The Sarantine Mosaic
The story's setting is based on the 6th century Mediterranean world, and the looming conflict between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy that had replaced the Western Roman Empire. Varena, the capital of Batiara, alludes to Ravenna, the Ostrogothic capital, while Sarantium, the capital of Trakesia, is inspired by Byzantium or Constantinople. The novels The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Last Light of the Sun also take place in that unnamed world, although in different settings. In the series we are also briefly acquainted with the character Ashar ibn Ashar, who is the creator of the Asharite religion seen in The Lions of Al-Rassan. The seeds of change for the great empire based in Sarantium are thus already being sown even at the height of its power and prestige.
Sailing to Sarantium
Sailing to Sarantium, the first novel in the saga, was published in 1998. In this novel, mosaicist Caius Crispus ("Crispin"), is summoned from Varena to the great metropolis of Sarantium to create a mosaic for Emperor Valerius II, (modelled on Byzantine emperor Justinian I). Crispin has lost his family to plague, and has nothing left to him except his mosaic art, for which he is earning attention. The narration follows his travels from the relatively civilized Batiara through the wilder region of Sauradia, where he has an encounter with a creature of supernatural aspect resembling an aurochs, to Sarantium itself and his compelled entrance into the politics of the metropolis, centred on Valerius and his consort, the Empress Alixana (modelled on Justinian's empress, Theodora). While Crispin is a central focus of the book, there are other stories interwoven with his. Overcoming loss (loss of family, loss of the past), rebuilding (life, civilization), journey as change and the importance of art to the individual creator and to civilization itself are themes of the novel. The title and much of the thematic development alludes to the poem Sailing to Byzantium, a work of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.
Emperor Apius of Sarantium dies without any heirs leaving the empire in uncertainty. Flavius Daleina, a rich and influential aristocrat, plants his men among the common people to falsely shout their support for him as emperor among the different factions. His deception is quickly uncovered at the same time as he is murdered on the streets with Sarantium fire while donning the robes of the Emperor, leaving his eldest son hideously burned, while Petrus of Trakesia and his lover Aliana, who is the most prominent dancer of the city, look on. Valerius, uncle to Petrus and Count of the Excubitors (the city's soldiers and guards) is appointed the new Emperor by the popular demand, as his nephew had predicted.
Fifteen years later, Petrus has succeeded his uncle, naming himself Valerius II and making Alixana, formerly Aliana, his empress. Valerius II commissions a great sanctuary for Jad and summons Martinian of Batiara, a renowned mosiacist, to decorate it. The royal request is sent with Pronobius Tilliticus, an Imperial Courier, who delays delivery of the message while pursuing personal pleasure along the road. Martinian, partially on whim and partially believing himself too old to travel, causes Tilliticus to mistake his friend and colleague Caius Crispus ("Crispin") of Rhodias for him, delivering the message in a public fashion. Crispin is reluctant to accept the prestigious summons, having lost the desire to live when his wife and two daughters died of the plague the previous year. Having taken too long receive the summons, the season no longer allows Crispin to Sail to Sarantium; he must take the road. Martinian sends Crispin to talk to his old and well-traveled friend Zoticus for advice on his journey. Zoticus reveals himself to have some supernatural powers and gives Crispin a mechanical bird, Linon, that is alive, being able to both talk to him aloud and within his mind. He also gives Crispin the name of his daughter and another person in Sarantium who may be able to help him.
The night before he is to leave, Crispin is forcibly abducted and taken to Gisel, the queen of the Antae and ruler over Batiara and Rhodias, who is barely holding onto her throne and life after the recent death of her father. She gives Crispin a secret message to be given only to Emperor Valerius II: an offer of her hand in marriage, which would save her life and give Valerius the western kingdom. The palace guards from that night are killed to protect the secret.
Crispin starts his journey under the assumed identity of Martinian, hiring Vargos as his man servant. The night before the Day of the Dead, during which Zoticus warned him not to travel, Crispin arrives at an inn where a slave girl, Kisia, begs him to save her, having figured out she is to be given as a human sacrifice to the pagan god on the Day of the Dead. Despite devising an ingenious plan that forces the innkeeper to give him ownership of Kisia, the group are still pursued as they leave the inn, deeming it necessary to travel on the Day of the Dead despite all warnings. They are saved by a zubir, a corporeal representation of the pagan god, which then brings them to the forested area where the human sacrifices are performed. Linon realizes the god wants only her, revealing that she was a girl to be sacrificed to the god long ago but her soul was saved and placed in the bird by Zoticus. She sacrifices herself, releasing her soul from the bird, and allowing the others to leave unharmed.
While admiring an old and impressive mosaic in a sanctuary along the road, the commander Carullus with his men find Crispin; he has been sent by Valerius due to extended time it has taken to respond to the Emperor's summons. After an initial rough encounter, resulting in Crispin being knocked unconscious by Carullus and Vargos and Kisia almost being raped and killed, the group slowly become friends as they finally arrive in Sarantium.
Shortly after arriving, Crispin is immediately summoned to the Emperor and the court, at a speed that is unheard of in the empire. Risking his life, Crispin reveals his true identity only to find out that the Emperor and Empress knew his and Martinian's deception from the beginning. Crispin quickly finds favour with them, causing the royal mosiacist to be dismissed and angering his sponsor, Styliane Daleina, the daughter of the murdered Flavius Daleina and new wife of Leontes, the beloved royal Strategos. The Emperor gives Crispin the honour of decorating the newly erected sanctuary, and Empress Alixana publicly invites Crispin for a private audience later that night.
Crispin's private audience with the Empresses is interrupted by the Emperor and the two reveal that they know of Gisel's secret offer of marriage, while Crispin neither confirms or denies the message. It becomes clear that the Emperor will not put aside his beloved though barren wife - an assumed consequence of her former life as a dancer - but informs both that he had long since summoned the queen to Sarantium, where he plans to use her as an excuse to invade the west and reunite the kingdoms under his rule. The Emperor then brings Crispin to the sanctuary to show him where he is to work, before leaving him under the protection of Carullus to return home.
While returning home, Crispin is attacked by assassins, but survives due to the help of Carullus and the famous and beloved Scortius of the blues, the most beloved charioteer of the city. Crispin returns to his room only to find Styliane Daleina there; she throws herself at him and is amused when he rejects her advances.
The next day, while relaxing in a bath house, Crispin finds himself alone with Leontes, the latter having arranged it to discuss his views on the blasphemy of depicting Jad in human form. Before leaving, Leontes exposes another armed assassin entering the sauna, giving Crispin just enough time to overcome his attacker while looking on and refusing to help.
Crispin makes contact with Zoticus's daughter, Shirin, who is revealed to also have one of her father's birds whose thoughts Crispin is able to also hear for unknown reasons. With the help of Vargos, it is learned that the assassins were hired by Pronobius Tilliticus as revenge for losing his job when Crispin indirectly revealed his inappropriate and disloyal services.
With the help of Zoticus, Gisel is able to escape attempts on her life and journeys to Sarantium. Zoticus, upon learning that the pagan god had not forgotten nor relinquished his right to the souls of the human sacrifices given to him, journeyed to the forested area where Linon had sacrificed herself to the zubir. There he allows the remaining souls in his mechanical birds to be released back to the god and allows himself to become a human sacrifice.
Crispin further entwines himself into court life and finds reason to continue living through his task of decorating the great sanctuary, through which he sees a chance of immortality. The book ends with an unknown female figure entering the sanctuary while Crispin is working, irresistibly drawing him down to greet her.
Lord of Emperors
Lord of Emperors was published in 2000. The story continues from Sailing to Sarantium and tells of what happens to Crispin after his arrival in the city of Sarantium. Crispin has been charged with a project to cover the interior of the dome of a grand new religious building in Sarantium with a mosaic work. The confidant of both Alixana, the empress, and of the exiled Queen Gisel of Crispin's native Batiara (modelled on the Ostrogoth queen, Amalasuntha), Crispin struggles to survive the political machinations of the era and work on his mosaic. The reader is also introduced to Rustem of Kerakek, a physician from Bassania, an eastern empire roughly analogous to Sassanid Persia, who has also journeyed to the city, finding himself entangled in political intrigue. A significant theme of the book is the interplay between the lives of the politically powerful and the interests of the ordinary people, typified by the chariot races at the hippodrome which become an all-consuming passion for the people even as the empire draws closer to war and upheaval.
Rustem of Kerakek, a physician from Bassania, is summoned by Shirvan, the King of Kings of Bassania, after being wounded with a poisoned arrow. Rustem saves his life and helps reveal that it is the prince who is behind the assassination attempt. Shirvan rewards him with the promise of raising him to the priestly caste and making him a court physician. However, he first commands Rustem to go to Sarantium to act as his spy.
In Sarantium, Crispin has further settled into his work of creating the mosaic in the sanctuary. He plans to immortalize his wife and daughters, as well as Linon and an image of the zubir, alongside Jad. Carullus has proposed to Kasia and their wedding draws together most of the influential people of the city through the help of their friends. Upon arriving, Rustem's servant (who is secretly his guard and protector) is murdered by an aristocrat's son, and through the events of fleeing for his life, he arrives at the wedding as a guest of Crispin. There he approaches the father of his servant's murderer and secures himself with a home and protection in the city as compensation. Rustem quickly established himself but is disturbed when he receives an order from the King of Kings to assassinate a woman.
Emperor Valerius II makes it known to a few that he intends to wage war to reclaim Batiara in the name of Queen Gisel. Crispin, while at the house of Leontes, allows himself to be seduced by Styliane this time, and escapes through the window when Leontes returns. Styliane tells him of the upcoming invasion of his homeland and also warns him not to become attached to his work.
It is revealed that it was Empress Alixana who was the woman who approached Crispin at the end of the first novel. She again approaches Crispsin as he finishes his wife's image in the mosaic and was to begin that of his daughters. She takes him on a boat ride under the premise of showing him dolphins which she wishes to put in a mosaic for her private room - a depiction which is considered heretical due to their divine association. The boat arrives at an island where Lecanus Daleinus, the oldest but hideously burned and disfigured son of the assassinated Flavius Daleinus, is imprisoned. Alixana impersonates Styliane to try get information from him. Although Lecanus is blind, Crispin hears the thoughts of yet another mechanical bird talking to Lecanus in his head and realises that Lecanus is not deceived. After they leave, he confesses what he heard to Alixana who quickly deduces that an assassination attempt is being made on her husband. They return to Lecanus's hut only to find him gone and his guards killed. A guard attempts to assassinate Alixana but is stopped. Alixana tells Crispin to return to the boat with one of her two remaining loyal guards and asks him how he found a reason to live after having lost his family. She returns to Sarantium on a small boat with her remaining guard, discarding her royal robes, cutting her hair, and changing her appearance. Upon arriving in the docks, she disappears into the crowds, disguised as a whore.
Emperor Valerius II is confronted by all three surviving Daleinoi children, including Styliane and Lecanus, in his personal passage between palaces, his guards having been bribed. He quickly deduces that they intend to kill him with Sarantine fire as revenge for the death of their father. He banters with them, trying to undermine each of them and their hold on the guards. He almost succeeds escaping, but is stabbed in the back by his secretary - a man who hated the Emperor and Empress, perceiving them to be impious. Lecanus burns the Emperor's body along with the guards before allowing himself to be burned, taking the sole blame for the events.
The city erupts in a riot. Leontes is quickly chosen as the new Emperor while Styliane claimed to have arrived too late to stop her brother after learning of his plans. A city-wide search for the Empress is started, with guards going from house to house. Rustem, returning home late after treating many riot victims, finds Empress Alixana in his bedroom. She quickly reveals she knew his goal as a spy and asks his help in hiding her while revealing that she knew he had already refused orders to assassinate Queen Gisel. It is also revealed that it was not Alixana who was barren but Emperor Valerius II who was infertile. Pretending to be a whore caught in the act of pleasuring him when a guard bursts into the room, Rustem helps save her life and allows her to stay the night, finding her gone in the morning. In return, she gives him information and helps him realize that he is likely to be killed should he return home for failing to assassinate Gisel. That same night, Gisel summons Crispin and has him help her slip into the palace.
Gisel manages to meet with Leontes, persuading him to see Styliane's role in the whole event and convincing him to take her as his new wife and a means to obtain the west without a war. Styliane is blinded and imprisoned on the same isle her brother had been on. Her remaining brother is found and executed. Leontes explains to Crispin that all images of Jad are to be destroyed and images of humans and Jad are seen as blasphemy. Crispin is crushed by the news that his mosaic is to be destroyed, seeing it as a death. He decides to finish the images of his daughters before it is destroyed anyway, and decides that it is time to return home.
Crispin says goodbye to all his friends, and finally realizes that Rustem is the second person Zoticus had told him he'd meet - somehow knowing he would go to Sarantium long before his arrival. Crispin is summoned a final time by the new Empress Gisel, and is permitted to go visit Styliane before he leaves. Styliane asks Crispin to kill her, realizing life had nothing left for her in her current state and having already achieved her revenge. He refuses but leaves a dagger that Gisel had, perhaps knowingly, given him during their meeting. Shirin confronts Crispin before he leaves where she manages to get Crispin to indirectly indicate he has feelings for her and that she should perhaps eventually join him in Batiara.
Upon arriving home, Crispin finds Martinian and royal couriers waiting for him. Gisel had greatly rewarded him with wealth, as she had originally promised if he were to successfully deliver her message to Emperor Valerius II. She also gave him all the rich tools from Sarantium needed to create a great mosaic, promising the work would be protected as long as an image of Jad was not made.
Crispin spends the next year making an elaborate mosaic in a small abandoned sanctuary, while Martinian decorated the adjoining larger and newer sanctuary in an appropriate way, finally having access to the great materials he had always dreamed of throughout his career. Crispin's mosaic depicts the newly appointed Emperor Valerius III (formerly Leontes) and Empress Gisel on one side and the former Emperor Valerius II and Empress Alixana are depicted on the other. Between them are depicted all the important figures of court that Crispin had known, including himself.
In a mirror of the ending of the first book, just as Crispin finishes the last piece of his mosaic, a woman distracts him from his work. Assuming it is Shirin finally come to meet him, he is surprised to see Aliana - no longer Alixana after having disappeared that night. She comments on herself in the mosaic and the two of them realize that they have a reason in each other to continue living. The novel ends with them talking about having children together.
Aliana/Alixana - Once the most prominent actress and dancer in Sarantium, with allegiance to the Blues. She is the lover of Petrus, and becomes the Empress Alixana when Petrus succeeds his uncle.
Apius - The former emperor who dies at the beginning of the first novel. Without any legitimate heirs, Valerius I is appointed the next emperor by popular acclaim of the people.
Astorgus - Once a great chariot racer, now retired and leading the Blues faction.
Caius Crispus ("Crispin") - A skilled mosaicist from Varena, still mourning his wife and two daughters who died in a plague the year before. He travels to Sarantium to work on the new Sanctuary of Holy Wisdom there, and becomes entangled in the politics surrounding Valerius II and Alixana. Perceptive and articulate, with an imaginative but practical mind given to solving puzzles; he puts these skills to good use on his journey to Sarantium.
Carullus - a verbose and foul-mouthed cavalry officer sent to find "Martinian of Varena" (actually Crispin) on the road to Sarantium. Despite their hostile first encounter, the two soon become friends. Carullus eventually weds Kasia in an extravagant ceremony at Shirin's house. He is an aficionado of chariot racing, and supports the Greens.
Flavius Daleinus - A prominent aristocrat who sees himself as the logical successor of Emperor Apius. He plants his people to falsely proclaim his popularity among the different factions in the city, and even goes as far as receiving people in the role of emperor and dressing himself in the robes of an emperor as the city decided on Apius's successor. He is murdered on the street by Sarantine fire, presumably under the orders of Petrus.
Kasia - A young girl willingly sold into slavery by her mother in exchange for food for her mother and sister. She is sold to an innkeeper, where she worked for a year before being marked as the human sacrifice for the Day of the Dead. She is saved by Crispin and brought to Sarantium. Carullus proposes to her and they are wed in an extravagant ceremony.
Leontes/Valerius III - Supreme Strategos of the Sarantine Empire, Valerius II's most trusted and successful commander, husband of Styliane Daleina. Deeply religious, he believes depictions of the god Jad to be sacrilegious. When Valerius II is assassinated, Leontes succeeds him as Emperor Valerius III, and orders Crispin's mosaic on the dome of the city sanctuary torn down.
Lecanus Daleinus - oldest son of Flavius Daleinus and older brother Styliane. Severely burned, blinded and crippled by the Sarantine fire that killed his father, he has lived ever since as a prisoner on a small island near the city. He eventually escapes with the help of his sister, and assassinates Valerius II.
Martinian - Senior mosaicist in Varena, Crispin's friend and mentor. Summoned by Valerius and Alixana to work on the new Sanctuary of Holy Wisdom in Sarantium, he urges Crispin to go in his place.
Gesius - The Imperial Chancellor, a eunuch. He has kept his position under a succession of different emperors by being both subtle and shrewd.
Gisel - Queen of Batiara and the barbarian Antae people who rule there. Only eighteen, she has ruled for less than a year since her father's death, and is desperate to keep her throne and her life. She enlists the aid of Crispin as a discrete messenger, but an assassination attempt forces her to flee to Sarantium. She eventually becomes the wife of Leontes and Empress of Sarantium, bringing her country of Batiara peacefully into the Empire.
Pertennius of Eubulus - Principal Secretary to Leontes, charged with chronicling the exploits of the Supreme Strategos. He is obsessed with Shirin, and is seen to be writing a lurid (and possibly fabricated) secret history of Valerius and Alixana's reign.
Petrus/Valerius II - A peasant from Trakesia, summoned to Sarantium by his uncle Valerius I. He helps his uncle become Emperor and becomes his successor upon Valerius's death, taking the name Valerius II for himself. Without any living heirs, he wishes to leave his mark on the world by creating a great sanctuary to Jad and uniting the former kingdoms under his rule. He is murdered by the Daleinoi children in revenge for the murder of their father.
Plautus Bonosus - A wealthy Sarantine aristocrat and Master of the Senate, a largely ceremonial position. Urbane and sophisticated, he regards the politics around him with wry detachment.
Pronobius Tilliticus - An imperial courier charged with delivering the imperial invitation to Martinian. He delivers his message later than intended due his many indiscretions while on the road. When these come to the attention of his superiors, he loses his job. Blaming this on Crispin, he hires assassins to kill him.
Rustem of Kerakek - A young but skilled physician from the eastern nation of Bassania. He is sent to Sarantium on a special task. While there he meets Crispin and Scortius, and saves the life of the latter. On the night of Valerius II's assassination, he hides Empress Alixana in his room. He has a young son, Shaski, who appears to possess some sort of clairvoyance.
Scortius - A chariot racer, formerly of the Greens and currently of the Blues, widely regarded as the best racer in Sarantium.
Shirin - Daughter of Zoticus and most prominent dancer of Sarantium in her time, mirroring the beginnings of Empress Alixana's career. She has a living mechanical bird given to her by her father.
Styliane Daleina - Daughter of Flavius Daleinus, who has been forced into a political marriage with Leontes. Beautiful but cold, she despises Valerius and Alixana, and desires above all else to avenge the death of her father.
Valerius I - A peasant from Trakesia who came to Sarantium and slowly rose in the ranks of the army to become Count of the Excubitors - the commander of the Imperial Guard. With the help of his nephew, he becomes the new Emperor on the death of Apius.
Vargos - A servant working along the Imperial route, hired by Crispin during his travels. He helps save the life of Kasia and comes to Sarantium with them. He helps Crispin creating the mosaic and is implied that he will become an apprentice in the field.
Zoticus - An alchemist, once a young adventurer but now aged, who has discovered how to make living mechanical birds. He has given one to his daughter, Shirin, and another to Crispin.
References to other novels
This novel takes place in the same world as The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Last Light of the Sun. As in the other novels, the three main religions of the Jaddites, Kindath and Asharites are presented based on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, respectively. Events of the Sarantine Mosaic take place centuries before those of the other two set in the shared world.
It is implied that Rustem is the ancestor of Rodrigo Belmonte from The Lions of Al-Rassan.
Reviewing Lord of Emperors, Charles de Lint praised both volumes, saying "Kay's books ring with authenticity. They are literate and imaginative, and work on many levels. History aficionados will delight in all the small and telling insights Kay brings to the era and its cultures, while other readers will simply delight in the grand sweep of the story, the rich characterization, and Kay's sheer gift with language."
- Dena Taylor, On Sailing to Sarantium, TransVersions 10, Toronto: Orchid Press, 1999, republished on Bright Weavings (Kay's authorized website)
- Thomas M. Wagner, review of The Lord of Emperors, on SF Reviews.net
- Books to Look For, F&SF, October/November 2000