Authors: Mary Reed,Eric Mayer
Tags: #Mystery, #FICTION, #Mystery & Detective, #General
After what seemed a long time he composed himself enough to examine the corpse. The dead man’s neck showed marks of strangulation and one wrist still had a loop of rope around it. At least he had not drowned. To John that seemed like a mercy.
The dead man was obviously one of the two prisoners. And since he was the Blue, then the other, a Green supporter, was still in the cistern.
John surveyed the rippling water and shuddered. Perhaps the Green had been weighted more carefully. He must be lying on the bottom, staring up into the dark.
Someone else would have to drag him out.
“How could they have been murdered? It’s not possible, excellency. I stationed men at every exit from the vault in case the factions decided to attack and managed to get by the sentries outside the church.” Sebastian’s voice shook.
The white-haired commander led the soaked John down a stone stairway from the vestibule and through a pillared vault to a heavy, nail studded door.
“I had two guards right here,” Sebastian said.
The room beyond served for storage. Stacks of oil-filled amphorae sat in the corners. A row of silver lamps occupied a shelf below which an icon, paint peeling, stared out from between piled crates.
“You say that this young man with the sealed orders came down here and then it was discovered the two prisoners had gone?”
Sebastian’s long face seemed to grow even longer and more mournful. “Yes. I sent him down the stairs after I saw his official seal. Before long someone shouted that the prisoners were gone and then all was chaos. Murderers were on the loose! Women started screaming they would be ravished and ran out. I asked the priest to help restore calm.”
“The guards who were stationed at the door were sent out in pursuit?”
“I sent all my men out to apprehend the criminals. I thought they had escaped you see. I didn’t realize they had been killed.” The man’s voice shook. John could see the growing panic in his face. Sebastian had barely been coming to terms with the disastrous possibility that he had allowed the escape of two men the emperor valued. Now he had to face the even more horrific fact that he had let them be murdered. “You can’t think my guards were involved? Maxentius is blind,” he said, voice shaking. “There are many military men in the city aside from those under my command. There are practically as many soldiers on the streets as beggars! Clearly the killers who dragged the bodies away weren’t from the urban watch.”
“Were the prisoners already gone when the young man who had come for them went down into the vault?”
“The guards down here confirmed that?”
“Someone yelled that the prisoners had escaped. Other guards came in a rush. I was calling out orders, of course.”
“Was it discovered that the prisoners were gone when the door to this room was opened, or was it open when the young man arrived at it?”
“But…why would it be open, when my guards were posted right—”
“What did the guards say?”
“I didn’t have time to question the guards, excellency. When they return—”
“And what about this man with the imperial seal? What did he tell you?”
“I…I…well…I never saw him again. He must have gone after the two prisoners, or gone back to report to the emperor.” The thought of the emperor, whom he had failed so miserably, drained the blood from the old man’s face. “All was confusion,” he muttered. “All confusion.”
John could believe it. The confusion in the commander’s head alone was apparently enough to confound a philospher.
John looked around the small storeroom. Nothing seemed to be disturbed. It was ironic that two men should be saved from execution only to be murdered. And murdered and taken away just before the stranger with the seal arrived for them. If Sebastian were to be believed.
“I would not have permitted anyone to enter the church but the priest insisted the faithful should never be barred from prayer, especially in these unsettled times,” Sebastian went on. “That’s why the entrance at the top of the stairs and storeroom door were guarded rather than the main doors to the church.”
The vaults at the bottom of the stairs, from which the storeroom opened, surely stretched underneath the whole of the church. There were almost certainly exits other than the stairs they had just taken. Tradesmen and laborers would hardly be encouraged to be coming and going through the vestibule. It would have been easy to get two bodies out of the church without anyone noticing.
A competent commander might have managed to see that every possible exit was guarded but he suspected Sebastian was not such a commander.
John turned to leave but paused. He had the uneasy sensation he was being watched.
He swung around. The damaged icon stared at him. The bearded face was lean and ascetic, his mouth set in a line. His great, black eyes reminded John of the eyes of a snake. Clearly the grim holy man did not approve of what he saw. Or was the icon’s anger directed at whatever had transpired in front of the painted eyes earlier that night?
If only John could see what the icon had seen.
“Please, excellency, warm yourself while we talk.”
Leonardis, the priest in charge of the Church of Saint Laurentius, was a short, stout man with a voice so deep and resonant it might have been issuing from the vault beneath the church. He prodded coals in the brazier with an iron poker until flames leapt up.
The tiny room at the back of the church contained a plain wooden desk and stool. Scrolls and codices were heaped in niches in the white-washed plaster walls. The brazier, which appeared big enough to heat the stables underneath the Hippodrome, occupied the space in front of the wall on which hung an equally oversized silver cross. John wondered if the finely wrought metal were too hot to touch. He felt sorry for the gentle Christian god doomed to suffer the searing heat as well as a tortured death.
Even so he was glad of the heat beginning to dry his wet garments. Steam rose from his cloak and the odor of wet wool filled the air.
“We often read of monks who prefer unheated cells for their devotions,” said Leonardis. “But Laurentius was broiled to death on an iron frame, as you doubtless know from your reading of the Holy Book. So it is only appropriate for his priest to mediate with the very means of the saint’s torment always before his eyes.” He wiped his perspiring forehead.
“What do you know about the Green and the Blue who were brought here?”
“Their rescue was a miracle. Or perhaps I should not call it a miracle, given they were common criminals. A sign from the Almighty. Twice they were hung and twice the ropes broke.” Leonardis rubbed his hands together briskly, though they could hardly have been cold. “And then notice too one from each faction was spared. What if they had been chosen for beheading like their companions in evil doing? A razor-sharp blade is not so likely to break, is it? Yet they did not escape judgment. The Lord has meted out justice before the emperor had the opportunity.”
“Who were they?”
“No names were mentioned. The Urban Prefect must know. He condemned them.” Leonardis paused and stared at the coals pulsing with heat. “It is not for us to question God’s will,” he continued, “but doubtless much could have been learnt from them. The emperor’s servants are said to be most persuasive. Yet could any dreadful suffering his torturers inflict be compared to the agony undergone by the blessed martyr Laurentius, broiled to death—broiled! Imagine! Broiled like a swordfish! The faithful call those fires that streak every year through the midsummer skies the tears of Laurentius, but can all the tears of the blessed cool those condemned to the fires of Hell, the endless pain? The unendurable, never ending pain….” The priest’s eyes glistened as he spoke.
“Indeed,” John said, noting the relish with which Leonardis had posed his questions. Here was a man who enjoyed agony, provided it was kept at a safe distance. John had met a number of men with the same trait since his arrival in Constantinople, and it was notable none of them had seen military combat. Yet to hear a priest speak in the same way, with brightened eyes and quickened speech, was repugnant. To kill was sometimes necessary. As a youthful mercenary John had killed, but he never inflicted extended agony. Was Leonardis a man who was capable of violence?
“It was early when they were brought here. The fog was still fairly heavy when the monks of Saint Conon appeared and demanded entry,” Leonardis went on. “As I understand it, they observed what happened, decided to rescue the pair, and then rowed them across the Golden Horn to this church. Christian charity is all very well but I have wondered…were they bribed to save these men or threatened that if they did not their monastery would be set ablaze?”
Yes, thought John, either or both were possible.
Leonardis laughed. “You from the palace are so familiar with such intrigues. How could the monks have known the ropes would break? And not once but twice. No, perhaps it is more simply explained, that those in the monastery saw the hand of the Lord in the incident and felt called upon to intervene. Remember, the monks had already seen others hung, dangling there, not to mention still others losing their heads. They must have felt the disgust we all feel when confronted with such dreadful reminders of mortality and human suffering.”
John wondered if the priest would take so long to say so little under the ministrations of the emperor’s torturers. “This church has no affiliation with the monastery?”
“No, but it possesses the privilege of sanctuary.” Leonardis stirred the coals violently again. “I wish they had not been brought here. Those who attend my church have had countless miseries heaped upon them by the factions to which these men belong. I cannot tell you how many of my flock, men and women both, have come to me wounded and sobbing about robberies, violence, vile acts perpetrated on the defenseless, yes, even murder. And guards were posted to keep those criminals safe! Where are they when these men and their like roam the streets?”
John realized the priest would have been more than happy to light fires under iron frames for any Blue or Green captured. “At the time of the escape you were here in the church?”
“Yes, yes, I was, but I only heard about it when somebody shouted they had gone and guards rushed in. Armed men in a holy space! It was an outrage! And they entered while I was leading a service. A very large service it was too. In times such as these many seek the comfort that only the teachings of the church can give.”
John thanked the priest and departed. The nave felt bitterly cold compared to the stifling room he had just left. The church was dimly lit and shadows were thick in the corners. The windows piercing the pale walls formed grey silhouettes giving no hint of what lay outside, but given the narrowness of the surrounding streets even on the brightest days the church must be dark without the aid of its hanging lamps.
The place seemed almost alive, menacing. The quiet space around him appeared ominous, the eyes of an icon hanging a few paces away seeming to examine John, in the fashion of the one he had seen earlier in the storeroom. This icon dismissed him with a sneer as one not of the faith.
John paused in the vestibule. He had recruited three lamp lighters he had found at work to bring the body of the Blue from the cistern but they had not returned yet. He supposed he would need to escort Sebastian back to the palace with him.
A cold wind was rising. Gusts swirled dust and straws through the half open door. He shivered. There was nothing else to be learnt here. He could see that many would believe that a supernatural hand had reached down into these surroundings to allow the missing men to escape without being seen.
If he worshipped the Christian god he might, perhaps, pray for guidance.
But he served another. And the emperor was not going to be pleased.
A voice spoke from on high.
“These servants have failed us.”
John lay alongside Sebastian, face down in front of a number of courtiers and guards gathered in the imperial reception hall, his forehead pressed against a pattern of peacocks with their tails spread wide. The elaborate tiling was not as cold as the water in the cistern. It wasn’t his still damp clothes or the floor that made him shiver, but rather the measured words dropping onto his head.
The voice did not belong to the emperor. It was a woman’s voice, feminine only in the sense of being pitched higher than a man’s. It made John think of a knife being drawn across a whetstone.
Several advisors, clustered at the base of the platform supporting the double throne stirred uneasily, as if the breath of death had passed through them.
It had been known to happen.
From the corner of his eye John could see Narses, the emperor’s chamberlain and imperial treasurer, John’s superior at the palace. The slight, balding eunuch was eyeing John with ill-concealed rage.
“Caesar—” began Sebastian.
“Silence, you old fool, or we shall make certain you cannot talk again.” Empress Theodora’s voice was now chillingly sweet. “We shall deal with John shortly. But first….”
A pair of jeweled scarlet shoes entered the periphery of John’s limited vision and the musky perfume favored by Theodora announced her approaching presence. The empress had descended from the ivory throne and now stood close to the two men prostrated before Justinian.
A low chuckle escaped her as she tapped Sebastian’s back with the toe of her shoe. “You come here stinking of smoke and fear. Can we wonder at it? Both of you have failed. You say you know nothing beyond the ludicrous story you have just related. You expect us to believe that an unknown person bearing an imperial seal arrived at the church just after several other unknown persons had murdered the prisoners and dragged them out of the church without you or your guards noticing? You must be forgetting some of the details, old man. Perhaps the urgent persuasion of needles will help restore your memory. Take him away!”
Three guards stepped forward and dragged the unresisting Sebastian out of John’s line of sight. The scarlet shoes receded, and Theodora resumed her place next to Justinian.
“Approach!” the emperor demanded. “You may stand. Report.”
John did as he was ordered.
As always, the emperor’s face was a cipher. Apart from a slight tightening about his lips he appeared as if he were about to welcome an ambassador or perhaps watch a performance by palace musicians. It was the worst possible expression he could have worn. It meant he was angry and when Justinian was angry, Theodora was not pleased. And if Theodora was not pleased, inevitably blood flowed.
John glanced at the empress. A venomous smile curved her painted mouth into a ruby scimitar and her hooded, dark eyes were cold.
“Caesar.” He bowed toward Justinian. “As ordered, I went to the Church of Saint Laurentius to bring back the two men who escaped hanging. Sebastian has reported on what happened before I arrived. I subsequently located one of the missing men in the cistern of Aspar. The body of the other can doubtless be recovered. At that point I returned to the palace with commander Sebastian.”
“And where is the body you mention?”
Justinian glanced at Theodora. Was he pretending to consider her feelings for the benefit of those present? She nodded, as the emperor must have known she would.
“Bring it in!” he ordered a silentiary.
Theodora smiled from her perch as the dead Blue was dragged in by his rope of hair and deposited beside John.
“If only the dead could talk,” she remarked, “what interesting conversations we might have!”
Justinian glanced down at the sodden form. “More importantly, I can’t offer the masses in the Hippodrome a corpse. They are not likely to be placated by having their colleague returned to them in such a state. The body of the Green is of no more use to me than this one. It can stay in the cistern. Narses!”
The man summoned stepped forward. “Caesar?”
“What is your opinion on this sorry affair?”
“If the crowds discover the prisoners from Saint Laurentius were murdered they are likely to believe you are responsible. Which is exactly what the culprits intended. These murderous outbursts which have offended our great city lately are not mere spontaneous demonstrations of vast ingratitude from a populace who are ruled with mercy and kindness.” Narses paused to judge the effect of his flattery and then continued. “Disloyal persons are organizing these outbreaks. I suspect a plot by certain parties to depose you, Caesar.”
Justinian’s bland countenance did not change. “Your thoughts march in step with mine, Narses. I have made it my policy to treat the factions even-handedly. I have required both to obey the law. No fair-minded person could dispute it.”
“That is so, Caesar. The populace well remembers the unruly days of Anastasius when the factions rioted every other month. People are being misled.”
Justinian turned to John. “I have hopes your undoubted intelligence will save you yet, since up to now you have been a good servant. Because of that I shall permit you an opportunity to redeem yourself. Find out what is happening so that appropriate measures can be taken against the ringleaders.”
“And don’t leave half your task undone this time,” Theodora remarked. The toe of her red slipper prodded the corpse John had recovered.
John bowed and began walking backwards to leave the imperial presence.
The massive double doors at the far end of the hall opened behind him. As he backed through they swung shut, blotting out Theodora’s smile. For a heartbeat her image continued to float before John’s eyes, superimposed over the ornate wooden inlays and embossed metal of the closed doors like an image of the sun when it has been stared at for too long. The thought reminded John too much of certain specialities exercised by several of Justinian’s servants whose role it was to persuade those with information to part with it. Swift on the heels of the thought came another: Sebastian would soon suffer their ministrations.
John turned, walked past the silentiaries standing guard, and went out through a second set of doors into a long, broad corridor whose walls were covered with hunting scenes. The suffocating presence of the imperial couple began to fall away.
Justinian had reigned over five years, long enough to have acquired more enemies than John could possibly track though he had served the emperor, at first in a less elevated capacity, since the beginning of his reign. Though he knew the emperor well, he did not know him well enough not to fear him. No one did, except perhaps Theodora, who had been his wife before he ascended the throne.
Even as John formulated plans to undertake his investigation he smelled the cloying fragrance with which Narses customarily scented his garments. In a moment the eunuch overtook him.
Narses’ bald pate barely reached John’s shoulder. Except for the jewels in the cape around his narrow shoulders and the elaborate embroidery covering his dalmatic, he might have been one of the acrobatic dwarfs that so amused Theodora. The embroidery depicted scenes of some sort. John did not care to examine Narses closely enough to determine what they were.
“I may be able to assist you in this matter.” Narse’s voice was high pitched, with a mere hint of an Armenian accent.
It vexed John to take orders issued in such tones and he avoided doing so as much as possible. It had caused the two to clash frequently in the course of their duties. “Justinian instructed me to investigate, Narses.”
“Which is not to say he has forbidden you to enlist any aid. I can see by the state of your clothes you have already encountered difficulties. Appearance counts for much at court, but then I need not tell you that.”
It was true, a heavy, much worn cloak thrown over a plain tunic was not typical dress for an imperial audience. Immersion in a cistern had not rendered the attire any more appropriate.
“Sometimes,” Narses continued, “sensitive matters are best handled by persuasion.” His smile did not reach his gray eyes; their almond shape had encouraged idle court gossip on his parentage being more eastern than officially admitted.
“I don’t indulge in bribery.”
“Why? Why should people give away information for free? They are far more likely to part with it for a fair price. It is simply human nature.”
John stared resolutely down the corridor. On the mural beside the door leading out into the gardens a brightly costumed hunter—an emperor perhaps—impaled a fawn on his spear. If the artist had ventured to present a truer depiction of life at the palace, he would have substituted a skewered courtier.
The guards at the door stood aside for the two high ranking domestics to pass. Outside, a covered walkway lit by torches led past a line of tall cedars, above which towered the dead black bulk of the Hippodrome.
The palace walls muted the sounds of the city. John could distinguish drunken laughter and raised voices, a reminder that life and death went on its usual round. The wind carried the smell of smoke, temporarily overpowering the familiar raw odor of the overcrowded capital. As he strode along at a pace suitable for a forced march he passed one after another the life-sized bronze emperors who maintained a vigil along the walkway.
Narses kept up with him. The older man—he had reached his fifties although his smooth features were of a man years younger—occupied a higher position than John among the emperor’s staff. Among other duties he served as Justinian’s treasurer, with the access to the resources to conduct an investigation in ways that John could not.
“It concerns me that you might not have time to delve into this important affair,” Narses continued in his soft voice. “Aren’t you making preparations for a banquet honoring that Persian emissary?”
“There will be plenty of time for that.”
“It must be vexing, trying to arrange the seating so as to ensure certain guests feel themselves to be specially favored without anyone suspecting they have been disfavored. Isn’t that what you do?” Narses gave a girlish giggle. “Justinian uses you most capriciously, doesn’t he?”
“The seating is a minor part of the task, Narses. I arrange it because I do not necessarily trust the judgment of my subordinates.”
“Very wise. This Persian takes offense easily. I have met him, during private negotiations over the treaty Justinian has offered.”
“The Eternal Peace, you mean?”
“Yes. Everyone knows about it.”
“As treasurer aren’t you concerned about paying out eleven thousand pounds of gold to the Persians?”
“If the peace lasts for eternity that comes to very little per year.”
“But it probably won’t last ten years. These treaties never do.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. The Persians only fight us for the gold. They aren’t looking for territory. Put a city under siege and demand a ransom. Carry out a slaughter and ask for a bribe not to do it again. It’s all about gold with them. As it is with most people. I have learned a great deal during my many years of service. You would be wise to accept my offer of assistance.”
John had not served Justinian long but he had been given an increasing number of confidential tasks and the emperor frequently asked his advice, including him in the same sensitive discussions to which Narses had long been privy. Which greatly irritated Narses. John did not consider himself the older man’s rival. Narses was ambitious. John was not, but lack of ambition was a weakness one did not admit at court.
“If I find myself needing help, Narses, I may avail myself of your offer.”
“What makes you suppose you don’t need my help right now? You may not be in a position to have noticed, but the grumbling from the senate can be heard halfway to the Golden Gate. There are even whisperings now inside the palace walls. In the streets and squares, men are setting words aside in favor of stones, torches, and knives.”
“Everyone in the city realizes that.”
“But some of us appreciate it more than others. Those of us who lived through the anarchy of Anastasius’ reign do not want the factions to return to the prominence they had then. Do you remember how they stoned Anasatasius at the Hippodrome? How they sided with the usurper heretic Vitalian? How Anastasius went to the factions without his crown, and humiliated himself to keep the peace? You do not, because you were not in Constantinople that many years ago.”
“If you will excuse me, I must return home, Narses. It is late.”
They had reached the end of the walkway, presided over by a bronze of Emperor Constantine, the founder of the city. Clearly, the man had been a soldier. A square featured face with a cleft chin sat upon a bull-like neck. The statue presented a sad contrast to the shrunken figure of the treasurer who wielded so much power in the present empire.
John turned away to cross the courtyard leading to his residence.
Narses raised his hand, gesturing John to stop. His voluminous sleeve slipped down, revealing a preternaturally thin wrist, the wrist of a skeleton or a starving beggar. Rings decorating his fingers flashed in the torch light. “Justinian intended to present the Green and the Blue to the masses at the Hippodrome. A surprising and magnanimous gesture which would surely have pacified all but the most hardened troublemakers.”
“They were not murdered on my watch.”
“I know that, my young colleague, but does Justinian appreciate it? What do you suppose Theodora is telling him? I am glad she does not display such enmity toward me as she does to you. Perhaps you do not realize the extent of your danger. Otherwise you would not risk failing in your assignment by refusing to employ every means at your disposal. And mine.”
“The means at your disposal?”
“Why should we not assist one another? After all, we are much alike, are we not? And consider. The credit would belong to both of us. Your failure will belong to you alone.”
“I would prefer to do the job myself and take credit for my success.”
Narses lowered his hand, his gaunt face as expressionless as that of a snake. “You are a naive young man, John. You may find such success to be as unhealthy for you as failure.”