Irene pumped the treadle with her slippered foot and ran coarse wool through her fingers, allowing the wheel to spin the yarn. Her eyes, pale blue, beginning to glaze with age, stared foggily at the bright horizon. She was surrounded by ocean, an exile, a prisoner in her own empire. She was alone, spinning wool to survive.
Heavy footsteps crushed gravel: Nikos, likely, her erstwhile advisor and current jailor. She continued to spin.
“Exalted One,” Nikos said, quite near her ear, aware of and exploiting her encroaching blindness. The title was some sort of compromise arrived at by unknown men, always and forever men, who occupied her throne in Constantinople. Her status as an empress-in-exile, just like her former status as an empress-in-fact, was unprecedented. Her womanhood had complicated the usual protocol, and a whole language was being invented to smooth it over, put it into storage, make it go away. “There is a letter,” Nikos said when he perceived Irene would continue to ignore him.
The empress stopped her pumping on the foot pedals. The wooden wheel began to clatter as it slowed.
“Shall I read it to you?”
Irene nodded and resumed her task. A letter could be anything. Best to hear it before succumbing to silly emotions.
“Charles, king of the Franks, Holy Roman Emperor, so decreed by the Pope these two Christmases past, declines your offer of betrothal. While such an arrangement was amenable in former times, to unite the states now is unnecessary. The Caesar of Holy Rome already rules all.”
A cloud drifted before the sun, temporarily dimming the light that fell on Lesvos. So the exile was complete, then. Irene, Emperor of Rome, was now and truly a simple dowager woolmaker. “Leave me,” she said to Nikos, and listened carefully to his steps down the mountain, each crunch of his boots slightly quieter, vanishing with her hopes for a wedding that would … what? Even if Charlemagne married her, would she really be revered again? Or would she be in another form of captivity, surrounded by golden shields instead of brackish water?
August now. The heat on Lesvos is oppressive. Irene stays indoors, sweating heavily and seeing nothing. A servant girl, who does not call her Exalted One, feeds her cold soup.
“What do you think of?”
In truth, Irene thinks often of her son, the one whose eyes she removed. As the sight of the world fades, she thinks often of the retribution of God, who promised with a rainbow that punishment would wait until an afterlife, but when a rainbow cannot be seen, a promise cannot be kept. Irene thinks of her punishment, and how it began long ago, and how it escalates with each agonizing day.
“Would you prefer not to speak to me? That is your right, but the days of summer are long, and your hands are idle.”
“I have nothing left to say,” Irene croaked, then pressed her lips against the offer of another spoonful. She listens to a spoon clatter into a bowl and hands smooth a skirt. This girl is persistent, pernicious.
“When in your life did you say your final thought?”
Irene’s eyebrows raise at the impertinence of the question, though it was asked kindly, gently, with only an accidental whiff of condescension. She decides to answer. “When men no longer listened.”
“So you, an empress, require a man to receive your thoughts, or they do not exist?”
“I am no longer an empress.”
“Your empire may be small, but you rule it still.”
Irene snorted. “I cannot even rule my own hands.”
“But your mind, so full of history and knowledge, is still your empire, is it not? And your mind is a place of woman, is it not? So do you not rule an empire of women?”
“You speak nonsense. I am tired.”
“You are dying. I would like to know what transpires in your empire before you go.”
“Why?” The empress raises her voice as much as she can manage. “Why? Among all my tortures, why have you added yourself? Can I not be tired? Can I not die in peace?”
She imagines the girl trembling. Her wrath was always her most potent weapon. But the voice that replies is steady, patient. “You cannot die here. Not with me by your side. We are one.”
Irene draws back in her chair. This voice, it suddenly sounds familiar. “Who are you? Who sent you? Give me your name.”
“You know me, Ruler of the Byzantines, Emperor of Rome, Founder of Macedonia. I am woman. We are united.”
“Demon! Ghost! Spirit! Temptress!”
A soft, warm, young hand presses itself on her cheek. Irene fights her paralysis to brush it away, but she is frozen beneath its warmth, and gradually, her recoiling cheek relaxes. Terribly, water begins to fall from her useless eyes.
“You did not win, but you did not lose. You lived, you commanded, you made the world in your image and in so doing — changed the image of the world. For a time. For your time.” The hand shifts to Irene’s shoulder. “And you are not alone.”
The Lesbian countryside rumbles. An earthquake, too small to destroy, but large enough to be felt. The tremor causes the hand to leave Irene’s body, and she remains like that, untouched, as she passes forever into her inward empire.