Authors: Mary Reed,Eric Mayer
Tags: #Mystery, #FICTION, #Mystery & Detective, #General
“You don’t remember what you have been up to?”
Felix shook his head. “I’m not even sure where I am.”
John’s mouth tightened. “Your good comrade Bacchus is going to get you into real trouble one of these days.”
January 13, 532
Late in the afternoon the twentieth chariot race began. Or was it the twenty-first? Or twenty-second? John had lost count. It wasn’t surprising. He hadn’t slept the previous night. Justinian, seated on the throne in the kathisma, looked bored. He fiddled with the purple embroidered hem of his light wool cloak. The imperial box was cold. Located at the highest level of the Hippodrome it was easy prey for the winds that swirled around the vast stadium.
The emperor would probably be happier in his private apartments, John thought, and not just because of the weather. No matter which teams won, these races were not going to end as the emperor had planned when he sent John to Saint Laurentius for the prisoners.
The sky was leaden, glowering as if in disapproval of the events unfolding below. The thousands occupying the tiers of wooden seats seemed in ill humor as well.
There was an ominous note in the factions’ chants of “Mercy for the hanged men!” that had accompanied the races already run, rolling out like thunder over the sound of chariot wheels and hooves beating a fierce tattoo on the track around the spina.
It was a sound that warned John, even exhausted as he was, that the usual rivalry of the factions was rapidly brewing into something worse.
John moved through the courtiers flanking the emperor to the back of the kathisma where Felix stood guard. “There’s more than a sprinkling of blue clothing in that mass of Greens opposite.”
Felix nodded. “I thought you’d notice that. It’s unnatural for the factions to mingle without blood being spilled. It can only mean trouble.” Except for the dark bags beneath his eyes, Felix showed no effects of his nocturnal campaign against Constantine. In fact, his expression suggested he might enjoy being called upon to act in his official capacity against a less than imperial rabble composed of flesh and blood rather than bronze and marble.
Cheers briefly submerged the continual rumble of demands as a chariot for the Greens careened around the turning posts in a shower of sand behind its four straining horses, remained upright by some miracle, and sped across the chalk finish line.
The driver just behind was not so fortunate or skilled. His chariot slewed to one side and crashed into the wall of the spina. Workers rushed onto the track to pull the wreckage out of the path of the trailing chariots. The horses rushed on, encumbered only by their yoke, while the driver staggered to safety.
The crowd cheered this mishap more loudly than the finish.
“A victory satisfies only half the partisans,” John remarked. “Everyone loves an accident.”
After a time the cheers, catcalls, and oaths ringing round the stadium subsided. A sudden stillness descended. It was as if the entire population of the city held its breath.
Then the rumble of discontent began once more. “Mercy for the hanged men!”
Justinian fidgeted on his throne. Below the imperial box dust rose as men raked the earth and sand smooth for the next race. “Narses!” Justinian commanded. “Step forth!”
The dwarfish eunuch rustled to the emperor’s side, and bent forward to hear a whispered question.
From where he stood, John could not hear what it was Justinian had asked. He was able to make out Narse’s answer. “It would be a grave mistake to accede to the demands of the unwashed horde. Where would it end? Offer them nothing.”
Justinian smiled faintly. His merriment did not reach his eyes. He motioned to the guards on either side of this throne and they unsheathed their swords.
“Won’t do them any good if the crowd swarms up here,” Felix muttered.
Narses glanced around with a sneer. It was common rumor he had supernaturally keen hearing and it was a wise man who said nothing incriminating within sight of him, though others claimed that his knowledge of who had said what and when was gained by a vast network of spies inside and outside the palace grounds.
He addressed the emperor again, more loudly than was necessary, loudly enough to be heard by half the dignitaries in the imperial box. His reedy voice sounded shrill. “Caesar, it is in fact impossible to agree to mercy for the hanged men given they have been murdered. You cannot even produce their murderers thanks to John’s bungling of his task. Yet if you attempt to explain this to those fools howling down there, there is no doubt some will seize upon the news and declare that it was you who ordered them executed in the very church itself.”
Justinian frowned. It was obvious that Narses was reiterating a conversation they had already engaged in for the benefit of those within earshot. “It is as you say, Narses,” he replied, his tone bland.
Felix swore quietly. “Did you hear, John? That bastard Narses is blaming you. As if you could have prevented those guards failing in their duty,” he said in an outraged undertone. “And by what I hear their commander should have been pensioned off years ago. Completely useless and paying for it in a dark cell right now. In fact, there are those who whisper he was chosen specially for the task so that….” He lowered his voice even further “…certain parties could get to those prisoners and murder them.”
John recalled the elderly commander, Sebastian, being dragged out of the emperor’s reception hall to the dungeons. He preferred not to think about the poor fellow’s current situation. Sebastian had struck John as a frightened and confused old man. Not fit to command, but even less fit to be a conspirator. “What about the guards themselves?” John whispered. “Do you suppose they were bribed to ignore orders and allow the assassin to carry out his task?”
Before Felix could answer the angry rumble of the assembly swelled into a deafening roar. John could feel the noise vibrating up through the soles of his boots. It was just as well the imperial box jutted out from the stands in such a way as to be inaccessible to the spectators. And even more fortunate that the doorway in back led to a suite of rooms, and a stairway that ended inside the palace grounds not far from the Daphne Palace.
Felix leaned forward to peer past the emperor’s throne. “It’s Porphyrius,” he said. “Porphyrius is racing.”
From the back of the kathisma the track was all but obscured by a multitude of patricians and officials. Usually they milled about, talking and laughing, more interested in each other than the spectacle below. Now they were all standing in rapt attention.
“He hasn’t got the lead,” Felix said.
Thanks to his height, John could see over most of the heads in front of him. Even from a distance, through clouds of dust raised by flashing hooves, he recognized the driver with the cropped grey hair. Whipping his horses furiously, Porphyrius passed the bronze statue of himself erected on the spina by the Greens and then the gold likeness placed there by the Blues.
Felix shook his head. “He must have broken from the gate very badly. There are two chariots between him and the spina. He can’t win from out there.”
John knew Felix was right. No matter how strong the horses, they could never cover the extra distance around the outside of the track quickly enough to overtake the two teams on the inside. Porphyrius was usually a fury in the melee coming out of the gates as the drivers fought to be first to reach the spina.
As the chariots reached the far turning posts the driver who had gained the inside erred. John wasn’t surprised. It must be unnerving to have to spend a race endlessly passing monuments to your opponent’s greatness.
A wheel clipped the track’s inner barrier. The chariot bounced off into the path of those following. Both drivers reined in their horses and swerved to the outside to avoid a collision. An errant wheel, snapped from an axle, spun wildly down the track along the side of the spina.
The wrecked chariot flipped over, dragging two of the horses to the ground with it. Any sounds of agony were drowned out by the crowd’s clamor.
Porphyrius and his opponent were practically underneath the kathisma. Several dignitaries in splendid robes leaned over the side of the emperor’s box, shaking their fists and screaming encouragement as enthusiastically as the lowliest laborers in the stands.
John glanced at Justinian. The emperor wasn’t looking at the track. His gaze appeared to be directed toward the masses opposite, or the grey sky, or, to judge by the look in his eyes, nowhere at all.
The trailing chariots were just appearing around the turn. Porphyrius reared back and lashed savagely at his steeds. Almost instantaneously his opponent did the same.
Felix, seemingly as carried away as everyone else save the emperor, shouted in John’s ear. “Whoever claims the inside wins!”
John looked down the track. One of the workers employed to clear wreckage had jumped onto the track and caught up with the run-away wheel. He bent to grab hold of it. He was a boy. When he straightened up four horses and a chariot were coming straight at him.
Porphyrius had time to slow his team or turn aside to avoid the boy. Instead he bought his whip down again.
The boy stood frozen. At the last possible instant he threw himself to one side.
Then Porphyrius was racing alongside the spina in the favored position.
With only two laps left he could not be caught. When he crossed the finish line the crowd screamed and stamped until it felt as if an earthquake was about to bring the Hippodrome down.
Justinian remained lost in thought to all appearances. John wondered if he was contemplating the awesome power of this mass of humanity. If directed rightly, they surely could bring down the palace walls.
Porphyrius was making his slow victory lap. He did not wave to the spectators, or look to either side.
Felix’s voice rasped in John’s ear again. “Can you see what color he’s wearing? Isn’t he supposed to race for the Blues?”
John peered toward the track. “I can’t make it out. He’s covered with dust.”
He saw Narses saying something to the emperor who nodded. Justinian beckoned to a large man wearing a toga of the ancient style and holding a jeweled scepter. John recognized the man as an imperial herald. Justinian spoke, gesturing as he did, apparently giving instructions.
As Porphyrius completed his circuit of the track and came even with the kathisma, the herald stepped up onto the low platform at the front of the box and raised the scepter. The masses, focussed on Porphyrius noticed the movement in the imperial box. Silence fell. Was the emperor about to make an offering to them? But what did he have to offer to cool their anger?
Accompanied by several guards Justinian, Narses at his heels, brushed past John and Felix.
“Romans, your emperor greets you.” The herald’s trained voice rang out, audible to every ear in the eerily quiet stadium. “Now, as we all rejoice in this great hour of victory, know that our beloved emperor Justinian, merciful and just, has heard your plea. Content yourselves that in his benevolence and wisdom, he chooses to serve his people and his God. To protect the empire and its citizens from those who would do it harm the emperor decrees that the two faction members be kept in safety until they can be released without danger. Now let us offer our praise to both the emperor and our glorious champion, Porphyrius.”
John thought the herald rushed the final sentence a bit. The big man practically fell over his dragging toga as he hastened off the speaking platform and out of the imperial box.
The dignitaries looked at each other and the suddenly empty throne in confusion. The throng remained silent. Stunned. They had expected their demands to be met or, perhaps, rejected. Justinian had done neither.
Standing in his chariot on the track, facing away from the kathisma toward the stands where the Greens were seated, Porphyrius raised both arms high above his head.
The Greens exploded. If the previous uproar had been the low rumble of an earthquake this one was a thunderclap. A thunderclap that went on and on.
As Porphyrius pivoted to face the Blues, John saw the reason. The great charioteer wore no colors. He was dressed in dull brown. But his upraised palms had been painted—one blue, the other green.
The outcry carried to the seashore where the ragged man who had claimed he would walk into the palace and take the demon emperor to task sat with his feet in the seawater, devouring a raw fish. He looked up at the wheeling cloud of gulls overhead and smiled.
“Doves of the sea, it will not be long….”
And then on the malodorous wind came an even louder cry, torn from thousands of angry throats: “Long live the Blues and Greens! Long live the mercy of the Greens and Blues!”
The man eating a fish smiled again. “Old enemies are uniting, my feathered friends,” he said, throwing fish bones into the water. “Soon they will receive good tidings….”
“You’ll appreciate that I don’t have time to spare. We’ve had more reports of trouble in the streets.” The Urban Prefect Eudaemon did not move as if he were in a hurry as he led John slowly down a corridor at the Praetorium. He was a big, soft, wide-hipped man with dull eyes and a thick lipped mouth. Dressed like a soldier in a cuirass, his tunic cinched at the middle with a wide leather belt, leather boots reaching to his knees, he reminded John of the cow that had originally worn the leather.
The prefect would not have needed reports of unrest had he glanced out the Praetorium’s entrance. A noisy gang surrounded the building, flooding the Mese back to the archway into the Forum Constantine.
The sounds did not penetrate to Eudaemon’s office. The standard cross on the wall was accompanied by a bust of Justinian on a table. Codices were strewn across a marble-topped desk.
Eudaemon stood by the desk. “When I was informed you were here to see me I was inclined to refuse. Then I was told you are on the emperor’s business. Even so….” He sighed. He was dressed for battle but gave the impression that fighting was the last thing he wanted to do.
“The Green and the Blue who survived their hangings. Who were they?”
“As to the Blue, I can’t say. No one came forward to identify him. The Green, I learned after the hearing, was named Hippolytus. An unfortunate name for a patron of the racing teams. Charioteers are such a superstitious lot you’d think they would want nothing to do with a man whose name meant undone by horses. Still, gold smooths many a rough patch and stills fears in a remarkable fashion.”
“You hang men without knowing who they are?”
“Why do I need to know a man’s name when I know his crime? Under the laws of our great emperor we hang men for their crimes not for their names. Hippolytus was a wealthy man. The Green no doubt a worthless ruffian. A baker’s son perhaps. There’s justice in all her beauty. A rich man and a baker’s son hanging side by side.”
“Nevertheless, I would expect a magistrate to inquire into a man’s name before condemning him.”
“I acted as magistrate. Should I beat a man’s name out of him if he won’t cooperate? I admit the hearing was conducted in haste. There’s been no time to waste lately and the emperor’s orders were plain. The executions were meant to serve as an example to the populace. To show that the emperor sides with neither faction. He allies himself only with the law. Even handed justice is what was wanted.”
“Everyone is trying to be even handed lately,” John remarked, thinking of Porphyrius’ recent demonstration at the Hippodrome. “When did you find out about Hippolytus?”
“Shortly after those meddling monks carted him off to Saint Laurentius several miscreants showed up here to petition for his release.”
“You sent them away?”
“Justinian’s orders were to execute the criminals. It wasn’t for me to contradict the emperor.”
“How politically active was Hippolytus?”
“Active enough to get himself hung.”
“What were his crimes, exactly?”
Eudaemon pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Exactly? Well…that’s hard to say. I’m sure a lawyer could find the appropriate offenses, given more time than was available. Hippolytus instigated a riot against the emperor the night before the execution. He and his friends went on a rampage, all the while calling for the emperor’s head. To be precise, they broke into a butcher’s, stole the carcass of a swine, dressed it in a purple robe, and decapitated it in front of the Praetorium. Do you doubt there’s a law against that?”
“I’m not a lawyer.”
“And, you are…what? I’m not sure you mentioned your position.”
“I’m a chamberlain to the emperor.”
The prefect’s face reddened slightly. “Yes, I see. My apologies. I am trying to be helpful. It’s just that I’ve been rushed off my feet.”
“I understand the gallows had to be constructed in a hurry.”
“It’s true I had short notice.”
“Could that account for the failure of the ropes?”
“I can’t see how. We keep our equipment in the storerooms next to the prison. There’s quite a collection of devices. The empress in particular often has whims. The ropes were simply not up to the task. It happens. Whoever sold them to us will suffer for it, when I have time to go over my accounts and determine who that was.”
“I was thinking that someone could have tampered with the ropes. There must have been a lot of confusion in the rush.”
“It was the usual crew. Of course, these Blues and Greens insinuate themselves everywhere. There’s always bribery. But that would mean the ropes had been cut and they weren’t. Not according the reports I received.”
“Your executioner, Kosmas, doesn’t think they were cut. You met Hippolytus. Do you have any opinions? Is it possible who he was had anything to do with his escape or his murder?”
“In what way? I can’t think of anything.”
John had held off questioning Eudaemon about the guards who had been dispatched to the Church of Saint Laurentius and had failed so miserably in their task. Since it seemed he could learn nothing more about the executions, he mentioned their failure.
The prefect turned even redder. “Are you questioning my integrity?”
“I’m only trying to make sense of things. From what I’ve been told, a stranger bearing an imperial seal was allowed past the guards. However, the guards had already failed in their duty. The prisoners were already gone. As it happens they had been murdered. Whether they were killed in the church and dragged off to the cistern, or taken outside and killed near the church, isn’t clear. Nor is it clear who killed them. It was military men, apparently, who disposed of them. But it was a blind man who told me that. Were your guards responsible? Can you account for them all?”
“No. Several have gone missing. You see, I am being honest. But then again, I’ve lost a large portion of my force in the past few days. Not that my men are cowards, but they don’t necessarily want their families in the city if it goes up in flames. And others, I regret to say, are probably wearing the colors of the factions right now. As for the men sent to Saint Laurentius…if a few have vanished, can you blame them? If you were given the task of guarding prisoners in whom the emperor took a special interest and failed in your duties, you might decide to look for other work far from the capital. A reasonable man might conclude that before long an imperial official would be asking questions and looking for someone’s head.”
He gave John a pointed look.
“I’m not looking for anyone’s head,” John said. “Just for information. Those guards might have left Constantinople with hefty bribes. What can you tell me about Sebastian? He struck me as old and incapable for such an important command.”
“That depends on what capabilities might be required. It did occur to me that in this case we had more to fear from treachery than from direct, physical force. I assigned Sebastian the task precisely because he has served so long and with absolute, unquestioned loyalty.” Eudaemon’s gaze flickered in the direction of the bust of Justinian. “And see where his loyalty has got him.”
The prefect appeared genuinely distressed at the thought of his elderly commander imprisoned in the imperial dungeons. “I will put a word in for him,” John said.
“May I ask why you so interested in these two ruffians?” Eudaemon asked. “They should’ve been executed straight away. What difference does it make if their deaths were delayed by a few hours? Why should anyone care who was responsible? Justice is done.”
John’s reply was interrupted by a clerk who burst into the office, gasping for breath as if he’d sprinted down the corridor. John could tell he was a clerk because he still held his reed pen, although the agitated man didn’t seem to realize it. He waved his hands frantically, sending droplets of ink flying. “Prefect! Come quickly! There’s trouble at the prison. The mob is demanding the prisoners be released.”
“Is that so? If that’s what they want, that’s what they’ll get. We’ll hang every one of the prisoners from the portico in the front of the Praetorium. That will end the demands!” Eudaemon turned to John. “Excuse me, excellency. I will return as soon as I’ve given the orders.” Now Eudaemon did move fast, striding out of the office and following the clerk down the corridor.
John glanced around. The abruptness of Eudaemon’s departure had taken him by surprise. He walked over to the desk and studied the codices scattered across its marble top. City regulations and imperial proclamations. An account book lay against a partially opened scroll displaying what appeared to be classical poetry.
Eudaemon did not return.
John had intended to ask the prefect for an escort back to the palace. He waited for what felt like a long time, then decided further waiting was not a good idea. He stepped into the corridor. As soon as he did he could hear raised voices and smell smoke.
He started toward the vestibule.
A figure leapt from a doorway and slammed John into the wall. He had an impression of a blue cloak, an unnaturally high forehead where the hair had been shaved away in front, yellow teeth in a snarling mouth. Then something smashed into his side. He fell sideways and slid down the wall.
Another Blue, holding a splintered length of wood, loomed over him. Others emerged from the room opposite. Clouds of smoke followed. One of the men held a torch.
John tried to blink back the dark fog swirling at the edges of his vision.
“Who’s that?” asked the man with the torch.
“He came out of the prefect’s office,” someone answered.
The Blue standing over John raised his irregular club. “It’s time you’re introduced to justice.”
Before John could react, the club dropped from the assailant’s hands and clattered onto the floor. A gurgling shriek came out of the Blue’s mouth, followed by a gush of scarlet.
The man’s companions turned and fled.
Felix pulled his sword out of the man’s back. It took several hard tugs, while the Blue convulsed like a speared fish and blood bubbled from between his lips. The burly excubitor kicked the body away and leaned over to help John to his feet. “I appreciated your saving me from my own folly in the gardens last night. I didn’t expect to repay the favor so soon.”
John stood up. Aside from a pain in his shoulder where he’d hit the wall, he seemed to be uninjured. “I thought you intended to go straight from the kathisma back to my house?”
“I did. But I thought I’d scout out the situation in the streets first. I didn’t like what I saw. People were pouring straight out of the Hippodrome and down the Mese. The factions weren’t fighting each other, either. They were setting fire to shops. I knew you were coming here to talk to the prefect.”
“I’m glad you came after me, my friend.” Belatedly John pulled from his robes the short blade he always kept concealed there.
Felix looked at the weapon dubiously. “Now we have to get back to the palace,” he said. “We’d better get moving. As soon as the rioters realize the prefect’s men are all battling at the prison this part of the building will be swarming.”
“Unless it burns down first,” John remarked as they ran into a roiling mist. He pushed part of his cloak over his mouth. The acrid fog burned his throat.
A confusion of shadows surged through the haze in the vestibule. No one challenged John and Felix. In the chaos they appeared to be just two more rioters.
They emerged onto the portico and stopped abruptly. The view of the Mese was partly obscured by a macabre curtain, a line of hanged men dangling from the front of the portico. Some inventive person had managed to loop ropes over the ornamental work and decorative statuary above.
John pushed one of the dead men aside to reach the steps leading to the street. The boot that swung round and nudged him in the back as he ducked past was military footwear. The guards had ended up being hung, not the prisoners.
He scanned the row of dead-eyed men. He did not see Eudaemon’s bovine form.
Felix bent over a body crumpled on the steps. He straightened up and held out a short spear. “John, take this. I don’t see any swords. At least it’s a better weapon than that little onion chopper of yours.”
John grasped the spear. He hoped it would serve him better than it had served its previous owner. He faced the street.
The palace wasn’t far away, not much more than the length of the Hippodrome, less than a single circuit of the racetrack. But a clamorous multitude blocked the way, clogging the thoroughfare and the colonnaded walkways on either side. Smoke poured out from beneath the colonnades.
He and Felix went down the stairs. An unarmed man in a cuirass stood at the bottom, gazing around vacantly. Half his face was blackened. John couldn’t tell whether it was soot or if the flesh had been burned off.
“You’re one of the urban watch, aren’t you?” Felix barked. “What’s going on?”
“We were sent on patrol.” The man rasped. “When I got back…the prisoners were gone…and….” He looked toward the line of hanged men and looked away.
“What’s it like elsewhere in the city?” John demanded.
“Just like it is here. The Blues and Greens are fighting together. I saw three churches on fire. They hung our patrol leader from the neck of the bronze bull in the Forum Bovis. I must report to the Urban Prefect.”
The man started to mount the low stairs and staggered.
“Forget that. Save yourself,” John told him.
The man gaped at John, one white eye staring unblinkingly out of the blackened ruins of his face.
“You are relieved of your duties by order of the emperor’s chamberlain,” John went on.
The man tottered away.
Felix grunted. “If only you could relieve the two of us—”
A deafening roar cut short his words. Pieces of masonry and glass rattled across the pavement around them. Glancing back at the Praetorium, John saw that a section of the wall had collapsed inward. Flames licked out of a jagged gap. Figures flooded from the main entranceway to the building. Some were on fire. Many ran straight into the dangling corpses. One unfortunate dislodged a dead man and became entangled in the rope. The two rolled down the steps in a gruesome embrace.