Byzantium, c. 550 CE
The Empress of whom I’m speaking ruled over a vast domain with countless subjects. She maintained a retinue of thousands, assigned to all manner of tasks. Many in her employ were the most gifted and respected of their kind.
Among those responsible for various types of fauna alone you could count dozens, if not hundreds of specialists. The Keeper of Horses oversaw the royal stables together with the herds that roamed the plains and moorlands. The Keeper of Hounds was responsible for the hunting dogs in the kennels as well as the lap dogs at court. The Piscine Master was responsible for keeping the lakes and rivers stocked with all manner of fishes, from lampreys used in healing to sturgeon destined for the table.
These were but a few of the ranks of servants charged by the royal household with the care, feeding and husbandry of the many creatures who in their various ways supported the state.
So it came to the Empress’s attention that she lacked a Master of Birds. The Keeper of Jesses trained and housed the hunting hawks. The Keeper of Coops maintained the homing pigeons that allowed the realm’s cities and garrisons to share news and coordinate their movements. The Keeper of Hatcheries oversaw the many buildings and yards, marshes, and meadows where the domesticated fowl lived out their lives.
But no individual saw to the welfare of the birds of the field. The Empress wished to ensure that they, too, thrived through all seasons, for their practical uses as well as the simple joy they gave.
To find the individual best suited to this position, the Empress dispatched fast riders to fan out through her lands. In every settlement, large and small, near and far, these heralds proclaimed the Empress’s intention to find a person to occupy the post of Master of Birds.
The Empress assigned such importance to this newly created post, the riders announced, that she would personally audition any individual who took it upon themselves to make the journey to the capital in response to the call. Audiences were to take place over a three-day period beginning on the summer solstice.
On the morning of the solstice, a young man with a clever face presented himself at court and stated his intention to serve Her Grace as Master of Birds.
“And how should we judge you to be qualified?” asked the Empress.
“Allow me to demonstrate,” stated the young man with an easy confidence. Using a stick of charcoal he produced from his robe, he then dashed off a note in a hasty hand, as if he were a physician writing a prescription. He rolled it into a tight cylinder, slid it into a thin metal tube, and, with a bow, presented it to his sovereign.
“If it pleases Your Grace to post a watchman just there” — and here he pointed to a position on a nearby battlement — “then in two hours you shall have your answer.”
The young man then asked, and received, an escort to the battlement, where he poised a loosely woven wicker box, propped up by a slender twig, over a scatter of flax seeds.
At a certain moment, witnessed by the watchman and by several others who loitered out of sheer curiosity, a linnet landed next to the box, hopped beneath it to peck at the seed, and tripped the twig in doing so.
The young man recovered the box, cupped the linnet gently in his hands, and resumed his audience before the Empress, who understood she was to open and unravel the message placed in the tube. “A variegated linnet,” the message read, “at precisely five minutes past noon.”
“I am most pleased and impressed,” stated the Empress. “By your skill as well as your knowing touch. How did you come by such talents?”
“I cannot say, Augusta. I simply understand birds. I have observed them countless hours since I was a little boy.”
“I can only imagine you shall be my Master of Birds,” stated the Empress with a smile. “But for the sake of form, we must allow two days’ more time for any others who desire this post to step forward and present themselves.”
The morning of the second day passed without any new aspirants to the post of Master of Birds appearing at court. Word of the previous day’s impressive performance circulated through the Palace District and the city itself, and if any others had arrived to compete for the position perhaps they now felt discouraged from doing so.
As the afternoon shadows began to lengthen, however, an innocent-faced young woman wearing the traditional dress of the people of the hinterlands took her place before the Empress and her attendants. She moved with such a shy and graceful air that more than one of those present brought a hand to their hearts.
“By what means shall we know you are suited to be my Master of Birds?” asked the Empress.
Without a word, the girl retired to the courtyard outside the royal audience chambers, arranged her long skirts neatly in a circle around her, and seated herself just so.
At the random cawing of a crow flying above the palace walls, the girl raised her left arm at the elbow and bent her pointer finger as if to suggest a perch. Immediately the crow altered its course, spiraling downward towards her. Her hands now resting neat as a napkin her lap, the girl sat with sublime composure as the crow settled on her shoulder.
Those who witnessed this event beat their chests and raised a cheer. They cheered again, even more heartily when, to their disbelief, a second crow descended, taking up a position on the girl’s other shoulder. Once settled, both creatures rubbed their heads against the young woman’s plaited hair with evident affection.
Answering her sovereign’s bid to stand and come forward, the girl did so, accompanied by the crows, content to remain perched on her shoulders.
“I had thought we found our Master of Birds already,” the Empress remarked. “But I see I was mistaken. The gifts you possess, Little Sister, are truly remarkable. However did you come by them?“
“I cannot say, Augusta. I simply love the birds. The love radiates from my heart and whether these beloved creatures simply feel its warmth or sense it in my voice and gestures is not mine to know. But I have lived with this agape since my earliest days.”
“I believe I can say with certainty that you shall be my Master of Birds,” stated the Empress with a radiant smile. “But we must honor our commitment to allow one day more for any others who desire this post to present themselves.”
The third day passed uneventfully. “For the sake of form and tradition,” advised the Lady Chamberlain, “you should permit any late-coming aspirants to the post of Master of Birds to come forward up until the setting of the sun. But I think we can reasonably strike the chamber and dismiss the court some time before then.”
And so they did.
To their utter surprise, however, they heard a modest but determined rapping on the tall metal doors to the audience chamber as the redmost rays of the sun were plaiting the yards and chasing down the colonnades of the Palace District.
“And who presents themselves at this hour?” called the ramsho sentry through the chamber doors.
“An old woman and her grandson come to beseech the Empress’s consideration for the honor of serving as Master of Birds,” came the voice of an ancient dame.
“It is past the hour the Empress would see her people,” the sentry replied. “The door remains closed.”
“How can it be past the hour?” the old woman asked. “The sun still warms my back.”
“I believe the Empress has found her Master of Birds in any event, mother,” replied the sentry.
“We have journeyed to this daunting capital from a long ways off,” the grandson, a mere boy, countered. “And for granny three day’s journey is equal to any other traveler’s one. I ask not for myself, but granny here is tired and parched, having traveled so far to serve our sovereign.”
Taking pity on the two, and acknowledging the merit of their petition, however reluctantly, the sentry summoned a courier to locate the Lady Chamberlain and inquire her wishes.
The Chamberlain, too, reluctantly acceded to the pair’s request. As long as cool water, a wash and a few hours’ rest on a freshly stuffed pallet were all they required, she felt no need to disturb the Empress.
Upon receiving his instructions and opening the doors, the sentry’s eyes widened in surprise. The old woman’s own eyes were two featureless moonstones. As the grandson guided her, the guard saw that the young boy, too, possessed the same opaque lamps as his grandmother. Yet the rapid motions of his head, abruptly torquing this way and that, gave the impression that he was taking note of his surroundings in minute detail.
The sentry caught himself starting to count the individual flecks of mica in the matrix of the polished floor. None of the thousands of individuals who had crossed this threshold, people of every station and condition, had ever displayed a tic such as this lad’s, he considered.
And the spring in his step, effortless as an acrobat’s: Yes, the sentry could see, the boy placed his weight forward, on the balls of his feet and the spread of his toes, leaving the heels slightly raised. Without thinking, the man shifted his own weight slightly. The boy smiled.
Granny, too, moved in an uncanny way. Though she lent her hand to the boy, he did nothing more than touch his fingertips to hers. Nor did she match his progress step for step. Instead, she held back for a beat or two, cocking her head as if to consider sounds too faint for the sentry to register. Satisfied, she would rejoin the boy with a quick hop. Did the cane she held even tap the floor? Yes, but faintly, the sentry confirmed, as if simply to acknowledge that the floor was there.
Surprising as he found the blind pair, the next occurrence left the sentry at a loss to explain. As the two travelers stepped inside, it seemed that birds in every tree took to the air for a few short wingbeats and increased the volume of their ramsho praise.
The sentry summoned a courier once more, who nodded as he took stock of the scene for himself. The courier did his job well, delivering the message with all its uncanny quality. While a last bit of light still remained in the sky, the Empress and her attendants reassembled.
“Augusta is beyond considerate to this poor soul, so far strayed past the bounds of her deserving,” the old woman said.
“Mother’s courtesy truly moves this humble ruler,” replied the Empress. “We bid you rest and respite from your travels.”
But the old woman had other ideas besides rest, it seemed. She politely but firmly requested a chance to prove herself the most deserving claimant to the post of Master of Birds.
Why should I not extend her this courtesy? the Empress decided, if only to humor the poor thing.
After a deep bow, the old woman leaned against her cane and began to speak. She spoke of intimate moments glimpsed through an open window on Goldsmith Lane. She spoke of three children fishing for bream on the banks of the tributary. She spoke of a man making a cat dance in pursuit of the feather he dangled. She spoke of the traffic approaching the city on the Eastern Road in the final minutes before the doors at its terminus withdrew for the night. She spoke of two Ladies in Waiting touching the silken bedclothes laid out for the Empress in her bedchamber. She spoke of these and many other things.
The Empress kept silent for many heartbeats before speaking. “I have never seen my city in such poignant detail,” she concluded, sinking back into the cushions on her throne. “Was I for a short span the Eye of God?”
“You were the eyes of the birds, Augusta,” said the Master of Birds in her cracked hurdy-gurdy of a voice. “It is one thing to understand the birds. Another thing, to love them. And yet another, to be them.”