Ten for Dying: A John The Lord Chamberlain Mystery #10

Ten for Dying: A John The Lord Chamberlain Mystery #10

On a hot summer night in 6th century Constantinople at the Church of the Holy Apostles, an Egyptian magician tries to raise Empress Theodora from the dead and demons vanish ...

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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Prologue

At the deadest hour of a warm summer night, the door to the mausoleum behind the Church of the Holy Apostles opened with a creak resembling the short cry of a sleeper disturbed by a nightmare.

The door closed, barely stirring the humid air in which the sharp odor of incense overpowered the faint, fading perfume of flowers left to wither at the base of the sides of the sarcophagus. Again the brooding silence was broken, this time by the throaty croaking of frogs and the shuffle of feet across the moon-washed marble floor.

A pause. Then a babble in a strange tongue emanated from the deep shadows, gathered like death at the head of the sarcophagus. “Beloved wife of Petrus Sabbatius, I summon you back from the hall of judgment! Return from the embrace of Anubis, god of the dead! As the sacred scarab brings forth the sun from night each morning, I command you with words of power to  come

back from the darkness!”

A hand, small as a child’s, leathery as an old man’s, laid a carved scarab inside one of the olive wreathes carved into the reddish Sardian sandstone lid of the tomb.

“Hear the song of frogs, sacred to Heqt, giver of life to the returned dead! When I name you, you will answer and obey me!”

The diminutive speaker paused, turned, and listened. Was that a noise outside?

Was his magickal ceremony working?

Would the door swing open and his former employer glide into the chamber rather than materializing next to her tomb?

There was no sound but the croaking of the frogs. What if she did not appear?

What if he was caught desecrating a holy place?

He laid trembling hands on the sarcophagus, bent forward to whisper in the ear of its occupant, and continued in desperate tones.

“I summon you! You must return!” Another pause.

“I served you well and now I need your protection,” he pleaded. There! A noise outside!

She had obeyed his summons. Or was he discovered?

The thought took him to a narrow window. In his haste he trod on one of dozens of frogs hopping everywhere. His foot slid and he clamped a hand on the windowsill to keep himself from falling.

Moonlight turned the gnarled hand to unpainted marble. He pulled himself up, standing on tiptoe to see outside.

The cry of horror he could not stifle reverberated around the mausoleum.

What had he done? What dreadful gates had he inadvertently opened?

Two figures, one clutching an object as pale as the uncaring moon to its chest, loped away from the illuminated doorway at the back of the church.

Demons!

 

DAY ONE

 

Chapter One

Felix came awake staring into a pair of shining eyes, mirrors in a hallway to the fires of Hell.

No, that had been his nightmare, or his memory of the Anastasia of the darkness. He was captain of the excubitors, responsible for guarding Emperor Justinian, but the past few days and nights he had not been doing a good job.

“What are you thinking?” Anastasia murmured. “That you’re an angel.”

She pressed herself against him and nestled her face in his beard. “You’re lying. Naughty bear.”

He had no answer to that. He had not had any answers to Anastasia since he’d first seen her. Had it only been a week before? He could hardly believe he had had a life before Anastasia. He always felt like that at this stage of an affair. He never remembered how badly his liaisons invariably ended. Never asked himself exactly how badly and in what way this particular fling would end. He saw Anastasia’s slim body pressed against his bulk. Why had he never noticed the disgusting middle-aged paunch he’d developed? Anastasia wasn’t that much younger, was she? Ten years younger, but appearing more. He hadn’t asked. In the first, hesitant light of morning her skin looked so white one would have thought it as cool as marble to the touch. Quite wrongly, Felix knew. He would need to spend more time at the gymnasium. “You’re feeling guilty about us,” she said. He felt her fingers tiptoeing through the tangled hair on his chest.

“No. Not a bit.”

“Is it because you were supposed to be finding Theodora’s murderer rather than falling in love?”

“That has all been resolved. Why should I feel guilty?” “What’s wrong then? I can tell something’s bothering you.” “No. Nothing. What could be bothering me, lying here beside you?”

Felix wasn’t sure what worried him. He looked at the ceiling. At the fluffy clouds and birds painted up there at great expense for a woman whose name he couldn’t recall immediately. Thin light coming in past the open shutters showed the early hour. The already humid air filling the bedroom held the tang of the sea, the odor of Constantinople—overripe, on the verge of going bad—and the smell of love, mingled scents of wine, perfume, and perspiration.

“You’re thinking about politics again, aren’t you?” Anastasia’s expression verged on a pout.

“No,” he said. Which had been true until she mentioned the subject. Political maneuverings at the palace in the wake of the death of the empress had been about the only thing on his mind recently, aside from Anastasia’s charms.

She twisted a tuft of his chest hair around her finger. “You were wise to ally yourself with General Germanus, my love. Don’t doubt your decision. Theodora’s gone. The fact that Belisarius is married to the best friend of the empress can’t help the poor bungling cuckold any longer. The emperor is sure to come to his senses and turn the army over to his cousin Germanus where it should have rested in the first place. “

“Maybe.”

She gave his coiled hair a sharp, painful tug. “Not maybe, Felix, dear. You shall soon have your military command. You can trade captain for general. I know what goes on at the palace.”

She probably told the truth. Felix had encountered Anastasia during his tedious interviews with Theodora’s huge entourage following the empress’ long illness and suspicious death. Theodora’s vast private apartments were packed with ladies-in-waiting, courtiers, servants, decorative young pages, and anyone who amused her, from acrobats and dwarfs to dancers and clerics. She had been hiding the heretical and supposedly exiled Patriarch Anthimus for twelve years.

Talking to them all was daunting. As soon as Felix ascertained a person had not been near Theodora during her final days he moved on quickly.

Except in the case of Anastasia. He had found an excuse to seek her out again. He thought he detected an invitation in the manner of the attendant with aristocratic looks. He had not been mistaken. Since then he had wondered whether she was attracted to him or to his potential for advancement. But he hadn’t thought about it very often or very hard. Did it matter? “Let’s not fret about politics.” Her words came to him on the warm, winy breeze of her breath. “A little honey will get the bear’s mind off palace intrigue.” Her fingers left the heavy growth of his chest and started to climb the overly steep slope of his belly.

The door of the bedroom burst open.

Felix’s servant Nikomachos stood there, his shoulder to the door. “My apologies, lady.” The young man bowed deferentially but for a little too long toward Anastasia. “I didn’t realize…I would have knocked, However…” He held up in his right hand a silver tray bearing a sealed scroll. His gaze flickered in the direction of where his left hand should have been but was not. His entire left arm was missing.

Felix got out of bed, pulling a sheet around his middle, and took the scroll. He slammed the door shut as his servant retreated, then returned to bed, broke the wax seal, and unrolled the parchment. Anastasia was sitting up, face half buried in her hands, giggling like a child.

Felix read the message and grimaced. He looked up, groaned, and threw his sheet across Anastasia’s inviting nakedness. “A relic’s been stolen from the Church of the Holy Apostles. Must be important. The excubitors are ordered to look into it along with the urban watch. There’s no time for honey when the emperor calls.”

 

Chapter Two

Felix clumped disconsolately past the excubitor barracks and across the cobbled square fronting the brick-walled house where his friend John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, lived. His head throbbed from too much wine and not enough sleep and he could still smell Anastasia’s perfume in his beard.

Two months ago Justinian would have summoned his Lord Chamberlain to order him to look into the theft of an important relic. John would have been receiving orders in the emperor’s chilly reception hall and Felix would still be in Anastasia’s warm arms. But since Theodora’s passing, things had changed in Constantinople. John’s investigation of her death had resulted in his dismissal.

It was one of Justinian’s transitory whims, no doubt. No successor to the post had been appointed. In the meantime, Felix hoped John would help him even if he was temporarily in disfavor.

He was surprised to see a laden ox cart outside the house. “Peter! Is your master at home?”

The old servant looked up from the crate he was tying to the back of the cart. “The master will be out shortly, but I fear he has no time for visitors.”

“Why the gloomy look, Peter? Isn’t your new marriage agreeing with you?”

Felix’s jocular tone failed to brighten the wrinkled visage. “Life’s joys are always accompanied by sorrow, sir. Our lot is to run with patience the race that is set before us, as the holy book says.”

Felix thought a man of Peter’s years should be happy to run the race with a new bride half his age. He reflected that it must be a platonic relationship as a tawny-skinned and raven-haired Egyptian woman emerged from the house. In Felix’s opinion she more resembled the parchment-skinned man’s daughter or granddaughter than his wife.

Then he saw with a shock that Hypatia cradled a swaddled figure. Before he could say a word, she lifted a corner of the blanket.

A shriveled head with enormous whiskers stared up glassy-eyed.

“Cheops, our poor little mummified cat,” Hypatia explained. “A souvenir of Peter’s travels with the master.”

“Ah…well…congratulations to you and Peter. On your marriage, I mean. But what’s all this about?” Felix gestured toward the cart.

“You must know that the master has been exiled, sir. The whole city knows.”

“This is home no longer, Captain Felix.” Peter added.

“Yes, I know the emperor was displeased, but Justinian always comes to his senses before—”

“Not this time, my friend.” As John stepped out of the house into the sunlight Felix couldn’t help noticing his face looked more gaunt than usual and there was, hard to believe, a hint of a stoop in the tall frame. Cornelia emerged and stood beside her husband. Her eyes were red-rimmed.

“You aren’t really going away?” Felix blurted.

“Our ship leaves for Greece this morning,” John replied. “I hoped to have a chance to talk with you before we departed.”

Felix realized the quartet—master, mistress, and servants alike—all wore rough traveling cloaks. “I would have come to see you, John, but I never imagined…and I’ve been…well… very busy…important business.”

Cornelia walked over to the cart. Her nostrils flared. “Busy, indeed! That’s an expensive scent you’re wearing! Everyone at the palace knows about your important business, even those of us in disfavor.”

Felix felt his face flush.

Cornelia glared at him. “Anatolius has been exceptionally busy in his legal endeavors lately, what with all the uncertainties everyone faces with Theodora gone, but he managed to tear himself away from the charms of the magistrates to pay his respects. Even Isis visited and cried the whole time.”

“Isis left the refuge?” He was surprised the brothel owner, now head of a sanctuary for reformed prostitutes, would have dared to visit a disgraced Lord Chamberlain.

“Why not? She’s known John for years. She had several girls in tow. To protect her reputation I suppose. Very proper they look now in their plain garments. Quite a contrast to the old days.” “As usual Isis wanted to reminisce about when we knew each other in Egypt although in reality our paths never crossed there. Not that I recall.” John pulled the heavy nail-studded wooden door shut and locked it. “However, speaking of Egypt, there’s still an ample stock of Egyptian wine left in the house.”

He handed the key to Felix. “Help yourself to anything else left behind before the emperor does.”

The key was a massive weight in Felix’s hand. “Why didn’t you warn me you were about to go?”

The former Lord Chamberlain answered only with a faint smile.

“I realize you don’t like farewells, John, but—”

“And you didn’t come to say farewell. What is it then?”

Felix’s head seemed to be filled with cobwebs. Perhaps he wasn’t as sober as he had imagined after the night’s excesses. “A relic’s been stolen,” he said, realizing that he shouldn’t be burdening John under the circumstances, but too befuddled to change course. He pulled the emperor’s message from his cloak. “It’s all explained here. Very strange. I was hoping you’d accompany me to the Church of the Holy Apostles.”

Cornelia’s eyes gleamed, resembling the edge of a newly honed sword. “Felix, you know very well Justinian made it plain nothing happening in Constantinople is of interest to John any longer. Not to mention our ship sails in an hour or two.”

John put his hand on her arm. “We’ll take a couple of the excubitors’ horses. You and the others go on to the docks. I’ll be there before the cart’s unloaded.”

“Master, if I may ask, could we leave now?” Peter put in. “That big man lounging against the barracks has been taking quite an interest in us ever since we came outside.”

“No wonder. It’s not often you see a former high-ranking official being sent away in disgrace,” Cornelia snapped. “He’s no doubt one of Justinian’s spies, making certain the emperor’s orders are obeyed.”

“John’s fortunate,” Felix pointed out. “Usually those who fall from favor disappear permanently.”

The glare Cornelia gave him made Felix wish he could vanish. She climbed up onto the seat of the cart beside her two servants. “Are you certain you aren’t going to get John involved in anything dangerous?”

Felix shook his head. “Hardly, unless you consider frogs dangerous.”

“Frogs?”

Felix opened the scroll and glanced at it. “So it says. The new mausoleum at the back of the church was overrun with frogs.”

Hypatia suddenly leaned around Peter, who had taken up the reins. “Are you certain, sir?”

“At least thirty of them.”

Peter glanced at Hypatia. “You  look distressed, my dear.

What is it?” Hypatia bit her lip.

“There is something you wish to say?” John asked.

“If I may, master,” Hypatia replied hesitantly, “in Egypt frogs are sacred to the goddess associated with resurrection. That so many appeared overnight in a place of the dead seems a great wonder. Where could they all have come from?”

Felix ran a hand through his beard. “Strange you should mention Egypt. A carved scarab was left behind.”

John looked thoughtful. “Frogs and a scarab are an unusually suggestive pairing. Was someone trying to raise the dead?” Felix didn’t answer immediately. He hoped John was joking.

But his friend didn’t smile. “It could be,” Felix finally said, reluctantly. The implications of John’s observation made him shudder. “The scarab was found lying on top of Theodora’s sarcophagus.”

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