The Sheen of the Silk



THE YOUNG MAN STOOD ON THE STEPS, ADJUSTING HIS eyes to the shadows. The torchlight flickering over the water's surface made the aisles of the great underground cistern look like some half-drowned cathedral. Only the tops of the columns were visible, holding up the vaulted ceiling. There was no sound but the whispering of damp air and the faint echo of dripping somewhere out of sight.

Bessarion was standing on the stone platform a few feet below him, near the water's edge. He did not look afraid; in fact, his handsome head with its wavy black hair showed the calm, almost otherworldly repose of an icon. Was his belief really so all-consuming?

Please God, there was a way to avoid this, even now? The young man was cold. His heart was pounding in his chest and his hands were stiff. He had rehearsed all the arguments, but still he was not ready. He never would be, but there was no more time. Tomorrow it would be too late.

He took another step down. Bessarion turned, fear narrowing his features for an instant, then the ease again as he recognized the intruder. "What is it?" he said a little sharply.

"I need to speak to you." He walked down the steps until he was on the level by the water, a couple of yards from Bessarion. Hands clammy, he was trembling. He would have given everything he possessed to avoid this.

"What about?" Bessarion said impatiently. "Everything is in place. What else is there to discuss?"

"We can't do it," he said simply.

"Afraid?" In the wavering light Bessarion's expression was unreadable, but the confidence in his voice was absolute. Did his faith, his certainty of himself, never falter?

"It's not about fear," the young man answered. "Hot blood overcomes that. But it won't make us right if we are wrong."

"But we're not wrong," Bessarion said urgently. "One swift violence to save an age of slow decay into barbarism of the mind and the corruption of our faith. We've been over all that!"

"I'm not talking about moral wrong, I understand sacrificing the one to save the many." He nearly laughed, then choked on his own breath. Could Bessarion understand the impossible irony of that? "I mean wrong in judgment." He hated saying this. "Michael is the right man, you are not. We need his skill to survive, his cunning, his ability to deal, to manipulate, to turn our enemies against each other."

Bessarion was stunned. Even in these changing shadows, it was clear in every line of his face and the angle of his head and shoulders.

"You traitor!" It was a snarl of disbelief. "What about the Church?" Bessarion demanded. "Would you also betray God?"

This was as bad as he had feared. Bessarion saw nothing of his own incompetence to lead. Why had he not seen it sooner himself? His hopes had blinded him, and now he had no choice left.

His voice shook. "We won't save the Church if the city falls, but if we do what we plan to tomorrow, then it will."

"Judas!" Bessarion said bitterly. He swung out wildly but stumbled when he met no resistance.

It was terrible, like killing himself, except that the alternative was unimaginably worse. And there was no time to think. Shuddering, his stomach sick, he did it, lunging at Bessarion as hard as he could. There was a splash as he hit the water, then a cry of surprise. The young man went in after him while Bessarion was still dazed. He found his head and grasped the thick, curling hair with both hands, twisting it and throwing all his weight to submerge him and hold him down under the cold, clear water.

Bessarion struggled, trying to fight upward, with nothing to stand on, against a man leaner and stronger than himself and just as willing to sacrifice everything he had for a belief.

At last the splashing ceased. Silence washed in from the shadows beyond the aisles, and the water became still again.

He crouched on the stones, sick and cold. But he was not yet finished. He forced himself to stand. Aching as if he had been beaten, he climbed back up the steps, his face wet with tears.

Chapter 1-2


ANNA ZARIDES STOOD ON THE STONE PIER AND GAZED across the dark waters of the Bosphorus toward the lighthouse of Constantinople. Its fires lit the sky with a great beacon outlined against the paling March stars. It was beautiful, but she was waiting for the dawn to show her the city's rooftops and, one