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Matias Travieso-Diaz

Beheading Of A Queen

by Matias Travieso-Diaz

Two heads are better than one.

John Heywood Proverbs (1546)

Gravesend, Kent, September 1, 1586

To: Nicolas de Neufville, Marquis de Villeroi, Secretary of State for War to His Majesty King Henry III of France [sent by carrier pigeon]

Monsieur Villeroi: Greetings. Please deliver this letter to the King.

[Following is the translation of a message encrypted using the Vivonne cypher]

Your Serene Majesty: This report updates my earlier ones regarding the hostilities between King Philip II of Spain and Queen Elizabeth. Since war broke out, Philip has been preparing to launch an attack against England. While Philip’s original motivation was displeasure over English privateer attacks on Spanish vessels returning from the New World and the aid Elizabeth is giving to the rebels in the Netherlands, a new factor is driving him to accelerate preparations for an invasion of England: the perilous situation of the long-imprisoned Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. I have learned that, based on the discovery of a plot to assassinate Elizabeth in which Mary was implicated, Elizabeth intends to bring Mary to trial accusing her of treason.

My sources assure me that Philip is leaning strongly on renowned Admiral Marquis de Santa Cruz, under whose command an Armada is being assembled, demanding that the fleet depart without delay. Likewise, Philip is urging Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, the commander of his forces in the Netherlands, to gather the invading army and finalize construction of the barges that will carry Spanish troops to England.

The English are aware that an attack is imminent and are fortifying the approaches to London. I am fortunate, thanks to your Majesty’s wisdom, to have been secretly redeployed after relations between England and France soured last year and I was recalled from my post as Ambassador to Elizabeth’s court. I now reside incognito in a house in the village of Gravesend, a day’s ride by horse-drawn carriage from the center of London. I miss being Ambassador, but I realize my gathering and conveying accurate information is vital to France.

Sire, I pray to God that He keep your Majesty in perfect health.

Your humble and obedient subject,

Michel de Castelnau, Sieur de la Mauvissière.

Signed this First day of September, 1586.

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  Gravesend, Kent, October 17, 1586

Your Serene Majesty: Mary Stuart’s trial on charges of conspiring to assassinate her cousin Queen Elizabeth was concluded yesterday and Mary was found guilty, which will result in her death. The Catholic population in England is quite angry.

Your humble and obedient subject,

Michel de Castelnau, Sieur de la Mauvissière.

Signed this 17th day of October, 1586.

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Gravesend, Kent, February 9, 1587

Your Serene Majesty: Much has happened since my last communication. A matter of greatest importance is the demise of Mary Stuart. Following the guilty verdict of treason, the English Parliament passed a bill petitioning for Mary’s execution. For the next three months, Elizabeth took no action, perhaps fearful of the repercussions of killing an anointed queen. Finally, a week ago, the death warrant was signed and delivered to the Privy Council, which sent it out on its own authority to be administered. Mary was beheaded yesterday at Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire, where she had been imprisoned.

Intelligence from my Spanish sources indicates that the Armada has been assembled in Lisbon, and Admiral Santa Cruz is awaiting confirmation that the land forces are on their way to the departure area in the Netherlands. I expect that King Philip soon will issue orders for the invasion to proceed.

Your humble and obedient subject,

Michel de Castelnau, Sieur de la Mauvissière.

Signed this 9th day of February, 1587

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Gravesend, Kent, June 20, 1587

Your Serene Majesty: I am unable to confirm the accuracy of all the statements in this report, as some have been conveyed to me by people claiming to have witnessed them first-hand. However, I believe the information is substantially true.

The Spanish Armada, comprising about 140 vessels, took off from Portugal on Easter Sunday, March 29, 1587 and progressed towards the English Channel, which they reached almost two months later. The Armada had an initial encounter with the English fleet stationed in Plymouth, but the battle was inconclusive and the Armada proceeded without major casualties along the channel towards a meeting with the army being brought to the coast of the Netherlands by Farnese. Their plans encountered a difficulty, however, in that Farnese was late in moving his troops to the coast. Midway across the channel, Admiral Santa Cruz decided to anchor in the Solent, a sheltered strait between the Isle of Wight and the coast of England near Portsmouth. From this protected location, Santa Cruz continued to send messages to Farnese tracking his progress, until the two agreed to link up at the Flemish seaport of Ostend. 

The Armada was continuously harassed by the smaller, more maneuverable English ships but Santa Cruz was able to bring the Armada almost intact to Ostend, where the Spanish vessels arranged themselves into a crescent, placing the barges carrying Farnese’s soldiers behind the crescent, within the protection of the Spanish warcraft. The Armada then proceeded to the English coast, where it fought a decisive battle against the English across from Margate, a seaport close to my home. Both fleets suffered extensive losses, but the barges with the Farnese troops were able to land and quickly subdued the English militia guarding the shore.

As of this writing, the progress of the Spanish army is being slowed by arriving English troops, but the Farnese contingent is also receiving reinforcement by the several thousand men aboard the Armada’s ships.

Your humble and obedient subject,

Michel de Castelnau, Sieur de la Mauvissière.

Signed this 20th day of June, 1587

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Gravesend, Kent, June 24, 1587

Your Serene Majesty: Events in the Spanish invasion of England are proceeding with rapidity. Two days ago, the combined forces of the Farnese contingent and the Armada’s reinforcements broke through the English lines and forced the English to withdraw to a defensive position around the town of Dartford, trying to protect a bridge over the Thames through which troops could be transported to aid in the defense of London. Yesterday, the Spanish dislodged the English armies, crossed the bridge, and engaged and defeated the main English contingent under the Earl of Leicester, which had been stationed at Tillsbury. With this latest victory, the road to London is clear and the final battle may take place in the city itself.

Meanwhile, there have been uprisings of Catholics throughout England in support of the invaders in places like Lancashire, Westmorland, and Norfolk. The population of England, which includes a large Catholic minority, is sharply divided between those who support Elizabeth and those who want her deposed.  This sharp division between Catholics and Protestants has been a fact of English political and social life since Henry VIII broke away from the Church of Rome.   

Your humble and obedient subject,

Michel de Castelnau, Sieur de la Mauvissière.

Signed this 24th day of June, 1587

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Gravesend, Kent, August 4, 1587

Your Serene Majesty: The Spanish invasion of England has been completed. After defeating the main English land army, the Farnese troops marched west towards London. Opposition was mostly by ill-equipped, poorly trained militia whose members could not withstand the assault of the battle-hardened Spanish forces.

Two weeks later, Spanish troops arrived in London and occupied the city, meeting little resistance. They then marched in the southwest direction towards the official residence of the Queen, Windsor Castle. Elizabeth had taken refuge in the castle, which had been fortified and was protected by a force of over 30,000 soldiers under the Queen’s cousin and Royal Chamberlain, Lord Henry Hunsdon.

A siege ensued, which ended abruptly last week. Apparently, there was a revolt by Catholics within the English forces. After prevailing in a fierce struggle, the Catholics surrendered the castle to the Spanish. Whether the details of this event are true is immaterial, for the success of the invaders is a fact. Elizabeth is imprisoned and is expected to stand trial for Mary’s execution.

Alexander Farnese, acting on King Philip II’s behalf, has proclaimed Philip Howard, the godson of Philip II and a strong Catholic, as the next King of England, bearing the name Philip I. Philip Howard is the son of the Duke of Norfolk, who was Queen Elizabeth’s second cousin. The Duke had sought to marry Queen Mary Stuart and put her on the throne in place of Elizabeth, but the plot was uncovered and the Duke was tried for treason and executed in 1572.  Philip Howard himself was implicated in a similar plot in 1583 to place Mary on the throne. That plot also failed and Philip was imprisoned in the tower of London, where he was at the time of the Armada’s arrival.    

Philip Howard is thus an ideal choice to rule England as a pawn of the Spanish. He will be a strong Catholic ruler, furthering the aims of King Philip II. The English Parliament has been dissolved and many of Elizabeth’s supporters have been slain or imprisoned. However, the English fleet under Lord Howard of Effingham, Francis Drake, and John Hawkins – has taken refuge somewhere off the coast of Ireland and remains a threat to the Spanish domination of the country and the seas.

Your humble and obedient subject,

Michel de Castelnau, Sieur de la Mauvissière.

Signed this 4th day of August, 1587

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Gravesend, Kent, December 30, 1588

Your Serene Majesty: The trial of Queen Elizabeth was concluded and the Queen was found guilty of various offenses, including the murder of her cousin Mary. At dawn today, Elizabeth was beheaded and her remains incinerated.

Public opinion in England remains divided between those that revere Elizabeth as a martyr, and those – mainly Catholics – who believe her execution was justified.

New English King Philip I is expected to sign a peace treaty with Spain, seeking to bring about the removal of Spanish forces from the island. England has ended its support of the rebellion in the Netherlands and is renouncing its privateers’ attacks on Spanish shipping, which nonetheless continue to be carried out by the rebellious Navy Royal.

But all is not well with Spanish rule in England. The Protestants in the country, supported by Scotland, have chosen James VI, son of Mary Stuart, as King of England. A civil war is in progress, as the Protestant majority abhors the country’s domination by a Catholic beholden to a foreign power. The English resistance will make the ongoing Dutch efforts to oppose Spanish rule pale by comparison. 

Many years of conflict are in the offing. This enduring strife will undoubtedly weaken both Spain and England and create opportunities for France to increase its power throughout the world. Time will tell what transpires, but the potential benefits for France appear immense.

Sire, I pray that God will keep your Majesty in perfect health and grant you a blessed 1589.

Your humble and obedient subject,

Michel de Castelnau, Sieur de la Mauvissière.

Signed this 30th of December, 1588

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Bio:

Born in Cuba, Matias Travieso-Diaz migrated to the United States as a young man to escape political persecution. He became an engineer and lawyer and practiced for nearly fifty years. After retirement, he took up creative writing. Over eighty of his short stories have been published or accepted for publication in anthologies and paying magazines, blogs, audio books and podcasts. Some of his unpublished works have also received “honorable mentions” from several paying publications. A first collection of his stories, “The Satchel and Other Terrors” has recently been released and is available on Amazon and other book outlets.

Philosophy Note:

I took to creative writing a few years after my retirement from a career as engineer and lawyer. The transition was demanding, for it forced me to call upon my fifty years of experience in objective, fact-based writing and refocus it to generate work in which reality must join hands with (and sometimes be replaced by) visions of the world as it could, or should, be. As I started generating works of fiction, I came to realize that there is room in the creative tent for both utterly fantastic musings and thoughtful, though distorted, view of reality. The first type of writing results in horror, fantasy, romance, and other “genre” works whose main purpose is to shock, amuse, or uplift. Such works serve to provide entertainment and are valuable in their own way. The second type of writing is intended to stimulate consideration of new or controversial ideas, world views, and philosophies. Works like Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New
World
are leading examples of this second type. I find such stories at times difficult to create but always satisfying, for they elicit in the reader the consideration of new or alternative concepts of human society.

The Last Tsar

by Matias Travieso-Diaz

It is better to abolish serfdom from above than wait for it to abolish itself from below.

Tsar Alexander II

“My Grandfather: A National Hero”    

On this, the fiftieth anniversary of his untimely death, I have been asked by the New Literary Gazette to share a few recollections of the life of my grandfather Gennady Ilych Kramnik. As I have grown older, memories have faded, but I still remember enough to pay tribute to my beloved dedushka, who was as much a personal hero to me as he is to Mother Russia.

My most important reminiscence is an early one, for it dates back to 1858, when I was a six-year-old lad. That spring, my grandfather took me to a performance of Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar at the Bolshoi Kammeny Theater in Saint Petersburg. Glinka had died the year before and there were commemorative performances of his operas throughout Russia. My mother remonstrated with her father-in-law for taking only me to see the opera and keeping the rest of the family at home: “We should all go and pay our respects to the late great Glinka,” she argued.

“Galina, my dear,” replied my grandfather soberly. “Tickets at the Kammeny are very expensive, and all I could afford were two of the cheapest ones, in the upper gallery where the sparrows nest. The hero’s son Vanya is an important character in the story and I want my grandson to see his namesake in action and learn the importance of being patriotic.”

My grandfather Gennady Ilych Kramnik was a bear of a man, tall and full-bearded, with a gravelly voice that commanded immediate respect. By then, he was already a member of the famous Leib Guard, the personal guards of Tsar Alexander II, and was for that reason respected by his colleagues and feared more than a little at home, where his decisions were law.

So, we went together to the opera, a first-time experience for me.

I was bored through most of the performance. However, in the third act, the hero Ivan Susanin sends his adopted son Vanya to warn the tsar that a contingent of Polish soldiers is on a deadly search for him; meanwhile, Susanin misleads the assailants into following him through remote woods. The suspense in the opera’s plot kept me awake during the fourth act, in which Vanya reaches a monastery and alerts the monks to spirit the tsar away, and in the meantime Susanin keeps the Poles off the right track. At the end, Susanin’s ruse is discovered and he is put to death.

At that point in the opera, as Susanin is about to be killed, he sings an aria about his willingness to face death, since as doing so will have made it possible for the tsar to survive. My dedushka squeezed my shoulder so hard that I winced in pain. Choking with emotion, he declared: “Vanya, I swear, I would like nothing more than to give my life for our Tsar, as Susanin did.” I could have never imagined that this wish would eventually come to be realized in a most dramatic fashion.

The concept of patriotism was rather vague for me then, but kept being reinforced by my dedushka as I grew older. He was of the true Russian country stock that might suffer indignities at the hands of the aristocrats and landed gentry but would never waver in their love for the Motherland.

Like his ancestors, he grew up on a farm in Yelets, in the Russian heartland, a member of a penniless family of serfs. Like thousands of others, they were emancipated by the Tsar in 1861. Thereafter, my grandfather would visit his kin in Yelets and regale them with tales of his service to Alexander the Liberator.

Later on, Tsar Alexander stayed the reform course, but one action that benefitted my grandfather in particular was the appointment of Dmitry Alekseyevitch Milyutin as Minister of War in 1861. My grandfather and Milyutin had become acquainted when they served in the Caucasian War. Milyutin was impressed with my grandfather’s courage, loyalty, and skill, and recommended to the Tsar that he be promoted from the Leib Guard to join the Cossack Escort, the regiment that provided personal security for the Tsar. At the time, almost all the members of the Escort were Cossacks from Terek and Kuban, thus including my dedushka, not a Cossack, in the regiment was a high honor that made him even more beholden to Alexander II and Milyutin.

Our contacts became less frequent after he joined the Escort, for he travelled constantly throughout Russia accompanying the Tsar during the sovereign’s frequent visits to all parts of our vast nation. Whenever he came to visit us, he would keep us enthralled with descriptions of the multitude of peoples and lifestyles of both the European and trans-Uralian parts of the country. All throughout those years, he never ceased to sing the praises of our beautiful land and its beloved ruler.

Despite his many reforms – or perhaps because of them – Alexander II was the focus of many attempts on his life by radical fanatics. Unsuccessful attempts to assassinate him were made in 1866, 1867, 1879 and 1880, the last two the work of a socialist group known as the Narodnaya Volya, whose aim was to overthrow the government by eliminating its leaders. My grandfather narrowly escaped the 1880 attempt, in which Stephan Khalturin, a member of the cell, set off a time bomb in the guards’ quarters one floor below the dining room in the Winter Palace. The explosion killed eleven people and wounded thirty others, including my dedushka, but failed to achieve its aim of killing Alexander II because the Tsar and his family were not in the dining room at the time. My grandfather suffered minor shrapnel wounds on the chest and left arm, but was otherwise unharmed and was decorated by the Tsar, as were other guards injured in the attack. The Tsar appointed Count Loris-Melikov as head of a Supreme Executive Commission charged with identifying and neutralizing the threats posed by so-called revolutionaries, and the Commission was in its initial stages of organization when the final attempt on the Tsar’s life was made on March 13, 1881.

On that fateful day, one of the Narodnaya Volya members, Nikolai Rysakov, threw a bomb under the Tsar’s carriage as it traversed the Catherine Canal over St. Petersburg’s Pevchesky Bridge. My grandfather was one of six Cossack guards who at the time were riding in formation escorting the Tsar’s carriage. One of the guards was killed in the explosion, as were the carriage driver and several bystanders. The carriage was bulletproof and was undamaged, and continued to proceed driverless for a few yards until it came to a stop against the bridge’s railing.

The Tsar emerged from the vehicle and started to head back towards the explosion’s location. My grandfather and other guards dismounted their horses and tried to persuade him to return to the carriage, but Alexander seemed unable to hear and stood, dazed, in the middle of the bridge. At that point, a second member of Narodnaya Volya, Ignacy Hryniewiecki, tossed another bomb at the Tsar’s feet. My grandfather, who was standing by the sovereign’s side, reacted with blinding speed: he threw himself to the ground, covering the exploding bomb and sheltering Alexander, who escaped with only minor wounds to the body.

My dedushka was essentially torn to bits by the explosion. His chest and stomach were blown open and his legs were severed; his face was terribly mutilated and unrecognizable. He was placed on the snow, on the side of the bridge, in mortal agony. A pastor from the Saint Isaac’s Cathedral who was at the end of the bridge watching the Tsar’s procession rushed to his side and gave him the last rites.

According to the pastor, my grandfather was gasping for air, taking his last few breaths before leaving this Earth. Although his words were garbled and almost inaudible, he managed to ask whether the Tsar was safe and when the pastor confirmed this he said “thank you, O Lord” as the remnant of his face smoothed into a beatific smile. And with that, he passed away.

The past five decades have proved my grandfather’s supreme sacrifice to have been worthwhile. Alexander II remained Tsar for twelve more years, during which he carried out extensive economic, legal and social reforms, such as the constitutional changes implemented in 1882. At the end of his reign, he voluntarily renounced the throne upon turning 75 in 1893. At the same time, the monarchy was abolished and the Russian Republic began its existence.

Alexander also came down hard on the left-wing conspirators that had tried to assassinate him and overthrow his regime. Count Loris-Melikov’s Supreme Executive Commission was implacable in pursuing the Narodnaya Volya and other radical groups. When the writings of Karl Marx circulated and began to be espoused by the Russian intellectual elites, the Commission rounded up socialist radicals by the thousands, executed their leaders, sent the captured rank-and-file members into exile in Siberia, and banned entry into Russia of radicals from abroad. As a result, Russia has been spared the class struggles that have taken place in Germany and France, among other countries. We have no communists here.

Partly as a consequence of the elimination of radical opponents, the transition from an Empire to a Republic proceeded without significant opposition except for the nobility and members of the Tsar’s immediate family. Alexander Alexandrovitch, who would have succeeded his father on Russia’s throne, received a very generous pension granted to him by the State, and ended his life in luxury, in a villa in Italy. Similar payments to other members of the Romanov family and the nobility were a drain on Russia’s coffers, but allowed the peaceful handover of state powers to a Federal Assembly led by a Prime Minister, not unlike counterparts in Great Britain and other Western powers.

I will add briefly that the success of the Russian Republic, itself the fruit of Tsar Alexander II’s reforms, has been partly due to the country’s governance by Alexei Maximovich Peshkov (popularly known as Maxim Gorky), a brilliant writer who became, in 1898, the youngest Prime Minister of the Republic. Gorky, who in his early years had been associated with the socialist movement, became less radical when elected to be Prime Minister. He believed in the power of diplomacy and in 1904 avoided a costly war with Japan by engineering a territorial swap under which Russia would maintain dominance over Manchuria while Japan controlled Korea. He kept Russia at peace and prosperity for another decade so that the country was united when war broke out between the Triple Entente and the Central Powers. Russia was a key player in defeating the Germans in what became known as the Great War.

After the end of hostilities, a peace conference was convened in Paris, lasting between 1919 and 1920. At the talks, Gorky mediated between U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who desired a lenient peace agreement with Germany, and French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, who was determined to see Germany punished. Through his intervention, while Germany was ordered to pay reparations, the amount was reduced and the time for payment extended to allow Germany to remain viable and recover from the losses suffered through the conflict.

As of this writing, there is still peace in Europe, although turmoil remains in the countries that were defeated in the Great War. I am confident, however, that a democratic Russian Republic will remain untouched by any troubling developments and will maintain the social and economic gains that my grandfather’s selfless sacrifice made possible. Russia will continue to be a positive force for world peace.

Ivan Viktorovich Kramnik, Moscow, March 1931

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Bio:

Matias Travieso-Diaz was born in Cuba and migrated to the United States as a young man. He became an engineer and lawyer and practiced for nearly fifty years. He retired and turned his attention to creative writing. Over seventy of his stories have been published or accepted for publication in paying short story anthologies, magazines, blogs, audio books and podcasts; his work in the alternate history genre includes recent publications by Grantville Gazette, The Copperfield Review, and Sci Phi Journal.

Philosophy Note:

“The Last Tsar” is an alternate history tale in which a small twist of events in Nineteenth Century Russia (failure of the 1881 attempt to assassinate Tsar Alexander II) leads to a total change in the future of that country and the world by forestalling the rise of communism, preventing Russia’s war with Japan in 1905, avoiding War World II, and creating a peaceful Russia that does not engage in military forays abroad.

New Year In Zara

by Matias Travieso-Diaz

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium

William Butler Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium

In early 1201, Prince Alexios Angelos of Byzantium and I, his valet, were rescued through bribery after six years of confinement in Constantinopolis’ Prison of Anemas. Pisan merchants, whom we met them outside the prison, spirited us away in their galley.

We landed in Pisa and were transported overland to the Hohenstaufen Castle in Göppingen, home of Duke Philip of Swabia. Prince Alexios’ sister Irene was married to the Duke and received us with open arms; not so much her husband, who was fighting for the throne of Germany and had greater concerns than caring for fugitives from far-away Byzantium.   

It is always frigid and windy in Hohenstaufen, which sits on a hill that overlooks the Rems and Fils rivers. We froze in the keep, alone, and tasted the bitter bread of exile. We longed to return to beautiful Constantinopolis, the queen of cities, where it is always warm and sunny. There was scant news of Alexios’ father, Isaakios II Angelos, who had been deposed, blinded, and imprisoned. Presumably, he was still alive; his deposer, Alexios III Angelos, was not ready yet to stain his hands with the blood of his own brother.

The Duke was celebrating Christmas and had assembled his court for a lavish feasting season. Among the guests was his cousin Boniface, Marquess of Montferrat. Boniface had just been chosen to lead a Fourth Crusade that was being organized, and had come to seek Philip’s support.

 My Prince met Boniface at one of the Christmas banquets. Boniface regaled Alexios with tales of his military exploits and bragged that he could help Alexios’ father regain the throne of Byzantium. Alexios was taken with the idea.

Duke Philip was drawn into the conversation, and suggested that Boniface use his position as leader of the upcoming Crusade to restore Alexios’ father to power. This was a tricky idea, though, for the Crusades’ goal was to wrestle the Holy Land from the Muslims, not fight other Christian nations.

The night of that banquet, while readying Prince Alexios for bed, I heard from his inebriated lips an account of his conversations with Boniface and Philip. I cowered in fear. I was only a young child when slavers abducted me from my village and sold me to a Byzantine official. My master had brought me to Constantinopolis to become his confidential secretary when he went to serve at the palace. I thus kept current on Byzantium’s world affairs, and knew that the Frankish longed to conquer the Eastern empire.

Because of our years of imprisonment together I was freer to share my views with my master than a slave should be. “The Frankish covet the riches of our empire. We cannot trust them and should not make deals with them!” I urged.

Alexios struck me on the mouth. It was a feeble blow, for he was not a strong man and was weakened by wine. “How dare you, slave, second-guess your master?  I should have you flayed!!”

I was not badly hurt, except in my pride. I lowered my head and responded meekly: “Despotes, my life is yours to dispose of as you wish. But I would be untrue if I did not warn you of the grave danger in the alliance that is being proposed to you. I watched that man Boniface during the banquet. He is a ruthless man, who shall seek to bend you to his will. You must not allow him and his Crusaders to come anywhere near Byzantium!”

Alexios raised his arm, intent on striking me again, but the effort was too much in his condition. He merely replied with scorn: “Though you may think otherwise, I chose you to be my servant, not my counsellor. So, shut up and help me disrobe!”

Without more, he flung himself on his bed, still fully dressed. In the next minute he was snoring loudly.

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Prince Alexios visited Rome early next year and promised the Pope that he would pledge a large sum to the Crusaders’ cause if they would assist him and his father in regaining power. With those moneys, the Crusade could finally get underway. The Pope agreed not to oppose the Crusaders’ potential diversion into Byzantium, but specifically told them not to attack any Christians, including the Byzantines.

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Another figure then entered the stage: Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice. The merchant republic and Byzantium were bitter commercial rivals and had fought many wars, directly and through proxies, in their attempts to monopolize trade in the Mediterraneum. Dandolo himself was no friend of Byzantium and was rumored to have lost his eyesight while fighting us. Thus, his involvement in the upcoming Crusade was most troubling.

Dandolo agreed that Venice would provide transportation and most provisions for the Crusader army but demanded that the Crusaders first make a show of force at Zara, a Christian city on the Dalmatian coast that once had been controlled by Venice and was now a Hungarian possession. From Zara the crusader army would set sail for Byzantium.

The Crusade fleet arrived in Zara in November. The sheer size of their fleet intimidated the Zarans, but they held fast against the intruders. The Crusaders attacked the city, and after five days of fighting took it on November 24, 1202. Upon capture, the city was thoroughly sacked.

In late December Prince Alexios and I arrived in Zara. Its conquest was the final alarm bell that I needed before frantically pleading with Alexios to put an end to the venture. He rejected my pleas and informed me that he had promised to pay two hundred thousand silver marks to the Crusaders and their Venetian allies if he and his father were restored to power. As before, my objections were brushed aside by the Prince.

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It was New Year’s Day, 1203 and the Crusader fleet was getting ready to leave Zara for Constantinopolis. Prince Alexios and I attended early morning New Year services at one of the few churches that had not been destroyed by the Crusaders. As we were returning to our quarters, I pointed to the charred ruins of a palace and remonstrated with the Prince:

“How can you persist in seeking the help of these barbarians, seeing what they are capable of doing? Zara was a Popish city, and it was not spared. What will they do to Constantinopolis, a far greater place? What will become of our palaces, our Hagia Sophia, the vast riches that we have gathered over the last nine centuries? Do you not see that you are putting all of Byzantium at grave risk?”

Alexios cut me short. “It is my divine right to become Basileus Autokrator. I can deal with the Frankish and the Venetians, and to disagree with me is traitorous. I will have no more of your talk, slave!”

“My Prince, you are wrong, and you are gambling with the lives of our citizens. I have had visions of our proud city being laid low by the Frankish scum. Please reconsider….”

Alexios did not let me finish. In a rage, he jumped at me and started to pummel me violently. I took no measures to protect myself but, as he was drawing blood from my face and crushing my cheekbones, I grasped his arms to restrain him. This drew him even more incensed; somehow he freed himself and pulled a dagger from his cloak, bellowing: “You villain, you dare lay hands on your Prince!  For this you shall die!!”

I tried to run away, but lost footing and fell to the ground. Alexios stood above me and raised the dagger to slay me. To protect myself, I grabbed his wrist and attempted to dislodge the weapon. Alexios lunged at my prone figure, stabbed me on the arm, lurched forward to strike another blow, lost balance and fell on top of me.  We struggled until I overcame him.

I got up and tried to help the Prince to his feet. Alexios’ dagger was protruding from his chest and he was not moving. A pool of blood was already forming beneath his body. There was blood on my face, my garments, my slashed arm.

I ran away, crying for help, but due to the holiday Zara’s ruins seemed empty and nobody answered my calls. After a while, I returned to the Prince, who lay where he had fallen. He was dead, and his body was already starting to cool. I covered him with my soiled cloak and left for the Crusaders’ camp, dripping blood from my many wounds.

#

 I was seized by an overwhelming feeling of guilt. I had slain my master. I had committed a horrendous crime for which no pardon was possible. I thought of killing myself but I had no weapons: Alexios’ dagger was still buried in his chest.

I began shuffling like a condemned man, step by painful step, in the direction of the port, where I expected I would be put to death by the Crusaders the moment I confessed my crime. But as I walked, I considered my situation with a cooler head. I could testify if necessary that my killing of the Prince had been an accident, for which I should not be held responsible. Moreover, offering myself for execution would not bring the Prince back to life. Alexios’ death had been decreed by divine providence, as a way to prevent the greater ills that would have occurred had the expedition against Constantinopolis been carried out.

I then decided that a fitting punishment for the Prince’s death would be for me to stay alive and devote my life to prayer and good deeds in the memory of the man I had slain. I turned inland and proceeded towards the hills to the east. I expected to be seized at any moment, and was sure that the Crusaders would send search parties in all directions and would capture me in no time.

But nobody came after me. Perhaps their finding the trail of my blood had left the impression that I, too, had perished.

In the afternoon, I arrived at a village and found people who spoke Greek and directed me to an Orthodox monastery a three hour walk away. I took refuge there and never left.

Some may question the veracity of my account and accuse me of deliberate murder, given my opposition to the fatal course of action on which the Prince was about of embark. I shall also leave for others to judge whether my flight from the Crusaders’ camp was driven by wisdom or cowardice. Nobody is left to judge me and the truth does not matter anymore.

#

It has been twenty years since my crime, and the world has changed a lot since then. With the death of Prince Alexios, the Crusade came to a halt, but Pope Innocentius III continued to preach for its resumption and in 1205 the Fourth Crusade belatedly left for Egypt, forsaking Constantinopolis. The Crusaders captured Alexandria on the Nile delta after a fierce battle. From there, they drove along the coast like a sandstorm, defeating the Ayyubid successors of Saladin and conquering back Jerusalem in 1206. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was re-established and Boniface became its first ruler. More Crusaders and Christian settlers arrived in subsequent years, establishing a new kingdom that abuts the southern border of Byzantium, such that they can mutually defend each other.

Isaakios died in prison, and not much later his treasonous brother was deposed and executed. Byzantium now has a new ruler who has led the empire to many a victory over its foes. Constantinopolis has been able to repel any invaders and Byzantium endures, and with God’s favor will remain the greatest empire on Earth for a thousand more years.

I will go to my grave soon.  I still grieve the death of my master, but do not lament my acts or their beneficial results.

~

Bio:

Matias Travieso-Diaz was born in Cuba and migrated to the United States as a young man. He became an engineer and lawyer and practiced for nearly fifty years, whereupon he retired and turned his attention to creative writing. Over sixty of his stories have been published or accepted for publication in paying short story anthologies, magazines, blogs, audio books and podcasts; some of his other stories have received “honorable mentions.”

Philosophy Note:

The year I was born Harold Lamb’s The Crusades was published. I read it first as a teenager and was captivated by the deeds of Christian and Muslim leaders whose fighting over the Holy Land informed the future of the Middle East for many centuries to come.
I was particularly drawn by the disastrous fiasco that became the Fourth Crusade, an affair that ended up overthrowing a thousand year empire that served as a buffer between East and West. In addition to destroying one of the great sources of the world’s cultural heritage, it led to a fractious distribution of power that continues to affect the thinking and behavior of millions of people today.
Harold Lamb’s account of the Fourth Crusade is eminently readable and I recommend it to anyone who wishes to reflect on one pivotal moment in history and wonder “what if” a callow youth who gave away a great empire had failed to do so.