Death in Ravenna – Opening Chapters

Ravenna, Wednesday the 20th September, 618 AD

I

Eunuchs can’t grow beards. Everyone knows that. No balls, no beard. An Exarch, on the other hand – an Exarch of Ravenna, no less – why, everyone knows he needs a beard. He represents the Emperor. For all the power he wields, and this far from Constantinople, he might as well be the Emperor. He must have a beard. No beard, no Exarch. Everyone knows that. So when the Exarch happens to be a eunuch, there’s both a problem and an obvious solution.

But it was a hot afternoon, going on evening. Eleutherius had got up to speak with his false beard tied in just the right place. Now it was slipping. Though it felt an age, he hadn’t been speaking that long. It was sweat that had loosened the straps. In time to the movement of his jaw, the braided green silk was bobbing up and down half an inch below jowly flesh. Dinner must be spoiled. Some of the old men in the room were swaying from tiredness and the heat. All the same, there was the Emperor’s birthday to be marked, and it was Eleutherius who was marking it. Two good reasons for not daring to sit down – nor for escaping the invisible fog of stale sweat and stinking breath that filled the big dining room.

This last didn’t apply to Rodi. So long as he’s not cutting purses, no one cares what a boy does. Unless he’s prettier than Rodi had so far turned out, no one looks at him. He’d made sure to be at the back of the audience. Beside him, sweltering in his abbot’s robe, Cosmas had propped himself against one of the columns and fallen asleep. Rodi had known he’d finally do that. He’d not miss the whispered translation from droned, soporific Latin into Greek. No one else would miss Rodi.

Slowly, a half step at a time, he backed away. He was behind another of the columns. He could still hear Eleutherius, but was out of sight. He looked round. The door for the serving slaves was open and unattended. Through the door was a small room, where the courses would eventually be stacked for serving. From there a staircase led to the kitchens on the ground floor of the fortified Residency. The staircase didn’t matter. What did matter was the serving room’s window. A quick casing the day before had shown that it looked into just the right place in the central courtyard.

Eleutherius was approaching first refill of the water clock. If the text wheedled out of Antony was being followed exactly, the speech had miles yet to go. The Exarch had reached the Emperor’s coronation after the coup against wicked old Phocas. After another long sentence, he’d get to the ponderous joke about the pigeons in the Imperial Palace. At the pace he was going, he’d get to another refill of the clock, and half that again, before he sat down to call for the first course of wine.

Rodi peered around the column for a final check that all was in order. His heart skipped a beat. Where was Antony? He’d not seen or heard the Exarch’s secretary leave through the big doors. But it was one of the doddery eunuchs now holding up the sheets of papyrus for the Exarch to read. Where was Antony? When and why had he left his post? The whole staff was supposed to be in here. If Antony was missing, the risk was too great. Rodi would have to abort the mission. There would be another opportunity.

But the serving door was open. Two weeks he and Cosmas had been in Ravenna. His instructions were to get the dirt and make straight for Constantinople. If there was another opportunity, how long before it could be this good? Antony had mentioned a “delivery” the night before last. Except for Antony not being currently where he should be – and he might not have left the room – everything was lined up for as smooth a mission as Rodi had planned. Far off in Constantinople, the Lord Treasurer Alaric would clap him on the back for the report he’d eventually make.

Cosmas hadn’t moved. No one else would miss Rodi. No one else seemed to have noticed him. He was only a boy, and not a pretty one. He made up his mind. A full step, and he was inside the serving room.

II

Until the slaves were called up by a bell cord beside the Exarch, the room would be empty. Rodi hurried to the window and looked out. No one below. The bronze downpipe was a yard to his left. He looked up. It would be a bigger jump to the sill than he fancied. But he’d known worse.

He stepped back and pulled off and folded his outer robe. He kicked off shoes that must be too big for anyone of fifteen, and that Rodi could only wear by packing them out with strips of linen. He put shoes and robe out of sight behind a cupboard. In shirt and leggings the colour of stonework, he climbed onto the sill and reached for the pipe. None of its fixings seemed to be loose. This sort of thing was always a risk. Unlike Antony, though, it was a risk he could calculate. Thoughts of the missing secretary took him back to the speech. He sat on the sill and listened. Eleutherius was ploughing through the quote from the Emperor’s coronation promise. Time enough for the job in hand. He’d have to make sure it was enough.

Rodi put on gloves of leather soaked in urine till it was soft as the skin of his hands, and far less likely to slip on the age-weathered bronze. He stood up again. This time, his mind a careful blank, he leaned over and took the pipe in both hands.

It was a slow climb to the upper window. It took three scary swings into nothing before his foot made contact with the sill. From here, it was an easy jump to the floor of the Exarch’s private office.

All was going as planned. The room was empty, its door locked. No sound from the smaller office beyond the door. The only sound in here was that of a late summer fly. Rodi looked about. Where to start? As you’d expect, the Exarch’s office was a vast space, lush with marble and hanging silk. But Eleutherius wasn’t a man who let his business pile up. Whether sitting through another batch of treason trials or dealing with reports on the water supply, the Exarch was always brisk. His desk was clear. A glance at the filing racks showed everything in place and neatly labelled. What Rodi was looking for wouldn’t have been left in plain view.

He opened the nearest of the two cupboards flanking an icon of the Emperor. On every shelf, stacks of unused papyrus. Like rain through opened shutters, its bright, aromatic smell poured all about him. Nothing here. The next cupboard was locked. One poke with his thin metal probe was enough to show the lock had steel tumblers. A good place to start his search.

Given the right determination, there isn’t a lock that can’t be picked, and Rodi was determined. But it was a matter of the time. He looked out of the window. The sun was long out of sight behind the Residency’s western wing. The sky was turning red. Three floors down, Eleutherius must be glossing over the disastrous loss of Syria and Egypt to the Persians. From this, he’d pass to the Emperor’s greater success in sorting out the Church. Rodi had time for the job. But there was none to be wasted. He closed his eyes and felt about for the lock’s internal geography.

With a soft click, the tumblers gave way to the second assault. The cupboard door swung noiselessly open. Rodi stood away to see and memorise the position of all the objects. No need for the moment to go through the neatly-stacked documents. They all looked official, and therefore useless. But the lower part of the cupboard was taken up by an ebony chest. This also had a steel lock. He looked again out of the window. Assuming he was running the Exarch’s speech in his head at the right speed, there was still time. More careful probing to get the chest open.

The topmost of the leather bags heaped in the chest was untied. Not moving it, Rodi could see it was filled with gold coins. An Exarch always has need of walking-about cash. But there must have been a few hundred pounds weight of the stuff here. Why not keep this much in the Treasury?

The answer lay in the papyrus sheet on top of the bags. Written backwards in what must be the Exarch’s own left hand, it recorded every payment over the previous eighteen months. It all tallied with the dates – the pirate raid on Corfu, the loss of the copper fleet, the ransom given for the Bishop of Ragusa, the sale into slavery of the captives from Bari. Even in his crimes, Eleutherius was a man of careful business.

He sat on the floor to read the next sheet. It was in the same left-handed script, but was more damning still. Word had got back to Constantinople that Eleutherius was on the take from the Adriatic pirates. Here was evidence that he was directing them.

Rodi blinked and read a second time, and a third. What he’d expected to find was hard to say. But it involved hints and partial evidences of guilt that would need to be pieced together. This was like winning a whole game of dice with one roll. He’d got the Exarch. Recalled for questioning, Eleutherius could have a go at denying his guilt. Tried before the Emperor, he’d probably get off. Eunuchs have no friends but each other. The Imperial Palace was thick with them, and they always looked after their own. Then again, he wasn’t the sort who’d take that sort of chance. He’d go in private before Alaric and strike a deal. For what he’d done, the least he deserved was to spend the rest of his life grinding corn by hand. The most Alaric would give him was a crushing fine and retirement to what was left of his estates.

None of this was Rodi’s concern. Nor would he complain if the Exarch had been a fool in his making and keeping of records. Rodi’s job was to get the dirt and get out. A fortnight before, he’d arrived by road, with a monk and an old man for company. No one could associate him with the fast ship apparently laid up in the harbour. Even the captain wouldn’t know his instructions till the password was given. Cosmas would take a little pushing. But he could have all three of them out at sea long before Eleutherius came up to run the gold through his fingers, or whatever it was eunuchs did when no one was watching.

There was something more in the chest. It was half-under one of the bags, and had been entirely covered by the papyrus. Noting its position, he pulled it free – a parchment sheet, folded over and over again, and sealed and resealed with wax. There was nothing written on the outside. More incriminating evidence by the look of it. He’d open it later. Rodi slipped it inside his shirt. Folded carefully along its grain, the papyrus followed.

It was time to get out.

Before he could start on relocking the chest, he heard a key in the lock to the office door.

III

“Didn’t need no more keys after all!” one of the men gloated.

“Oh, but get a look at this!” the other said. There was a sound of gold being weighed in the palm of a hand.

“We was told not to touch nothing else,” the first man warned. “We takes what we come for, and that’s it.”

“My arse! I’m having some of this if you aren’t.”

The first hiding place Rodi had found was under a table covered with a cloth that reached to the floor. Trying not to breathe, he listened to the argument. They spoke the rough Latin of most Italians, though one of them had a slight accent that may have been barbarian. They’d got past the guards outside the Residency. They’d found their way to the Exarch’s office. They had keys to the room, and, presumably, to the cupboard and chest. It was a fair assumption they were looking for what he’d already taken.

To some degree the questions of who, how and why overlapped. These could wait till later. For the moment, it was a matter of whether he’d be pulled out of hiding when the men didn’t find the documents and went looking through the office. If he did get out of this alive, there was the further question of whether he could get back to the dining room before the Exarch finished his speech, or the slaves came up with the dishes.

He was pulled out of thoughts, half scared, half annoyed, by a sudden obscenity and the sound of a leather bag dropped to the floor.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” It was Antony. The Exarch’s secretary had finally made an appearance.

Another bag fell to the floor. Antony’s voice rose to a semi-adolescent squawk of “Help! Help!” before ending in a gurgle that Rodi wanted to mistake but couldn’t.

There was a long silence. Then: “This weren’t no part of the job.”

“Piss off! He was raising the alarm. Let’s get the stuff and go.”

“Where is it, then?”

More noise, this time of rummaging through gold.

“Ain’t here. It might have helped if you hadn’t carved up the Greek boy. He might have known.”

Somewhere outside the office, a door opened and closed.

“Right, we was told wrong. I’m not staying to get caught.” More dull chinking of gold in leather. “You stay if you want, but I’m out of here.”

Rodi waited for the whispered bitterness of the two men to go out of hearing. He lifted the cloth and crawled from under the table. The outer part of the cloth was splashed with the blood from Antony’s throat. Blood had sprayed over the floor and desk, and lay in a dark pool where he’d fallen.

He’d done with Antony exactly what was needed for the job. But you don’t seduce someone and sleep with him every afternoon for a week without feeling some regard. He’d been older than Rodi, but still young and silly. It was a shocking thing to look into his dead face.

Rodi swallowed. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He looked at his hands. They were clean. He rubbed his face. He checked his feet. It wouldn’t do to leave bloody footprints on his way back to the window. He stood up, and found he was beginning to tremble. He was cold. He leaned against the desk and took another deep breath. Far outside the office door, he heard a sound of shouting, and then a long scream. He’d lost track of where Eleutherius might be in his speech. That no longer mattered. The speech wouldn’t be finished. What did matter was getting out of this room before it filled up, getting back to where he ought to be before Cosmas woke and began looking about for him.

His gloves were where he’d left them. He fumbled his way back into them. How to manage the downpipe with these suddenly nerveless arms and legs? The noise of calls and shouting beyond the office and its anteroom was coming closer. Rodi pulled himself together. He’d done his job. Time now to get out.

His last view into the room, before clutching hold of the downpipe, was of Antony’s still body, a scattering of gold all about it.

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