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In 525 Constantinople nothing is as it should be. The winter is unnaturally cold, and the palace has fallen under the sway of both the shade of the wife of the dying Emperor Justin and Theodora, the former actress his gravely ill successor Justinian intends to marry. The streets are terrorized alternately by elegantly dressed young thugs who style themselves the Blues and forces under the orders of the City Prefect nicknamed The Gourd, a man notoriously adept at slaughter and magic. Thus, when a wealthy philanthropist is killed in broad daylight in the Great Church, it isn’t entirely surprising that the future ruler Justinian engages an anonymous young slave called John to investigate what many believe could be part of a succession conspiracy. In this series prequel, John the Eunuch takes his first dangerous steps along the path that will lead him to hold office as Lord Chamberlain. Among the suspects are many whose lives might be touched by an emperor, from senators, churchman, and wealthy businessmen to laborers, beggars, and prostitutes. Before he can track down the murderer, John must first win the respect of Felix, the excubitor reluctantly assisting him, discourage the advances of the romantic but naive Lady Anna, and make peace with his own fate.
Nominated for the 2001 Bruce Alexander Award for Best Historical Mystery.
"This prequel to the first three books in the series (One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, Three for a Letter) describes how John began on a path which led him to such a high office...The history in this novel (and the others in the series) is impeccable. Without confusing the reader or making it too difficult to put together, the authors set their characters within a time period which is in many ways alien to us and manage to make it comprehensible and even fascinating. What a rich field there is in sixth century Constantinople! All the world eventually came to this magnificent city and the citizen or traveler could find anything if he just looked in the right places. When you read this book, you will get an excellent sense of that history without feeling overwhelmed. In addition, the sense of place is very nicely done. Constantinople is a bewitching city, an enchanted city, but also a merciless and often a heartless place. We see the squares, the tiny back alleys, the hidden gardens, shops and bordellos, and the calm of the palace grounds. It is a matchless city. John certainly gets a wonderful introduction to the complex and intricate politics of the palace and he shows that he can tread the high wire as well as anyone, to play factions off against one another, to keep emperor and successor happy, even to not displease Theodora too much. The reader gets to go along for the ride and it is an exciting roller coaster, so hang on to your seat and enjoy a marvelous book with intriguing characters, tangled plot, and big dollops of superb history. Once again my kudos to Poisoned Pen Press for publishing some of the finest mysteries being written today." --Mystery News
"In this captivating prequel set in sixth-century Constantinople, the fourth in Reed and Mayer's well-received historical series (Three for a Letter, etc.), the future emperor Justinian asks a young slave named John the Eunuch to investigate the murder of philanthropist Hypatius, struck down while examining the controversial Christ statue he and three others have given to the city's Great Church. Discounting rumors of a political plot, John undertakes a search for the truth that will lead him from opulent palace to squalid hospice, and to meetings with such memorable characters as the naove Lady Anna and the quirky Avis, who lives in a virtual aviary and is convinced he will fly someday. Written with humor and pathos, this superior historical is sure to please existing fans and send new ones in search of the rest of the series."--Publishers Weekly, starred review