Authors: Mary Reed,Eric Mayer
Tags: #Mystery, #FICTION, #Mystery & Detective, #General
John nodded. “You don’t take the idea seriously?”
“Certainly not! Father doesn’t want to be emperor any more than this little horse does. I think it would kill him!” She spoke lightly but immediately bit her lower lip.
“You understand that you are here so that no one can force your father to change his mind?”
“I don’t know why we couldn’t stay in apartments at the Daphne Palace. Wouldn’t we be safer there? We weren’t spying on the emperor.”
“Did anyone say he suspected you?”
Julianna looked down at the stone horse. When she spoke it was to change the subject. “At least at the Daphne I had some friends to talk to. Do you suppose Justinian would mind if Antonina visited me?”
“You know Antonina?”
“Oh yes. Very well.”
“She’s hardly your age. She’s a friend of Theodora, isn’t she? And older than the empress.”
Julianna looked back at John. “Antonina and I have a lot in common. She’s as fond of horses as I am. Her father was a charioteer. She’s taught me a lot.” She scowled. “You’re just like father. You think I’m a child.”
“We had better get out of the garden,” John said. “It’s getting cold.” The truth was he needed to think of Julianna as a child because when he didn’t she reminded him too much of the past. “I’ll ask Justinian if Antonina can visit,” he added.
Julianna followed him back into the dining room. He pulled the screen shut against the rising wind.
“Thank you,” Julianna said. She brushed a burr off the front of her tunic. “And please accept my thanks for your hospitality toward my family.”
Felix began to lose his nerve when he reached the top of the low marble tiers encircling the terrace outside the Hall of the Nineteen Couches. He stopped and took a deep breath. Why would a woman like Antonina invite him here?
Because she was the same sort of woman as her friend Theodora? A woman who shared the empress’ malicious and often sanguinary sense of humor?
It was time for the assignation. The last pale rose of sunset had darkened to imperial purple and then black over the wall of the Hippodrome. All around the dark, blocky masses of palace buildings loomed up toward the starry sky. They reminded him of long ago scouting expeditions amongst the crags of the Isaurian mountains. More exhilarating than guarding the emperor and probably less dangerous.
Felix was not in the habit of turning down invitations from attractive women. Besides, he argued to himself, it might be dangerous to refuse the whim of a powerful patrician.
He exhaled and started down the tiers. The tramp of his newly cleaned boots echoed loudly.
In the dimness, the Hall of the Nineteen Couches was a long, black escarpment. The limited portion of the palace grounds Felix could see was mostly dark. A torch flared beneath a colonnade. There was a light behind the latticed window of the Octagon atop the Daphne. Another light shone from a window at the far end of the hall.
Was Antonina waiting there? Or someone else?
He crossed the terrace. At first he thought the covered passageway leading into the hall had been left unguarded. A soldier stepped out into his path.
He drew his sword. Then realized it was only the statue of a former emperor, emerging from the shadows as his eyes accustomed themselves to the gloom.
The interior of the hall felt colder than the gardens outside. The curtains separating the reception area from the dining space were open, allowing him to look down the entire length of the building. He might have been in a high, narrow subterranean chamber. A gargantuan mithraeum. He could barely make out the shadowy shape of the imperial table in the center. Other tables sat near the walls, each surrounded by couches where diners could recline in the ancient Roman manner seldom followed these days.
The only illumination came from several candles on a table in the far corner of the hall. Felix walked warily toward the trembling lights, keeping to the middle of the room. As he drew near he saw that Antonina had kept their appointment.
She reclined on a red upholstered couch which perched on gilded gryphon’s feet. Her own feet pulled up under the lavender billows of her silk robes were bare, judging from the dainty black slippers sitting on the mosaic floor beside a taloned paw. A gold circlet encrusted with pearls held her unruly blonde hair lightly in check. Strands of larger pearls encircled her neck and fell across her bodice. The delicate pearl cascades of her earrings swung lazily as she turned her face toward him.
“Felix! You have come after all. You are a courageous man.”
“Should I be afraid to meet you?” His voice had a hollow ring in the dark, empty space.
“Of course not. But I can tell from the way you approach that Narses told you who I am. That nasty little eunuch has spoiled my surprise. Put your sword away. Do you always approach ladies with your weapon drawn?”
Felix had forgotten he was holding his sword. He slipped it back into its scabbard. “A common soldier shouldn’t be meeting a lady of the court alone like this,” he muttered, glancing around. He couldn’t see any guards or servants but surely they were observing from somewhere nearby, from a doorway concealed in shadows or from behind one of the hall’s silver columns. Antonina said nothing nor did her expression reveal anything. “Then again a common soldier cannot very well disobey a lady’s command,” Felix added.
“You call yourself a common soldier? I thought you were great friends with Narses.”
“Does one such as Narses have true friends?”
Antonina laughed. “Well said, Felix. Sit down now.”
A bare arm emerged from the loose silken garments as she reached out to pat the couch that had been pulled up, head to head with her own.
Felix followed orders. As he moved toward the couch the air turned warm. For an irrational moment he imagined the heat was radiating from the silk clad woman, then he spotted a tripod brazier filled with embers.
He was not sure how to arrange himself on a couch. More often than not he ate while seated on a stool. Propped up awkwardly on one elbow he felt like a fool and exceedingly uncomfortable. The sheathed sword dug into his side.
At Antonina’s behest he willingly filled his goblet from one of the two golden carafes on the table, emptied it, and filled it again. His gaze wandered to an enormous bowl filled with delicacies. He took another gulp of wine.
“Do you know, Felix, the first time I saw you I knew we must meet in a more intimate setting. How has this magnificent bear got into the gardens, I said to myself. I was afraid if I were not careful he might devour me. Yet I was not entirely displeased by the prospect.”
For a long time neither spoke. Felix did not know what to say and Antonina did not offer assistance. She seemed content to stare at him, disconcertingly. Her eyes, which Felix remembered as being blue, glittered like pools of fire in the candle light. They looked enormous. He drank mechanically. The wine helped a little. It made everything feel like a dream. The flickering light accentuated the crows feet around Antonina’s eyes. She was older than Felix, in addition to being far above his station.
“My father was a charioteer,” Antonina finally said, as if reading his thought. “My mother was an actress. How thrilled they would have been to see their daughter dining at the palace with a member of the imperial guards.”
“But you are a lady now and a friend of the empress.” What could that mean for him, Felix found himself wondering. The lover of a confidante of the empress could hardly remain a lowly excubitor, could he? And the husband of such a woman would certainly be a general.
“Theodora and I share humble backgrounds,” Antonina said. “Her father worked at the Hippodrome the same as mine did. He was a bear keeper.”
Felix lowered the goblet from his face. “And the empress was an actress, like your mother.” His words came out slurred. “The two of you must have a lot to talk about. When most court ladies were lying about being pampered, the two of you were working your way up.” Felix stared numbly into his goblet. He frowned. Had he actually said that?
Antonina laughed again. “I admire a man who says what’s on his mind. How tired I am of all the fops at court, lisping around in circles, in mortal fear they might utter a few words that actually mean something and thus might offend someone who must not be offended. You are not from the court, are you?”
“My forbears were German. I am a citizen of Rome.” He said thickly. “This is excellent wine, but very strong.”
Antonina shifted on her couch. He felt her fingers touch his shoulder, then her warm breath fell against his neck as she whispered in his ear. “Don’t worry, Felix. This wine is special. It will not prevent you from doing whatever I desire. Quite the contrary.”
What did she desire? This time, he had not spoken the thought aloud. Had he? As a young soldier he had lain with women in many places—on the thin mat of an Egyptian brothel, the mossy bank of a stream, the sand drifting against the weathered altar of a ruined temple. But to lie with a lady of the court, a personal friend of the empress, in the Hall of the Nineteen Couches….
“What is the matter?” Antonina asked softly. “”Why does your hand shake? Let me pour you some more of this fine wine.”
After what seemed like several nights had passed and the sun still hadn’t risen, John gave up on sleep. He pushed aside his cover and swung his feet over the edge of the thin mattress, making the bed frame squeak. A walk in the gardens would refresh him. He could sleep some other night.
The servants had laid out his clothes the previous evening. They would have dressed him in the mornings if he were to allow it. He pulled the dalmatic over his linen tunica. The over-garment was wool with dark blue trim at the sleeves and hem, slit at the sides for ease in walking. He despised the stiff, heavy, embroidered costumes required for formal events at the imperial court. He felt imprisoned in them, paralyzed, weighed down.
He fastened his belt, ensured his short blade was in its scabbard, and then put on his well worn calf-length boots. He reached for his long, woolen cloak, then decided a brisk pace would keep him warm enough.
Outside the cool air smelled of manure and straw. John could hear whickering from the horses stabled nearby. He went on into the gardens. An excubitor, on his rounds, nodded to him. A man who spoke in private with the emperor could go where he liked, unchallenged, at any time—and John’s unusually tall, lean figure was easily recognized by everyone.
He went along a mosaic pathway between shrubbery. He thought best while walking. The physical act seemed to propel him toward the solution to his problem.
Tonight he considered the murders he had been ordered to solve.
Who would have wanted the two imprisoned faction members dead? Someone who needed to insure that Justinian would not be able to placate the factions by making a display of pardoning them at the Hippodrome as he said he had planned to do.
Could that same person, or persons, have arranged for the Blue and the Green to survive their hangings, so that they could be killed afterwards, after the possibility of pardons had inflamed passions? Most of the city probably believed that the emperor had murdered the captives. They were more furious about that than they had been about the executions, which were, after all, commonplace.
Or was that too complicated?
The executioner Kosmas said the ropes had not been tampered with. Wasn’t it more likely that the botched executions were a chance occurrence, and that the murderer or murderers simply took advantage of the situation?
John emerged from the path into a clearing at the edge of one of the series of terraces which descended in steps toward the Marmara. He saw the lights of ships strewn like orange sparks across the black water.
Lost in his own thoughts, he hardly noted the scene. Who was the man who had arrived at the Church of Saint Laurentius to see the captives, bearing an imperial seal, he wondered.
Was it possible that Justinian himself wished to foment a crisis to enable him to crush opposition to his unpopular policies at a time of his own choosing rather than risk some unexpected attack in the future?
If so, what was John’s real role in investigating the matter?
He had risen to a lofty height but he was far more disposable than a high official—Narses, for example, who would be pleased to have him out of the way. He did not believe for an instant that the treasurer’s offer to assist him in his investigation was genuine. More likely he was hoping to find a way to implicate John in the trouble. He was best avoided.
A man shouted.
In the silent darkness of the gardens the sudden noise startled him.
More shouts followed.
John came out of his musings as if from a dream. He ran in the direction of the commotion, blade in hand.
A figure barreled around the edge of a mass of bushes and practically collided with him. An excubitor.
“What’s happening?” John demanded.
“A mad man’s loose on the grounds.”
As John sprinted around the bushes his foot caught on something. He sprawled forward. His knees hit paving stones. Looking down he saw he had tripped over a hand. The hand was attached to an arm which ended jaggedly below where the elbow should have been.
“I see you found the rest of him,” came a voice.
John climbed to his feet. The excubitor who had spoken leaned over and picked up the marble arm.
“Knocked the emperor’s left foot off too,” said the excubitor. “Fellow doesn’t like statuary, it seems. Been hacking away at statues all over the palace grounds. He’s bound to start after real people before long.”
John noted the group of guards gathered around a marble figure of Constantine which stood on a pedestal where two paths met.
“What does the culprit look like? Has anyone seen him?” John asked.
“A cook, out gathering herbs in the middle of the night—or so she claimed—said it was a monster, like a rampaging bear. I doubt that. Whatever she saw made her scream. That’s what alerted us.”
“I am sure you’ll apprehend the man soon enough. I won’t interfere with your work.”
John started to walk away and the excubitor shouted after him. “Excellency, do you think it’s wise to be here by yourself?”
John kept walking. When he judged he was shielded from sight by shrubbery he broke into a run.
His lungs burned with effort by the time he had reached the end of the walkway at the edge of grounds, in the shadow of the Hippodrome’s wall. He heard a dull clanking noise before he could see anything. Then he made out the bronze statue of Constantine he so often passed on his way home from meetings with the current emperor. When he saw the broad backed soldier swinging his sword at the bronze he thanked Mithra that no excubitors had arrived before him.
His friend spun around.
“What are you doing, Felix?”
The big man stared at John without comprehension. Then he looked down at his sword. “John? What…?”
“Why are you out here attacking statues?”
“What? I’m doing what?”
“Do you have a particular grudge against Constantine, my friend?”
“I…I don’t understand.”
Felix blinked and ran a hand through his beard. “Yes. Very drunk. That’s all I remember. Drinking too much. Until you called my name…I…I….”
“You’re lucky I happened to go out for a walk tonight,” John said. He saw that Felix’s gaze was unfocussed. “As soon as I heard about a monster like a bear rampaging through the gardens, I guessed it might be you. Let’s get back to the house. Hurry up. Before the excubitors find you.”
“Excubitors? Looking for me?”