Authors: Mary Reed,Eric Mayer
Tags: #Mystery, #FICTION, #Mystery & Detective, #General
John ignored the first knock at the chapel door. At the second his lips tightened into a thin line and he set down the crust of bread he had been eating. “Yes?”
A shaft of light from the doorway fell across the gloom in the semi-circular chamber. The candles on the polished wood altar guttered, their reflections trembling on the silver cross sitting between them. Before it was half opened, the edge of the door hit John’s stool. Haik squeezed into the cell-sized enclosure.
“Please close the door.” John shifted his stool to make room. A plain, wooden desk sat jammed up against the altar. Documents were shoved aside to make room for John’s breakfast.
“The servants told me I’d find you here. I didn’t realize you’d become a man of faith.”
“I haven’t. It’s the only place in the house I can be alone. The servants won’t disturb a man at his devotions. Otherwise it’s master this and master that. It’s impossible to gather one’s thoughts.”
“You always liked having the night watch on your own, didn’t you?” Haik looked around the chapel. A gilt cross curved across the domed ceiling. On the walls, painted saints suffered horrible martyrdoms. “I’d have a hard time thinking in here, myself. It’s worse than a battlefield.”
“I’m not having much luck myself this morning.”
“Pondering some palace intrigue?”
John ignored Haik’s grin. “I hope that’s not what it turns out to be.” He stood, retrieved his bread, stuffed the remains into his mouth, and gestured toward the door. He left the chapel and led his visitor down a short corridor into the atrium where a life-sized Aphrodite served as a graceful fountain.
Haik glanced back in the direction of the chapel. “Old gods and new no further from each other than you could spit an olive pit. I wonder who the original owner of this house favored?”
“I am sure he worshipped the emperor’s god. In public. Have a seat. There’s more room here and you won’t sink up to your neck in cushions.”
Haik sat down with a sigh on one of the benches projecting from the marble walls while John took another. “Considering the time I’ve spent on horseback lately, I wouldn’t refuse a cushion or two. You should allow yourself a little luxury. You’ve earned it. You weren’t born to it.”
“Which is why I can’t get used to being waited on.”
“The servants might not vex you so much if you gave them enough to do. I found the kitchen staff throwing knucklebones. But then how long does it take to set out a loaf of bread for the master’s breakfast?”
“I often have boiled eggs.”
“Give them some employment. A few fancy dishes will keep them busy all day.”
“I have no taste for fancy dishes. I’m happy with grilled fish from a street vendor.”
“Have your cook prepare grilled fish then.”
“I’d have to sit and eat off a silver plate. I’d prefer to have it from a skewer while walking the streets.”
Haik laughed. “I suppose the emperor wouldn’t allow you to pitch a tent in the gardens?”
“It would reflect badly on Justinian if his chamberlains did not appear to be well compensated.”
Haik ran a hand absently through his long, black hair. “So you’re a chamberlain. From what little I know, that’s an office with a lot of power.”
John shook his head. “The office has no power of its own. All power flows down from the emperor, like the water from Aphrodite’s shell.”
The white marble statue held an oversized clam shell in one upraised hand. Water bubbled out of the shell and splashed into the basin at the bare feet of the goddess. The tiles near the fountain glistened with moisture. Occasionally John could feel a droplet against his face. Given the chill in the air on this January day, it was not a pleasant sensation.
“There are numerous chamberlains with varied duties,” John added. “Everything depends on Justinian’s whim. Narses is a chamberlain but also the imperial treasurer. Which makes him my superior. And it is obvious that he intends to make certain that he remains my superior.”
“I’ll stick to my orchards. It’s less complicated than the imperial court and a pistachio tree isn’t likely to stab you in the back.”
“But it might conspire to break your teeth.”
The gap in Haik’s grin proved the truth of the statement. He was silent for a time. His gaze remained fixed on John.
“You’ve been staring at me. You’re wondering about me, aren’t you? Do I look different? Has my voice changed? Am I the same man? Perhaps I have become treacherous and deceitful.”
“I would never believe that of you.”
“But that’s what they say about eunuchs. They are sly creatures. Always plotting.”
Haik looked down at the tiles. “No, John. Truly…I…I’ve been staring at you because…I can’t believe my eyes, seeing you in these surroundings. Can this be the young soldier in muddy boots with whom I drank a ration of sour wine after a day’s march? How did he come to be at the Great Palace?”
“After I left for Egypt I traveled for a while with a troupe of entertainers. They employed me as a guard. I didn’t guard myself very well. I accidentally wandered into an area controlled by the Persians. Luckily I had learned to read and write before I ran away to become a fighting man so I had some value, especially as a eunuch.”
“But at least since you no longer…well…you can’t suffer from any urges….”
John looked at the slender, naked Aphrodite, one hand holding the overflowing shell, the other laid demurely between her legs. “I only wish that were so. I can remember what it is like to be with a woman in every detail. I am hardly the only soldier to be maimed.”
“Yet your misfortune brought you good fortune. God works in strange ways.”
“Does he? As far as I recall, I was the one who did all the work, Haik. My first glimpse of Constantinople was the bottom of the sea wall as I was dragged across a dock in chains. The Keeper of the Plate eventually employed me. If I had not worked to better myself I would have remained just another face in the administrative horde. But I distinguished myself. So when the emperor needed someone who was discreet—but disposable—for a confidential assignment, I had my chance. I made the best of it.”
“You don’t seem to enjoy the fruits of your labors.”
“I wouldn’t say that, my friend. Every morning when I open my eyes I take satisfaction in the fact that I have survived to see another day.”
“They should both be dead now,” said the executioner. “They would be too if I’d had time to prepare the scaffold correctly and the ropes were of better quality. I trust that the Prefect realizes it was not my fault.”
“Eudaemon wasn’t at the Praetorium,” John said. “An assistant told me you were in charge of the execution.”
“In charge but without the proper resources.”
Considering the number of condemned the executioner had launched into eternity he was an unremarkable figure, noticeable only for one shoulder being slightly higher than the other. It made him look vaguely awkward and uncomfortable.
“I’m a craftsman,” he said. His mild features belied the anger in his voice. “I take pride in my profession. A quick, clean death, that’s what I aim for. I once met a fellow who extracted money from the condemned man’s family on condition he’d make sure the fellow had an easy exit. Had no idea what he was doing. Botched the job so badly the victim’s head was ripped off. He never collected his fee. Whether the family got their bribe back, I can’t say.”
Two boys, perhaps six and seven, whom John took to be part of the man’s family, sat in a corner and goggled up at their visitor.
“I’m not here to quibble over your payment,” John said. “I wish to interview you about the hanging. Kindly ask your children to leave us. It isn’t the sort of thing they should hear.”
The man looked surprised. “They’re always asking to hear that story about the poor fellow’s head again. But if you insist.” He shooed them into the other room.
The rooms were part of a stolid apartment building north of the Mese, halfway down the steep hill which descended toward the long finger of water known as the Golden Horn. Furnishings were the usual wooden tables and chairs and a brazier for heat and cooking. One of the ubiquitous Christian crosses hung from the wall. The confined space smelled strongly of garlic from a recent meal.
“I understand you are called Kosmas.”
“That is correct, excellency.”
“From your speech I can tell you are not from the city. What brought you to Constantinople?”
Kosmas’ mild expression darkened. “Taxes. We owned a farm in Anatolia. Raised livestock. Pigs mostly. A few mules and horses. For four generations we were landowners, until, finally, we couldn’t pay. So I brought my wife and children to the city and looked for work. That was three years ago.”
“You found employment as an executioner?”
“Most of the time I work for a butcher. I’m paid a decent wage and can bring home some meat as well. Executions aren’t steady work. They bring in extra money. One day I might be able to own a small farm again. I miss the open fields. The noise the beggars make in the alley keeps us awake most nights.”
“How does a farmer and a butcher come to hang criminals?”
“I performed executions in Anatolia. Even in the countryside there’s occasionally someone who needs hanging and not many with the required expertise. Once a village witnesses a condemned man slowly strangled because the knot wasn’t placed right….well…I took it up as a civic service. I was well known in the area.”
“You may have spared a lot of curious children nightmares,” John observed, with a stern glance toward the doorway to the other room. He glimpsed two heads vanishing from sight. “You were summoned on short notice to carry out the executions by Prefect Eudaemon?”
“Yes. He is familiar with my work. There have been quite a number of calls on my service of late. As a good Christian I can only deplore that, but as a family man with children and a wife to feed…you understand, I am certain.”
John responded with a thin smile. In fact, he did not understand Christians at all. Was Kosmas attracted to Christianity because it was the official religion or because its most sacred symbol was a man being executed? “Describe what happened,” he ordered.
Kosmas paused in concentration. In his memory he must have been seeing a picture of that cold morning. “The prisoners were ferried over from the city. Seven of them. Four were beheaded. A quick death, excellency. Much kinder than hanging. Not a task I like to carry out. But duties must be met however distasteful. Think of how those in charge of crucifixions must have felt! It’s one thing to give a quick downstroke of a sharp axe and deprive a man of his life, but quite another to hammer nails into living flesh. I have never been ordered to crucify a man, but if I was I would make it less painful. Even when I slaughtered livestock I tried to be quick about it. We should never have been given so little time to prepare.”
“Indeed. Continue with your account.”
“Oh…yes….” Kosmas lifted a hand nervously, and John thought he intended to touch his neck in recollected sympathy with the condemned men, but instead he rubbed the shoulder that was lower than the other. “I apologize, excellency. It is a strange thing. I tend not to recall executions. I think it is a blessing the Lord has granted me.”
Was that true or a convenient excuse, John wondered. “Tell me as much as you can, Kosmas.”
“The first hanging succeeded. I’m not sure what faction he belonged to, but that left a Blue and a Green. Both factions, you see. The emperor wished to show even handed justice. Or so I was told. We had managed to erect two gallows on the platform and cut a pair of openings in the planks. The prisoners arrived before we could complete the trapdoors, though, so I had to push the men into the openings.” Kosmas shook his head. “I hope never to have to do that again. It feels too much like murder. There are accepted procedures. That isn’t one of them.”
“You gave both men a shove before you realized anything had gone wrong?”
“That’s right. I wasn’t looking toward the ground. The first I knew about the mishap was when I heard the spectators’ reaction. There are always a few screams from gawkers who expected death to be prettier, but this time it was an uproar.”
“Is it true that both ropes broke? Not once but twice?”
“Yes. The fibers partially tore and stretched. Both men ended up on the ground, half strangled and dazed. But not so dazed that they didn’t understand what was happening when the guards carted them back up to the platform.”
“Did you recognize either of the men?”
“No. I have seldom needed to execute a man I know, thank the Lord.”
“You were alone on the platform, aside from the guards?”
“So it was a defect in the ropes which saved the men’s lives?”
“It was definitely the ropes. Everything else was in order. The gallows were strong enough. The height of the platform was correct. Neither man had an abnormal physique. Sometimes I need to make special adjustments. A man as lean as you would need to fall further than most, if you’ll excuse my saying so.”
“A longer journey but without any better destination. Didn’t you notice the ropes were unsuitable before you used them?”
“Of course. But there was no time to find anything better. Even a poor rope is almost always good enough.”
“Could they have been cut part way through?”
Panic flickered across Kosmas’ features. “You don’t think I had anything—”
“Where did they come from?”
“I’m not sure. Some men from the Prefect’s office, or maybe men hired by him, delivered everything we needed. All the construction material, the axes and ropes. I don’t supply the rope, excellency.”
“Would you have noticed if the rope had been cut?”
“I should think so. I inspect them, to make certain they’re strong enough.”
“Are you positive no one else had access to the ropes after they came into your possession?”
“Yes. I took charge of all the equipment at once. The ropes were simply rotten, excellency. No more than that. The second set was as bad as the first. I directed a couple of workmen to attach new ropes to the gallows while the Blue and the Green lay on the platform, crying for mercy. Or so it seemed. Their throats were too swollen for them to speak comprehensibly. They couldn’t stand. The guards had to haul them to their feet to let me loop the nooses around their necks. I never want to witness such a thing again. One of the guards found it all amusing. He asked why the condemned were whimpering since they’d already been hung once and it hadn’t been so bad. I only recalled that just now.” Kosmas shook his head. “As I adjusted the nooses I whispered a few words of comfort. Christ is with you, I told them. You may not see Him, but soon you will. The guards had to shove them forward, to their deaths, except, as you know, the ropes failed a second time. This time, just as the men were about to be dragged back up on the platform, monks from Saint Conon’s monastery appeared and claimed them. Because clearly they had been spared by the Lord, the monks said.”
“What do you think?”
“None of us can know the ways of the Lord. Maybe it was a miracle. If I was a gambling man I would have wagered against two hangings both failing twice.”
John thought that more than a few disgruntled Christians might consider it a divine comment on Justinian’s justice. “No one tried to stop the monks from rescuing the condemned men? How did they manage to reach the scaffold?”
“The crowd was getting unruly. People had pushed their way forward. There was some confusion.”
“So much confusion that the guards couldn’t do their job?”
“Guards are Christians too, excellency. They were not sent to slaughter monks.”
“Do you suppose someone could have been bribed to insure that the execution went wrong?”
“In this city, bribery is always a possibility. We hung the first man without incident.”
“Why didn’t you use his rope to hang the other two? His didn’t break.”
“I admit, it never occurred to me, with all the commotion. I suggest you talk to Rusticus the physician. He may have noticed something I have forgotten. He examined the ropes after they broke, too. He’s old—some say decrepit—but then he’s the Prefect’s uncle. He was there to certify the men as dead. There have been cases of men who were hung, who appeared dead to casual observers, but when examined an hour later were still alive.”
“That must be even rarer than ropes breaking.”
“That is so, excellency, but I speak from personal knowledge. As a child I was playing in the stables. I liked to crawl around the rafters and dive into piles of hay. I got tangled up with some reins that were dangling from the rafters on a hook. I don’t know how long I hung there. When my father found me I was nearly dead. Luckily, I hadn’t got myself suspended entirely by my neck. I broke my shoulder too, as you can see. I’m told they got me breathing again by dosing me with vinegar and mustard seed. It’s been said that those who survive near strangulation often have strange visions. They have set one foot over the threshold to Heaven, you see. But I’ve never had that benefit, only pain in my shoulder.”
John couldn’t help thinking that each time Kosmas picked up a cup of wine, or reached down to pat the head of one of his children, whenever the weather turned damp, every time the shoulder pained him, he would be reminded of his own hanging. He asked a few more questions, until he was satisfied the executioner had told him everything he remembered, or everything he was going to reveal.
As he stepped out into the hall there was a shriek. The two boys barreled out of the room to which they had been banished and started rolling around by their father’s legs. Both had belts fastened around their necks.
John closed the door.