Seven for a Secret: A John, the Lord Chamberlain Mystery #7

Seven for a Secret: A John, the Lord Chamberlain Mystery #7

Who killed the mosaic girl? As Lord Chamberlain, John spends his days counseling Emperor Justinian while passing the small hours of night in conversation with the solemn-eyed little girl depicted ...

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 ...

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Chapter One

For once, the girl in the wall mosaic did not reply to the Lord Chamberlain’s question.

“Why, Zoe?” John asked again. Did her lips tighten?

No, it was only an effect of the unsteady light from the lamp that sputtered on the desk of his study.

Usually he could discern an answer to his questions, but not tonight.

He heard the creak of a footstep in the hall and glanced toward the doorway in time to see a retreating shadow.

Peter.

John’s habit of talking to the mosaic girl distressed his elderly servant, though he did so often enough late at night.

But never before about an event like this.

Perhaps Peter had intended to refill the lamp or replenish the wine jug. Hearing his master’s voice, he had discreetly returned to the kitchen.

John took a sip from his clay cup. “I overheard Peter discussing you with Cornelia. He called you a little demon, Zoe. Whoever you are, you aren’t a demon, are you?”

If she were, it might explain what had happened that morning.

Zoe remained silent. She stared gravely from one corner of the busy bucolic scene on the study wall. She looked seven or eight. Her dark, polished eyes were older. They had seen much.

Had they seen into John’s memories?

What she did not see—for her gaze never wavered—was the debauchery in the cut glass skies above her. The mosaic maker had angled the tesserae so that what appeared by daylight to be clouds were transformed by lamplight into riotous pagan deities.

John got up from his chair and carried his cup to the half opened window. From the barracks on the other side of the torch-lit square below came shouts and oaths, the greetings of military colleagues.

Familiar echoes from a former life.

John was a shade, a formless reflection in the diamond panes, looking out from a gray underworld at his own past.

Egyptian wine always brought the memories back for it was in Egypt he had first tasted its rawness. He swallowed another mouthful and felt the hot Alexandrian sun at the back of his throat.

He knew he should be cautious and recruit a few of those excubitors across the way to accompany him to his meeting.

He knew, also, he would not.

He sat down again in the uncomfortable wooden chair beside the simple desk. Nothing in the room’s spartan furnishings marked it as a part of the dwelling of the Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian. The all but unfurnished room was large enough to house several working families and the cunning mosaic must have cost the former occupant of the place—a long since deposed tax collector—more than a laborer could earn in years.

“You say nothing now, Zoe,” John muttered, “but I expect you will explain it all to me eventually. Perhaps even that strange tattoo on your wrist.”

In truth, while conversing with the mosaic girl, John often managed to explain puzzles to himself.

He glanced at the bowl of the water clock beside the door. Dawn was hours away. Although the heat of late summer lingered in the air, the hours of this particular night seemed as long as those of midwinter.

Earlier that day he had risen before dawn as usual, before Cornelia had awakened.

“I walked to the Mese. The air was chilly. The seasons are changing.”

John spoke softly. He did not want to disturb Peter again. He described to Zoe, or perhaps to himself, how he had continued across the expanse of the Augustaion, all but deserted at that hour except for scavenging seabirds and the occasional heap of rags marking a sleeping beggar, past the Great Church whose dome glowed faintly from within against the lightening sky, and through the forum of the Law Basilica where the sellers and copiers of books clustered their shops.

Laggard carts rattled toward the city gates. He was up with the dogs. The gaunt beasts loped through the long shadows, nosed whatever refuse they could find in gutters and corners. When the sun had risen and carts were forbidden, the dogs could safely lie on the warm cobbles in the middle of the streets.

The cries of gulls, muted by distance, accentuated the emptiness. Mist rose from the pavements as if from a gray sea.

He could smell the sea.

His morning walks were longer since Cornelia had come to stay. He had never imagined they could be reunited and had grown used to his solitude. He was ever aware of her presence in his house.

He turned aside into the area known as the Copper Market. In the early morning light, lavender plumes of smoke from unseen furnaces rose above low brick buildings. From doorways and alleys there came acrid smells, unidentifiable to one who worked in ceremony and diplomacy rather than metal or glass.

During the past few weeks he had extended his morning walk to an unnamed square no different than scores of others in the city. Grates were still pulled down in front of its shops. A Christian holy man kept his endless vigil from a broad platform atop a pillar at one end of the open space.

The stylite stood motionless, gazing over flat rooftops in the direction of Mithra’s rising sun. There was no one to observe the man, except for John and the gulls and the stray dogs. After a while a hooded acolyte emerged from the doorway in the base of the column and left the square, giving only a passing glance to the tall, thin man waiting nearby. No doubt it was not unusual for pilgrims to take up vigils near the pillar.

When the square was empty again John looked up toward the stylite but movement drew his gaze back to earth. His years as a mercenary were far in the past, but he retained the keen alertness of a guard on watch at the border of the empire.

A figure emerged from a doorway among the shops. Not the acolyte. The figure moved in John’s direction.

It was no accident, John realized.

Although the Lord Chamberlain’s plain indigo cloak, by its cut and fabric, marked him as a man who should not be on the street without a bodyguard, he had never been attacked. There was something in his bearing which convinced predators to wait for easier prey.

Or maybe, as his young friend Anatolius warned, it was only that Fortuna had smiled on him up until now, or else he had been spared by his old servant’s God, as Peter insisted. He knew he did not have Mithra to thank, because Mithra was not the sort of deity who looked out for those who wouldn’t look out for themselves.

His short blade was in his hand by the time he saw that the attacker was merely a woman. A street whore. Or so he thought, until she drew near enough for him to make out the shabby but once elegant robes and the purple shadow of the veil obscuring her face.

She spoke in a breathless, hasty whisper. “Come here tomorrow at the same hour. I have information. There’s no time now.”

She had looked around, as if panic stricken, and turned to leave.

John lifted the cup again. Not as far as his lips.

The lamp on the desk guttered and went out.

He could still see the mosaic girl. Her eyes glittered in the dim light from the window.

“Normally, I wouldn’t have taken the encounter seriously, Zoe,” he told her. “It was obviously some sort of mistake or a trick. But as she turned, I asked the woman who she was. She paused and pushed her veil aside just for an instant, long enough for me to confirm that what she said was the truth.

“Don’t you recognize me, Lord Chamberlain? I am Zoe!”

Chapter Two

“If she really was the girl in the mosaic, John, it appears she’s not going to get down off the wall this morning.” Anatolius looked away from the square and squinted up in the direction of the stylite’s column. John followed his gaze.
The sun sat above the cramped shelter into which the stylite had retired after performing his customary ablutions. John could discern the man’s rigid form through a window cut into the planks. “I see he’s not one of those holy men who braves the elements day and night,” Anatolius continued. “I thought suffering was part of the job. No wonder his column is in this out of the way corner.”

The stylite’s hooded acolyte had set baskets at the base of the pillar. No pilgrims had come by yet to drop offerings into them. John and Anatolius had been waiting since before dawn. In the interim John had remained almost as still as the stylite, while Anatolius paced back and forth.

At first, John had been on edge. A ghostly swirl of mist or a shout carried from the docks on the early morning breeze made his heart race. Was it in anticipation of an ambush or simply of meeting Zoe and learning whatever it was she needed to tell him?

The woman who had so urgently requested an irregular audi- ence with the Lord Chamberlain never appeared.

“I don’t want to interfere with your work, Anatolius,” John finally said. “Your clients will be waiting.”

John’s friend was a few years his junior, almost as slender, not quite as tall. He had a face Greek sculptors would have loved to model, and more than a few ladies of the imperial court who didn’t know Polyclitus from Praxiteles shared their enthusiasm.

“I do have an appointment this morning,” Anatolius admitted. “I’m finding people like the notion of hiring the emperor’s former secretary to speak for them. The merchant I’m seeing today apparently thinks that if I could put a good face on Justinian’s confiscatory proclamations—as he put it—I can surely turn the shipload of spoiled wine he sold into nectar. Spoiled, that is to say, according to the buyer. I don’t like to leave you alone.”

John scanned the square again. Merchants who dealt in quantities smaller than shiploads were opening their shops. An iron grating rose with an ear-splitting screech, letting loose the odor of yesterday’s fish.

Nearer the palace the fragrances of spices or perfumes wafting from the doorways of better class emporiums alleviated the city’s usual stench of decayed rubbish and animal droppings. In the Copper Market with its metal works, the other pervasive smell was that of acrid smoke.

A black dog slunk by and paused to sniff a cucumber crushed beneath a cart wheel.

At this point any sense of peril had been borne off with the mists by the light of day.

“I did not suppose I would be in danger in the first place, Anatolius. Besides, it’s a lengthy walk back.”

Anatolius gazed in the general direction of the Great Palace. “We’d have been better off if we waited at your doorway, in case Zoe came out! If you make these morning strolls any longer you’ll find yourself neck deep in the Golden Horn!”

“You can be certain I’ll stop a safe distance from the shore.” “A few weeks ago I would have been equally certain you’d never walk into a trap set by a stranger who approached on the street!”

“We have not been attacked.”

“Of course not. The ruffians weren’t prepared to deal with two men.”

John pointed out that the woman might have returned if Anatolius had remained discreetly in the nearby alleyway as requested.

“I’ve already explained why I rushed out, John. I thought I saw something moving in your direction in the dark.”

John’s lips tightened into a thin smile. “I believe I could adequately defend myself against a three-legged cat. You should try not to become agitated so easily. It’s a trait that won’t serve you well before the magistrates.”

“It seems to me you’ve been uncharacteristically agitated lately. How can you tell me you feel crowded in that enormous house with no one else there but Cornelia and a servant, anyway? I wish I hadn’t suggested Europa and Thomas move to my Uncle Zeno’s estate. Cornelia would probably be glad of their help. She told me she was planning to redecorate a few rooms.”

John frowned. “I can arrange for any craftsmen needed, and frankly I’m happier with my daughter and her husband away from the palace. A Lord Chamberlain will always have enemies at court, and they’ll use any weapon they can find.”

Anatolius glanced around. “I suspect this square rarely bustles with activity, but there are people stirring now. Are you going to insist on staying longer? Your enemies won’t necessarily confine themselves to harming your family, John.”

John acknowledged the truth of this statement.

“Just because she used the name Zoe means nothing,” Anatolius continued. “Everyone at court knows everyone else’s business even if we don’t come out and say so. Remember that poem I wrote about Theodora’s days on the stage? I only showed it to a few close friends. I swear by Mithra that the court pages were repeating the last verse before the ink was dry.”

“I saw the woman’s face, Anatolius. She was Zoe.”

“I admit the artisan made the child remarkably life-like but—”

“I’ve lived with that face for nearly ten years,” John cut in. “Yesterday morning I met the original. Grown now, of course, but she was unmistakable.”

“What about the tattoo? You said she had a tattoo on her wrist. You saw it when she pushed her veil aside. Now, you have to admit your mosaic Zoe doesn’t have a tattoo.”

John observed a child would not have a tattoo although a woman might, and that further he felt Anatolius was overreaching himself trying to find evidence against the possibility John had, in fact, by chance met the model for Zoe.

Anatolius shook his head. “If I didn’t know better I’d say you were smitten with the woman. We should’ve arrived here with a contingent of excubitors ready to scour the streets, find the scoundrels who are behind this, and cart them off to the dungeons. Whatever their game is, I’d wager it’s a crime, or would’ve been if—”

John held up a hand. “Wait, Anatolius.”

A veiled woman in black robes moved toward them. She was only a few steps away. John cursed himself for allowing his attention to lapse.

When the woman reached the two men, she bowed slightly. “Kindest excellencies! We are seeking to purchase a plaque for the Church of the Mother of God. It will be engraved with words to remind us of our beloved Empress Theodora’s beneficence.”

John produced several coins and dropped them into the woman’s smooth hand.

She turned her head toward Anatolius. When he offered only a glare, she scurried away.

Anatolius stared after her in undisguised consternation. “What are you thinking about, John? That was nothing but a common street whore!”

“I could see that. It’s not to say she doesn’t need a few coins more than I do. Besides, how do you know she isn’t one of Theodora’s collection of reformed prostitutes? Your new profession is already turning you into a cynic, my friend!”

“That may be,” Anatolius admitted. “But it’s safer being a cynic. I’m not so sure all those prostitutes wanted to be reformed. They just wanted the free lodgings the empress was offering. Anyway, it’s plain your mysterious woman isn’t going to appear. Let’s hope it was nothing more than a jest by some fool at court.”

He looked around. “Yes, probably that’s all it was. Someone in the palace playing a joke on the ever serious and imperturbable Lord Chamberlain. Doubtless, some rascals are sniggering about it right now. I have to be off. Don’t waste much more time on this, John. There’s nothing to it, but if you stand here long enough you’re liable to attract trouble, especially after displaying a handful of coins.”

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