The Two Caesars

Today was the beginning of the world. Destiny has come to rest here, in these very fields, in this the Year of the Migration 857. All the eyes of the dhimmi are upon one man; the Sultan Mehmed, the blood and seed of Osman. The man who brought the Turks to the gates of Konstantiniyye, the man who has one hundred thousand brave souls at his command. He gazes up at the sky of clearest glass, in the corner of his eye peeking the silver sun. It is the eye of his father Murad, looking down upon him from his rightful place at the right hand of Allah. How proud he would be to see this day! How he would weep such tears, and they would drip upon his widened lips, to see his son in his moment of glory, crowning himself by his own hand that most ancient and revered of names. Perhaps, in Cennet, he will have forgotten the shame of his boyhood, and see him at last as the man he has become, just over twenty years and a conqueror unequaled on earth. The magnificent guns, craft of the master Orban of Hungary, bellow like proud lions his name; Qayser-i Rum, Qayser-i Rum, we hail and worship the coming of the new Emperor of the Romans.

Today was the end of the world. The fortunes of this revered empire, already long depleted and in as much debt as the state itself, had at last run down its last drops, in this the Year of Our Lord 1453. All the eyes of Christendom were on one man; the shameful brother Konstantinos, blood of the once-mighty Komnenoi. The Patriarchs of Rome shall laugh to hear it; that Konstantinopoulis, that ecclesiastical thorn in their sides, had at last been plucked, and it was he, the last Palaiologos, who would see that it falls properly. The sun shone weakly through the haze of war-smoke, dim as the eyes of his older brother, weak and stumbling in his too-early old age. Would Ioannes, in Heaven, turn his head away, seeing what has befallen the city he labored so long to protect? Does he pretend, before God, that this weak and hunchbacked spindle hobbling still on earth in his later middle-age of almost fifty years, is of no relation to him? Konstantinos asks these questions to the sky, but the only answer that follows is the roar of the cannons, dragons snarling his name; Kaisar ton Rhomaion, Kaisar ton Rhomaion, we thirst for the blood of the last Emperor of the Romans.

“My pashas! Summon to me my pashas!” Mehmed shouted, and accompanied by a hardened look did his aide Akshamsaddin go forth. The impatience boiled in his blood; his great triumph smelled so near, but these so-called generals continue to play the part of the old man, shuffling with slowed feet even on the assault. Even now, as he observed Akshamsaddin returning, two turbaned heads in tow, did they seem almost afraid to approach. When at last they arrived, Mehmed could see their faces and know them. The shorter and fatter of the two, Halil Pasha, was the first to speak.

“We will not be quorate, Sultan. Ishak Pasha has been called away to press the failing assault at Myriandrion, and with him goes the others.” said Halil, in his characteristic low whisper.

“Zagan, brother, when I assembled our forces here, I knew certainly that we had more pashas than this! Has the war gone so poorly?” Mehmed exploded, loud enough to drown out that sniveling Halil. He dared not even give him more than a glance; the snake ired him. Zagan Pasha gave his fellow a little smile, and whether it was of sympathy or smugness Mehmed didn’t care. It was reward enough to see that worm rankle.

“They are too virtuous, your loyal pashas,” Zagan said, in timbre deep as a Mughal infidel’s shaman. “They fight tirelessly against these bastard Greeks in your glory. Ishak Pasha has promised me himself, in the midst of their Latins. Tonight, when the Christians are at their Pentecost; we shall push through their walls at Mesoteichion, and the Queen of Cities shall be ours.” Halil seemed to make a move to speak, and Mehmed shouted over him before he could.

“I shall promise him a ship laden with gold, and another for you as well, brother,” he said. “That is, if it can be done with by tomorrow. When we began this war, it was Rabi al-Awwal; now it is already Jumada! Would you have us sit on our swords until Ramadan, so we can attack as we starve? Go! At once!” He clapped his favored upon the shoulder, and the tall pasha bowed as the dhimmi did, striding away with a confident step. Alas, Halil Pasha remained.

“Sultan, no war in history has been won in but two moons. You are asking too much of us.” Halil tapped his foot in place of pacing. It was almost even more vexing.

“Then I will be the first! Now go! Follow your brother Zagan Pasha, unless you would prefer he become your uncle! Go! You gamble with your head!” With his screams, Mehmed pushes away the traitor, sending him stumbling out towards the city. In his mind, he knew; Halil Pasha doesn’t gamble with his head, he has already lost it.

“Do I interrupt?” asked Giustiniani Protostrator, creeping up behind his emperor with uncharacteristic grace. His Greek was tainted with the Latin lilt from his homeland; Konstantinos had since grown used to it. “I must caution you with respect, Serenissimo, on your habits. Have you never seen a tragedy? Who broods most overlong shall come to an ignoble and ironic fall.” Maybe if the day had been better, if the sun was brighter, if the guns were quieter, he might have laughed. Now, his beard, once close-cropped, had grown so long as to tug on the edge of his lips, disallowing him to smile.

“I assume you mean to give me good news. Wouldn’t you otherwise be with your fellow Latins on the Myriandrion?” He didn’t turn, he didn’t take his eyes off of those flashing bombards for a second. It would eventually be Giustiniani who would approach and lean over the balcony as he did, peering with a heavy squint. Blachernae Palace was tall, just tall enough to see over the Theodosian walls at their doom. Konstantinos didn’t even have to look to know that the face of his compatriot fell. It was apparent in the slight stammer that followed. He was a soldier, not a courtier; that alone made him more admirable than any sebastokrator. Now that the fate of the empire  truly lay in the balance, suddenly the once-bustling court of the city emptied out, and the brave and virtuous nobles of the dinner table fleed on precious war galleys for Italy. Rome for the Greeks, Greeks for the Empire, and now the only ones left to defend it are foreigners; the Genoese Commander, the Venetian Admiral, commanding Aegean mercenaries of mongrel Frankish blood. Konstantinos would scoff if he were alone.

“Not quite, though surely you have already imagined as much.” Giustiniani shielded his eyes, more out of habit than purpose. “I have it on the word of our good friend Duce Halil that the final push will be tonight. They imagine us to be feasting while they clamber through the cracks left by their guns; then we are slaughtered to the man.”

“Not even if we each had the strength of ten men.” Konstantinos finally tore his eyes away from the horizon, landing them on Giustiniani. Though separated by fifteen years, the two had become twins, in their raggedness. Heavy bags, scraggly beards, streaks of grey in both their hair and their skin. They could swap armor and pass for each other on the field; let the loyal warriors throw themselves in front of Turkish spears to protect the mere protostrator while the basileus is gored. Such gruesome irony was regular in all other corners of the world, why not Konstantinopoulis as well? “How much were we when this began? Nine thousand? Seven? Five? We cannot be more than five now. How much are they? Fifty? One hundred?”

“One hundred Turkish individuals? We must sortie immediately!” The joke fell on heavy silence. Eventually it was Konstantinos who spoke, his whisper carrying despite the wind, despite the ever-present roaring.

“You’ve been able and loyal in my eyes, Ioustinianos. Thank you. Leave me alone to my thoughts.” Giustiniani bowed and disappeared as he arrived, a ghost, no more than a voice in his ear and a flash of a younger face scarred with misfortune. No company remained to him now, except Eurus the East Wind, tugging ever at his cloak of Tyrian purple. What right had he to wear it now? When his ancestors donned the purple, they ruled the entirety of the world; Hispania to Armenia, Britannia to Mauretania. He could not keep a single city.

Orders were shouted, and men of all ranks scrambled to have them carried out. Figures painstakingly taken and reported by eager officers, proud Turkish warriors assembled into neat ranks of gleaming swords and spears. None of it could impress their sultan, a cloud having formed about his head. He could only imagine today, his day of victory, being neutered once again, as it was when he was not yet thirteen. Those first days of rulership left him ambitious, wanting glory. He could barely contain his bloodthirst when the Christians, led by their precious Pope in Rome, raised their armies against him. He had known no war before, but he knew even then that his Turks were brave and under him would meet any challenge. Imagine his anger, staring up at the face of his appointed Halil Vizier, when he expressed his so-called reassurance that his father was renouncing his abdication and graciously returning to lead the armies again. He carried the resentment for eight long years, and tomorrow, whether win or loss, he will have his vengeance both upon the Christians and upon his Pasha. Soon, Allah always says; soon. Patience, greatest of the virtues, returns upon those who observe it. If only the hours were not so long.

He did not know when the compulsion suddenly befell him. Hours Konstantinos stood, near-catatonic, watching the sun as it passed down its path toward the sea. Then, as his hand commanded, he unclasped the purple cloak that wrapped around him and threw it over the balcony. Then, he removed the heavy diadem from his head, and off it followed. Rings, clasps, embellishments of all kind, a river of gold and jewels descended from the Blachernae and crashed against the stone roads beneath. The exertion weighed on his old lungs, and he had to stop to catch his breath. How would he face the endless swarm of his enemies if he could barely win a battle against his own clothes? No, God says, speaking to him in his own mind. Think nothing of victory. Tonight you will die, laying in the earth alongside your loyal army, with no markings between you to distinguish. Today you are but Konstantinos of Konstantinopoulos, and you will know humility, the greatest of virtues. Konstantinos nearly wept. If only it needn’t have been forced upon him.

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