Authors: Mary Reed,Eric Mayer
Tags: #Mystery, #FICTION, #Mystery & Detective, #General
A haughty looking youth in a bright green cloak strode in from the street and demanded a jug of wine. He set his drink on a table and headed for the lavatory.
John’s gaze settled on the newcomer with automatic wariness. His thoughts were elsewhere. “Haik, there’s something I should probably tell you. If you stay at the palace, before long, you will hear me referred to by another name.”
“I’m not surprised. There are too many Johns around to keep track. What exactly do—”
“Behind my back I’m called John the Eunuch.”
“How dare they insult you!”
“It’s not an insult.”
Haik simply stared at John. Then seemed to realize he was staring and looked away. “My old friend, I’m sorry.”
“It happened a long time ago. I was captured by some of those Persians we are at peace with now.”
Haik began to speak. An enraged shout cut him short. The Blue they had seen seated at a table earlier stumbled backwards out of the lavatory followed by the Green who had recently come in. Vomit stains down the front of the Blue’s tunic revealed the reason for his lengthy stay.
“You set them on my brother, didn’t you?” bellowed the Green. “Three against one, and all older too. That’s what a Blue considers a fair fight!”
The Green swung his sword and caught the Blue on the side of the head.
No, John realized. It wasn’t a sword but the sponge on a stick that lavatory patrons used to clean themselves when they visited the room for a major need.
The noisome weapon did no damage to the Blue but sent a spray of filth over John’s head, spattering the famous charioteer in the mosaic.
The tavern keeper came out from behind the counter as the Green struck again. The Green strode forward. His foot hit some of the filth sprayed by his weapon. He slipped, fell and rolled into John’s legs. The Green lay there senseless.
The reeling Blue stumbled backwards, placed his hand on the table in front of Haik, balancing himself as he pulled a long blade from his belt.
He looked down at the prostrate Green, started to lift the blade, then screamed. He lurched awkwardly to the side and shrieked again. The blade fell from his hand. The Blue looked around dumbly, confused, flecks of vomit dripping down his chin.
John saw what it was. Haik’s dinner knife protruded from the back of the young man’s hand, pinning it to the table.
The tavern keeper loomed over them. He brandished an enormous meat cleaver. “Sirs, please, please accept my apologies. And accept your refreshment for free. And please, come back tomorrow. I shall be happy to serve you my best wine, for free. And sausages. One can hardly enjoy a meal under such disgraceful circumstances.”
The man’s bald pate had turned as red as his big hands. He looked as if he’d be wringing his hands if it weren’t for the heavy cleaver he carried.
Haik yanked the knife out of the Blue’s hand. The ruffian squealed like a dying rat and crumpled onto the straw-covered floor in a faint.
He glanced down at the two unconscious faction members and then at John. “There’s a Green family in the city who owes you more than they realize, my friend.” He set the knife beside his plate, wiped his fingers on his cloak, and picked up the remaining sausage. “Excellent sausage. I will be sure to recommend your establishment to all my friends at the palace,” he told the tavern keeper.
He popped the sausage into his mouth.
By now the spicy odor of the food was mixing with the coppery smell of blood.
“You are too kind, sir. Too kind. But I fear I will have to close early. The friends of these two are likely to pay me a visit.” He half turned and peered out through the doorway leading to the street as if he expected the villains to come bursting through. “There’s something out there, sirs. It’s not just the likes of these two.” He kicked at the Blue and the Green who lay together peacefully.
“There’s evil abroad in the city. Evil.”
Sunburnt faces glistening with sweat turned toward the ragged man limping across the docks, shouting. The hoarse shouts—nearly screams—could be heard above the creak of cart wheels, the yells of sailors and laborers, the thump of sacks, and the crash of crates.
“Demons! That’s what lives in the palace, you poor fools!” He shook a splintered piece of wood in the face of a hulking dock worker, who stepped back quickly, despite the fact that he towered over the mad man. “And not only there!” the man thundered. “They’re everywhere! Evil has fallen on the city. Evil! The only way to root it out is to pull it up stem and branch!”
Those interrupted in their labors and not directly in the man’s path greeted this pronouncement with a selection of ripe oaths, mingled with shouts of derision.
An emaciated boy had been about to steal a fish for supper out of one of the baskets lined up at the edge of the dock as a fishing boat’s crew unloaded its cargo. The boat’s captain turned toward the shouting, spotted the boy, and glared.
“What you saying what’s new?” the boy cried, voice cracking with frustration. “You’re the one who’s a demon!”
The ragged man looked around the curious congregation which was keeping a distance. “Wisdom from a stripling.” He laughed.
The captain of the fishing boat leapt ashore. “You and that dirty little urchin are working together, aren’t you?” He grabbed the speaker’s shoulder, but the wretch shook it off with a convulsive movement and lurched away. He clambered up a pile of marble blocks, destined perhaps for an imperial residence or a church. Once atop he stood with his arms spread out, face turned to the glowering sky. Many of the onlookers began to drift back to their labors. A fellow in filthy clothes preaching incoherently from on high was too common a sight to maintain their interest.
A beggar who had observed the scene from a doorway at the base of the sea wall which towered above the docks stepped out and craned his neck to see the man standing above.
“What’s that about demons?” he asked. “Any ‘round here? Where’d you see them?”
The man he addressed peered down. “If you cannot see them, you are fortunate. They swarm everywhere. There are several down there on the dock disguised as men…but if you have vision you can see through their fleshly disguise.”
The beggar shivered in exaggerated fashion. “Which ones do you mean?”
The man pointed to the captain, now busy kicking the emaciated boy away from the baskets, helping him along with a invitation to bring his sister back and he would give her something for nothing all right, and then put his finger to his lips to enjoin silence.
“See his dark face behind that sly smile? Teeth sharp as a tonsor’s razor? Oh yes, my friend, he’ll be waiting to take you for your final journey when the time comes! And any wind he sails on takes his passengers straight to the devil’s kingdom! Because there is only one wind in all the world and that’s its destination. Just take a look at him. You can see right away he’s one who sails the hellish wind.”
“I’ve heard he’s had bad fortune with his crews. It explains a lot. If he’s a demon….”
“He is, and the king who rules them here is Justinian. Haven’t you heard he prowls the palace at night without his face? Of course! He doesn’t want anyone to see his real face for fear the sight will kill them! But I intend to confront and banish him! Then will evil be gone from the city!”
“Wouldn’t mind that.” The beggar winked at the captain who stood listening, having banished the boy.
“I only wish I was in league with the emperor,” remarked the captain. “Think how rich I would be!”
“Not much charity to be had lately,” said the beggar. “Now there’s evil for you. And it’s dangerous being out when them Blues and Greens are having their bit of fun. But how do you expect to get in the palace? You can’t just stroll in and ask to talk to the emperor, can you?”
The ragged man stared down and smiled. “Those at the palace know their own when they see them. I’ll have no trouble coming and going as I please. Besides, I have in my possession a magickal charm.” He shook the broken stick he carried. “It will gain me entry to the imperial audience hall quicker than you can steal a loaf!”
January 12, 532
The walkway echoed to the thud of Felix’s boots. When the heat haze of summer formed shimmering visions over the sea visible between carefully clipped topiary depicting fabulous beasts, the high, airy way would offer a shady retreat behind its curtain of honeysuckle. Now at the deadest time of year, where the dense mat of vines kept out sunlight, traces of frost lingered.
The broad shouldered young excubitor frowned and tugged at his beard as he strode along. Why had Captain Gallio been so mysterious about this assignment? Why had he left the explanation to Narses? Felix would have preferred not to be anywhere within hailing distance of the emperor’s chamberlain and treasurer.
That perfumed fool. His scowl deepened. A military man being ordered about by a eunuch! If he were captain he’d never—
A woman screamed.
Felix drew his sword and broke into a run, alert for ambush. Even deep in the palace grounds to drop his guard for a heartbeat could be fatal.
He reached the end of the colonnade and burst out into a walled terrace. An attractive, fair-haired woman sat on a semi-circular marble bench overlooking the sea. Her robes were dark green, decorated simply with pale yellow embroidery at the hem and neckline. A servant to one of the court ladies, who had borrowed some of her mistress’ plainer clothing and would get a sound thrashing for it when she ventured back to her work, Felix thought.
She looked up as he approached. Loose curls framed her features. The red lips and rosy cheeks showed she had been at her mistress’ makeup too. “Oh, what a big strong fellow. You frightened that ruffian so much he ran away….”
Felix glanced around. He saw nobody on the brick pathway that extended several yards along the terrace in each direction. Edged with naked flower beds there was no cover for anything bigger than a rabbit.
The woman laughed. “Yes, you are right, there was nobody here but myself. Life at the palace can be so boring. Sometimes I could just scream.”
“A habit that might liven things up more than one might wish.” Felix put his sword back in his belt.
“You belong to the palace guard, don’t you? Such fine young men.” She sounded as if she were out of breath from some exertion, even though she was simply sitting still. “Do you have a wife?”
The abrupt change of subject startled Felix. He shook his head. “Don’t stay out in the grounds after dark,” he advised. “It isn’t wise, especially with all the unrest in the city.”
“You don’t think troublemakers can get into the palace? Surely that’s your job? To keep them out?”
“No one can get into the imperial chambers. The gardens are another matter. Armies of bureaucrats, clerks, merchants, and petty officials have business on the palace grounds every day. We keep track of them as best we can. Then too, the whole complex is surrounded by buildings of all sorts, and who knows what passages run underneath our feet or whether someone can get over a wall somewhere?”
“So you really might have saved my life by showing up when you did! Would you care to escort me around the sights of the city? Better yet, why don’t we meet later. After dark. The Hall of the Nineteen Couches is deserted between banquets.” She giggled at Felix’s dumbfounded expression.
“I am—that is—won’t your mistress object to your absence?”
She waved a hand. “Not at all. I have a great deal of freedom.”
“I would be pleased to show you around the city, but the chamberlain Narses is waiting to see me.”
“Do you know Narses? They say he is fabulously wealthy. Of course, he is not the sort of man I prefer.” Her gaze caressed Felix from head to toe. Her eyes, Felix saw, were as blue as a summer sky over the sea.
“Oh, we are old comrades,” Felix heard himself say. He couldn’t look away from those brilliant blue eyes and while he stared into them he couldn’t control his words. “Narses relies on me for advice and often consults me on certain delicate matters.”
He finally managed to turn away. Or had she lowered her gaze and released him?
He stammered out a farewell and set off down the path, accompanied by an uncomfortable feeling she was laughing at him behind his back. Why had he been so foolish as to claim friendship with a man he despised? He hadn’t wanted to disappoint her, he told himself. It was what she’d wanted to hear.
Felix had nearly escaped when she called out. “You’re going the wrong way! Narses is at his office now. Let’s walk there together!”
She was beside him before he could protest. Felix glanced at his companion from time to time. She was as familiar with their geography as he, and he wondered if her knowledge had come from assignations in less frequented areas of the gardens. She was not so much beautiful as striking, with pale hair and plump hands. Nor was she as young as he had first supposed and the angle of her jaw suggested stubbornness and a strong will. He wondered which mistress she served and if her employer was a guest of the imperial couple.
Whoever she was, she seemed in high humor. Now and then a chuckle escaped her ruby painted lips and at one point she hummed to herself.
Felix couldn’t hide his surprise. He recognized a popular though obscene song sung by military men to the glory of Theodora and her prowess in the arena of Venus.
By then they had reached a long, blocky administrative building. The woman led Felix down a corridor decorated with frescoes depicting country life and rapped on a polished paneled door decorated with ivory scrollwork. A pale silentiary answered the summons.
Felix felt it was time to assert his authority. “I am Felix, sent by Captain Gallio of the excubitors for an audience with Narses.” As he spoke he was acutely conscious of the perfume of the woman beside him.
“You are expected.” replied the guardian of the door. “As for your companion….”
“I am not expected,” she said. “And being a female I have no doubt I would be unwelcome. Don’t forget our little matter, Felix.” She caught him again in her gaze, released him, and went back down the corridor. He realized she had not actually touched him once yet he felt as if she had her hands all over his body.
The room into which a thoroughly flustered Felix was ushered boasted a large desk, an ebony-armed chair, and a large iron-bound box. The only nod to decoration was a row of silver bowls of hyacinths against one wall. The bell-shaped flowers exuded a sweet, overpowering scent that filled the austere room.
The dwarfish, bald chamberlain dismissed the silentiary. He noticed Felix looking at the flowers. “Homer stated in a passage describing Juno’s treachery that her bed was formed of crocus, lotus, and hyacinth. I keep these blossoms by me as a reminder that women cannot be trusted—and few men, for that matter.”
Felix blinked in surprise but remained silent.
“I recognized that strumpet’s voice,” Narses continued. “I strongly advise you not to engage in the little matter mentioned, whatever it is, although I can certainly guess its nature. Avoid that woman or should I say viper in women’s clothing. She is a demon’s snare. A friend of the empress. A close friend. You grasp my meaning? Besides which, I know how men are. I will not have her interfering in what you will be instructed to carry out.”
“I don’t know the woman, excellency. I ran into her in the gardens.”
The other’s unlined face broke into a smile that closely resembled a leer. “You really don’t know who she is?”
“That’s Antonina. Unchaste to say the least and a practitioner of magick of the worst sort. However, as I said, a confidante of our empress.” Narses giggled. “But now to business.”