January 10, 532
The condemned man narrowed his eyes against the January sun, a brilliant translucent disk suspended in the early morning mist.
He would have shielded his gaze but his hands were bound behind him. He could no longer feel his feet. They had become dead things during the short voyage across the Golden Horn to the place of execution. Sandals offered no protection from the cold radiating up through the bottom of the boat.
The Urban Prefect’s men had dragged him from his room just as he was finishing a plate of olives. They hadn’t even given him time to change into his boots. The boots were left by the bed. They would sit there for a long time, or until one of the servants thought they could be stolen with impunity.
When he was born the ancient mid-wife who fancied herself an oracle told his mother that her son would die in his boots.
Apparently she was mistaken.
He moved forward as slowly as the guards would allow. Perhaps he was still asleep at home suffering through a dream brought on by a tainted olive. The fog drifting off the nearby water lent a dream-like appearance to the surroundings.
The Prefect had ordered a scaffold to be hastily erected on a stretch of waste ground across the Golden Horn from the city. Workers had been hammering timbers together even as the condemned man was being found guilty in the Prefect’s private chambers.
Despite the hasty preparations, word of the executions had spread. From all around came the murmur of a restive crowd. Some were there to gawk, others to revel, still others to protest. The fog reduced them to shadowy ghosts moving through a distant underworld.
The prisoner paid no attention to the phantoms. He struggled to conceal the panic he felt.
His captors had taken away his bright green dalmatic decorated with roundels depicting horses and chariots, and dressed him an undyed tunic that hung straight from shoulders to knees, the clothing of the lowliest laborer.
Even so, they could not take away his dignity. They would have to content themselves with taking his life.
Broken chariots and other rubbish had been dumped along this stretch of foreshore. A bearded face peered up from between the broken spokes of a wheel. A marble hand lying nearby held a rein. The shattered statue of a once-revered driver consigned to oblivion, perhaps to make room in the Hippodrome for new heroes, or for yet another likeness of the charioteer Porphyrius. The thought of oblivion returned to nip at the condemned man’s consciousness for the hundredth time. A void opened up inside him, a sensation of falling. A bitter wind from the direction of the scaffold seemed to bring to his nostrils the faint reek of death. He was not alone this morning in dying.
And for what? For instigating a minor commotion to call attention to injustices being visited upon the population.
By what right did Justinian take the life of someone who only sought decency and fairness for his fellows? The emperor was nothing more than a man. Why should he live and others die at his whim? No, the emperor was not a man. He was a demon.
It was time to depose him.
The point of a spear prodded the young man in the back so hard he winced.
“Hurry up,” came a voice from behind. “You’ll be late for your appointment. My fingers are freezing. I don’t want to be shivering out here all morning.”
“Show some respect,” said the guard walking beside the young man. “We all have to make the final journey sooner or later.”
“Not with a rope around our necks we won’t,” grunted the other and blew on his hands noisily. The dim cloud from his breath drifted out in front of them in the cold air.
The prisoner had witnessed executions. He had always wondered about that instant before oblivion, when the noose snapped tight around the neck, before the head lolled lifelessly to the side.
During the night, in his cell at the Praetorium, he drew back to that final breath. What could it be like? To die, instantly? Or would it be so quickly done? No, even his most terrible imaginings could not encompass anything other than a quick death.
Do we know anything except by reflection? Even as we taste the wine, we are noting an experience already receding into the past. Would a hanged man recall crossing from life to death? What can such a passage be like? Would it be experienced and immediately forgotten? Or never experienced at all?
He had argued the question with himself and concluded he would never be aware of his ending. He would simply cease. And then a terrible horror blossomed in his chest.
He was going to die.
It was impossible. Yet inevitable.
Although he considered himself a good Christian, he did not pray. The words from the Gospels moved him profoundly when he heard them in the Great Church but he realized now that they had failed to instill in him any belief strong enough to call upon in his dark cell. He could not recall clearly the god of love. What came to mind were fiery pits, judgment, and eternal torments.
He decided to seek refuge in his own memories. But which? The thrill of his favorite team winning a chariot race seemed trivial, the pleasure of fine dishes served at a banquet a mockery. He thought of women he had known. One in particular. But what comfort was there in contemplating eternal separation? Instead, he settled on a recollection of himself as a child, playing with a small, carved, brightly painted horse, while seated in the sun beside the fountain in the garden of his father’s house under the watchful gaze of an old servant.
One of his escorts took hold of his arm. The condemned man realized with a shock they had reached the wooden steps leading up to the platform from which he would step into eternity. He placed his dead foot on the first of the steps.
As he mounted the stairs the noise from the spectators increased. The guards looked around nervously. Their hands tightened on their spears.
Then he finally stood in the place he had envisioned so many times in the hours after his sentencing. He had seen it all clearly, in the future. A few hours hence. A long time ahead. Not now. His heart leapt. His throat tightened. He couldn’t breathe. He struggled to force himself awake, to break through the black membrane of sleep.
He could not.
He was dimly aware another prisoner now stood beside him. He didn’t want to look, didn’t want to see the final preparations being made. It would be too much like looking into a mirror. He felt the platform tremble under heavy footsteps. Guards? The man who would carry out the Prefect’s orders?
No, he would not look. He directed his gaze away into the distance, avoided looking down into the square hole on whose edge he stood or up to the stout wooden timber crossing the empty space.
Hadn’t they been given enough time to even construct a trapdoor? Was it so urgent that he be deprived of life?
There was a monstrous roar of voices. The fog swirled away, revealing a sea of faces gaping upwards. A sparse line of guards edged backwards toward the scaffolds, pressed relentlessly by the assembly. Shouts and imprecations against the emperor filled the air.
He heard a thump and looking down saw the noose lying on the planks at his feet where the executioner had dropped it. Someone cursed the executioner’s clumsiness. The crowd jeered.
Then he felt the rope go over his head. It was heavier than he had expected. It rasped his neck as it was pulled into place.
He looked across the Golden Horn. Mist ascending from the black water entwined the hills of the narrow promontory upon which Constantinople sat, shrouding its forums and streets in a luminous cloud. Here and there the top of a building emerged. In many places crosses made of wood and stone jutted into view, simple and elaborate, erected on churches and residences.
A vision of heaven, or of the site of numerous crucifixions. He felt the executioner’s warm breath, stinking of garlic and cheap wine, on his cheek as he leaned forward to adjust the rope with shaking hands.
The spectators surged forward. It seemed almost that they might overwhelm the guards and carry the condemned to safety. The Prefect’s men managed to establish a cordon at the very base of the scaffolds.
“Hurry up!” one of the guards yelled. “What’s taking so long?” I am still alive, the young man told himself. There is still time. Death has not arrived. Not yet. Something glinted above the mists across the water. He recognized the statue of Constantine atop its high column. The emperor, crowned with a halo of seven
rays, gazed toward the rising sun.
A hand hit him between his shoulder blades. He stumbled forward, toward the hole, unable to balance himself. He could see the ground below. The abyss opened.
Then he was lying on his back.
He blinked. Confused, paralyzed. Why could he not move his hands?
He remembered nothing. Where was he? In his bed?
No. On the ground. It was cold. There was a fiery pain in his side. He could not cry out. Something was wrapped round his throat.
Now he remembered.
He lay there looking up, past the dangling rope, at a square of lightening sky where a gull circled.
He was engulfed in a deafening rush of voices.
“Still alive,” he heard someone say. “We’ll have to do it again.”
“The prisoners have escaped, excellency. My men are searching for them.”
The lamp light trembling in the corners of the vestibule of the Church of Saint Laurentius made the speaker look old, accentuating his white hair and deepening the shadows in the furrows in his long, doleful face. He still held the parchments John had presented. One identified John as an imperial official. The other was a direct order from the emperor. An order that had become impossible for him to carry out. Sebastian’s finger nervously traced and retraced the embossed lead of the imperial seal that had secured a cord around the parchments.
“As you can plainly see, I was sent here to take custody of the prisoners on behalf of the emperor,” John said. “The guards here were supposed to assist me in returning them to the palace. But you tell me the two men are gone! You are…?”
“Sebastian. Commander of this detachment of the urban watch, excellency. I am under orders from the Urban Prefect Eudaemon.”
“And I am a member of Justinian’s privy council. From your stare I see you are doubtful. You are welcome to argue the point with my superior, Narses, provided the imperial treasurer will speak with you. How did two half-dead men manage to escape from your custody? The emperor will doubtless also wish to interview you about it.”
The tall, slender man in the long, dark blue cloak towered over the stooped commander who looked up with a horrified expression. It was no secret that interviews with Justinian could end in painful visits to certain cramped rooms beneath the Great Palace, well equipped with arcane devices and sharp-edged instruments. “I cannot say how it was accomplished. Certainly the prisoners were far from dead…they may have come close to death on the gallows…but to have raced off like they did. The young fellow with the imperial seal said the two were wanted at the palace immediately and my men were to escort them.”
“Yes, excellency. I looked at it closely. It was genuine. It was the same as this one.” He nodded at the oval of stamped lead in his shaking hand. “That’s why I’m confused. It isn’t often one receives imperial orders and rarely twice in the same evening.” His voice trailed off. He didn’t have to add that it was even less often that such orders turned out to be conflicting.
“A young fellow, you say?” “Even younger than you.” “Did anyone see them escape?” “No, excellency, I—
“Then how do you know they raced off?”
“They must have, to have got away, to have eluded my guards… so far. If they had still been in the vicinity of the church—”
“Is there any indication which direction they went?”
Sebastian shook his head. “I sent the young man down the stairs and remained here at my post. Someone raised the alarm when the guards discovered the vault was empty. I sent them out immediately in pursuit.”
“This was when?”
“Not long ago. I’m not certain. Events have been happening so fast….”
John studied his surroundings. Even at this late hour worshipers streamed in and out of the church. Perhaps they had all come to pray to Saint Laurentius for safety from the unrest breaking out across the capital. As a Mithran, John found it strange how Christians despised those who refused to worship the one true god, while constantly imploring the aid of their own lesser deities which they termed saints.
“I will need to speak to your guards when they return, Sebastian. Let us hope they bring those prisoners back with them. Wait here.”
John pushed open the heavy church door and went out into the dark street. He needed to organize his thoughts.
The odor of burning hung heavily on the air. The church sat halfway up the side of one of Constantinople’s seven hills. Smoke coiled upwards from the foot of the slope where darting tongues of flame illuminated an irregular pile of ruins. Figures moved about, attempting to extinguish the remains of the blaze.
Two prisoners whom the emperor needed very badly were now at large in the troubled city. One was a Blue, the other a Green, members of the two main factions who supported the opposing chariot teams at the races in the Hippodrome. The factions loved mayhem as much as racing. Bound together by nothing more than the color of their charioteers’ tunics, they ran in packs like wild dogs, fighting, robbing, and killing for the sheer joy of it.
They hated each other and frequently turned whole streets into battlefields because a charioteer’s whip had strayed to his opponent’s horses during a race or a supporter of the wrong team had joked about the poor embroidery in a colleague’s cloak. But their anger was readily turned on any target that caught their attention—magistrates, Jews, Isaurians.
At present their target was the emperor.
Certain unspecified injustices perpetrated by Justinian had been the excuse for a public disturbance. Several of the participants were ordered executed but two survived their hangings, were rescued, and brought to the Church of Saint Laurentius.
Justinian wanted those two men. That they were beyond his reach would be a vexation to the emperor and even more of a problem for John, his chamberlain.
John took a deep breath of the cold air.
How long could he afford to wait for Sebastian’s guards to return?
He remembered something. He walked a few paces to a stairway leading up an alley alongside the church. Streets with stairs were not uncommon given the city’s terrain.
A beggar huddled in the dark at the foot of the stairs, barely visible.
John smelled his presence before he could see him, the sort of odor that emananted from the cages in the menagerie Empress Theodora kept on the place grounds.
“You were sitting here when I arrived,” John addressed the man. “Did you see anyone running away before that?”
The beggar lifted a bristly face. His eyes were faint patches of fog.
“I am blind, good sir.” “Your name?” “Maxentius, good sir.” “Is this your usual place?”
“On cold nights the good priest allows me to sleep inside the church, but tonight my way was barred by guards. They’d as soon see a poor creature freeze to death as let him inside. I live on charity…” A hopeful note entered his quavering voice. “Charity, yes. Those who attend this church are always generous. Perhaps….”
John ignored his entreaty. “Despite your lack of sight, can you observe much?”
“Indeed, I am aware of all the comings and goings from the church, which is why I sit here. Also, I am safe from those fools who dash about knocking down innocent passersby in their hurry to get to the wine shop or brothel. It is a good place to ask for charity, being so near the church. Charity, good sir, is all too often overlooked by busy citizens and—”
“Have there been any Blues or Greens around tonight? A group of them, perhaps? Or just one or two?”
“None, thank the Lord. When the factions roam the streets nobody’s safe! When they come out to play and start wielding their blades, I go into the church. So far at least.” Maxentius raised his head slightly, as if listening. “I hope the guards have left the church before those ruffians arrive here again.”
“You are able to identify faction members?”
“Usually. Always when they are in groups, because of the way they talk. Both their manner and their words.”
“I will instruct Sebastian you are to be allowed inside if the Blues and Greens turn up.”
“You are interested in the Blues and the Greens, good sir? Have they wronged you? As they wronged me? If not for them I would not be sitting here in the cold begging.”
“Is that so?”
“I swear to it. I worked as a lamplighter in the Great Church. I came across some of those ruffians carving blasphemies into a wall. They grabbed the burning lamp I carried and threw the oil into my face. And that is why I am reduced to depending on the charity of good people like yourself.”
John had not noticed any sign that the man had ever been burned, but the shadows on the stairs were so deep he could hardly make out the bristly face. He handed Maxentius a coin. “I realize you couldn’t have seen anything,” he said, cutting off the beggar’s profuse thanks. “But did you hear anyone run by within the past hour or so?”
“Yes, good sir. I heard the church doors burst open and people raced out, heading in every direction, screaming and shouting.”
That must have been after the alarm was raised and the search for the missing men began, John thought. “Did you hear anyone running earlier?”
“Many people passed by. None were running.”
Sebastian had insisted the prisoners had raced away, but since no one had seen them go that was only supposition. They might have left stealthily, but how could you ask a blind man whether anyone had crept by him quietly?
“Did you hear anything unusual?” John asked. “Some military men went by.”
“Military men? What made you think that?” “The sound. Heavy boots on the cobbles.” “Anyone can wear heavy boots.”
“The noise a soldier’s boots make is unmistakable. And there’s the creak of the leather armor, the rattle of swords in scabbards. Even the smell of them.” Maxentius paused. He wrinkled his forehead and his eyelids closed briefly over his foggy eyes. “Ah. How can I describe it to a man fortunate to be sighted? I’m sure they were military men of some sort. When I heard them coming I scrambled into that doorway over there and hid. Just as well because they went up these stairs.”
“And you say they weren’t running?” “No, excellency.”
“Why did you think them unusual?”
“Because they were grunting and cursing. ‘Hold on,’ they were saying. ‘Careful. I’ve got it.’ They must have been carrying something heavy.”
Or two things, John thought. He was not hearing a description of two prisoners who had been freed and fled but rather of men who had been carted away. The stairs were steep and narrow enough that it would have been awkward carrying two bodies up them. Corpses were more difficult to handle than sacks of wheat.
“How many of these men were there?” “At least two.”
“At least? You think perhaps there were more?” “Yes, sir. There could have been three. Or four.”
Enough to carry two murdered men, John thought to himself. “Where do the stairs go?” he asked.
“To the cistern.”
John muttered a curse. “Mithra!”
# # #
John ran up the steeply ascending, staired alley, guiding himself with one hand on the brick walls of the buildings on his left.
The darkness of the alley rendered him nearly as blind as the beggar he had left. Here and there an ill-fitting shutter high up in a wall revealed a thin orange line that did nothing to light the Stygian gloom.
He was ready to draw his blade instantly if necessary. And it might well be needed. There were still roving bands of the factions to be met, particularly in darker reaches of the city such as this, and increasingly in public squares. As the marauders grew bolder there were more reports of them breaking into houses. In this quarter the residents had long since barred their splintered doors and closed the shutters of the mean houses leaning toward each other over the narrow byways, as if in confidential conversation.
John was breathing hard by the time he reached the top of the incline. The long, heavy wool cloak he had worn over his usual light dalmatic for the chilly journey from the Great Palace to the Church of Saint Laurentius impeded his running. He cut across a packed dirt area, went past a tethered donkey, ducked under an archway, crossed a squalid courtyard, and stepped into a wider thoroughfare lit by a burning cart. Moving through the open area beyond, he became acutely aware of the immense starry dome that suddenly opened overhead. Glowing flecks of ash drifted into the sky.
Abruptly he stopped. The empty space he had been about to traverse was in fact a black sheet of water. He could see reflections of firelight in the surface.
John forced himself to approach the edge of the cistern. He did not like deep water. A long time ago, he had seen a military colleague drown.
The water might have been polished black marble, reminding him of the floor of a palace reception hall. It beckoned him to step forward and test its illusionary surface. John’s lips tightened. He consciously slowed his rapid breathing, only the result of running, he told himself.
He scanned the surface of the cistern.
Something floated near the edge. He walked carefully along the verge until he could make out a lumpy half-submerged shape, then knelt down.
The water’s surface was less than an arm’s length below ground level. He lay down and reached forward tentatively. The floating object remained beyond his reach. Bubbles began to escape from beneath it. Whatever the object was, it sank deeper.
Gritting his teeth, John pushed the upper half of his body over the water. The black surface tilted up toward him as he stretched his arm out again. The tips of his fingers brushed cloth. He strained until his shoulder felt on fire. He tried to wriggle further forward, began to overbalance, and stopped.
More bubbles gurgled up and the object begin to vanish into blackness.
With a quick prayer to Mithra John grasped the edge of the cistern with one hand and let himself drop.
The water was freezing. He gasped and fought back panic. Too late. The floating shape was gone.
John plunged a hand into the water at the place he had last seen it. His fingers touched and tightened around what felt like a thick, slippery cord.
He pulled himself clumsily out of the cistern with one hand, keeping his other gripped around the cord. He managed to get to his knees and tugged. Whatever the cord was attached to must have been heavy, judging from the resistance.
He put his other hand on the cord as well and saw that he held a long braid of hair, the Hunnish style adopted by many of the Blue faction.
The body finally bobbed to the surface. As John hauled it up onto the ground a brick fell out of its garments and hit the water with a splash.
John turned away. He stayed on his knees, shaking and dizzy. He had managed to keep himself from thinking as he plunged into the cistern, concentrating only on his duty. Now he could feel the black water clutching at him.
After what seemed a long time he composed himself enough to examine the corpse. The dead man’s neck showed marks of strangulation and one wrist still had a loop of rope around it. At least he had not drowned. To John that seemed like a mercy.
The dead man was obviously one of the two prisoners. And since he was the Blue, then the other, a Green supporter, was still in the cistern.
John surveyed the rippling water and shuddered. Perhaps the Green had been weighted more carefully. He must be lying on the bottom, staring up into the dark.
Someone else would have to drag him out.