Read Six for Gold Online

Authors: Mary Reed & Eric Mayer

Tags: #FICTION, #Mystery & Detective, #General

Six for Gold (3 page)

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Chapter Six

Anatolius lit the terra-cotta lamp on the table by the door of John's study. The flame illuminated what the gathering twilight beyond the diamond-paned windows did not. The room was sparsely furnished. A table, a scattering of three-legged stools, a desk, all guarded by a solemn-eyed little girl John called Zoe, who now glowered at him from her wall mosaic.

“Sorry to barge in when John's away,” Anatolius said to the mosaic girl. “I suppose I'll end up talking to you myself if I stay in this house long enough. In fact, as you see, I already am.”

He felt like a snail in a strange shell. He told himself to make a note of the image, then remembered he no longer wrote poetry.

The odor of burnt verse haunted the air.

Lighting lamps was a task for John's servants. Unfortunately, Peter had left with his master and Hypatia was assisting at Samsun's hospice, which was still overwhelmed by plague victims. The only person left in the house besides Anatolius was Europa. She had taken to her room as soon as her mother and Peter had left, according to Hypatia. If she had emerged during the day, Anatolius hadn't seen her.

He was aware of Zoe staring at him. The shifting firelight brought her glass eyes to life.

“Have you seen her, Zoe?”

“Nooooo…” came the whispered reply.

Anatolius stepped back in a panic.

From behind him came a deep, muffled laugh.

He spun around. His hand went to the blade concealed in his robes. Not that the puny weapon would have been any protection, he immediately realized. The figure filling the doorway held an upraised sword. The intruder had his free hand half buried in a bristling red beard, pressed over his mouth to stifle a laugh.

It was Thomas, who glanced back over his shoulder, trod into the room, and sat down.

Anatolius began to speak.

Thomas shook his head. “Let's not wake anyone. I'm afraid I'm in desperate trouble, Anatolius.”

“That explains why you couldn't keep yourself from laughing out loud just now.”

Thomas grimaced. “I couldn't help it. If you'd seen yourself, gaping at that mosaic like it was a demon come to life. Surely you've laughed on the bloody field of battle, even though it's strewn with the limbs of your dead comrades?”

“Actually, I haven't,” Anatolius replied. And neither have you, he thought. He didn't believe Thomas' endless battlefield stories any more than he believed it when the Briton claimed to be a knight.

“What are you talking about?”

“John. Is he terribly angry at me?”

“He isn't here.” In a furious undertone, Anatolius related all that had happened in Thomas' absence. “So John has been exiled,” he concluded, “and Peter and Cornelia followed him. I expect we'll never see them again.”

Thomas' face had gone as white as bone and suddenly his big shoulders shook. He drew in a great, sobbing breath, as if to steady himself before speaking.

“For one thing, John didn't kill the senator,” he said. “I was at the Hippodrome and can swear an oath he's innocent.”

“You were there?”

“Yes. And no, before you ask, I didn't murder the senator either.”

“I don't think you're a murderer, Thomas. A naive fool, yes.”

“I appreciate your confidence. I'll knock you down for the insult another day.”

“What happened, Thomas?”

“I had some business at the Hippodrome. When I got there the senator was already dead, or at least it looked to be the case. I was just bending down to be certain when John appeared out of nowhere and pushed me aside. ‘Go' he said. ‘Run.' I took his advice and just as he raced off in the other direction, Felix and his excubitors appeared. ”

“Then what?”

“As it was getting dark, I continued on to Isis' establishment and—”

“You went to work?”

Thomas shifted on his stool. “I had to, didn't I? I owe Isis money to repay that loan she gave me. And I'm trying to save as much as I can so that Europa and I can—”

“But you left John in the Hippodrome with a corpse and excubitors pouring in! How do you think it must have looked?”

“Well, you can hardly go out the door without stumbling over a dead body right now,” Thomas pointed out. “Besides, John is well thought of by Justinian, so I thought he'd have no difficulty persuading the emperor that neither of us had anything to do with it.”

“If you'd shown your face here after your work was over, you'd have found out a lot sooner that the situation is much graver than you could possibly think. And where have you been all day anyhow?”

“Oh, here and there.”

Anatolius got up and looked out the window. The cobbled square below was deserted. Beyond the barracks at the far edge of the open space, the palace grounds spread out their eclectic collection of administrative buildings, churches, and houses set amid groves, hidden gardens, and ponds. With the coming of night windows here and there glowed like jewels under a gray sky, which further out blended with the dark waters of the Sea of Marmara.

He felt an almost uncontrollable urge to throttle Thomas, even though the fool would have no trouble killing him if he tried. “What was it that took you to the Hippodrome?”

Thomas reached into his tunic and drew out a small item he kept clasped in his fist. “It was like this, Anatolius. A business opportunity presented itself and I leapt at it quicker than a beggar after a dropped loaf. It was something to do with relics. As you know, I'm an expert on the subject—before I came here I made a living seeking the Holy Grail. I sent a message offering my services to the senator. Being a cautious man, he insisted on my dealing with an intermediary.”

“Very sensible of him.”

“I didn't know the person I'd be meeting, so I didn't expect to see the senator, and certainly not his cadaver. And a very fresh one at that.”

Thomas opened his fist to reveal a piece of yellow enameled metal as long as his finger, formed in the shape of a T.

“This was given to me to take to the meeting. It's a cross, as you see, but the figure of the Christian god's son has been snapped off, along with the top. The fellow I was meeting was supposed to have the matching part.”

Anatolius held the artifact up and squinted at it in the fitful lamplight. He could see the enamel was chipped at the top and that another chip, toward the base, marked where the feet of the crucified man would have been attached.

Thomas looked expectantly at Anatolius. “Do you think this will help find out who killed the senator?”

“It might if John were here.” Anatolius handed it back to him. “Since he isn't, you'd better stay somewhere else for a while. Somewhere no one would expect to find you. If the senator was as freshly killed as you say, it's possible whoever murdered him was still nearby. If so, he might well decide to silence you in case you witnessed the crime.”

“But what will Isis say when I don't show up for—”

The clatter of footsteps on the stairs interrupted them.

A figure burst into the room. Thomas dove for the doorway, smashed into the intruder, and pinned him to the wall, sword to his throat.

“By Jupiter's balls, Anatolius!” croaked Francio. “I was going to chide you for leaving the door unlocked again, but now I see why you don't bother, with guards like this.”

Thomas stepped back with an oath.

“He isn't a guard, he's a friend,” Anatolius said.

Francio looked dubious. “This ruffian?”

“Thomas is a member of John's household.”

“Truly? There must be a fascinating story there. However, I've come to drag you away to dine. Nothing goes better with a good meal than sparkling conversation. I'll supply the meal, you supply the conversation. Bring your impolite colleague along too. Perhaps some good wine will sweeten his tongue.”

“Francio, I'm sorry. I can't accept your kind invitation tonight.” Anatolius paused and then smiled. “Thomas, however, is free. And you're correct. He has many fascinating stories to tell.”

Francio gaped at Anatolius for a heartbeat before looking toward Thomas with an expression akin to horror.

Chapter Seven

“Faster, it's the end of the world!”

John came awake at the sound of Peter's voice. It was still dark. For an instant he wondered why his bed was rocking.

Earthquake, he thought, and then remembered he had gone to sleep, as he had each night for the past week, wrapped in a cloak, huddled on the deck of the
Minotaur
.

“Hurry, master! Look!” Peter pointed at the horizon.

John climbed to his feet and squinted in the direction indicated by the servant's trembling finger. A bright glow lay along the waterline.

“The Lord's sun is behind us!” Peter cried, horror written on his face. “Another sun is rising!”

John smiled to himself. Peter's view of the world was somewhat more apocalyptic than one might expect of an elderly army cook. “That's the lighthouse in Alexandria.”

Peter stared at him. “We're nearly there? The waters are treacherous? To think we've come all this way, only to run the risk of being drowned!”

“We'll be safely in the harbor before you know it.”

Peter nodded, but didn't look convinced.

***

The heavenly sun had fully risen by the time the
Minotaur
came within sight of the source of its man-made twin. Peter, convinced that his prayers for their salvation from wreck had been answered, chattered excitedly to Cornelia.

“The lighthouse is impressive, mistress, but what could have possessed the builders to give it such a strange shape? A square base beneath that tier with so many sides and a cylindrical tower at the top? It looks like the Tower of Babel!”

“Perhaps the architects got into an argument about what form it should take and to satisfy everyone used all their suggestions? A compromise in stone?”

“I never expected such a sight!” Peter went on. “It may be we'll see the pyramids as well.” He shaded his eyes and peered upwards. “There's a statue on the lighthouse roof! Whose could it be? How do they get fuel all the way up there? It must take a great deal to keep a fire going every night.”

The nearer they drew to the harbor the faster flowed Peter's words. “I wonder if the people looking after the fire ever cook their supper on it? The master says there's an enormous bronze mirror reflects the firelight out to sea.”

Cornelia laughed, then a cloud seemed to pass over her features, and she squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them they glistened. She did not tell Peter his endless stream of questions reminded her of Europa when her daughter had been a child.

Doubtless inspired by thoughts of cooking suppers, Peter was now prattling about finding fish for their evening meal.

Cornelia watched the shore advance towards them.

It had changed little since she first visited Egypt, and how many years ago had that been? Flat, unbroken, and mostly featureless, the demarcation between land and water was obscured in a roiling heat haze. A few obelisks poked up from among nondescript rooftops. The obelisks appeared to bend and twist in the heat, as if they were being melted.

As the
Minotaur
slid past the lighthouse, between the breakwaters, and into the harbor, Cornelia wondered whether she were dreaming. The bright, wavering scene reminded her of a reflection on water. If she put her hand out, it would all dissolve in ripples and she would wake.

She directed her gaze toward the crystal-clear waters of the harbor. A lion with the head of a man swam through the depths and vanished under the hull. Then she was looking down on a street lined with pink granite columns. There were monuments too. She drifted above the city like a bird. She let out a gasp of astonishment.

A startled Peter cut short his ramblings on the possibility of finding nets to catch fresh fish. “Mistress? Are you ill? It's this dreadful heat! Should you not sit down?”

The servant's voice brought her back to reality. She remembered the sunken grounds of the ancient palace, the result of the endless series of earthquakes Alexandria had suffered. She pointed this new, exotic sight out to Peter, who was almost as delighted as he had been by the lighthouse.

Within the hour, the crew was tying the
Minotaur
to a dock swarming with raucous humanity. Even then, Cornelia could not quite banish the feeling of unreality, that she had one foot in the present and the other in the past.

***

While the ship was being secured John was accosted by Nikodemos. The ship's captain was a powerfully built man with skin sunburnt so dark he resembled a bronze bust of an emperor.

“Lord Chamberlain, my instructions were to transport you to Alexandria and so my business is now complete.” He gave a slight bow. “Let me add that I've never before carried a passenger by command of the emperor. It has been an honor.”

“The emperor is not one to waste time when important matters are concerned.”

“True, sir.” Nikodemos regarded John with a keen gaze and abruptly changed the subject. “You'll find this is a fascinating country. The old ways linger and not just in heathen outposts. I've heard there are still many in Egypt who worship the sun god of old. Some have said to me that such heretics deserve nothing more than immediate execution and being left out in the open so ravens can dine on their eyes.”

John was silent.

“Such vengeful talk must make the patriarch and his bishops become heaven's runners,” Nikodemos pressed on, “racing to their churches to pray for the souls of both sinner and sinned against.”

John noted the slight emphasis Nikodemos had placed on certain words.

Sun god. Raven. Heaven's runners.

All of them connected with his own god, Mithra, the Lord of Light whose cult was popular with military men and former military men such as John.

Cornelia had mentioned Captain Nikodemos was also one such.

“I wouldn't want to be a runner in this sun,” John replied. “Rather I'd seek shelter underground.”

Nikodemos looked relieved. “It's true then. You are a follower too.”

“How did you know?”

“I overheard the big bear of an excubitor who escorted you on board mention Mithra.”

Someone called the captain's name.

Nikodemos grunted. “Must be trouble or else they wouldn't be looking for me.”

“Perhaps they need you to knot the ropes.”

Nikodemos allowed himself a slight smile. “I'm sorry we can't talk longer. I ask no questions, you understand, but in any event I've given back your servant his fare and that of your wife.”

“There was no—”

“Since they were required to pay their own way, I suspect you'll need the coins. Don't worry, if I see you again you can repay me. Just ask anyone at the docks for Nikodemos. I'm well known here. And please, give my best regards to your charming and talented wife.”

He turned and started toward the bow, then paused. “You will find Mithra is no further from you in this land than He is in Constantinople.”

John smiled wanly. If only that were true of his friends and family as well.

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