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Three for a Letter

Three for a Letter

3.5 2
by Mary Reed, Eric Mayer, Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen

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It is 539 AD and as the reconquest of Italy draws toward its close, a pair of eight-year old twins descended from the last Ostrogothic king have become valuable pawns in Emperor Justinian's plans to restore the glory of Rome. Unfortunately, during the performance of a play at a banquet honoring the two young diplomatic hostages, death makes an entrance and claims


It is 539 AD and as the reconquest of Italy draws toward its close, a pair of eight-year old twins descended from the last Ostrogothic king have become valuable pawns in Emperor Justinian's plans to restore the glory of Rome. Unfortunately, during the performance of a play at a banquet honoring the two young diplomatic hostages, death makes an entrance and claims one brother. Then Empress Theodora's favorite mime vanishes and John, Lord Chamberlain to Justinian, is ordered to find both the missing mime and the murderer.

In this third John the Eunuch novel, his investigations are hampered by squabbling courtiers, servants harboring social ambitions, an eccentric host, and an egotistic inventor, not to mention the complications posed by a herd of prophesying goats and a protective whale. His friends the Mithran Anatolius and the excubitor captain Felix only add to John's worries when they fall under the spell of two ambitious women. Can the trio avoid Theodora's wrath as they work to protect a child and stop a heartless killer? It is uncertain whether the solution lies within the villa where all have assembled or back in Constantinople--or in some other world altogether.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

...""combines a finely nuanced historical background with a plot of great subtlety. The details of daily life, from food and food preparation to the care and writing of manuscripts, enhance the action. And the ongoing struggle between Christianity (Justinian's state religion) and the pagan rites that play a central role in the plot is particularly well drawn.""--Publishers Weekly
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
John, Lord Chamberlain to the Emperor Justinian, continues his sixth-century A.D. adventures in this third worthy installment (following One for Sorrow and Two for Joy), in which nimble wits are required not to keep one's job but to keep one's head. John's position is particularly fragile since Justinian's support is notoriously fickle and his consort, the beautiful and dangerous Theodora, despises John. When an entertainment devised for Theodora results in the death of a young royal hostage and the disappearance of Barnabas, the empress's favorite dwarf, John is once again charged with the difficult and delicate task of ferreting out the truth. He is also charged with protecting the life of the remaining hostage, eight-year-old Sunilda, a task made even more daunting by the child's recklessness. Set not in Constantinople but on the nearby estate of a wealthy noble, the authors' latest mystery combines a finely nuanced historical background with a plot of great subtlety. The details of daily life, from food and food preparation to the care and writing of manuscripts, enhance the action. And the ongoing struggle between Christianity (Justinian's state religion) and the pagan rites that play a central role in the plot is particularly well drawn. If there's any flaw it's that John, while a sympathetic protagonist, is too self-contained to really arouse the reader's passions. Nonetheless, those who appreciate strong historical backgrounds and solid plotting will get their money's worth. The Byzantine mosaic art on the jacket is a real plus. (Dec. 17) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Poisoned Pen Press
Publication date:
John the Lord Chamberlain Mysteries Series
Product dimensions:
5.56(w) x 8.64(h) x 0.78(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A tempest broke across the end of the dining room.

    Signified by a terrible hammering on metal sheets, the raging storm tossed sailors across a makeshift deck and into blue-painted waves surging where the banquet table ended.

    The impression of watery peril created by the acrobats tumbling around the motionless wooden stage was too realistic for John. While a mercenary in Bretania, the man who would eventually become Lord Chamberlain to the Emperor Justinian had seen a comrade in arms drown in a swollen stream and barely escaped with his own life. He averted his gaze only to realize his plate was graced with liver forcemeat molded into the shape of a fish.

    "Uncle Zeno should have arranged to borrow one of those thunder-making machines from the theater," remarked his neighbor, a young man with dark hair and the regular features of a classical Greek statue. "It doesn't really sound as if heaven's sending a real storm. It's more like a rapping on the front door."

    Recognizing his friend Anatolius' attempt to distract him, John managed a wan smile. It was, after all, just a play. Not a matter of life and death.

    The mock storm intensified and the room darkened as servants covered the lamps. The wall behind the reeling acrobats had been concealed by curtains painted with a seascape to match the long room's frescoes of underwater life. The diners might have been reclining at the bottom of the Sea of Marmara. If true it would have been a great loss to the empire considering the number of senators,prominent landholders and high churchmen amongst them, not to mention Empress Theodora. As she stared raptly from her richly upholstered couch at the head of the table, her eyes gleamed like pearls in the light streaming from the illuminated stage.

    Around the edge of the room shadowy figures moved quietly and John's keen hearing picked up the whisper of a sword drawn from a scabbard. Guards, he well knew, were always wary of darkness.

    The smothered lamps filled the room with smoke. Its acrid odor mingled with the smells of fish, mussels, and lobsters. The food might have complemented the room's marine motif except that all had been grilled or broiled in pungent sauces.

    "A shame the twins can't be here." Anatolius took a bite from a newly arrived delicacy. "After all, this fete at Uncle Zeno's estate is in their honor. They will be sorry to miss it, the more so as I overheard my uncle telling them tall tales this afternoon. He claimed the whale they've seen occasionally from the beach was going to come ashore and dine with us. I think he had himself half-convinced by the time he'd finished. The children didn't believe a word. They were just disappointed they'd be the last to see this new contraption, the mechanical whale that my uncle commissioned." He paused for another bite. "I believe this delicious dish is mullet in quince sauce."

    John nodded without interest. He would have been happier with cheese and bread. "I understand that Gadaric and Sunilda will see the play tomorrow afternoon in a form better suited to eight-year-olds."

    Anatolius remarked that seemed a sensible idea.

    "Yes, especially as the writer of this current spectacle seems to have placed a great deal of emphasis on the fleshly evils of Nineveh."

    The acrobats had been temporarily replaced on stage by a bevy of undulating dancers.

    Anatolius grinned. "If I'd been Jonah, any one of those tempestuous girls could have convinced me to be off to Nineveh at once. There'd be no need for storms at sea to persuade me." His enthusiastic utterances were cut short by a sudden bout of snuffling. "Mithra!" he muttered. "The country air is bad enough and now with the smoke in here—" He sneezed thunderously, as if heralding the prophet who finally appeared, stepping from behind the curtains as the dancers fled.

    If John had ever thought about Jonah—which until this evening he scarcely had, being like Anatolius a worshipper of the soldier's god Mithra—he would not have envisioned him as a muscular dwarf. However, there stood the mime Barnabas, a special favorite of the empress, and thus for this performance at least, the perfect Jonah.

    "And just as well he's so small," Zeno had confided earlier. "Anyone else would have difficulty fitting inside the whale."

    Barnabas now proceeded to demonstrate how he had gained his considerable reputation in Constantinople, staggering about the stage in a convincing portrayal of a man still groggy with sleep and horrified by a storm-tossed ship.

    "Oh, ah," he wailed. "How I wish I had gone to Nineveh!"

    For a heartbeat the room was silent. Then Theodora let out a cawing laugh and the other diners, who had been uncertain as to whether they should be regarding this ludicrous prophet with the solemnity befitting his position, immediately joined in.

    "Look at the empress," whispered Anatolius. "When she forgets her rank she looks like any spirited girl, but Mithra help anyone who mistakes the appearance for the reality!"

    Now the sailors and Barnabas were engaged in violent fisticuffs. The still-to-be-converted mariners insisted on taking the name of Jonah's Lord in vain in increasingly inventive, not to say obscene, ways only to be patiently rebuked and beaten around their heads by the small but athletic prophet.

    "Uncle insisted my play contain some didactic elements," explained Anatolius.

    John shot him an amused glance. "This wonderful work is your writing?"

    "Do you think I should claim a reward from the empress for its entertainment value?" the other replied, unabashed.

    At last Jonah was overcome and cast flailing and screaming into the painted waves. The sailors vanished and an exceptionally tall, gaunt figure sitting in the shadows at the back of the room stood and with obvious reluctance mounted the brightly lit stage.

    The man's expression was grim as he began to speak. "So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea and the sea ceased from its raging."

    His intonation was that of a prelate, John thought.

    The man had to raise his voice to be heard over the titters and muffled guffaws still filling the room in the wake of Barnabas' performance. He glared out at the unruly audience and very quickly there was silence.

    "Now," he continued, "whilst the servants are bringing in the final course of this excellent repast, it might be fruitful to take the time to contemplate the consequences of Jonah's refusal to do the Lord's bidding. What is the message we may all draw as we await the Final Course which our host in Heaven has surely prepared for each one of us?"

    Already Zeno's servants had relit the lamps and were bustling around the long table, removing empty plates and bringing further new delicacies.

    "That isn't the speech I wrote for him, John," Anatolius complained. "He was supposed to announce the dramatic finale that's planned. This is what you get with a man of religion."

    "He isn't an actor? He looks and sounds so much the holy man, I thought he must be playing the part."

    John rose from his couch to pace a few steps back and forth to relieve the cramps in his legs. Many of the diners were doing the same, strolling around the room, some still laughing over Barnabas' antics. Others took their opportunity to escape the smoky atmosphere and catch a breath of air in the garden.

    Before long, however, all had resumed their places, the lamps were dimmed again, and the rawboned prelate, looking even more irritable than before, continued his remarks.

    "Yes," he began, "the sailors threw headstrong Jonah into the sea. Then the Lord provided a great fish to swallow up Jonah who was in the belly of that fish for three days and nights."

    As he stepped down from the stage, most of the lamps illuminating it were extinguished. The eerie trill of flutes filled the air but could not hide the shrill squeal and clank of machinery.

    "Now you'll see a real wonder," Anatolius whispered. "Uncle's been telling me all about it, and if it can do half of what he says ..."

    The curtains parted and although there was no sign of pulleys or any other device, a large, shadowy shape, taller than a man, rolled forward.

    It was a great whale. The room's remaining light limned its broad, gray back and enormous flukes and gleamed off the huge glassy eyes set on either side of its head.

    An admiring murmur rose from the audience as the beast's tail, moving slowly from side to side, emerged from the curtains. It was apparent that no agent propelled the leviathan from behind. Indeed, it continued forward on its own as if truly alive. There were gasps, and John tensed as the great head moved out over the edge of the stage. However, just as it appeared the whale would swim straight into the diners, it came to an abrupt halt.

    There was a hissing noise. The whale spouted. To the startled exclamations of the audience, a jet of water burst up from the contraption's head and descended in a cloud of droplets that caught the dim light and glittered like stars over the sea. John, sitting near the end of the table, felt mist against his face.

    The flutes keened more urgently, underscored by a new sound, a clanking and ratcheting.

    Slowly and majestically, the whale's mouth opened a crack. Through a fence of huge bronze teeth brilliant light poured out across the banquet table to flash and coruscate along gold and silver bowls.

    Anatolius could not contain his enthusiasm. "The beast's lit up inside like the Hagia Sophia," he declared with delight. "Uncle's really outdone himself this time."

    The whale's maw opened yet further, spilling more brightness into the room. Laughs and shouts filled the air. No one doubted what the climax would be—Barnabas would leap forth, freeing himself from the creature's belly with a huge bound.

    The jaws stopped moving.

    Barnabas did not appear.

    John squinted into the fierce light inside the whale. "He's waiting, for better dramatic effect when he finally appears," he heard Anatolius say knowledgeably.

    A small shape was visible in the cramped interior of the whale amid blazing oil lamps set in the floor and the walls of the beast's head. The shape lay motionless, crumpled on the stuffed red linen tongue.

    John jumped from his couch and strode to the stage. The clatter of armor and weapons accompanied him as guards moved forward quickly.

    As he neared the whale he could see the face of the small, limp figure with the horribly mangled neck.

    It was not Barnabas.

     "It is the boy, Gadaric," John said into the quiet that had descended upon the room.

    Then, before he could attempt to reach between the jaws to retrieve the child's body, the huge mouth began to close irresistibly, cutting off its lamplight. Semi-darkness descended as the mechanical leviathan, insensitive to the tragedy, rolled smoothly backwards and vanished behind the painted curtains.

* * *

"Barnabas! What's happened to Barnabas?"

    John turned in the direction of the agitated voice. The distraught speaker, amazingly, was the usually controlled Theodora. Next to her John recognized Anatolius' elderly uncle, Zeno, a slight man, bird-like. His hair, still dark, hung down his back. John noticed, to his horror, that the scholarly old dreamer was trying to calm the empress by gently patting her arm as if she were some young servant. John moved forward quickly, diverting her attention to himself.

    "Lord Chamberlain!" Theodora said. "Perhaps you have an explanation for this strange exhibition?" The cold expression in her hooded eyes suggested it would be best if he did.

    "It is the boy Gadaric who is dead, Empress," he replied with a slight bow. "Not Barnabas."

    "Gadaric? Then explain to me, where is Barnabas?"

    "Highness," Zeno offered her a sweet, vague smile, "perhaps he has had to return suddenly to the city?"

    Theodora regarded him with incredulity. "Do you think," she began, pointing a slender finger at the elderly man, "that I am merely a foolish woman, to be patronized as if I understand nothing?" Her face reddened under its cosmetic chalk and her eyes glittered with anger. John had rarely seen her in such a rage.

    Anatolius advanced to the group.

    "Highness," the young man began, doubtless fearful for the safety of his uncle, under whose roof this outrage had occurred. "May I ..."

    The empress ignored him. "Lord Chamberlain, you will find Barnabas, and you will find him quickly. Furthermore, when Barnabas reappears, he'd be wise to have a very convincing explanation as to why he has so sorely disappointed me by departing from this festive occasion without my permission."

    The room had fallen so silent that John could hear the rustle of Theodora's stiff robes as she stepped closer.

    "But if you are unable to locate him," she went on with a smile that was more a snarl, "you'd best have an excellent reason as to why you failed in your search. A child has died in my presence. Not only is it a gross insult to me, it is of course—" she turned and laid her hand on Zeno's shoulder, visibly startling him, "an equally intolerable slur on my dear host's hospitality."

    "Indeed, highness," John agreed. "But if I may inquire, is it possible that you can reveal anything concerning Barnabas that may—"

    "You may not inquire, Lord Chamberlain." Theodora's voice was very low. "I do not concern myself with the private affairs of mimes."

    John looked away from her cold glare. Zeno's guests were standing in clusters near the painted walls, silent or speaking in whispers, afraid to approach the furious empress and equally frightened to leave without her permission. The guards who had failed to prevent the tragedy stood with swords drawn but without an enemy to confront. Then he thought of one who was not present, forgotten momentarily as everyone kept their attention fixed on the enraged empress and her missing mime.

    "Sunilda!" John shouted to the guard commander. "Find her immediately!"

Excerpted from Three for a Letter by Mary Reed & Eric Mayer. Copyright © 2001 by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

After 1999's highly acclaimed first full length novel, One for Sorrow, the husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer extended the series with Two For Joy, Three For A Letter, Four For A Boy, and Five for Silver. In June 2003 Booklist Magazine named the John the Eunuch novels one of its four Best Little Known Series.

The husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer had published several short John the Eunuch detections in mystery anthologies and in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine prior to 1999's highly acclaimed first full length novel, One for Sorrow.

After living on Midway Atoll in the center of the Pacific Ocean for nearly three years, Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen now lives in the state of Washington, not far from Mount St. Helens. Stephanie is a faculty member of the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program there, and she is the author of several widely-reviewed and award-winning books that have become favorites of parents, librarians, and teachers.

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Three for a Letter 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 539 AD in Constantinople, the Emperor Justinian wants to bring Italy back into the Empire. General Belarius succeeds in recapturing Northern Africa and is on the verge of retaking Italy so that the Empire becomes a power again in the West. The Emperor has under his control, Godaric and Sunilda, the two claimants to the Italian throne.

At a theatre festival held at the seaside estate of Zeno, a patriarch known for his eccentricities, the Empress Theodora is in the audience, eager to see her favorite mime, the dwarf Barnabas. The event ends abruptly with the death of Godaric and the disappearance of Barnabas. The lord Chamberlain, John the Eunuch, is assigned by Justinian to find the killer so that he can be properly punished. John, who is in disfavor with the Empress, comes very close to losing his head when the sole heir to the Italian throne disappears.

THREE FOR A LETTER is a that allows the reader to imagine what Constantinople was like at the height of her glory. The political power plays, the court intrigues and the populous come alive in Mary Read and Eric Mayer¿s latest John the Eunuch mystery. It is obvious that the authors have done meticulous research so that the era feels very realistic. John is an amazing character that would made a fine twenty first-century detective.

Harriet Klausner