About the Author
Mary Reed & Eric Mayer also write under Eric Reed.
The husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer published several short stories about John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, in mystery anthologies and in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine prior to 1999’s highly acclaimed first full length novel, One for Sorrow. Entries in the series have been honored by a Best Mystery Glyph Award, an honorable mention in the Glyph Best Book category, and was a finalist for the IPPY Best Mystery Award (Two For Joy), nominations for the Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery Award (Four For A Boy and Five For Silver), and a Glyph Award for Best Book Series (Five For Silver). The American Library Association’s Booklist Magazine named the Lord Chamberlain novels one of its four Best Little Known Series.
Mary Reed & Eric Mayer also write under Eric Reed.
Read an Excerpt
Murder in Megara
A John the Lord Chamberlain Mystery
By Mary Reed, Eric Mayer
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2015 Mary Reed and Eric Mayer
All rights reserved.
Peter limped grimly through the courtyard gates just as John and Cornelia emerged from the house. He might have come straight from a battlefield. Blood speckled his sleeves; a smear of red ran across his forehead.
"Master, Hypatia was attacked by a mob and ... and ..."
Before he could gasp out the rest of the sentence Hypatia, looking pale, intervened. "Don't bother the master, Peter. It was just a few stones, most of them wide of the mark. You put yourself in worse danger by trying to catch the perpetrators." Directing a fond smile at her husband, she continued. "I had to insist we return immediately or he'd still be fighting!"
"I wish I'd had a weapon," Peter told John. "They crept up on me, the cowards. They hurt Hypatia." His voice quavered.
"It's just a lump on the back of my head."
Cornelia peered at the injury and pursed her lips. "It's going to be a very big lump, Hypatia. Why would anyone do such a thing?"
"The whole town hates us. We're despised foreigners, if you'll pardon my saying it, mistress," Hypatia replied.
"She's right," Peter said. "We're not safe here. I should like to be armed next time we go to market."
John, who had looked on silently, shook his head. "I don't want you fighting a war over every basket of melons and turnips. How did this happen?"
Peter gave a colorful description of the visit to the marketplace. Hypatia stepped in occasionally, softening the more lurid details. "Please don't worry," she concluded. "As soon as we put these purchases away I'll make a poultice to take down the swelling."
She carried her basket off in the direction of the kitchen, with Peter trailing, still looking grim, swinging one arm as if he carried a sword.
John and Cornelia departed for their walk in a somber mood. They followed their already familiar route along the low ridge overlooking the sea. Unkempt meadows ran into fields, and fields became rocky hillsides without any clear demarcation.
They passed through a meadow watched over by a fig tree so massive and gnarled it might have been older than the empire. Their tunics rasped faintly against sharp, stiff blades of tall grass, brown and crisp at the end of the dry summer.
Worried by Peter and Hypatia's experience, John studied Cornelia. Was she distressed by it all? Had his sentence of exile widened the gray streaks in her dark hair, or was it merely that the unforgiving sunlight called attention to the gray, causing it to glitter like frost when she moved her head to look at the sea or the hills or down at a yellow flower in the grass? When she bent to pick it John took the chance to let his fingers fondly brush her small shoulder.
"Don't ask me its name," he said. "Hypatia might know, especially if it has medicinal value."
Cornelia turned the flower about in her fingers, narrowing her eyes to examine it in the glare, accentuating the fine wrinkles in her deeply tanned skin. She paused thoughtfully, then resumed walking. "I'll take it back to the house. Back home. And see what Hypatia has to say. Do you know, I had the urge ... but then, it would look foolish for me to come back with flowers in my hair like a silly young girl or one of those nymphs the gods were always chasing about, wouldn't it?"
"When did you stop being a young girl? I hadn't noticed."
"You are an old silver-tongue!" She strode off through the meadow, the shape of her slender, well-muscled legs outlined under her thin, pale green tunic.
"No, I meant it," John called after her, immediately realizing he sounded like a feckless, lovestruck boy. He watched her move away. The gray in her hair, like the wrinkles in her face, were nothing more than bits of strange adornment. Cornelia was no different to him than ever.
He caught up to her with a few strides, took the flower from her hand and threaded it, clumsily, into the gray strand that fell across her temple.
She smiled up at him and then said, quite unexpectedly, "John, why can't you be happy here?"
He withdrew his hand. "It isn't that I'm unhappy, Cornelia. It's just that everything is in such disarray." He nodded in the direction of a field down the slope between where they stood and the sea. "That should have been plowed by now, there's harness in need of mending, the fish pond requires cleaning and restocking."
Cornelia beamed and adjusted the flower in her hair. "There speaks the farmer! You're recalling these tasks from when you were a boy?"
John took her arm and helped her over a dry weed-choked ditch. "As to the fish, at least we can be certain Peter won't follow the example of the cook who deceived his master, a certain Bithynian king, with slices of boiled turnip shaped like anchovies when none were available."
"You could have changed the subject more subtly! I know we're in a difficult situation. Perhaps a dangerous one, judging from what happened to Peter and Hypatia in the marketplace. When the townspeople get to know us they won't be afraid. They'll stop hating us."
John thought it better to say nothing.
They passed along a rutted path leading to a field dotted with sheep. From behind a knoll rose a column of black smoke.
"The blacksmith is at work in his forge again," John observed, "but there's no evidence of his labors anywhere. There are broken rakes and hoes in the barn. A farm with equipment left in that state has either been neglected for too long or run in a careless fashion. Since there are signs of some work being carried out, I am inclined to suspect the latter."
"There were worse things than broken rakes lying in wait at the Great Palace, John."
"But I understood Justinian's court and its intrigues," John pointed out.
"Only after spending many years there."
He squeezed her arm lightly. "I begin to feel guilty for bringing you to this place."
"Oh? Did you force me to accompany you? I recall I came of my own accord. It's what we've both wanted, John. To live in the country and farm."
They approached the remains of a small temple — several columns, portions of three walls, a part of the roof. It was a place they had visited before. From the slight rise where the ruins stood, the land sloped downward allowing a vista of the sea, enticing them with its offer of relief from the honeyed heat coating the landscape. Between the sea and where they stood lay the vineyards and gardens of a monastery. The buildings of the monastery were near the sea, in the direction they had just come, not quite opposite the temple. Close by the monastery, farther back in the direction of their house, sat the blacksmith's.
The temple occupied the furthest corner of the farm once owned by John's family. Perhaps the monastery's founder had purposely drawn the boundary there.
"Is today the day you will finally show me the farmhouse where you grew up?" Cornelia asked.
"Why would you want to see it? It's like any other farmhouse."
They walked on to the temple. Heaps of earth lay here and there, evidence of recent excavations.
"It appears that shoring up the foundation has received attention at least," Cornelia observed.
"Perhaps old beliefs remain stronger than many realize," John replied. "Rather risk the new owner's displeasure than the wrath of Demeter. However, I don't think that man sitting inside is there to worship or wield a spade."
A figure had moved in the shadowed interior, a gray-haired man seated on a fallen column. He pushed himself to his feet as they neared. Once he had been a big man; now he was merely tall and stooped, with knobby wrists protruding too far from the sleeves of a shabby tunic. He was almost completely bald. Beads of sweat ringed his sunburnt head in a crown-like way and ran down into his watery faded-blue eyes. He gave them a crooked smile, his few remaining teeth all clustered on one side of his mouth.
"John! What's the matter? Aren't you happy to see your father again?"CHAPTER 2
"Don't call yourself my father, Theophilus."
Cornelia sensed a suppressed fury in John's quiet voice of a depth she had never heard before. It was so shockingly cold and unexpected it made the skin on the back of her neck tingle.
"Get off my estate," he had continued, "and stay off it."
The intruder was John's stepfather. That was all Cornelia learned during their strained, mostly silent march back to the house. She had known John hated his stepfather, but the depth of his hatred she would never have guessed until now.
She knew John well enough not to question him when, as they came to the courtyard gate, he made a vague excuse about having matters to look into and wandered off toward the back of the house. Matters to think through was what he meant, and he needed solitude for that. It was his nature. She would have liked to have offered comforting words or listened until he had unburdened himself, but that was not John's way. Perhaps he would walk to the other end of the estate until he had reasoned himself out of his anger, or it might be he intended to return to the temple and make certain Theophilus had gone.
How little she knew of John's past. He rarely spoke of his family, had instead been almost secretive about them over the years. When questioned, he would tell her they were part of a different life and then change the subject. All she knew was that he never returned to them after he ran away from Plato's Academy as a young man to take up the life of a mercenary.
No doubt he had good reasons.
She crossed the courtyard and went into the kitchen, a big room with stairs in one corner leading up to the owner's quarters. The air was humid from pots steaming on the brazier. Hypatia sat at a well-scrubbed wooden table stirring a yellow mixture in a ceramic bowl.
"You've accomplished wonders in a short time, Hypatia." Cornelia glanced around the tidy, clean room with pans, bowls, and utensils arranged along the shelf by the brazier, remembering the sour-smelling rats' paradise that had greeted them at their arrival.
"Peter can't abide a dirty kitchen and neither can I, mistress. But when there are no women in a house, such matters often get neglected."
Drawing up a stool, Cornelia leaned her elbows on the table and asked what Hypatia was preparing. "Is it a sauce? Shall we have chicken tonight?"
"Oh no, mistress. Peter insists on overseeing all the cooking and I am uncertain what he plans." Her face clouded. "I'm making chelidon to treat his eyes. They're causing him distress and I'm afraid he may lose his sight. It is said that swallows dropped chelidon juice into the eyes of hatchlings born blind and it's certainly a wonderful cure for eye problems. It really should be cooked in a brazen pot, but the only one I could find needs repair. I don't suppose it makes much difference, providing the ingredients are mixed to the correct proportions. That's the vital point."
Cornelia expressed concern for Peter. She started to ask Hypatia about the poultice she had mentioned, then stopped. She felt awkward. Hypatia and Peter were servants, it was true, but had become more or less members of the family. How would the estate workers perceive such a state of affairs? Might it encourage lax work if they saw the mistress of the house chatting companionably with a servant? Or to be more accurate, would it encourage them to be more lax? As John had indicated, even a brief glance around the estate revealed they had not been closely attending to their duties while it was in the hands of the previous absentee owner.
As if summoned by the thought of estate workers, a big, bare-armed young man in a short laborer's tunic thumped into the kitchen. Tanned almost black, he was broad in the chest. His inky hair hadn't been cut for a long time and then badly. Yet his features might have been sculpted by Praxiteles.
He set the wooden stave he carried beside the door, cheerily asked Hypatia if there might be bread and cheese for a hungry watchman and, without waiting for a reply, helped himself to what was sitting on the nearest shelf.
"I see you've been hurt, Hypatia." He spoke through a mouthful of bread. "Obviously you can't rely on your grandfather for protection. I'd be happy to accompany you next time you go into town." He clapped a powerful hand around the stave and inclined it in Hypatia's direction, showing its wickedly sharpened point. "A taste or two of my stout friend here always persuades ruffians to be polite."
Hypatia glared at him. "How did you know Peter and I have been to town? Did you follow us?"
"I'm one of the master's watchmen, so it's my business to notice comings and goings. At least think about my offer, Hypatia. I wouldn't want to see you come to further harm." He took a bite of his cheese and addressed Cornelia. "Now, mistress, would you send a young woman into town with no escort but a tottering old man?"
"I think it is time you returned to your duties," Cornelia snapped.
Philip bowed awkwardly, grabbed his weapon, and fled, muttering apologies.
Hypatia looked at the ceiling and let out an exasperated sigh.
"That young man seems to be on very familiar terms with you," Cornelia observed.
"Philip's the tenant farmer's son. He's in and out of the kitchen constantly. Just a growing boy, always hungry."
"A growing boy? He must be in his mid-thirties. Your age."
"Well, he doesn't seem to recall it, mistress. Men have a habit of being younger than their age." She made a show of measuring out a spoonful of honey from the terra-cotta pot next to her mixing bowl.
Cornelia left shortly thereafter in a thoughtful mood.
Perhaps Hypatia tended to see men as younger than they were. That would explain much. On the other hand, she doubted that bread and cheese were the only attractions the kitchen held for Philip.CHAPTER 3
John stepped into the courtyard as the dazzling edge of the rising sun appeared over the barn roof. Wisps of fog steamed from the tiles. There was a chill in the air of the type that often presages a hot day. The front of the massive barn across from the house delineated the far side of the open space. House and barn were joined by extended wings housing servants' quarters, storage rooms, and animal pens.
John shaded his eyes from the glare and looked around.
The blacksmith, a short, powerfully built man with a good-natured face and snub nose had already arrived. He was enveloped in a leather apron reaching past his knees, as if he were working at his forge rather than lounging in front of the pigsty. His punctuality impressed John.
"Petrus, sir, my name is Petrus. How may I be of assistance?"
"I want you to deal with these first." John indicated the equipment piled next to the barn door.
The blacksmith strolled over and hunkered down over a broken plow, taking a closer look with his hands, tapping and fingering, knocking off bits of dried dirt. He raised his eyebrows and shook his head. "I'm surprised the fields could get tilled at all." He stood, slapping his soiled hands on the leather apron. "I can take care of these, but it might be better to simply replace them."
"Have you spoken about this to the overseer?"
"No, sir. Diocles hasn't consulted me about repairs for months."
"Has he ordered any tools from you? Pitchforks, spades, hoes? Much of what I've seen needs replacing or is in short supply. I've only found a single pruning hook for the olive trees."
"It's been a year since I've made any farm tools, sir, and I could certainly use the work. Not to speak ill of a fellow laborer, but Diocles doesn't run the estate as he should. A workman is only as good as his tools, that's what I always say. A dull sickle makes a hard harvest. A pitchfork with no handle is worse than a hammer with no head, for a nail can be pounded with a brick but what can replace a pitchfork?"
John concealed his surprise at sensing neither enmity in Petrus nor wariness of his new master. Hadn't the town's opinion of John and his family come to the blacksmith's ears? Had he heard the rumors and dismissed them? Or was he merely being polite to the owner of the estate on which he lived as a tenant?
"Certain items for the kitchen are needed. Consult Peter on that. I understand a large bronze pot needs repair, for a start."
Petrus smiled. "You know what the thrifty say. Make whole your pot and save more than just a cooking vessel."
Excerpted from Murder in Megara by Mary Reed, Eric Mayer. Copyright © 2015 Mary Reed and Eric Mayer. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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