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Dusk had fallen over Constantinople. It was not dark enough to hide the hunted man. The setting sun filled the Hippodrome with light the color of blood in water.
The long shadows of the pursuers grasped at his heels. The distorted shape of a helmet sprang up in front of him, then bobbed away.
The excubitors were closing ground.
John glanced back. One line of guards snaked directly behind. Others climbed along the seating on either side, intent on cutting off his escape.
Above his head loomed the ornately sculpted facade of the imperial box. As Lord Chamberlain, John knew those seats were inaccessible to the easily inflamed crowds. He was just as familiar with the area directly below, used by the emperor's servants, musicians, and guards. As he reached the chest-high wall of the enclosure and pulled himself over, a spear hissed by his ear and rattled down onto the marble floor.
He thanked Mithra the door leading from the enclosure was for once unlocked. He leapt through the doorway into darkness and plunged headlong down a sloping corridor.
The sound of the pursuit echoed along the passageway as he emerged into the Hippodrome's concourse.
A beautiful, monstrous face below upraised wings smiled down at him. Dying sunlight flickered in the blank eyes.
John ran past the statue and outside. He was at the lower end of the Hippodrome. The shops lining its curved wall were closed, their gratings chained to rings in the pavement. He sprinted past them, keeping in the shadows as much as possible.
A hoarse shout told him he'd been spotted.
He dodged into a colonnaded street.
The sprawled figure whose outstretched leg had tripped him winked.
No. Not a wink. Just a bloated fly skittering across the corpse's wide open eye.
John pushed himself upright. A ragged line of bodies in the middle of the street meandered to an overturned cart.
Whatever the cause of the accident, the authorities had not picked up the remains.
John drew in a painful breath and ran.
Then, abruptly, the street dropped away. Below, John recognized the flickering lights of ships.
There was nowhere else to run.
The guards at the imperial granary were intent on a game of knucklebones when the tall, lean man in a dark cloak burst into their midst. Before they could react, John was past them.
He reached the interior courtyard, veered through the nearest door, and raced along a dim hallway lined with narrow, rectangular alcoves—waist-high grain bins. The hallway intersected others with similar receptacles.
John zigzagged through the corridors. Skylights admitted only faint illumination. Rats scuttled out of his path.
Many of the bins were empty, others barely half full. The plague had disrupted everything, including the food supply.
His way was barred by a heaped grain bin that closed off the end of the corridor.
This then was the one Mithra had chosen.
John climbed in and burrowed under the grain. He pressed himself against the front wall and pulled his cloak up over his head to allow him to breathe.
The scrape and susurration of his effort gave way to a smothering silence. He fought off panic. The suffocating darkness was too much like being under water.
Loud footsteps approached.
"What do you mean where? Use your eyes!" someone said nearby.
John knew that voice.
"Here. Give me your spear," the man said.
John took shallow breaths. He strained to hear through the cloak and the stifling weight of the grain.
There was a dull thud, followed by silence and another thud. The pattern of sounds was repeated.
"Do the same with the others," came the order.
His pursuers were thrusting spears into the grain piled in the bins.
There came the occasional scrape as a spear was deflected by a bin wall. Several curses. Footsteps. Someone emitted a coarse laugh.
Soon they would reach the bin in which John hid.
Each inhalation drew the fabric of the cloak toward his mouth, cutting off his breath.
"We'll be here all night," complained an excubitor.
"What's your hurry? Is Theodora waiting for you in the barracks?"
Now they were in front of John's bin.
He felt the grain move against his hip as the spear passed over and clashed against the back wall.
A grunt. Then flames seared John's shoulder.
He'd been grazed.
He had uttered no sound. Would they notice blood on the spear? Not in the near darkness.
"No one's in there either."
The men began to move away.
"Wait! Three times. Those were the orders."
The man addressed grumbled obscenely.
Again the spear sliced into the grain.
There was a piercing shriek. Rough hands grabbed John's arms and yanked him upwards. The screams rose into a gurgling screech.
A rat writhed and bled on the end of the spear.
Then the voice John recognized ordered the captive be bound.
"In the name of the emperor, I arrest you for murder."
It was Felix, captain of the excubitors and one of John's oldest friends.
He stared at John in astonishment. "John ... Lord Chamberlain. I'm certain there is an explanation?"
John said nothing, but his gaze flickered briefly towards the floor. No one at a distance would have noticed. When Felix looked down, John quickly traced four lines in the dust with the toe of his boot. His expression remained stony.
"Captain, you see the situation. I know you will do your duty. I expect to be escorted to an imperial dungeon immediately."
A smile of anticipation.
John gazed over her head at the opposite wall of the torch-lit cell. He was chained naked to damp stones.
Although he avoided looking at his visitor, he could not escape her musk, a mixture of stale perfume, exotic spices, and sweat. He imagined she had been roused from sleep and instructed her ladies-in-waiting to dress her in the first robes that came to hand.
Theodora selected a pair of bloodstained pincers from a wooden table upon which were ranged a variety of instruments, many resembling physicians' tools. Her sharp, experimental click of the pincers drew John's unwilling attention.
Theodora set the tool down and picked up a wooden-handled razor. "Think of the damage this keen edge will do."
She looked John up and down. He could feel her gaze crawling over his body with a thousand insect-like legs.
"You are in fine physical condition. You will endure longer than most, once the work begins. Unfortunately for you, Lord Chamberlain."
She sighed. "That sounds like such an inappropriate title for one in your circumstances. Perhaps I should call you what the people in the streets do—John the Eunuch. Such a pity the Persians began our work for us. I am not without mercy. I like to give our special male guests a choice. Would you prefer to lose your eyes or ... but that is an opportunity I cannot offer you. I give them a week to ponder the decision, just to be fair. What would you have chosen? Your eyes?"
John made no reply.
"Such a shame," Theodora continued. "I should have enjoyed seeing ... but there are other possibilities. The skin can be removed piece by piece for some time before oblivion. Did you know that? Then again, we might do better not to pollute the flagstones with your blood, but rather break your bones one by one instead."
She tested the razor's edge with a slender fingertip. "This is sharp enough to have been used by a tonsor. Do you suppose the razor that trims the beard longs for the flesh of the throat? So near ... but I notice you are strangely silent. You will soon have ample opportunity to test your discretion. I shall order that your inquisition be completed before your tongue is removed."
"I have nothing to say, highness."
Rage flared in Theodora's eyes. She lifted the blade. For an instant he thought she intended to slash him. Instead she struck him across the face with the flat of the blade. A thread of blood trickled down the concavity of John's cheek.
"You murdered a senator! Why? There is a reason and I will have it! Not even you can thwart me. It will be an interesting interview tomorrow and I look forward to it. Don't think you can escape our justice by biting off your tongue and choking yourself. You will be watched. You are a practical man and know your life is already forfeit. Why make whatever remains of it any more painful than it must be?"
John was silent.
Theodora's dark eyes glittered. "Very well. If you remain stubborn, I shall order the women in your household brought here. That one you call your wife ... my servants will be able to offer her more, shall we say, intimate hospitality than you can, and you will witness it all."
She emitted a coarse laugh and opened the cell door. "Good night, dear Lord Chamberlain. While you're waiting for sunrise, you can consider what I've told you and count the passing hours until our next conversation."
* * *
As the door closed behind the empress, John allowed himself a thin smile. Then he leaned back against the rough stones. The scent of the empress remained, vanishingly faint yet discernable, an incongruous contrast to the malodor of the stuffy room.
His thoughts were not for himself but his family. His daughter Europa and her mother Cornelia, who had ill-advisedly set foot in this city where the scent of the empress who hated John was always in the air. There was also his daughter's new husband. That reckless fool Thomas.
What would they make of it all? What would they do now?
The door squealed open.
Two unfamiliar excubitors entered, removed his chains, threw a rough tunic over his nakedness, and shoved him out into the gloomy corridor. Other guards waited. He looked around, thinking he glimpsed Felix in the shadows at the back of the group. Strong hands forced his face forward.
"Watch where you're going!" A sword pommel jabbed hard in the back emphasized the curt instruction.
John was led along twisting passages, past nail-studded, iron-banded doors pierced with rusty, barred grates, up steep staircases, down, and along more corridors lined by other cell doors, then up once again. The measured tramp of his escorts' boots did not stir the black veil of darkness lying beyond the reach of their torches.
The party emerged into a soaring, echoing space he recognized as one of the emperor's reception halls.
It was not yet dawn. Tall windows held only a gray glow. Terra cotta lamps strewn across the dark marble floor illuminated the hall with hundreds of trembling flames. John had the impression of gazing down at the lights of a city. Smoke coiled up into a haze through which twinkled an enormous constellation in the shape of a massive cross, drawn in gold and precious stones on the vaulted ceiling.
At a hoarse command—he recognized Felix's voice—the excubitors came to a halt. Firm hands pushed him onward, into a curving lane of darkness between the lamps, leading toward a mountainous ivory throne from which Jupiter might preside. Or Jupiter and Juno, for there were two seats.
An indistinct group of figures moved in the smoke swirling behind the throne. John's keen eye caught a brief flash of gems on the hem of a cloak.
The wearer's pale, phantom visage coalesced for a heartbeat. John could not say whether it was smoke, his imagination, or the flickering light, but the face did not quite attain human form before it dissipated into darkness.
The misshapen, inhuman image floated in John's memory after the vision itself had vanished. He recalled wild tales told in the city. They claimed Justinian was a faceless demon who never slept but instead stalked the halls of the Great Palace all night.
As if summoned by the thought, Justinian approached from the shadows, his face not demonic, but as bland and round as a country farmer.
"Lord Chamberlain! Take care you don't trip! I do not usually receive visitors at this time of the night, but the lamps are kept lit for our nocturnal strolls. The emperor should never be kept in the dark." He spoke softly, his words intended only for John.
John said nothing.
"You are not in a humorous mood? But why should you be? Murder is always a vexatious matter, and the killing of a senator ... It has been a busy night. You realize you have given me no choice? Innocent men do not flee. That's what everyone at the palace will be whispering. One can think of a thousand reasons why a Lord Chamberlain might kill, but not a single one why he should then run away as if he were some common criminal."
Justinian waved his hand in exasperation. The movement of his heavy sleeve made the flames of nearby lamps tremble and sent shadows rolling along the walls.
"Powerful men may do what they wish, provided they are discreet," he went on. "For the emperor to pardon a man who has so plainly admitted his guilt ... there would be grumbling, which so often leads to unrest. And what would the Patriarch say? There is nothing I can do but exile you." Although Justinian was already speaking quietly he lowered his reedy voice further before adding, "I see you grasped your opportunity, John. Well done."
"I did not kill Symacchus, Caesar."
"Oh, I'm not concerned about that. The important thing is you have arranged matters most conveniently."
"You will send me to Egypt?"
"Of course. Perhaps there you will find the answer that has thus far eluded you here in the city."
"It is difficult to investigate here without disturbing the empress," John admitted.
"You are aware the empress has a strong Christian interest in justice being done. She would prefer your tongue be exiled from your mouth, for a start."
"Have you elicited any new information regarding the situation in Egypt, excellency? I appreciate your informant has been vague, nevertheless, with so little known so far I have been chasing phantoms."
"Better that than faceless demons, wouldn't you agree?"
John gave a slight nod.
"My spies have given me the name of a certain landowner. A fellow called ... ah ... the name escapes me. Strange to relate, I granted him an audience in this very hall. There couldn't have been more than a hundred other petitioners that day. Last year? Or was it before the riots? I believe the man's father also once visited the capital. Something involving taxation or possibly a property dispute. In any event, the family is not entirely unknown to me."
"Do they reside in Alexandria?"
"No. The settlement is some distance up the river. Most of Egypt is up the river, is it not? As you already know, those who oppose me—whoever they are—appear to believe there is something important to their cause in Egypt, and this location appears to be the place to begin your investigation."
He handed John an official document burdened by the heavy imperial seal. "This is your letter of introduction. One more thing. I have just learnt there have been a number of mysterious deaths on this man's estate. They should serve you as a starting gate."
John peered into the emperor's face. There seemed no life in the small eyes, except that lent to them by the lamplight's exaggerated shadows. He might have been examining a mask. "These deaths are mysterious, Caesar?"
"Oh yes, like nothing I have ever heard before. The man's sheep, although guarded and locked in a barn, are beheading themselves."
No sooner had Justinian imparted this information than he ordered John escorted from the reception hall.
The party marched briskly away. Their route took them through one of the buildings housing the palace administrative offices, a warren of whitewashed walls punctuated by the dark doorways of empty rooms. From the entrance to one cubbyhole, where a lamp burned at a desk piled high with parchment, a pallid clerk peered out at them with the huge eyes of a startled nocturnal creature.
As the company turned a corner and exited into a small, tree-girded garden, John heard giggles. The sound turned to shrieks as three gaudily costumed court pages, who clearly had no business there, threw twigs and abuse at the excubitors and then raced away into the shrubbery.
The first red light of dawn illuminated the colonnade under which they walked. The harsh complaints of seagulls and a swelling chorus of birds greeted another day. Mist steamed off the dark vegetation.
John thought of his family. They would be informed he had murdered a man and would have to live with unanswered questions until he returned. There was no helping it. No one could be told the truth. Justinian was not the only person with spies everywhere, or torturers to elicit information from the unwilling.
As the party descended a series of stone stairways leading to the palace's private harbor, Felix ran up.
"John, I want to speak with you! I was detained. I fear there is bad news. Theodora sent for me. She's relieved me of the funds Justinian meant to be given to you for your journey."
Excerpted from Six for Gold by Mary Reed Eric Mayer Copyright © 2005 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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Posted January 2, 2010
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