A Novel of Imperial Rome
(The Theodosian Women Book 2)
By Faith L. Justice
As Rome reels under barbarian assaults, a young girl must step up.
After the Emperor’s unexpected death, ambitious men eye the Eastern Roman throne occupied by seven-year-old Theodosius II. His older sister Pulcheria faces a stark choice: she must find allies and take control of the Eastern court or doom the imperial children to a life of obscurity—or worse! Beloved by the people and respected by the Church, Pulcheria forges her own path to power. Can her piety and steely will protect her brother from military assassins, heretic bishops, scheming eunuchs and—most insidious of all—a beautiful, intelligent bride? Or will she lose all in the trying?
Praise for Dawn Empress
"A gripping tale…Justice chronicles, with a skillful blend of historical rigor and dramatic action, the extraordinary efforts of Pulcheria to outmaneuver her adversaries. The prose is razor sharp, and the tale is as impressively unsentimental as it is genuinely moving."
“The prose is beautiful, sprinkled with vivid descriptions…Dawn Empress is fast-paced and engaging, one of those novels that will keep fans of historical novels reading through the night.”
Readers’ Favorite (5-star review)
Imperial Palace, Constantinople, October 6, 404
PULCHERIA WINCED AS HER FATHER’S HAND ground her fingers together. She stepped on the hem of her night shift and stumbled. Father jerked her upright.
“Come, girl, when did you become so clumsy?” His voice was rough with wine, anger, and pain. Pulcheria had never seen him so distraught in her five short years of life. For the first time her father Arcadius, the Emperor of Eastern Rome, frightened her.
When he had awakened her moments before, her head muzzy with dreams, she knew something was wrong. Father never came to her chambers. The palace nursery, where she and her siblings Arcadia, Theodosius, and baby Marina lived, was the province of nurses and tutors. She only saw him on those rare occasions he ordered the children to accompany him on some outing. Her mother, Empress Eudoxia, inspected the nursery and questioned the servants about her children’s health and well-being when it suited her—which was not often. Now her father dragged her down the echoing marble halls toward a part of the palace to which she had never been.
They entered a sumptuous but disordered receiving room. A half-eaten meal of beef doused with fishy smelling garum sauce sat on a silver tray, the Persian carpet lay askew, and several cloaks lay carelessly on a gilt chair. The disarray only added to her chaotic feelings of fear and bewilderment. She tried to lag behind, but her father dragged her forward, nearly pulling her off her feet. Pulcheria whimpered at the pain in her hand and shoulder but refused to cry out.
Antiochus, the Chief Eunuch and head of the imperial household, sat near the door to another chamber. He rose, approached her father, and bowed low. “I’m so very sorry, Augustus, but your blessed wife is dead. She passed on to God’s good grace but moments ago.”
“More likely she passed on to the devil. She will make him a good whore.” Arcadius’ face went purple as he spat the words at the eunuch. “The child?”
Antiochus glanced at Pulcheria and lowered his voice. “He came much too early to save.”
“Better dead than another set of horns on my head,” her father muttered.
Pulcheria struggled to find meaning in the words of the adults. Her mother was dead? What child? Her father grew horns? She looked at his forehead with muddled curiosity but saw no bumps.
Father started forward, pushing at the eunuch’s chest. “Out of my way.”
Antiochus stepped back, but still blocked their path. His voice quavered. “Most Kind Augustus, is this really the place for the princess? Let us at least ready the body before she views it.”
Pulcheria tugged on her captive hand and cried, “Please, Father, let me go back.”
Father’s hand tightened on hers, but he turned and dropped to one knee to look into her face. “This is important, Pulcheria. You will be first lady of the land now. Show me how an Augusta behaves.”
Pulcheria steadied under his gaze. She wanted to make him proud. “Yes, Father, I will do as you wish.”
“That’s my girl. You’ve got a backbone, unlike your sniveling brother.”
A small flame of anger at this attack on her baby brother warmed Pulcheria’s chilled body. Theo was not quite three, and still a child. As the oldest, everyone demanded more from her, and she was proud to give it. It wasn’t fair for Father to compare Theo to her!
One look at her father’s angry face doused that flame. She had no way to fight for herself, much less her brother. Helplessness clove her tongue to the roof of her mouth. She nodded. Father’s lips curved into a smile, but he didn’t look happy; his eyes were red with tears and his breath stank of wine.
Antiochus stepped aside, sparing a pitying look for Pulcheria. Arcadius straightened and led the girl into the bedroom. Antiochus’ words came rushing back. Her mother was dead. What did it mean? What would she see? A sense of dread knotted her stomach and again slowed her steps, so that Father had to, again, tug on her arm.
As her father opened the door, she heard the soft chanting of priests and the shriller murmurs of female servants. Burning musky incense failed to mask an odor that left a coppery taste in her mouth.
She remembered the smell and taste from scraped knees and split lips. Blood usually meant stinging pain. This room reeked of it. Pulcheria’s heart raced. She took shallow breaths through her mouth, trying to avoid the stench.
Olive oil lamps shone steady, illuminating the brilliantly painted scenes on the walls. Pulcheria noticed fleetingly that most of the images were of naked people entwined in awkward positions. Servants and priests bowed their heads as they passed. Her gaze fixed on the wide bed dominating the room. Her mother’s court ladies screened the bed from her sight, but she couldn’t miss the blood-soaked rags piled in a bronze bowl. At the sight of her father, the women parted, darting horrified glances at Pulcheria.
More gently this time, Arcadius pulled her to the foot of the bed and stood behind her, his hands on her shoulders. “Here are the wages of sin, Pulcheria. Blood and death.”
Pulcheria held her breath as she gazed upon the still body. Her mother’s face looked angelic, eyes closed and face pale. People always praised her mother’s beauty. The height and comeliness Eudoxia inherited from her father’s Frankish ancestors had captured the heart of the teenage Emperor Arcadius nine years before. Those same people lamented that Pulcheria seemed the only one of their four children with the stamp of her dour-faced father.
Except for the sweat-soaked blond hair tangled about her face, Eudoxia looked asleep. A peaceful look, unlike the impatience her mother’s face usually bore with her children. The last time Eudoxia visited the nursery, she spent most of her time complaining about ink spots on Pulcheria’s robes and the disordered state of her hair. Mother would not be happy, knowing others now saw her own hair in such disarray.
Pulcheria’s gaze strayed lower. She gasped at the fine linen sheets sodden with red gore. The stench caused her stomach to heave. An acid taste flooded her mouth. She took a deep breath.
“F-Father, must I stay longer?”
Arcadius squeezed her shoulder. “No, my good girl, you have seen enough.”
A midwife approached Arcadius with a still bundle, no bigger than one of Pulcheria’s dolls “What should I do with the babe, Augustus?”
“Give it to the dogs!” Arcadius snarled.
The woman gasped and backed away quickly. Pulcheria shrank from her father’s renewed anger, but his left hand held her shoulder fast. Antiochus approached the woman and whispered in her ear.
“Antiochus!” Arcadius pointed at the eunuch. “You will see that my daughter does not grow up to be like her twice-damned mother. Teach her the Gospels, train her to be a good Christian woman, modest and obedient.”
“As you will, Augustus.”
Her father’s hand began to tremble on her shoulder. In a choked voice, he cried, “All of you out.” Servants, priests, and court ladies filed out a back door, silent, but with frightened looks at the Emperor standing over the body of his wife.
Antiochus came forward to take Pulcheria’s hand. “Shall I take the princess back to the nursery?”
As they exited, Pulcheria glanced over her shoulder. Her father knelt at the foot of the bed, narrow shoulders shaking with sobs as he buried his face in the bloody sheets.
“Your father is distraught, Princess. Pay no heed to his words.” The eunuch led her through the receiving room and back to the marble hall.
She shivered, suddenly aware of her bare feet on cold stone. No braziers chased the icy fall air from the corridor.
“Are you chilled, princess?” The eunuch bent to look at her face.
“Y-y-yes.” Her teeth chattered uncontrollably. From the chill? The blood? Her thoughts and feelings reeled from the sights in the bedroom. What would happen to her and her brother and sisters?
Antiochus gathered her up in his arms and held her close. Warmth radiating from his soft plump body helped dispel some of the chill. “Poor child,” he muttered. “Poor, poor child.”
Pulcheria lay quietly in his arms, listening to his heart beat steadily in his chest, as he carried her slight weight back to the nursery. The regular double-thump settled her nerves. As they grew closer, his breathing grew more labored. A question nagged at her thoughts. “Is Mother in Heaven?”
He hesitated. “I don’t know, child. Only God knows.”
“Father said not.”
“Even the powerful Emperor of Rome does not command God. The Good Lord in his mercy will judge your mother’s soul. Hush now. Think no more of it.”
But Pulcheria could think of nothing else. Her father never took an interest in the nursery. If her mother were not on earth or in Heaven to look out for them, would the servants bring them food or help them bathe? Pulcheria thought she could care for herself, Arcadia, and possibly her brother, but baby Marina needed a wet nurse. Would Nana leave? The thought of losing Nana, her nurse since she was a baby, brought on a new wave of shudders. Surely Nana would never leave me!
The eunuch grunted as he shifted her weight to one arm and opened the door to the nursery. The outer room filled with murmurs from servants as they clustered around low-burning lamps. Pulcheria spied her nurse and struggled to escape the eunuch’s arms. He set her down.
“Nana!” she cried, speeding to the comforting arms of the heavy-set woman whose plain features lit up Pulcheria’s world.
Antiochus followed her. “The Empress is dead.” He cut off the ritual wails with an upraised hand. “The Emperor is understandably distraught. He will not be pleased when his grief has passed if he finds his children neglected.”
Pulcheria noted a few raised eyebrows and pursed lips at this declaration.
“Attend them with good will. I will return in the morning to see to their affairs.”
Nana rose, Pulcheria clinging tightly to her leg. “Forgive me, Antiochus, but should not the Emperor appoint a court woman to oversee the children’s daily welfare? You are tasked with the entire household and have many duties to perform.”
“Daily care will proceed as before. The Emperor asked that I see to their religious instruction in the future.” He shrugged. “I don’t think the Emperor wants any of his wife’s women to influence the children. Perhaps I could appoint you to oversee the nursery. We will decide when this sad time is over.”
Nana offered the eunuch a slight bow. “Thank you.” She put her hand on Pulcheria’s back. “Come, dumpling, let’s get you into a nice warm bed.”
Comforted by the eunuch’s words and Nana’s presence, Pulcheria suppressed a deep yawn, nodded, and followed her nurse to bed. She struggled against sleep, her mind still awhirl with the changes to come. Her worry gave way as lethargy crept up her limbs and sleep quieted her mind.
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Faith L. Justice
FAITH L. JUSTICE writes award-winning historical novels, short stories, and articles in Brooklyn, New York where she lives with her family and the requisite gaggle of cats. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, Writer’s Digest, The Copperfield Review, and many more publications. She is Chair of the New York City chapter of the Historical Novel Society, and Associate Editor for Space and Time Magazine. She co-founded a writer’s workshop many more years ago than she likes to admit. For fun, she digs in the dirt—her garden and various archaeological sites.
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See you on your next coffee break!
Mary Anne xxx