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"In this captivating prequel set in sixth-century Constantinople, the fourth in Reed and Mayer's well-received historical series (One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, Three for a Letter, etc.), the future emperor Justinian asks a young slave named John the Eunuch to investigate the murder of philanthropist Hypatius, struck down while examining the controversial Christ statue he and three others have given to the city's Great Church. Discounting rumors of a political plot, John undertakes a search for the truth that will lead him from opulent palace to
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"In this captivating prequel set in sixth-century Constantinople, the fourth in Reed and Mayer's well-received historical series (One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, Three for a Letter, etc.), the future emperor Justinian asks a young slave named John the Eunuch to investigate the murder of philanthropist Hypatius, struck down while examining the controversial Christ statue he and three others have given to the city's Great Church. Discounting rumors of a political plot, John undertakes a search for the truth that will lead him from opulent palace to squalid hospice, and to meetings with such memorable characters as the naove Lady Anna and the quirky Avis, who lives in a virtual aviary and is convinced he will fly someday. Written with humor and pathos, this superior historical is sure to please existing fans and send new ones in search of the rest of the series."
The swaggering and elegant young thugs who styled themselves the Blues had terrorized Constantinople for months. They had driven their rivals, the Greens, from the streets. Now their target was the populace.
As John escorted Lady Anna along the Mese he kept watch for possible ambush. The well honed alertness of the mercenary he had been in another life had never deserted him. So far, however, the colonnaded thoroughfare that ran from the heart of Constantinople to its defensive walls had revealed no dangers.
The shops crowded along both sides of the wide street boasted only a handful of customers that morning. The purveyors of pottery and glass, cloths both fine and inexpensive, spices, olives, and cooking oils, peered out disconsolately from their The smells of their wares were as enticing as ever, John thought. It was hard to say whether the sparse number of pedestrians was due to the civil unrest or the wintry weather.
Two ill dressed boys, breath steaming in the cold, raced recklessly across the Mese.
"Take care, Lady Anna," John murmured. He stepped nimbly into the path of the urchins, deflecting their careening course away from his companion. The boys shouldered him insolently as they went by and ran into an alley. There they paused only long enough to taunt a beggar huddled in a doorway. The unfortunate man clutched closer to his chest the largesse of the state. To the usual loaf of bread the authorities had added a small lump of meat. It was another reason for those dependent on the emperor's generosity to refrain from rioting against their benefactor.
Lady Anna noticed the ragged man crouched in his makeshift shelter and turned her head away. Her shoulders trembled beneath the thick yellow woolen cloak hanging from her angular form. Perhaps, John thought, it was nothing more than a reaction to the frigid wind. There was enough tragedy on public display every day in Constantinople to make even the kindest hearts weary of grieving.
Shouted curses pulled John's attention from the beggar to a gang of workmen laboring to repair a broken column on a colonnade just down the street. The chill lying on the still air served to amplify sounds even as it suppressed the familiar marshy tang of the sea, a smell now overlaid with the sharply acrid scent of smoke from a thousand braziers heating the city's shops and dwellings.
Cold seeped through the leather soles of John's boots. "To the Great Church, lady?" he inquired quietly of his companion.
Lady Anna looked up at him, her plain, thin-lipped face animated by a lively look of interest. Though she was unbecomingly tall for a woman, her lean escort was much taller.
"Yes, indeed. Everyone tells me the new installation there is a wonder, but I intend to judge for myself before the Patriarch is convinced that it should be removed as blasphemous. Or these rampaging mobs father keeps warning me about set the church on fire." They had come to the Augustaion. Anna inclined her head toward a stolid, brick basilica across the nearly deserted square.
"As you order." John glanced keenly around again.
Snow had floured the city overnight. Dark imprints left by booted human feet formed purposeful paths over the faint, meandering trails of foraging seagulls. A few of the large birds squawked noisily and took to the sky as John and Anna intruded on their search for food.
As the couple stepped briskly forward, John remembered crossing frozen fields in Bretania, tilting his head toward their bordering forest, heart racing, listening for the stealthy hiss of steel drawn from scabbards. There was danger in Constantinople too, but of a different sort. The enemies here were alien to John. Not military men. Not Persians or Picts, but fashionably dressed young men, racing fans, more familiar with chariot tactics on the Hippodrome track than battlefield formations. The blades they wielded were as sharp as any Persian weapon, and the factions were ready to defend the honor of their favorite racing teams with all the ferocity of warriors defending a border.
Or to turn their ferocity on the innocent.
Suddenly one of the few other figures visible, a man shrouded in a black cloak, changed direction and walked purposefully toward them.
John's hand fastened on the hilt of his blade, but as the man drew nearer realized he was not a Blue. His gold-trimmed, heavily embroidered cloak was certainly ostentatious enough to please any member of that faction, but he did not sport voluminous sleeves or their Hunnic hairstyle, shaved in front and long in the back.
The man was short but solidly built with a smooth, square jaw and close-cropped black hair. He was also, it turned out, known to Anna.
"Trenico!" she said. "What a surprise! You've been to see the notorious statue, I wager!"
The man stopped an arm's length from John. He contrived to look through him in an insultingly obvious fashion and gave Lady Anna a stiff bow.
"Anna! I thought it was you. Yes, you deduce correctly. I decided to take a stroll to blow the cobwebs away. This is certainly the right weather for that! And what do you think of this? I was just standing outside the Great Church talking to a couple of senators, good friends of mine, and I saw the most amazing thing. There was a commotion around the corner and the several of the Gourd's men went racing past, with swords drawn no less. I wonder what that was all about?"
Lady Anna said she was not surprised. "We're living in an armed encampment these days. We should count ourselves fortunate if we are merely robbed and not murdered for daring to venture out." Her lips curved briefly into an ironic smile.
"As you say. An armed encampment," Trenico agreed. "Even the Greens are afraid to be out on the streets."
"So the Blues have spared us from the depredations of the Greens, at least," Anna observed.
"The cold hasn't frozen your wit! Let's hope the emperor regains his senses and orders some chariot races before long. Then these miserable factions can get back to insulting each other from opposite ends of the Hippodrome and leave the rest of us in peace."
John had occasionally glimpsed Trenico at Lady Anna's home. The man seemed intent on ingratiating himself with her father, Senator Opimius. That was one path to advancement for a soft fop of a courtier who probably knew nothing about armed encampments.
"You can see I'm well protected." Lady Anna gestured at John.
"Well protected? By whom?" For the first time Trenico acknowledged John's presence. "Oh yes, him. But surely this is only the slave your father borrowed from the Keeper of the Plate's office to tutor you? A eunuch, is it not? How can a eunuch tutor protect you from a street gang? Frighten them away by reciting epic verses?"
John struggled to maintain a blank expression. He succeeded, barely. Luckily Trenico did not glance down at John's hand, tightened around the hilt of his dagger until his knuckles were pale. It would be sweet to sink the blade into that jeering fool. He forced himself to look away from Trenico and glance around the Augustaion again. His dark eyes were furious.
It would also be folly indeed to spill aristocratic blood, John's practical side reminded him. He did not consider himself as truly a slave, and would never accept his slavery. Unfortunately, the world saw things differently.
"You don't seem worried about running into any danger in the streets, Trenico," Anna was saying. "Aren't you tempting thieves going about in such finery?"
Trenico's broad shoulders went back. To John he resembled a dove puffing its feathered breast. "Even those murdering Blues won't force me to creep around the city sporting a brass belt buckle. I'd rather die defending my best silver buckle, or the gold one for that matter."
"I would think your life would be worth more than a silver buckle."
Trenico shrugged off her comment. "Don't fret, Anna, I can defend myself. But I fear I must be on my way now. I have an audience at the Hormisdas Palace with Theodora. This is absolutely confidential, you understand."
John glared at Trenico's receding back. A smoky haze was settling, suffusing the city with a gray twilight. In the eerie light the massed buildings, a jumble of tenements crowding up to churches, mansions protected by stout doors, looming warehouses, elegant colonnaded baths, all of them sporting roofs bristling with crosses, appeared to John as nothing more than a fanciful fresco on the wall of an eccentric's villa.
It had been only a handful of years since he had been brought here to labor in metaphorical chains. There were still days when Constantinople and his life within the Great Palace seemed unreal. that notion had helped him to endure the unendurable.
"I wonder what all that fuss Trenico mentioned was about?" Anna mused as they continued on toward the Great Church. "The City Prefect always has armed men running around. It's mostly done to impress citizens, or at least that's what father says."
"That could well be so."
They ascended the steps to the church. When they reached the shelter of its wide, columned portico John almost—unforgivably—relaxed his vigilance. He heard the muffled pounding of approaching footsteps and for a heartbeat imagined they signaled the reappearance of the rambunctious street urchins.
Then two Blues careened out of the building and down the stairs. With a swift sweep of his arm, John pushed Lady Anna into a corner of the portico and placed himself between her and the church door.
Just in time before a third Blue burst out.
This one raised his weapon to strike, saw the blade waiting in John's hand, and instead bolted off toward the Mese.
John registered a fleeting impression. An enormous man with the shoulders of a brick carrier and a squashed and crooked nose. Then two of the Prefect's men rushed out. They halted at the top of the steps, labored breath hanging on the air, as they stared out over the open space before them.
Behind them, in the church, the screaming began.
"The bastards have split up," growled one of the men.
"Where's Septimius?" asked his companion.
"He's trying to stop the doorkeeper's bleeding. One of them slashed the old man on their way out. A clever diversion. They're not all stupid, the Blues."
"What about Hypatius?"
John noticed Lady Anna pale at the mention of the name.
"He's beyond tending," came the reply. "Look, I'll follow the short fellow. See if you can catch the one who ran toward the hospice. Once he's gone through there into the alleys we've lost him. Let the giant go. Someone his size won't be able to hide for long."
John looked across the square. The quarry had already disappeared from sight even as the men finally lumbered off in pursuit. They would be fortunate to catch the fleeing miscreants. He suspected they didn't particularly want to corner them.
He turned toward Anna. "Forgive my impertinence in touching you." He broke off, seeing her expression. Her face looked whiter than the freshest snow shrouding the city.
"Hypatius," she whispered. "Surely not the same Hypatius...."
She spun around and entered the church. John followed.
Just inside the vestibule a man bent over a prone figure, no doubt the wounded doorkeeper. Worshippers milled about in panic. The screaming had stopped, but several women sobbed and a short man with gray hair shook his fist at no one in particular.
"I saw it with my own eyes!" he shouted. "Murder even while the Lord looks on!"
John pushed his way through the crowd, clearing a path for Lady Anna as they advanced toward the life-sized marble sculpture standing on a shoulder-high pedestal in the center of the vestibule. It was an image of the meek god the Christians worshipped, a condemned man as helpless as any slave, hanging from a cross. Wisps of coiling lamp smoke imparted a hint of animation to the dying man's chiseled features, but the groan of anguish was Anna's.
She had knelt beside a crumpled shape lying like a carelessly discarded robe at the foot of the pedestal on which the instrument of execution was displayed. Lamplight glinted on a dark, glassy pool spreading from the motionless form.
"It is Hypatius. My father's friend. They will never discuss philosophy or share wine again."
* * *
Felix flinched as Emperor Justin's spidery hand unexpectedly dropped onto his shoulder. At first the young German excubitor feared that some loathsome creature had fallen on him from the low roof of the bridge between the church and the Great Palace. When he jerked his helmeted head around and saw instead Justin's veined and palsied hand, his heart jumped. Most of the empire's inhabitants would meet their god without even setting eyes on their emperor. His fleshly touch was profoundly unsettling.
Justin staggered forward a step before steadying himself. Felix felt the man's weight on his shoulder, the ponderous, unexpected weight of the battlefield dead. Then the quaestor Proclus, accompanying Justin as usual, swiftly took charge.
"Caesar, this should have been swept clean before your walk. Someone is certainly going to pay for that slippery spot." His voice was calm and firm.
Felix glanced down at the strip of purple carpeting pointing an imperial finger along the bridge. Snow had drifted in between the marble pillars supporting the roof and melted in the warmth radiated by lamps set in niches along the chest-high wall. To think that such a commonplace occurrence might have caused the emperor, a man with absolute power over all his subjects, to fall like a common drunkard swaying out of an inn!
Proclus glared at the attendants stationed on either side of Justin. They were big muscular fellows, costumed like courtiers. Their embroidered robes brushed the emperor's heavy cloak. From a distance they appeared to be leaning toward Justin, engaged in some privileged conversation. In the confusion of rich fabrics it was not immediately evident that they were firmly gripping the old man's arms. Or rather were gripping them again, thanks to Proclus' silent reprimand. Even so, they continued to look down over the low wall toward the commotion that had distracted them.
"What is it?" asked Justin. "What's going on? You're blocking my view." His voice was querulous.
"Three Blues just ran out of the Great Church," replied Proclus. "Up to no good as usual, I suspect." Justin's advisor had the look of a patrician. The broad, pale brow revealed by his receding hairline appeared waiting for a laurel wreath. Felix would have mistaken him for the emperor, had he not known better.
Justin, by contrast, appeared in old age the peasant he had been. Once a large and impressive man, he was now merely big, stooped and thick necked. His prominent nose had flattened and spread across his red, chafed face. "Why aren't all these troublemakers under control, Proclus? Isn't the Gourd doing his job?"
"Yes, he is. Some of his men are already in pursuit," Proclus offered after a swift glance.
The emperor scowled. "It's only Blues? Nothing worse?"
"Simply a bit of unrest in the street," Proclus reassured him. "But perhaps it might be wiser to visit the church another time? May I suggest we go to our meeting with Justinian instead?"
"My nephew is not so unwell this morning?"
"So I am informed."
Justin laughed. "Even so, doubtless Theodora will be speaking for him as usual."
The attendant next to Felix glanced over at him, raised his eyebrows, and grimaced. Felix ignored him. He had only recently been appointed to the imperial bodyguard, a position of great honor and responsibility. It was not for him to sit in judgment of an emperor, especially one who had risen from the ranks of the military.
"But it is only those troublesome young men, you say? Nothing more?" Justin fretted.
"Nothing more, Caesar." Proclus turned to go back the way they had come.
"Very well. I'm afraid that Euphemia will be sorely disappointed. I promised I would describe this remarkable figure of Christ to her in the most minute detail since she is not well enough to see it herself right now."
Proclus gave no order, but the entourage of guards and attendants turned so that Felix found himself looking at Justin's bent back. He could still feel the weight of the emperor's hand on his shoulder. No, it was not for him to judge his ruler.
Yet he could not help wondering about Justin's words. Empress Euphemia had been dead for months.
Excerpted from Four for a Boy by Mary Reed Eric Mayer Copyright © 2002 by Mary Reed and 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Everyone knows about the fall of the Roman Empire to the barbarian hordes. However, while the western portion of the empire passed from Roman control in 476 AD, the eastern part-often referred to as the Byzantine Empire- survived for nearly another millennium, until its capital of Constantinople was overrun by the Turks in l453.
The John the Eunuch mystery series unfolds during the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565), on the cusp of the classical and medieval worlds. John lives at a time when paganism had all but lost its battle with Christianity but the glory of Rome was still much more than just a dim memory. In his attempts to restore the empire, Justinian not only successfully reconquered both Africa and Italy but also codified Roman law and rebuilt Constantinople so as to rival in the magnificence of its architecture ancient Rome itself. Yet the city's centerpiece was not a pagan temple but a Christian church, the Hagia Sophia.
John, who serves as Justinian's Lord Chamberlain, is called upon to solve some of the mysterious deaths which were not uncommon in this turbulent time of competing viewpoints. In One For Sorrow (535 AD) he investigates the death of a friend who was an official at the Great Palace, while also contending with a soothsayer and a traveler who claims to be on a quest for the Holy Grail. Two For Joy (537 AD) finds him attempting to find an explanation for the deaths of holy stylites who spontaneously burst into flame atop the pillars upon which they live, just as a religious zealot arrives at the gates of Constantinople, claiming supernatural powers and making political demands. In Three For A Letter (539 AD), John becomes involved in Justinian's plans to regain control of Italy when he is sent to a seaside estate to solve the murder of a young diplomatic hostage who was an heir to the Ostrogoth throne-and at the same time also protect the dead boy's sister. His task is further complicated by intriguing courtiers, automatons and a herd of fortune-telling goats. Four For A Boy (525 AD) is a prequel to the series, relating how John regained his freedom by solving the murder of a prominent philanthropist in broad daylight in the Great Church, as well as his first meetings with several series characters including Felix (here a rank and file excubitor), Egyptian madam Isis and the wine imbibing physician Gaius, not to mention a cast including street performers, courtiers, and the former actress Theodora, who was later to co-rule the empire with Justinian.
John the Eunuch is a tall, lean Greek, born around 495 AD. As a young man he attended Plato's Academy outside Athens but grew restless and left to become a mercenary. He fought in Bretania, where he developed a fear of deep water after seeing a colleague drown in a swollen stream. He also lived for a time in Alexandria and traveled with a troupe which recreated the ancient Cretan art of bull-leaping for Roman audiences. While seeking to buy silks for his lover in a border region of the empire, he strayed into enemy territory, was captured by Persians, emasculated and sold into slavery, purchased to serve at the Great Palace in Constantinople.
Having regained his freedom and eventually appointed Lord Chamberlain, John's official role is as chief attendant to the emperor. As part of his duties John oversees much of the palace administration and supervises court ceremonies. However, his real power lies in his close working relationship with Justinian, who depends upon his advice and, from time to time, his ability as an investigator. Unfortunately, John has attracted the enmity of Empress Theodora.
A man of simple tastes, John lives in a sparsely furnished house on the palace grounds. Although wealthy, he refuses to employ slaves or the customary bodyguard. He is fluent in four languages (cursing in Egyptian) but is not quick to share confidences in any of them. He has, however, been known to share his thoughts with the girl depicted in the mosaic on the wall of his study.
John is sometimes aided in his investigations by Felix, the Captain of the Excubitors (palace guards), his younger friend Anatolius (Justinian's secretary) and an elderly servant, Peter. John, like Felix and Anatolius, is a practicing Mithran and has attained the rank of Runner of the Sun. Like them, however, he must keep his beliefs secret since Mithraism is a proscribed religion.
John is a man of contradictions-a pagan serving a Christian emperor, a man of principle in a society whose corrupt institutions do not offer justice, someone who has been terribly wounded but has not descended into ruthlessness although he has been known to lapse into fits of anger and near madness, perhaps a result of urges he usually controls.
John appears in several short stories as well as the series of novels.
SUGGESTED TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
WARNING: INCLUDES SPOILERS
(l) John suffered castration as a young man. In what way has this affected his emotional and mental attitudes? How do you think you would react to this type of traumatic event? To what extent do the things that happen to us dictate "who we are" and to what extent can we decide "who we are" despite the things that happen to us?
(2) John was captured, mutilated and sold into slavery but has survived to become a man of great power. Yet he has not attempted to hunt down and punish those who wronged him. Why do you think he hasn't taken revenge? Should he? Would you?
(3) People sometimes assume that a eunuch must not be a "real" man and so would be unable to protect the people he loves or do "manly" things. What are your thoughts on this assumption? Can we in fact accomplish things that seem impossible when the need arises? Has this ever happened to you?
(4) Many things taken for granted in John's time - families selling their children into prostitution or slavery, for example - are morally repugnant to us. Yet these things are still going on l,500 years later. Do you think the world is becoming a better place? Will such conditions always be part of it? Does our society take for granted things that will appear morally wrong to people in the future? What do you think they would consider to belong to this classification?
(5) John does not always approve of aspects of his society. His views are sometimes more in line with modern day thinking. Is this realistic? How much does the society in which we live shape our views of what is right and wrong?
(6) Several characters in the books are practicing Mithrans living in a Christian court whose emperor has proscribed pagan religions. They must therefore follow their religion in secret. What parallels do you see with religious oppression today? Is it possible, like John and his friends, to follow individual beliefs and principles in a world that often seems to hold contrary views?
(7) As Lord Chamberlain, John the Eunuch is immensely wealthy but he prefers plain food and a sparsely furnished house. What does this tell you about him? Is wealth necessarily the measure of a person? What would you do if you were suddenly as rich as John?
(8) Empress Theodora is a very strong woman whose power is exceeded only by that wielded by her husband, Justinian. Some scholars believe her influence on her husband was so great that she was actually co-emperor. Today we see a few women serving as heads of state. Has the role of powerful women changed? Can you think of any women today who are like Theodora? Who would you choose to play her in a movie?
(9) In One For Sorrow, Ahaseurus claims to be able to foretell the future while in Three For A Letter the same talent is ascribed to a herd of goats. Fortune-telling and horoscopes remain very popular today. Why do you think that is, considering how much we now know about the world thanks to modern science? Do you think we can foretell the future by astrology or other means? Do you know of any examples where this actually happened?
(l0) The innkeeper and his wife in One For Sorrow are a good example of a marriage that began in high hopes and ended in sorrow. Given the history of the couple as related in the book, could a different course have been taken? If they had asked you for advice on their marriage, what advice would you have given them?
(ll) In One For Sorrow, John is driven to find his friend's murderer even though the emperor has ordered him to stop the pursuit. Do we have a higher duty to our family and friends than to those in power?
(l2) Anatolius, who appears in all the books, is often hasty in his actions. What advice would you give him if you were his parent? Would it be any different from parental advice you would give to a young man or woman today?
(l3) At the end of Two For Joy, Michael's true identity is revealed. It has been said that we all wear public masks. Do you think this is true? What would you have done in Michael's situation?
(l4) In Two For Joy, Lucretia becomes a runaway wife. Given her situation as described in the book would you have felt the same way? Would you have stayed in the marriage? Why?
(l5) Justinian exercised absolute power over the life and death of everyone in his empire. If you were the emperor what sort of civil and legal reforms would you order carried out immediately? If you could only order one reform, what would it be, and why?
(l6) In Three For A Letter, the Ostrogoth twins have been brought up in very unusual circumstances, separated from their blood relatives and far from home. What sort of effect do you think this would have on children? How could it be counteracted?
(l7) Much of Three For A Letter is set on Zeno's country estate and exhibits a dreamlike quality. Have you ever felt as if you were living in a dream, whether good or bad?
(l8) Were you surprised to learn that the Roman Empire had continued for 1,000 years after its "fall"? Why do you think so little popular attention has been paid to its later history while there have been many books and movies about its earlier times?
Posted December 9, 2008
Constantinople in the winter of 525 AD is so cold that the chariot races are postponed. The Blue faction is getting into trouble and causing riots while the green faction is so intimidated they don¿t wear uniforms in public. John the slave eunuch is normally assigned to the palace, but is on loan to Senator Opimius and his daughter Lady Anna who he tutors occasionally. One day while escorting Lady Anna, they pass the Great Church where Hypatius, who donated a beautiful marble statue of Christ¿s Crucifixion, is murdered. Shortly after that John ends up fighting with some other Eunuchs and gets tossed in the dungeon. He is freed by the emperor¿s heir Justinius to discover the murderer, to see if the crime is tied to a plot to block him from becoming Emperor, and to spy on the Senator to see where his loyalties lie. He is teamed up with Felix, a palace guard loyal to the emperor who thinks working with a slave beneath him. John is miserable with his station in life but he is only a slave who must obey orders or die. The hero of this tale doesn¿t realize that his first job for the heir apparent is the first step on his way to becoming Lord Chamberlin. FOUR FOR A BOY is a prequel to the three previous books in the series and for the first time readers feel they understand how John hates being a slave and a eunuch. Mary Reed and Eric Mayer have written a colorful and exotic historical mystery filled with all the plots and intrigues that took place in Constantinople. Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.