This book is lovingly dedicated to my mother, Doris Steen Williams, who, like Adora, always knew who she was.
It was early morning, and the mists, like shredded gray gauze, hung over the still waters of the Golden Horn. The city of Constantine slept, unaware that its emperor was dead.
A lone figure-unchallenged by the guards-left the Imperial Palace and made his way across the vast, green park behind the Senate. The man who walked so purposefully toward the Mangana Palace was John Cantacuzene, for the last thirteen years the actual ruler of the crumbling Byzantine Empire. Behind John was Andronicus III, already lying in his funeral bier.
Charming Andronicus had been inadvertently responsible for the murder of his younger brother and the subsequent early death of his own father. He had been forced to overthrow his furious grandfather, Andronicus II. The old man had sworn to kill him. In becoming emperor, Andronicus had been fully aided by his very good friend, John Cantacuzene one of Byzantium’s most brilliant minds.
But Andronicus III, once he had gained his heart’s desire, found that he preferred hunting, festivals, and beautiful women to the burdens of state. Those dull matters he left to his trusted friend, Chancellor John Cantacuzene. The chancellor worked hard. The government ran smoothly. The emperor’s every desire was gratified.
The emperor’s mother, Xenia-Marie, and his wife, Anna of Savoy, distrusted John Cantacuzene. They knew the chancellor was ambitious. Andronicus, however, refused to dismiss the friend who had served him so well.
But now Andronicus was dead, and his heir was barely eleven years old. The royal family had triumphed over John Cantacuzene by obtaining a deathbed signature from Andronicus appointing the Empress Anna sole regent for the boy emperor. There would be civil war. John Cantacuzene did not intend for the child’s vengeful Italian mother and her priests to rule the empire.
First, however, John had to get his own family to safety. The empress would not stop at murder. But then, smiled John, neither would he.
His older son, fifteen-year-old John, would remain with him. Matthew, at six, could be placed in sanctuary at the monastery attached to the Church of St. Andrew, near the Gate of Pege. His second wife, Zoe, his daughters, and his niece would all go to convents. John could trust the devout Anna not to violate religious sanctuary.
His first wife, Marie of Bursa, had died when their eldest daughter, Sophia, was barely three, and little John was five. He had mourned her for a year and then married a Greek princess, Zoe of Macedonia. Ten months later, Helena, now eight, had been born-followed eighteen months after by his younger son, and two years later by his youngest daughter, Theadora, now four-and-a-half. There had been twin sons, dead a year later in an epidemic. Zoe was again with child.
Entering the Mangana Palace, he hurried to his apartments and was met by his manservant, Leo.
“He is dead, my lord?”
“Yes,” John answered. “A few minutes ago. Take Matthew to St Andrew’s-immediately. I will wake my lady and the girls.” He hurried to the women’s wing of the apartment, startling the eunuch guards who dozed by the doors.
“Say goodbye to Matthew, my love,” he told Zoe. “Leo is taking him to St. Andrew’s now.”
This was not the time for prolonged discussion. Moving on to the bedchamber shared by Sophia and Eudoxia, he shook them awake. “Get dressed. The emperor is dead. You go to St. Mary’s in Blanchernae for safety.”
Sophia stretched languidly, her nightshift slipping to reveal a plump golden breast. She shook her jet black hair back, and her red mouth pouted. She reminded him more of her mother each day. If he couldn’t marry her off right now, then a convent was the best place for her.
“Oh, Father! Why must we go to a convent? With a civil war there will be so many handsome soldiers about!”
He didn’t stop to argue, but neither did he miss the look of lust in her eye. “You both have five minutes,” he said sternly, moving quickly to his other daughters’ bedchamber. Here he stopped, allowing himself the pleasure of viewing his two younger girls in sleep.
His lovely Helena was so like Zoe, with her sunshine blonde hair and sky-blue eyes. Eventually, she would marry the boy emperor who was Andronicus’ heir.
Little Theadora slept with her thumb in her mouth, the sweet line of her innocent little body visible through the thin cotton shift. She was his mysterious one. He often marveled that, of all his children, she was the one with his quick, intuitive mind. Though barely out of babyhood, Theadora seemed much older. Her features were delicate, as his mother’s had been: she would grow into an extraordinary beauty. Her coloring was unique in this family. Her skin was like heavy cream, her cheeks faintly touched with a soft apricot pink. Her hair was dark, the color of rich polished wood, and it gleamed with golden lights. Outrageously long, dark lashes tipped in gold hid Theadora’s amazing eyes-eyes that changed from amethyst to deep purple. He was suddenly startled to find those eyes open and upon him.
“What is it, Papa?”
He smiled down at her. “Nothing to fear, chick. The emperor has died, and you, Helena, and your mother are going to St. Barbara’s for a while.”
“Will there be war, Papa?”
Again she startled him, and he surprised himself by answering plainly. “Yes, Theadora. The empress got a deathbed signature. She is sole regent.”
The child nodded. “I’ll wake Helena, Papa. Have we much time?”
“Just time to dress,” he said. He left the room shaking his head at her quick grasp of the situation. If only she’d been a boy!
Theadora Cantacuzene rose from her bed. Calmly pouring water into a basin, she washed her face and hands. She then slipped a simple green tunic dress over her shift and pulled a pair of outdoor boots over her little feet. Refilling the basin with fresh water, she lay out a pink tunic and another pair of boots.
“Helena,” she called. “Helena, wake up!”
Helena opened her beautiful blue eyes and looked at her little sister irritably. “It is barely dawn, brat. Why do you wake me?”
“The emperor is dead! We go to St. Barbara’s with Mother. Get dressed, or you’ll be left behind for old Xenia- Marie’s torture chamber!”
Helena scrambled out of bed. “Where are you going?” she shrieked.
“To find Mother. You had better hurry, Helena!” Theadora found her mother bidding Matthew goodbye outside