Mary Reed: Two for Joy

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Mary Reed Two for Joy
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    Two for Joy
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Mary Reed, Eric Mayer

Two for Joy

Chapter One

Where had the old man gone now?

A storm was moving in from the Sea of Marmara and prudent men should long since have headed home. Irritated, John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, tossed aside the skewer with the charred remnants of his simple meal of grilled fish and scanned the small colonnaded forum again.

Looking around through a throng of hawkers, loiterers, roughly dressed laborers, and clusters of dusty pilgrims, John quickly located the missing man. He was possibly the only living person in the entire city wearing an elaborately folded himation although numerous antique statues within its confines displayed fine examples of the same outmoded style of clothing.

John sighed. While it was true that Philo had journeyed far beyond his native Athens, this was his first visit to Constantinople. Under John’s watchful eye he had spent the afternoon among the city’s wonders, gawking and dawdling through its busy streets like a white bearded child. Unfortunately, it seemed he was also as trusting as a child, for he had now fallen into conversation with three young ne’er-do-wells sporting beards and mustaches after the Persian style.

John strode quickly through the gang of gulls fighting raucously over the scraps of his discarded fish. At the sight of his lean, sumptuously-robed figure and unmistakable military bearing, the three young men sauntered away.

Philo, however, was not so impressed by his former student.

“I was just about to ask that pleasant gentleman if he had any news from Khosrow’s court. Word of my colleagues, perhaps,” he said peevishly.

“They wouldn’t know anything about the Persian court. They aren’t Persians,” John informed him. “They’re members of the Blue faction. That’s just the way they dress. They’d put a knife in your ribs as soon as look at you. This isn’t the Academy, Philo. You must always be on your guard here. Always.”

The crowd in the forum thinned rapidly as the storm neared land. Vendors complained loudly to each other as they doused their grills prior to setting them up again in some convenient portico offering shelter against the wavering curtain of rain advancing across the sullen swells. A freshening breeze dispersed the usual smells of commerce, a blend of fish and apples tinged by exotic spices mixed with the sour reek of spilled wine and sweat.

“We must go home now,” John told his charge, “unless you want to get soaked.”

“I’ve spent so many years in the desert, I wouldn’t mind a little rain. But that column over there, it’s home to another of your holy pillar sitters, isn’t it? Perhaps we can discover how long the demented creature has been up there.” Philo darted off again without waiting for John’s reply.

The rough granite pillar standing in the middle of the forum rose to the height of several men. The ladder propped against its side and the empty baskets at its base gave mute testimony to offerings recently sent up to the occupant of the platform.

When John reached him, Philo was examining what appeared to be a misshapen coin. “It was lying in the dirt,” he explained.

John nodded. “It’s a pilgrim token. Acolytes make them from the earth around the pillar. Tokens like that are said to have powerful curative powers, so the faithful buy them at quite high prices.”

“As high as these stylites sit, perhaps? They support quite a thriving industry, don’t they?” Philo took a step back and craned his neck to gaze upwards.

The tangled hair and beard of the skeletal man perched above were streaming in the wind. So slight was the stylite’s body that he looked as if he would be carried away by its force were it not for the heavy chains of penance weighing him down.

Two fat, cold raindrops broke against the back of John’s thin hand. Others quickly followed. As they hit the ground they stirred up dust to mix with the sharp smell of animal dung and the briny tang of the sea. From nearby came the odor of freshly baked bread.

“We can discuss stylites once we’re out of the storm,” John said. “We can’t linger here.”

With obvious reluctance, Philo left the foot of the pillar. Light faded from the suddenly chilly air. From a church nearby came the drifting ebb and flow of chanting-or perhaps it was just the sound of the wind groaning among the colonnades edging the forum. A loose shop awning whipped upwards by a stronger gust and the warning patter of rain on tiled roofs heralded the approaching downpour.

John glanced back and caught a glimpse of the stylite outlined against dark clouds. He would not care to be standing up there in such weather. As if in response to the thought, a sheet of wind-driven rain swept across the forum. John grabbed a loose fold of Philo’s voluminous clothing and hurried him faster across the rain-slick cobbles.

Philo’s outraged protest at being handled in such an undignified manner was drowned by a ground-shuddering thunderclap shockingly close by. The rain quickened to a choking deluge as if an angry deity had picked up the sea and emptied it out onto the city.

Through the roar of the storm and the ringing in his ears John heard shouting and screams. Someone’s been hit by lightning, he thought immediately. Then he realized he no longer grasped Philo’s robe.

“Philo!” He turned back, convinced for an irrational instant that his companion had been struck. But Philo was a few paces away, staring up, shielding his eyes from the rain.

Others, heedless of the downpour, also looked toward the heavens, pointing. As his hearing recovered from the thunderclap, John could discern, amid the onlookers’ curses and cries of terror, a frenzied, metallic clanking.

Atop the pillar, the stylite flailed his arms wildly, their motion whipping his chains against the platform’s railing. The man’s arms were on fire.

Even as John grasped the fact, rivulets of flame ran greedily across the stylite’s robe. Glowing patches blossomed and spread in the man’s straggling beard. A small dark shape-a rat-scuttled to the platform’s edge and fell over.

The burning man tried to dowse the blaze, slapping at his chest. He began screaming only when his matted hair burst into an incandescent halo around his head.

The onlookers fell silent, horror etched on their faces.

The stylite’s shrieks did not diminish as he careened around the platform, trying to escape the engulfing flames. Now he was a ghastly silhouette in a fiery nimbus. Sparks swirled away in the wind each time he struck the railing.

At last his legs gave way and he crumpled. His shrieks ended abruptly, leaving only a faint sound, a hissing and popping akin to the noise made by damp wood burning, discernible under the onslaught of the downpour. Mercifully, wind-swirled smoke obscured the platform.

John shivered as a sudden freezing gust of wind carried a familiar smell to him. For an instant, it made him think of street vendors. Then he realized why. It was the unmistakable odor of roasting flesh.

“Master! Thank the Lord you’re home safe!”

Peter, John’s elderly servant, stepped shakily away from the heavy nail-studded door. John entered, stamping soaked boots on the hall’s tiled floor, closely followed by a grumbling Philo.

In the trembling light of Peter’s oil lamp, the servant’s lined face resembled those of mummies John had seen in Alexandria, their huge eyes blank rather than serene, as if terrified at the prospect of entering the afterworld.

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