Mary Reed,Eric Mayer
Murder in Megara
“Exiled or not, the emperor’s Lord Chamberlain camped at Megara’s gates means trouble!”
“Former Lord Chamberlain, remember. The way you speak you’d think he’d brought an army with him instead of those two servants.” The speaker nodded at an elderly man and a woman-half her companion’s age-who were inspecting the tuna, mullet, and eels displayed on a marble slab on the opposite side of the marketplace. A cloth awning over the fish merchant’s stall cast a reddish shadow. The woman had tawny skin and black hair. The man maintained a military bearing, but his step was hesitant.
The group of townspeople, partly concealed by stacked cages full of live chickens, had watched the pair as they moved around the square, filling the woman’s wicker basket with figs, a pot of honey, three fist-sized melons. The chickens clucked despondently, already half-boiled by the late August sun of southern Greece.
“Black as a Nubian, isn’t she?” remarked a middle-aged woman, dressed too well for a dusty market in an insignificant city. “And you notice they speak with different accents. The senator’s estate has turned into a regular Tower of Babel.”
“Egyptian, so I hear. And that’s her husband with her,” someone else said.
“Not her husband. Grandfather, surely!”
The city square smelled of fish, goats, and produce that had gone unsold for too many days. People haggled noisily:
“Ah, there you are. I’m sorry I was detained. Business. Let’s find a quiet spot to talk.”
“Grilled fish, here! Buy your grilled fish! So fresh it’ll leap into your mouth!”
“How much did you say? Is that what you think my fine cloth is worth? Does it look like I stole it off a beggar?”
A dog barked. A baby cried.
The observer, lounging against a column in the colonnade at the edge of the marketplace, couldn’t make out every word of the conversation from beside the chicken cages.
But enough to be of interest.
A man with a beak-like nose and eyes as round and black as pebbles spat in the dirt. “What do you expect from a bunch of dirty foreigners? Foreigners and pagans, every one of ’em.”
“First you see an invisible army, now you see foreigners. The Lord Chamberlain-John, his name is-grew up hereabouts, as we all know.”
The beaked man turned his dark eyes toward the speaker. “Who are you to be defending him? Do you expect he’ll pay all the back taxes? We don’t need a new landowner, especially one who’ll actually live on his estate, meddling and upsetting things.”
“That’s right,” put in a shrunken, clerkish fellow. “What does an official from the court at Constantinople know about how things are in Megara?”
“My oracular fowl refused their feed this morning,” the beaked man continued. “One flew away. That’s a sure sign of disaster.”
This prophesy was met by a general murmur of assent.
“You and your oracular fowl! We’ve all had them for dinner. Once they’re past egg-laying days they predict they’ll bring a good price at market. It’s the only prediction they get right.” The speaker tapped one of the cages, eliciting agitated squawks from within. “That’s what you all sound like, terrified of one miserable exile and a couple of servants.”
A tepid breeze slithered through the shadows in the colonnade, bringing the smell of the sea but no relief from the heat. The chicken seller-and oracle owner-was pointing out the whole empire knew about Justinian’s fickleness. He’d shown his Lord Chamberlain mercy on a whim and he’d change his mind just as easily. Assassins could well be stepping off a ship at the docks right now.
The observer couldn’t suppress a grim smile at the thought.
Before the former Lord Chamberlain’s defender could reply, the clerk barged in, warning that powerful officials have powerful enemies, as if this were something of which he had personal knowledge. Every one of the new arrival’s enemies would be furious he hadn’t been executed, and more than one might decide to rectify the imperial error. Before long the city would be swarming with hired murderers. Innocent people were bound to be caught in the bloodshed. It was intolerable. What were the authorities going to do about it? The clerk’s strident voice rose to a higher pitch.
The two servants under observation turned away from the fish and walked out of the awning’s red shadow into the brightness of the square. Other market-goers kept their distance, eddying around the two, only moving their heads to gawk after they had passed.
The observer barely made out the well-dressed woman’s words. “The chamberlain’s not a proper man, you know.”
The chicken seller spat again.
The woman looked as if she would like to do the same but instead made an obscene gesture. “Eunuchs! Unnatural creatures! Greedy, scheming, all of them! You can’t trust them. What unhealthy intrigues has he bought from the court? He’ll doubtless be conniving to get back into power, and whatever bloody plan he hatches, we’ll pay for it!”
“What are we going to do about it?” Perhaps the clerk meant to issue a challenge but the effect was ruined by the quaver in his voice.
The observer stepped away from the column and strode toward the group, hearing low cursing from several who had remained silent until then.
“What’s the matter with all of you?” asked the former Lord Chamberlain’s lone defender. “He’s nothing more than a farmer now.”
“Does the crab ever learn to keep his legs straight?” asked the observer.
The two servants came abreast of the stacked cages. The old man made as if to examine them, but the young woman, glancing quickly at the people gathered there, tugged at his arm, and they continued on past instead.
As she looked back over her shoulder a stone flew from behind the cages. The observer couldn’t have said who threw it. He saw the woman step protectively in front of her companion and kept on walking out of the marketplace.
Peter limped grimly through the courtyard gates just as John and Cornelia emerged from the house. He might have come straight from a battlefield. Blood speckled his sleeves; a smear of red ran across his forehead.
“Master, Hypatia was attacked by a mob and…and…”
Before he could gasp out the rest of the sentence Hypatia, looking pale, intervened. “Don’t bother the master, Peter. It was just a few stones, most of them wide of the mark. You put yourself in worse danger by trying to catch the perpetrators.” Directing a fond smile at her husband, she continued. “I had to insist we return immediately or he’d still be fighting!”
“I wish I’d had a weapon,” Peter told John. “They crept up on me, the cowards. They hurt Hypatia.” His voice quavered.
“It’s just a lump on the back of my head.”
Cornelia peered at the injury and pursed her lips. “It’s going to be a very big lump, Hypatia. Why would anyone do such a thing?”
“The whole town hates us. We’re despised foreigners, if you’ll pardon my saying it, mistress,” Hypatia replied.
“She’s right,” Peter said. “We’re not safe here. I should like to be armed next time we go to market.”
John, who had looked on silently, shook his head. “I don’t want you fighting a war over every basket of melons and turnips. How did this happen?”
Peter gave a colorful description of the visit to the marketplace. Hypatia stepped in occasionally, softening the more lurid details. “Please don’t worry,” she concluded. “As soon as we put these purchases away I’ll make a poultice to take down the swelling.”
She carried her basket off in the direction of the kitchen, with Peter trailing, still looking grim, swinging one arm as if he carried a sword.
John and Cornelia departed for their walk in a somber mood. They followed their already familiar route along the low ridge overlooking the sea. Unkempt meadows ran into fields, and fields became rocky hillsides without any clear demarcation.