Authors: Mary Reed,Eric Mayer
Tags: #Mystery, #FICTION, #Mystery & Detective, #General
He decided there was little more to learn from that line of inquiry. But there remained another question. “You told me Hippolytus visited when Haik was meeting with you,” he said.
“Hippolytus again? You think I have something to do with his death? Or with that botched hanging you told me about?”
John ignored the question. “Was anyone else present at that meeting?”
“Did Hippolytus ever bring anyone else with him to the Hippodrome? A woman?”
“Women are not allowed at the races.”
“I’m not talking about the races. He may have brought a friend to meet you. There are racing fans who would rather touch your sleeve than dine with the emperor.”
Porphyrius smiled. “You flatter me. But no. I didn’t see Hippolytus very often. He never brought anyone to gawk at me or tug my sleeve. I appreciated his discretion. I did catch a glimpse of him across the stables one day, showing off Zephyrius to a callow looking fellow. When I mentioned it later he told me it was his younger brother. I invited him to bring the lad in to see me one day, but he never did.”
The charioteer bent down and ran a hand over the sand on the track. Then he stood, gave the track a few kicks with the heel of his boot, and shook his head. “The surface is too loose. Not surprising. Most of the workers who ought to be taking care of the track are nowhere to be found. Speaking of which, I can tell you where to find Hippolytus’ family. Your curiosity about him had me worried. I asked around, to make sure there wasn’t something he had neglected to tell me. I can’t be responsible for investigating the motivations and background of every would-be patron.”
He described to John a mansion located at the top of the ridge overlooking the northern harbors. “At least I’ve been told that’s where he lived,” he concluded. “No one seemed to know him well. Maybe you can learn what you want from his family.”
Porphyrius did not add that then John might also leave him alone, but his meaning was clear from his tone.
They were startled by a shout. The worker who had been kicked into the hole by Porphyrius yelled again and pointed up toward the spina. “Demons take you, Porphyrius! There’s that croaking harbinger of doom! He’s the one brought evil to the city, not these ridiculous scrawls on scraps of lead! They say he’s returned from the dead!”
With that the man threw down his spade, leapt out of the excavation and fled, swiftly followed by his fellow diggers.
John peered up at the confusion of monuments running down the length of the spina. There, in a golden bowl supported on a column formed by three entwined serpents, stood the same ragged, grotesque creature he had seen running across the roof tops. It scrambled over the side of the bowl, slid down the snake column, embraced one of the statues of Porphyrius which stood nearby and began singing an obscene song to its bronze visage.
“What’s that demon doing here?” roared Porphyrius.
John suddenly wanted to know that too. He pulled himself up onto the spina and sprinted toward the creature, dodging several marble emperors who obstructed his path.
The creature saw him, cackled, ducked beneath a replica of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, and was away. Cursing, John clambered over the top of the wolf.
John’s prey vanished behind a monstrous wild boar and reappeared swinging from its tusk. For an instant he hung from the tusk by one arm, let his head loll to one side, rolled his eyes back, and stuck his tongue out. Then laughing hysterically, he dropped and raced on.
The chase covered the length of the spina. John passed a brazen eagle with a snake in its claws and the monumental Hercules.
Though the demon gave the appearance of scuttling along like a monstrous crab, John couldn’t catch up. The creature was well ahead when it vanished behind the Egyptian obelisk at the end of the spina. In an instant it reappeared on the track.
John leaned wearily against a massive bronze leg, part of a monumental bull.
“Mithra!” He cursed softly as he watched the demon scramble across the track, feet sending up gouts of sand, before it reached the starting boxes and vaulted over a gate into the darkness beyond.
The ragged man skittered across the concrete, leaping, falling, sometimes upright, sometimes crawling on all fours. Shadows melted out of his path. The poor souls who inhabited this benighted place did not care to confront him.
At last he emerged into a cold wind. He could no longer hear the demon, could no longer smell the evil. The terrible creature had come swooping out of the sky and pursued him along the narrow precipice where the old gods stood, frozen forever in stone and gold. A feast for the eyes of idolaters.
But he had escaped with the Lord’s help.
He crouched down, hugging his knees to his chest, listening. He clutched the sacred shard of wood in his hand more tightly, felt hot pain as a splinter pierced his skin. Blood blossomed on his palm. He remembered the crosses reared up against the sky. He had been brought down from the cross.
To what purpose?
He turned the wood over, examining it. He knew what it was—a fragment of the True Cross. But the ribbon wrapped around it puzzled him.
His past was nothing but the fog of a dream, grasped at futilely as it slips away, unremembered.
He had traversed hell. Surely it was hell, where a man sat in a corner pulling his intestines away from a black dog. Where a child emerged from a fiery pit, face hanging in charred strips from a blackened skull in which eyes still glistened with life.
How long he had been in hell, he could not say. Forever perhaps.
And where was he now?
He scrambled around and stared upwards. A high, brick wall rose above his head.
Why did he feel he wanted to be here, in the freezing shadow of a wall?
He crept forward, keeping to the shadow. It wasn’t safe to stay long in one spot. The demons were always searching.
Even as he shivered at the thought of the demons, a cold hand grasped his.
No. Not a demon’s hand, after all, he realized. He felt the hard fingers of a statue.
Or, rather, a corpse.
The dead man’s arm extended from the alcove where the rest of his body lay crumpled in a heap of costly robes. What good was that gold thread now?
It was the new leather boots that caught the ragged man’s gaze.
Looking down at his own feet, he saw he had lost a sandal. When?
It didn’t matter. The Lord saw everything. The Lord provided.
The ragged man recognized the wall. He was outside the Great Palace. This was the place he had crossed hell to reach.
Because he had to speak to the emperor.
He remembered now. Because he could hardly meet the emperor while wearing a single filthy sandal. So the Lord had sent him this fine pair of boots.
John stood in front of the Hippodrome and surveyed the Mese while he caught his breath. There was no sign of the demon he had pursued across the spina. The creature might be right around a nearby corner, or halfway to the city walls. Even if the demon were still lurking around a corner, John would be unlikely to find it. Constantinople with its crooked alleys, slanting streets, and unexpected squares boasted as many corners as there were stars in the sky.
There wasn’t time to waste. In not too many hours, it would be a week since the two faction members were killed at Saint Laurentius. John felt he had barely begun his investigations. Who had he spoken to, after all? Only a handful of people had told him anything useful.
As he looked up and down the street with its fire-gutted shops and ruined colonnades, he reminded himself there were reasons for his lack of progress. It was dangerous and difficult to traverse the chaotic city, and harder yet to locate anyone. Many had fled, or were missing. It was impossible to say who, amongst them—people John did not even know—might have been able to lead him to the killers.
Then too, he had to deal with the Anastasius family. Justinian should never have asked him to host three troublesome aristocrats while undertaking a vital investigation. But he couldn’t say that to the emperor.
He considered the information Porphyrius had given him, the location of Hippolytus’ house. It wasn’t too far away. The charioteer thought the young aristocrat kept apartments in the family mansion. Perhaps the family would be able to tell John what their son had been involved in, and who his associates were.
The streets were relatively quiet. John cut through the Copper Market. The metal working shops which predominated there offered little to attract the wrath of the mob. He could still see the plumes of smoke to the north which he had noted on his way to the Hippodrome. At any time his way might be blocked by a wall of fire.
What he feared more was finding himself suddenly surrounded by fires, or in the path of a blaze driven by the gusty wind.
After awhile the streets ran steeply uphill. The wind hit him in the face, numbing his skin. He blinked, trying to drive away the sharp, icy pain just behind his eyes.
He paused to look behind him. From his elevated position he could see through a gap in the buildings all the way to the Augustaion. Samsun’s Hospice and the Church of Saint Irene were on fire. Whether they had been specially targeted or were victims of fires set elsewhere, it was impossible to say.
When the crest of the ridge he was climbing came into view he was greeted by another dismal sight. The riots had cut off John’s newest line of inquiry. The house where Hippolytus lived had been reduced to a fire-gutted shell.
The front of the house had toppled into the street. If there had been a courtyard it was buried in rubble. Parts of the colonnade along both sides of the street were crushed. However, a short distance away a couch with red upholstery sat on an undamaged portion for the colonnade roof. John wondered whether it had fallen there, incongruously, when the house collapsed or if someone had moved it there. For what reason? To have a good seat from which to view whatever had been taking place in the street?
Although the place was obviously deserted, John picked his way through the ruins. There wasn’t much to see. One interior wall, still standing, bore bright frescoes of chariot races. Water glinted from beneath a pile of bricks, marking the remains of a fountain. An enormous rat crawled from the bricks, and skittered away.
In one spot John’s gaze was caught by bits of charred parchment protruding from the ashes, waving in the wind like dead leaves on a winter tree. Scuffing with the toe of his boot turned up burnt scrolls and codices, little more than charcoal. He saw what he guessed, from what could still be seen of the elaborate binding, was a gospel. Had its teachings prepared the family for the senseless loss of both their home and their son?
The stables had also been destroyed. Whether the family had escaped, John could not say, but the overpowering stench behind the house told him that the horses had not. One breath sent him back rapidly through the ruins. He had just exhaled when a dark shape came hurtling off the top of a wall at him.
He caught a glimpse of its moving shadow first, from the corner of his eye, and spun out of the way. All he could think of was the demon. Had it followed him here?
Then he saw a large, black cat, stirring up a cloud of ash. The cat whirled and slashed with its claws, a blur of motion. There was a high pitched shriek. The cat’s prey, a rat, burst free.
The rat turned back toward the shelter of the ruined fountain from which John had seen it emerge earlier. It was not just any rat but a truly imperial-sized rat. But before it could reach safety a mottled brown and white shape darted from the rubble. The small cat clamped its jaws on the rat’s back. It looked hardly bigger than the rat. The captured rodent squealed and writhed but the small cat’s hold remained firm.
The much larger black cat trotted forward. The two cats looked at each other. Their differing colors made John think of the racing factions. Then the small cat ran off, carrying its huge, struggling meal away. The black cat followed.
Would they share the bounty or fight over it?
John didn’t wait to see. He picked his way back through the ruins.
Once on the street he paused. He had wasted another hour learning nothing.
From the top of the ridge he could see out over the northern harbors and across the waters of the Golden Horn. The molten orange globe of the sun hung in a coppery mist of smoke. John imagined he could almost see the disk moving as time raced past.
He feared that time was running out for his investigation and for the emperor and the empire itself. Already, in the half-light created by the haze, the panorama before him looked unreal, like an aged wall painting. The haze lent its coppery tint to everything, not just the water but the buildings and streets and the ships in the harbor.
Across the harbor lay the monastery of Saint Conon whose monks had rescued, temporarily, the two condemned faction members. Almost from the outset of his investigations, John had dismissed the idea that the monks might be involved in any plot. Yet the directions in which he had chosen to take his inquires had mostly turned out to be dead ends.
Rather than turning back to the palace, John began to walk down the hill toward the docks.
At the docks commerce had come to a halt. Crates, amphorae, and sacks lay neglected in haphazard piles in front of the warehouses at the base of the sea wall. The crowds ignored them. They had not come to loot but to escape. John could barely see the water for sailing vessels of every shape and size, from merchant ship to wooden planks.
Here and there those desperate to flee the burning city haggled with ship masters desperate to earn as much as they could while the opportunity lasted.
“How could I pay a fare like that?” John overheard one man shouting. “I’m a baker. Do I look like the emperor to you?”
Elsewhere he saw several husky men dressed in the plain tunics of laborers lashing together a collection of charred beams to make a raft.
John had little difficulty hiring a boat. When on the emperor’s business he went well prepared to offer bribes, though he rarely did so. The amount requested in this case amounted to a bribe.
Once he was out on the Golden Horn, John wished he had searched out a larger boat. The water looked perilously close to him where he sat. He didn’t dare stand. The boat’s owner, mindful of the coins to be made with each passage, rowed as if he were being chased by demons. As he toiled at the oars he stared at his passenger appraisingly.
“Take me as near as possible to Saint Conon’s monastery,” John instructed him.
“I’d never have guessed you for one to join a monastery, sir. I’ve already taken two there but they were such as had to haggle over my price. They said there was no use going further. No one could outrun the four horsemen.”
“I’ll be returning to the city shortly,” John said. “Wait for me. Don’t worry, I will compensate you.”
He didn’t bother displaying the imperial orders. In this case, Justinian’s money spoke loudly enough.
He came ashore on a stretch of waste ground littered with debris and the remains of chariots. The scaffolds hurriedly erected to execute the faction members were still standing. He gave them a wide berth. Shoddily constructed, they leaned into each other like drunken men in front of a tavern. The ropes had been removed.
The Blue and the Green twice lay crumpled on the ground under those scaffolds. Hours later the men floated in the cistern from which John had pulled the Blue.
Had dying three times sufficiently punished them for their transgressions?
The strange coppery light gave the scene the same appearance of unreality John had noticed earlier as he stared across the water from the ridge by Hippolytus’ burnt house. It lacked only suffering figures to turn it into a painting of Christian martyrs.
Beyond the scaffolds a stony path led through tall, brown weeds and squat thorn bushes. The path ended behind the monastery, a long, box-like structure, that might have housed government bureaucrats rather than holy men.
Between John and the monastery lay a patch of flat ground which served as a garden in warmer seasons, to judge from the wooden frames, sagging trellises, and tilted stakes festooned with blackened vines. A man in a brown tunic knelt beside a rosemary bush, one of several green highlights in the otherwise drab expanse of earth.
He looked up at the sound of John’s boots crunching across dried, discarded stalks. He might have been a sailor from whose gaunt face the sea had weathered all signs of age.
“I must speak to the head of the monastery,” John said.
“You are. I am the abbot of Saint Conon’s.” He put a few sprigs of greenery into the basket at his side. “The way the wind howls across us here we’re fortunate to have plenty of hardy herbs. Every plant has its seasons, though.”
John almost expected him to add that there was a lesson in that, but he didn’t. Instead he got to his feet and brushed the dirt off the front of his clothing. “If you seek refuge, we would not turn you away. But we are far too crowded to offer any degree of comfort. To the body at any rate.”
“I am here on the emperor’s business,” John told him.
“What could the monks of Saint Conon’s possibly have to do with the emperor’s business?”
“A few days ago you interfered with it.”
“Ah. You are speaking of those hanged men.”
“There are grumblings at court. Some accuse you of involvement with the emperor’s opponents.”
The abbot’s leathery face showed no reaction. “A serious accusation. Totally untrue. But what proof could I offer? Should I invite you to search the monastery to see that none of Justinian’s enemies are hiding there?”
“Proof of any entanglement will come out eventually, when the insurrection is defeated and the plotters are arrested and questioned. I am giving you the chance to make the emperor’s task easier. As you know, he is a devout man. If you are willing to give him useful information, I am sure he will not look so harshly on your past transgressions.”
“So I should confess to you and expect forgiveness from the emperor?” The abbot smiled faintly. “Alas, I have nothing to confess.”
“Why did you rescue the hanged men? Are you so concerned with earthly matters?”
“You don’t know the story of Saint Conon, do you? He was an Isaurian. When the Christians there were persecuted he was tortured for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods. They say he was stabbed with knives. When the population heard, they took up arms and rescued him from his tormentors. He wished to suffer martyrdom but instead he lived for two more years. Given the history of our saint how could we stand by and watch the terrible spectacle down there?” The abbot nodded in the direction of the gallows clearly visible from where he and John stood.
“You are telling me you were acting in the tradition of your order,” John said.
“And out of human compassion. The palace is only a short boat ride from where we are standing, but it might as well be another world. Don’t suppose all people are villains and cynics just because those who reside at the palace are. The monks of Saint Conon’s serve the Lord. Believe me, there is not a constant undercurrent of intrigue between us and our Lord. We are simple people.” He pushed a stray green sprig back into his basket. “I admit too, that a few of us thought we were witnessing a miracle. Only the hand of God could grasp the hangman’s rope, twice, to save two men. We were being called upon to reenact Saint Conon’s story.”
“Did God’s hand clear a path to the gallows for the rescuers? Did it brush aside the imperial guards, lift your monks, and the condemned men into a boat and push it safely out into the water?”
“I believe so. His hand was the crowd which greatly outnumbered the guards and felt the same compassion and awe that we did. They made it plain that we were to be left untouched.”
John remembered that Kosmas, the executioner, had said much the same thing, that the restive spectators had assisted in the rescue.
“But what was the point in saving the lives of those men?” John asked. “Wasn’t it merely putting off the Lord’s judgment?”
A gust of wind made the dead vines clinging to stakes and trellises wave like pennants and brought tears to John’s eyes. The abbot did not invite John inside. Instead, he turned his face into the wind.
“You aren’t a Christian,” the abbot said.
John could not conceal his surprise.
“I can tell by the way the name of the Lord passes your lips,” the abbot explained. “Don’t worry, it does not distress me. Before I found my calling I traveled. I’ve been everywhere from Egypt to Bretania. Even Isauria. I stood on the spot where Saint Conon’s blessed blood was spilled. The Lord is everywhere, but people see Him in accordance with their own natures. Or so I believe. I would not confide that to the Patriarch.”
They were looking across the Golden Horn toward the city. Even from a distance they could make out huge swathes of burned out buildings. Pillars of smoke climbed into the sky.