Justinian I, emperor of Constantinople from a.d. 527–565, is not nearly as bothered by the seemingly spontaneous combustion of three stylites—holy men who sit atop pillars as they pray and preach—as he is by the missives from another holy man, Michael, who wants to share his power and insists on a meeting. Justinian sends his Lord Chamberlain, John the Eunuch (One for Sorrow, not reviewed), along with Aurelius, a well-to-do senator (is there any other kind?), to confront Michael, and the two set off, leaving behind Aurelius’ son, court dandy Anatolius, who is planning a fancy dinner party for his dad, and Philo the philosopher, John’s former teacher at the Academy, who has been his impoverished houseguest since the closing of the school. As Michael, surrounded by worshipping pilgrims, is demanding that Justinian deal with him personally, Aurelius is poisoned at the dinner festivities back home, and a dancing girl, one of Isis the madam’s prostitutes, spontaneously combusts. And when Justinian sequesters himself to think, his licentious wife (and brothel alumna) Theodora takes control and arrests Anatolius, plots against John, and lets Constantinople seethe under the warring Christians, Mirthraists, and pagans. Meanwhile, Philo is murdered, the inland sea explodes into flames, and John and his manservant Peter, after pretending to go into exile, sneak back to solve the burnings, decipher a code left by Philo, discredit Michael by revealing the meaning of an ankle tattoo, and arrange Anatolius’ freedom.
Plotting as byzantine as you’d expect, along with gore, whores, and an eight-page glossary.