The year is 1041 – a momentous year in Byzantine/Bulgarian history. Rumours of a significant rebellion percolate to Constantinople. Its leader is a man claiming to be a long lost grandson of Bulgaria’s last significant ruler, Tsar Samuil.
Conspiracies surround the sick Emperor Michael and his brother chief-minister and spymaster, the Eunuch John. The Emperor is a former commoner, raised to the purple by marriage to the Empress Zoe, the niece of Samuil’s nemesis, Basil the Bulgar-killer. She has a reputation for ruthless survival. With a previous husband murdered and her present one dying, she is only too aware of her precarious situation. Lying in wait and hoping to gain from the military catastrophe in Bulgaria is Michael’s nephew, nicknamed Pitch-bottom.
In the Bulgarian community, events in the homeland excite increasing interest. Boris, Gavril Radomir’s blinded son, finds himself entangled in plot and counterplot. Courted by Michael Psellus, the court chronicler, captured in a brothel by Pitchbottom’s agents, saved by Harald Hardrade the Viking mercenary, and protected by a secret household of Bogomils, Boris slowly comes to terms with his heritage.
Part of this heritage is the blood-feud between succeeding generations of the Bulgarian Royal family, originating with Samuil’s killing of his brother Aaron. Aaron’s grandson, Alusian, turns up at the Bogomil refuge. He is on his way to Bulgaria eager to exploit the rebellion. He and Boris are forced to share a bed.
In the palace, Zoe entrusts Radoslava, Boris’ niece with a dangerous mission. She is to seek out the giant Viking mercenary, Harald Sigurdson. At all costs the Empress must be protected against Pitchbottom’s machinations.
Radoslava is the object of jealous suspicion. Her second cousin, the privileged Maria, wants to thwart Radoslava’s rise. She is happy to keep Pitchbottom informed of the Empress’s activity.
Radoslava contacts Harald and a tortuous romantic relationship develops between the resourceful Bulgarian and the arrogant Viking. She uses Boris’ house as a meeting place. Boris has meanwhile embarked on a foolish relationship with Marulla the whore.
Against all expectations, the Emperor rises from his sick bed and tied to his horse leads the army against the Bulgarian rebels. Meanwhile Alusian has found his way to the rebel camp and is plotting his cousin’s betrayal. Harald is leading his Viking guards in support of the Emperor. He routs Alusian from the siege of Thessaloniki.
Alusian succeeds in blinding his cousin Peter Delyan and deserts to the Emperor. Delyan’s desperate attempt to lead his rebel army fails and he is taken in a cage back to Constantinople.
The Emperor just manages to lead his triumphal march before retiring to a monastery to prepare for death. Radoslava and Maria are engaged on different sides in the post regnum struggle for power. Pitchbottom’s ascendancy sees Harald imprisoned and the Empress isolated.
Radoslava has to use all her cunning to thwart her cousin’s vengeful plans and secure her future.