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Second Lieutenant
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Apr 28, 2012
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My entry to the short story contest, the Purple Princess, set in a ruined but still Byzantine Constantinople in the later 15th century.


The Purple Princess

Constantinople, 1476
Zoe Palaiologina stood alone in the upper tier of the Hagia Sophia. Well, she would be alone were it not for her fifteen-strong entourage waiting at a respectful distance. The ensemble of ladies-in-waiting, eunuchs and bodyguards were not quite as grand as might be expected. If one were to look closely at the fine dresses and tunics, there were stitches coming loose and buttons missing. This was a far cry from the grand party of 5,000 that had accompanied the Empress Theodora at the Empire’s height.
She looked up at another of her predecessors, and her namesake, Zoe Porphyrogenita, immortalized in mosaic.
“I am doing the right thing?” she murmured up at the image. The 400 year-old mosaic doesn’t reply. It remains preoccupied with handing Christ a scroll. This level of Constantinople’s finest church is reserved for the Imperial family. For centuries, Emperors and Empresses had come here to worship. Not many people get to see these beautiful images. But Zoe takes them for granted, she has seen them since she was a child. It was only natural that the finest building in the world’s finest city, the capital of the world’s finest civilisation, should be beautiful. That was the attitude of a Byzantine. However, that attitude was becoming harder and harder to maintain. Truth be told, this was no longer the world’s finest city.
“We shall leave now,” said Zoe, looking to her entourage.
“Of course, your highness, where to?”
“To the Palace, Andronikos, I have urgent business with the Emperor.”
Upon exiting the Hagia Sophia, Zoe’s eyes are drawn to the crumbling walls facing out over the Bosporus. Those walls of course were last called in to action in the great siege of 1453. The young Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II had besieged the city in the April of that year with perhaps 60,000 men. However, Emperor Constantine XI had been well prepared, summoning all available forces from Morea and launching an appeal to the West for military aid. Genoa, fearing that their Black Sea colonies would be cut off, sent a substantial force. Furthermore, with the Papacy’s financial backing, Venice sent a large fleet complete with 10,000 troops. Smaller contributions came from other Christian nations to aid in a struggle being portrayed by both the Pope and the Emperor as a fight for the very survival of Christendom.
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Despite being only twenty-one years of age, Zoe was already the model Byzantine princess; pious, accomplished in the classics, fully versed in court ceremony and of course, strikingly beautiful. She has sharp, well-defined features that were complemented by her cropped short hair. It is somewhat unconventional for a woman of her standing to ride but she prefers it. She finds the endless traditions and conventions that dictate her behaviour stifling at times. Adaptations to the traditional Imperial dress she wore were necessary but that wasn’t such a bad thing; the long, heavily bejewelled gown that princesses were expected to wear was most uncomfortable. Instead she wore a light and airy purple robe with scant decoration.
They rode through the deserted streets in the twilight, past the overgrown hippodrome. Zoe did not know the last time a race had been held there, certainly there had not been one in her lifetime. Adjoining the Hippodrome is what is left of the Great Palace. Built by Constantine the Great, the once-magnificent home of Byzantium’s rulers had not been inhabited for over two hundred years and had been stripped of everything of value. Apart from the Hagia Sophia, the majority of this ancient part of the city was completely abandoned. For though Constantinople had once been a bustling metropolis with some half a million inhabitants, it is now home to a population perhaps a tenth of that size. Rather than crowded streets and lively market places, Constantinople has been effectively reduced to a series of small towns within the city’s huge perimeter walls. Between each of these settlements stands row upon row of empty buildings. Some of the great public spaces are now fields cultivated for crops.
As one makes their way to the North-West corner of the city, one cannot fail to observe the ancient, imposing Theodosian Walls that have stood for a thousand years. They received something of a battering during the siege of course, being breached in several places. However, the Venetian fleet was able to cut the Ottoman force in two between its European and Asian contingents. The weather had been peculiar; temperatures plunged and the Turkish army camped outside the walls suffered in the cold. Disease and food shortages racked both armies but it was the infidels who bore the brunt. Sultan Mehmed, whose sole ambition was the capture of Constantinople, died of dysentery at its walls.
The death of their leader left the Turks in disarray, Mehmed’s son was just five years old and a leading general, Zagan Pasha seized power. However, to further add to the confusion, Mehmed’s father, Murad II, entered the fray. He had been sheltering in Constantinople since 1451 when he had been overthrown by his son. He and the Emperor were close friends after Murad had helped him secure the throne. At this crucial juncture, Murad was allowed to leave the city and he swiftly made a bid for the throne. A three-way civil war then broke out between factions loyal to Mehmed’s son, Murad and Pasha. With the Ottomans in no position to oppose them, the Christian army wasted no time in consolidating Constantinople’s position. As well as the Ottoman forts on the opposite side of the Bosporus, the Christians were able to take the former second city of the Empire, Thessaloniki in 1454. It was during the siege of that city that the hero Emperor Constantine met a parallel fate to his adversary Mehmed, falling ill at the city walls and dying shortly after the before the final assault.
Constantine died childless and was succeeded by his younger brother Demetrios, who had seen through the capture of Thessaloniki. The Venetians and Genoese were compensated with their own quarters in the city as well as preferential trade rights across the Empire. However, that was the peak of his popularity. He went on to make many enemies by emptying the Imperial coffers and sacrificing Greek lives in support of Murad in the Ottoman civil war. Upon Murad’s eventual defeat to Pasha, popular opinion turned violently against Demetrios, who was overthrown by his brother Thomas in 1459.
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Turning right at the Philadelphion, the vulgar new Victory Square comes in to view, the most excessive of our fine Emperor’s vanity projects. Devised as a parade ground upon which military triumphs could be celebrated, no victories have been won since its completion.
Thomas’ unspectacular reign lasted until his death aged 56 in 1465. In contrast, the rule of his eldest son, Andreas, has certainly proved to be eventful. A vain and self-centred individual, Andreas has done everything in his power to anger his subjects and alienate his supporters. And he is Zoe’s brother. He has frittered away the generous financial support of the Papacy and Italian states on follies, not least Victory Square. His grandiose buildings look ridiculous in the deserted city. He also bestowed lavish gifts on Sultan Pasha in order to win favour, an act which has only served to anger our Western allies. A disastrously misjudged military campaign against the Ottomans necessitated that. Andreas had neglected to wait for Western support and foolishly made a drive for the Turkish capital at Edirne. The expedition ended in disaster when the Greek camp was taken by surprise, attacked at dawn by the Turkish army. Andreas escaped but much of his army was lost.
But it didn’t end there. Andreas in his desperation for funds had gone begging to the West. He had agreed overly generous trade conditions with Venice, giving them far too much power over the ports of the Empire and thus alienating Genoa. Byzantine diplomacy since the days of Constantine XI had consisted mainly of a balancing act of keeping both the rival cities on side. The Venetian treaty destroyed the good work of three successive Emperors in an instant.
Presently, they were passing the Church of the Holy Apostles, the great church built by Constantine I. Recently however, the church had undergone something of a transformation. When visiting Rome, Andreas had thrown away what was left of our Church’s independence, clawed back in recent years, and was formally baptised by the Pope as a Catholic. Finally, and by far worst of all, he had sold the rights to the inheritance of the Imperial title to King Louis XI of France. Perhaps all of that might have been understandable, if the fortune he had made had been put to good use. Once again however, he spent gold like it was going out of fashion. Particular displeasure was caused by his lavishing of wealth and land on his commoner wife.
He might just have clung on to power if he had retained the support his more-than-able brother, Manuel. As Despot of Morea, Manuel is effectively number two in the Empire and is arguably the only one holding everything together. But Andreas’ insatiable desire for power and wealth has led him to alienate even his most dependable ally. He decided that Morea should be administered by himself from Constantinople, ending over a hundred years of semi-independence for the province. More importantly, Manuel was humiliated, stripped of his power. Why did Andreas commit such folly? He feared that Manuel was plotting against him. If he wasn’t before, he certainly is now.
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What is to be done? The population are decidedly opposed to Andreas on account of both his punitive taxation and his adherence to the Western faith. The army, whilst no longer the powerbroker it was in the Empire’s heyday, still grumbles about the Emperor’s mismanagement of the scant resources they have available. The Church hierarchy are divided on the issue of union with the West but crucially, powerful elements are decidedly against it. Andreas has thus lost the backing of every strand of Byzantine society with the exception of the small cabal of favourites, whom he showers with gifts and patronage.
But the final straw had come just two months previously. An Ottoman army has besieged Thessaloniki and Andreas has no means to raise an army to relieve it. A belated appeal to the West has been made but as of yet, no help has been forthcoming. Why? Genoa has been turned against us, the Papacy is not keen on giving any more money to such an incompetent leader and Venice has opened negotiations with the Turks to retain their quarter in Thessaloniki once the city inevitably falls. Perhaps the French King may have been inclined to save what would be his Empire, however he is preoccupied with problems at home, namely the Burgundian War. For Louis, matters in Western Europe seem far more pressing than those in the Aegean.
So the question still stands, what is to be done? Zoe intends to answer it shortly. The Imperial entourage arrive presently at the Palace of Blachernae, in the far North-West corner of the City. They are soon whisked into the court room, in which strict etiquette laid down centuries ago, dictates behaviour. Court ceremonial is most tiresome, however if it is to succeed, nothing must appear amiss. It is vital that all the key players are in attendance at tonight’s ceremony. Already present is Phokas, the Empire’s leading general. He has guaranteed the loyalty of what is left of the army to the cause. Zoe meets his gaze. He nods slightly. Tonight is indeed the night.
Gathered tonight are the great and good of Byzantine society, the upper echelons of the aristocracy, the military, merchants, westerners and clergy. The Emperor and all his key supporters are present. Andreas’ palace is, in stark contrast to the rest of the City, a sight to behold. The court is decorated lavishly and much fine wine and food has been laid out for the guests. Purple banners hang from the ceiling, a small musical ensemble plays in the corner, a few more daring couples dance in the centre of the chamber. Andreas sits on his elevated throne, observing the scene.
Zoe approaches Phokas, “What a pleasure to see you General!”
“A delight as always princess.”
“I trust this evening’s festivities find you in good spirits.”
“Quite,” Phokas smirks, “I believe this evening should prove most eventful…”
“Indeed, I trust it shall all go according to plan.”
However, it can only take place if everyone is assembled. The other players must hold their nerve. Zoe looks around the room. Still to arrive are three more men. Giovanni Giustiniani, the governor of the Genoese quarter of Constantinople and a fine soldier, he played a key role in the defence of the City over twenty years ago. Naturally, the Genoese are no friends of Andreas and regime change is very much in their interest. The Patriarch, Michael, has given his word that the Church will be in support. But of vital importance is the presence of Manuel. Andreas’ brother has been his biggest supporter. He has managed to retain a degree of popularity and respect. It is his participation which makes this enterprise plausible. It is his presence which is paramount. Zoe fidgets nervously. If Manuel has betrayed them, betrayed her, she expects no mercy.
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The plan should work, has to work if she’s to see another sunrise. The five of them are to confront Andreas together when the opportunity arises and suggest he steps aside for the good of the Empire. If he refuses, well, extreme measures will have to be taken. Upon Andreas’ abdication or, if necessary, deposition, the conspirators will announce to the assembled dignitaries that a new Emperor will be crowned tomorrow. Hopefully, the regime change will pass smoothly and be welcomed by all present. Andreas’ key supporters, in particular his ministers, led by Prime Minister Theodore, will have to be neutralized of course, but they should first be given the chance to switch allegiances. That is the plan, straightforward but risky.
If the scheme is to go awry, Zoe doesn’t fancy her chances. She has been instrumental in putting the conspiracy together. It was she who had devised the scheme in the first place and she who had enlisted the support of the various players. She devised the plot some four months previously when visiting Giustiniani. Dashingly handsome in that Italian sort of way with his long, dark hair and trimmed beard, she had pursued a fleeting affair with him…
“I do grow weary of Andreas’ misrule. You really should talk to your brother. Sometimes it’s as if he is completely ignorant of statecraft,” muses Giovanni, reclining on the bed.
Zoe looks at him, “Oh, but he is. As for talking to him, there is very little point in that. He is stubborn in the extreme. To criticise his handling of his Empire would only to serve to aggravate the situation.”
“At times I wonder why your people have neglected to simply do away with him.”
“Why, that is not a bad idea!” she laughs, then more seriously, “No, really, you could be on to something there…” she rises and begins to dress hurriedly.
“What’s wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong my dear, quite the contrary. I think I have a coup to organise.”
“You are joking?”
“No, I shouldn’t think so. No, definitely not. I trust I shall enjoy the support of the Republic of Genoa?”
Giustiniani is getting a little irate, “You cannot be serious? Who would replace him? You are not thinking of crowning yourself are you?”
“Is that such a bad idea?”
“You are getting ahead of yourself Zoe, you need to calm down”
“But Genoa would support a coup against Andreas surely?”
“Well, in principle…”
“The new regime could do with military support.”
“Ha, really? And what could the new regime,” he laughs, “offer in return for military support?”
“How about ejecting all Venetian merchants from the Empire and cancelling all of Venice’s trade privileges?”
“Well now you’ve got my attention”
“So, tell me, would Genoa back a coup?”
“Well yes, in principle” then, after gathering his thoughts, “If you are truly serious…”
“Which I am” Zoe interrupts.
“… You’ll need an alternate candidate for Emperor.”
“Trust me, that will be the least of our worries” and with that she was gone.
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To turn an idea into a conspiracy, she needed a figurehead, a credible candidate for Emperor. The natural choice was her brother Manuel who was next in line to the throne anyway. She travelled to Morea, where Manuel still possessed a large estate despite being stripped of the title of Despot. Manuel greeted her at the entrance to his palace. He is a tall, athletic man, shrewd rather than intellectual but certainly more Emperor material than his older brother. Once the formalities were completed, Zoe requested that she may speak with her brother in private.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit Zoe?”
She smirks, “Is wanting to see my darling brother not reason enough?”
“But of course! And yet, that grin betrays you Zoe, I sense you have something more than a social visit in mind.”
“You always could read me like a book Manuel. I am indeed here for something of more significance than mere conversation,” she pauses for a second, momentarily doubting herself, then regaining her resolve, she comes out with it, “I shan’t beat around the bush, I want to do away with our dear old brother.”
Manuel is clearly slightly taken aback by Zoe’s straightforwardness and he thinks carefully before responding, “Well I can see why you wanted to talk in private. As you know, I have worked tirelessly over the years to help my brother and protect him from schemes such as these.”
“Yes and what do you have to show for it?” Zoe responds a little more angrily than she intended.
“Admittedly, not a lot.”
“Precisely, and once Andreas’ whore of a wife finally gets round to having their child, you shall be condemned to playing second fiddle for the rest of your days. Indeed, if events carry on in their present course I shouldn’t be surprised if he ends up, well, disposing of you.”
He laughs, “An unpleasant thought, if not an entirely unfounded one. But do you really suggest we dispose of Andreas, our own brother?”
“Ask yourself this: would he hesitate to do the same to you if the tables were turned? I think not. And besides, I am not proposing that we do anything so drastic as murder him. God forbid. No, we should simply make it clear to him what needs to be done for the good of the Empire. I’m sure then he’ll see sense, particularly if we offer him a generous retirement.”
“That is all well and good but how exactly are you planning to pull this off? Have you the support of anyone other than myself?”
“Ah, so you are supporting this endeavour? I knew you would come round. As to support, the only other soul I have confided in is Giustiniani. He said that the Republic of Genoa would look favourably on a new government.”
“Well you certainly have him wrapped around your finger!”
“Oh you are a tease Manuel.”
Nodding, he ponders over what he has heard, “You do realise you will need more than the three of us to pull it off. I suggest you talk to Phokas. I have heard the army is getting a bit restless and perhaps that our brother’s charms are beginning to wear off…”
“I shall leave for the capital immediately then, there is no time to lose. Please though, do come to Constantinople soon, I need you there if we are to succeed.”
Manuel rises to see his sister out, “Do promise me one thing Zoe. Be careful. I fear Andreas may be lacking in forgiveness if things go awry. The upmost discretion is required, do not simply approach people and ask them if they will support us. Only approach those you already know will say yes.”
“Have you no faith in me brother? I know everyone in Constantinople so you needn’t worry about my being indiscreet. I trust I shall see you before too long.”
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Acting on Manuel’s advice, Zoe next went to General Phokas. How to ensure his support? Zoe opted to use the method which she had found was the best way to influence a man; seduction. It took her less than two months to have him utterly enthralled. From there it was no problem enlisting him to her cause. His brutal military physique was even beginning to grow on her…
“Darling, I have something I need to ask you.”
“And what might that be?”
“Do I have your complete confidence?”
Phokas is puzzled, “Yes…”
“I will come straight out with it, I am planning a coup to remove my brother from the throne and I would appreciate your support.”
“I see,” he chuckles, “That it what this has all been about.”
“But of course darling, you didn’t think I’ve been sleeping with you for your riveting conversation did you?” she jokes, “Now what is your answer? I must add that should you decline, I may be obliged to kill you.”
“Ha! And why should I risk everything for you my dear? Who, for instance, will replace Andreas? Surely you aren’t planning on taking the throne yourself?”
“Manuel is with me, as are the Genoese. The plan is already at an advanced stage. Manuel has sounded out the Patriarch and we believe he will also be sympathetic.”
Zoe crosses the room and sits on his lap, before whispering in his ear, “I’ll ask you again, Phokas, do I have your complete confidence?”
“Of course Zoe”
“Good, that was not so hard was it? One more thing, you will support me all the way won’t you? Even if I am forced to take extreme measures? We might have to do things we won’t be proud of, things that might seem, perhaps rather reckless at the time.”
“I’m with you all the way.”
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So over several months Manuel and Zoe had put together a conspiracy of real weight with support from all elements of Byzantine society. All those months had been leading up to this night. This was it. Presently, Manuel arrives with the Patriarch in tow. Patriarch Michael is an unspectacular man, both physically and intellectually. His only real qualification for his high post is his inoffensiveness to both sides of a fierce church split. Zoe goes over to them as quickly as she can without breaking in to a run.
“Brother, Patriarch, how pleasant to see you, tonight of all nights!”
“Indeed. Are the others here?”
“We wait only on the Italian.”
Manuel appears somewhat restless, “Trust the fucking Latin to let us down!”
At that moment, Giustiniani arrives, “Your highnesses, Patriarch,” he bows, “I hope my slight tardiness has not unduly alarmed you.”
“Not at all governor,” Zoe replies, “Now, shall we begin?”
She signals to Phokas, who in turn summons over one of his attendants and whispers in his ear. He then hurriedly leaves the chamber. He is to pass on Phokas’ orders to the Palace Guard. The Palace’s perimeter will be secured first, then parties will ride and out and arrest all the key officials who are not in attendance tonight. Anyone who resists in the Palace itself will be arrested as well. If necessary, the guards will apprehend Andreas’ biggest supporters, Prime Minister Theodore and Finance Minister John. Now, the second stage of the plan, to confront Andreas. Manuel approaches his brother and the two converse briefly. At this point, he could betray them all and reveal the plot to Andreas. He doesn’t. Instead the two of them retreat to an antechamber off the main court. One by one, over the course of several minutes in order to avoid suspicion, the four remaining conspirators slip away until all six of the key players are assembled in a cramped chamber.
Andreas is perplexed, “What is this all about? Manuel, Zoe, explain yourselfs!”
He is not quite as imposing as Zoe remembered him. Clearly the strain of governance was taking its toll; he appears gaunt and pale, his hair is thin and greying. He had never been an impressive man but he seems diminutive and almost frail. After a moment’s hesitation, Manuel decides he should speak for the rest of them, “As you know Andreas…”
“That’s Emperor to you!”
“Excuse me. As you know my Emperor, our great State’s situation has been growing increasingly dire over the last few years.”
“Be candid with me Manuel, what is your intention?”
“With the upmost respect Emperor, we all feel that for the good of the Empire, it would be best for you to abdicate.”
Rather than responding angrily, Andreas seems resigned, “Then why am I not dead already? If you all want me gone, why have you not simply done away with me?”
Zoe goes over to her brother and embraces him, “I am sorry my Emperor, I truly am. You must understand we do this not for personal gain or vindictiveness but for the future glory of the Roman Empire. We did not kill you because we do not want to see you dead, of course we don’t. You can step aside, with dignity”
“You are most kind Zoe, I have always appreciated your kindness”
“Really?” she changes her tone in an instant, “You had an odd way of showing it!”
With that she slips a dagger from her robe and plunges it into his stomach. She simultaneously covers his mouth with her hand.
“It’s alright” she says softly, holding her brother tightly, “It’s over now. There, there.”
“What are you doing?” Manuel is stunned.
Zoe turns to her surviving brother, dropping Andreas’ limp body to the ground, “You did not really suppose we could allow the man we overthrow to walk free? Please tell me you are not so naïve as to think he would simply sit by happily in retirement and let us get on with it?”
“But our own brother?”
“Exactly, we know him better than most and he is, or was, a bastard. You agreed to all this and extreme measures were necessary. We need one clear claimant to the throne not several!”
The rest of the ensemble are speechless, Patriarch Michael looks as if he could drop down dead himself.
“Right then, time for the second phase gentlemen.”
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They return to the central hall and inform the assembled notables of recent developments. The Prime Minister, Finance Minister and Empress are seized by the guards and dragged away. Zoe orders that rather than being executed, they should be blinded and have their noses slit. In a way, this is a punishment worse than death; they will be totally humiliated and have to live the rest of their lives as social outcasts. Zoe takes particular satisfaction in seeing the Empress suffer. She had always hated her, hated the fact a social climber, a commoner in fact, had had the privilege of sitting on the throne ahead of a purple-born princess like herself.
The coup had passed without a hitch. All ranks of society were glad to see Andreas gone and anyone who might have been inclined to rebel had been apprehended. Venice has already betrayed Byzantium, so the ejection of Venetian traders was undertaken with much relish by the mob that night, to the extent that the Army had to stop the riots getting out of hand. Giustiniani was more than annoyed as the Venetian quarter had been promised to him as part of the deal and in a matter of hours his reward had been reduced to smouldering rubble.
The following morning, Manuel stands on the Palace Balcony, looking out across the city which is to be his capital. Smoke still rises from the Venetian quarter. Zoe watches him. She is joined by Phokas.
“How does Prime Minister Phokas sound to you General?”
“Well, I would say that would be an appropriate reward for my contribution to our little venture, my Princess.”
“Well then,” she wavers for just a moment but then continues, “If you want to be Prime Minister, I shall have to test your loyalty…”
She leaves Phokas and joins her brother on the balcony, “What is to be done Manuel? What are our plans after you are crowned this afternoon?”
“Well the Empire is beset by many difficulties. First and foremost we must save Thessaloniki. We will need Genoese support, perhaps assistance from several other Western nations as well. I intend to leave for Italy as soon as possible to raise money and troops.”
“Wise move brother.”
“But I have bigger plans than that. We must regain control of the Aegean in order to secure the Empire’s position. And this city needs to be restored to its former glory. But not through grand buildings as my brother attempted but settlement. We need to attract the brightest and best from across the Mediterranean as we once did. The streets must be bustling, the markets crowded and the ports busy. This city must be resurrected as the beating heat of the Empire!”
Zoe takes her brother’s hand, “Noble intentions Manuel…” the princess then proceeds to pull his arm towards her and in one smooth movement, draws her dagger and rakes it down his forearm, slashing it open completely. She gently allows him to slump to the ground. Phokas runs over but she motions for him to stay back.
“It’s over brother, that’s it, it’s finished now.”
“Wh…Why?” he manages to gasp.
“Is it not obvious? I am to be Empress. That is the prize. Perhaps not as glorious a prize as it once was but a prize none the less. Now, my first act of Empress of the Romans shall be to grant you the gift of a quick death,” she then slits his throat.
“Now, Prime Minister Phokas, shall we proceed to the Hagia Sophia? I shan’t want to be late for my own coronation!”
“I’m sorry Empress but you don’t intend on going like that, do you?” he replies, pointing to her dress, stained with the blood of her two brothers.
“I suppose not, I should think that would be a shock too many for the old Patriarch were I to enter the ceremony like this. Not that that would be such a bad thing…” Phokas can’t tell whether she is jesting or being deadly serious, “No, I suppose I must change, it wouldn’t do for there to be a scandal from the off. Now, can you have someone deal with the body.”
“But what on earth are you going to say happened to your brother?”
“Why, didn’t you see Phokas? One of your men came out here and just killed him. An Andreas loyalist I shouldn’t wonder. I should like to see the traitor responsible executed this evening if that is not too much trouble?”
“No your highness, I shall see to it right away…”
“Good. Now I leave to be crowned Empress of the Romans. Wish me luck!”