I convinced the Huns to escort me to the palace to request an audience with the Augustus. It wasn’t easy to convince them, but Sigizan was my father’s most loyal man, so he did what I promised would save my father’s life.
The approach to the palace was thick with soldiers. So eager, so curious, and so drunk with power were they that they couldn’t hold their lines. Groups gathered in the street like women at a market. I’d never seen such carelessness among the imperial guards. As my men and I passed, the soldiers went silent. Behind us, whispers rustled like leaves in a breeze.
South of the road, a market of wood huts and uncovered tables was doing business. I passed a table stacked with bottles of boiled eggs. The merchant had bottled hundreds of them in colored glass and water to make them look large and exotic. Ravenna wasn’t much of a city, but what there was seemed more interested in us than the unusual food. Men and women peeked at us from their stalls, from around the helmets and spears of those who escorted us.
A dozen men stood before the iron gate at the entrance to the palace grounds. Beside them draped blue standards bearing the golden eagles of Rome. Another row of guards stood atop the high stone wall like golden spikes. Towers rose forty feet. Waving above them, higher than anything in Ravenna, were two purple labarum. Each of the flags bore a golden wreath circling the Greek letters “chi” and “rho,” the letters lying on top of one another to form the symbol of Christ. It was the standard Constantine claimed for his own a century ago, one used by every emperor since, but Julian.
At the gate, the guards followed the formality of asking who we were and what our business was. We waited until a messenger returned from the palace with orders to escort us to an audience with the Master of Offices. Olympius had managed to intercept us.
As we awaited an escort in the palace’s atrium, I noticed the imperial residence had new statues in the entrance hall. A bust of Honorius rested in the middle of a group that included his father and brother, and one statue was missing. A ring of dust remained where it had been only recently removed, and then I recalled there had once been a statue of my father in the entrance hall. A mosaic of the four seasons made in chipped marble covered the floor, surrounded by a square border of large red tiles. Paintings of windows lined the curved wall of the room. Each painted window held a different landscape, with painted birds flying past or perched on its “windowsill.”
New eunuchs served the chamberlain. The previous ones were probably in the dungeons or some newly-dug ditch. As the new boys entered, I admired their soldierly similarity. They were all young and pale and wore blue-violet tunics and collars stamped with imperial eagles. The young men had already cultivated the courteous indifference affected by all the imperial staff, and the only unique quality among them was how each wore his hair. One had a queue tied on the side of his head and the rest of his hair shaved. Another had no hair at all. One wore a monk’s ring. Another’s was long like a girl.
The chamberlain took me to a room to await the imperial response to my request, although I knew that request would not reach my uncle. Olympius was deciding what to do with us, deciding what he could get away with, and I was quietly considering options with each response the guards might return.
The Huns’ weapons had been confiscated at the gate. A detail of palace guards arrived, fifty armed men to keep an eye on the fifteen unarmed Huns and me. I passed the night in the room without any word from anyone. The following morning, the guards were changed, and it was made clear that I was not a guest but a prisoner. Slaves brought bread and olives.
The Huns’ anxiety rose. They were living with the unaccustomed circumstance of empty sheaths and soft couches. Sigizan was a clever fighter, an expert on a horse, and good at the strategy of soldiers-and-robbers. I recalled a time when I was nine and waiting at the palace. Sigizan killed my pack of bandits in fifteen moves. I never played him again. He never cared much for me. When he found me on his daughter at fourteen, he tried to kill me. Only the accidental appearance of the chamberlain saved my life.
Staring up from under heavy brows, his small, black eyes sized up the men who guarded us. He had a perpetual squint, as if he were always blinking away the harsh wind of his native land. His cheeks had long scars, put there by his people’s custom when a boy became a man. As his eyes glanced across the layout of the room, his eyebrows twitched. I noticed strands of white hair among his black and wondered where his daughter was now. Like all federates, his family was billeted with a Roman magistrate. They were guest-hostages of Rome, ensuring his loyal service. I realized then that they were probably already dead.
As the Huns grumbled in a corner of the room and glanced furtively at the few guards who stood inside the door, Olympius entered.
He walked to me, stood near without saying anything, and locked his hands behind his back. His face wasn’t so neatly plucked and a few new hairs mingled his brows together. He looked tired.
“The Illustrious Olympius,” I heard myself say. I’d barely spoken for a day, and the hoarse voice didn’t sound like mine. “Are you here with a message from my uncle?”
He smiled sourly. “Please come with us,” he said gesturing toward the door.
As I passed from the room, imperial guards passed into the room, and I caught a last impression of Sigizan’s anxious stare.
When I heard the metallic slide of the lock, I stopped in the corridor. When I heard cries erupt from beyond the door, I turned. Olympius stood patiently in front of me. When we heard pounding on the door, he nodded to his men who opened it. Guards filed out, each two or three dragging a dead man behind them. I watched Sigizan’s body pass by.
“Strip them, burn their clothes, and dump the bodies in the swamp. We don’t want them found until their bones are picked clean.”
Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Historical fiction |