Four for a Boy: A John the Lord Chamberlain Mystery #4

Four for a Boy: A John the Lord Chamberlain Mystery #4

Nominee, Bruce Alexander History Mystery Award Best Little Known Series, Booklist It's unnaturally cold in Constantinople this winter of 525. The Emperor Justin is dying, and Theodora, the ambitious former ...

About The Author

Mary Reed and Eric Mayer

The husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer published several short stories about John, Lord Chamberlain to ...

Read an Excerpt


June 540 A.D.
Sweet perfume wafted briefly from drifts of rose petals strewn on the marble floor of the Great Church as a procession paced majestically into the sacred building.

The lengthy contingent of court dignitaries and guards passed through a wide doorway constructed of wood the faithful believed to be from Noah’s Ark, and came to a halt in front of the Patriarch and a flock of lesser clergy waiting to greet them.

Following a few paces behind the emperor and empress, John glanced rapidly around. Hundreds of lamps filled the vast space with lambent illumination. His gaze skimmed over the huge church’s countless columns of green, pink, and white marble topped with lacy carvings and adorned with imperial monograms, the silver, gold, and glittering gems decorating the altar and sacred vessels, and the equally colorful ranks of courtiers dressed in their finest silks and embroidered robes.

It was difficult to believe that this soaring edifice had been completed less than a handful of years before, replacing the former Great Church destroyed by rioting mobs. This glorious, light-filled building seemed more a creation of angels than men.

From above came a faint fluttering of wings. A nesting bird disturbed by the commotion. Or perhaps, John thought wryly as a dove feather drifted down like a lazy snowflake, the Holy Spirit had decided to attend the ceremony.

John had organized the route from the palace and ensured that all participants were in their proper places. Now that the imperial couple and their entourage had entered the Great Church, his task was done for the present. As he took his place among the official observers, he noted the contingent of Ostrogoths standing a few paces from the altar. What did they think about this service of thanksgiving for the fall of Ravenna, a great triumph in Justinian’s war to regain Italy from their countrymen?

The Patriarch stepped forward to greet the procession with formal and flowery phrases. Emperor Justinian regarded him with a slight smirk while Empress Theodora maintained a neutral expression, her eyes dark as the black veins in the marble floor. John glanced down at the petals. He no longer contemplated the political or religious significance of the ceremony. Nor was he recalling the lost glory of the empire Justinian sought to reclaim.

Instead, he remembered a woman.

Had it been fifteen years since he had tutored her? It seemed much longer than that. Then he had been an insignificant palace slave. Now he was commonly referred to as John the Eunuch, or more formally as Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian. He shifted his feet slightly. Fragrance wafted upward like a wraith from the roses crushed beneath his boots.

Roses always reminded him of Lady Anna.


Chapter One

January 525 A.D.

The swaggering and elegant young thugs who styled themselves the Blues had terrorized Constantinople for months. They had driven their rivals, the Greens, from the streets. Now their target was the populace.

As John escorted Lady Anna along the Mese he kept watch for possible ambush. The well honed alertness of the mercenary he had been in another life had never deserted him. So far, however, the colonnaded thoroughfare that ran from the heart of Constantinople to its defensive walls had revealed no dangers.

The shops crowded along both sides of the wide street boasted only a handful of customers that morning. The purveyors of pottery and glass, cloths both fine and inexpensive, spices, olives, and cooking  oils,  peered  out  disconsolately from their emporiums. The smells of their wares were as enticing as ever, John thought. It was hard to say whether the sparse number of pedestrians was due to the civil unrest or the wintry weather.

Two ill dressed boys, breath steaming in the cold, raced recklessly across the Mese.

“Take care, Lady Anna,” John murmured. He stepped nimbly into the path of the urchins, deflect- ing their careening course away from his companion. The boys shouldered him insolently as they went by and ran into an alley. There they paused only long enough to taunt a beggar huddled in a doorway. The unfortunate man clutched closer to his chest the largesse of the state. To the usual loaf of bread the authorities had added a small lump of meat. It was another reason for those dependent on the emperor’s generosity to refrain from rioting against their benefactor.

Lady Anna noticed the ragged man crouched in his makeshift shelter and turned her head away. Her shoulders trembled beneath the thick yellow woolen cloak hanging from her angular form. Perhaps, John thought, it was nothing more than a reaction to the frigid wind. There was enough tragedy on public display every day in Constantinople to make even the kindest hearts weary of grieving.

Shouted curses pulled John’s attention from the beggar to a gang of workmen laboring to repair a broken column on a colonnade just down the street. The chill lying on the still air served to amplify sounds even as it suppressed the familiar marshy tang of the sea, a smell now overlaid with the sharply acrid scent of smoke from a thousand braziers heating the city’s shops and dwellings. Cold seeped through the leather soles of John’s boots. “To the Great Church, lady?” he inquired quietly of his companion.

Lady Anna looked up at him, her plain, thin-lipped face animated by a lively look of interest. Though she was unbecomingly tall for a woman, her lean escort was much taller.

“Yes, indeed. Everyone tells me the new installation there is a wonder, but I intend to judge for myself before the Patriarch is convinced that it should be removed as blasphemous. Or these rampaging mobs father keeps warning me about set the church on fire.” They had come to the Augustaion. Anna inclined her head toward a stolid, brick basilica across the nearly deserted square.

“As you order.” John glanced keenly around again. Snow had floured the city overnight. Dark imprints left by booted human feet formed purposeful paths over the faint, meandering trails of foraging seagulls. A few of the large birds squawked noisily and took to the sky as John and Anna intruded on their search for food.

As the couple stepped briskly forward, John remembered crossing frozen fields in Bretania, tilting his head toward their bordering forest, heart racing, listening for the stealthy hiss of steel drawn from scabbards. There was danger in Constantinople too, but of a different sort. The enemies here were alien to John. Not military men. Not Persians or Picts, but fashionably dressed young men, racing fans, more familiar with chariot tactics on the Hippodrome track than battlefield formations. The blades they wielded were as sharp as any Persian weapon, and the factions were ready to defend the honor of their favorite racing teams with all the ferocity of warriors defending a border. Or to turn their ferocity on the innocent.

Suddenly one of the few other figures visible, a man shrouded in a black cloak, changed direction and walked purposefully toward them.

John’s hand fastened on the hilt of his blade, but as the man drew nearer realized he was not a Blue. His gold-trimmed, heavily embroidered cloak was certainly ostentatious enough to please any member of that faction, but he did not sport voluminous sleeves or their Hunnic hairstyle, shaved in front and long in the back.

The man was short but solidly built with a smooth, square jaw and close-cropped black hair. He was also, it turned out, known to Anna.

“Trenico!” she said. “What a surprise! You’ve been to see the notorious statue, I wager!”

The man stopped an arm’s length from John.  He contrived to look through him in an insultingly obvious fashion and gave Lady Anna a stiff bow.

“Anna! I thought it was you. Yes, you deduce correctly. I decided to take a stroll to blow the cobwebs away. This is certainly the right weather for that! And what do you think of this? I was just standing outside the Great Church talking to a couple of senators, good friends of mine, and I saw the most amazing thing. There was a commotion around the corner and the several of the Gourd’s men went racing past, with swords drawn no less. I wonder what that was all about?”

Lady Anna said she was not surprised. “We’re living in an armed encampment these days. We should count ourselves fortunate if we are merely robbed and not murdered for daring to venture out.” Her lips curved briefly into an ironic smile.

“As you say. An armed encampment,” Trenico agreed. “Even the Greens are afraid to be out on the streets.”

“So the Blues have spared us from the depredations of the Greens, at least,” Anna observed.

“The cold hasn’t frozen your wit! Let’s hope the emperor regains his senses and orders some chariot races before long. Then these miserable factions can get back to insulting each other from opposite ends of the Hippodrome and leave the rest of us in peace.”

John had occasionally glimpsed Trenico at Lady Anna’s home. The man seemed intent on ingratiating himself with her father, Senator Opimius. That was one path to advancement for a soft fop of a courtier who probably knew nothing about armed encampments.

“You can see I’m well protected.” Lady Anna gestured at John.

“Well protected? By whom?” For the first time Trenico acknowledged John’s presence. “Oh yes, him. But surely this is only the slave your father borrowed from the Keeper of the Plate’s office to tutor you? A eunuch, is it not? How can a eunuch tutor protect you from a street gang? Frighten them away by reciting epic verses?”

John struggled to maintain a blank expression. He succeeded, barely. Luckily Trenico did not glance down at John’s hand, tightened around the hilt of his dagger until his knuckles were pale. It would be sweet to sink the blade into that jeering fool. He forced himself to look away from Trenico and glance around the Augustaion again. His dark eyes were furious.

It would also be folly indeed to spill aristocratic blood, John’s practical side reminded him. He did not consider himself as truly a slave, and would never accept his slavery. Unfortunately, the world saw things differently.

“You don’t seem worried about running into any danger in the streets, Trenico,” Anna was saying. “Aren’t you tempting thieves going about in such finery?”

Trenico’s broad shoulders went back. To John he resembled a dove puffing its feathered breast. “Even those murdering Blues won’t force me to creep around the city sporting a brass belt buckle. I’d rather die defending my best silver buckle, or the gold one for that matter.”

“I would think your life would be worth more than a silver buckle.”

Trenico shrugged off her comment. “Don’t fret, Anna, I can defend myself. But I fear I must be on my way now. I have an audience at the Hormisdas Palace with Theodora. This is absolutely confidential, you understand.”

John glared at Trenico’s receding back. A smoky haze was settling, suffusing the city with a gray twilight. In the eerie light the massed buildings, a jumble of tenements crowding up to churches, mansions protected by stout doors, looming warehouses, elegant colonnaded baths, all of them sporting roofs bristling with crosses, appeared to John as nothing more than a fanciful fresco on the wall of an eccentric’s villa.

It had been only a handful of years since he had been brought here to labor in metaphorical chains. There were still days when Constantinople and his life within the Great Palace seemed unreal. Perhaps that notion had helped him to endure the unendurable.

“I wonder what all that fuss Trenico mentioned was about?” Anna mused as they continued on toward the Great Church. “The City Prefect always has armed men running around. It’s mostly done to impress citizens, or at least that’s what father says.”

“That could well be so.”

They ascended the steps to the church. When they reached the shelter of its wide, columned portico John almost—unforgivably—relaxed his vigilance. He heard the muffled pounding of approaching footsteps and for a heartbeat imagined they signaled the reappearance of the rambunctious street urchins.

Then two Blues careened out of the building and down the stairs. With a swift sweep of his arm, John pushed Lady Anna into a corner of the portico and placed himself between her and the church door.

Just in time before a third Blue burst out.

This one raised his weapon to strike, saw the blade waiting in John’s hand, and instead bolted off toward the Mese.

John registered a fleeting impression. An enormous man with the shoulders of a brick carrier and a squashed and crooked nose. Then two of the Prefect’s men rushed out. They halted at the top of the steps, labored breath hanging on the air, as they stared out over the open space before them.

Behind them, in the church, the screaming began.

“The bastards have split up,” growled one of the men.

“Where’s Septimius?” asked his companion.

“He’s trying to stop the doorkeeper’s bleeding. One of them slashed the old man on their way out. A clever diversion. They’re not all stupid, the Blues.”

“What about Hypatius?”

John noticed Lady Anna pale at the mention of the name.

“He’s beyond tending,” came the reply. “Look, I’ll follow the short fellow. See if you can catch the one who ran toward the hospice. Once he’s gone through there into the alleys we’ve lost him. Let the giant go. Someone his size won’t be able to hide for long.”

John looked across the square. The quarry had already disappeared from sight even as the men finally lumbered off in pursuit. They would be fortunate to catch the fleeing miscreants. He suspected they didn’t particularly want to corner them. He turned toward Anna. “Forgive my impertinence in touching you.” He broke off, seeing her expression. Her face looked whiter than the freshest snow shrouding the city.

“Hypatius,” she whispered. “Surely not the same Hypatius….”

She spun around and entered the church. John followed.

Just inside the vestibule a man bent over a prone figure, no doubt the wounded doorkeeper. Wor- shippers milled about in panic. The screaming had stopped, but several women sobbed and a short man with gray hair shook his fist at no one in particular. “I saw it with my own eyes!” he shouted. “Murder even while the Lord looks on!”

John pushed his way through the crowd, clearing a path for Lady Anna as they advanced toward the life-sized marble sculpture standing on a shoulder-high pedestal in the center of the vestibule. It  was  an  image of  the  meek god  the Christians worshipped, a condemned man as helpless as any slave, hanging from a cross. Wisps of coiling lamp smoke imparted a hint of animation to the dying man’s chiseled features, but the groan of anguish was Anna’s.

She had knelt beside a crumpled shape lying like a carelessly discarded robe at the foot of the pedestal on which the instrument of execution was displayed. Lamplight glinted on a dark, glassy pool spreading from the motionless form.

“It is Hypatius. My father’s friend. They will never discuss philosophy or share wine again.”

# # #

Felix flinched as Emperor Justin’s spidery hand unexpectedly dropped onto his shoulder. At first the young German excubitor feared that some loathsome creature had fallen on him from the low roof of the bridge between the church and the Great Palace. When he jerked his helmeted head around and saw instead Justin’s veined and palsied hand, his heart jumped. Most of the empire’s inhabitants would meet their god without even setting eyes on their emperor. His fleshly touch was profoundly unsettling.

Justin staggered forward a step before steadying himself. Felix felt the man’s weight on his shoulder, the ponderous, unexpected weight of the battlefield dead. Then the quaestor Proclus, accompanying Justin as usual, swiftly took charge.

“Caesar, this should have been swept clean before your walk. Someone is certainly going to pay for that slippery spot.” His voice was calm and firm.

Felix glanced down at the strip of purple carpeting pointing an imperial finger along the bridge. Snow  had  drifted in  between the  marble pillars supporting the roof and melted in the warmth radiated by lamps set in niches along the chest-high wall. To think that such a commonplace occurrence might have caused the emperor, a man with absolute power over all his subjects, to fall like a common drunkard swaying out of an inn!

Proclus glared at the attendants stationed on either side of Justin. They were big muscular fellows, costumed like courtiers. Their embroidered robes brushed the emperor’s heavy cloak. From a distance they appeared to be leaning toward Justin, engaged in some privileged conversation. In the confusion of rich fabrics it was not immediately evident that they were firmly gripping the old man’s arms. Or rather were gripping them again, thanks to Proclus’ silent reprimand. Even so, they continued to look down over the low wall toward the commotion that had distracted them.

“What is it?” asked Justin. “What’s going on? You’re blocking my view.” His voice was querulous. “Three Blues just ran out of the Great Church,” replied Proclus. “Up to no good as usual, I suspect.” Justin’s advisor had the look of a patrician. The broad, pale brow revealed by his receding hairline appeared waiting for a laurel wreath. Felix would have mistaken him for the emperor, had he not known better.

Justin, by contrast, appeared in old age the peasant he had been. Once a large and impressive man, he was now merely big, stooped and thick necked. His prominent nose had flattened and spread across his red, chafed face. “Why aren’t all these troublemakers under control, Proclus? Isn’t the Gourd doing his job?”

“Yes, he is. Some of his men are already in pursuit,” Proclus offered after a swift glance.

The emperor scowled. “It’s only Blues? Nothing worse?”

“Simply a bit of unrest in the street,” Proclus reassured him. “But perhaps it might be wiser to visit the church another time? May I suggest we go to our meeting with Justinian instead?”

“My nephew is not so unwell this morning?” “So I am informed.”

Justin laughed. “Even so, doubtless Theodora will be speaking for him as usual.”

The attendant next to Felix glanced over at him, raised his eyebrows, and grimaced. Felix ignored him. He had only recently been appointed to the imperial bodyguard, a position of great honor and responsibility. It was not for him to sit in judgment of an emperor, especially one who had risen from the ranks of the military.

“But it is only those troublesome young men, you say? Nothing more?” Justin fretted.

“Nothing more, Caesar.” Proclus turned to go back the way they had come.

“Very well. I’m afraid that Euphemia will be sorely disappointed. I promised I would describe this remarkable figure of Christ to her in the most minute detail since she is not well enough to see it herself right now.”

Proclus gave no order, but the entourage of guards and attendants turned so that Felix found himself looking at Justin’s bent back. He could still feel the weight of the emperor’s hand on his shoulder. No, it was not for him to judge his  ruler.

Yet he could not help wondering about Justin’s words. Empress Euphemia had been dead for months.

Reviews of

Four for a Boy: A John the Lord Chamberlain Mystery #4

“The authors aren’t professional historians, but their historical mysteries are sharper, more realistic, and certainly more enjoyable than many written by professionals…This installment of the series is as devilishly convoluted as its predecessors, and fans will relish the extra thrill of seeing how John was launched on the career that eventually finds him working as Justinian’s Lord Chamberlain. At some point, every great series needs an “origin story,” and this one’s a real corker.”

Booklist starred review

“Written with humor and pathos, this superior historical is sure to please existing fans and send new ones in search of the rest of the series.”

Publishers Weekly starred review