Nine for the Devil: A John, the Lord Chamberlain Mystery #9

Nine for the Devil: A John, the Lord Chamberlain Mystery #9

The year is 548 and Empress Theodora is dead, the victim of cancer. Or so everyone in Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire, believes. Everyone except Emperor Justinian who orders ...

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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 ...

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Prologue

June 548

During the heat wave smothering Constantinople, blades were drawn and blood spilt debating the portent of a series of strange events.

The latest event to exercise the imagination of the sweltering populace was a lightning bolt to the statue of Emperor Arkadios during the same fierce storm that killed three people in their sleep. Loungers at the inn nestled near to the Great Palace between the Hippodrome and the Baths of Zeuxippos, displayed a lively range of opinion, though no inclination to resort to sharp steel to reinforce their arguments.During the heat wave smothering Constantinople, blades were drawn and blood spilt debating the portent of a series of strange events.

So far.

“I told my wife lightning strikes inevitably mean disaster,” observed a stout patron.

“Disaster for anyone struck,” interjected a young fellow seated near the door.

The patron studied the blurry reflection in his wine cup as if it might contain a revelation beyond the fact he had a double chin. “What about the beggar in the Copper Quarter who saw two eagles fighting above the Great Church? And a friend of a friend of mine who works on the docks swears he saw a two-headed snake boarding a ship bound for Italy. These are not things to be spoken of lightly.”

“I hear the wife of a high court official gave birth to a monster,” said the man seated beside the speaker.

The bald proprietor, cleaning cups with a wine-stained cloth, observed that speaking of monsters, the state of Theodora’s health was of great concern. “They say she has bishops praying night and day for her. We all should pray. Imperial deaths mean change, and change means trouble.”

“Quite a few will be happy to pray for her to depart and to do it soon,” said the man sitting near the door. “What worries me is how will Justinian react if she dies?”

The proprietor set down a cup with a loud bang, picked  up another, and ran the dirty cloth around the inside. “There will be changes all right. I wouldn’t be surprised if the emperor brought back that exiled tax collector. I hope not. His methods were as persuasive as those employed by palace torturers. I can hardly pay my taxes as it is.”

“The Cappadocian? He’s safely in Egypt. And if I was him I’d stay there.” The stout imbiber took a sip of wine and tugged absently at the folded flesh under his chin. “But there are those at court who will benefit and others who will suffer. You know how Theodora meddles, how she favors her own family.”

“Look on the bright side,” said his companion. “If she departs, her heretical views might leave the empire along with her. Maybe Justinian will start to bring the heretics into line instead of trying to appease them.”

“Let’s not discuss religion,” said the proprietor. “No matter how many natures we might think Christ possesses, we all worship Bacchus here.”

The cup he was wiping slipped from his hand and shattered on the tiled floor.

“Another omen,” remarked the stout patron. He started to say more but was interrupted by shouting in the street. Every head swiveled toward the door as a dust-covered man rushed in, scarlet-faced with excitement.

“She’s dead! The whore is dead! The Lord be praised!”

Chapter One

Theodora may have been dead to those at the Great Palace and to the patrons of the inn within sight of the palace’s bronze gates, but in the empire beyond she still lived. Soldiers camped on the Persian border traded coarse jokes about the former actress, thinking they insulted a living woman. General Belisarius, beaten back by the Goths in Italy, could continue to hope for a few days longer that the empress might sway Justinian to send reinforcements. In Alexandria a monophysite clergyman penned a homily on Theodora’s piety, unaware that she had already joined his heretical saints.
Now released into the city, word of her death flowed like a swiftly lengthening shadow along Constantinople’s thorough- fares. It reached into taverns and baths, tenements and churches, bringing jubilation, satisfaction, and even sorrow. Borne by worshipers, the shadow fell across the encomium to her charitable works chiseled into the white marble entablature of the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, and on the lips of a garrulous ferryman it passed over the whitened bones of her enemies scattered against the sea walls beneath the waters of the Marmara. By nightfall Theodora would be dead to all who dwelt within the area bound by the capital’s land walls. Weeks would pass before she died at the furthest outposts of the empire, from the Danube in the north and Egypt in the south, from Lazica east of the Black Sea to the westernmost part of the African Prefecture. She would go on living for several extra days in Syria, thanks to John the Cappadocian, the former official she so hated. News traveled slowly there because the Cappadocian had substituted plodding mules for horses as a money-saving measure.Theodora may have been dead to those at the Great Palace and to the patrons of the inn within sight of the palace’s bronze gates, but in the empire beyond she still lived. Soldiers camped on the Persian border traded coarse jokes about the former actress, thinking they insulted a living woman. General Belisarius, beaten back by the Goths in Italy, could continue to hope for a few days longer that the empress might sway Justinian to send reinforcements. In Alexandria a monophysite clergyman penned a homily on Theodora’s piety, unaware that she had already joined his heretical saints.

Another John the late empress had hated, the Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, turned away from the newly widowed ruler as the brief meeting of the imperial council ended.

John the Eunuch, as many called him but never to his face, was in his early fifties, a tall, lean Greek, clean-shaven, with high, sharp cheekbones and sun-darkened skin. Age had not grayed his closely cropped black hair. He wore deep blue robes made of the finest cloth, adorned only by a narrow gold stripe along the hem. Dressed less elegantly, he could have passed for the mercenary he had been as a young man or as a desert-dwelling hermit.

“John, please remain.” The emperor spoke softly. His bland round and slightly puffy face looked too calm to belong to a man standing beside the body of his newly deceased wife.

The members of the imperial council who had been available at short notice filed out of the cramped sickroom as quickly as dignity allowed—the Praetorian Prefect of the East, the Master of Offices who headed the palace administration, the emperor’s legal advisor the Quaestor, and the imperial treasurer. Their hasty departure whorled the haze of lamp smoke, incense, and perfume.

John watched their escape, then fixed his gaze on Justinian. As a count of the consistory John had no specific duties. His work depended on the emperor’s whim.

“Excellency,” John said. “My condolences.” “Offer a prayer for her soul, John.”

This was an order John could not carry out because he worshiped Mithra in secret rather than the god of the Christians. He inclined his head in a vague gesture he hoped would be taken for assent, then looked on uncomfortably as Justinian paced to the foot of the bed and tugged its sheets straighter.

The emperor refused to leave Theodora’s side. Did he truly grasp that she was dead?

John realized that now he would never be entirely certain why Theodora had hated him. Perhaps she had not wanted to share the emperor with other advisors. There was no sense of victory. If John felt anything, it was regret that she had departed before he had managed to defeat her. He felt nothing toward the husk she had left behind.

His enemy’s death gave John so sense of relief either. He struggled to accept that finally, after more than twenty years, Theodora no longer threatened him.

Justinian paced back to the head of the bed. His pacing was the only sign he gave of agitation. “The evil-doer will eventually be brought to justice before the throne of God. As God’s representative on earth it is up to me to administer justice in this world.”

“Evil-doer, excellency?”

“The monster who murdered the empress.”

The statement took John off-guard. For months the court had observed in horror as the empress wasted away. “Surely the monster was the illness she suffered?”

“No. I won’t believe it. She was poisoned.”

Despite the hot, smoke-filled air, John felt a chill at Justinian’s matter-of-fact tone. If the emperor had displayed any emotion his irrational statement could have been dismissed as a momentary delusion brought on by grief.

“But how could she have been poisoned?” John asked. “We are in the center of Theodora’s private residence. Few were admitted to see her.” He glanced around the room. Painted angels adorned the walls. A gilded icon depicting the healing saints Cosmas and Damian faced the bed. A chest of inlaid wood sat at its foot. There was a three-legged table with a round marble top crowded by small glass bottles and ceramic pots. As usual an armed excubitor stood outside the only door. “Ask the guard, excellency,” John suggested. “He will tell you no poisoner could have gained entrance.”

Justinian waved his hand dismissively. “He doesn’t know anything. He’s new. The other guards—the ones who failed—I ordered executed before you arrived this morning.”

The emperor smoothed his dead wife’s hair. His features were as motionless as those of the corpse. He might have been wearing a mask to conceal an anguished visage. At times it was not hard to believe Justinian was a demon in human form, as popular rumor had it. Perhaps today he had no anguish or other human emotion to hide but was simply too preoccupied to animate his false face enough into a more human aspect.

“I am also to blame’ Justinian went on. “I allowed the murderer to reach her. I remained at her side, and yet, at times I dozed. And food and drink and potions were given to her, under my gaze. I prayed to the Lord that he take me also. My prayer was not answered, or rather it was answered in the negative. To go on living is the penance I must pay.”

“You should not torture yourself with such thoughts, excellency,” John offered. “The illness simply ran its course.”

“You believe that?”

“I do. Everyone does. It is a fact.”

Justinian’s face remained expressionless. “Nevertheless, I am ordering you to find her murderer. You are an eminently reasonable man, John. When you uncover evidence that she was murdered you will change your view.”

John tried not to show his dismay. During Theodora’s illness no one had so much as hinted there might be anything except natural causes involved. “I will change my view if I find such evidence. But—”

“You will find her murderer. You must. You won’t fail me as her guards did. I am depending on you. The empire is depending on you. Your family is depending on you.”

John thought his heart missed a beat as Justinian turned away.

Was the emperor threatening his family with reprisals if John failed?

Justinian bent toward his dead wife’s face, ran his fingers lightly across her eyelids and lips, ensuring her eyes and mouth remained shut, John supposed, so that no demons might gain admittance. Would the emperor harbor such a peasant superstition if he were indeed a demon?

“Her pain has ended,” Justinian said in a whisper. “Now go and find who did this to her.”

Dismissed, John took a last look at his old adversary. The emaciated hands clasped over her chest resembled claws. The face was yellowish and waxy, inhuman. The disease had eaten at her until the flesh that remained stretched tautly over her plainly visible skull. Although her tightly drawn lips were colorless, John could not help seeing, as he had in the past, the red scimitar of her smile.

As he went out to begin his hopeless investigation, John allowed himself a grim smile. It had been premature to think Theodora no longer threatened him.

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