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The lamp light trembling in the corners of the vestibule of the Church of Saint Laurentius made the speaker look old, accentuating his white hair and deepening the shadows in the furrows in his long, doleful face. He still held the parchments John had presented. One identified John as an imperial official. The other was a direct order from the emperor. An order that had become impossible for him to carry out. Sebastian's finger nervously traced and retraced the embossed lead of the imperial seal that had secured a cord around the parchments.
"As you can plainly see, I was sent here to take custody of the prisoners on behalf of the emperor," John said. "The guards here were supposed to assist me in returning them to the palace. But you tell me the two men are gone! You are ...?"
"Sebastian. Commander of this detachment of the urban watch, excellency. I am under orders from the Urban Prefect Eudaemon."
"And I am a member of Justinian's privy council. From your stare I see you are doubtful. You are welcome to argue the point with my superior, Narses, provided the imperial treasurer will speak with you. How did two half-dead men manage to escape from your custody? The emperor will doubtless also wish to interview you about it."
The tall, slender man in the long, dark blue cloak towered over the stooped commander who looked up with a horrified expression. It was no secret that interviews with Justinian could end in painful visits to certain cramped rooms beneath the Great Palace, well equipped with arcane devices and sharp-edged instruments. "I cannot say how it was accomplished. Certainly the prisoners were far from dead ... they may have come close to death on the gallows ... but to have raced off like they did. The young fellow with the imperial seal said the two were wanted at the palace immediately and my men were to escort them."
"Yes, excellency. I looked at it closely. It was genuine. It was the same as this one." He nodded at the oval of stamped lead in his shaking hand. "That's why I'm confused. It isn't often one receives imperial orders and rarely twice in the same evening." His voice trailed off. He didn't have to add that it was even less often that such orders turned out to be conflicting.
"A young fellow, you say?"
"Even younger than you."
"Did anyone see them escape?"
"No, excellency, I—
"Then how do you know they raced off?"
"They must have, to have got away, to have eluded my guards ... so far. If they had still been in the vicinity of the church—"
"Is there any indication which direction they went?"
Sebastian shook his head. "I sent the young man down the stairs and remained here at my post. Someone raised the alarm when the guards discovered the vault was empty. I sent them out immediately in pursuit."
"This was when?"
"Not long ago. I'm not certain. Events have been happening so fast...."
John studied his surroundings. Even at this late hour worshipers streamed in and out of the church. Perhaps they had all come to pray to Saint Laurentius for safety from the unrest breaking out across the capital. As a Mithran, John found it strange how Christians despised those who refused to worship the one true god, while constantly imploring the aid of their own lesser deities which they termed saints.
"I will need to speak to your guards when they return, Sebastian. Let us hope they bring those prisoners back with them. Wait here."
John pushed open the heavy church door and went out into the dark street. He needed to organize his thoughts.
The odor of burning hung heavily on the air. The church sat halfway up the side of one of Constantinople's seven hills. Smoke coiled upwards from the foot of the slope where darting tongues of flame illuminated an irregular pile of ruins. Figures moved about, attempting to extinguish the remains of the blaze.
Two prisoners whom the emperor needed very badly were now at large in the troubled city. One was a Blue, the other a Green, members of the two main factions who supported the opposing chariot teams at the races in the Hippodrome. The factions loved mayhem as much as racing. Bound together by nothing more than the color of their charioteers' tunics, they ran in packs like wild dogs, fighting, robbing, and killing for the sheer joy of it.
They hated each other and frequently turned whole streets into battlefields because a charioteer's whip had strayed to his opponent's horses during a race or a supporter of the wrong team had joked about the poor embroidery in a colleague's cloak. But their anger was readily turned on any target that caught their attention—magistrates, Jews, Isaurians.
At present their target was the emperor.
Certain unspecified injustices perpetrated by Justinian had been the excuse for a public disturbance. Several of the participants were ordered executed but two survived their hangings, were rescued, and brought to the Church of Saint Laurentius.
Justinian wanted those two men. That they were beyond his reach would be a vexation to the emperor and even more of a problem for John, his chamberlain.
John took a deep breath of the cold air.
How long could he afford to wait for Sebastian's guards to return?
He remembered something. He walked a few paces to a stairway leading up an alley alongside the church. Streets with stairs were not uncommon given the city's terrain.
A beggar huddled in the dark at the foot of the stairs, barely visible.
John smelled his presence before he could see him, the sort of odor that emananted from the cages in the menagerie Empress Theodora kept on the place grounds.
"You were sitting here when I arrived," John addressed the man. "Did you see anyone running away before that?"
The beggar lifted a bristly face. His eyes were faint patches of fog.
"I am blind, good sir."
"Maxentius, good sir."
"Is this your usual place?"
"On cold nights the good priest allows me to sleep inside the church, but tonight my way was barred by guards. They'd as soon see a poor creature freeze to death as let him inside. I live on charity ..." A hopeful note entered his quavering voice. "Charity, yes. Those who attend this church are always generous. Perhaps...."
John ignored his entreaty. "Despite your lack of sight, can you observe much?"
"Indeed, I am aware of all the comings and goings from the church, which is why I sit here. Also, I am safe from those fools who dash about knocking down innocent passersby in their hurry to get to the wine shop or brothel. It is a good place to ask for charity, being so near the church. Charity, good sir, is all too often overlooked by busy citizens and—"
"Have there been any Blues or Greens around tonight? A group of them, perhaps? Or just one or two?"
"None, thank the Lord. When the factions roam the streets nobody's safe! When they come out to play and start wielding their blades, I go into the church. So far at least." Maxentius raised his head slightly, as if listening. "I hope the guards have left the church before those ruffians arrive here again."
"You are able to identify faction members?"
"Usually. Always when they are in groups, because of the way they talk. Both their manner and their words."
"I will instruct Sebastian you are to be allowed inside if the Blues and Greens turn up."
"You are interested in the Blues and the Greens, good sir? Have they wronged you? As they wronged me? If not for them I would not be sitting here in the cold begging."
"Is that so?"
"I swear to it. I worked as a lamplighter in the Great Church. I came across some of those ruffians carving blasphemies into a wall. They grabbed the burning lamp I carried and threw the oil into my face. And that is why I am reduced to depending on the charity of good people like yourself."
John had not noticed any sign that the man had ever been burned, but the shadows on the stairs were so deep he could hardly make out the bristly face. He handed Maxentius a coin. "I realize you couldn't have seen anything," he said, cutting off the beggar's profuse thanks. "But did you hear anyone run by within the past hour or so?"
"Yes, good sir. I heard the church doors burst open and people raced out, heading in every direction, screaming and shouting."
That must have been after the alarm was raised and the search for the missing men began, John thought. "Did you hear anyone running earlier?"
"Many people passed by. None were running." Sebastian had insisted the prisoners had raced away, but since no one had seen them go that was only supposition. They might have left stealthily, but how could you ask a blind man whether anyone had crept by him quietly?
"Did you hear anything unusual?" John asked.
"Some military men went by."
"Military men? What made you think that?"
"The sound. Heavy boots on the cobbles."
"Anyone can wear heavy boots."
"The noise a soldier's boots make is unmistakable. And there's the creak of the leather armor, the rattle of swords in scabbards. Even the smell of them." Maxentius paused. He wrinkled his forehead and his eyelids closed briefly over his foggy eyes. "Ah. How can I describe it to a man fortunate to be sighted? I'm sure they were military men of some sort. When I heard them coming I scrambled into that doorway over there and hid. Just as well because they went up these stairs."
"And you say they weren't running?"
"Why did you think them unusual?"
"Because they were grunting and cursing. 'Hold on,' they were saying. 'Careful. I've got it.' They must have been carrying something heavy."
Or two things, John thought. He was not hearing a description of two prisoners who had been freed and fled but rather of men who had been carted away. The stairs were steep and narrow enough that it would have been awkward carrying two bodies up them. Corpses were more difficult to handle than sacks of wheat.
"How many of these men were there?"
"At least two."
"At least? You think perhaps there were more?"
"Yes, sir. There could have been three. Or four."
Enough to carry two murdered men, John thought to himself. "Where do the stairs go?" he asked.
"To the cistern."
John muttered a curse. "Mithra!"
* * *
John ran up the steeply ascending, staired alley, guiding himself with one hand on the brick walls of the buildings on his left.
The darkness of the alley rendered him nearly as blind as the beggar he had left. Here and there an ill-fitting shutter high up in a wall revealed a thin orange line that did nothing to light the Stygian gloom.
He was ready to draw his blade instantly if necessary. And it might well be needed. There were still roving bands of the factions to be met, particularly in darker reaches of the city such as this, and increasingly in public squares. As the marauders grew bolder there were more reports of them breaking into houses. In this quarter the residents had long since barred their splintered doors and closed the shutters of the mean houses leaning toward each other over the narrow byways, as if in confidential conversation.
John was breathing hard by the time he reached the top of the incline. The long, heavy wool cloak he had worn over his usual light dalmatic for the chilly journey from the Great Palace to the Church of Saint Laurentius impeded his running. He cut across a packed dirt area, went past a tethered donkey, ducked under an archway, crossed a squalid courtyard, and stepped into a wider thoroughfare lit by a burning cart. Moving through the open area beyond, he became acutely aware of the immense starry dome that suddenly opened overhead. Glowing flecks of ash drifted into the sky.
Abruptly he stopped. The empty space he had been about to traverse was in fact a black sheet of water. He could see reflections of firelight in the surface.
John forced himself to approach the edge of the cistern. He did not like deep water. A long time ago, he had seen a military colleague drown.
The water might have been polished black marble, reminding him of the floor of a palace reception hall. It beckoned him to step forward and test its illusionary surface. John's lips tightened. He consciously slowed his rapid breathing, only the result of running, he told himself.
He scanned the surface of the cistern.
Something floated near the edge. He walked carefully along the verge until he could make out a lumpy half-submerged shape, then knelt down.
The water's surface was less than an arm's length below ground level. He lay down and reached forward tentatively. The floating object remained beyond his reach. Bubbles began to escape from beneath it. Whatever the object was, it sank deeper.
Gritting his teeth, John pushed the upper half of his body over the water. The black surface tilted up toward him as he stretched his arm out again. The tips of his fingers brushed cloth. He strained until his shoulder felt on fire. He tried to wriggle further forward, began to overbalance, and stopped.
More bubbles gurgled up and the object begin to vanish into blackness.
With a quick prayer to Mithra John grasped the edge of the cistern with one hand and let himself drop.
The water was freezing. He gasped and fought back panic.
Too late. The floating shape was gone.
John plunged a hand into the water at the place he had last seen it. His fingers touched and tightened around what felt like a thick, slippery cord.
He pulled himself clumsily out of the cistern with one hand, keeping his other gripped around the cord. He managed to get to his knees and tugged. Whatever the cord was attached to must have been heavy, judging from the resistance.
He put his other hand on the cord as well and saw that he held a long braid of hair, the Hunnish style adopted by many of the Blue faction.
The body finally bobbed to the surface. As John hauled it up onto the ground a brick fell out of its garments and hit the water with a splash.
John turned away. He stayed on his knees, shaking and dizzy. He had managed to keep himself from thinking as he plunged into the cistern, concentrating only on his duty. Now he could feel the black water clutching at him.
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.
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?"
Excerpted from Eight for Eternity by Mary Reed Eric Mayer Copyright © 2010 by Mary Reed & Eric Mayer. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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