September - December 1057
Ignatios the eunuch stood at attention outside the entrance to the Akkubita, the Great Palace's ancient dining hall with its nineteen apses. He gripped the tall wooden staff of a protovestiarios topped with a golden double-headed eagle, obsidian eyes gleaming. A thrum of anticipation pulsed through the enthusiastic crowd until two servants finally pushed open the massive carved wooden doors. At this sign, Ignatios pounded the staff on the marble floor three times, its heavy sound reverberating around us, and made his proclamation. The guests grew silent.
"Christ has crowned your emperor," he called out, his voice echoing loudly. "Many years, many years to the emperor, Isaac Comnenus, the most pious emperor and autocrat of the Romans, and Catherine, the most pious augusta. Christ has crowned your emperor. Enter and make your obeisance."
Our jubilant voices rose up in the traditional response, "Many years, many years."
This banquet celebrated the crowning of my brother-in-law, General Isaac Comnenus, as emperor of the Roman Empire; finally, a true leader on the throne after thirty years of inept and spendthrift rulers. Silk banners fluttered along the walls of the great banquet hall with images of St. George, St. Demetrios, the Theotokos. Others were of Constantine the Great, Theodosios the Great, Justinian I, and Basil II. Their reds and golds, silvers and blues glittered in the late afternoon sunlight.
I shivered with excitement as my husband, John Comnenus, and I processed through the massive doorway into the Akkubita, the first time ever for me. The patriarch, Michael Keroularios, strode ahead of us in his stiff formal vestments with Constantine Ducas, Isaac's supporters, and the Senate members following us. The procession passed by the eighteen marble-walled apses, nine on each side, where liveried servants stood ready to guide the invited to tables after they were presented to Isaac. Most of the guests would be seated in those eighteen apses for the great feast celebrating the coronation. John, brother to the new emperor, and I would be seated in the nineteenth apse with him and a few others.
John's arm trembled under my hand as we processed. His face was flushed, and he looked around nervously as we approached Isaac on his throne. Isaac had named him Caesar, the title signifying John's elevation to the empire's second in command. He'd told me that he worried any misstep could embarrass his brother and could even be a poor omen for his reign. I squeezed his hand and smiled at him. He looked back and the tremor in his hand relaxed.
The patriarch, carrying his crozier topped by a cross and snakes, was the first to greet Isaac who sat on the sparkling golden throne. He said a blessing over Isaac, bending to kiss him on the mouth. Isaac returned the kiss of peace, and the patriarch stepped to Isaac's side, where a more modest throne awaited him, a little behind the emperor's.
The protovestiarios announced us. "Caesar John Comnenus and his wife, Caesarissa Anna Dalassena."
John knelt to make his obeisance, kissing his brother's purple-clad foot and then his gold ring with its cabochon amethyst, intoning "Many years." I followed him, doing the same, and we took our places behind Augusta Catherine. Constantine Ducas, the leader of the Senate, then performed his obeisance, as did his wife Eudokia, my closest friend. They moved to stand behind Isaac near the patriarch, who was Eudokia's uncle.
One by one, the others were led forward by servants, kissing Isaac's foot and ring, repeating the words "Many years." The generals who had supported Isaac's rebellion led them, followed by senators, other dynatoi, and some family. The men also made hurried congratulations to my brother-in-law before being moved along. The homages were finally done as the last rays of sun disappeared. The gold throne was moved away, and those of us dining in the nineteenth apse with Isaac sat down at tables. Eudokia and I sat at a table with Catherine, apart from the men and the only women in attendance at this feast.
The protovestiarios signaled the servants to bring platters of food to our table and pour the wine into crystal goblets. I was hungry after the long ceremony but protocol demanded that I wait for Catherine. She finally picked up an olive with her silver fork and ate it, freeing Eudokia and me to partake. The three of us tried not to stare at the elaborate room with its gold chandeliers, but it was our first visit to this building. The graceful old structure showed its five hundred years in the faded luster of its marble wall panels, even though the former Emperor Constantine Monomachos had spent a fortune ten years earlier repairing cracked floor mosaics and replacing the old-fashioned couches with chairs and adding new tables.
I felt a little overwhelmed in the midst of all this grandeur. "I never expected to have the honor of dining here. Augusta, you're sitting where Empress Theodora would have sat, and Isaac is where Justinian would have been."
Catherine's lips turned up in a smug smile. "Yes."
Eudokia looked at us, eyes wide. "I wonder if anyone has seen ghosts here."
Catherine raised an eyebrow at that. "I think any ghosts would haunt the Church of the Holy Apostles. Most of the emperors were buried there."
The entertainment began soon after the servants had served platters of food. Musicians from Syria banged on their tambourines and drums, plucked lyres, while their singers recounted heroic tales. The favorite was "A Border Guard Building a Wall," about a brave akrites guarding the eastern border. Most of the men in the room sang along to that one, including Isaac and John. After that, jugglers deftly tossing balls, knives and clubs amongst themselves, grinning at the audience's oohs and aahs of appreciation. Tumblers then ran through the center of the hall, bouncing and climbing on top of each other into a stack five men high. Mimes cavorted around making fun of one and all, although not of the new Emperor Isaac. The hall grew noisy with the music and the many conversations going on in the dining apses. Servants skirted around the entertainers with platters and pitchers.
Catherine's face, with a jeweled maphorion covering her head, glowed in the lamplight. Isaac had transformed her from daughter of the defeated Bulgarian ruler killed in battle against the Romans into the proud Roman augusta, the wife of the emperor. I had never seen her happier or prouder.
Eudokia nibbled at a piece of bread. I raised an eyebrow at her, wondering at her lack of appetite.
"I'm expecting another child in the late spring," she said with a wan smile.
"Congratulations," I said. I gave her an encouraging smile while inwardly grimacing. Constantine Ducas was old enough to be her father and I knew he was not an affectionate husband.
"Yes, congratulations," said Catherine, her face taking on a shadow. "This will be your fourth child?"
"Yes, Augusta," my old friend said, eyes downcast. She never looked across at her husband on the other side of the room, sitting with Isaac, John, and the patriarch.
Catherine's only son had died a few years earlier in a plague epidemic, leaving just her daughter, twenty-one-year-old Marie who we called Marika. She still grieved her young son and I often saw the envy of pregnant women in her eyes.
"You are fortunate," Catherine said with a tight smile, quickly turning back to watch the mimes, who were making hilarious faces at the crowd, one pretending to be a lazy bear trainer outside the hippodrome and the other his clever beast, tricking his human for more morsels of food.
Wine flowed, food filled bellies, and the guests relaxed at the performances, but Isaac was not one for carousing all night. He was now emperor and autokrator. He would get to work early in the morning. After a couple of hours of celebrating, he nodded to Ignatios, the protovestiarios, who thumped his staff again on the marble floor. Isaac rose from his seat.
Everyone stood, acclaiming again, "Many years, many years." John, Catherine and I left the hall with Isaac, escorted by the Varangian guards back to our rooms in the Boukoleon Palace. The servants saw the other guests out, to make their own way home through the city's streets.
I watched as Isaac surveyed the single room of the treasury that held the empire's valuables, such as they were, an hour past dawn the next morning. The air in this underground chamber smelled musty and mixed unpleasantly with the odor of sulfur from the torches. His eyes narrowed when he reached to flip up the lid of a half-empty chest containing more cheap copper obols than silver miliaresion and gold nomisma and solidi. The few other wooden chests in the room held the same jumbled contents.
"This is all there is? I thought the palace had more than one treasure room. Are you sure?" Isaac asked Michael the chartoularios, or record keeper, of the treasuries, who had escorted him, Catherine, John, and me to this storeroom.
The chartoularios, a gray bureaucrat a few years older than Isaac himself, would not meet the new emperor's incredulous eyes.
"Yes, lord, it's all. You can check the other rooms, but you'll not find even a single obol. The rooms are so empty the mice don't even scurry into them. The eparch will bring in the day's tariffs later, but the palace does have expenses, so there won't be much left after paying them."
"What happened?" Isaac asked.
"Sir," the bland little man began, "I did only what the emperors or empresses told me to. They asked for money; my job was to give it to them and keep the records."
The muscles in Isaac's jaw looked tight under his beard. It had turned a sandy color from its previous foxlike red now that he was fifty years old. He did not say another word, gave a curt nod to the chartoularios, strode up the stairs and out into the warm September air.
Catherine, John, and I followed him onto the lawn outside. The fresh air dispelled the dank odors lingering from the underground vaults. I looked at the dozen or so men standing watch. The treasure house's meager contents did not warrant such protection.
Catherine spoke first, seething with disappointment.
"I cannot believe that is all there is."
"I heard rumors that the treasury had shrunk, was not as full as it once was, but nothing like this," I said. My inheritance of the Dalassenus family warehouse meant I was more familiar with the city's commercial elements than my husband or Isaac, both of them soldiers, were. And Catherine, proud daughter of Bulgarian royalty, had not the slightest notion of how wealth accumulated, desiring only to be kept comfortable. Still, even I'd had no idea how bad it was.
"Anna, when did you hear that?" Isaac asked me in a voice angry with shattered illusions. His eyes seemed sunken in shadow, his cheeks ashen under his beard.
I thought back to the years when taxes had been raised. Our old warehouse manager, Samuel, like so many others, had been arrested on a false charge of theft and only freed when I paid the eparch what was, in effect, a ransom. Then there were the whispers about loans from the Venetians. It must go back at least that far.
I shook my head. "I'm not sure, five or six years. Could be seven."
The new emperor grunted in disgust.
"We can't change what's done," said John. "But we do need more than what's there now."
Isaac's face was carved in stone. Only yesterday, the patriarch had crowned him in a majestic service in the Hagia Sophia, with celebratory races at the Hippodrome and the evening's banquet following. Now I thought he must feel like he had won a horserace only to have the horse die under him.
He still had to pay the soldiers who had fought for him to win the throne. I'd lent Isaac a hundred thousand gold solidi, some of the money he had needed, but the men would rightly expect more from the victor. And the armies in the borderlands were in desperate need of rebuilding after a decade of neglect. I had little of my inheritance left now and felt angry and sick to think Isaac might never have the funds to repay my assistance.
Isaac ran his hand over the back of his neck and closed his eyes in thought. The three of us watched our new emperor for some sign of direction. We had all spent our entire lives viewing the emperor as somehow set apart from and above the rest of mankind. Already I could see the reality of Isaac's new role making us more deferential to him and reluctant to give our opinions.
I noticed one of the court officials approaching from the corner of my eye, bowing several times as he neared. It was Michael Psellus, the unctuous man who had negotiated with Isaac just a few days earlier, trying to deter him from pushing the inept old emperor, Michael VI, off the throne. Psellus was a court fixture who had survived in the Great Palace longer than any emperor I'd known with a clever mix of servility and self-serving advice.
Isaac put a hand up to keep him at some distance before speaking to us in quiet tones.
"I need to get a clear picture of where matters stand. John, I want you to join me while we talk with Psellus and whatever other palace secretaries we can find."
"Of course," said John.
"Isaac, I need to be there too," said Catherine. She turned to me, waving her hand in dismissal, "Anna, I'm sure you need to see to your children."
Catherine, the daughter of a king and married to the older brother, had always been condescending. I may have hoped for better, but I realized now nothing was changed. I gritted my teeth and murmured, "Of course, Augusta."
I hid my indignation and forced a pleasant face. Perhaps I was just Isaac's sister-in-law, but he had needed my inheritance to pay the soldiers fighting for him to reach the throne. I would not disappear into the background. I was determined to find my own place in the Great Palace.
The first place I needed to be was with the children. The eunuchs had hastily assembled a nursery in the Boukoleon Palace for the many children now living there. Aside from my own brood of six, John's orphaned niece Anastasia and Catherine's orphaned niece, Marie of Bulgaria, were there. My friend Eudokia had learned only the day before that she and her children would be joining us. The palace eunuchs had no experience with children since the last infant living inside the palace walls had been Empress Theodora, who had died a year earlier in her seventies. My pace quickened while contemplating what chaos might await me.
The situation could have been worse. Anastasia, whom we had been raising since her parents died, was changing baby Alexios's diaper with the assistance of my daughter Marie who we called Marina. Catherine's six-year old Bulgarian niece, Marie, squatted beside my son, trying to distract him with a toy horse. Alexios squirmed about, full of mischief, while the girls struggled with him until I gave him the maternal glare that all children recognize as serious.
Manuel and Isaac were wrestling, as boys their age do, until I sent them outside. I instructed a eunuch to find them wooden swords with which to practice. I made a mental note to find a retired soldier to train the boys. The twins, four-year old Theodora and Donya, were sitting with their dolls and were sticky with the honeyed treats they had been given. The next thing I would have to do was give the eunuchs and other servants instructions on the appropriate diet for children.
Little Marie, Catherine's niece, appeared beside me, looking like she wanted to help. I realized then I would go a little mad if I didn't think of something else to call her.
"Marie, would you like it if I called you Marie of Bulgaria since that is where your father was from?" I asked. It was a mouthful, but it would lessen the confusion among the many Maries, and it was the best I could think of in that moment.
She blushed a vivid pink with pride, then smiled and nodded, "Yes, Lady Anna."
"Lovely. Now, please find me two wet cloths with which to clean up these messy girls, would you?"
"I will be right back," she answered.
I looked after the child, smiling at her sweet earnestness. A small sense of accomplishment filled me as the nursery came to order, and I could almost, almost forget about the casual dismissal Catherine had given me earlier.
That evening John and I dined with Isaac and Catherine and their daughter, Marika, in the emperor's rooms. Isaac's brow was furrowed and his mouth was turned down as we sat down, but he said little. John and Catherine were just as tight-lipped, leaving Marika and me wondering what had happened. After the servants were dismissed and we had some privacy, Isaac erupted.
"If I had known what incompetent fools were sitting on the throne, I would have rebelled years ago. I thought the treasury was bad, but then I saw all the dispatches from the governors of the eastern themes begging for reinforcements and supplies, requests sent for years, I felt like going over to the Church of the Holy Apostles and stripping the silver off Zoe's tomb."
Empress Zoe, dead these past seven years, and her three husbands had wantonly squandered the empire's wealth, but even Catherine raised an eyebrow at such sacrilegious talk.
"I suppose you could, but it wouldn't make much difference given how much you need," Catherine said.
"I'm not ruling it out. Yet. Catherine, I need you to review palace expenses and see what can be cut back. It seems like I'm tripping over servants every time I turn around. We need to pare those costs to the bone."
Catherine's eyes widened, but she nodded. She had rarely worried about money. I didn't think she had any idea how to economize.
Isaac glanced over at me. "Anna, perhaps you could help her with that."
"I'd be happy to," I replied.
"John, I want you to get the eparch of the city in here. Find out how much he collects in taxes each year, each month, even each day. And the harbormasters as well. For God's sake, make sure we get every nomisma and obol owed. I'll go over the tax records for the themes; I suspect some of the governors may have miscalculated how much to send to the capital."
Isaac stuck a fork in the fish on his plate, then flung the fork down in disgust. He stood and stormed out. The rest of us finished our meal in silence.
Catherine and I started together at the task Isaac set for us, but she soon left the real work to me. She had no head for numbers, or sense of organization, and agreed to any suggestions I made. I was happier managing on my own without her interference.
The biggest challenge was the eunuchs. My experience with those of "the third sex" was limited to their choirs in the Hagia Sophia where they sang beautifully. Now, I realized the palace stewards—all eunuchs—controlled the money spent in each individual area and were loath to give up that control. Many of them took advantage of the lack of oversight, feasting and accumulating great wealth under their rulers' noses.
I accompanied a eunuch named Georgios on my first visit to the palace's valuable imperial wardrobe storerooms. He pulled open the door to one, which then almost fell on top of me because of a loose hinge. The garments the room held were of the first-quality silk, used only for the imperial family, or of the softest wool, often embroidered with gold and silver threads and decorated with gems. They should have received the utmost care. Cedar lined the rooms, with fennel leaves and lavender hung throughout to deter moths, although dust covered the dried herbs. Some of the garments hanging within showed damage from insects.
"These might need a little mending," said Georgios as I looked askance at the damage.
I raised an eyebrow at that as I noted gaping holes where moths had feasted. I glanced at Georgios's soft, plump hands that appeared to never have held a needle. His own robe was the finest unblemished silk, and he wore gold rings on both manicured hands.
"How long has that door needed repair?" I asked.
He blinked at me, as though he only then noticed its dilapidated state.
"It's been this way as long as I've been here."
Most of the rest of the palace complex had similar problems. I came to realize that while eunuchs may have had opportunities for the sins of lust and fornication cut from them when castrated, it only made more room for the sins of greed, sloth, and gluttony to take root. My eyes almost popped out of my head when I saw how much they spent on trifles. The records showed exorbitant amounts had been paid for piddling purchases, as much as a gold nomisma for a few fish, when that coin could have bought the fisherman's entire boat. I ended up pensioning off several of the eunuchs, and none continued to have financial responsibilities. Except for Thomas.
Thomas wore no rings, and his clothes were plain. He was in charge of the eunuchs who were the palace's gardeners. Not a glorious assignment for any of those men, as I called them since they came into the world as men. There seemed to be only one qualification for the job of gardener. The surgeons who made them eunuchs were not always careful in their cutting, sometimes damaging other parts of the anatomy that could leave them incontinent. All of the gardeners assigned outside work suffered from this embarrassing problem, although Thomas perhaps least of all.
Thomas and his men kept the palace's grounds looking exquisite. The marble footpaths had cracks, but they did not allow a single weed between them. The rosebushes were trimmed and dead leaves whisked away. The rest of the palace complex, as old as it was, had some tired or shabby buildings, but the gardens sparkled.
I surprised him when I first visited his small office on a chilly fall day. It was little more than a shed, rakes and shovels resting in a corner at the back. Thomas sat on a stool scratching notes into a journal with his quill when he glanced up and saw me.
"Caesarissa," he began and stood up, his rough work clothes stained with dirt and sweat. The stool fell backward onto the floor. "Welcome. I didn't know you would be coming by. Please have a seat." He gestured to a stool on the opposite side of his worn desk while righting his own that had tumbled over.
I looked around. This was a workroom, not a comfortable office with cushioned chairs and braziers for heat.
"A little chilly in here," I commented.
"I'm outside most of the time. Not much point in wasting money on charcoal for heat then, but I can get a brazier for you."
"No, no, that's not necessary," I said, warming to this thrifty eunuch. "What were you just writing in?"
He looked down at the journal. "It's just my schedule of work for the year. To make sure it all gets done on time. Otherwise, it's easy to forget. We take care of the palace's kitchen gardens, and I have a schedule for that, too. I keep track of all my spending here."
I picked up the book and looked through its neat pages, adding the amounts listed in it together. It looked like he spent about as much in a year as the wardrobe master did in a month. Each month, indeed each week, had work scheduled with notations about what tools were needed for each chore. I looked into earnest brown eyes that reminded me of a loyal dog.
"I'd like to see the kitchen gardens. Would you mind showing me?"
I observed Thomas on our walk over. He looked to be about thirty and kept his brown hair almost as short as a monk's. The time he spent outside left his beardless face tanned. He was muscular, unlike the flabbiness of Georgios and many other eunuchs I had encountered. He chattered on about his planting schedule as we walked, but stopped occasionally to speak with one of the other gardeners.
The kitchen garden was located between the interior walls built by Emperor Nikephoros Phocas and the Great Palace's main walls. This area also held an old, rarely used church, not far from the promontory overlooking the Bosphoros. I heard squawks from a chicken coop in one distant corner and a humming beehive in another. A pair of apple trees still had a few leaves on them. The gardeners had turned the land over for winter, with just cabbages, turnips and some tired, spindly herbs still growing. The garden was so tidy I half suspected Thomas and his staff had frightened away the weeds until I noticed him surreptitiously pulling a tiny one that had dared to show its green leaves.
We sat on a sunny bench next to the old church. The building provided some protection from the north wind.
"The emperor is concerned that palace expenses are higher than they need to be," I said.
Thomas made a small grimace. "I suspect he may be correct in that. Caesarissa, I will do whatever I can to reduce what we spend on the gardens."
That startled me. "No, no, that's not what I was trying to say. I could see from your journal that you waste little."
I looked into his earnest face, so unlike the those of the other eunuchs accustomed to privileges and perquisites.
"Thomas, do you think you could take on additional responsibilities?"
One November day, Catherine and I were walking from the Boukoleon to the Daphne Palace, where Isaac kept his office, when a familiar figure approached us. It was Gagik, the former Armenian king who had saved John's life years earlier and now served in Isaac's army. Flushed with excitement, he bowed deeply to Catherine before sharing his news with us.
"Isaac's appointed me dux of the Lycandus theme," he said.
Lycandus was not the richest theme in the empire, but the military governorship of any theme was a high honor. Also, it was not far from his old home in the city of Ani. Gagik had earned Isaac's trust many times over since he'd arrived in Constantinople a dozen years earlier.
"I'm pleased for you," Catherine said. "Congratulations."
He gave a lopsided grin. "Thank you. It won't be an easy post, not like the Opsikion theme. Turks have been raiding there, so I'll be busy. But it's in the east, in the mountains. My wife and I have missed living in the mountains. Maybe not home, but close."
I gave him my best wishes and watched him walk to the palace gates to share his news at home.
"I'm glad to hear about this," I said. "Gagik's been a good friend to us."
Catherine gave me a sidelong glance and shrugged. Isaac often included his wife in discussions about the empire's business.
"There weren't many candidates willing to take on Lycandus. The few who might have would have asked for more gold than Isaac could pay them. Isaac knew Gagik wanted the promotion and wouldn't be greedy."
This was one of the cold calculations emperors needed to make every day. All soldiers expect to be in harm's way, and no one forced Gagik to take it. He was an outstanding soldier and I silently wished him luck in this new assignment.
Isaac soon he realized he needed more drastic measures than just cutting palace expenses.
"That Old Man really went crazy handing out gifts to his bureaucrat buddies," Isaac said irritably one night, speaking of Emperor Michael VI, whom he had deposed. "That along with the higher salaries he paid his many friends siphoned away a lot of gold. He was stupid to think that paying those mannequins who contribute nothing, while not paying me and the other generals who are fighting wars, was going to work out well for him."
Isaac revoked those gifts and cut the salaries, receiving many loud complaints. The treasury's supply of gold coins grew, but progress was painfully slow. The news from the borderlands only increased the sense of urgency we all felt.
First, Isaac's old friend Katakalon Kekaumenos sent word that the barbarians Pechenegs were stirring up trouble in the north and begged for weapons and men. Then in the east, Catherine's brother, Troian, skirmished with Turks raiding and conquering even well-fortified towns. The Turks had begun raiding Roman lands when I lived in exile in Amaseia with my grandparents at Uncle Costas's estate near Amasea. A couple of rogue Turks had even attacked me there when I was sixteen. It was only the fortuitous appearance of Isaac and John that saved me from being kidnapped. I worried about the growing presence of the Turks in that region where my cousin, Damien, and his family still lived.
Isaac revealed another problem regarding finances one night at dinner. He'd sat down without his usual greeting, tight-lipped and flushed. Catherine and John joined Marika and me at the table but said nothing and avoided our eyes. Marika and I shared a questioning look, but neither of us knew what to make of the ominous silence that continued as dinner was served.
Deciding to venture into what could be dangerous territory, I asked, "What news today?"
"What news?" Isaac snorted. "Just the usual news that I get everyday about this miserable empire."
Catherine reached over to pat his hand, for once trying to calm Isaac. "It's not that terrible."
"Really? Not that terrible?" Isaac slammed his fist on the table. "Being handed an overdue bill for two hundred thousand gold nomisma is not that terrible? I suppose you have that much lying around somewhere?" His eyes flashed with anger.
Catherine cringed and pulled her hand back.
John looked at me and said, "We received a delegation from the Venetians today. They presented us with a bill signed by Emperor Constantine Monomachos and confirmed by Constantine Ducas as the leader of the Senate at that time. No one, including Psellus, who wrote the document, or Ducas, had thought to mention this debt to Isaac. Conveniently, both of them had excuses to be elsewhere today."
Everyone knew Monomachos had spent the most extravagantly of Empress Zoe's three husbands. I gaped at him, still shocked by the huge amount of the debt, although not as much at the complicity of Ducas and Psellus. Samuel, the old Jew who had managed my family's warehouse near the harbor until his death from plague, had once mentioned rumors about such a loan, but no one would have guessed so much. Isaac must have felt overwhelmed with this huge additional burden given the still meager contents of the treasury and the empire's other demands.
Isaac shook his head, teeth gritted. "I have no choice now," he said bitterly. "I'm going to have to raise taxes."
The city residents, once so optimistic about Isaac, soon grumbled and complained at the higher taxes, up by ten percent. The people of Constantinople were ever ready to express their opinions about any emperor, and God have mercy on you if you lost their favor. They weren't yet ready to riot, but John thought it wise for me and for the children to stay inside the palace walls.
John was constantly at Isaac's side, advising and supporting his efforts to correct the mistakes of his recent predecessors. Their long days meant the two of them returned to work after dinner. John often did not get to bed until the middle of the dark winter nights. By January, he had bags under his eyes and could be short-tempered at small provocations. It had been a demanding eight months since the rebellion had first started Isaac on the road to the throne, with rarely a day to rest. The strain of it weighed on my husband.
I was pregnant again, due in the late spring, and the fatigue of carrying a child sent me to bed early one cold night. I was asleep when John slipped into bed next to me but was soon roused as he could not find a comfortable spot, turning back and forth.
"Are you feeling sick?" I whispered.
"You're awake? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you." He wrapped an arm around me and sighed.
More heavy breathing. "It's nothing. Go back to sleep."
Whatever was the problem, it was something. I would have no sleep until I found out what that something was.
"You need to tell me what's wrong. Now."
John lay there for a moment before deciding what to say.
"It's just this isn't what I expected. Work I expected, but all the politics, the backbiting, the people trying to manipulate you—that I didn't expect. And all of a sudden, I have friends who can't be nicer to me, all with their hands out. It was great until I realized these men never acknowledged me before my brother became emperor. I don't feel like I can trust anyone."
I lay there for a moment before responding in a low voice. "You can trust me."
He leaned in to kiss my cheek. "Yes, I know I can trust you. But everyone else? Sometimes it feels like even Isaac isn't being honest with me. And the money problems just get worse everyday."
"It's only been a few months," I said, stroking his hand. "You're learning how the government works; it takes time and practice. Isaac is learning too, and he trusts you more than anyone else. A year from now, you might be surprised at how easy it will seem. "
"I hope you're right."
I felt his tension ease and he pulled me closer. John's breath soon grew even and he slept while I lay awake in his arms. I hoped I was right, but my husband's naive misgivings worried me.