So I mused, till presently I felt a light touch upon my shoulder, and swung round to find myself face to face with the Empress Irene herself.
“Augusta!” I said, saluting, for, as Empress, that was her Roman title, even though she was a Greek.
“You guard me well, friend Olaf,” she said, with a little laugh. “Why, any enemy, and Christ knows I have plenty, could have cut you down before ever you knew that he was there.”
“Not so, Augusta,” I answered, for I could speak their Greek tongue well; “since at the end of the terrace the guards stand night and day, men of my own blood who can be trusted. Nothing which does not fly could gain this place save through your own chambers, that are also guarded. It is not usual for any watch to be set here, still I came myself in case the Empress might need me.”
“That is kind of you, my Captain Olaf, and I think I do need you. At least, I cannot sleep in this heat, and I am weary of the thoughts of State, for many matters trouble me just now. Come, change my mind, if you can, for if so I’ll thank you. Tell me of yourself when you were young. Why did you leave your northern home, where I’ve heard you were a barbarian chief, and wander hither to Byzantium?”
“Because of a woman,” I answered.
“Ah!” she said, clapping her hands; “I knew it. Tell me of this woman whom you love.”
“The story is short, Augusta. She bewitched my foster-brother, and caused him to be sacrificed to the northern gods as a troth-breaker, and I do not love her.”
“You’d not admit it if you did, Olaf. Was she beautiful, well, say as I am?”
I turned and looked at the Empress, studying her from head to foot. She was shorter than Iduna by some inches, also older, and therefore of a thicker build; but, being a fair Greek, her colour was much the same, save that the eyes were darker. The mouth, too, was more hard. For the rest, she was a royal-looking and lovely woman in the flower of her age, and splendidly attired in robes broidered with gold, over which she wore long strings of rounded pearls. Her rippling golden hair was dressed in the old Greek fashion, tied in a simple knot behind her head, and over it was thrown a light veil worked with golden stars.
“Well, Captain Olaf,” she said, “have you finished weighing my poor looks against those of this northern girl in the scales of your judgment? If so, which of us tips the beam?”
“Iduna was more beautiful than ever you can have been, Augusta,” I replied quietly.
She stared at me till her eyes grew quite round, then puckered up her mouth as though to say something furious, and finally burst out laughing.
“By every saint in Byzantium,” she said, “or, rather, by their relics, for of live ones there are none, you are the strangest man whom I have known. Are you weary of life that you dare to say such a thing to me, the Empress Irene?”