Sailing Through Byzantium

–  a tale of the Empress Theodora  – and a review of Aroma M’s Geisha Amber Rouge

Today is the day the world shall truly be mine. Today is the day I shall be crowned Empress, today is the day I never thought would happen, the day everyone but Justinian so fervently prayed would never arrive.

Today, the world shall be ours.

I can hear them outside these doors in the Palace, see it in the eyes of my slaves and waiting-women as I’ve seen it on the faces of my detractors…Euphemia, most vehement of them all, not more than an ambitious temple priestess in her day, opposed our liaison, opposed our marriage with all the weight of law behind her, and all to no avail. Procopius, that sniveling little chronicler with his ink-stained hands and his all-seeing, snake-like eyes, lurking in the shadows behind his patron Belisarius’ broad and faithful back. Euphemia is gone, Justin is dead, and Justinian and I remain behind, today to be crowned and rule this world of Rome and of Byzantium.

Today, that world is ours.

I have come so far since I danced with my sisters as a child for the Blues at the Hippodrome, come farther still since the geese ate their supper on my naked form, come farther and climbed higher than even I could guess the day I decided to abandon my old trade and my old ways, and one day came to entertain one well-dressed stranger with my stories as I spun my wool and linen in the sun.

Now, that world awaits me on the other side of two bronze doors, this moment countless courtiers cool their heels in the corridor. At the cathedral, the Archbishop’s acolytes are preparing the oils to anoint us, the resins for the censers, the rose petals for the roaring crowds. On my bed lies the gold-embroidered silk brocade robe, the thousands of pearls to adorn my neck beside it, and just as surely as any beast of burden is yoked to a plow, this jewel-studded collar will yoke me for my lifespan to this all-devouring many-headed monster of multitudes known as …Byzantium.

Let them wait a little longer as I linger with my old familiar self some precious moments more, as I bid my last farewell to Theodora, child mascot of the Blues, Theodora, toast of the Hippodrome in my diaphanous robes, Theodora, celebrated Constantinople courtesan…Theodora, common whore.

“Kyria…” a slave dressed in the livery of the Imperial Court calls me to attention with a small box in her hands, an ornate gilt wooden box, perfectly fit for an Empress of Byzantium. “This has arrived from Just…” She corrects herself, blushing a pretty shade of pink as she recalls, “The Augustus, for you. It has been proved safe…”

Yet another peril it will not do to forget, to trust no one, to try nothing new until all danger is disproven.

Inside the box, wrapped in precious silk, I find another priceless treasure, a small glowing vial of carved amber that sparkles all the fiery gold of sun through my window, and in the vial, a perfume oil, a perfume such as the old Theodora would never own or even know, so costly is this vial, so rare this blend of essences.

Let them wait. The Empress shall arrive soon enough. But this woman needs a few precious moments more to breathe in this fragrant glimpse of her new and august self.

I inhale my husband’s gift, a perfume for this day of all the days of a life I never could have hoped or dreamed before that day he came to me. No flowers for this all-too mortal rose, no lilies for this lady, but only all the spice and fire, heat and blood that he and I would know alone, have known in this very room.

Captured in its amber cage are all the spices of faraway Cathay and fabled India and likely places farther still, spices that saw all the wonders of that long and storied road that ends here this day at this center of the only world I shall ever know. Yet spice alone is only half the song it sings and less than half the road this perfume travels in my mind as I breathe deeper. Heat, yes, the blaze of a Syrian sun riding the endless blue above, the cool and sacred secrets of the balsams of Tyre are woven into the vial, the darker, deeper mysteries of myrrh and frankincense pulsing their heathen heartbeat prayers beneath, prayers so primeval no God will acknowledge them and no mortal can ignore them.

This perfume is me in sum and total, all my questions answered and all my hopes fulfilled and all my deepest dreams come true. I shall be proclaimed Empress today, I shall be anointed, I shall co-rule this world, and yet…

He knows me well, my Emperor, knows that even this day, the woman underneath the silks and brocade, buried in her pearls and gold must be appeased if the Empress is to rule, and so he gave me this…and captured all my secret selves and that one heated secret we share in a carved and costly amber vial.

I shall wear this perfumed secret beneath my robes of gold, my jeweled yoke, my ropes of pearls. I shal wear this costly blend, this my secret self, this fragrant song on my skin as I pass through the bronze doors and into my new self and on through all my life ahead.

I shall wear this as I sail through Byzantium on this day of days, as proud as any ship that salutes from the Bosporus, I shall wear this…sailing through Byzantium, this day the world shall become mine.

Aroma M Geisha Amber Rouge is available in a roll-on perfume oil from the Aroma M website.

Painting: Benjamin Jean Joseph Constant, ‘L’Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée’