Authors: Mary Reed,Eric Mayer
Tags: #Mystery, #FICTION, #Mystery & Detective, #General
January 11, 532
The full-bearded excubitor loitering near the Chalke gate to the palace took another bite from a wrinkled apple and pulled his cloak tighter around his broad shoulders. He looked toward the mouth of the wide thoroughfare of the Mese, past the beggars and hawkers of soiled goods both animate and inanimate who clustered in the courtyard near the massive bronze doors from which the gate took its name, not so close as to attract unwanted attention from the guards on either side but near enough to catch the attention of those passing in and out of the grounds.
On many mornings Felix stood guard here but today he was on watch for his own reasons. They did not include buying the half dead chicken thrust toward his face by a beggar, who had probably just stolen the pitiful fowl from a vendor. He swore and waved the man away.
Felix’s colleague Bato laughed. “A bird like that’s enough to make a man stick to apples and turnips like our emperor.” Having finished his own apple, Bato tossed the gnawed core to the ground. It hardly had time to collect filth before it was snatched up and devoured by a thin boy.
“Here they come!” Felix exclaimed.
An eddy disturbed the crowd, which began to part, making way for a contingent of soldiers.
“That’s not Belisarius,” Bato replied. “It’s Mundus.”
The tall man at their head strode along with an easy swing born of countless days of foot marching. His men wore no armor or helmets, revealing hair bleached of color by the strong sunlight under which they had served in hotter climates. Each man was armed either with a spear over a shoulder or a long sword. The regular thudding of heavy boots echoed against the walls of the surrounding buildings.
Felix grunted. “Belisarius wouldn’t be walking, I wager.”
“Your Belisarius seems to spend most of his time consulting Justinian. Now, Mundus, there’s a real commander. His Heruli are disciplined fighters, not the usual rabble who wave blunt spears at some old village women for the glory of Justinian and expect a fat purse at the end of it!”
“Mundus didn’t force the Persians to beg for peace!”
“You don’t suppose Belisarius did, do you? From what I hear, he had his men hiding in ditches. He was afraid to fight until his officers shamed him into it. Then he was forced to turn tail and run—from a gang of peasants armed mostly with shields. He probably would’ve bought that sick chicken just now to avoid a confrontation. If it hadn’t been for Cabades dying and Chosroes taking the throne, the Persians would be at the walls of Constantinople right now and we’d have Justinian’s eternal peace all right, being as we’d all be dead!”
Felix glared at Bato, who broke into a grin.
“You shouldn’t take everything so seriously, Felix! Now I’m off to the Inn of the Centaurs to get a skin full of wine!”
“Don’t wager on that racing game that was set up in front of the place the other day.” Felix advised. “You may think only Fortuna influences those colored balls rolling down chutes and tunnels and popping out of archways here and there, but it’s my belief the proprietor’s found some way to fix the results. I lost half a month’s wages!”
Mundus and his soldiers had tramped through the gate into the palace grounds and Bato went up the Mese in the direction from which they had come.
Felix wondered what, exactly, the soldiers had been doing out in the city on foot. Unrest in various quarters signalled the factions’ way of demanding the release of the condemned men held at the Church of Saint Laurentius. The Urban Prefect had sent men to guard the church. Perhaps Mundus had been needed to quell violence elsewhere while Belisarius had been sent into the streets to make a show of force, to let the disgruntled factions see what they would come against if they were, in fact, looking for a fight.
Despite what Bato said, Justinian seemed well pleased by Belisarius’ efforts on the Persian front. If the Persians hadn’t been able to defeat him, a mob certainly couldn’t.
Felix stamped his boots, trying to warm cold feet. There was a promise of frost in the crisp air. If snow fell, as it did occasionally, it would take its toll on the homeless who spent their nights huddled under porticoes. The boy who had eaten the remains of Bato’s apple had stationed himself nearby, hand extended in a mute appeal for charity, the rags covering his feet fluttering in the icy wind. Felix tossed his core toward the urchin who deftly caught it on the downward arc.
Might have been me, Felix thought. The lad has a keen eye and looks sturdy despite being half starved. He might make a good recruit if—but at that point his speculation ended as he spotted the flash of sunlight on the Mese where the gathered people were scattering again.
“Belisarius,” Felix breathed.
Led by their general, the mounted force clattered toward the Chalke, horses steaming in the chilly air. Felix caught a glimpse of Belisarius’ face beneath the polished helmet—high cheekbones, straight nose, a black, closely trimmed beard. He presented the appearance of a patrician more than a warrior, looking too young to have seen combat, let alone to serve Justinian as a general.
As he drew even with the spot where Felix stood, Belisarius reined in his horse. For an instant Felix had the irrational idea that the great general had paused to speak to him. Instead, he turned his head in the other direction and Felix had the impression he was exchanging a few words with someone.
“An inspiring sight, Felix,” came a voice from behind him. “It’s enough to make a man want to leave the excubitors and sign on with him!”
The voice belonged to Gallio, captain of the excubitors.
Felix detected sarcasm in his superior officer’s tone. He suspected Gallio hadn’t fought with anything but his tongue for years. Reluctantly, he turned his attention away from the procession. “I’d certainly see more military action than I do keeping an eye on drunken courtiers.”
The old captain gazed dourly at the horsemen streaming by. “Asking for trouble in my opinion, having two generals in one city. It’s like having two women in one kitchen.”
Judging from the size of his gut, Gallio knew more about kitchens than battlefields. Felix kept the thought to himself. “Considering what we’ve been hearing about the mood of the factions, Justinian is fortunate to have two generals close to hand if trouble breaks out.”
“Fortunate? Perhaps. If they really are here by chance. Some whisper it is not the case. New orders for you, Felix. Choose several men you can trust. You’ll be keeping watch on certain parties at the palace, though officially of course you are on duty guarding them from harm. Apparently Justinian has his suspicions.”
Felix immediately forgot the show put on by Belisarius. Dealing with dangerous turncoats was a task that appealed to him. “You mean there are traitors in the palace? Who does the emperor suspect?”
Gallio shook his head. “You will hear when you report back.” He looked after the armed force vanishing from sight on the heels of Mundus and his men. “Justinian’s young commander has many admirers. But he has been sparring with armies in the deserts. The great Belisarius may find that battling angry gangs in narrow streets is a different proposition.”
John stood impatiently outside the Chalke gate and waited for General Belisarius to pass. He had already been stopped on his way out of the palace by the arrival of Mundus. The previous day, including his mission to the church, had been a long one. Then he barely slept. As soon as he dozed, the darkness closed in over him like inky water. Finally he lit a lamp and was able to drift off, only to come awake coughing up imaginary water, drenched in real sweat. Now the two boiled eggs hurriedly gulped down for breakfast sat in his stomach like stones at the bottom of a cistern.
He did not look forward to investigating the murders of the Blue and the Green. He didn’t know where to start, except at the Hippodrome, the center of everything to do with the factions. And the Hippodrome was a very big place.
As John debated whether he should try to push through the crush which had cleared the street to make way for the mounted force, he saw Belisarius pause. His eye was drawn to a stocky, dark haired man, with whom the general exchanged a few words before continuing on into the palace grounds.
John knew the man. He had grown a slight paunch in the fifteen years since John had last seen him, but aside from that he looked no different than when they had served together as mercenaries outside Antioch.
“Haik,” John called, as he strode through the crowd.
The man turned at the sound of his name. His face was long and sun browned, his hair and eyes glistening black. He had a great, triangular beak of a nose. More than once, his companions had remarked in coarse jest that if Haik were slain on the battlefield the vultures might be reluctant to feast on one of their own.
“Is it John?” Haik flashed the wide grin John recalled well. The teeth were large and even, but half of a front tooth was missing. Haik looked John up and down and his dark eyebrows rose. “Imagine running into you in the capital. And you’re not dressed like a soldier either.”
“Neither are you, my old friend. That cloak you’re wearing is worth several months of a mercenary’s pay. But you seem to have an acquaintance with at least one prominent soldier.”
“Yes. Only in passing. Belisarius allowed me to travel from Antioch with his troops. I have business here.”
The two men stood facing each other. They did not embrace as colleagues often do upon meeting. It was not John’s way.
“Business, you say? Then you are no longer a military man?”
“No. I’m a pistachio farmer. I own a small estate.”
“And what are you doing in Constantinople?”
“Right now, I’m looking for lodgings. I’ve been staying with Belisarius’ retinue this past week and I don’t want to strain his generosity.”
“Stay with me, Haik. I have a big house all to myself. It isn’t in the most salubrious part of the palace grounds, but right behind the stables.”
“You have a house in the palace grounds? You are no longer a soldier yourself then?”
“We’ll talk later. I have an urgent assignment. Ask anyone at the stables. They’ll direct you to my house. I’ll see you this evening.”
The narrow and hilly peninsula where Emperor Constantine built his new Rome two hundred years earlier had not offered an area of flat land large enough for a race track close to the palace grounds. At the Hippodrome’s southern extremity, where the land sloped abruptly down toward the Sea of Marmara, a series of massive vaults supported the curved end of the track. From the base of the towering back wall, higher than most of the city’s buildings, a series of archways opened directly into a vast substructure.
John stepped through one of the archways out of sunlight and into subterranean gloom. He waited until his eyes had adjusted, glanced around, then proceeded across an empty chamber to a wide corridor. Lit by torches even in daytime, the corridor mirrored the curve of the track above. It gave access to storerooms for chariots and other racing equipment, stables, offices, supplies for the maintenance of the Hippodrome, temporary barracks for guards, makeshift jail cells, tiny chapels—all the appurtenances of a small city. When filled with 80,000 spectators the Hippodrome’s population rivalled that of most of the empire’s cities.
The secluded environs also served the needs of both trysting lovers and street women. Down here, during racing season, a prostitute could earn in a single day as much as she could make in a week in a dark alley, and while staying in out of the rain.
It was a place where criminals could work in private. More than one corpse had been found in the shadowy maze. John used caution upon entering.
A few paces down the corridor he met a man carrying a looped pile of reins. The chubby, dirty faced fellow glared at John with obvious suspicion. “You don’t belong here. What are you up to, lurking about?”
“Looking for advice. I hear the Blues have a new charioteer.”
“Word gets round faster than our best team. How did you hear about him?”
John waved a hand. “It’s the talk of the taverns.”
The other shifted his grip on his burden, and dropped several reins. “Can’t keep anything quiet in this city,” he grumbled. “But let them Greens try anything and they’ll be sorry. Just so you know, we’ve men guarding the horses day and night and if anyone can sneak past our grooms to bury a curse tablet in the track they’ll be demons indeed.” He spat on the ground.
“I wouldn’t put my money on a few lines of gibberish scratched on a piece of rolled-up lead. I’ll wager on a driver with skill and brains. I was going to wager on this new man to win next time out but I hear he had an accident?”
“That’s right. A bad accident. Some Greens caught him a couple of nights ago and broke his legs. Those kinds of accidents are happening all the time. Last week someone tried to poison Porphyrius.”
“I’d like to meet one of your charioteers.”
The chubby worker looked dubious. “It might be arranged….” His dirty fingers closed over the coins John handed him. “Yes, you’ll want to talk to Junius. He’s checking chariots to make certain nobody has tampered with them. If you hurry, you’ll just catch him. You never know but what some Green has managed to bribe someone to do a little damage.”
John found Junius, a tall, lean man with sinewy arms, in a cavernous storage room filled with chariots. He and a short companion were examining the underside of a quadriga propped up against one of the many pillars supporting the vaulted ceiling. John paused for a moment, half concealed by another pillar.
“Axle and pins in place, pole well seated,” Junius said. “Perhaps that shadowy figure Porphyrius saw last night was a shade of the wine jug rather than the human sort.”
“And perhaps not.” The shorter man spun the left wheel. “Three spokes are partly sawn through from the inside. How long do you think the wheel would stay on once the race began?”
Junius uttered an oath. “Have it repaired and don’t let it out of your sight while you do. Isn’t there anything Porphyrius doesn’t see?”
The other shook his head. “He’s not human. Imagine anyone needing to sabotage the chariot of a graybeard like Porphyrius. He’s too old to be driving chariots, let alone winning.”
John stepped forward. “Junius?”
The charioteer didn’t appear surprised by the interruption, just annoyed. “What of it?”
“I wish to talk to you. In private.”
Junius laughed. “And a blade in the ribs in private too? You Greens must be desperate to think I’d fall for that.”
“I’m not from either faction. I’m here on behalf of the emperor.”
The wheel examiner guffawed. “A nomisma says otherwise, if I had a nomisma to wager!”
Junius stared at John for a heartbeat. “I’ll talk with this man,” he told his companion. “Leave us alone.”
“You look familiar,” Junius said, when his assistant had departed. “Haven’t I seen you in the imperial box at the races?”
“You have a keen eye. There are always a lot of people in the kathisma.”
“Few as tall. And you have the bearing of a military man. Very noticeable among all those perfumed flowers trying to brush up against Justinian’s robes. What do you want to know?”
“First, one of those perfumed flowers is a prominent courtier who owns horses in which the Blues may be interested. I can put you in touch with him. If the races continue. Justinian is considering closing them down forever.” He paused to let the statement sink in. “The emperor is not pleased with the factions. He’s been told that there’s talk of replacing him with one of Anastasius’ heirs.”
Junius pulled a rag from his belt and wiped grime off his hands. “You’ve been sent to deliver a warning.”
“No. I’m looking for information. What about this seditious talk?”
“Nothing specific. There’s always some malcontent ready to stir up the factions. Even a one-eyed fool can see the riots aren’t always connected with who won the latest race. Some fight for the love of fighting. Some skulk round the edges looking for a chance to loot. Others brawl to defend the honor of their team.”
“Indeed. I didn’t need to venture into the depths of the Hippodrome to learn that. Tell me about those two who escaped execution.”
“Nobody seems to know where they are. It’s being whispered if they are not brought forward and pardoned there will be another riot. But then you must be aware of that too.”
“So the rumors are true. What are the men’s names?”
“I have no idea. I don’t know every member of the factions personally. Everyone who attends the races is a faction member.”
“Yes, but few of them are singled out for execution by the emperor. I would have expected word to spread quickly. Someone must know their names.”
“No one around here knows the names of the emperor’s enemies.”
“No one would want to risk seeming connected to such men, you mean. How serious is all this talk? The usual grumbling or something more?”
Junius tossed the rag he had been using to the concrete floor. “I’m a charioteer, not a politician. I concern myself with chariots and horses, not plots. If you want to know more, ask Porphyrius. He’s a palace favorite and I’ve noticed lately he seems uneasy.”
“What makes you think so?”
“He’s got a mansion in the city but the past few weeks he’s been sleeping at the Hippodrome, on a bed of straw. Says there’s evil abroad and he’s staying here to help guard against it. I don’t believe him. He can afford any number of watchmen and he’s always boasted he’s not superstitious.”
“What is your explanation?”
Junius did not hesitate before replying. “I’ve thought about that. Of course the Greens are just as alert and have their own men here day and night. But consider, there are plenty of unused, out-of-the-way rooms and passageways down here. It’s a perfect place to meet people unobserved, isn’t it? Yes, I would certainly interview Porphyrius, but don’t expect him to be as straightforward with you as I’ve been.”