Mary Reed,Eric Mayer
Ten for Dying
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!”
“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.
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. “
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.”