Authors: Mary Reed,Eric Mayer
Tags: #Mystery, #FICTION, #Mystery & Detective, #General
John found himself wandering through the Hippodrome stables, undecided about whether he should seek out Porphyrius. The great charioteer knew the factions as well as he knew the turning posts of the racetrack. After all, he had raced for both the Greens and Blues during his long career and both had erected monuments to him on the narrow raised platform of the spina forming a barrier between the two arms of the U-shaped racetrack. If the factions were plotting together, Porphyrius would know. But if he had such knowledge why hadn’t he brought it to the emperor’s attention? Did John want to alert Porphyrius to his investigation? How long before he found out that John had been asking questions?
Besides, how did one interrogate a man who was immortalized in bronze? Although John’s duties brought him increasingly into contact with the rich and powerful of the capital, he was still not entirely used to it.
The sound of John’s name interrupted his debate with himself. He saw the grinning, beaked face of his old friend Haik.
“John! What are you up to here? Never mind. My business is done. It’s getting late. Time for a cup of wine, I’d say.”
“Perhaps it is,” John replied without hesitation, happy to have his decision made for him. “There’s a tavern I know not far from the Baths of Zeuxippus, on the way to my house. It’s usually quiet.”
“Quiet? Compared to your house?”
“You can’t believe the number of servants that came with the house.”
“Yes. I think I see what you mean. The last time we spoke we were probably sitting outside a tent, or maybe inside a tavern.”
They made their way out of the Hippodrome. The colonnades along the street funneled a biting wind. Bits of straw swirled around their ankles. John recalled the fire he had seen near the Church of Saint Laurentius. One did not wish for wind when the factions became restive.
As they went by the entrance to the baths shrill shouts from a group of street urchins caught their attention. The urchins stood in the middle of the square in front of the baths and at first John thought they were playing. Then one of the boys charged at the other three with such ferocity, and was caught, thrown to the ground, and pummeled so unmercifully that it was apparent no game was involved.
The attacker rolled away and scrambled to his feet. Rather than taking to his heels he stood with clenched fists and shouted imprecations. He was a short, well-built child. His face looked fiery red, whether from the beating he’d taken or simply from fury, John couldn’t tell. The other three replied in kind. They looked older than the lone boy, more gangly, but a head taller.
“Constantinople is a violent place,” Haik remarked. “No one even takes notice.”
It was true, the few passersby simply skirted the area around the dispute.
“I got in more than a few scrapes when I was a youngster,” John remarked.
“And when you weren’t so young too. Remember when we had the dispute with that—”
Haik’s reminiscence was cut short as the younger boy gave a blood curdling shriek and flung himself at the others again, flailing his fists madly. The three stepped back, dodging the blows. One kneed the attacker. Another belted the back of his head with a fist. The attacker continued to lash out. Blood sprayed from the nose of the tallest boy.
Then John was sprinting toward the group.
He caught the tall boy’s thin wrist before he could make use of the glistening blade he had suddenly produced.
John twisted until the blade clattered onto the pavement. He kicked it away.
He addressed the three older combatants. “All of you, return to your homes. Immediately.”
When he let go of the wrist the boy sneered at him but backed away. The three walked off slowly, shuffling their feet, casting dark looks back over their shoulders.
Haik had retrieved the knife and squatted in front of the boy John had saved. “Such valor deserves a reward.”
The boy took the proffered knife with one hand, while wiping blood off his face with the other.
“What was that all about?” Haik asked.
“They was Blues.” The boy ran a short finger along the knife blade. “I’ll cut their throats when they’re asleep. They won’t be able to sleep any more. I know where they live. They’ll go to sleep and not wake up.”
“The emperor hangs murderers,” John said.
The boy didn’t look at John. His eyes narrowed. “They deserve to be killed. I’ll cut their throats.”
“Because they’re Blues?” Haik wondered. “You hate them so much because they’re Blues?”
The boy gave Haik the same dead-eyed, uncomprehending expression he might have got if he’d asked a buzzard why it was ripping the entrails from a rotting dog.
“This boy is a Green,” John explained.
“And my brother, too,” the boy said. “That yellow bellied bastard who pulled the knife on me…his brother said something to my brother.”
“It must have been very bad,” Haik remarked.
“Something you daren’t let anyone say and keep living,” the boy said solemnly, “if he’s a Blue.”
“But why do you hate Blues so much?” Haik persisted.
“Well, they’re just bad, is all. Just plain bad. Everyone knows that. My father told me so.” The boy glanced at John and his eyes widened slightly. Had he noticed the dark blue tones of John’s cloak? He quickly tucked the knife away inside his tunic.
“Go home,” John told him sternly. “Don’t murder anyone on the way.” He added under his breath.
The boy whirled and ran off.
Haik straightened up. “The factions seem to be even worse here than in Antioch.”
“Yes, and Justinian has been trying to keep order ever since I arrived in the city. He’s passed laws against street violence and tried to mete justice out evenly. The Greens still claim he favors the Blues and the Blues insist he’s abandoned them for the Greens.”
“Does he favor one side or the other?”
“If you’re a faction member, it depends on your point of view. There’s no satisfying them.”
Haik looked puzzled. “It can’t be sheer hatred, can it? I’ve heard it said that the Blues support the wealthy and the Greens see themselves as champions of the masses.”
“If that were the case there would be incomparably more Greens than Blues. Do you think any of those boys we saw fighting came from wealthy families?”
“But it is true that the Blues are orthodox, whereas the Greens are heretics, monophysites?”
“When it suits them. Which is to say when it makes a pretext for a good fight. They’ll support any cause that gives them an excuse to wreck havoc. Remember, we were going to have a drink.”
The tavern was nearly deserted. Recently, residents went about their business and then hurried to the safety of their homes. They could feel the great beast of the city stirring within its brick and marble carapace. The hard-eyed youths who usually loitered in groups of three or four now congregated half a dozen together. Their stares lingered on passersby for longer than usual. The beggar who always sat beside the baker’s doorway was not in his accustomed place. A line of guards had rushed through the Forum Constantine for no apparent reason. The air smelled faintly of smoke. The fights between the street urchins had become more ferocious.
John and Haik went past the waist-high counter at the front of the tavern. Large pots were sunk into the mortar, some filled with wine, others with porridge and lentils, steaming fragrantly. Only after they sat down at the round wooden table in the back of the room did John notice that the wall mosaic at his shoulder depicted a race in the Hippodrome and a charioteer holding a trophy. It might well have been a portrait of Porphyrius. He couldn’t help smiling ruefully to himself.
Haik raised an eyebrow.
“It’s nothing,” John said.
The tavern keeper rushed over, wiping his big red hands on the greasy tunic billowing over his belly. “Good day to you, sirs. How can I help you, sirs?”
He bowed and beamed when he addressed them and returned speedily with what they had ordered.
John and Haik were dressed too well for a place like this. Provincials with mud on their boots gaped at them while a couple of laborers in leather breeches glanced in their direction and whispered to each other. A young man in filthy clothing embroidered in gold thread sat hunched with his head in his hands. A long braid of hair dangled down into the puddle of wine on his able. He took furtive looks at John and Haik.
John saw Haik’s gaze move to the drunken Blue, then away. “I hope none of our young combatants end up like him.” Haik pushed a lank strand of black hair off his forehead. “You’ll have to direct me to a tonsor, John. I’ll be mistaken for a ruffian or a chickpea.”
He had always been vain, John thought. “There is a fellow at the baths who won’t nick your skin with a razor or nick your ears with too much gossip.”
“It’s lucky I met you.” Haik stuck his knife into one of the sausages on his plate.“Imagine us running into one another in a city this size.”
“If you had stayed around the palace for long we would surely have seen one another. I am surprised I didn’t see you earlier since you arrived with Belisarius. You have been here a week already.”
“Yes. But I have been very busy. It doesn’t seem that long.” Haik chewed thoughtfully. “Imagine you, my old military friend, with a house next door to the emperor.”
“You told me you owned an estate, Haik. That’s a large step up.” John took a sip of his wine. He had not ordered anything to eat. He had no appetite. When he found himself engaged in a project he did not like to eat. Food was a distraction.
“My holdings aren’t enormous. I grow pistachios mostly. Do your remember we camped for a few weeks near Telanissos?”
“Northeast of Antioch.”
“That’s right. That’s where my land is. You can see my orchards from Saint Simeon’s Church on the hill overlooking the town. The column Simeon lived on for decades is located inside the church.”
“We have a lot of saints here. Some whole saints, and parts of others.”
His companion’s frown reminded John that, unlike many soldiers John had known, Haik was not a Mithran but a Christian. A heretic, John seemed to recall, a monophysite. Speaking to a friend from his youth had made his tongue as hasty as it had been in those days. But what did John really know about the man who sat across from him now?
“I didn’t mean to offend you, Haik. The city is full of relics.”
Haik waved his knife. “I am not a very religious man. But I’ve seen the spot where Simeon stood many times. It amazed me, to think how a man could spend his life confined to a pillar, exposed to the elements, never lying down.”
“You’re not here on a pilgrimage though. You said you had business.”
“A minor matter.”
“It’s a long journey for a minor matter.”
“Blame that on Justinian’s Prefect of the East, the Cappadocian. He’s been bleeding us dry, and demanding we bleed in gold.”
“I understand John the Cappadocian has been extremely efficient in collecting revenues. If you’re here to petition the emperor about it I doubt you’ll get far. Half of the provinces are already here.” He glanced around at the farmers who had been staring at them. “Not that they’ll get to speak to anyone closer to the throne than the guards at the Chalke.”
Haik shook his head. “That’s not why I’m here. The Cappadocian has destroyed the postal system. They’re using asses instead of horses now. Cheaper. And so much slower I decided I might as well come myself rather than send a letter, particularly when I heard that Belisarius had been recalled. If another earthquake hits Antioch the emperor won’t find out until grass is growing over the ruins.
“He might not find out until too late if the Persians suddenly arrive at the walls, either.”
“Very true, but the Persians aren’t likely to be attacking again soon after the beating Belisarius gave them.”
“There are those who say that it is Belisarius who took most of the beating. That he was lucky to escape back across the Euphrates to Callinicum. They consider him a better politician than soldier.”
Haik knifed another sausage. The blade hit the metal plate with a click. “As a hot-blooded young soldier I might have felt differently, but these days I agree with what Belisarius says, that the best general is one who is able to bring about peace from war. Whoever won the battle, the fact remains that the Persians no longer threaten Roman territory. And now that Chosroes has succeeded Cabades as king and agreed to sign an eternal peace, the emperor must be well pleased.
“It can be difficult to discern what the emperor thinks about anything. You said you don’t know General Belisarius well?”
“Not at all, actually. I have a good reputation in the area. I’m a respected landowner so he was happy to let me accompany him.”
A couple of the provincials who had been staring got up and left, trailing a vague odor of livestock. The Blue who had drunk too much wobbled to his feet at the same time. One of the provincials paused at the bar to hand the tavern keeper two tiny copper nummi. He stared into the age blackened pouch from which the coins had come, grunted in disgust, and tossed it away. Funds had run out as they soon did in the city.
The Blue staggered off toward the door leading to the lavatory. John wondered if he had intended to follow the unsuspecting visitors into the street and rob them. If so, they were fortunate to be destitute.
John sipped his wine and watched Haik devour another sausage. Hadn’t he stopped to eat after arriving in the city? He shifted his weight. The hard bench dug into his thighs. He could practically feel the glass-eyed Porphyrius in the wall mosaic looking over his shoulder. It made him uncomfortable even though he knew it was only his imagination.
“It’s quite a leap, from mercenary to estate owner,” John said. “What made you think of growing pistachios?
Haik swallowed, then grinned. He tapped the half-tooth that left a gap in his smile. “Don’t you remember when I broke this on a shell?”
John chuckled. “Now that you have reminded me. The way you howled, half of us in the camp grabbed our weapons before we realized we weren’t under attack. We thought you’d taken an arrow in a tender spot.”
“I spent five years fighting and that was the worst injury I suffered. The pistachio family has compensated me many times over for my pain. Unfortunately, I will never have my smile back. There are things that can’t be fixed. But tell me, John, how did you come to live at the Great Palace in Constantinople? The last I knew you were going to Egypt.”