When Belisarius returned to the capital he did not think to make a formal proposal of marriage through an intermediary. Antonina was past the age for such things. The actual details of the wedding would be handled by the manager of one of his estates; but in Constantinople Antonina was busy as any bride-to-be, considering what she would wear on her wedding day and deciding which cubiculariai she would invite and which she would make excuses not to.

For his part, Belisarius had much to attend to before their wedding day that had nothing to do with that event. For one thing he wanted to visit the families of bucellarii who had fallen at Daras or Sura. Some lived in Constantinople but others were near his Thracian estates So for awhile he and Antonina were parted. That was the decorous thing anyway.

Several weeks passed. Now it was early morning and the Thracian countryside was quite still and peaceful. A few birds did squawk loudly to each other about some matter, probably worms, but there was no breeze to stir the autumn foliage. It was damp but a clear sky told Belisarius that the day would be a fine one. A figure was approaching across the field before him. It had exited the tree line some three hundred meters away but was obscured at first by a mist that rose from behind it, Probably off a pond hidden by the woods, the tactician in the general thought.

What was it to him if someone else was also out enjoying the dawn and the damp and the coolness of the morning? It was nice to be alone here but maybe they would have a nice little chat about something of no importance. That could be nice if the chat wasn’t just clichés about the weather. Belisarius spent most of his time concerned with defense and court politics. He was very good at the first, and knew it; but horrid at the second, and knew it. It might be nice to simply speak with someone about the plans for a new cathedral in Thessaloniki that Justinian was building. That he could honestly praise. That would satisfy Justinian if the stranger turned out to be an imperial spy. Or he could start a conversation with reference to poetry; not really his strong point but that was all the more reason to discuss poets and possibly learn something. Belisarius was not good at just wasting time.

Keeping one eye on the approaching figure, he let his mind roam over other early mornings he had known. Many of them were far from as peaceful as this one; mornings when he had not known the feeling of dew on grass or listened to squawking birds in the trees because he had been devoting his full attention to training infantry or to Persian dispositions in the sands of Mesopotamia. For all the glory his victory at Daras had brought him, battle was a depressing business. Before the sun had set those desert sands had been covered with Persian and Roman dead and maimed. Once he had slipped and fallen on a bit of grass splattered with blood and unidentifiable human insides. He shook off the memory with a silent prayer to be forgiven for those things he had to do for the empire and the emperor… his emperor: Justinian the Great… Justinian the flawed. He even offered a prayer for the tyrant for Antonina had warned him that such a friend was not a friend, and could not be.

An aide brought Belisarius a cup filled with hot spiced water which had been drawn from a sweet spring nearby. Like others of his age, Belisarius did not disapprove of a little wine mixed with water in the morning; it was a good start for many men and could be relied upon to improve their mood; but he usually preferred spiced hot water. Some otherwise good soldiers had not the strength to stop awhile after they had tasted their first wine of the day.

He drew himself back to the present to watch the approaching figure. He began to suspect, and then to be sure, that it was a woman, though for many minutes he could not discern anything more. The hot “tea” was good this chill morning. Its vapors refreshed his nostrils. It is a woman. Not a girl though. Her walk is familiar… indiscreetly familiar! Belisarius forgot decorum. The cup lay where he dropped it as he ran down the hillside.

Antonina stopped and stood alone in the field looking even smaller than she was. Her arms were outstretched in greeting. She forced a silly grin to light her face and hid her fear as her soul spoke to her mind: Do as Theodora says woman. You must be more than you have ever been before. If you can’t say it, it would be better that you had not come; you can still go back to Antioch. That would not do. There would be no going back to a life of miserable obscurity and without Belisarius. I may die here, right now. Though frightened, her mind agreed to the bargain. Then she dropped her arms and a serious demeanor overtook her whole face and frame.

Belisarius stretched out his arms to embrace his fiancé who had made the trip from Constantinople to be with him. Definitely indiscreet. Antonina stopped him with a hand the way a defensive back holds off a linebacker. Belisarius was puzzled. Antonina looked at the grass.

She had left Photius in Antioch to be raised as she could not raise him. That had been three years before. She should not have hid him from Belisarius. She had spent long hours trying to fall asleep while thinking of him. Of his welfare, yes; but also of how Belisarius would receive the news of him as someday he must. It would be impossible to keep knowledge of who his mother was from the boy as he approached manhood. Nor had Antonina intended such when she had left him in Antioch. At that time she’d had no concept of the height to which she would quickly rise. She had only hoped to one day see him again when she was established in some small business after her days of seducing men were over. She had hoped that he might come to join her then and share in the work and profit. All such vague plans were superseded now.

If she did not tell Belisarius, what would happen when one day someone told Photius that his mother was the same Antonina who was a cubicularia in the Great Palace, and the wife of the great general Belisarius? She would be revealed not only as the mother of a bastard but as a particularly cold hearted one who had left her child for a promising new husband. He’d probably kill her as he had the right to do.

“Mi-lord, I have a son… and a daughter.” Her daughter? Antonina had not even kept track of her. As a young teen she had left the baby outside a convent to be raised by the good nuns. Maybe the girl had become one too. No-one, not even the nuns, knew who the girl’s mother was. She could have kept that hidden but Antonina, in a fit of honesty toward her fianceé, decided to come completely clean.

She waited for his reaction. She felt like hell. Then the hard-heartedness of what she had just said aloud struck her fully and she blanched. She had dreaded this all the months that she and Belisarius had been betrothed. He knew that she had lived with Anthemius Antonius in Constantinople and Alexandria and Antioch; but she’d been unable to tell him of Photius or of the girl for fear of being ostracized and losing him. She did not even know what name the nuns had given her daughter. She had been the child of a simple liaison years before when she was nothing more than a very young street walker. Our wedding cannot be, I should never have led him on.

Belisarius was good but he had a position to maintain. It was more than noble that he had been willing to wed, not simply live with, an actress and a prostitute; surely two bastard stepchildren could not fit in too. True, the empress Theodora had been a courtesan and she had a daughter too; but she was the empress and was known to be a vindictive bitch. Whatever others might privately think of her, they would say nothing which could, and surely would, get back to the palace. Besides, her daughter might well have been fathered by Justinian. Antonina’s husband was merely a soldier; the finest commander in the Roman army but still only a soldier. Belisarius would be damaged and called a fool by the wagging tongues of the city. She waited for his anger and rejection.


Belisarius was standing very erect and looking down on her. “Antonina, where are the children?”

Antonina’s face was drained of blood. Fear and worry were in her eyes. He had every right to draw his dagger and strike her dead.

Belisarius kept his face impassive for a moment. Then he looked down at Antonina as a father might on a beloved child who he knew to be suffering more disgrace in her heart then he could bear to see. “Antonina, send for them and I will order a feast when they arrive. Your son will be my son, your daughter our daughter. We will not speak any more of this, of the whys of it; but you should not have kept it from me. You must go to a priest and do whatever penance he requires. ”

Antonina could not look Belisarius in his eyes. She simply slipped slope-shouldered past him. Once again she had far underestimated her fiancée. She had never seen such charity, not even in a priest.



Photius was sent for but finding Antonina’s daughter was more difficult. She had left the babe outside a convent-orphanage when only hours old. Antonina had often thought of the child but knew that what she had done was surely the best thing she could have done. Some working girls did raise daughters in whore houses. They would become prostitutes and support their mothers in their old age. At least she hadn’t done that. The girl would be brought up in religion.

When she returned to Constantinople accompanied by a troop of Belisarius’ bucellarii, Antonina went straight to the convent where she had left the infant years before. After some vague explanation to a novice she was let into the presence of the abbess. She was unsure how to begin and the nun was not of the sweet variety,

“I left my baby girl here nineteen years ago.”

“And I suppose you’re wracked with guilt,” the abbess said without sympathy. “Now you think to salve your conscience, but that is not what would be best for your child. I cannot help you. Go to a priest and confess how you deserted her.”

Antonina could be as hard as the abbess but today tears threatened to break forth. “It is not as you think. It is not for myself that I ask but for my child. I am to be married and my future husband insists that we do what we still can for her.”

“That is good of him. Not many men would marry an old whore … save our sacred emperor himself, of course. But still, I cannot help. I must think of the girl’s happiness. She is long past being of age to marry but has not. It is a sad story. What do you expect you could do for her now?”

Antonina found herself on her knees and the abbess softened her tone slightly. She took Antonina’s hands in hers but Antonina spoke before the abbess could dismiss her with a prayer. “Her future is assured now. I am to marry general Belisarius.”

That changed everything of course. The baby had been christened Callista and she worked in a market near the city’s Golden Horn selling pottery. Despite her fear and sorrow a chuckle almost passed Antonina’s lips. She sells pots.

“She loves a man, a cataphract named Ildiger. But it is impossible. She has, or at least until now she has had no family. He doesn’t care but his family does. She is a simple orphan with no dowry save what little she has saved of her earnings and a bit more from the church’s St. Nicholas fund.”

An orphan girl without a dowry, in love with a minor nobleman? Surely parents cared as much for their child’s happiness in that century as now, but love was something that came after marriage not before. Most couples wed when they were little more than children, and when the concept of “teens” was unknown. Romance was no more to be trusted in the Christian Roman Empire than it had been in classical times. Parents knew better than twelve and fourteen year olds what sort of a girl or boy their son or daughter would be happy with.

The abbess thought for a moment, than admitted: “Under the circumstances it may actually be best that neither Callista nor Ildiger wed when they were young.”

The good abbess now had reason to help Antonina locate the pot shop where her former charge worked. A generous dowry materialized and the marriage was arranged. When Photius arrived from Antioch there was a feast as Belisarius had promised. For the first time Antonina found herself hosting family and a few good friends. Even her mother was invited. She glowed. Callista called Photius her brother, and afterward Photius spoke alone for hours with his stepfather. The following month Callista and Ildiger had the rare pleasure of marrying entirely for love.