24th May, 2018

Our 2017 winners’ stories in full

We’re delighted to publish the full story by the winner of the 2017 competition’s 11-15 years category, Leonard Belderson.  You can read the winner of the older age group here.

All nine winning stories are available in printed form in our special free Anthology, which is available to anyone sending in a self addressed stamped envelope. We hope they inspire you to enter next year’s competition – you can find out how to enter here.

The City of World’s Desire

by Leonard Belderson

Background note

I was inspired to write this short story after attending a YWSP Imagining History workshop at Holkham Hall.

I have chosen to set my story in 11thCentury Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire (although the populace proudly called it Roman).  This is a fascinating city, now known as Istanbul, which I would one day love to visit.

The story itself is imagined, but descriptions of the city, the palace rooms and the contextual events, such as the Battle of Manzikert or the invasion of Rûm, are all based on historical records from that time.

The City of World’s Desire

Alexios Komnenos barged his way through the lavish palace corridors, pushing aside distinguished and illustrious patrician alike. Anyone who dared yield a complaint in his direction was met by a hurriedly produced piece of purple parchment and a few harsh words. He was tailed by his eunuch Elias, a feeble stick insect of a man, with fibrous, greying hair and pale skin from a lifetime of office enclosure. With Elias scurrying behind, Alexios continued his relentless assault on the dignity of the aristocrats, carrying himself as if they were the inconveniences, his eyes connecting with no-one. But many a jealous eye was loaned upon him. For Alexios was parading against the flow of Christians hurrying to the Hagia Sophia for evening service and all he met had little doubt of what that ordained. He was going deeper into the sacred palace complex, heading straight for the emperor’s throne room.

The raucous rabble of nobles and bureaucrats started to thin as the bodyguards thickened. Elite and devoted, these were huge men of barbarian stock who wore their beards long and their axes longer. Any proud foreign delegate could not help being awed by these monstrous, exotic creatures – the emperor was not just guaranteed by God, he was protected by demons. Alexios, unlike Elias who lowered his head and trembled whenever in their presence, had long become accustomed to the men he knew as Varangians. So he kept his chin up and stature noble.

After passing several diplomatic missions, the two men arrived at the Varangian unit awaiting them. The captain of the guard stepped forward. “Ah Alexios! What news have you from the Sultan?” He spoke in barbaric Greek which irritated Alexios’ ears like sand in his eyes.

“You know that is between me and the emperor.  However, I can tell you I bear a peace offering of some significance…” Alexios added emphasis on this last part.  “Now, if you would be so kind, this is a matter of urgency.”

“Of course,” replied the captain. A tremendous groan was heard as the heavy, bejewelled oak doors were forced open and Alexios and Elias entered a truly royal chamber. A row of immense, rare-mineral colonnades that alternated between porphyry,quartz andgreen Thessalian marble supported exquisitely decorated arches. All the emperors long ascended were depicted in mosaics that filled the wake of the arches, solemnly watching the visitors’ arrival.  Walking behind his master, Elias gazed up at the stern portraits. Though only a slave, he liked to imagine something of himself in their eyes.  The whole hall was illuminated in imperial purple by stained-glass windows, depicting saints and angels, and above these a domed ceiling seemed to reach into the heavens. The rift between the divine and the worldly was blurred in this room housing the vice-regent to God himself.

The advancing steps of Alexios and Elias on the polished marble floor resonated to the corners of the vast space and back again.  They proceeded down an avenue of gold and silver trees bearing ruby, sapphire and emerald for fruit, and providing a roost for delicate, golden clockwork birds, whose wings flapped and who peeked at those below through round, diamond eyes. A delightful smell of frankincense emanated from hundreds of warmly glowing, gold censerssuspended on golden chains from the immeasurable heights above.  Ahead, upon a tiered podium, surrounded by mechanical lions whose mouths opened and closed so as they appeared to growl, was the noble seat itself.

And on that Holy chair slumped a tired old man. Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates was a grey-bearded fellow who had spent his waning years greeting guests, raising taxes, commanding generals, passing laws and ordering autocrats about with all that was left of his heart.

“Rise, most loyal of my subjects.”

This simple utterance was an obvious chore for the old man’s lungs, its pitiful sound only amplified by the echoes of the grand room. Alexios was overcome with unmitigated disgust. This was simply not a condition to be tolerated in an emperor who was meant to be chosen by the Lord.

“You may speak Alexios, what my friend?”

“My most illustrious and righteous lord, divine defender of the faith and vice-regent to God,” he honoured, loudly, aware of the Emperor’s encroaching deafness. “The Sultan sues for peace.”

“This is excellent!” cried Nikephoros. “What are the terms?”

“We must cede Nicaea, Prussa and their surrounding Themes.We must concede 1000 pounds of gold and pay an annual tribute of 50 pounds for peace.” Alexios’ eyes watered as he repeated the humiliating concessions the Sultan of Rûmhad stated to him in his silk tent. Yet the emperor’s reaction was very different.

“Agree at once! I will have the payment ready in five days to be sent along with my acceptance.”

“But sir!” the imperial messenger protested.

“Alexios.” Nikephoros silenced him. “In 60 years you too will realise gold is a small price to preserve Roman lives.” He paused, gazing at his messenger. “You have served me well Alexios, you’re not like the scheming courtiers and councilors. You are loyal to nothing but me and the Empire. Unlike that rat Isaac, I can trust you.”

Alexios’s eyes lit up. Isaac Komnenos was a relative and heir apparent to the throne. Like the Emperor, Isaac thought he could trust Alexios. After all, he had sent Alexios to killNikephoros.

The old emperor looked thoughtfully at Alexios. “Follow me,” he commanded. He slowly rose from the throne and two slaves rushed to help. They acted as walking sticks as he descended the stairs at the back of the throne room and entered a passageway. Alexios and Elias followed him to the imperial bedchamber. After helping him onto the silken bed, Nikephoros addressed the slaves. “Leave us.” They bowed and exited. Then the emperor turned to Alexios. “Look out from that balcony.” Alexios did as commanded and gazed at Constantinople.

The great shimmering golden dome of the world’s largest cathedral, grand Hagia Sophia, matched the evening sea and sky of Thracia, standing proud as a testimony to the once endless power and wealth of the empire. Yet, as impressive as its vast marble arches were, the city in which it chose to ring its bells contained so many wonders that the Hagia Sophia seemed insignificant in comparison. The great Baths of Zeuxippus. The Forum of Constantine. The mile-long Hippodrome. The Library of Earthly Wisdom and the Imperial Harbour. This truly was the Queen of Cities, The Great City, City of Constantine – The City of World’s Desire.

Then Nikephoros spoke. “We have created heaven on earth, paradise. Living here, in Constantinople, it’s hard to comprehend that we don’t own the world.  With our elaborate rituals and marble and wealth, the exterior is certainly gold leaf. Yet under the surface it is rotten. The decay that started with Justinian has spread and manifested in every corner of this empire. Only at Manzikert did the sickness surface, but still we continue to ignore it! With our bath houses, palaces and cathedrals here, what do events hundreds of miles away matter? Look out at the harbour. Do you see the fleet that once ruled the waves, which once carried Belisarius to triumph? No. It has been sunk not by an enemy wielding weapons of iron, but by our own corruption and neglect. Even as we speak, the Turks raid the lands you see over the strait. Imperial property for 1000 years! But what do we care? We have our walls and our gold. We are Greeks pretending to be Romans in a world that no longer cares for either.”

Alexios was taken aback by this. He looked at the lands over the narrow sea channel. Smoke was rising from amidst the woods. His eyes wandered back to the cityscape and the avenues of grandiose villas, among them the home of Isaac. “Ah, my mission…” he recalled.

“Believe me, Alexios, if I weren’t so senile and unpopular I would have defeated the Sultan long ago, but you…you’re young, skilled and devoted to the Empire. You could do what so many have neglected to try.” The emperor was gasping, all this talking took the air from his lungs. “There’s a book, in that top drawer. Fetch it.”

Elias, with some trouble, opened the drawer in question. Alexios struggled to remove its contents. The huge book seemed to be made entirely of gold.

“Turn to the last page” instructed the emperor from his bed.

Alexios placed the book on a writing table and turned to the last page. With a surge of emotion, he read, “It is my will that upon my death ——-  will righteously ascend to the throne of the Romans.”

“Alexios Komnenos. You shall be emperor when death gets round to me.” Nikephoros smiled as he said this.

Alexios was too stunned to know how to react. He did manage a “Thank you, sire” and made to hand him the book.

“No! The years have been cruel to me.” The emperor held out a violently shaking hand. Alexios then handed the book and the imperial quill to Elias, who knew the art of replicating handwriting.

Alexios’ mind cleared as Elias put pen to paper. “What of my sacred oath, sworn over the gospels… to never leave the palace until the emperor is dead?” he remembered. To break such an oath would result in everlasting torment in hell.

The emperor had removed his crown, shoes and purple cloak ready for servants to do the rest before he retired to his bed.

“I think we can still keep it…” And with that thought, Alexios leapt upon Nikephoros and wrapped his cape tightly around the old man’s head. The extremity of his years didn’t stop Nikephoros from resisting. He struggled, grasping at the purple cloth and attempting to scream through its confines. The assassin took pleasure in watching these final moments of his master’s life. Alexios had inherited a cruel heart from his long dead soul and now an empire from his actions.

Elias did not question his master’s will. In silence, as if absorbed in thoughts of his own, he stamped the page with the imperial seal, returned the book to the drawer, then fetched the imperial night garments. Together, Alexios and Elias clothed the emperor and laid the body beneath his bedsheets. The pair then proceeded to the door as if they had done an old friend a favour. Outside, the two slaves and two Varangians were waiting expectantly. “The Emperor retired early tonight,” Alexios said. “He was feeling very poorly. Pray he survives the night.”

The next day it was announced in the Hippodrome to a crowd of 200,000 that Nikephoros was now with God. He had died peacefully in his sleep of natural causes. Alexios hadn’t slept all night. His blood was still boiling with anticipation as he and Elias made their way into the imperial box of the Hippodrome. He could see a gleaming Isaac who grinned and nodded at him from within the crowd. The imperial announcer was holding the golden book, unopened since last night.

With a grand gesture he silenced the crowd. All present expected the book to contain the name Isaac Komnenos, all except Alexios and Elias. The announcer then turned to the last page and began to read.

“It is my will…”

Alexios couldn’t hold back the excitement. He started manically twitching and sweating. His mouth was open and drooling. “That fool Isaac! My first command will be his execution!”

The announcer continued. “That the person who shall righteously ascend to the throne of the Romans upon my death is…” He hesitated, looking utterly bewildered. A universal gasp and expectant whispers arose from the crowd.

Isaac turned to Alexios, confused at Alexios’ mad eyes.

The announcer anxiously peered down at the writhing mob below him. He gulped, struggling to believe his eyes before eventually he brought the words forward “…is Elias Diogenes. All hail Emperor Elias!”