The District of the Cisterns, Constantinople

[ This was the original introduction to the scene, fitting before "A woman stood on a stone platform..." ]

            Murky yellow lights gleamed on the water in the canal. A pair of hooded lanterns bobbed in the darkness, casting vague and enormous shadows on walls of thin flat brick that rose up on either side of the waterway. Three figures made their way along a narrow walkway of rotting wood. The path was built out on pilings of tarred logs, with the cold brackish water of the Propontis slapping against them. Flat drifts of mist filled the air, first swallowing the light of the lanterns and then revealing it again. The middle figure, draped in a heavy black woolen cloak, carried a small black cat in its arms. Slitted eyes burned with green radiance in the lantern-light.

            They came to an archway set into the wall. Part of the arch was broken, leaving a jagged lip hanging over the dark opening. Vines crawled down the wall, swallowing the light with their dark leaves. The lead figure bent down, ducking under the obstruction and then gestured the others to follow. All three vanished into the old tunnel, the moss and loam on the floor suffocating the sound of their footsteps.

            The ancient Roman street, long since covered over by later construction, ran on in damp, sticky darkness. After a time, the foundations of buildings blocked their path and the three figures climbed through an ancient doorway and then descended a flight of worn stone steps. At last, after twists and turns, they came to a heavy gate of stout logs bound with rusting iron. The first figure, strangely hunched over, sniffed at the door and then scratched plaintively at the locking mechanism.

            For a long time, there was only the sound of water gurgling through unseen pipes, then the door rattled and moved. The two smaller figures crept back, leaving the tall slim presence of the girl carrying the cat before the door. The portal opened and a cold exhalation of mist spilled out over the threshold. A febrile gray light shone in the doorway, silhouetting the girl, then she stepped inside and descended another flight of steps. The two hunched boys followed, slinking along, their hands on the ground.

            The stairs dropped down into a vast chamber. Huge pillars rose up out of the darkness, fitfully illuminated by the lanterns. Some of the pillars were carved like the trunks of trees, with marble leaves and branches protruding from the mossy stone. An oily dampness filled the air, slicking back the unruly hair of the boys and pearling on the tanned skin of the girl’s face. The little cat sneezed and then a pink tongue appeared to lick droplets of moisture from its soft black nose. The stairs continued to descend, the steps slick with water that dropped slowly from the ceiling.

            Slowly, step by step, it became apparent that the pillars, each ten or twelve feet across, plunged down into water. Moss and slime covered the lower reaches of the columns, obscuring the rich carvings and scenes that decorated some of them. Others remained as they had been quarried, smooth and featureless save for cylindrical protrusions on the sides of the drums. The mist grew thicker, and a heavy pressure could be felt in the air. The steps, like the columns, disappeared under the dark oily water. A wooden walkway had been built from the last step and it snaked off into the mist.

            Off to the right there was an indistinct gray glow. The girl turned, walking carefully over the boards, and the little black cat now stared out intently. After a moment, a great head resolved itself from the mist and darkness. It was fifteen feet across, tilted and upside-down. At least half of it was under water. The face of a snarling woman stared out of algae-slick stone, her thick hair writhing like snakes, her blank eyes huge in the darkness. Columns of stone rose up from the medusa’s head towards the distant unseen roof. The walkway ran up over her cheek and onto a stone shelf. Three more such medusae marked the corners of the platform, each staring out into the darkness.

            The mist and clinging humidity stopped at the edge of the smooth stone. Carpets, piled thick and richly detailed, covered the floor. Hanging lanterns of chalcedony and mica-glass hung from the four monstrous pillars, illuminating the hidden space with a warm golden glow. There was no roof, save a canopy of slowly circulating mist, but no water dropped from the distant ceiling.