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Nine for the Devil
A John the Lord Chamberlain Mystery
By Mary Reed Eric Mayer
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2012 Mary Reed and Eric Mayer
All right reserved.
Chapter One Theodora may have been dead to those at the Great Palace and to the patrons of the inn within sight of the palace's bronze gates, but in the empire beyond she still lived. Soldiers camped on the Persian border traded coarse jokes about the former actress, thinking they insulted a living woman. General Belisarius, beaten back by the Goths in Italy, could continue to hope for a few days longer that the empress might sway Justinian to send reinforcements. In Alexandria a monophysite clergyman penned a homily on Theodora's piety, unaware that she had already joined his heretical saints.
Now released into the city, word of her death flowed like a swiftly lengthening shadow along Constantinople's thoroughfares. It reached into taverns and baths, tenements and churches, bringing jubilation, satisfaction, and even sorrow. Borne by worshipers, the shadow fell across the encomium to her charitable works chiseled into the white marble entablature of the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, and on the lips of a garrulous ferryman it passed over the whitened bones of her enemies scattered against the sea walls beneath the waters of the Marmara.
By nightfall Theodora would be dead to all who dwelt within the area bound by the capital's land walls. Weeks would pass before she died at the furthest outposts of the empire, from the Danube in the north and Egypt in the south, from Lazica east of the Black Sea to the westernmost part of the African Prefecture. She would go on living for several extra days in Syria, thanks to John the Cappadocian, the former official she so hated. News traveled slowly there because the Cappadocian had substituted plodding mules for horses as a money-saving measure.
Another John the late empress had hated, the Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, turned away from the newly widowed ruler as the brief meeting of the imperial council ended.
John the Eunuch, as many called him but never to his face, was in his early fifties, a tall, lean Greek, clean-shaven, with high, sharp cheekbones and sun-darkened skin. Age had not grayed his closely cropped black hair. He wore deep blue robes made of the finest cloth, adorned only by a narrow gold stripe along the hem. Dressed less elegantly, he could have passed for the mercenary he had been as a young man or as a desert-dwelling hermit.
"John, please remain." The emperor spoke softly. His bland round and slightly puffy face looked too calm to belong to a man standing beside the body of his newly deceased wife.
The members of the imperial council who had been available at short notice filed out of the cramped sickroom as quickly as dignity allowed—the Praetorian Prefect of the East, the Master of Offices who headed the palace administration, the emperor's legal advisor the Quaestor, and the imperial treasurer. Their hasty departure whorled the haze of lamp smoke, incense, and perfume.
John watched their escape, then fixed his gaze on Justinian. As a count of the consistory John had no specific duties. His work depended on the emperor's whim.
"Excellency," John said. "My condolences."
"Offer a prayer for her soul, John."
This was an order John could not carry out because he worshiped Mithra in secret rather than the god of the Christians. He inclined his head in a vague gesture he hoped would be taken for assent, then looked on uncomfortably as Justinian paced to the foot of the bed and tugged its sheets straighter.
The emperor refused to leave Theodora's side. Did he truly grasp that she was dead?
John realized that now he would never be entirely certain why Theodora had hated him. Perhaps she had not wanted to share the emperor with other advisors. There was no sense of victory. If John felt anything, it was regret that she had departed before he had managed to defeat her. He felt nothing toward the husk she had left behind.
His enemy's death gave John so sense of relief either. He struggled to accept that finally, after more than twenty years, Theodora no longer threatened him.
Justinian paced back to the head of the bed. His pacing was the only sign he gave of agitation. "The evil-doer will eventually be brought to justice before the throne of God. As God's representative on earth it is up to me to administer justice in this world."
"The monster who murdered the empress."
The statement took John off-guard. For months the court had observed in horror as the empress wasted away. "Surely the monster was the illness she suffered?"
"No. I won't believe it. She was poisoned."
Despite the hot, smoke-filled air, John felt a chill at Justinian's matter-of-fact tone. If the emperor had displayed any emotion his irrational statement could have been dismissed as a momentary delusion brought on by grief.
"But how could she have been poisoned?" John asked. "We are in the center of Theodora's private residence. Few were admitted to see her." He glanced around the room. Painted angels adorned the walls. A gilded icon depicting the healing saints Cosmas and Damian faced the bed. A chest of inlaid wood sat at its foot. There was a three-legged table with a round marble top crowded by small glass bottles and ceramic pots. As usual an armed excubitor stood outside the only door. "Ask the guard, excellency," John suggested. "He will tell you no poisoner could have gained entrance."
Justinian waved his hand dismissively. "He doesn't know anything. He's new. The other guards—the ones who failed—I ordered executed before you arrived this morning."
The emperor smoothed his dead wife's hair. His features were as motionless as those of the corpse. He might have been wearing a mask to conceal an anguished visage. At times it was not hard to believe Justinian was a demon in human form, as popular rumor had it. Perhaps today he had no anguish or other human emotion to hide but was simply too preoccupied to animate his false face enough into a more human aspect.
"I am also to blame" Justinian went on. "I allowed the murderer to reach her. I remained at her side, and yet, at times I dozed. And food and drink and potions were given to her, under my gaze. I prayed to the Lord that he take me also. My prayer was not answered, or rather it was answered in the negative. To go on living is the penance I must pay."
"You should not torture yourself with such thoughts, excellency," John offered. "The illness simply ran its course."
"You believe that?"
"I do. Everyone does. It is a fact."
Justinian's face remained expressionless. "Nevertheless, I am ordering you to find her murderer. You are an eminently reasonable man, John. When you uncover evidence that she was murdered you will change your view."
John tried not to show his dismay. During Theodora's illness no one had so much as hinted there might be anything except natural causes involved. "I will change my view if I find such evidence. But—"
"You will find her murderer. You must. You won't fail me as her guards did. I am depending on you. The empire is depending on you. Your family is depending on you."
John thought his heart missed a beat as Justinian turned away.
Was the emperor threatening his family with reprisals if John failed?
Justinian bent toward his dead wife's face, ran his fingers lightly across her eyelids and lips, ensuring her eyes and mouth remained shut, John supposed, so that no demons might gain admittance. Would the emperor harbor such a peasant superstition if he were indeed a demon?
"Her pain has ended," Justinian said in a whisper. "Now go and find who did this to her."
Dismissed, John took a last look at his old adversary. The emaciated hands clasped over her chest resembled claws. The face was yellowish and waxy, inhuman. The disease had eaten at her until the flesh that remained stretched tautly over her plainly visible skull. Although her tightly drawn lips were colorless, John could not help seeing, as he had in the past, the red scimitar of her smile.
As he went out to begin his hopeless investigation, John allowed himself a grim smile. It had been premature to think Theodora no longer threatened him.
Chapter Two Goddess!" Cornelia cursed. Theodora was gone at last, but she and John were still not free of the empress' interference.
She made certain all but one of the atrium lamps had been extinguished, checked the bolt on the front door, then went up the steep wooden stairs to the second floor. Peter was supposed to have performed the same tasks before retiring to his room, but the old servant had become forgetful.
Cornelia was nervous. There was no telling what disturbances might break out in the wake of Theodora's death.
She strode down the dark hallway toward the bedroom. She could see a streak of light from the bedside lamp streaming across octopi and fish in the blue and green floor tiles. Entering the room she took off her sandals and threw them into a corner.
"And don't tell me I'm bad-tempered, John," she said. "I know that. But haven't we got enough to worry about with Europa refusing a court physician and wanting me to attend her out on Zeno's estate?"
John was sitting in bed. He picked up the clay lamp to extinguish it as Cornelia turned to take a last look through the open window. The nearby dome of the Great Church, light pouring through hundreds of apertures, radiated an orange dawn into the night sky above cross-bedecked rooftops. Cornelia pulled her linen tunica over her head, and laid it on the chest at the foot of the bed. Only then did the lamplight go out.
She plumped down on the bed so hard it creaked. A muscle in her back joined the bed's protest. The twinge of pain made her curse again. "I'm not as young as I used to be."
"Strange. Watching you, I was thinking you're still the same beautiful young girl I first met. And you still have the same temper. Surely you've attended women before?"
"When I traveled with the bull-leaping troupe. But it's different when it's your own flesh and blood."
"I'm glad you'll be there. After all, it is our first grandchild."
Despite the open window the summer night was stifling. She could hear voices drifting from the city. Patrons leaving an inn, tenement residents sitting outdoors late to escape the heat. From further off came the faint barking of a dog. The sounds emphasized the immensity of the world outside and the comfort of their own room. She pulled John down onto the cotton stuffed mattress and pressed herself against his back. Even though he was as damp as she from the humid air, his skin felt cool, as it always did. He never wore fragrances as did most of the aristocrats at court.
Cornelia would miss the feel of him when she tried to sleep at the estate south of the city. "And then there's Peter," she said, shifting with practiced precision to match her contours to his. "I suggested he might like an assistant to help run the household while I was gone. He was outraged. Said he was still capable of serving his master. Most emphatic that he didn't want help."
"He's proud, Cornelia. I've hinted at a pension more than once but he was quite firm in refusing it. He's a free man and can leave at any time. Even if he is in his seventies, we must allow him his dignity."
Cornelia sighed. "'And you won't dismiss him."
John agreed. "I would like him to retire but I won't force him. It's not as if we give elaborate banquets. He can still manage his tasks and he's been a good servant always. All the same, I can't help but worry. He limps badly when he thinks nobody can see it."
"You might worry a little more about yourself," Cornelia replied. "What about this assignment? How can you find a killer who doesn't exist?"
"Justinian might know more than he is telling me."
"Even if there was a murderer how would you find him? Most of the population of the city would have killed Theodora if they had the chance. And how many at court didn't have reason to want her dead?"
"You could be right."
Cornelia pressed herself more tightly against John's back. Outside two cats fought raucously and briefly. A slight breeze struggled into the room, barely managing to stir the heavy air. "I'd look into her meddling in family affairs, her unwanted matchmaking. Let the imperial torturers go about their work. Let taxes be increased. Let religious arguments thunder back and forth. That's expected. But once you interfere in love affairs, even an empress is treading on dangerous ground."
"You say that because you are thinking of Europa and Thomas and their child. Our own family."
"That and listening to too much palace gossip."
"No one at court can help listening to gossip, unless they're deaf." She tugged John's sinewy arm until he rolled over to face her. She could see the faint light from the window glinting in his eyes. "Theodora has always put her own family first, and especially before Justinian's. Look at the marriages she arranged for those sisters of hers, Comita and Anastasia. Their reputations are as bad as hers. Marrying former whores into reputable families is bound to cause resentment. Yet who dare say no to the empress?"
"And not only that. What about those two youngsters she's forced to live with one another? Belisarius and Antonina's daughter Joannina and that wretched boy Anastasius. Joannina will have to marry him now to protect what honor she has left. Everyone knows the match was designed to shift Belisarius' fortune to Theodora's family."
"Anastasius is Theodora's grandson, it's true."
"Son of Theodora's illegitimate daughter. The daughter's well named. Theodora. Like mother, like daughter."
"I don't believe Justinian's foremost general and his wife would murder the empress."
"And there's General Germanus too." Cornelia plunged ahead, ignoring his remark. "Theodora tried to thwart his daughter's marriage, even though it might be the last chance she'd ever have, considering her age. And why? Could it be because Germanus is Justinian's cousin?"
John put his finger lightly to Cornelia's lips. "I do know a little about what goes on at the palace."
Cornelia pushed his finger away. "Not to mention yet another general Theodora wronged. Poor Artabanes! Forced to live with his estranged wife and watch Theodora marry off his lover to one of the empress' wicked—"
She was forced to break off as John inclined his head and kissed her. "I will need to start my investigation after the funeral tomorrow. We can talk about this then, Britomartis."
Cornelia smiled. "Do you think you can silence me like that?" Britomartis, the Cretan Lady of the Nets, was his pet name for her from long ago. Cornelia was a native of Crete and the first time John had seen her performing with a traveling troupe that recreated the ancient sport of bull-leaping the sight of her snared him as securely as fishermen catch Neptune's creatures in their meshes. Or so he had said. Cornelia supposed there were a lot more women called little sparrow in private than Britomartis.
She returned his kiss. "Despite everything, you've never changed, John. You're no different now that you're a great man in the capital than you were as a poor young mercenary at the furthest reaches of the empire."
She felt the muscles of his arm tighten under her fingertips and realized she had inadvertently reminded him of the wound he endured. He had not reached twenty-five when he blundered into Persian territory, was captured, castrated, and sold into slavery like a beast. Tears came to her eyes. For his sake, not hers. Men made too much of their masculinity.
"Oh, John, please don't think of that."
"I wish I could be more for you than ... than an old man."
"Old couples are the happiest, they say." She took his face between her hands, hoping he couldn't see the wet streaks on her cheeks. "Besides, we have been together. We have a daughter. Right now, on some battlefield, a young man who has never had those things is dying."
"As always, you are right. Still—"
"Please don't talk, John. Let's forget the past and Justinian. You know how wakeful Britomartis has always been. Help her sleep now, as you always do."
Excerpted from Nine for the Devil by Mary Reed Eric Mayer Copyright © 2012 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.
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