Authors: Mary Reed,Eric Mayer
Tags: #Mystery, #FICTION, #Mystery & Detective, #General
As John approached the Hippodrome on his way back to the palace he pondered what to do next. Should he walk up the Mese to the Praetorium in case Urban Prefect Eudaemon had returned? Or should he, after all, risk revealing his investigation to the charioteer Porphyrius who might also be able to tell him who the dead men were?
The towering wall of the stadium which dominated this part of the city had been visible to him above the roof tops and through gaps in the buildings for a long time as he came down the side street. When he arrived at the Mese he saw people clustered near the Hippodrome’s entrance. There were a number of faction members, judging by the elaborate clothes and hair styles, but also a few young men who had the look of charioteers or soldiers, along with a handful of clerks.
John crossed the Mese to take a closer look. A ragged cheer ran through the small crowd.
He accosted a fellow whose tunic boasted enormous billowing sleeves with tight cuffs. “What is this gathering about?”
“We’re wagering on the races.”
“The race track is inside,” John said. “And I don’t see any horses.”
“There’s a wagering machine.” The man flapped a wing-like sleeve in the direction of a cart on which sat what at first glance looked like an elaborately carved plinth.
When John reached the cart he saw that the peculiar object was only a solid block on three sides, which were covered with bas reliefs depicting a race. A charioteer whipped his team around the turning posts and accepted a palm after his victory while a lady looked on from a window. The back of the device—or perhaps it was intended as the front, the thing being turned sideways on the cart—consisted of a complicated series of crisscrossing, descending ramps, punctuated by holes.
A man distinguished by a huge potbelly and a cloak striped with blue, green, white, and red, stood beside the machine, exhorting the spectators. “Who’ll be next to pit his skill against the demon driver Fortuna? Better than the races! All the thrills, none of the manure!”
A young fellow with the leg wrappings and muscular arms of a charioteer stepped up onto the back of the cart. He exchanged words with the hawker beside the machine, handed him a coin and received four balls colored blue, green, red, and white respectively. The colors of the traditional factions.
He grinned and raised his fist. Several men in front—friends no doubt—shouted encouragement. Then he dropped the balls into a hole at the top corner of the machine.
Sunlight flashed on them as they began to roll down the first of the inclined ramps. The green ball vanished into one hole, the white into another. The green emerged on a lower ramp. So did the red, which John had not been following. It was impossible to track the progression of the balls as they dropped, reappeared, traded places. The red ball shot out of the hole in the bottom corner of the device, into the hand of the hawker.
“Your green team has been passed at the finish line, my friend.” The hawker shoved the coin he had been holding into the pouch hanging from his belt. “A good effort though. I liked the way you cut off Porphyrius at the second turn.”
The men in front laughed. The loser did his best to smile. He probably felt like having the drink which he no longer could afford.
“Red again,” came a voice from beside John. He turned his head. Shock washed over him. He was looking into the face of the Blue he had pulled from the cistern.
No, it was simply another Blue, with the same partly shaved head and braid of hair.
“The Reds seem to be winning most of time,” the Blue said. “I think things are rigged in their favor.”
“Maybe it’s just time they made a comeback,” put in a stocky fellow with sawdust on his tunic.
A short, slight man with the pale skin of a clerk from one of the imperial offices, shook his head. “Can’t you see it’s rigged? Why do you suppose the villain has a whole tray of those colored balls? Whichever team’s wagered on, he selects the balls accordingly. Some are heavier or lighter. Some are misshapen.”
The Blue rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “It could be. Nothing’s fair in this city, is it?”
“No one would wager on finding fairness in Constantinople,” agreed the stocky man. “Look at those two poor fellows the emperor’s imprisoned at Saint Laurentius. I’m told he had them hung—and twice—because someone in their group made a disparaging comment about that actress he’s married to.”
“Justinian wouldn’t do such a thing,” said the Blue.
“I thought everyone was demanding the release of those unfortunates,” John said. “Particularly the factions. Don’t tell me you support Justinian, after what he’s done to us all?”
“We’re not all against the emperor,” the Blue replied. “Why would we be? He’s supported us for years. I’m sure he’ll be setting those men free.”
“You don’t think those two are still alive, do you?” sneered the clerk. “People can demand that Justinian release them but even the emperor can’t release anyone from the afterlife. I have it on good authority that he had their throats slit the moment they arrived at the church.”
“Sounds like something Theodora would order, behind the emperor’s back,” remarked the Blue.
A cheer went up from the spectators as another race of colored balls concluded.
When the noise died down John said, “I’m told one of the man was Gaius.” He picked the name out of the air.
The Blue seemed to actually see him for the first time and his gaze grew cold. “I have no idea who the prisoners are. Not friends of mine, certainly.” He quickly moved away.
Turning, John saw that the clerk had vanished when he wasn’t looking. He regretted now having worn the heavy, luxurious cloak that probably identified him as someone closely associated with the palace, someone to whom it might not be wise to say too much.
Nevertheless he wandered through the assembly, listening, trying to strike up conversations, turning the subject always to the condemned men. He learned nothing. Even a laborer in a threadbare tunic, exultant over having just won three week’s wages, turned sober when John tried to question him. Whatever their profession or station in life, all residents of the capital were highly suspicious and skilled at self-preservation.
Someone laughed. John saw it was Junius, the young charioteer he had spoken with inside the Hippodrome.
“I warned you that no one knows the emperor’s enemies, even if they do sympathize with them,” said Junius.
“You seem to have been prophetic,” John admitted. “Maybe you should try your luck at the game.”
“It doesn’t take a prophet to realize no one is going to risk being suspected of having any connection to men the emperor has seen fit to hang. You might have better success questioning beggars. Charioteers will never tell you anything. Not even if you pay them.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Suppose you offer me a bit of gold in return for information. Not that I have any information. If I take it I’m wagering that the emperor won’t have me dragged to the dungeons. Now if I were a beggar living on the street, with no future and no hope, it might be different. I might take the chance. But as it is, it would be stupid. Look at Porphyrius. He’s grown rich from racing. Most charioteers won’t, but still, we might. We wager we’ll win a prize every time we take to the track. That’s dangerous too, but not as dangerous as wagering on Justinian’s actions.”
John had to acknowledge the truth of what Junius said, though he didn’t do so aloud.
The audience seemed to be thinning.
The hawker in the multi-colored robes noticed.“What, no one else wants to test their skill? Fortuna drives too ruthlessly today, does she?”
“Do you hand our coins over to Fortuna?” someone yelled.
The hawker ignored the jibe. “Wait. I have an idea.”
He scrambled off the cart and reached behind one of the wheels. “Look! This explains it!” He pulled out a scroll, as long as his arm. From a distance it resembled lead but must have been dyed parchment because he could never have brandished such a weight over his head as he proceeded to do.
“Now you see why you have been losing all afternoon. Have you ever seen a bigger curse tablet?”
He let the scroll unroll. It reached to his feet. “There’s not a demon left in hell. Every last one’s been called up here to hobble your horses and steal your coins!”
Junius chuckled. “I don’t doubt it. I hear a demon was spotted on the docks. And in other places too.”
“They don’t seem to have confined themselves to interfering with the races,” John remarked.
The hawker made a show of pouring what he claimed was holy water over the scroll. By the time he climbed back onto the cart the crowd was laughing and interested again. “Now, who has the courage to race?”
“Why don’t you try?” Junius said to John. “See if Fortuna is on your side or not?”
“I’d rather not put Fortuna to the test for matters of no consequence.”
He noticed that the Blue he had spoken to earlier was standing on the cart.
“And which team do you support?” the hawker asked.
“The Blues. The emperor’s team!”
There was general muttering.
“And who amongst us would disagree with that,” the hawker said loudly, handing the Blue four colored balls.
“Fortuna!” someone yelled in answer.
“The demons,” suggested another.
The Blue dropped the balls into the top hole. They flashed down through the maze-like track, popping in and out of sight. When the winner burst out of the machine the hawker looked startled. The ball skidded out of his hand, hit the bottom of the cart, and bounced away.
Several shouts joined each other. “Red again!”
When John stepped into the atrium of his house, four excubitors were clustered around the central fountain, struggling to drag a body out of the basin at the feet of the marble Aphrodite. John’s foot slipped. Looking down he saw a pink trickle running back across the black and white tiles from the fountain.
The excubitors cursed.“Grab the arm. Heave now. Harder. Harder.”
They had hold of an enormously fat man. The body was in a sitting position. The head with its pasty white face lolled on the multiple chins hiding the neck. The man looked vaguely familiar, John thought.
The excubitors pulled, the man slid. Water sloshed over the rim of the basin and washed away the pink trickle at John’s feet. John noticed fragments from a broken wine jug scattered on the tiles.
The body in the basin groaned. Its tiny eyes blinked.
“Pull now. Pull,” ordered a broad backed excubitor. “All together. On the count of three. One. Two….”
The fat man came up out of the water and toppled forward, nearly pushing two of the excubitors to the floor. They staggered backwards like over-laden brick carriers, and dragged him out of the basin. Not dead, but still a dead weight. One yellow slipper caught on the rim. The other foot was bare.
Then the man was upright, supported by two of the excubitors. A swaying, shivering, mountain of sodden, tangled robes. The atrium was cold in January.
“Mithra!” growled the biggest of the excubitors.
John recognized the voice. “Felix.”
The bear-like man turned around. “My apologies, John. Our esteemed guest Pompeius was contemplating the goddess, sat down in the water by mistake, and couldn’t get up. Or so he says.”
One of the excubitors snickered. “He was wrapped around her like she was a whore in an alley.”
Pompeius’ thick and now decidedly bluish lips moved and finally words spluttered out. “I was merely attempting to get to my…my…feet.”
“Had a good hand hold,” the excubitor remarked.
“Trying to pull myself up….” His words slurred together. The little eyes were noticeably red in the colorless face.
Felix glared. “Get him back to his room. See he doesn’t injure himself further.”
The excubitors assisted Pompeius out of the atrium, half carrying him into the hall leading past the chapel and to the back of the house. The man’s swollen feet—one slippered, one bare—moved, but hardly touched the tiles.
John walked over to the basin and looked in. He expected to see the missing slipper. It had apparently been lost somewhere else. He didn’t much like the thought of the fat man’s yellow slipper at large in his house waiting to surprise him. Aphrodite, undisturbed, continued to spill water serenely from the shell in her upraised hand.
“That was Pompeius, wasn’t it?” John said. “One of the nephews of old emperor Anastasius. I’ve seen him around the palace occasionally. What did you mean by calling him ‘our guest’? And what are you doing here, my friend?”
Felix tugged at his beard. “Emperor’s orders. I got them straight from Narses, unfortunately.”
Before he could explain further another man whom John knew by sight edged slowly into the atrium. The man looked around nervously. Had he been standing near the entrance to the hall, watching, the whole time?
“Is it all right then? At first I was afraid rioters had got in.” Hypatius presented a stark contrast to Pompeius. An older man but without even a middle age paunch, immaculately dressed, his face would not have looked out of place on a gold coin. Only on close examination might one notice that the deep-set eyes had pouches beneath them, the square chin was rather weak, and the aquiline nose overly large. “My family and I appreciate your hospitality, John. Even if my brother has made himself a bit too comfortable already.”
Hypatius glanced around again. “Pompeius and myself and my daughter, Julianna. The emperor suggested we stay with you, until the danger of rioting has passed.”
“And your wife? You are married I believe?”
“Oh, yes, of course. Mary’s well guarded at the house. I’d prefer to be home. But Julianna’s safer here. She’s an impetuous girl. She’d be out fighting in the streets. For Justinian. Caution is always the best policy.”
“That’s why my excubitors and I are here,” Felix put in. “To guard the guests, just in case.”
Hypatius nodded gravely. “Exactly. You never know. The factions might have designs on us. If you don’t object, I had better go and look after my brother.”
John didn’t speak until Hypatius had vanished down the hall. Then he sighed. “So my house is to be a prison? Why my house, I wonder?”
“Justinian knows you barely use it. I wouldn’t say Justinian is imprisoning them, though. They came to the palace as soon as the factions got restless and refused to leave.”
“Since they are the closest relatives of the late Emperor Anastasius, they must be less worried about rioters than about appearing disloyal to Justinian.”
“That’s right. They want to stick by his side so he doesn’t get the idea they’re plotting against him. Not that they’ve allayed his suspicions entirely. I was told to keep an eye on them, and make sure they don’t leave.”
John could hear the disgust in his friend’s voice. He knew it wasn’t the kind of job Felix would enjoy. For his part, John wasn’t unhappy to host the excubitor. The two men had worked together in the past but lately their official duties had kept their paths from crossing very often. Between Felix’s increasing responsibilities in the imperial guards and John’s attendance on the emperor there was barely spare time for the occasional brief conversation at a tavern.
“As far as I can tell, Hypatius isn’t the sort to venture out into the streets until he considers them perfectly safe,” John observed. “And Pompeius is lucky if he can stand up.”
“I can’t say I blame him resorting to the grape. He must feel like a grape being crushed between the emperor and the factions. The third nephew, Probus, abandoned his mansion and fled the city. Talk has it that some in the factions want to replace Justinian with one of the Anastasius line. But then, I’m sure you know more about it all than I do. The family suspects they’d be more likely to end wearing a noose than a diadem.”
“Very perceptive of them.”
John scanned the atrium. He still didn’t see the yellow slipper. What he did see were puddles of wine and water on the floor and shards from the jug. He also saw two of his female servants peering in from the hall leading to the back of the house. Another servant, an older man, stood in the opposite doorway, staring uncertainly, a bucket in one hand and a rag in the other.
“Shall we clean up, master?” asked the man.
One of the women spoke. “And you will want dinner. For you and your guests.” She helped out in the kitchen, John thought. Perhaps she was the cook.
“Fine. Prepare something special.”
“Immediately, master.” The young woman kept glancing toward Felix. She and her companion went off down the hall. John thought he heard them giggling.
The remaining servant set his bucket down in a far corner and began cleaning vigorously.
“I always feel I’m out-numbered,” John muttered. “Now, in addition to an army of servants, I also have three patricians and several excubitors as guests.”
Felix grinned. “Don’t worry, John. There’s plenty of room. You should get out and explore your house some time. You’d see.”
“Have the servant’s been talking out of turn?”
“Not at all. It’s easy to tell when rooms are never used.”
“You looked around?”
“Pompeius wandered off. He was fairly inebriated when we arrived and…well, you’ve seen.”
“Unfortunately. I’m not used to having servants creeping up on me all the time, Felix. I spent too many years sleeping in a tent with my sword at my side.”
As he spoke yet another young woman entered the atrium. He couldn’t recall her name, but her face, like the faces of all his army of servants, was slightly familiar. She looked toward him expectantly. Wanting something to do, no doubt. “The floor is to be cleaned,” he told her.
The young woman’s expression hardened. “That would hardly be appropriate. I am Julianna. The daughter of Hypatius.”
“I don’t want to go back to that nasty little monk’s cell they’ve stuck me in. Let’s talk in the garden.” Julianna darted away, into the dining room John seldom used. The wooden screens were shut against the winter chill. She pushed them open far enough to squeeze through. She moved so quickly and unexpectedly, John could only follow, once again lamenting the size of the house. Yet he could hardly have refused the generosity of the emperor.
The mansions of patricians were to be found all over Constantinople, especially in spots offering a view of the sea. A great many senators lived near the Marmara on the southern side of the city where the land sloped down from the Hippodrome. Certain imperial functionaries lived closer to the imperial couple they served. As a chamberlain to the emperor, John had been given an appropriate residence. Located behind the stables, close to the Chalke, the rambling, single story structure sat within the palace grounds but outside the palace complex itself—the enclosure which included the magnificent Augusteus throne room and the Daphne Palace surmounted by the emperor’s private bed chambers, the Octagon.
John’s house, with its unprepossessing brick front, was squeezed in amongst a jumble of taller residences. He had heard it said that the atrium had been added onto a couple of abandoned stables and it was easy enough to believe. An unusually large number of cramped rooms opened off the halls running from either side of the atrium. Some were used for servants’ quarters, others for storage. Most remained empty. John slept in a room near the front of the house. He worked in the office between the atrium and the inner garden and generally took his meals there. For solitude he retreated to the chapel near the atrium. The suites of rooms at the rear of the house—intended for living quarters—were mostly unexplored territory. He sometimes passed through them on his infrequent visits to the kitchen and workshops.
The garden he stepped out into was best concealed by winter screens. Brown weeds and straggling, untrimmed shrubs choked the area. A couple of yew trees had grown up to almost twice the height of the house. Vines entangled the columns of the surrounding colonnades and bushes reached toward the covered walkways. He couldn’t see Julianna but he heard her.
“If the rioters get into the palace grounds we can simply hide here,” she was saying. “They’ll never find—” Her sentence broke off, replaced by a series of oaths that would have made a charioteer blush.
He turned toward the direction of her voice and plunged through a tangle of evergreens. He found her bent over, tunic hitched up too high, rubbing her knee. Her calves appeared exceedingly brown and muscular for a lady of the court.
“Banged into a horse!” Straightening up, Julianna indicated a statue, about waist high, half concealed by brambles. Though eroded and partially covered by bluish lichens, it appeared to be a stone horse. “Look. There’s another one.”
She broke off handfuls of dry weeds to reveal a better preserved steed, this one with a carved blanket draped across its back.
“I understand the previous owner liked horses,” John said.
In fact, he had been told that the official worshipped the Christians’ god and horses, but not necessarily in that order. The unfortunate man would have done better to confine himself to religion. He might not have disgraced himself with gambling debts.
“I would have liked that owner.” Julianna wrinkled her nose at John.
“You like horses?” That explained the muscular calves, John thought.
“I adore horses. My family has more than I can count. At our country estates.” Her expression brightened abruptly. Like the sun emerging from behind one of the clouds he could see in the rectangle of blue overhead. John noticed she was little more than a girl. Her simple green robes hung loosely on her slim figure. Her black hair was drawn up, out of the way, and coiled tightly on either side of her head. There was a firm set to her jaw.
He realized why he had thought her familiar. She reminded him of Cornelia.
Cornelia whom he had met in Egypt, so many years ago after he had left Haik and the rest of the mercenaries outside Antioch. Cornelia had possessed the same dark hair, lithe figure, and strong calves, the latter a result of her bull leaping. She was part of a troupe. One of their acts recreated the ancient Cretan art of performing acrobatics with bulls. Julianna might be almost the same age as Cornelia had been back then.
Not more than half his own age now, John reminded himself. Nor was he the same then as now. He was aware of a chilly breeze rattling dead leaves. The tall yews swayed slightly, sending their shadows flickering across the garden.
“I enjoy the chariot races myself,” John said. “I did a lot of riding when I was in the military.”
Julianna looked at him quizzically. “You? In the military? I wouldn’t have thought you were the sort.” Her tone hardened again. Her mouth tightened in the same pronounced way Cornelia’s used to when she got angry. Had John been so obviously staring at her?
“I spent quite a few years with a sword at my side. Judging people too quickly can be dangerous.”
The girl did not quite roll her eyes. “Why do you want to talk to me?”
“I like to get some idea of who I have in my home.”
“But you never have anybody in this dusty old place.”
“How would you know?”
She shrugged. “You can tell the rooms haven’t been lived in. There are cobwebs in all the corners. I wanted to stay at our house, with mother, but father insisted I come to the palace.”
“You’ll be safer here, if there’s more trouble in the streets. Your mother should have come as well.”
“She told me not to worry. They aren’t interested in her. Just in father, and maybe Uncle Pompeius. As if anyone would be interested in uncle.”
Julianna laid a hand, delicate like Cornelia’s, on the back of the miniature horse and absently petted the narrow back. “Oh, they say the factions want father to be emperor or some foolish thing. It’s just silly. You know all that though. It’s why we’re here.”