The Eastern Empress

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This is a work of historical fiction. It takes place in the Near East in the 270s AD, at a time when the Roman Empire was decaying under the weight of corruption and dissensions. The beautiful Queen of Palmyra, the Empress Zenobia, rebelled against Rome and was defeated. Now, a prisoner of the Romans, she boldly faced her doom…

 

Zenobia stared into the arrogant face of the Roman general. She had come to despise Lucianus, Aurelian’s commander in the region, and most of his officers. They had treated the queen and her people with contempt, in part on the order of Aurelian himself. The Romans had taken Zenobia and some members of her court to Emesa, a mighty city in Syria. There, the Palmyrenes were held captive.

Every night, Zenobia was “invited” to dine with her Roman captors, where she was subjected to humiliation at the hands of the Roman officers and officials. Lucianus, his aides Augusto and Constantus, would drink sweet wine until they stumbled, hurling curses and insults at Zenobia and her servants. Unlike her servants, who glared and hissed curses of their own under their breath, the empress stared straight ahead with the dignity of a monarch. Even in defeat, she mustered more courage than any of these Romans.

The last year had been like a desert whirlwind, but even more violent. Zenobia had elevated herself from regent to empress in defiance of Aurelian, the Roman strongman of the central portions of the Empire. Backed by promises from Sassanian diplomats, Zenobia had declared herself empress of a breakaway empire, with its capital in Palmyra. In response, Aurelian marched an army across Asia and clashed with her army outside Emesa. Victory had seemed certain, and then…

The battle turned against the Palmyrenes. Zenobia and her court officials, including the philosopher Longinus and the tax advisor Marcantius, encouraged her to flee to the east, to the safety of Persia. The escape had been cut short by the arrival of Sarmatian cavalry, under Roman command, which intercepted Zenobia and her party.

Months later, still held in Emesa, Zenobia had not seen any of her advisers. Lucianus and his legal advocates, armed with stacks of papyri and intimate knowledge of Roman law, built a case against the empress as a rebel against the legitimate emperor Aurelian. Even under fierce cross-examination, Zenobia refused to admit her error. Lucianus and others accused her courtiers of having poisoned her mind, which Zenobia denied.

“Your wicked advisers led you astray, and you, a foolish and weak woman, believed them blindly.” The words were spoken by a horrible Roman lawyer, a balding man with crooked teeth named Annulus. Zenobia turned her head slowly and stared at Annulus directly.

“I did no such thing. I am an empress, the rightful ruler of Palmyra. My decisions were my own, and to claim otherwise insults my advisers and ignores my own actions. I am not a child, nor am I a fool.”

The chamber had gone silent, then laughter and taunts filled the room. Annulus laughed in his raspy voice, before carrying on with his denunciation of Zenobia as both devious and inept. There was no defense for the empress, and so the verdict was passed without dispute: guilty.

The feasts and invitations had continued for weeks with no end in sight. Tonight, Lucianus and his regular aides hosted a newcomer, a pleasant-tempered Gaul with short brown hair and kind eyes, a man called Percix. He wore simple patrician garb trimmed with Gallic green, contrasting with Lucianus’ ostentatious costume. The general drank a good portion of wine before setting his cup down and addressing Percix while keeping his eyes on Zenobia.

“So, Percix, you have received news from the emperor?” Lucianus spoke loudly so the empress could hear. Zenobia made no indication that she had heard, but it was impossible for her to have missed what Lucianus had said.

“Yes, general, the emperor wishes the Palmyrene prisoners to be brought to Rome for his triumph.” Percix took no pleasure in the words, it was his business to deliver the news. Lucianus leered at Zenobia, who narrowed her eyes in intense loathing.

“And the prisoners, especially the queen, will be publicly shamed and humiliated, is that right, Percix?” It was not as if Lucianus did not know the answer before he even asked the question.

“Yes, that is correct.” Percix nibbled at a piece of roast lamb while Lucianus licked his chops with relish.

“They are to be stripped and shaved!” It was not a question, but a statement of glee.

“The female prisoners, yes, as is customary for rebels or conquered barbarians.” Percix could sense the excitement in Lucianus’ voice, so he kept his explanation restrained. His gaze met Zenobia’s briefly, and he demurred under her withering glance.

“It serves them all right, Percix!” Lucianus boomed, lifting his goblet in celebration; his aides and several Roman guests raised their cups in assent.

“They are all traitors, are they not?”

“If the Emperor says they are,” Percix began, speaking slowly and avoiding Zenobia’s gaze carefully. Disappointed that Percix was not taking his bait, Lucianus shrugged and belched loudly. His aides laughed and talked amongst themselves, plotting the spoilage of Palmyrene estates. Most of Zenobia’s courtiers were marked for death, and they knew this. As for the empress, her fate was in Aurelian’s hands, for better or for worse.

The feast ended without much fanfare. Zenobia, having touched none of her food, was escorted out of the hall by several Roman guards and her closest servants. As per her instructions, her uneaten food was distributed to the poor of Emesa. Percix excused himself as Lucianus and his guests continued to drink and talk. Percix never had the taste for an overabundance of wine, so he intended to return to his quarters near the governor’s palace in Emesa. As Percix exited the hall, he was approached by a small woman with dark hair and black eyes, wearing the simple outfit of a servant.

“Gaius Percix?” The woman spoke Latin with a strong Syrian accent. Percix was surprised, but he nodded all the same.

“Yes, I am, and who are you?”

“I am Haki, servant to the Empress Zenobia.”

Percix frowned. Zenobia was a prisoner of the Emperor Aurelian, a captive queen, but no empress at any rate.

“What do you want, then?”

“My mistress, the Empress, wishes to speak with you in her apartments.”

Percix opened his mouth to speak, then closed it.

“What does she want?” Percix could not figure what Zenobia would want with him, a patrician from Gaul. Haki bowed her head.

“That is not for me to say. The will of my mistress is her own.”

Percix exhaled impatiently and acquiesced. Haki led Percix back through the palace and toward the dungeons. Percix was not sure what he expected, but when Haki brought him to Zenobia’s quarters, he was surprised at conditions. They were modest enough, but quite different from an empress’s palace. Still, it was no actual dungeon.

Haki spoke to the Roman guard outside the door, who wordlessly unlocked the door and opened it. Haki led Percix inside the room, which was sparsely furnished aside from a few beds. The largest bed was already set with plain covers. Percix saw Zenobia sitting on a wooden chair in the corner, brushing her hair. For the first time, Percix saw the hair in all of its glory.

Word of Zenobia’s hair preceded her, and even as far away as Gaul, Percix had heard tales of the magnificent hair of the Queen of Palmyra. Here, before him, Percix could see that the legends were too few. The hair shimmered in the candlelight as if made of black Sinaean silk, rich and lustrous. It hung over the back of the chair nearly to the floor in glorious ebony waves. Every movement of Zenobia’s head caused the light to reflect in intricate ways.

Percix was stunned by the sight of it. Zenobia turned around slowly, locking eyes with Percix. Her eyes were deep brown and full of pride. She certainly had the elegance and beauty of a queen, but Percix knew that she reserved her attention for only those worthy of it. The Gaul swallowed, not feeling comfortable enough to approach her, even though she was a prisoner. Percix looked at Haki, who had her head bowed in respect in the presence of her queen. Zenobia spoke, still staring directly at Percix.

“Leave us, Haki.” Her voice was at once soft and commanding, like the sound of the wind on a mountaintop. The servant bowed even lower and left the small room. Percix, unsure of what to do, remained silent. Zenobia sat motionless for a while, then she took her comb and began to apply it to her lustrous hair.

“I am pleased that you are here, Gaius Percix.” Zenobia’s accent was almost flawless, with a hint of the east; in fairness, Percix himself had a provincial dialect apparent to anyone from Rome itself. Percix narrowed his eyes in confusion.

“Me? I was not aware that you knew who I was.”

Zenobia smiled slightly, still brushing her abundant locks.

“I did not at first, but my servants informed me that you were a Gaul, and a member of Aurelian’s court. I wanted to meet you to ask.”

“To ask what?”

Zenobia paused her brushing, then resumed it again.

“What Aurelian is like. I know that he wants to punish me and my household. I do not imagine I can save my advisers, though they would willingly die instead of receiving humiliation from the Romans.”

Percix thought for a moment, considering his words carefully. Even though she was a prisoner, Zenobia commanded a great amount of gravitas, and Percix did not wish to offend her.

“Aurelian is…well, as an emperor, he is brave and fearless in battle. He displays many masculine qualities, and…” Percix stopped abruptly, realizing that his words were of little value to Zenobia’s concern. He cleared his throat, and started over.

“Aurelian is not a tyrant. Nor is he an executioner. He gave mercy to Tetricus and his Gallic advisers, perhaps he will give you mercy as well.”

Zenobia continued brushing her hair, slowly and deliberately.

“Perhaps. But there will no doubt be humiliation.”

“Yes,” Percix admitted, “there will likely be a triumph and the public of Rome will show no sympathy to you or your people.”

Abruptly, Zenobia ceased her brushing, and threw the comb onto the table and stared at Percix intently. Percix’s first inclination was to falter under her regal gaze, but he maintained eye contact.

“We are to be stripped and shaved, is that it?” Zenobia inquired, quoting the words of the vicious Lucianus. Percix nodded.

“You will be, though I cannot speak for your consorts.”

“Stripped, like a common whore, and shaved like an adulteress.” Her words were filled with venom and bitterness against the Romans. “I would not have that fate brought upon even the lowliest of my people.”

“I wish it were not so.”

Zenobia’s hand reached for something on the table. Percix’s eyes went wide as he saw her hand take hold of a sharp razor. How did she smuggle a blade into her cell? Percix was about to brace himself for an attack, but Zenobia merely held out the razor, as if inviting Percix to take it.

“I don’t understand.” Percix was confused, but Zenobia’s expression was sincere.

“You are a Roman, but not one of them. Your people were conquered, just as mine were. But even though I am a prisoner, as long as I live, I am still an empress. I will not have my hair defiled in front of the mob of Rome. I wish for you to cut it off for me, to escape the torturer’s knife.”

Percix was frozen in place. His mind worked furiously, trying to figure out Zenobia’s intentions. Was it a trick, some stratagem for an unknown end? Why would she do this? Percix hesitated before voicing his concerns.

“I…well…I am not sure of what you want me to do.”

Zenobia’s expression did not change.

“I thought it was obvious, Percix. I want you to cut my hair very short, to the scalp. It is better that you do it, than the Romans. It would deprive Aurelian of the satisfaction.”

“But…well, I do not know if the repercussions would…”

“Percix, on your honor as a nobleman, as a Gaul, and as a man, I implore you to do this for me. Must I command you as an Empress?”

Percix swallowed hard. He was under no obligation, legally speaking, to this woman, but his sympathies were with her. Still, it might be difficult to explain to Aurelian how his prisoner was already shorn before she even arrived in Rome. Percix’s sense of honor bade him accept the blade, and so, after deliberating a little more, he extended his hand to take the razor from Zenobia. As he did so, he heard a rustle behind him and suddenly he felt a knife at his throat. Haki, the handmaiden, had evidently entered the cell without Percix knowing.

“Remember that she is an Empress, Queen of Zenobia,” Haki hissed in her accented Latin. “If you harm her in any way, I will cut your throat and dogs will eat your flesh.”

Percix tensed as he felt the edge of the knife dig into his skin. Zenobia looked unfazed, as if this was a natural thing to her. Percix, knowing that Haki’s actions were based out of loyalty for her mistress. Releasing his tension, Percix calmly replied: “I will respect your mistress, the Empress, and I swear, by the light of the Unconquered Sun, that I will not harm her.”

The blade remained for a few moments, then it was gone. Percix glanced to his side, spotting Haki guarding the entrance at the doorway, holding her knife at the ready. Holding his own blade tightly, Percix approached Zenobia, her back straight and her expression resolute. There were no more adornments in her hair, just the abundance of black silk that fell to the bottom of the chair. The light of the candles reflected off the individual strands of the tresses. Percix gritted his teeth and focused on mustering the strength to carry out the Empress’s wishes.

Slowly, he grasped a long hank of hair, which felt like solid water in his hand, incredibly sleek and soft. Zenobia tensed a little, and Haki took a step forward, ready to pounce, but the Empress relaxed, and the dutiful handmaiden relented.

“Are you certain?” Percix asked, already knowing the answer.

“Yes, I am certain. Do as I command.”

The firm response strengthened Percix’s resolve. As far as he was concerned, she was his sovereign, and he would do as she desired. Holding tightly to the tress of hair in his hand, Percix lifted the razor to a quarter cubit from her scalp. Knowing that a further inquiry would meet with the same result as the last, Percix took a deep breath and touched the razor to the hair. After an excruciating moment of tension, Percix pulled down on the razor, and the hair was sliced in twain. An impossibly long lock of incredible black hair came free in his hand.

“There,” Zenobia said softly, “you have begun. My honor is intact. Continue, if you would.”

Percix nodded to himself, and dropped the hair onto the stone floor. It coiled on the ground, attracting a bit of dust but losing none of its luster. Percix continued to another section of hair, cutting it off in the same manner. Having never cut anyone’s hair, not even his own beard, Percix was invigorated by the foreign motion. Many Gallic women wore their hair long, usually longer than most Italians, but some chose to wear their hair shorter. Percix had seen barbers cut considerable length from the hair of his relatives, and he had seen many female slaves shorn in the markets. But this…this was something else entirely.

He sheared off another thick lock and deposited it on the floor. The hair began to gather in heaps, looking like bolts of silk imported from Cathay. Percix was working quicker now, using the razor to cut quickly through the amazing hair. The sound of the hair as it was cut was unlike anything Percix had ever heard, like reaping sheaves of onyx wheat in the dead of night. By this time, almost half of Zenobia’s hair was roughly shorn, and hair was sticking out all over, not more than finger length. Zenobia remained calm, accepting her fate regally; Haki simply stared at Percix menacingly.

Percix picked up a wide swath of gorgeous black locks, held the razor in place, and cut. The blade cut through the hair with ease, and Peric let the incredible hair fall to the floor. The next section suffered the same treatment, and both portions of hair curled on the stoney floor, abandoned by their former mistress. Percix reached the last part of Zenobia’s long hair, but the Empress raised her hand for him to stop.

“Wait.” She felt the short hair all over her scalp before finding the final long locks.

“Save this section and gather it on the table. Haki will have someone put a gold band over it for you, if you wish. Keep it as a token of my gratitude. You may sell it for a good price, or treasure it yourself.”

“Yes, of course.”

Percix did as he was told, and tightly holding the base of the section, he sheared it off like the rest. He rested the long length on the table, where Zenobia could see the fruits of his labor. She breathed in sharply, but she let it out slowly, relaxing somewhat. All of Zenobia’s once famous hair lay scattered around the chair or on the table, shorn and discarded like chaff. Percix admired the fantastic site, and he eyed the wonderful fall of hair that would be his. He would indeed treasure the hair, the hair he had cut from an Empress.

Zenobia spoke to Haki in Syriac, and the handmaiden bowed and retrieved a wooden bowl of water from the floor near the door. Percix frowned, unsure of what was going on, then the realization came to him.

“Do you wish me to shave you?”

“Yes.” Zenobia replied bluntly. Percix had only ever known slaves to be shorn to the skin, but the Empress had given him orders. Percix wetted the remaining hair and carefully began to scrape away. He was more familiar with this action, as he had had his beard shaven on multiple occasions. The dark hair was reaped and the wet pieces fell away, revealing gray shadow on the Empress’s dark brown skin. The contrast was mesmerizing. The shorn hair was replaced by smooth nothingness, irresistibly so.

Now there was only the sound of the scraping razor. Percix added more water to the remnant hair to assure a perfect, safe shave. He heard Zenobia let out a soft moan, though he ignored it and continued. After several minutes, the last piece of dark hair was razed and Percix used his wet hand to clear off any hair. Haki provided a rag and dried the Empress’s bare head. Pausing for a moment, Zenobia stood up slowly and turned to face the Gaul. Her features were emphasized by the absence of hair, and the baldness took nothing away from her regal bearing.

“I thank you, Percix, you have served me well. Haki will deliver the hair to you.”

Percix bowed, and turned to leave the cell, fixing the site of the bald queen surrounded by a sea of shorn black hair in his memory forever. Without a word, he left.

The hair, bound in a gold band, was delivered as promised. Percix caressed the incredible swatch, drinking in its beauty. Lucianus was enraged when he discovered that Zenobia had been shaved before she even arrived in Rome. An investigation went nowhere, as the bribed guards remained silent, and Percix dared not speak a word. The several times he saw the Empress before he left, Percix noted how she remained defiant and even more proud in the face of her incoming humiliation. After a week in Emesa, Percix left for Antioch, while the incensed Lucianus and the rest of the Romans, with Zenobia in tow, made their way north.

Aurelian was suitably impressed by the Empress when she was presented to him in Rome. Tales of her beauty and grace were not unfounded. Her black hair had grown in somewhat, but Aurelian could tell that it had been cut short long before then. Zenobia did not beg or threaten, but remained silent. Aurelian then ordered Zenobia to be brought forward in the triumph, though she was free of restraints and there was no stripping and shaving, for her or for her entourage. The new Emperor set aside a villa in Campania for Zenobia to live with her son, and they retired in peace.

The courage and daring of an Empress, Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, saved her and her people from humiliation. She faced Rome and lost her kingdom, but she never lost her dignity. As long as she lived, she was queen.

 

2 responses to “The Eastern Empress

  1. Ohhh, this was a tasty bit of historical fiction. Loved it! You must have some knowledge of the ancient history as your grasp of the time comes through in your work. Looking forward to more from you!
    Claire

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