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Born in the Purple

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When her brother Basil came to her in the small audience room of her apartments, to tell her that she must marry a barbarian out of the distant forests of the North, Anna wanted to scream at him.  She wanted to throw the little statue of St Sabbas the Sanctified that stood in the niche by the window at his head.

But, of course, that was not how you spoke to the Emperor, even when he was your stupid brother Basil.  Even when he was standing there wearing that ridiculous moustache, telling you that you had to leave not just the Palace, and Constantinople, but the whole of civilised society, and everything you had ever known, to be shipped off to the frozen wastes to marry some stinking savage, and probably be eaten by a bear.

But screaming would never do.

Anna’s mother, the Empress Theophano, had screamed, at the end. Anna remembered it vividly. Sometimes it came back to her in dreams.  Mother had screamed and ranted and sworn, like the tavern-keeper’s daughter she was, at Patriarch Polyeuktos, at the Patriarchs solemn, ugly nuns, at the new Emperor, John Tzimiskes.  And the Patriarch had drawn himself up, and told Anna’s mother she was a Scarlet Empress, and a whore, and that she had killed two Emperors and must be sent away into a convent for the safety of the Empire.

And John Tzimiskes, who everyone knew perfectly well had been the one who had killed the last Emperor, who was his own uncle — all he had done was look mildly embarrassed, and shuffle his feet and he had done nothing, nothing — while the Patriarch had cut off Mother’s beautiful long dark hair, and the nuns had stripped away the bright silks she loved and dressed her instead in heavy black.  Anna could still remember the black coif framing her face, making her look suddenly worn out and old.   

Mother had had knelt down — just here, in this same room, near where Basil was standing now, talking on, and on about the Bulgar threat and the Rus alliance  — she had knelt down and hugged Anna, and told her to be a good girl, and to always behave like a true Porphyrogenita, a child of Emperors, born in the Porphyry Room of the Great Palace to an anointed Augusta.

Anna had been six years old, when they took her mother away. She was never allowed to see her again.  

Sometimes she looked out, from the wonderful gardens of the Bucoleon Palace, out over the Sea of Marmara, wondering which island held the little monastery where Mother was kept.  But she did not ask.  One was not allowed to ask that sort of question.   

There must be no screaming. A Porphyrogenita does not scream — certainly never at an Emperor.  Anna dug her long, sharp nails secretly into the palm of her hand until it was sore and red.  She knelt gracefully and pleaded prettily instead.

“Dear brother, I have always known that I must marry for the good of the family.  I only wish to do the bidding of my emperor,” she said, and added silently; and I also wish for him to die horribly. Burning alive would be good.  Or perhaps for his eyes to be put out with a red-hot poker.  That would be justice.  

“Are you quite sure this alliance is truly worthy of a marriage with a Porphyrogenita?    This back-woods barbarian hardly honours my blood, which is yours also.  Surely we can pay him in less rare coin?”

“I’m paying him quite enough coin as it is,” her brother said curtly.

“Might it be that coin is what he understands? He is a pagan, a bastard   —   he has no royal blood or history to match us.  You have only one Porphyrogenita to give away.  Such a marriage has never been made before, not in all the long centuries of the Empire.”  

“He has a bloody good army of barbarians behind him though,” Basil grumbled.  “And he says he wants you.  He asked for you particularly.  You needn’t worry about him being a pagan.  I told him he’d have to convert before I agreed he could marry you.  I’ve sent priests up there already to build a church.”

“You are very thoughtful, brother,” Anna said, and dropped her eyes modestly.  “It is just, it sounds such a distant primitive place, this Kiev,” and she let a tear roll down her face.  Just one tear, that was enough.  Not too much emotion, or he would storm out, and that would be the end of all hope.

“I had hoped that I might marry into some old-established family of the Empire,” she said, putting a catch in her voice.  “Someone worthy of our family...and... and perhaps not so very distant.”

Basil looked undecided.  Could it be that the man had a conscience after all?

“Well... it is unprecedented indeed to give a barbarian war leader a wife who was born in the Purple.   He presumes much, asking such a thing.  Too much, perhaps.   I’ll need his army if we are ever going to break this stalemate with the Bulgars but... yes.  He will have to settle for other payment.  I will find you another husband: at your age, its past time you were married, but that’s no reason to rush into a mismatch.”

“Oh, thank you brother!” Anna said and for once, the warmth came naturally into her voice.  “Thank you so much!”  




The emperor’s promise had been made in private — or at least, as much privacy as was ever available in the Great Palace.  Anna knew quite well that private promises from emperors were as dependable as the many cats who wandered the palace.  Like the cats, the promises had a way of slipping away into the shadows as soon as you stopped paying attention, becoming lost in the echoes of the endless passages, half-forgotten courtyards and empty rooms.

To ensure this promise did not disappear into the shadows as so many others had done, she sent her body-slave Maria to bribe the attendants and the Logothete in charge of her brother’s next public audience.

It was even more expensive than she had expected.  She had to give them the automatic singing blackbird that whistled gaily when you wound it with a small golden key, a gold necklace with a ruby pendant, and to promise to use her influence to appoint someone’s daughter to be the joint-mistress of the wardrobe for her little niece Zoe.  

But in the end, instead of the ambassador who had been scheduled to visit that morning, Anna entered the great jewelled room of the Chrysotrikolinos to greet her Emperor brother in splendour.  She was wearing a dress of the finest-woven purple, modestly fitted in the sleeves close to the wrist, with golden shoes embossed with purple eagles, a high collar of cloth of gold and over her hair, a veil stitched with blue and gold.   Even those who had never before been fortunate enough to see their Emperor’s sister would have no doubt about who and what she was.

Her brother did not seem entirely happy to see her, but he did confirm, in front of all the court and a good selection of the great families of Constantinople that Anna would not be sent to marry Khan Vladimir.    Anna retreated in triumph.



Her triumph lasted ten days.    That was how long it took for the news to reach Khan Vladimir, for him to take the Black Sea port of Cherson as if it were a fruit ripe for the picking, and to send a message back to the Emperor, to say that he had taken Cherson just to show that he could, and threatening that he would come in force to Constantinople itself, if there was any further delay in sending him his bride.

Basil did not come to tell Anna himself this time. He sent a eunuch of his bedchamber instead, to order her to pack.  

It is unwise to scream at the eunuchs of the bedchamber, although admittedly, not so unwise as to scream at the emperor himself.  The eunuchs hold considerable power over how the precious time of the emperor is spent, and what messages are passed to him personally.

But Anna had nothing to lose.  She screamed, and she threw the bust of St Sabbas the Sanctified, and a beautifully gilded oil-lamp, and a glass flask, still half-full of dark red wine, before the eunuch escaped and fled.   And she still had to go to Kiev, to the filthy savage waiting there for her in the darkness of the endless forests.

It was hard to decide what to take with her.   On the one hand, silks and books and dinner sets would very likely be wasted in a wretched life among the trees and swamps, but on the other hand, anything she did not take with her would surely be hard to come by, if she decided that she wanted it later. In the end, she packed generously.  

It was harder to choose slaves than possessions - none of them wanted to leave the comforts of the palace and the city and all their friends, and they all had reasons why they should not have to go.  To begin with, Anna was tempted to take all the most horrified faces, simply on the grounds that if she must be miserable in the middle of nowhere, she might as well be surrounded by people who were just as upset about it as she was.  

But in the end, she relented, and took only her favourite cook, her body-slaves Maria and Komel, who had both been with her since she was a tiny child, and as the dogsbody, a lad of perhaps eighteen summers who was named Yasen, and had been sold out of the lands of the Rus some years ago. He could still remember how to speak the Slavic language of the tribes.

Yasen was a rather daring choice for a slave to accompany a princess on her travels. He had been such an unimportant slave that nobody had even bothered to make him into a eunuch. It was only his command of the languages of the North that had led his name to be mentioned to her at all.  

“We could have him castrated for you now?” offered the slave-master, helpfully, making a snip-snip motion with his fingers.

“Oh, how terribly thoughtful of you to think of it! But I may as well take him as he is.  I fear nobody will be quite so concerned about the niceties in far Kiev, and I am leaving very soon, so he must be fit to travel. It may be useful to have a man-slave’s full strength in my household - for chopping wood and all that sort of thing,” Anna told the slavemaster.  And also he has such lovely brown eyes, and he looked so scared when you mentioned it.

And then, terrifyingly quickly, there were no more days left.  No more days in Constantinople, the Queen of Cities, the Heart of the World.  No more days in the unmatchable garden-terraces of the Bucoleon.  No more nights in the Chamber of the Princess, painted, tiled and carved like the case for a rare jewel.  And now the litter was carrying her out, curtains discreetly closed to protect her from being seen by the common people, for the last time, out of the great Chalke Gate of the palace, down to the waiting ship.  There was no more time left.  



Khan Vladimir was waiting for her at the old port city of Cherson, which he was still holding as surety for her safe arrival.   She had managed not to think too much about that, on the voyage north, except to be grateful that they could at least meet first in a civilised place.

That day dawned fair, with the clear blue sky overhead blushed pink by the rising sun, and the Inland Sea a joyful turquoise green. As the ship ran before the wind in towards the shoreline, a dolphin joined them, leaping free in a spray of shining foam from the clear green bow wave of the ship.  

They say that dolphins bring good luck, Anna remembered. But perhaps this was the wrong sort of dolphin.

She had put on her purple dress again, with the high cloth-of-gold collar, as a kind of armour.  She did not want to risk spoiling the golden shoes with seawater though, so instead she chose shoes of a plainer, blue-dyed leather, and as this was her wedding day, she combed out her long dark hair until the sparks flew and the purple shimmers came and went.  

And then she stood at the rear of the ship, very straight and proud and very alone, as the blond, bearded sailors worked to bring the great longship in beside the quay.



Khan Vladimir was not as she had imagined him.  Nobody had told her who he was, but she could have picked him out from among a thousand men.  It was not his clothes that distinguished him -– they were plain enough but acceptable, and thanks be to Saint Veronica, clean.  It was the way he stood, as if he only had to raise a hand for the whole world to leap to obey him.  

He was tall -– taller than she had thought -– strong and straight-backed. For some reason she had imagined him hunched like an ape.  He had a crooked nose and pale, fearfully intelligent eyes.  She had expected a stupid man, an uneducated brute, but this was not a stupid man.   This was a force to be reckoned with.

She stood, her head held high, as his eyes flickered over her, head to toe, dwelling indecently on her hair, her breasts, her backside. I will not bend the knee. I will not nod or bow.  That is for him to do.   He is the lesser partner.  He brings nothing but an army.  I bring all the dignity of an Empire.

“Khan Vladimir,”

His mouth opened in a wide grin, showing unpleasant yellowing teeth; “Lady Empire Anna, I so please you is come here at last,” Oh sweet saint Justin the Martyr!  His accent! His Greek! He sounds like that fish salesman that shouts his wares on the quay near the Gate of Eugenius!  I must not laugh.  Must, absolutely, not laugh.

“I am delighted to meet you at last, my dear husband,” Anna lied warmly.

“No, you are unhappy,” he said, grinning that awful yellow grin and taking her arm and leading her across the deck “That is fine.  You never meet me, I never meet you.  You like Constantinople; I take you away to Kiev.  You make your brother tell me no!  Nobody tell me no.”  

There were no steps in place here in Cherson, as there had been in Constantinople, to allow her to climb down in a dignified manner from the tall ship; there was only a rope ladder.  She paused in confusion, and Khan Vladimir picked her up, with no more ceremony than if he had been picking up a sack of oats, slung her over his shoulder, and climbed down the ladder, and when he landed, he pinched her backside, quite deliberately, before he let her go.  His friends who had accompanied him on board waited for him to climb down to the quay, and then they began to follow him down the ladder.   

Anna landed on the quayside, alarmed and indignant.    But after all, there is no point making a fuss.  This is what I’m going to have to cope with.  This is what they are all like here.

And then she noticed those light eyes, regarding her with an air of considerable amusement.  He did that deliberately to upset me!  He’s laughing at me.  I wonder...

“Thank you, Khan,” she said, very composed.  “Of course, at home, in the Empire, a king does not carry a woman in his arms himself.  My brother arranges things differently.  But I suppose that customs must be different here in the barbarian lands.”

There!  There it was!  Just a shade, a moment of uncertainty, a moment when he knew himself the barbarian, felt his feet slip on unfamiliar ground.   Now, flattery, or honesty? Flattery would be safer.  But maybe there’s more to gain with honesty.  And after all, he started it.

“Since I am here, may I know why you wanted me?”

“A man cannot want a beautiful woman?”

Anna made a dismissive motion with her gloved hand.   “I have heard about you.  You are the fornicator maximus, as I believe they put it.  The man with three wives and three hundred concubines – oh yes, we have heard, even in Constantinople.  You cannot possibly have need of another woman for her beauty, not when you could have had more than my weight in gold, just for the asking.”

His eyes narrowed, and now he was looking at her properly with those pale eyes, her face, not her hair, or her bosom or her purple dress, but her.  It was unnerving.  People never looked at Anna as a person, rather than a Porphyrogenita.  

“In my house have women, yes.  Many women, some beauty more than you, even. Plenty, plenty women, wife, lover, mother.   But I need woman of the Empire family.  Woman speaks the best Greek, woman who pray to the Kristos God.  Woman who will say to kings, to empire; Vladimir is true king, and all his sons after. ”

“You need a Queen,” And how if I refuse to be your queen? I suppose then you’ll pick me up again and carry me to my wedding anyway.

“Yes. Queen. Queen of the purple.  Purple to build empire.  Like your Empire, only new. New and strong.”

“An empire of the Rus!”   It caught at her imagination.  A new Empire, built by this coarse, yellow-toothed man?  Could he really be a new Julius Caesar, a new Constantine?  I read that Caesar was a vulgar little man, although he was not a barbarian. And this is the man my brother needs to win his wars, the man my brother can’t say no to.  He has more of the air of an emperor than Basil.  And when he has all those women, surely he won’t be expecting ME to fornicate with him often?   Those teeth!  And we shall have to do something about that accent.  

All the Khan’s friends had climbed down from the ship while they had been talking, and now her slaves Maria and Komel were clambering down the ladder with her confessor close behind.  It had been arranged that the cook and Yasen the dogsbody would stay on board to keep an eye on the luggage.  

She took Vladimir’s large hand in the elegant, ceremonial way that she might have taken the hand of her partner for one of the ritual dances in the great room of the Covered Hippodrome, back at home.  As he helped her up into the unfamiliar saddle of the white mare, her eye was caught by Yasen, waiting on the deck of the ship above her.  Don’t look.  Don’t look.  He’s taken his tunic off, and he’s lounging there in the sun, lazy as a cat, in just his hose, all lean and brown and beautiful, and he’s smiling.  I’m glad he’s smiling.  That’s something.  Not much, but it’s something.

And without pausing at all, without giving any outward sign at all, she looked down modestly, the picture of the decorous Imperial woman.  Vladimir urged his own fierce black stallion forward, took the bridle of her horse, and led her away to her wedding.