(The body of chapter 2 takes place four and five years later. See p34.)
The province of Gaul, which is to say France. From the point of view of a Byzantine, this is not the heart of Europe, but the frontier of the Empire.
This appears to be a three-way visual-historical pun. The flower is a fleur-de-lis, the symbol of France (Gaul in the Classical era). And Caesar famously wrote "All Gaul is divided into three parts."
In TDW history, the territory of Gaul was politically divided into three parts -- in 1165 AD. (Although the third part will not be mentioned until p144.) It is therefore blazoned by the fleur-de-lis. Only from our perspective as readers can we recognize the appropriateness of this.
This is a straightforward continuation of Roman nomenclature into the medieval era. (The Roman province is more commonly spelled "Lugdunensis.")
Mary Gentle has written a novel around an alternate history of Burgundy: Ash: A Secret History.
In our history, a Ducas Emperor (Alexius V Ducas Mourtzouphlus) was deposed in the Sack of Constantinople; a Paleologus (Michael VIII Paleologus) replaced him when the Byzantines recaptured the City in 1261 AD.
In TDW, there was no Sack. Apparently, the Paleologi gained control by some other means.
...he also knew better than to gallop down an Imperial road, scattering the common traffic, without a very good reason.
The Roman roads are still the backbone of the Empire.
Charles panted, then laughed. "Ave, Caesar," he said, "morituri salutandum."
"You're already dead," Dimi said, [...]
Latin: "Hail, Caesar; those who are about to die ought to be saluted." This is an alteration of the traditional "We who are about to die salute you." (Except that the grammar isn't correct; it should be salutandi.)
[...] the two wealthiest vintners in town and the Jewish banker were rebuilding in stone from Narbo to the south -- Lyon, as the French called it.
In our history, Jews often took the role of banker because of the Christian Biblical injunction against usury. It is unclear what in TDW history put them in this role, or whether this is a coincidence.
"Lyon" is derived from the original Latin name, "Lugdunum," which is still also used in TDW's history. However, the Roman city of Narbo is modern Narbonne, not the city we call Lyon. It is unclear if this inconsistency signals anything.
[...] gutters that drained down to vaulted sewers underground.
Sanitation is the other backbone of the Empire.
Along the roof peaks were set barrels and troughs of water, an idea of one of Cosmas Ducas's engineers. Should a fire start, and burn through the roof, the water would fall on the blaze and drown it. The tests with models were disappointing, [...]
Cosmas encourages technical innovation in his city. (Although not to the point of setting houses on fire in it.) Furthermore, experiment is understood to be the logical approach to technical questions. This is an excellent sign for the health of the Empire.
The idea itself is probably worthless. A burning house which has reached the point of collapse needs more than a few barrels of water.
He wondered if the trader knew anything of the new lands the Portuguese Empire had discovered beyond the Western Sea; [...]
The Americas, obviously. Portugal seems to have beaten Spain to it, in TDW history.
There may or may not be anything in the fact that Dimi does not use the name "Atlantic Ocean."
A eunuch could rise to any office or honor in the Empire, except one; could hold any title but Emperor. And many noble fathers castrated their own sons for their future security, since the Emperor then need not fear them as usurpers.
Earlier than about 1150 AD, that is. They were deposed by the Paleologi Emperors.
"Lord remind him of that," Tertullian said softly.
This implies that the current Emperor is arrogant or ambitious, to a degree which worries Cosmas Ducas and his advisors. It is unclear whether the reference to December has a specific meaning. (Perhaps a desire to have a month named after him, as July was after Julius Caesar?)
This implies that the worship of the divine Emperors is so widespread in the Empire that it is hardly worth mentioning. It also implies that a lack of strong religious sentiment is acceptable, if perhaps uncommon, within the Empire.
Cosmas said "I hear you, Persian." Dimi was puzzled for just a moment, because the engineer was of course not from Persia; then he realized that they had used the titles of the fourth and fifth ranks of the Mysteries, Leo and Perses.
Again, ranks of the Mithraic mystery cult. The conversation is in Latin, so the titles are ordinary words.
Note that Tertullian has a higher rank in the Mysteries than Cosmas, although he is politically his subordinate. This is consistent with the strict Byzantine separation of religion and state.
"And do you understand how the Empire rules, when it is not of the population ruled?"
Dimi knew the words from his lessons. Now, for the first time, they began to mean something, and he did not think he liked the meaning. "We rule because we force nothing but the law. None need worship our gods, speak our languages, adopt our ways, even walk our roads, given only that they obey the law."
Cosmas nodded. "And what is the first among Imperial laws?"
"The Doctrine of Julian the Wise: All faiths are equal: no faith shall forbid another, nor shall the Empire champion any faith."
Here, for the first time, we have the explanation of religion in the Byzantine Empire. (And the territories around it, such as Britain. Presumably the Empire has such cultural influence that no religion has been able to establish itself as dominant anywhere nearby.)
Julian the Wise, in our history, was called Julian the Apostate.
"[...] When Western Rome fell to the invaders, we lost these people. It was centuries before New Rome recovered the lands, with the help of the English King. [...]"
Note that Cosmas thinks of the old Roman empire as "we." The Byzantine Empire considers itself to be a direct continuation of Rome.
After four years in this country...
Sometimes [Philip] literally had visions, falling to the floor chewing his tongue.
Many years ago, Cosmas had told Dimi, Philip was a fine captain of cavalry; but he had fallen from his horse and struck his head. Now he talked in circles and crooked paths. For some years he had worn togas instead of decent gowns and hose, but no one minded because the togas were easier to clean.
Possibly Philip soils himself during his seizures.
Note that while the Byzantines consider themselves Roman, they consider the toga (the classical Roman garment) to be indecent -- perhaps archaic, perhaps absurd.
"And then I said, ho, you Paleologue, twice presumptuous, I call you, first to the name of divine Constantine, then to the title Emperor -- ho, Paleologus, Dipleonektis, you think you have done for the Ducai, don't you, making them kings of the Gaulish mud. [...] But seed put living into soil takes root, yes, and vines grow long, and you watch that a vine does not crawl across your bed of stolen purple, Paleologus Usurper, and twine round your crooked neck.
All this I said. Would have said, had I been there. Oh, Cosmas, brother, youth, why did you not take me with you to confront the creature in his marble lair?"
Philip is obsessed with the Paleologue Emperors, who displaced the Ducas dynasty. (Which happened at least three hundred years earlier; see p30.) More importantly, Philip is unable to grasp that ranting about it at the dinner table is impolitic and unhelpful.
Philip speaks in something close to a Shakespearean style. It is not quite verse, but it falls into meter in places, and into alliteration.
Dipleonektis: Greek, "twice presumptuous" or "doubly greedy." The current Emperor has taken the name Constantine XI (see p38).
[...] Dimi remembered his father saying that at certain times one must charge regardless, even uphill.
"Ah, you can't fool me, Cosmas, young brother!" Philip slapped his half-bare thigh and rolled on his couch, so that Dimi was afraid he was about to have a fit again. "Philip's bold, but Cosmas is clever, just as our mother said! He'll catch the Paleologi napping in their false-dyed silk, and with his son, Digenes--"
Note that the Byzantines eat reclining, Roman-fashion.
Farther on was a tapestry depicting the Partition of Gaul, the Emperor Manuel the Comnene and King Henry II of Britain dividing the country from North Sea to Mediterranean, three hundred and four hundred years ago.
Lucian was an Egyptian, with doctorates from the University at Alexandria; it was customary for a strategos to have a civilian for a deputy. His real name sounded odd in Greek -- "like an obscenity," he said -- and he had changed it. He was brown, and dry as a stick, and the thinnest eunuch Dimitrios had ever seen; he didn't seem ever to eat, and drank boiled herbs instead of wine. His religion was a weirdly complicated thing called "Knowingism."
Dimi speaks both Greek and Latin natively. If he heard "Knowingism" as a Latin word, it would be something like "science" or "scientism." If it was Greek, it was "Gnosticism."
It is not at all clear what Egyptian name fits this description. However, one possibility is "Bini" or "bin-something." The Greek verb binein means "to fuck," with an entirely obscene usage.
The ancient astronomer Ptolemy appears also to have been an Egyptian who lived in Alexandria and took a Greek name. (Kallian Ptolemy would presumably have been named after the astronomer.)
Dimi stood entirely still, watching Lucian's goose-quill stroke gracefully across the paper, forming the angular characters of the formal Byzantine alphabet, Cyril's alphabet. Dimi read, A 14th Report to the University Authority. To Be Destroyed After Reading.
I remind my lord that the theories of (the scribe's hand hid a part) in the actual case; these are human beings, not ciphers. However, I believe
The "to be destroyed" line implies that this is a secret message, and the subject seems to be the manipulation of human beings. Lucian will turn out to be an agent for Alexandria (p59). But he betrays no nerves at all when his message is discovered, and so Dimi suspects nothing.
"[...] Even if it did not help the Third Constantine, or the Sixth or the Seventh."
Depending on who you count as Constantine III, he either died of tuberculosis a few months after reaching the throne, or was forced from power and decapitated.
Constantine VI was ousted by his mother, and his eyes put out. Constantine VII may have been poisoned by his heir.
Yusuf al-Nasir is Yusuf Sala-ud-Din, or "Saladin."
It is unclear whether this raid represents some specific event in TDW history, or if killing evil wizards is simply the sort of thing that legendary warriors did. Middle Africa could be the Middle East, or Central Africa. (Dimi later says "wizard of the black country," which tends to imply Africa.)
The rest of the game was simple. The workmen were the black wizard's enchanted guards, who had basilisk eyes; if the Kings were spotted they were dead. The Governor's Office was the wizard's sanctum; if they could reach that alive, then good Damascus steel, the broadsword and the scimitar, would slay the fiend.
"Basilisk" is from Greek, meaning serpent; but literally "little king," which is also appropriate here.
Neither Christianity nor Islam played a large part in that era. Lacking the Crusades and the struggle over Jerusalem, it is unclear what the history of Richard and Saladin looked like.
"Don't wizards curse their killers?"
Dimitrios looked down at the imaginary corpse. "I'd forgotten about that. Maybe it's not true."
They heard voices, steps approaching.
"It's true," Dimi said.
The English soldiers in chapter 1 also feared a wizard's death curse (see p8.) But Dimi is not speaking from knowledge. He is joking about the coincidence of timing: they are about to be spotted, and therefore "killed."
"The bull must die," said the voice in darkness.
The rite recreates the central image of the religion: Mithras slaying the bull.
"Are you a messenger of Ahriman, who would have the bull destroyed?"
Mithraism as it was known in the Roman empire did not seem to include an antagonist figure. However, the older Persian god Mithra, who may have been an antecedent of Mithras, was balanced against a dark god, Ahriman. There is a legend of Ahriman killing a bull, which could have been incorporated into Mithraism and transformed into a divine sacrifice.
The Father stood nearby, in his red gown and curled Phrygian cap; he put a hand on the sickle in his belt and struck his staff on the floor.
Not Dimi's father, but the Father (Pater) officiating at the ceremony.
Dimitrios watched the mechanisms in the dais with fascination: vents in the floor blew first Greek fire, then cold air, around the supplicant. The platform that had seemed so dizzyingly high was less than a handsbreadth from the floor when fully raised.
Again, engineering is quite advanced in the Empire.
It was the day of brotherhood, the day Mithras was born to bring new life to all men; the twenty-fifth of December, Year of the City 1139.
Note that the old Romans would have said "seven days before the kalends of January", but (as in our history) the Empire has given up on ides, nones, kalends.
We infer that Cosmas is barely eating.
Dimitrios thought it was no wonder that one never saw a living unicorn, not at the price their horns brought in a poisonous world.
Unicorn (or alicorn) horn, in legend, neutralizes poison. If multiple apothecaries in one city carry the material, however, then either unicorns are not so rare as all that, or the substance is actually something else. (Narwhal tusk is the traditional counterfeit.)
One more person who would never be Emperor of Byzantium.
The Caduceus symbol includes snakes.
But Uncle Philip was there instead, going over the only two books Dimi had ever known him to read: Michael Psellus's Chronographia, with its glowing word-portraits of the Ducas Emperors Constantine X and Michael VII, and the epic poem Digenes Akritas, five hundred years old, in which the son of a Ducas woman and a Syrian king conquered armies of barbarians and founded a magical princedom on the Euphrates River.
This is consistent with Psellus's work in our history.
Who then would have presumed to the power, pleonektis--
"Do any of you know of... a diseased one?"
"When Mithras slew the bull," Dimi said slowly, "he cut its throat, so its blood would give life to all the Earth. But Ahriman... the Enemy... sent his servant the snake, to drink the bull's blood up." [...] "The Raven saw the snake, though, and pecked at it. And the Dog, who is friend to men, bit the snake. And Mithras crushed it with his heel. Still the snake swallowed a mouthful of the bull's blood, and crawled away alive... but its wounds came from a god and the friends of a god, and ever after it must drink blood to stay alive."
Atop Vercingetorix's redoubt, the heliostat was flashing, the whirling mirror sending to the channels of the Empire that one of its strategoi was dead.
This is a technological advance over the equivalent period of our history. (However, "heliograph" would be the more correct term.)
More Mithraic ranks.
The Courier of the Sun read the Invocation of Julian the Wise, Emperor of Byzantium: "...a fiery chariot shall bear you to Olympus, tossing in a whirlwind; you shall be free from the curse and weariness of your mortal limbs. You shall reach your father's courts of ethereal light, from which you wandered to enter a human body."
[...]; there seemed to be an administrative delay in reoccupying their Greek estates.
Dimi wondered where all the gold had come from... if there was still a white villa on the blue Aegean Sea.
"You may have denied him while he lived," Iphigenia said, "and deserted him at his death, but you will honor your father now, or I swear by Ishtar I will cut your throat and bathe in your blood as the bull's -- for you are no man at all, but a beast sent to me for sacrifice."
Iphigenia is, to put it mildly, reconstructing reality here. Dimi never denied Cosmas anything; and he was away from Alesia on the the day of his father's death because Iphigenia told him to find a vampire (p48).
[...] He stood barefoot and cold and ridiculous in the hallway, crumbs and wine spilling from his hands, and knew that he was weak.
Jean-Luc said, "When we've taken the deputy... he'll stop all the soldiers?"
"Of course, or we'll--" Dimi came up short. The idea of killing Lucian had never really entered his mind, and it did not come easily now. "But by then the townspeople will be at the gates, calling for a new governor..."
Dimi is attempting to carry out Philip's plan -- or at least make use of the political support Philip's gold has bought. But if he can take Lucian as a hostage, he can prevent an outright battle between the French (supporting a Ducas rebellion) and the soldiers of the household, whose loyalty is to the Empire (not to the Ducas family).
"My father... was not arming when I left the house." Charles sounded as had Mithras, when he had agreed to kill his friend the Bull.
[...] At certain times one must charge regardless--
Dimi saw the fresco again, much clearer than something of paint could be, Vercingetorix standing with his Gauls. Alone.
But I will remember thee.
New soldiers have come from the Empire to hold the capital. This destroys any chance that Dimi can sway the household through their personal loyalty. (Although the personnel he is familiar with also remain -- see p56, 57.)
Everything was frozen for a moment more. Then Tertullian pointed his crossbow at the floor, and without even a shrug turned and walked away.
Lucian blinked again. "Extinguishing a family is not a simple problem," he said pedantically.
Entirely without regard for the situation, Lucian begins a brief lecture on politics.
"[...] But men love you. It is a Ducas trait, the dangerous one. The reason the order was formulated to destroy the line."
"Whose order?" [...]
"The particular experiment began in the reign of John the Fourth Lascaris."
That had been two centuries ago.
The Lascaris dynasty was an offshoot of the Ducas line.
John IV Lascaris seems to have been Emperor of Byzantium in the analogous era.
"[...] Who -- killed -- my -- father?"
"In a fashion, Dimitrios, you did..."
Dimi's jaw clenched till it hurt.
Lucian said, "...or I. Or a professional poisoner from Italy. Julius Caesar. The sun of Gaul. A weak blood vessel. Philip Ducas. The political science faculty of the University at Alexandria, to prove a theory of group behavior. Any of these. All."
This astonishing catalogue of causality is the heart of chapter 2. Lucian takes a very broad view of responsibility -- entirely alien to Dimi's notion of someone who assassinated his father, whom Dimi can kill in revenge.
The story implied is of an "experiment" conceived by the University at Alexandria, possibly beginning with the inception of the Paleologi Emperors. (See p59.) In the current era, this led to the hiring of a poisoner to kill Cosmas Ducas. The poison acted by weakening his blood vessels, which (in combination with the heat) induced a stroke.
This assassination was considered necessary either because of Dimi's ability as a natural leader, or Philip's plot to gain power through bribery, or both. Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul led to all the political history thereafter, and personally inspired Dimi as well. And Lucian either enacted the plot, or passed Alexandria the information that caused them to enact it -- the two roles would be equally responsible, in his recitation. (See p37.)
As in chapter 1 (p23), we have "actors" (agents) acting at the behest of hidden "directors." However, the goals here are almost whimsical -- to see what happens -- rather than explicitly political. The image therefore becomes a game, rather than the theatrical metaphor of chapter 1. The basilisk game of Dimi's group (p39, p53) echoes this image.
Patiently, deliberately, listening for the guards' approach, Dimi knelt to give Charles all he had to give: his own place in heaven.
Dimi intends for Charles, whose face is now unrecognizable, to be mistaken for himself. Charles will receive a Mithraic funeral (see p50), in recompense for dying before he had a chance to follow Dimi into the Mysteries. And Dimitrios Ducas will no longer exist.
The basilisks are sleeping, then, he thought, and will not see a King go by.
Again, "basilisk" is from Greek for "little king." (See p39.)