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A copyrighted excerpt from “Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora”
Constantinople 547 C.E.
I am dreaming about her yet again. Theodora: Goddess. Theodora: Nemesis. The woman I once adored.
I suddenly come awake in a cold sweat, eyelids flying back. Is it the dream that awoke me? I think not. Memory holds to some vague noise. All is quiet now, a thin silence stabbing me with dread.
I listen. In a dungeon any sound other than a rodent’s skittering on stone bodes ill. A minute passes. A long minute before I recognize the metallic clicking of a key in the lock. I draw in breath and hold it, listening. The recalcitrant gears do not give. Wrong door? Wrong key? My heartbeats triple. I pull myself up on my filthy pallet, back pinned against the craggy stone wall.
One expects no changes in routine here. No benign changes, I mean to say. Panic courses through me like a fever. I had already been given my second and last meager meal of the day, a kind of lentil mush. Any unusual occurrence in routine after that—a footfall or rattle of keys at an odd hour—is enough to raise the hackles of the most hardened criminal in the underground maze. I feel the blood draining from my face, a clenching at my middle. The lazy workings of the lock should not turn again until morning—but they are being tested. And yet, even as I mindlessly make the sign against an evil eye cast from afar, the gears are giving way.
The rust-pocked iron door bursts inward, spilling torchlight from the hall. Two prison guards in short woolen tunics advance and pull me to my feet. The single chair and the scrolls and codices on my small table are sent flying. “What is it?” I dare to ask. One guard answers with a grunt. Their faces are no more than outlines in the dark.
Giving me no time to find my ragged sandals, the guards strong-arm me out into the hall and prod me toward the stairs. I make no further attempt to question them. The day I feared has come. In my time here, I have heard others dragged off, begging for mercy. Some were returned mute and broken; most did not return. Some begged as they were hauled away. I will not beg. My fear is hardening into a sense of grim fatalism.
At intervals, low-burning torches light the passage. As we move up the narrow, stone staircase, I hug the rough and weeping wall, struggling to keep my feet from slipping on the damp, uneven steps. The absence of railings sparks the old vertigo I have not felt for years. Oddly, the sensation of dizziness is like an old friend returning after an extended absence. We continue up, higher, higher, one guard in front, one behind. The air grows less corrupt, less damp. Still higher.
I become light-headed. My enfeebled legs, so unused to exercise, quiver and threaten collapse, but the alien fresh air piques all of my senses, and from somewhere nearby the sharp scent of myrrh evokes my first visit to the great Church of the Holy Wisdom, after Justinian had it built anew. The balm affords me the needed reserve to take the steps, one upon the next.
Then come the ground floor and a flank of windows. Sunlight. Day is moving into dusk now, but sunlight nonetheless. Strange, I had thought it the middle of the night. Below it is always night. My eyes blink at the sight, so suddenly do my lenses have to adjust. My heart beats fast. If my crude record keeping is accurate, I have not seen the sun in five years, have not felt it on my skin. Blurry bursts of colors fly at me, a prism of reds, blues, yellows that at first offend and then feed my emaciated sense of sight.
The joy I feel at the awakening of my senses is stunted by terror. What has caused my release? The Syrian blood now coursing through my veins at an accelerated rate is said to carry the seeing skills. But it takes no clairvoyance to know where I am being led—and who has sent for me. I tremble to think of it.
We pass through marble hallways, familiar hallways. My movements stiffen as if ice is enveloping me, hardening me. A cold sweat breaks out on my forehead.
Supper is in preparation. The aroma of herb chicken in orange sauce comes wafting up from the palace kitchens. It had been a favorite of mine. Ahead, servants in long gray dalmatics are lighting the sconces for the fall of night. They are trained not to take notice of anything, but I can intuit their curiosity as I pass, for they recognize me, as I do them. One old man, a lamplighter with whom I often jested, approaches, his eyes growing round as thimbles. He looks as if he is about to speak, but when his gaze sweeps over me as we pass, he is struck silent.
Fear comes in a second rush, intensified by the certain knowledge of whom I am about to face. Something in my chest tightens and my gait slows, but the strong arms of the guards pull me along. Then come the final stretch of columns and a marble floor that shines like black ice. The huge bronze double doors loom ahead, seeming now to recede as I walk toward them. My heart pounds. This is a dream, I tell myself. Before I get to those doors, I will awake to my tiny cell. The details are vivid, I assure myself, much like they are in a dream. I look down. I can see the hem of my dirty and tattered tunic moving with the motion of my legs, bare feet slapping the cool floor.
Suddenly we are at the doors of her private reception chamber. Silentiaries stand on either side. I glance up. Purple brocade drapes the doorway. A new addition. How she loves the purple.
I long to be back in my cell. My world is secure there. It took months to adjust to the cold and cramped cubicle. I fell into raving fits in the first weeks, the guards told me later. After the surprise arrival of candles and my manuscripts, life became less miserable. I knew that they had come from her, and I accepted them with a grateful bitterness. I dared not ask for writing instruments.
The doors are open now. I did not see them opening, distracted as I am. Dreams operate that way, too, I know, propelling one from scene to scene with no transitions.
But this is no dream, much as I wish it were.
I see her now. At the far end of the vaulted room, in a high-backed, cushioned throne of ebony, she sits. A pair of exquisitely carved leopards comprises the arms and front supports of the chair, the blue gemstones in their eyes glinting at me. No hint remains of the baseborn actress she had been, only the empress she has become. She wears a mantle of purple silk, open enough to reveal a collar of pearl ropes draping from her shoulders to her breastbone. Instead of her diadem, a black veil covers her upswept coiffure and falls to cover her face. Strange. I have no memory of her veiling her face within the palace.
She motions the guards and silentiaries away. They hesitate. A second flick of the royal wrist and they dare not disobey.
The doors close. She and I are alone.
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