It was hardly the first time that I was the center of attention. In the past two years, it was a more common experience than not. I had learned to deal with the attention and the expectations. I became aware of my own influence and the weight of my words. Astrid had pointed it out to me, mincing no words in the process - in Norway, I had been a giant. I crushed Jarls and made kings. In Francia, I was one of the most important men in the Saxon army, and without me there was no hope of victory.
This felt very different, I thought, marching forward to the Empress and the Emperor. I felt like I was walking on thin ice with certain death underneath me. That I was one misstep away from the ice cracking and falling into the freezing abyss. I felt everyone's gaze on me, and these gazes were not ones of awe. They were of suspicion and doubt. They measured me, trying to determine my worth with a glance to see if I would be of use or a danger. And no gaze weighed more heavily on me than Empress Irene.
I reached the point where Gorgo had been taken before I dropped to a knee in a bow. That seemed to be the correct action because the faintest of smiles tugged at one corner of Empress Irene's lips. "A most glorious hero. Tale has reached us of the great battles to be found in Greece. Those that bore witness claimed that you fought with the ferocity of an angel against the demons of hell itself."
I didn't know what to say. I hadn't expected this, much to my chagrin. I had expected a more private meeting and that the meeting would be with either Ateios or Staurakios. Not with the Emperor and his mother. Not in front of the entire court. I knew that this was an opportunity, but I didn't know how to best take advantage of it. I didn't know where I stood with the people in this city. In Francia, I was a warrior and figurehead. In Norway, I was a powerful Jarl without lands. Here… what was I?
What was I beyond a stranger in a strange land?
"You honor me," I replied, thinking politeness would be best. However, I heard a rippling of mutters behind me. At first, I thought I put my entire foot in my mouth before the whispers reached my ears. They were surprised that I spoke Greek. "I cannot claim to fight with the might of one of God's angels, but we won the day with our skill at arms and stout hearts." I…
I should not mention the gods here, I realized, and fear shot down my spine with the thought. Would the gods think I was ashamed of them? The Allfather, he who gave his eye for knowledge… Thor, who would dress as a woman for the sake of his mother… would they understand? Would the gods understand my position? Was not claiming them to all that would witness not the same thing as denying them?
"You are modest. Your achievements are not inconsiderable," Empress Irene said, and that was something of a hint that my position was a little more secure than I might have expected. It was a reassurance. These people… they were no different than King Widukind, even if they seemed vastly different. They were people. And, if I knew anything, I understood that they would want to use me. They had enemies they wished to point me at to vanquish. That did not make them friends, but it did mean I could guess at their motivations. "To face ten thousand soldiers with a mere two thousand… to take the great cities of Athens, Sparta, and Partas with nary a loss both to your army and to the poor oppressed people…"
She was praising me. Emperor Constantine seemed like he couldn't care less with his eyes glazed over, retreating into his head out of boredom. His mother was speaking for him. She wasn't really speaking to me, I decided. She was speaking to the audience. There were a few mutterings at that, and it didn't seem to be news for the court. They knew, but perhaps they didn't know the details.
"When word of your fleet reached us, there were many that wondered about your intentions…" she trailed off and I suppose that was a prompt. What should I say? Did I offer reassurance? Or would that be taken the wrong way? I…
The truth, then. If I couldn't match their flowered words, then I could be earnest. "My home is a far off land to the North, but even there, we have heard legends of this place. This city. We call it Miklagard - the greatest city in the world. But the legends are so grand that few believe them, and those that do are regarded as fools." I began, and that seemed to mostly be the correct thing to say. People liked being praised.
"Yet you sailed here. Would that make you a fool?" The remark was light, but I heard the jest made at my expense.
"If this city were not here? I would be indeed. Yet, here you are," I continued, ignoring the slight. I didn't care, I found. I didn't care if they insulted me or besmirched my honor. I wanted to learn how this city could be so great. Why they had these things - things my imagination would have been incapable of conjuring. "My men are warriors. I am as well. However, we did not sail from our homes to unknown shores and cities of myth to make war. We are here for trade."
It was a minor thing. I wouldn't have noticed it were it not for Tell Spotter, but Empress Irene seemed to fight off a frown. Likewise, Staurakios, who stood off to the side, seemed to fight off a smile. I feel like I just did something in that split second, but I had absolutely no idea what it could possibly be? My reasons were not a secret. They should be known already. Did someone not tell the Empress?
"Your words lighten our hearts," Empress Irene said, recovering quickly. "We have heard your request to receive permission to trade in our Empire. It shall be granted," Empress Irene decided. "But it would shame us to offer such a… meager reward for such services."
I saw it. My opportunity. "I have no desire to shame you or give any doubt to the generosity of the Romans. If I must ask for anything… then what I desire most is the Imperial University. I ask for your permission to attend this place of learning," I requested and I saw it again. Empress Irene seemed faintly surprised to hear my request. Almost as if she expected something different? Or she thought I was hiding something?
Something was going on around me. I could see the ripples of it, but not the stone that was cast.
"An unusual request," Empress Irene allowed herself. "But one we shall be glad to grant." I didn't manage to stop the breath of relief that managed to escape me. "In his imperial name, I grant you, Siegfried, access to our markets and the Imperial University." The proclamation had a rippling effect. However, the whispers in Greek and Latin weren't about me. They were about Empress Irene. They were kept low, and even with my sharp hearing I couldn't make out what was said exactly. What I did sense was an undercurrent of displeasure. At me?
"You warriors shall be housed in the mercenary district and your ships will be allowed to dock in our noble city's ports," Empress Irene continued. That, I think, was what she was prepared to give before.
It was then that I heard a rustling of armor and I glanced to the side to see that an older man stepped forward. His black hair had hints of gray to it, his skin was bronzed and weathered, but he seemed strong. "I beg your imperial majesty's forgiveness for this most rude interruption," the older man began, looking at Emperor Constantine, who seemed to snap out of his daze when he realized he was being addressed. A brief moment of panic crossed his young features, telling me that he genuinely hadn't been paying any attention. "However, I must protest this decision made in your name."
There was a brief pause and I saw Empress Irene's expression tightening, anger lurking in her dark eyes. Emperor Constantine sat a little straighter, trying to appear as if he had been listening. "I would have your reasoning, Strategos Michael Lachanodrakon." I might have thought that the words came from the young emperor, but he said them like he was reciting them.
"This man is a pagan," Michael declared loudly and for all to hear. Every muscle in my body went tense as he looked at me with contempt. "He and his ilk should be put to death, not granted rights to our ordained city by God." He hated me. I heard it in his voice. I saw it in his eyes. He knelt a dozen feet to the side of me, and I could tell that he wanted nothing more than to cross the distance to strike me dead.
Emperor Constantine began to speak but cut himself off when his mother rested a hand on his shoulder. His lips pressed together but he swallowed whatever it was he was about to say. "Is this true? Have you denied God's Grace?"
I should lie. I knew I should lie. Telling the truth, now, could very well cost me everything. At best, it could mean a wasted trip. It could mean the seizure of my ships and goods. I was confident that I could survive if they turned against me, but the others were less certain. I knew that. I did. It was the height of foolishness…
"I do not worship your God," I confessed. I… could not deny them. I would not be ashamed of my faith in the Aesir. Even if it cost me everything, I would simply begin again. I would raid the empire, plus during its wealth to rebuild my army. I would swear to their enemies, if I had to. I would sack this city and instead of treasures, I would take every man and woman of learning and force them to tell me their secrets. I didn't want it to come to that, but I would do it if I had to.
Everything that I am is due to their favor. To deny the gods was to deny myself.
"He confesses," Michael spat at me.
"There is nothing to confess. You say this as if it were a secret," I retorted, finding that I did not like this man. "It was for this reason that I sailed for Greece and crushed this would-be Emperor. I was told it was necessary for me to gain the right to trade in this city." His eyes narrowed. Did he not know?
"You speak lies," Michael accused, and now I started to bristle. I wanted to endure the words for the sake of learning here, but I found it harder to do in practice. "You raided Greece for the sake of plunder. What kind of fool would believe you would conquer such a place for a mere merchant's pass?"
To that, I scoffed. "I understand that retaking Greece might be seen as a challenge for one such as yourself, but it was not for me," I said, the words slipping past my lips almost of their own free will. His nostrils flared as his lips started to pull back in a snarl. I was not impressed. "I do not know your ways. I do not know the value you place on such rights and honors. Why would I begrudge such a small errand if it meant being allowed into the greatest city in the world?"
I could tell that I angered him.
"What has been offered shall be given," Empress Irene interjected, her voice firm and her eyes sharp as she regarded the both of us. She did not seem happy. I don't think she knew of the arrangement. It would explain why I accidently caught her flat footed… likewise, it also meant that she couldn't retract what was offered. If she did, then it would be an admission that she didn't know. I had to assume that. I couldn't make the assumption that she was on my side. "A contract shall be drafted. Will you fight in the name of Emperor Constantine, my son?"
I nodded, "I shall. I will not ask for payment," I said, wanting to cut off any complaints that anyone could have. "For we shall take our wealth from your enemies. All that we require is lodgings."
A good deal. Especially considering that my last contract as a mercenary cost sixty ships, fifty of them heavy with cargo, and seven hundred warriors.
"Granted," Empress Irene uttered. "So long as you fight the enemies of Rome, you shall find safe harbor in Constantinople." She said, making a gesture and I took that as a sign of dismissal. I bowed my head to her before riding to my feet. Michael was still glowering at me, telling me that this was far from over.
It was as I was leaving with my companions that I heard Empress Irene speak again. "Take heart, Strategos Michael. Even heathens can do the work of God if pointed in the right direction."
The words were spoken in Latin…
And I felt it deep in my bones that this place was as dangerous as any battlefield.
"I heard your meeting with the Emperor went well," Michalis spoke as I sat with those closest to me and my commanders. We had been moved to better quarters, though we were still a stone's throw away from where we had been. A number of mercenaries had been moved out of a handful of buildings before they were given to us. The room that we sat in had a long stone table that looked like it had seen some heavy use. The mercenaries took any decorations that might have furnished the room when they left, but that meant little.
'Well' would not be the word that I would use to describe the meeting. I managed to get what I desired from it, and more, true, but I couldn't help but feel like it had cost me something. The ground felt uneven under my feet. I had to tread carefully.
"Well enough," I replied, looking at the man who stood across from me. Michalis dressed well, much better than the traveling clothes that he had worn since I had met him. He wore robes made of finely stitched cloth that were embroidered with gold thread. "I have the right to trade in the city. Do they speak Norse?" I asked and his lips pressed into a thin line.
"They don't," he answered, his gaze sweeping across the room at the others. Thorkell and Olek stood to my right and left behind me, Astrid and Jill sat adjacent to me while the others sat along the table. I had even managed to wrangle Morrigan to be in the same room as me. "The majority of them speak Latin, which I can translate into Greek. If that would be permissible?"
Latin was amongst the first languages that I had learned, but until now, I rarely saw any use for it. I rarely spoke it. That seemed to rapidly be changing in this city with these people. Knowing a language that no one else knew that I spoke had come in handy once. And I think this was a secret best kept close to my chest.
"It will be," I consented with a nod. Michalis seemed quietly relieved before I gestured for the doors to be opened. Behind them there were four men. All of them Greek and finely dressed. Three of them were older but one was younger than even Michalis. They wore heavy rings that held precious stones in them, all of them quickly glancing around the room before settling on me.
"He's a boy," one of the merchants spoke in Latin. "Are you sure we aren't dealing with the big one?"
"Introducing Chares, the most renowned textile merchant in all of Rome," Michalis introduced the man that spoke in Greek. "Diodotus and Erastos, both of whom sell a great many things but focus their efforts on wine and produce. Lastly, introducing Hyginus - a dear friend and renowned merchant in all things to be considered finery." He continued, introducing the younger one, whose gaze never left mine.
He could understand Greek. I was sure of it. The other three only seemed to recognize their names, and bowed politely. I'm not sure what good the information would do for me, but it was useful nonetheless.
"I am Siegfried Erikson, but most call me the Wolf-kissed," I introduced myself, as introductions were going around. Michalis introduced everyone, but I didn't fail to notice how Chares' eyes flickered between Astrid, Jill, and Morrigan. "Please be seated and be welcomed."
"All three are his women? I like the golden eyed one. She would fetch quite a price to the right buyer - a true exotic barbarian," Chares remarked idly, a friendly smile on his face as he regarded me. It was a struggle to pretend that I didn't understand the remark, but I think I managed it based on how his expression didn't change. His tongue was loose when he thought I couldn't understand him. Instead, I looked to Michalis.
He offered a polite smile, "My associate is quite eager to begin business. I have already informed them of your cargo, but to review - one thousand and five hundred gallons of wine, eight hundred gallons of oil. Five hundred and eighty three pounds of grain. One thousand textiles. Two hundred and thirty pounds of various pigments - primarily, red and green. And additional three hundred pounds of assorted fabrics - primarily wool. Four hundred pieces of amber. Fifty eight pounds of precious gems. One hundred unicorn horns. Five hundred pounds of assorted tools. One hundred pounds of incense. Six hundred finely made candles. And an additional two thousand pounds of various things of interest."
What he listed were merely the things of interest to the merchants before me. There was more in the cargo of my ships.
It was Hyginus, Michalis' friend, who spoke first. "I would like to purchase these Narwhal horns. They are worth their weight in gold here. Ten of them for their weight in silver." I see. It was going to be like that, then?
Michalis relayed the offer in Greek and I forced myself to smile. "In precious gems," I retorted, and Michalis seemed to fight off a wince. When he relayed my order, Chares laughed.
"How impolite, this barbarian. He does not even give you the courtesy of spitting on you before he tries to fuck you," he remarked in Latin.
"The price that he asks for is obscene," Hyginus complained, frowning at Michalis.
"My dear friend says that you ask for too much. He offers their weight in silver and one half," Michalis offered in Greek.
"A tough bargain he makes. I'll take their worth in gold," I replied, my tone curt as I leveled a sharp look at Michalis. "Such a fine deal, is it not?" Perhaps that had been too much, I realized in hindsight, because Michalis gave me an odd look that told me he was questioning how much I knew. "I was not idle this past week. I know the value of my cargo. I will not begrudge you or your contacts from making a profit themselves, but I will begrudge you if you try to blatantly cheat me because you believe me to be ignorant."
Michalis was silent for a moment and Hyginus, despite his attempt, could not hide his scowl. Michalis relayed what I said to Hyginus in Latin, but I noticed that he did not mention my warning. Hyginus would have heard it but Michalis did not seem to want the others to? As they talked amongst themselves, hashing out a better offer, I saw Morrigan move from the corner she lurked in.
"Michalis and that one are connected beyond convenience," Morrigan informed me in a low whisper, speaking in Germanic. A language that Michalis did not know. "They conspire together and against each other. The other three are tools to them, but to the loud one, he sees them as tools." The loud one was Chares. He was the most important one here, I was starting to see as the others deferred to him.
Knowing that there was a conspiracy was helpful, but I would have preferred to know what that conspiracy was. But what was clear was why Michalis didn't relay my warning to them. I just wasn't sure what he had to gain from it.
"I shall take five unicorn horns for two thirds their weight in gold," Hyginus decided, speaking in Latin and Michalis relayed the order in Greek.
An absurd sum of money already. Each horn weighed about twenty-five pounds.
"I shall purchase the remaining fifteen for the same price," Chares decided, almost dismissive of the purchase. I could tell that was an unwelcome move from him to Michalis. I'm not certain why, however. I didn't truly care, though - with just the Narwhal horns, I had gained three hundred pounds of gold.
"The wine and oil. I shall take… one hundred gallons of both," Hyginus decided.
"Hm. Looking at how he is dressed… the textiles of his people are worthless. I wouldn't wipe my ass with that tunic," Chares remarked and I clenched my jaw. I couldn't help it. My mother had stitched this tunic and I was disused to being insulted so brazenly. That, I saw, was a mistake because Michalis' eyes narrowed into slits. "Wine and oil are expensive. A gallon of good wine is six times the price as it would normally be. I will offer twice the asking price for… six hundred gallons of wine."
Michalis knew. I could see it in his eyes. I did not care for being reliant on him, but I found myself disliking Chares a great deal more. "He will pay five times the price for the insults. He," I inclined my head to Hyginus and speaking in Greek, "will pay what the wine and oils are worth if you aid me in squeezing every drop of wealth from him. When he speaks of getting fucked, I want him to think of me until his dying day." I was tipping my hand and I saw that Michalis had many questions, but he simply smiled.
"It would be my utmost pleasure, Lord Siegfried," Michalis agreed, inclining his head to me before he made an outrageous offer to Chares, who about went red in the face. We went back and forth and I could see the divide between them starting to grow more defined. Michalis and Hyginus were deferential, casting the blame on me while pretending to be on his side. The price kept going down and down with each round, but in the end, I got what I wanted.
Chares paid five and a half times the value for the fine wine and six times the value for the cheaper wine. In all, he purchased a thousand gallons, and while he would be making a profit, enough to make the deal, it was a shadow of the profit that he thought he would receive. Fine wine, from my understanding, went for around twenty-five silver coins. A truly incredible amount as it was. Five and a half times that? A gallon of fine wine was worth a hundred and thirty silver coins. For a single gallon. Two hundred of the thousand gallons of wine he purchased was fine wine.
The other eight hundred gallons were worth as little as a single silver coin, and in the current market, it was selling for as much as six or seven. That sale ended up being worth nearly five thousand silver coins. Altogether, that was more than thirty thousand silver coins. For the wine. Of which, I got most of it practically for free. Some of the profits would need to go to the men to pay them their share of the loot, but it was still an insane profit on my part. I once spent the better part of a day haggling for two or three coins for chainmail.
"This man is a crook," Chares grumbled, shooting a dirty look at Michalis. It seemed that he had been expecting to rob me blind by putting on a show of giving me a good deal as he practically tried to steal right out of my pockets. "I would tread carefully around this one. You might want to buy back that noble name of yours, but if you associate with this sort… A crook, a pagan, and a barbarian…" there was a threat in his words as he spoke them and Michalis' wince wasn't faked.
His eyes shot to me, and that confirmed it.
Buy back a noble name? I don't think you could do that where I was from, but perhaps it was possible in this land. It explained some things about Michalis too - his education, how he spoke and acted. He was a noble that lost his lands. And his name, even. Disgraced nobility? It also explained why he was willing to travel all the way up to my homeland to make a profit.
The little that I had seen of this land told me it was rich beyond compare. He would only take such risks if he was desperate.
And, based on how he fought off a frown, he didn't want me to know that.
My first steps in this world were shaky and uncertain… but with every step that I took, my footing got surer. My confidence started to return as I rested my hands on the table in front of me. "What of the oil?" I prompted, looking at Michalis, telling him with my gaze that the remark hadn't gone unnoticed.
We were less than allies, but we were not enemies. Time would tell how he would seek to use me… but I did know what I wanted to use him for. Right now? Squeezing silver and gold out of these men who would dare insult my mother and kin. As for the future…
We would see. One way or the other.
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