March 30th, 1084 A.D.
Alexios Komnenus, Kaiser
* of the Roman Empire, Price of Kappadokia
“There we stood, outnumbered – ten thousand Saracens versus our four thousand!” boomed Isaakios Komnenus, his hands gesturing grandly, his eyes bright and wide. “All of Aleppo came out to meet your father on the field of battle, and – I am not ashamed to admit it – I was scared! Frightened out of my mind!”
“When are you not scared, Uncle?” piped Manuel, a tall, thin lad of 14 years with a sallow face and sunken eyes. He coughed loudly as Isaakios looked him up and down before delivering a theatrical harrumph.
“Shut up, Manuel!” Evangelos Komnenus, nearly ten and still bright eyed and pleased with the world snapped at his older brother. “Let Uncle Issakios finish his story!” The complaint was echoed by the Qasim brothers, and other children present.
“I believe the mob has spoken,” Isaakios smiled, before looking up. The sun had just started peeking over the walls of the inner courtyard of the Damascus palace, and glinted off of Isaakios’ bald head. “Now, where was I?”
“The Saracens!” shouted Evangelos.
“Ah yes, the Saracens! Well, I was scared, but I looked over at your father – he was young then, as was I – and he had his blade in the ground and was praying before it. Even as the first Saracen arrows began to fall – ah! Good morning, Demetrios!”
“’Morning,” the oldest of the three children grunted, his serious face in contrast with the birds chirping and the crisp breeze that promised a beautiful day. He continued walking past, eyes not even meeting those of his siblings or uncle.
“Hey, Demetrios! You promised to practice swords with me yesterday!” Evangelos complained loudly to his fast-retreating brother. Demetrios said nothing, and disappeared into the palace on the other side of the courtyard. Evangelos looked down, dejected.
Isaakios sighed. “Now there, there, boy,” he gently patted his nephew on the head, “Your brother is merely on his way to see your father. He is likely thinking of many things right now, and I do not think he meant to be rude to you.”
Evangelos looked down for a second, a puzzled look on his face. “When do you think he’ll stop thinking so much when he goes to visit father?”
“When your father gets better,” Isaakios said after a moment, “It won’t be long, he just needs his strength.” Outwardly he smiled at the young boy, but inside his heart sank. Evangelos still thought all the visitors to the palace were here to celebrate his upcoming tenth birthday.
Isaakios knew the truth.
The doors to the Great Tower in the former Emir's Palace
Alexios Komnenus, Kaisar of the Roman Empire, looked more pallid and pale than usual. His skin was ashen, and the great, dark locks of hair Demetrios remembered from his childhood now were shocked with strands of gray and even white. Alexios had once rode east as the pre-eminent Strategos in the Empire, and the expected successor to Emperor Michael VII. It was the mighty Alexios, at the head of four thousand men, who held ten thousand Turks at bay near Aleppo to allow the Imperial armies to retreat in defeat. It was Alexios, who saw the future of the Empire lay south and had smashed through Aleppo and Edessa, down all the way to here – Damascus.
Funny how something as small as an errant Saracen arrow during a minor skirmish can change things.
For over two years Demetrios had made this pilgrimage to his father’s room in the Great Tower of former Emir’s Palace in Damascus. He could still remember the confusion, the fear when his father first arrived in this sorry state – the fervent prayers for his health and salvation, and the initial cheer that death did not claim him right away.
Instead, fate played an even crueler joke than simply taking this man in his prime, Demetrios thought, gently closing the door behind him. The arrow had merely penetrated the flesh of his father’s thigh, but fever and abcess had set in – and the fever had remained with him ever since. The motions of climbing the narrow whitewashed stairs and closing the door behind him were the same – but today was decidedly different.
“Son?” The former Strategos of the Eastern Themes started to prop himself up, but weakness and gravity conspired against him. Demetrios rushed over and took his father’s hand in his own.
“Yes, father?” The old man’s eyes seemed different today – despite his infirmities and sickness, his father’s eyes had always been sharp and alert. Today, however, they seemed but dim shadows of their former selves. The strategos may have won almost all his battles against mortal foes, but in this war, the fever had won a crushing victory.
“I heard voices,” Alexios whispered, his voice heavy with phlegm.
“Many have come to pay their respects to you, father,” Demetrios did not lie. “Your brother Isaakios has come all the way from Antioch, and your brother Manuel sends his greetings and prayers for your health and soul.”
“My soul?” Alexios asked, before a faint smile came across his strained face. “Bah… that is now a debate between myself, and God. I doubt ‘Manuel the Lecher’ can persuade the Almighty to change whatever His choice is.” The faint smile changed to a grimace. “No word from the Basilieus?”
Demetrios shook his head. “It is a long way to Konstantinopolis from Damascus, father, and I know mother sent the dispatches by the fastest riders to Tripoli weeks ago when things turned for the worst. It may be another week before the Emperor’s word reaches our walls.” He soothingly caressed his father’s hand.
“Michael is a good man,” Alexios muttered, laying back into the pillow. “A good man…” He turned his head, and the eyes of someone twice Alexio’s 38 years looked deeply into those of Demetrios.
“Rome is not what it once was, my son…” Alexios said, his voice growing even quieter. “You will be a Prince of the Empire soon – have a seat in the Senate, have roles in court…” He wheezed.
“I will do you proud, father,” Demetrios said, barely managing to keep his voice strong and free of cracks.
“Where Caesar once reigned and Constantine raised us up, there are now many jackals who seek their own gain before that of Rome,” Alexios said after a few minutes. “Make sure you surround yourself with good men, like Emperor Michael, or my brothers. Avoid the ambitious, and the powerhungry, like Prince Gregorios of Trebizond, or the Prince of Samos…”
“Yes Father,” Demetrios nodded, realizing the end was approaching.
“And make sure no Saracen lends you money… they will take your cattle…”
“And don’t try to build a stone castle in a swamp…”
“I won’t father,” Demetrios looked towards the door, and caught a servant peeking in. He waved hurriedly, and soon the servant was off to fetch those waiting in vigil. Within a few minutes, as Alexios’ ramblings died into rattles, his brother, wife, other sons and courtiers soon gathered around the bedside.
The tired eyes of the Kaisar looked at all around, even as his head and hand began to tremble. Everyone waited for the great Strategos to rally one last time – to say one last, defiant thing in the face of death, like he had defied the Saracens all his life. Instead, a rattle came from Alexios’ throat, and his head lolled back into the pillow.
Demetrios was the one that reached over and closed his father’s eyes forever.
Several hours later…
Isaakios sat heavily in his chair, and looked about the Great Hall of his dead brother’s palace. It was high and arched, and the Saracens who built it long ago for their emir had covered the walls with turquoise and intricate designs. It was a fitting place for a Kaisar of the Roman Empire, but it felt huge and empty without Alexios’ booming voice.
Around him gathered the chief mourners of the late Alexios Komnenus – his wife, Zoe, Demetrios, Evangelos and Manuel, Isaakios’ wife, and the upper echelons of the court. It was a somber dinner – a wake to remember a husband, father, brother and leader. Alexios was widely regarded as the man that would save the Empire from its ills should he take the throne – now he laid in state in the palace chapel, where priests and embalmers attended to the body.
Isaakios reached over and took another sip from his goblet. The wine in Damascus was awful – the Saracens did not believe in alcoholic drink, so wine had to be imported and with the strained princedom’s finances, the wine that they had came from some place near Dorylaeum. Isaakios winced at the bitter taste.
“Makes we think we should go the route of the Saracens,” he said quietly to Zoe, who sat next to him on a raised table for members of the family. She sighed in response.
“Perhaps,” she idly picked at her food, disinterested in eating. She looked up at her sons, sitting several spots away from her. Evangelos’ cheeks were still wet from tears, while Manuel bore his usual scowl. Demetrios, however, bore a blank mask.
“I’m worried about him,” Zoe said quietly. “The future of the family, maybe even the whole of the Empire, depends on him. He’s legally the Kaisar, Isaakios, and he isn’t even married and just turned sixteen!”
“He’s a strong boy,” Isaakios smiled faintly. “He’s already tall, like his father was, and his body will fill out even more – he’s skilled with the sword, and I’ll wager he’s far smarter than he lets you think.” Isaakios pulled a section of bread from his plate and stuffed it into his mouth to get rid of the foul taste of the wine. “He’ll be fine,” he mumbled between his food.
Zoe turned around to face him. “Are you sure? He’s so young! And tomorrow was when his future bride was scheduled to come here to the palace – it will be the first time he’s seen the girl!”
“Really?” Isaakios raised an eyebrow, setting his food down. His marriage had been arranged too, but he had several months to get to know his wife before they were officially bound together.
“Yes… I expedited things, hoping Alexios would hold on long enough to see his son wed,” Zoe said distantly. For a moment she looked off into space, before a smile came back. “She’s the daughter of Lord Diaseneros of Bira – an extremely bright girl, smart and strong-willed. They say she’s an expert at diplomacy and strategy…”
“Isn’t that your forte?” Isaakios asked.
“Well, it was,” Zoe replied, her voice losing its happy tinge. “I’m getting old, Isaakios – I was a Konstantinopolis girl. I don’t know the ways of things out here on the frontier as well as she probably does. I’m going to recommend that she become the new Logothetes tou dromon**, with me as an advisor. He is going to need as much help as he can get.”
Isaakios raised his glass slightly. “I’ll toast to that…”
Zoe sighed. “He is a man by age, but in many ways, he is still a boy… he still lays with the milkmaiden his father arranged for him two years ago, and my agents say he is not careful… its only a miracle there has not been a bastard yet.”
Isaakios winced. Bastards meant succession troubles, fights and rebellions. “Love has no place in a lord’s mind,” the Prince said after a moment. “Or at least, the love that is often just lust…”
“Yes…” Zoe looked down. “He must break from her, so he may learn to love his wife… and for the good of the family.”
“Yes, the family,” Isaakios agreed.
Demetrios Komnenus, Prince of Kappadokia and Edessa
* Kaisar – taken from the Latin Caesar, the name for the heir apparent of the Empire.
** Roughly “head of diplomacy” – so I’m using it as a translation for the game’s concept of “Chancellor”