The whole trip he had amused them with stories from the wars he had fought in.  Most of the ones he told were the humorous ones.  He didn’t like telling of the actual battles.

They came in through the Gate of Charisius, near the northern shore of the Golden Horn, the peninsula that held the City of Constantine.  The guards stopped the caravan for inspection but let him through.  He bid farewell to the merchants and entered the city.

There was a good deal of open land between the outer land walls and where the city actually started and he rode on alone as the sky darkened over him.

As much as he loved the city, he hadn’t wanted to return.  There were too many painful reunions to fight through.  This feeling was worse than the anticipation right before a battle.  There were a lot of faces and places he wanted to see and some he dreaded.  Like the city, his family had wonderful things about it and some unpleasant aspects.

He rode through the unpleasant part of the city, the slums where the poorest of the poor lived.  On the outskirts they were thatched roofed shacks and further in the city they became towering apartments of up to nine stories tall where families were crammed in together with no room to breath.  Even at night the streets were packed full of people, carts and horses.  During the day it was even worse.

As he rode by people stopped and stared.  He was after all, a member of the elite.  He was part of the finest fighting force in the Empire and thus the world.  He was a katophract, the heavy cavalry, the steel spear of the army.  Some of the less reputable ladies waved and blew kisses and three children who had been playing with hoops and sticks stopped and raised their right arms in loose, sloppy salutes.  Alexius saluted back and the children laughed and ran away.

Everywhere he went, children were the same.  Their seemingly illogical actions always made him laugh more than grown ups’ jokes ever did.

Despite all the years acting like a fog for his memories he knew the streets well and found his way to his family’s house.  It was a two-story traditional Roman house with a flat roof that mother like to put flowers on.  It overlooked the Bosphorus and it was a view that he had never gotten tired of.  He loved to watch the cargo ships, fishing vessels and the imperial navy from his old bedroom window.  It hadn’t been his bedroom in years.

He dismounted with some stiffness in his leg and knocked on the door.  Apion, the old Thracian servant opened the door.  He quickly bowed his head.

“What may we do for you officer?”  Apion asked in a slightly nervous voice.

“Apion, it’s me, Alexios.”

Apion looked up and recognition spread across his face in the form of a wrinkled old smile.

“Young master!”

“It’s good to see you old friend.”

“Everyone is at the supper table.”

“I haven’t heard news in over a year.  How is everyone?”

“Your mother and father are well.  Your sister Juliana has grown into a young woman.”

“Anyone else here?”

He was hoping the answer would be a ‘no.’ There were certain people he wasn’t prepared to meet just yet.

“No, just your parents and sister tonight.”

“Thank you Apion.”

“Shall I announce that they have a guest?”  Apion asked with a mischievous smile.

“Tell them that an officer, a komes of the Imperial Army is here.”

“Yes, sir.”

He followed Apion inside through the main greeting hall and towards the dinning room.  The house looked just as he remembered it.  Each light blue wall in the entry way had a white cross on it.  He stayed just out of sight behind the door.  One of the maids came out and he quickly motioned for her to stay silent.  She got out of sight of the door and stood there with a huge smile, waiting for what happens.

Apion went into the dinning room and cleared his throat.

“Pardon the interruption, but there is an Imperial officer wishing to speak with you.  I believe he’s a komes,” Apion said in a dry, emotionless way.

“An officer?  What does he want?”  He heard mother ask.

“I do not know.  Shall I show him in?”

“Yes, please,” father said.

Apion came back out waved for him.   Alexios then walked in.  His mother and father were there, looking slightly older than he remembered.  There was also a beautiful young woman there with flowing long hair that was so blonde it was almost white.  She looked about eighteen and vaguely familiar.  His sister had grown indeed!

“Alexius?”  Mother gasped.

Father was the first stand and throw out his arms.  Alexius walked over and embraced his father.

“Alexius?”  Juliana asked in a disbelieving voice.

Mother was up next and ran over to embrace him as well.

“Odysseus coming home from a long voyage.  Or is it the prodigal son?”  Juliana said.

“And you’re my Penelope, only much more beautiful.  You’re a woman now!”

Juliana blushed, which was particularly noticeable on her pale skin.  To hide her red cheeks she quickly embraced him as well.

“Have you now just returned?”  Mother asked.

“Have a seat my boy!”  Father said.  He pulled out a chair and Alexios was happy to sit in something that wasn’t a saddle.

“Yes, I came straight here.”

“From where?  Last we heard you were in Antioch, fighting the Turks,” father said.  “We haven’t heard from you in so long!”

“Early last year we were moved up north to fight the Bulgarians.  After a while of that, I thought it was time to end my active service.  I requested a villa out there, in the Paristrion province, North by the Black Sea.”

“You requested a villa?”  Mother asked in surprise.

“Yes.  It’s a quiet, remote place.  After all that I’ve seen in the past six years, quiet sounds very nice.  As payment I have to raise a unit of cavalry.”

“What were the barbarous Turks really like?”  Juliana asked.

“Barbarous,” Alexius said.

Juliana scowled.

“It’s been over a year, son.  Have you received no word from us?”  Mother asked.

“None, mother.”

“Then you haven’t heard about Daniel?”  Father asked in a grim tone.   Even mother, who never stopped smiling wore a serious face.  Juliana was looking down at her plate.

“What about Daniel?”  Alexios asked.

Daniel was one of the two people he did not want to see right now.  The other person was his wife, Irene.  The three of them grew up as if they were one person.  All his life he had only loved one girl, Irene.  He had assumed that he’d marry her eventually.  It was because of her that he left for the army.  After finding out from a friend that she was engaged to Daniel he had felt betrayed.  He had assumed that she loved him.  But he shouldn’t have been surprised.  Daniel was always the better man.  He was older, wiser, set to inherit almost everything and even more handsome.

He hadn’t spoken to them since he heard the news.

“Alexios, Daniel died three months ago.”

It felt as if he had just been hit with a mace.

“Died?  How?”

“A runaway cart,” Father managed to say.

An accident.  While he was off fighting Turks and Bulgarians, he assumed Daniel would be safe at home.  He hadn’t wanted to see him and he was angry with Daniel, but he was still his brother.  He had hoped that eventually he’d be strong enough to speak to him again.

“Maria!  Bring a plate for my son!”  Father called out.

A few minutes later Maria brought him a plate of roast duck in some kind of apple sauce and honey with figs and fresh bread.  He hadn’t had food that looked this good in years.  Despite the news of his brother, he found that he was still able to eat.

As he chewed he thought.  They had been living in a house near the palace district.  If he died, how come she wasn’t here?

“Where is Irene?”

“She’s still in her house.  Without Daniel’s money, she can’t afford to live there.  She had nothing of a dowry,” Father said.

Irene was the last surviving member of an impoverished noble family.  She had no relatives, no money and without those, she had very few options.

“What is she going to do?”  He asked.

“We don’t know.  We’ve offered her a place to stay here, but she sleeps in that empty house and spends her days praying at the convent of Chrysobalanton.  I think she plans on joining them.”

Was Irene so heart broken that she couldn’t stand living in the world anymore?  They had been that much in love.  He had had no chance with her then.

“She needs help, Alexios.  She’s lost and can’t see a path in life.”

“What can I do?  I can’t help her.  There’s nothing I can do.”

“Alexios,” mother said.  “You were her friend since you were five.  If there’s anyone she’ll listen to, it’s you.”

“I don’t think she even remembers my name.  Why would she listen to me?  She thinks very little of me.”

“That’s not true.  Go speak with her.”

“It won’t help.  We haven’t spoken in six years.  She didn’t even think to tell me that she was engaged.  Neither of them did.  That doesn’t speak very highly of her opinions about me.”

“Alexios. Stop thinking of yourself.  Think of her.  You have a villa in a beautiful part of the world, don’t you?”

“Yes, but…”

“Have her and Juliana go stay with you for a while.  You won’t want to be there all by yourself,” mother said.

“What?  Me?  Why me?”  Juliana asked, finally looking up from her food.

“It’s your chance to see life outside the walls of Constantinople.”

“But I like the city.  I don’t need to go to the country where things are backwards and ignorant of etiquette and education,” Juliana said.

“You’re going,” father said.  “Consider it a part of your education.”

Juliana glowered but said nothing else.

“Wait, I think we’re getting far too ahead of ourselves,” Alexios said.  “I haven’t agreed to anything.”

“Irene is family.  We take care of family.  She needs help and you’re in a position to help her.  I know she broke your heart, but she’s still your friend.  Tomorrow morning you will go see her and do what you can to help her,” father said.

Alexios sat back and thought about it.  If there really was a way to help then he’d be glad to.  Despite her showing that she didn’t actually care for him, he wanted to help her.  He wanted to see her happy, even if it meant he’d be miserable just seeing her.  He couldn’t help but love her, in spite of everything.

After telling them of his military adventures until after midnight he slept in his old room which had remained mostly untouched.  In the morning, after breakfast, he walked to the convent.  It was one of many convents within the city walls.  He lost track of how many there were.  This one however was made famous by one of the saints.  He lost track of those as well.

He was wearing his military clothing and armor because it was the only thing he had to wear and it cleared the way for him in the crowded streets.

There was a nun sweeping the inside of the doorway to the chapel.

“Excuse me, sister,” he said.

The nun looked up but said nothing.

“I was wandering if there was a woman here named Irene?  She recently lost a husband.”

The nun simply pointed inside and went back to sweeping.

“Thank you, sister.”

He walked in the dimly lit chapel and genuflected without thinking.  There was a small dome over head with half-circle windows that let the light in.  Up front was the alter screen and a giant wooden cross.  In the pews were a few women.  Most of them were old.  Only one was small and thin.  He’d recognize Irene’s shape anywhere.  She had been in his mind for the past six years and his memory had neither diminished her appearance nor enhanced it.  There was nothing to enhance.

He carefully walked around to see her face.  Her angelic face was in full view and for a second he couldn’t breathe.  For six long, torturous years he had dreamed of speaking with her again.

She was wearing all black for mourning and had a veil.  Her face clung to her youth and she looked younger than she really was.  Her small size didn’t help in that regard.  She had large, almost black eyes and raven hair that was always done to perfection.  She was kneeling in prayer and her eyes were closed.  She didn’t see him.

He didn’t know how to approach her.  He felt bad for interrupting a prayer, but he didn’t know how long he’d have to wait for her to finish.

He kneeled down beside her, his armor making much more noise than he would have liked.  This got her attention and she looked up with beautiful, sad eyes.  Her eyes went wide and her small, delicate mouth fell open slightly.

“Hello, Irene.”

 

Chapter 2

 

 

Irene kneeled in prayer like she had done every day that week.  She didn’t know what else to do.  She had lost everything.  Her family died of sickness when she was eighteen.  Her husband died in an accident, she was about to loose her house and before all that, she had lost the only man she had ever loved.  Loosing Alexios had been entirely her own fault and only after the fact did she realize what she had done.  She was the greatest failure of a human being she knew.

Alexios’s parents, who in many ways had been more of parents to her than her own, had invited her to live with them.  But how could she face them after having broken Alexios heart, chased him away into the Army from where he may never return and now lost their eldest son.  She had taken too much from them for her to accept their charity.  She didn’t deserve it.  She didn’t know if she even deserved God’s charity.  She prayed with little faith.

All she could think of was Christ’s lamentation on the cross, “Why hast though forsaken me?”  She had lost every Earthly thing she had.  She was a failure and worthless; the dross of mankind.

Then she heard loud footsteps approach but she paid it no mind.  Then there was the loud clanking of metal as the person kneeled down beside her.  In such a vacant church, why would someone take the spot next to her?  She opened her eyes to tell the person to not disturb her.

What she saw was more like a vision.  It looked like Alexios in glorious armor.  He had on a black surcoat, but she could see metal bracers, greaves and chain mail on his arms.  Through his open coat she could see the metal scales of his Lamallar armor.   He looked a little thinner and a bit more worn than she remembered.  It couldn’t really be him.  The real Alexios ran away in disgust of her.  He wouldn’t come to see her; at least not without a sword in hand.

Perhaps he had come to gloat over her defeat.  Perhaps he was amused that she had proven such a miserable wretch and thought himself lucky that he didn’t marry her.

“Um…well, I came to see how you were doing,” Alexios said.

Then she realized that she hadn’t said anything.  She had just stared at him like a fool.   She tried to think of something to say, anything.  Just as she was about to ask how was he continued speaking.

“I arrived in Constantinople last night and heard about Daniel.  I’m sorry.  I have many regrets in life but not speaking to him again is the worst one.  We both loved him and he’ll be missed.”

He spoke so calmly and without emotion.  He had always been very serious and withdrawn so she couldn’t tell if it was because he was being himself or if she meant nothing to him.  That would be worst of all.  She’d rather he hate her than think her nothing.  If he thought of her as such, that would be proof that she was nothing, less than the dust of the earth.

“I haven’t heard from you in six years,” she said and instantly regretted it.  Her first words to him came out sounding like a reprimand.  After so long of thinking that she had lost him forever he was right there in front of him and her first words to him sounded like she wanted to chase him away.

He reacted with a slight wince.  The last thing she wanted to do was cause him more pain.  She was the worst fool in the Empire.

“Yes, well.  I’ve been on campaign.  Also, I have a villa, up north, near the Black Sea.  It’s very beautiful and I think you’d like it.  It’s quiet and peaceful.  I’ve only been there once and I suppose it needs some work done to it.  Juliana is coming with me to stay for a season or so.”

“Oh, that’s lovely,” she said.

Why was he telling her all this?  She was about to loose her own home.  Was he gloating?

“I suppose I’m not making myself very clear.  I’m inviting you to join us and come stay at my villa.”

What?  He was inviting her to stay?  Was this kindness?  Pity?  Why?  He must hate her.  Perhaps he had overcome his feelings and no longer feels anything for her.  There were so many questions going through her mind that she didn’t know what to say.

“I don’t know what to say,” she stammered out.

“Say, yes.”

“What?  Of course!  Yes.  I would love to!” She blurted out hastily.

This drew nasty looks from the other women in the church.

“Great.  I’m staying at my parents’ home.  When you’re ready, come talk and we’ll work out the arrangements.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Very well.  I’ll speak to you later then.”

He got up and left.  She watched him go in stunned silence.  That had to have been some vision or feverish dream.

When she went back to praying she thanked God and the Virgin for this miracle.

Later that evening she went back to her cold, lonely house.  It was empty of life.  All her things were still there but no more emotion was there.  All that was left was an empty husk of her life.

Irene went up to her flat, terraced roof and looked out over city.  It was a hot, hazy, summer after noon and the sun was sinking low in the sky, making the shadows stronger and the light harsher.  She could see the dome of the great Hagia Sophia cathedral rising above the rooftops.  She loved this city but all it had brought her lately was pain.

Now, suddenly, like an arch angel in heavenly armor, Alexios appears and offers her salvation from the stygian pit she was in.  Nothing in life ever happened as well as it was promised.  This situation couldn’t be as good as it sounded and she wondered if this was some kind of Trojan Horse; appearing like a promise of happiness, but really all it offered was destruction.

Still, even if all it did offer was destruction, she’d gladly go if it meant being near Alexios again.  All her life, all she wanted was to be with him.  How had her life turned out so opposite of what she wanted.

She leaned out over the rail and wondered what was happening.  Was this God’s work?  Was he actually working for her happiness or was this some false promise?  What was she to do?  She had to face Alexios parents after having failed them and betrayed their generosity.  All they had ever done was shown her kindness and love.  She deserved it but she didn’t know if she could take their anger and hatred.  She couldn’t live if she saw their loving eyes look at her with scorn.  The earned punishment was too much.

However, if she wanted to be with Alexios, then she had to go through their gauntlet of anger.  She’d do anything to be with Alexios, even if he no longer cared for her.  She still loved Alexios more than anything.  All her life she loved him and not until he left with the army did she realize that he had had loved her.  He had never shown his feelings for her, but she should have known that he was always reserved and guarded his feelings like a fortress.

In the morning, she didn’t put on her black mourning clothes, but put on her normal, expensive clothes that Daniel had bought her.  Then she put on her veil for when she went out into public and walked to Alexios’s home.  She walked through the stone streets, down and then up another hill.  All around her life was going on as usual.  She passed by Arab “doctors” selling fake remedies and paupers selling used clothing.  It seemed that her horrible drama was nothing in the sea of life that surrounded her.  Her life didn’t matter in comparison.

She hated feeling like this.  She used to be happy.  She wanted to be happy.  She remembered a time that she was always laughing and smiling.  Would she be able to have those feelings again?  She had resolved to retreat from the world and join a convent.  That was a perfectly noble fate for a widow.  A quiet life of contemplation.  That did sound good.  Yet, she couldn’t even think about that when Alexios was offering a quiet life in a far off villa.  It would be good to get away from Constantinople and the memories that where there.  This was an undeserved second chance.

She passed the bustling forum of Constantine with the Myllion, the cyclopean pillar that marked the distances to the remote parts of the Empire.  It was sad to see how few of them actually remained within the boarders of the Roman Empire.  Scattered all through the city were monuments to the glories of Rome and ancient Hellas.  She was proud to be a Roman and thanked her Heavenly Father that she had been born Roman instead of some crude barbarian kingdom like the Franks or Lombards.

Slaves and servants gave her room to pass as they saw her in the vestments of a noble lady.  She wore a silk stole and gold and enamel jewelry of very high quality.  Daniel had spared nothing for his wedding gifts.  He had loved her and it was to her shame that she didn’t return his love in the same way.

When Irene finally got to Alexios’s house she paused in front of that familiar door she had passed through innumerable times.  For the longest time she was so much a part of their family that she didn’t even have to knock.

Irene knocked and waited like a criminal condemned to death.  When the door opened it was Apion.  He smiled upon seeing her and waved her in.  She reluctantly walked in and stood by the door while Apion ran off to fetch one of his masters.  She said a quick prayer to calm herself while she waited with her hands folded in front of her.

Then Alexios’s parents came in the room with large, warm smiles and open arms.  It took a moment for her to realize that their embraces weren’t attacks.  How could they even tolerate her presence let alone greet her with such compassion and love.

“Irene, deer, why have you stayed away?”  Mother asked.  She referred to them as mother and father, especially after her real parents died.

“We asked you to please stay with us,” father said.

“I’m sorry, I…I didn’t know what to do.”

Mother kissed her on the cheek and with that her own shame, humility and love for them overwhelmed her and tears welled up in her eyes.

“Oh, sweet angel, you’re crying.  You’ve had a very hard time.  Please come in and rest.”

Mother took her up to the women’s quarters where Juliana was busy making some kind of perfume.  That girl always had some kind of project going on.  The little girl Juliana had grown into a young woman that was the very ideal of Roman beauty.  She was pale with a pleasant oval face and gently arched eyebrows.  Her blazing blue eyes betrayed a fierce intelligence that she seldom showed to strangers.  Like her brother, she was very reserved towards strangers.  The difference was that Alexios was also reserved with people he knew well.

“What’s wrong?”  Juliana asked upon seeing what was probably her wretched face.

“She’s still very delicate.  It’s so soon after the funeral,” mother said.

That wasn’t it at all.  She had mourned for Daniel and would continue to do so as propriety dictated.  Their generosity and undeserved forgiveness was what caused her to cry.

They sat her down on a reclining couch of the old Roman style.

“Alexios is off to the markets to buy some clothes.  All he has are his military clothing.  He’ll be back soon,” mother said.

“You accepted his offer then?”  Juliana asked.

All Irene could do was nod.

“Well, I wouldn’t if I had a choice.  At least in a monastery I might have an intelligent conversation,” Juliana said.

“Juliana!  Behave.  You know nothing of the country accept what others have told you.  It’s time you see some of the world and be glad you didn’t see it as Alexios has.  He only tells humorous stories but what he doesn’t tell speaks a great deal,” mother said.

Not even Juliana, as intelligent and proud of her education as she was, understood what was really affecting her.

Alexios finally returned around lunch time and the servants brought out cheese, bread and wine to the central garden that the house surrounded.  They all sat around the outdoor table like a family.  She had been a fool indeed.  To them, she was family and as such, they were willing to overlook her many flaws.  They accepted her and always had.  They were even happy that their son, the inheritor was marrying a girl from an old, but impoverished noble family.  She brought nothing to the marriage but her family name.  She knew that they didn’t view her as a daughter because of some long forgotten name.  They loved her as part of their family.

Perhaps that was why Alexios was helping her; some sense of familial obligation.  She didn’t want to be a pitiful obligation, but she would suffer through it to be near Alexios.

At the table she sat between mother and Juliana , but across from her was Alexios.  He didn’t smile upon seeing her, but he never did.  He only smiled in private and even then rarely.  He had several layers of defenses that had to be penetrated before anyone could get to his center.

Her betrayal of him had definitely reached his center.  The pain she inflicted on Alexios caused him to flee for six years.  If anything was an indication of what he felt, it was his actions.  Right now he was feeling an obligation and nothing more.  Mother and father probably ordered him to do it.

If she had any decency left she’d refuse this offer and retreat into a monastery to leave the world behind.

But she stayed and listened as Alexios talked about the plans to move north.  There wasn’t much she wished to bring, but Alexios and Julian discussed bringing it all.  He had recently purchased the land from another soldier who no longer wanted it.  As such Alexios would take over as the theme leader and be in command of a small, unprofessional unit of cavalry.

They insisted she stay for dinner and again, she was treated like a princess.  They were genuinely glad to see her and she knew that she was overjoyed to be with them again.  She remembered when Juliana was born.  Now she was an intelligent, beautiful woman.  She was a bit arrogant at times though, but if that was her only flaw, then she was far better than Irene.

At night they had old Apion and a maid escort her back to her home on horses.  She loved the city but traveling at night was not something she wanted to do regularly.  Even a lady could be attacked by brigands.

The next two weeks she spent mainly at Alexios’s house under the pretext of making plans for the journey northward.  She didn’t see Alexio nearly as much as she wanted to.

They hired servants to pack her things into carts and go on ahead of them.  The rest of her things she sold.  As the date grew closer she gradually became more worried.  She had never been outside the walls before and most of what she heard sounded dangerous and full of death.  However Alexios had spent the last six years outside and he was alive.  If he could survive wars, she could survive a simple journey.

The two weeks sped by unnaturally fast like an unbelievable dream.  When the day finally arrived she met everyone in front of Alexios’s house.  Alexios and Juliana were there with their horses along with their parents and two servants with a cart.  The cart had all of Alexios’s military kit except for his coat and two swords which he wore.  She was glad his horse didn’t have to wear that heavy looking armor anymore.  The poor thing must have gotten tired simply walking around.

Juliana stroked the neck of her horse and didn’t look at all happy.  Juliana didn’t want to go and she made it known.  She didn’t complain or say anything, but it was obvious by her expression.  She looked out from under her furrowed brow and refused to smile.  Unlike her, Irene had incentive to go.  She had nothing to leave behind and if she went she could be with the man she loved.

She was under no illusion that this was a second chance of any kind.  She knew all too well that she had ruined her opportunity for love with Alexios.  She had unwittingly hurt him and he no longer felt for her.  It was hard to tell what he really felt.  It was entirely possible that he still held feelings of hatred for her.  If he did he was noble and charitable to keep those feelings hidden.  She was weak and wouldn’t be able to withstand his anger, as deserved as it was.

Though this wasn’t a second chance, this was at least a chance at some degree of happiness.  She would be with him, even if it was at a much diminished state.  She had nothing left.  She had lost everything and then he came back from the dead with a generous offer that she couldn’t reject even if she wished to.

“Are we ready?”  Alexios asked.

“I’m not sure, but I suppose it’s too late for second guesses now,” Irene said.

“Yes,” Juliana said.

“You will write as often as you can, won’t you?”  Mother said.

“We’ll pray for your safe journey,” Father said.

They said their goodbyes and for once she was glad she had a veil because she didn’t like to let people see her cry.

They made their way slowly to the port where a Venetian ship would take them to the northern port of Varna and from there it was a short journey to the villa.

“I’ve never liked the idea of sailing,” Juliana said as they rode through the early morning streets of the city.  The sun was rising above the horizon and all around them people were stirring into activity.

“It’s safer than traveling along that long road,” Alexios said.

“A sudden storm could rise up.  We could be attacked by Turkish or Rus pirates,” Juliana said.

“The Venetians are master sailors.  I have complete confidence in their abilities,” he said.

“At least this way we won’t have to ride for weeks on end,” Irene said.

“That is a valid argument,” Juliana said.  “If I die, at least I’ll die comfortable.”

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

Alexios watched as their horses were loaded into the ship’s hull.  He couldn’t relax until he knew Scipio was safe and secure.  The Venetians were careful in their preparations and Alexios was eventually satisfied that his friend would be safe.

He went down and checked up on Juliana and Irene.  They had a tiny cramped room to themselves, but it was better than most people had.  He was fortunate enough to share a cabin with the captain.

This was going to be difficult.  He had to spend the next week and a half on a small ship with a woman that caused pain just to look at her.  Every time he saw her he was reminded of what he couldn’t have.  He saw a woman he loved that didn’t not return that love.  She knew him and found him lacking.  This wasn’t some failed seduction or mild fancy, this was a woman who knew more about him than anyone else.  She knew him and didn’t want him.  That was the worst feeling he had ever experienced.

And that woman was going to stay with him for a long time.  He didn’t know how he was going to make it through this voyage, let alone the next few months.

He knocked on the door and Juliana answered.

“How are you ladies doing?”  He asked.

“It’s cramped and smelly,” Juliana said.

“Its fine, Alexios.  Your sister is merely being difficult,” Irene said with a hint of her former warm smile.

“Twelve days in this boat?”  Juliana asked.

“Yes.  That’s faster than traveling by horse.  Trust me.”

“Is this villa really as beautiful as you say?”  Juliana asked.

“The villa isn’t the real beauty; it’s the country around it as well.  The small villages near the estate and the Black Sea only two days away.”

“Sounds wonderful,” Irene said.

Her voice was like sweet, warm honey that poured all over him.  He couldn’t stand to be around her too long.

“You two behave and stay out of trouble.  Try to enjoy yourselves,” he said and then excused himself.

It was another two hours before the ship set sail.  He met the women up on deck and together they watched the magnificent view of Constantinople shrink away into the distance.  The rolling shores of Anatolia and Galata stretched out on either side of them.  He was glad to be so close to shore.  When he was first sent to fight the Turks, their fleet went through the Mediterranean and lost sight of shore for days.  He didn’t like that feeling at all.  It was like everything solid and sure was gone.

The three of them stood at the railing in silence as they watched the land slowly pass by.  The cool ocean breeze blew through his hair and the smell of salt filled his nostrils.  It was wonderful and one of the few times he was glad to be alive.

“Dear brother, I do believe that you’re smiling.”

“So I am.  It happens on occasion.”

“Does it?”

“I’ve been told it does.”

“How did you find this villa?”  Irene asked.

“My unit was up north fighting Bulgarians and we passed by this small town.  We camped nearby and some of us officers went into the town.  As we watered our horses this noble approached us.  He said he wanted to surrender his rights to the villa.”

“If it’s as good as you say, why would he want to surrender it?”  Juliana asked.

“Because of the military service that’s involved with it.  He had no desire to serve and wanted to move to the city.  There are three small villages are connected to the land and I think he was tired of dealing with it.”

“Three villages?”  Irene asked.

“Yes.  They work the lands.  Raise cattle, sheep, vineyards, orchards, and everything else you can think of.  Many of them also work the villa’s lands.”

“You spoke of military service?”  Juliana asked.

“Yes, I’m still in the military, though in a different aspect.  I have to train my own unit and report when called.”

“So, if there’s another war, you’ll have to go?”  Irene asked with a slight worried tone in her voice.

“It there’s a war in the region, then yes.”

He looked over and saw Irene standing there with her hand up to her brow to block the sun.  She was smiling and loose strands of her hair that escaped from her hood were fluttering in the breeze like banners.  It didn’t appear that she was aware of anyone else.  She was staring off into the horizon, lost in thought.  She was such a small thing, but her mind and heart were that of a giant.

That was how he remembered her, smiling and full of light.  It had been a long time since he had felt any light in his life.  He didn’t know what Irene was thinking about but his mind always led him to darker paths.

Alexios’s mind wandered back to one of his many battles in Anatolia.  The Turks were besieging a small walled town and the Roman Army came upon them.  Battle lines were drawn.  Both armies faced each other across a wide, desolate plain.  The Turkish army looked like a mass of dark brown ants with thousands of flashes of gleaming weapons and long trailing war banners.  There were so many of them.  They were like the sand of the desert; endless.

Around him, shoulder to shoulder, were his fellow countrymen, all in thick layers of metal armor and the black color of their unit coats and shields.  He could look down the line and see all his fellow katophracts lined up with their lances and banners, ready for the signal.

The battle started with horse archers from both sides while the infantry slowly advanced.  The medium cavalry raced out and began to fight.  Some units would fall back and others would take their place.  His allagion, the fifty men under his command rode their horses just behind the front line of the infantry.

The slow march forward was the longest part of the battle.  Once the signal was given, everything turned into chaos.  The horns blew, the infantry made openings and his fellow heavy cavalry rushed out to hammer away at the Turkish front line.  The whole battle after that was a blur.  He remembered charging forward and striking a Turk with his lance.  The tip of his lance pierced the man’s shield and went straight through to his chest.  That tore the weapon from his hand and he quickly reached for his mace.  After that all he remembered was blood and death on both sides.  All around him people were dying in one horrible fashion after another.

For the next few years all he saw was deprivation and death.  It was an ugly, terrible world and one that was not worth saving.  Why would Christ die to save so undeserving a race?

“Alexios?”  Irene’s soft voice said.

He looked over and saw her looking at him with worried eyes.

“I’m fine.”  He then turned away from the rails and began to walk back to the captain’s cabin.  He didn’t want to deal with Irene’s pity or her pretend concern.  Perhaps in her own, small way, she did worry for him, but even a man feels concern for his pet bird or a complete stranger. Concern by itself meant little; only that she was still human. “I’ll be in my room if you need me.”

 

*

 

Juliana watched as her brother stalked off to his cabin.  He was different.  He had always been quiet and guarded, but this was something different.  Something was wrong with Alexios.

Before he left she had followed him around everywhere.  He treated her like a princess born in the Purple Chamber.  Even when she was a child, he never treated her like one.  He always treated her like an equal and made her feel needed and wanted.

However, when he left, it hurt worse than she could have imagined.  She had been abandoned and she hadn’t forgiven him.  However, it was hard to show her anger when she knew it was selfish.  He had been suffering the deprivations and horror of war.  His pain overshadowed her own.  She’d bite her tongue for now.

Then, aside from the war was Alexios’s other cause of pain.  The Bible taught to forgive anyone that gives offense to her, but what about people that give offense to the ones that she loves?  She was the woman that drove her brother away.  It was because of her that he had been gone these past six years.  Irene broke his heart and because of that Juliana went without the person she cared about most in the world.

Juliana did her best to not show what she felt, but she was on a boat with two people that she had not forgiven.  With time she’d certainly forgive Alexios, but it would take a lot more than time to forgive Irene.  Irene was Alexios’s personal furry and Juliana wanted to hurt her back, but there wasn’t much she could do to someone who had already lost everything.  Juliana figured that fate had stepped in and delivered its own unique form of justice.

“I think he hates me,” Irene said.

“Perhaps,” Juliana said.

Irene looked at her with a vulnerable, sad look.

“I deserve it though.”

“You do.”

Irene took a deep breath, probably trying to keep herself from crying.

“You’re being cruel, but you’re also being truthful,” Irene said.

“Alexios is better than what you deserve.  Please don’t try to win back his affections.  I don’t want to see him suffer any more.  You didn’t love him then.  He shouldn’t have to wait years and go through wars to somehow wait for you to be ready.  Also, if you do try, it’s because you’re lonely and desperate, not because you love him.”

It looked as if she had just punched Irene in the stomach.  Her brows were knitted up in the middle and she had the saddest look she had ever seen on a human being.

“I had no idea that you thought so little of me,” Irene said, barely holding back the tears.  “I deserve it.  I had hoped to be stronger when I heard this, but it’s proving too much.”

Irene then quickly left.  A part of Juliana felt sorry for Irene.  Somehow she had ended up with nothing in life.  Yet, the larger part felt a little glad that she had won such a victory over Irene.  If she could make Irene feel a fraction of what she did to Alexios, then her job was done.  Fate had its justice, but she wanted hers as well.

She stayed a while on the deck, looking out over the green shoreline of Anatolia.  Every year the Turks took more and more of it.  If something wasn’t done then the Empire of the Romans would loose all of it.  They needed another Caesar, or Justinian to push the boarders back to where they belonged.

Eventually she grew tired of being on her feet so she went inside.  She found Irene reading a small book.  Looked like it was the first four gospels.  That wasn’t a bad idea and she got out one of her books, The Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius.

They read in silence until it started to grow dark.  She lit a candle and put her book away.  Reading in dull light could hurt her eyes and if she lost her sight and couldn’t read, she would loose everything.

“I suppose we might as well converse.  We can’t read in such dim light,” Juliana said.

“You don’t actually want to talk to me though.”

“I don’t mind.  You’re more intelligent than others.”

“Is that the only thing you care about?  Intelligence?”

“No, but it’s the most important thing.”

“What about morality, spirituality?  I saw that you were reading Marcus Arelius.  Alexios told me about him.  Didn’t he speak of patience, love, respect to his fellow man?”

“He did.”

Juliana was impressed that Irene knew that much and for a second she struggled with what to say.

“I know you hate me, but please try to have a more Christian way about things.”

“I wasn’t excessively cruel, nor was I being dishonest.  I don’t hate you Irene, I just can’t forgive you for what you did to my brother.  At least I know you weren’t responsible for Daniel’s death.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Good.  Let’s not talk about this now.  Let’s find something more pleasant.  I could recite the Illiad for you.”

“The whole poem?”

“Yes.”

“Very well, let’s hear it”

Juliana began singing the poem as she had learned it from her private tutors.  While other girls her age were getting married, she was learning the classics and the sciences.

She was eighteen; a good age for marriage, yet she didn’t want to get married.  She didn’t want a man telling her what to do.  Yet she didn’t want to join a convent either.  She wanted to be a man and attend a great university.  There were female surgeons in the Imperial hospitals.  She could become a doctor.

She saw very little of Alexios the next few days.  She had hoped to spend the entire journey with him, talking about what they’ve each done during the past few years.  An occasional letter wasn’t a replacement for actual conversation.  She knew it had to be Irene that was keeping him away.  So be it.  She’d have to wait until they arrived at the villa where they could have more privacy.  Then she could have her brother all to herself.

When she went out on deck she didn’t worry about covering her head.  The Italians didn’t worry about such things so she didn’t either.  The scenery was now just a thin line of coast, nothing nearly as impressive as it had been.  Occasionally she’d see a small fishing village and wonder how people could actually live in hovels like that.  Compared to Constantinople, these tiny villages were completely insignificant.  Was that how her new home would be?  Tiny, poor and pathetic?

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”  Alexios said from behind.  She turned to see him walking up.  He leaned on the rails like she had been doing.

“How do people live here?  They have nothing.”

“They don’t have ‘nothing,’ They have enough to live.  They live without fancy jewels and silks.  They have family.”

“We have family.”

“Yes we do,” he said and put his arm around her shoulders.  Neither of them were very affectionate people, so a simple gesture like that meant everything to her.  She moved in closer to him and put her head on his shoulder, something she hadn’t done since before he left.

“I thought about you everyday,” he said.

“Likewise.  How could you leave me like that?”

“It wasn’t easy, but I just couldn’t stay.”

“Because of her.”

“Yes, because of her.”

“Why are you helping her?  She doesn’t deserve your help.”

“Juliana, Daniel loved her enough to marry her.  She’s family now and we have to take care of family.  We have to respect his wishes.”

“That’s not why you’re helping her.  I think she just married Daniel for the money.  She married him because he was to inherit the family business.  She didn’t marry him because of love.  She might come after you as well now that you’re the inheritor.”

“That’s not true.  Irene wouldn’t do that.  You don’t know her well enough.”

“Perhaps I know her better than you do.”

“Can we talk about something more pleasant?”

“Yes, tell me about the war.”

“That wasn’t what I had in mind.  I thought that you’d be engaged by now.”

“I’ve rejected every suggestion father gave me.  I don’t want any of them.  I want a real man, not a large boy.”

“What’s a real man then?”

She wanted someone like Alexios.  She wanted someone who was strong, but intelligent.  Alexios loved reading and writing as much as he loved hunting and perfecting his martial talents.  She wanted someone who could control their emotions and not give in to sudden outbursts.  Irene wanted someone who was calm, collected and confident in their upbringing and abilities.  However, finding a man half as good as Alexios was proving impossible.

“I’ll know when I see him,” She said.  It was a weak argument but it was better than telling him the truth.

She pressed tighter against him and looked out over the water.  This was what she had hoped for.  Quiet, peaceful time with Alexios.  It didn’t matter what they were doing, as long as they were together.

 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

 

Alexios watched Irene as much as he could when he thought she wouldn’t notice.  She looked around the estate with wide eyes and a slight smile on her face.  That was closer to the Irene he used to know.  If he could help bring a little happiness to her now sad life, then he consider himself happy as well.

She was standing a short distance off looking out over the pond.  Her hood was down and her black hair was done up into two elaborate buns.  She never let herself be seen without doing everything she could to look her best.  However, she was the kind of beauty that didn’t need a lot of work or ornamentation.  She’d be beautiful no matter what she wore.

He was showing them around, but this was only his second time exploring the place.  The former resident showed him around and then they went to the local governor and signed over the deed.  He had fallen in love with the place the moment he saw it.  He knew instantly he wanted to live there.

“We’ll have apples in the spring, but I don’t know what kind of apples,” He said to Juliana.

“I love apples,” she said.

Then he remembered something he should have remembered first.

“I have something else you love,” he said.

She looked at him with a strange smile.

“What might that be?”  She asked.

“Nothing special, just a library,” he said.

Her eyes went wide.

“You have a library and you’re just now telling me this!”

“If I told you of it first, then you’d never see anything else.”

“Take me there now!”

Alexios took them up to the second floor and into the library that also doubled as a scriptorium.  The walls were covered in shelves that had maps, scrolls, and several codices.  There also assorted objects such as a clockwork bird, weapons from different nations, an ancient Roman gladius, a bust of Trajan, and a colored glass ball.

Juliana instantly ran to the shelves and picked up a codex and began reading through it.

“It’s in Latin,” Juliana said with a slight laugh.  He knew she wouldn’t have a problem.  Juliana could read Latin since she was nine.

“Is this where you’ll write your great works?”  Irene asked.

“This is where I hope to write my mediocre works.”

“Don’t be modest, Alexios.  Your tutors said that you’d be greater than them one day.”

“Maybe I didn’t have very good tutors.”

“I’ve met them.  They were brilliant.  You can’t fool me with that.  If you want to make me believe you’re not as smart as you actually art, then you’ll have to work a lot harder than that.”

“Well, what do you think of the estate?”  He asked.

“It’s nice.  I like it.”

“You can do whatever you wish here.  I’m sure the pigs will need feeding or the crops planted when it gets nice and muddy.  Or you could always help dig a well.  Doesn’t that sound nice?”

He watched her face turn to one of horror.  She was always so gullible and always fell to the most obvious of tricks.  It was too easy and wasn’t good sport, but he couldn’t help it.

When he started to laugh she finally realized his joke and furrowed her brows and pouted her lips.

“That’s very ignoble of you.  A gentleman shouldn’t behave like that towards a lady.  You always do that and I always fall for it!”   She shook her fists.

“I can’t help it my lady.  Sometimes the temptation is too great.”

“Then I think you should read your scriptures and pray more often.”

“I’ll make it part of my daily routine.”

Then Juliana gasped.

“Alexios, you have a transcribed copy of Hesiod’s Works and Days and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War!”  Julian said, almost shouting.

“See?  This country life has something to offer you.  You can quietly read through this whole library without interference from anyone.  What other woman has an opportunity like this?”

“I’m not leaving until I read every one of these books.  Was the former owner a mad man or an imbecile?  How could he give up a treasure of knowledge like this?”

“I’m going to say it was the latter.  He seemed more concerned with silk, wine and women than education.”

Juliana shook her head and went back to reading.  He knew that she’d be lost in those books for at least the rest of the day.  He motioned with a nod of his head for Irene to follow him.

As they walked down the stairs he tried to think of something to say.  After so many years, Irene was just mere feet from him.  She was right there and after countless conversations he had in his head, nothing came to mind.

“Juliana seems happy,” Irene said.

“I thought she’d like it.  It might make her stay here less torturous.”

“I don’t think her actual displeasure matches her complaining.”

“I’m certain that you are right about that.”

They went into the courtyard garden and sat down on reclining couches.  A servant came up and bowed.  She looked very nervous.  Perhaps she had been afraid of her former master.

“What’s your name?”  Alexios asked the young girl who didn’t look more than thirteen years old.  Her long brown hair was done up in two braids that hung in front of her shoulders.

“Thekla,” the girl said.

“That’s a pretty name.  Do you live around here?”

“In the village.”  She spoke with a hint of the local accent.

“I realize that this is our first day here, but please relax.  We won’t hurt you or yell at you.  I promise.”

A quick, shy smile flashed across the girl’s lips.

“Yes, sir.  Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Maybe a glass of wine?  Irene?”

“Same,” Irene said.

“Also, Thekla, could you find the chief servant and tell him to gather all the household staff?  I’d like to speak with them and introduce myself.”

“Yes, sir.”

Then Thekla ran off.

“She’s a darling,” Irene said.

He knew that she had always wanted a daughter and the way her eyes followed Maria he could tell that she was feeling the loss.  He wanted children as well but he’d probably never have any.  His plan was to live out the rest of his days here in peace and quiet.  There would be no courting and no children.

“They really have interesting faces here in this part of the world,” Irene said.

He had seen many parts of the world and many different people, but the villagers here seemed to have an honest humbleness that he really liked.

Thekla came back in carefully balancing a tray with two cups of wine.

“Falkon said to give him a half hour to round everybody up in the Atrium,” Thekla said.

“Where did you learn Greek?”  Irene asked.

“The village school.  I sat in on the lessons.”

“You speak very well,” Irene said.

“I read and write too.  I went to school until last year when my father got me work here.”

“Do you like it here?”  Irene asked.

“I didn’t used to, but I think I might now.”

They talked to Thekla about her life serving in the villa.  She slept in the servants’ quarters and seldom went back to the village.  She was a very bright girl and had a natural sweetness to her.  She was shy, but not to the point where she was hard to talk to.

When Thekla finally left he turned back to Irene who had one of her smiles that said she was thinking about something.

“I like her,” Irene said.

“She is a sweet girl.”

“She is.”

“Just say it Irene.  You have an idea, so just come out with it.”

“I want to educate her.  Give her some real tutoring.”

“Why?”

“So she has a chance to rise from her station.”

“If you wish.  But now I have to go talk to all the servants.  Tell them that I’m not an evil tyrant.”

“So, you’re going to lie.”

“Completely.  You know me well.  I’m a cruel man that loves nothing more than power.  You truly understand me.”

“We don’t call you Caligula for no reason.”

“Thank you.”

He left her there with the memory of her playful smile fresh on his mind.  Irene seemed happy and relaxed here in the villa.  If she was happy, then he was happy.

 

*

 

Thekla stood with the rest of the household servants.  Almost everyone who had worked with the old master had stayed on for these new masters.  Few people had actually met them yet and everyone was talking about them.  They had seen them and they looked friendly enough, but looks could fool people.

“They talked to you then?”  Falkon asked.

“They sure did.  They talked to me almost like an equal.  They asked me if I liked it here and what I thought of the village.  They seemed like really nice folks,” Thekla said.

“I don’t believe it,” Zoe said.  “They look nice but they’ll take everything you have away and leave you with nothing.”

“Them Romans only care about themselves.  They take what they want and you get what’s left.”

“Well, I think they’re nice people,” Thekla said.  “At least they’re nicer than the last one.”

Master Basil had not been a nice man.  His temper erupted with the slightest provocation.  He knew nothing of running a farm, yet he insisted on telling everyone what to do and how to do it.  He would hit servants and touch the women.  As she passed he would grab her backside.  She knew that if she had been around him more that it would have been worse.  Basil’s personal guard would make very rude comments whenever she passed by.

Then master Alexios came in.  He wasn’t smiling but she could tell that his stone face hid kindness.

“Greetings everyone.  I thank you for keeping this place in such good condition while there was a change in owners.  I’m not going to tell you how to do your job.  You all know much more about it than I do.  I’ve spent the last six years in the military so outside of history and fighting, I know very little.  Please be patient with me as I make my rounds trying to learn the ins and outs of this estate.

“I know you all won’t expect anything good from me, I understand.  But I hope to win your trust and respect.  I have two women with me.  One is my sister Juliana and the other is my sister-law, Irene.  Any order from them you will consider as coming straight from me.  Likewise they won’t order you to do anything degrading or impossible.  I’m here as the only representative of the Empire and as such I will do my best to be fair, honest and to look out for your welfare.”

Thekla couldn’t really believe everything he was saying.  He was kind enough to mean it, but no rich person would actually look out of the welfare of commoners.  He would end up being greedy and selfish, even if he didn’t want to be.

“Also, tomorrow I will go to the towns and start asking for volunteers.  I’m going to form a unit of fifty men.  I’m going to try to make them cavalry but I’ll need to do an inventory to find out if we can do that.  It is my duty to form, equip and train this unit for defense of this region and in case the Empire calls.  Does anyone have any questions or comments?  Please feel free to speak up.”

Thekla looked around and at first nobody did anything.  Then one of the men raised his hand.

“Are you open to the idea of purchasing land?”  The man asked.

“Purchasing land?  I haven’t thought about it.  Why?”  Alexios said.

“Many of us can’t afford the land taxes anymore.  You don’t pay taxes.  You can buy our land and we’ll continue to work it and you’ll earn money from our lands.”

“The taxes are that high?”  Alexios asked.

“Every four years when the tax man comes, we’re ruined.  He’s coming in three months.  We’ve had bad harvests and we’re going to be ruined.”

There were many murmurs in agreement.  She remembered the last time the tax man came.  They had to give up almost all their cattle, sheep and harvest.  They had so very little to eat afterwards that mother got sick and died.  She remembered the tax man’s face very well.

“It’s not just the land taxes, it’s the other taxes.  They tax us for every worker, but they count women, men children, slaves, old, crippled and anything else that breathes,” another man said.

“Sometimes not even the breathing,” a woman said.

“Some do some very unchristian things to pay the tax.  If we don’t pay, we go to prison or sold as slaves,” Falkon said.

Alexios looked legitimately troubled.

“I’ve heard that taxes out in the country were harsh, but I never suspected it to be like that.  I’ll look into it and see what can be done.  I won’t let you starve or be taken away,” Alexios said.  When the master spoke, he said it with a quiet intensity that made her believe it.

After the meeting ended she went up to dust the library like she always did only this time there was a woman there.  It was the younger noble lady, Juliana.  She didn’t have that sweet, kind face that Irene had.  She looked hard, ill tempered and impatient.  She was about to close the door and sneak away before she was noticed, but Juliana looked up from her book.  She was standing beside the book shelves.

“Come in, girl.  No need to be afraid,” Juliana said.

Thekla gulped and went in.  Juliana was like a living version of one of those old statues there were all over the villa.  She was tall with high, angled cheekbones, fierce crystal blue eyes like swords and hair as white as clouds.  She had never seen hair like that before.

“Go on about your duties as if I weren’t here,” Juliana said.

“Yes, mistress.”

She went about dusting the library like she always did, but she couldn’t stop looking at mistress Juliana.  She was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen.  Just being in the same room as her somehow depreciated her own worth.  Juliana didn’t look that much older than her, but old enough to be married.

“It’s not polite to stare,” Juliana said without looking up from her book.

“Oh!  Excuse me Mistress!”

“Why stare at me?  I assume you’ve seen other ladies before.”

“Yes, but none as beautiful.”

Juliana closed her book and laughed.  It was a laugh that came from deep inside that caused her to throw her head back and close her eyes.  Thekla didn’t understand what was so funny.

“You are certainly sweet and even somewhat bold, but you are mistaken.  Where I’m from I’m considered to be of average beauty.”

“That can’t be.  You look like Athena or Aphrodite…or at least how I imagine them to look.”  She felt completely embarrassed and knew she shouldn’t be saying such things to a noble lady, but she couldn’t help but speak her mind.  This woman needed to know that she was the image of a goddess, even if a pagan one.

“Oh my.  You know something of the ancient Hellinic beliefs.  You clearly don’t know enough because I am no Athena and definitely no Aphrodite.  Tell me, where did you learn such things?”

“School.  I sat in on the lessons.”

“A school?  Out here?”

“Yes, the priest teaches it in the mornings.  I learned faster than the boys and the priest didn’t like that.”

“You are an interesting little thing.  You know how to read?”

“Yes, Mistress.”

“Good.  Then put down that duster and read a book.”

She had always snuck a few pages in every time she came up to the library, but now Juliana was telling her to read.  She couldn’t believe this.  She quickly put down her feathered duster and ran over to the shelf that had the book she was reading.  The Aeneid buy some man named Virgil.

“Excellent choice.  Perhaps you have a true Roman heart,” Juliana said.

“Roman?”

“Yes.  That book tells of the founding of the old Rome.  Aeneas escapes the destruction of Troy, has several adventures and becomes Rome’s founder.  Constantine, centuries later, escaped the stagnation and paganism of the old Rome to found the New Rome, Constantinople.  It’s a very appropriate book.”

She was in the presence of an educated lady.  Juliana was smarter than even the priest who taught the school.

“You’re smarter than you are pretty,” she let out before she instantly clamped her hand over her mouth.

Juliana laughed again.

“You are an interesting one.  Yes, I’ve been told that same thing many times and not always as a compliment.”

How could that be?  Juliana was everything she wanted to be.  She was rich, powerful, educated and beautiful.  Everything she wanted to be and everything that she wasn’t.

“What’s our name?”  Juliana asked.

“Thekla.”

“Good name.  Named after the saint.  I’m sure you’ll live up to that name.”

That night she went to the small cabin behind the villa where other servants lived.  She curled up in her blanket with holes and thanked God that she had kind masters and that she didn’t have to return to her father’s house.

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