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An Oblique Approach
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An Oblique Approach
ALIEN MINDS BATTLE
In northern India the Malwa have created an empire of unexampled evil. Guided or possessed by an intelligence from beyond time, with new weapons, old treachery, and an implacable will to power, the Malwa will sweep over the whole Earth. Only three things stand between the Malwa and their plan of eternal domination: the empire of Rome in the East, Byzantium; a crystal with vision; and a man named Belisarius, the greatest commander Earth has ever know. .
Cover art by Keith Parkinson
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
First printing, March 1998
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Printed in the United States of America ISBN: 0-671-878654
Copyright © 1998 by David Drake & Eric Flint
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Typeset by Windhaven Press
Electronic version by WebWrights
http://www.webwrights.com TO LUCILLE
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The first facet was purpose.
It was the only facet. And because it was the only facet, purpose had neither meaning nor content. It simply was. Was. Nothing more.
purpose. Alone, and unknowing.
Yet, that thing which purpose would become had not come to be haphazardly. purpose, that first and isolated facet, had been drawn into existence by the nature of the man who squatted in the cave, staring at it.
Another man—almost any other man—would have gasped, or drawn back, or fled, or seized a futile weapon. Some men—some few rare men—would have tried to comprehend what they were seeing. But the man in the cave simply stared.
He did not try to comprehend purpose, for he despised comprehension. But it can be said that he considered what he was seeing; and considered it, moreover, with a focused concentration that was quite beyond the capacity of almost any other man in the world.
purpose had come to be, in that cave, at that time, because the man who sat there, considering purpose, had stripped himself, over long years, of everything except his own overriding, urgent, all-consuming sense of purpose.
* * *
His name was Michael of Macedonia. He was a Stylite monk, one of those holy men who pursued their faith through isolation and contemplation, perched atop pillars or nestled within caves.
Michael of Macedonia, fearless in the certainty of his faith, stretched forth a withered arm and laid a bony finger on purpose.
For purpose, the touch of the monk's finger opened facet after facet after facet, in an explosive growth of crystalline knowledge which, had purpose truly been a self-illuminated jewel, would have blinded the man who touched it.
No sooner had Michael of Macedonia touched purpose than his body arched as if in agony, his mouth gaped open in a soundless scream, and his face bore the grimace of a gargoyle. A moment later, he collapsed.
For two full days, Michael lay unconscious in the cave. He breathed, and his heart beat, but his mind was lost in vision.
On the third day, Michael of Macedonia awoke. Instantly awoke. Alert, fully conscious, and not weak. (Or, at least, not weak in spirit. His body bore the weakness which comes from years of self-deprivation and ferocious austerities.)
Without hesitating, Michael reached out his hand and seized purpose. He feared yet another paroxysm, but his need to understand overrode his fear. And, in the event, his fear proved unfounded.
purpose, its raw power now refracted through many facets, was able to control its outburst. purpose, now, was also duration. And though the time which it found in the monk's mind was utterly strange, it absorbed the confusion. For duration was now also diversity, and so purpose was able to parcel itself out, both in its sequence and its differentiation. Facets opened up, and spread, and doubled, and tripled, and multiplied, and multiplied again, and again, until they were like a crystalline torrent which bore the monk along like a chip of wood on a raging river.
The river reached the delta, and the delta melted into the sea, and all was still. purpose rested in the palm of Michael's hand, shimmering like moonlight on water, and the monk returned that shimmer with a smile.
"I thank you," he said, "for ending the years of my search. Though I cannot thank you for the end you have brought me."
He closed his eyes for a moment, lost in thought. Then murmured: "I must seek counsel with my friend the bishop. If there is any man on earth who can guide me now, it will be Anthony."
His eyes opened. He turned his head toward the entrance of the cave and glared at the bright Syrian day beyond.
"The Beast is upon us."
That night, Belisarius was resting in the villa which he had purchased upon receiving command of the army at Daras. He was not there often, for he was a general who believed in staying with his troops. He had purchased the villa for the benefit of his wife Antonina, whom he had married two years before, that she might have a comfortable residence in the safety of Aleppo, yet still not be far from the Persian border where the general took his post.
The gesture had been largely futile, for Antonina insisted on accompanying Belisarius even in the brawl and squalor of a military camp. She was well-nigh inseparable from him, and in truth, the general did not complain. For, whatever else was mysterious to men about the quicksilver mind of Belisarius, one thing was clear as day: he adored his wife.
It was an unfathomable adoration, to most. True, Antonina possessed a lively and attractive personality. (To those, at least, who had not the misfortune of drawing down her considerable temper.) And, she was very comely. On this point all agreed, even her many detractors: though considerably older than her husband, Antonina bore her years well.
But what years they had been! Oh, the scandal of it all.
Her father had been a charioteer, one of those raucous men idolized by the hippodrome mobs. Worse yet, her mother had been an actress, which to is to say, little more than a prostitute. As Antonina grew up in these surroundings, she herself adopted the ways of her mother at an early age—and, then!—added to the sin of harlotry, that of witchcraft. For it was well known that Antonina was as skilled in magic as she was in the more corporeal forms of wickedness.
True, since her marriage to the general there had been no trace of scandal attached to her name. But vigilant eyes and ears were always upon her. Not those of her husband, oddly enough, for he seemed foolishly unconcerned of her fidelity. But many others watched, and listened for rumor with that quivering attentiveness which is the hallmark of proper folk.
Yet the ears heard nothing, and the eyes saw even less. A few turned aside, satisfied there was nothing to see or hear. Most, however, remained watchful at their post. The whore was, after all, a witch. And, what was worse, she was the close friend of the Empress Theodora. (No surprise, that, for all men know that like seeks like. And if the Empress Theodora's past held no trace of witchcraft, she had made good the loss by a harlotry so wanton as to put even that of Antonina to shame.)
So who knew what lecheries and deviltry Antonina could conceal?
About the general himself, setting aside his scandalous marriage, the gentility had little ill to say.
A bit, of course, a bit. Though ranked in the nobility, Belisarius was Thracian by birth. And the Thracians were known to be a boorish folk, rustic and uncouth. This flaw in his person, however, was passed over lightly. It was not that the righteous feared the wrath of Belisarius. The general, after all, was known himself to make the occasional jest regarding Thracian crudity. (Crude jests, of course; he was a Thracian.)
No, the tongues of the better stock were stilled on this subject because the Emperor Justinian was also Thracian (and not even from the ranks of the Thracian nobility, such as it was, but from the peasantry). And if Belisarius was known for his even and good-humored temperament, the Emperor was not. Most certainly not. An ill-humored and suspicious man, was Justinian, frightfully quick to take offense. And frightful when he did.
Then, there was the general's youth. As all people of quality are aware, youth is by nature a parlous state. An extremely perilous condition, youth, from an ethical standpoint. Reckless, besides—daring, and impetuous. Not the sort of thing which notability likes to see in its generals. Yet the Emperor Justinian had placed him in the ranks of his personal bodyguard, the elite body from which he selected his generals. And then, piling folly upon unwisdom, had immediately selected Belisarius to command an army facing the ancient Medean foe.
True, there were those who defended the Emperor's choice, pointing out that despite his youth Belisarius possessed an acute judgment and a keen intellect. Yet this defense failed of its purpose. For, in the end, leaving aside his marriage, it was this final quality of Belisarius that set right-thinking teeth on edge.
Intelligence, of course, is an admirable property in a man. Even, in moderation, in a woman. So long as it is a respectable sort of intelligence—straight, so to speak. A thing of clear corners and precise angles, or, at the very least, spherical curves. Moderate, in its means; forthright, in its ends; direct, in its approach.
But the mind of Belisarius—ah, the mystery of it. To look at the man, he was naught but a Thracian. Taller than most, well built as Thracians tend to be, and handsome (as Thracians tend not to be). But all who knew the general came to understand that, within his upstanding occidental shape, there lurked a most exotic intellect. Something from the subtle east, perhaps, or the ancient south. A thing not from the stark hills but the primeval forest; a gnarled mind in a youthful body, crooked as a root and as sinuous as a serpent.
Such did many good folk think, especially after making his acquaintance. None could fault the general, after taking his leave, for the courtesy of his manner or the propriety of his conduct. A good-humored man, none could deny; though many, after taking his leave, wondered if the humor was at their expense. But they kept their suspicions muted, if not silent. For there always remained this thought, that whatever the state of his mind, there was no mistaking the state of his body.
Deadly with a blade, was Belisarius. And even the cataphracts, in their cups, spoke of his lance and his bow.
It was to the house of this man, then, and his Jezebel wife, that Michael of Macedonia and his friend the bishop brought their message, and the thing which bore it.
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Spring, 528 AD
Upon being awakened by his servant Gubazes, Belisarius arose instantly, with the habit of a veteran campaigner. Antonina, at his side, emerged from sleep more slowly. After hearing what Gubazes had to say, the general threw on a tunic and hastened from his bedroom. He did not wait for Antonina to get dressed, nor even take the time to strap on his sandals.
Such strange visitors at this hour could not be kept waiting. Anthony Cassian, Bishop of Aleppo, was a friend who had visited on several occasions—but never at midnight. And as for the other—Michael of Macedonia?
Belisarius knew the name, of course. It was a famous name throughout the Roman Empire. Famous—and loved—by the common folk. To the high churchmen who were the subject of Michael's occasional sermons, the name was notorious—and not loved in the slightest. But the general had never met the man personally. Few people had, in truth, for the monk had lived in his desert cave for years now.
As he walked down the long corridor to the salon, Belisarius heard voices coming from the room ahead. One voice he recognized as that of his friend the bishop. The other voice he took to be that of the monk.
"Belisarius," hissed the unfamiliar voice.
The next voice was that of Anthony Cassian, Bishop of Aleppo:
"Like you, Michael, I believe this is a message from God. But it is not a message for us."
"He is a soldier."
"Yes, and a general to boot. All the better."
"He is pure of spirit?" demanded the harsh, unforgiving voice. "True in soul? Does he walk in the path of righteousness?"
"Oh, I think his soul is clean enough, Michael," replied Cassian gently. "He married a whore, after all. That speaks well of him."
The bishop's voice grew cold. "You, too, old friend, sometimes suffer from the sin of the Pharisees. The day will come when you will be thankful that the hosts of God are commanded by one who, if he does not match the saints in holiness, matches the Serpent himself in guile."
A moment later, Belisarius entered the room. He paused for a moment, examining the two men who awaited him. They, in turn, studied the general.
Anthony Cassian, Bishop of Aleppo, was a short, plump man. His round, cheerful face was centered on a sharply curved nose. Beneath a balding head, his beard was full and neatly groomed. He reminded Belisarius of nothing so much as a friendly, well-fed, intelligent owl.
Michael of Macedonia, on the other hand, brought to mind the image of a very different bird: a gaunt raptor soaring through the desert sky, whose pitiless eyes missed nothing below him. Except, thought the general wryly, for the straggliness of his own great beard and the disheveled condition of his tunic, matters which were quite beneath the holy man's notice.
The general's gaze was returned by the monk's blue-eyed glare. A crooked little smile came to Belisarius' lips.
"You might want to keep him hooded, Bishop, before he slaughters your doves."
Cassian laughed. "Oh, well said! Belisarius, let me introduce you to Michael of Macedonia."
Belisarius cocked an eyebrow. "An odd companion at this hour—or at any hour, from his reputation."
Belisarius stepped forward and extended his hand. The Bishop immediately shook it. The monk did not. But, as Belisarius kept the hand outstretched, Michael began to consider. Outstretched the hand was, and outstretched it remained. A large hand, well shaped and sinewy; a hand which showed not the slightest tremor as the long seconds passed. But it was not the hand which, finally, decided the man of God. It was the calmness of the brown eyes, which went so oddly with the youthful face. Like dark stones, worn smooth in a stream.
Michael decided, and took the hand.
A small commotion made them turn. In the doorway stood a woman, yawning, dressed in a robe. She was very short, and lush figured.
Michael had been told she was comely, for a woman of her years, but now he saw the telling was a lie. The woman was as beautiful as rain in the morning, and her years were the richness of the water itself.
Her beauty repelled him. Not, as it might another holy man, for recalling the ancient Eve. No, it repelled him, simply, because he was a contrary man. And he was so, because he had found all his life that what men said was good, was not; what they said was true, was false; and what they said was beautiful, was hideous.
Then, the woman's eyes caught him. Eyes as green as the first shoots of spring. Bright, clear eyes in a dusky face, framed by ebony hair.
Michael considered, and knew again that men lied.
"You were right, Anthony," he said harshly. He staggered slightly, betrayed by his weak limbs. A moment later the woman was at his side, assisting him to a couch.
"Michael of Macedonia, no less," she said softly, in a humorous tone. "I am honored. Though I hope, for your sake, you were not seen entering. At this hour—well! My reputation is a tatter, anyway. But yours!"
"All reputation is folly," said Michael. "Folly fed by pride, which is worse still."
"Cheerful fellow, isn't he?" asked Cassian lightly. "My oldest and closest friend, though I sometimes wonder why."
He shook his head whimsically. "Look at us. He, with his shaggy mane and starveling body; me, with my properly groomed beard and—well. Slender, I am not." A grin. "Though, for all my rotundity, let it be noted that I, at least, can still move about on my own two legs."
Michael smiled, faintly. "Anthony has always been fond of boasting. Fortunately, he is also clever. A dull-witted Cassian would find nothing to boast about. But he can always find something, buried beneath the world's notice, like a mole ferreting out worms."
Belisarius and Antonina laughed.
"A quick-witted Stylite!" cried the general. "My day is made, even before the sun rises."
Suddenly solemn, Cassian shook his head.
"I fear not, Belisarius. Quite the contrary. We did not come here to bring you sunshine, but to bring you a sign of nightfall."
"Show him," commanded Michael.
The bishop reached into his cassock and withdrew the thing. He held it forth in his outstretched hand.
Belisarius stooped slightly to examine the thing. His eyes remained calm. No expression could be seen on his face.
Antonina, on the other hand, gasped and drew back.
Anthony shook his head. "I do not think so, Antonina. Or, at least, not the craft of black magic."
Curiosity overrode her fear. Antonina came forward. As short as she was, she did not have to stoop to scrutinize the thing closely.
"I have never seen its like," she whispered. "I have never heard of its like. Magic gems, yes. But this—it resembles a jewel, at first, until you look more closely. Or a crystal. Then—within—it is like—"
She groped for words. Her husband spoke:
"So must the sun's cool logic unfold, if we could see beneath its roiling fury."
"Oh, well said!" cried Cassian. "A poetic general! A philosophical soldier!"
"Enough with the jests," snapped Michael. "General, you must take it in your hand."
The calm gaze transferred itself to the monk.
For a moment, the raptor glare manifested itself. But only for a moment. Uncertainly, Michael lowered his head.
"I do not know why. The truth? You must do it because my friend Anthony Cassian said you must. And of all men that I have ever known, he is the wisest. Even if he is a cursed churchman."
Belisarius regarded the bishop.
"Why then, Cassian?"
The bishop gazed down at the thing in his palm, the jewel that was not a jewel, the gem without weight, the crystal without sharpness, the thing with so many facets—and, he thought, so many more forming and reforming—that it seemed as round as the perfect sphere of ancient Greek dreams.
Anthony shrugged. "I cannot answer your question. But I know it is true."
The bishop motioned toward the seated monk.
"It first came to Michael, five days ago, in his cave in the desert. He took the thing in his hand and was transported into visions."
Belisarius stared at the monk. Antonina, hesitantly, asked: "And you do not think it is witchcraft?"
Michael of Macedonia shook his head.
"I am certain that it is not a thing of Satan. I cannot explain why, not in words spoken by men. I have—felt the thing. Lived with it, for two days, in my mind. While I lay unconscious to the world."
He frowned. "Strange, really. It seemed but a moment to me, at the time."
He shook his head again.
"I do not know what it is, but of this much I am sure. I found not a trace of evil in it, anywhere. It is true, the visions which came to me were terrible, horrible beyond description. But there were other visions, as well, visions which I cannot remember clearly. They remain in my mind like a dream you can't recall. Dreams of things beyond imagining."
He slumped back in his chair. "I believe it to be a message from God, Antonina. Belisarius. But I am not certain. And I certainly can't prove it."
Belisarius looked at the bishop.
"And what do you think, Anthony?" He gestured at the thing. "Have you—?"
The bishop nodded. "Yes, Belisarius. After Michael brought the thing to me, last night, and asked me for advice, I took it in my own hand. And I, too, was then plunged into vision. Horrible visions, like Michael's. But where two days seemed but a moment to him, the few minutes in which I was lost to the world seemed like eternity to me, and I was never seized by a paroxysm."
Michael of Macedonia suddenly laughed.
"Leave it to the wordiest man in creation to withstand a torrent like a rock!" he cried. He laughed again, almost gaily.
"But for just an instant, when he returned from his vision, I witnessed a true miracle! Anthony Cassian, Bishop of Aleppo, silent."
Cassian grinned. "It's true. I was positively struck dumb! I don't know what I expected when I took up the—thing—but certainly not what came to me, not even after Michael's warning. I sooner would have expected a unicorn! Or a seraph! Or a walking, wondrous creature made of lapis lazuli and beaten silver by the emperor's smiths, or—"
"A very brief miracle," snorted Michael. Cassian's mouth snapped shut.
Belisarius and Antonina grinned. The bishop's only known vice was that he was perhaps the most talkative man in the world.
But the grins faded soon enough.
"And what were your visions, Anthony?" asked Belisarius.
The bishop waved the question aside. "I will describe them later, Belisarius. But not now."
He stared down at the palm of his hand. The thing resting there coruscated inner fluxes too complex to follow.
"I do not think the—message—is meant for me. Or for Michael. I think it is meant for you. Whatever the thing is, Belisarius, it is an omen of catastrophe. But there is something else, lurking within. I sensed it when I took the thing in my own hand. Sensed it, and sensed it truly. A—a purpose, let us say, which is somehow aimed against that disaster. A purpose which requires you, I think, to speak."
Belisarius, again, examined the thing. No expression showed on his face. But his wife, who knew him best, began to plead.
Her pleas went unheard, for the thing was already in the soldier's hand. Then her pleas ceased, and she fell silent. For, indeed, the thing was like the sun itself, now, if a sun could enter a room and show itself to mortal men. And they, still live.
The spreading facets erupted, not like a volcano, but like the very dawn of creation. They sped, unfolding and doubling, and tripling, and then tripling and tripling and tripling, through the labyrinth that was the mind of Belisarius.
purpose became focus, and focus gave facets form.
identity crystallized. With it, purpose metamorphosed into aim. And, if it had been within the capacity of aim to leap for joy, it would have gamboled like a fawn in the forest.
But for Belisarius, there was nothing; nothing but the fall into the Pit. Nothing but the vision of a future terrible beyond all nightmare.
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Dragonbolts streaked overhead. Below, the ranks of the cataphracts hunched behind their barricade. The horses, held in the rear by younger infantrymen, whinnied with terror and fought their holders. They were useless now, as Belisarius had known they would be. It was for that very reason that he had ordered the cataphracts to dismount and fight afoot, from behind a barricade built by their own aristocratic hands. The armored lancers and archers, once feared by all the world, had not even complained, but had obeyed instantly. Even the noble cataphracts had finally learned wisdom, though the learning had come much too late.
What use was a mounted charge against—?
Over the barricade, the general saw the first of the iron elephants advancing slowly down the Mese, the great central thoroughfare of Constantinople. Behind, he could see the flames of the burning city and hear the screams of the populace. The butchery of the great city's half-million inhabitants was well underway, now.
The Malwa emperor himself had decreed Constantinople's sentence, and the Mahaveda priests had blessed it. Not since Ranapur had that sentence been pronounced. All that lived in the city were to be slaughtered, down to the cats and dogs. All save the women of the nobility, who were to be turned over to the Ye-tai for defilement. Those women who survived would be passed on to the Rajputs. (At Ranapur, the Rajputs had coldly declined. But that was long ago, when the name of Rajputana had still carried its ancient legacy. They would not decline now, for they had been broken to their place.) The handful who survived the Rajputs would be sold to whatever polluted untouchable could scrape up the coins to buy himself a hag. There would be few untouchables who could afford the price. But there would be some, among the teeming multitude of that ever-growing class.
The iron elephant huffed its steamy breath, wheezing and gasping. Had it truly been an animal, Belisarius might have hoped it was dying, so horribly wrong was the sound of the creature's respiration. But it was no creature, Belisarius knew. It was a creation—a construct made of human craft and inhuman lore. Still, watching the monstrous thing creeping its slow way forward, surrounded by Ye-tai warriors howling with glee at their anticipated final triumph, the general found it impossible to think of it as anything other than a demonic beast.
Belisarius, seeing one of the cataphracts take up a captured thunderflask, bellowed a command. The cataphract subsided. They possessed few of the infernal devices, and Belisarius was determined to make good use of them. The range was still too great.
He stroked his grey beard. Of his youth, nothing remained save whimsy; it amused him to see how old habits never die. Even now, when all hope had vanished from the mind of the general, the heart of the man still beat as strongly as ever.
It was not a warrior's heart. Belisarius had never truly been a warrior, not, at least, in the sense that others gave the name. No, he was of unpretentious Thracian stock. And, at bottom, his was the soul of a workman at his trade.
True, he had been supreme in battle. (Not war, in the end; for the long war was almost over, the defeat total.) Even his most bitter enemies recognized his unchallenged mastery on the field of carnage, as the display of force coming down the Mese attested. Why else mass such an enormous army to overcome such a tiny guard? Had any other man but Belisarius commanded the Emperor's last bodyguard, the Mahaveda would have sent a mere detachment.
Yes, he had been supreme on the battlefield. But his supremacy had stemmed from craftsmanship, not martial valor. Of the courage of Belisarius, no man doubted, not even he. But courage, he had long known, was a common trait. God's most democratic gift, given to men and women of all ages, and races, and stations in life. Much rarer was craftsmanship, that odd quality which is not satisfied merely with the result sought, but that the work itself be done skillfully.
His life was at an end, now, but he would end it with supreme craftsmanship. And, in so doing, gut the enemy's triumph of its glee.
A cataphract hissed. Belisarius glanced over, thinking the man had been hit by one of the many arrows which were now falling upon them. But the lancer was unharmed, his eyes fixed forward.
Belisarius followed the eyes and understood. The Mahaveda priests had appeared now, safely behind the ranks of the Ye-tai and the Malwa kshatriyas manning the iron elephant. They were drawn forward on three great carts hauled by slaves, each cart bearing three priests and a mahamimamsa torturer. From the center of each cart arose a wooden gibbet, and from the gibbets hung the new talismans which they had added to their demonic paraphernalia.
There, suspended three abreast, hung those who had been dearest to Belisarius in life. Sittas, his oldest and best friend. Photius, his beloved stepson. Antonina, his wife.
Their skins, rather. Flayed from their bodies by the mahamimamsa, sewn into sacks which bellied in the breeze, and smeared with the excrement of dogs. The skin-sacks had been cleverly designed so that they channeled the wind into a wail of horror. The skins hung suspended by the hair of those who had once filled them in life. The priests took great care to hold them in such a manner that Belisarius could see their faces.
The general almost laughed with triumph. But his face remained calm, his expression still. Even now, the enemy did not understand him.
He spit on the ground, saw his men note the gesture and take heart. As he had known they would. But, even had they not been watching, he would have done the same.
What cared he for these trophies? Was he a pagan, to mistake the soul for its sheath? Was he a savage, to feel his heart break and his bowels loosen at the sight of fetishes?
His enemies had thought so, arrogant as always. As he had known they would, and planned for. Then he did laugh (and saw his men take note, and heart; but he would have laughed anyway), for now that the procession had drawn nearer he could see that the skin of Sittas was suspended by a cord.
"Look there, cataphracts!" he cried. "They couldn't hang Sittas by his hair! He had no hair, at the end. Lost it all, he did, fretting the night away devising the stratagems which made them howl."
The cataphracts took up the cry.
"Antioch! Antioch!" There, the city fallen, Sittas had butchered the Malwa hordes before leading the entire garrison in a successful withdrawal.
"Korykos! Korykos!" There, on the Cilician coast, not a month later, Sittas had turned on the host which pursued him. Turned, trapped them, and made the Mediterranean a Homeric sea in truth. Wine-dark, from Ye-tai blood.
"Pisidia! Pisidia!" There was no wine-dark lake, in Homer. But had the poet lived to see the havoc which Sittas wreaked upon the Rajputs by the banks of Pisidia's largest lake, he would have sung of it.
At Bursa, Sittas had met his death. But not at the hands of the mahamimamsa vivisectors. He had died in full armor, leading the last charge of his remaining cataphracts, after conducting the most brilliant fighting retreat since Xenophon's march to the sea.
"And look at the face of Photius!" shouted Belisarius. "Is it not a marvel, how well the flayers preserved it? Look, cataphracts, look! Is that not the grin of Photius? His merry smile?"
The cataphracts looked, and nodded, and took up the cry.
"So did he laugh at Alexandria!" cried one. "When he transfixed Akhshunwar's throat with his arrow!" The Ye-tai commander of the siege had disbelieved the tales of the garrison leader's archery. He had come to the walls of Alexandria himself to see, and scoff, and deride the courage of his warriors. But his warriors had been right, after all.
New cries were taken up by the cataphracts, recalling other feats of Photius during his heroic defense of Alexandria. Photius the Fearless, as he had been called. Photius, the beloved stepson. Who, when his capture was inevitable, had taken a poison so horrible that it had caused his face to freeze into an eternal rictus. Belisarius had wondered, when he heard the tale, why his sensible son had not simply opened his veins. But now he understood. From beyond the grave, Photius sent him a last gift.
The best, Belisarius saved for last.
"And look! Look, cataphracts, at the skin of Antonina! Look at the withered, disease-ruptured thing! They have dug her up from the grave, where the plague sent her! How many of the torturers will die, do you think, from that desecration? How many will writhe in agony, and shriek to see their bodies blacken and swell? How many? How many?"
"Thousand! Thousands!" roared the cataphracts.
Belisarius gauged the moment, and thought it good. He scanned the cataphracts and saw that they were with him. They knew his plan and had said they would follow, even though it was an act of personal grace which would bring death to them all. He needed only, now, a battlecry. He found it at once.
Through all the years he had loved Antonina, there was a name he had never called her. Others had, many others, even she herself, but never he. Not even the first night he met her, and paid for her services.
"For my whore!" he bellowed, and sprang upon the barricade. "For my pustulent whore! May she rot their souls in hell!"
"FOR THE WHORE!" cried the cataphracts. "FOR THE WHORE!"
The captured thunderflasks were hurled now, and hurled well. The iron elephant erupted in fire and flame. The cataphracts fired a volley, and another, and another. Again, as so often before, the Ye-tai had time to be astonished at the force of the ravening arrows as they ripped through their iron armor like so much cloth. Little time, little time. Few but cataphracts could draw those incredible bows.
Those Ye-tai in the front ranks, those who survived, then had time to be further astonished. They had been awaiting a cavalry charge, fully confident that the dragonbolts would panic the great horses. Now they gaped to see the lancers advancing like infantry.
In truth, the cataphracts were slower afoot than on saddle. But they were not much slower, so great was their bitter rage. And the lances which ruptured chests and spilled intestines onto the great thoroughfare were every bit as keen as Ye-tai memories recalled.
"For the whore! For the whore!"
The front line of the Ye-tai was nothing but a memory itself as the second line pressed forward, avid and eager to prove their mettle. Most of these, following Ye-tai custom, were inexperienced warriors, vainglorious in the heedless way of youth, who had never really believed the tales of the veterans.
They came to believe quickly. Most died in the act of conversion, however, for the mace of a cataphract is an unforgiving instructor. Quick to find fault, quick to reprove, and altogether harsh in its correction.
The second line, thus, was shredded almost instantly. The third line held, for a time. It counted many veterans among its number, who had long since learned that cataphracts cannot be matched blow for blow. Some among them were able to take advantage of their great number to find the occasional gap in the armor, the rare opening for the well-thrust blade.
But not many, and not for long. As wide as the Mese was, it was still a street hemmed by buildings. This was no great plain where the enemy could encircle their foe. As always, Belisarius had picked the ground for his defense perfectly. The Mahaveda, he had long known, relied too much on their numbers and their satanic weapons. But in that narrow place of death, closing immediately with their enemy so as to nullify the dragon-weapons, advantage went to the cataphracts.
This was partly due to the strength of the cataphracts, to the awesome iron power of their armored bodies. But mostly, it was due to their steel-hard discipline. The Mahaveda had tried to copy that discipline in their own armies, but had never truly been able to do so. As ever, the Mahaveda relied on fear to enforce their will. But fear, in the end, can never duplicate pride.
On that day of final fury, the cataphracts did not forget their ancient discipline. That discipline had conquered half the world once, and ruled it for a millenium. Ruled it not badly, moreover, all things considered. Well enough, at least, that over the centuries people of many races had come to think themselves Roman. And take pride in the name.
On Rome's final day, in truth, there were few Latins in the ranks of the cataphracts, and none from the city which gave the Empire its name. Greeks, in the main, from the sturdy yeomanry of Anatolia. But Armenians were there too, and Goths and Huns and Syrians and Macedonians and Thracians and Illyrians and Egyptians and even three Jews. (Who quietly practiced their faith; their comrades looked the other way and said nothing to the priests.)
Today, the cataphracts would finally lose the world, after a war which had lasted decades, and would lose it to an enemy fouler than Medusa. But they would not falter in their Roman duty, and their Roman pride, and their Roman discipline.
The third line of Ye-tai collapsed and pushed the fourth back. Incredibly—to the Mahaveda priests who watched, standing atop the skin-bearing wagons with their mahamimamsa flayers—the Byzantines were driving their way through the horde of Ye-tai. Like a sword cutting through armor, piercing straight to—
They shrieked, then. Shrieked in outrage, partly. But mostly, they shrieked in fear. The Rajputs, the priests knew, never called the great general of the enemy by his name. They called him, simply, the Mongoose. It was an impious habit, for which the priests had reproved them often. They would have done better to listen, they realized now, watching the fangs of Belisarius gape wide.
* * *
"I see it worked," said Justinian. "As your stratagems usually do." The old Emperor arose from his chair and shuffled forward laboriously. Belisarius began to prostrate himself, but Justinian stopped him with a gesture.
"We do not have time." He cocked an ear, listening for a moment to the sounds of battle which carried faintly into the dim recesses of the Hagia Sophia. The Emperor had chosen to meet his end here, in the great cathedral which he had ordered built so long ago.
Ever the soldier, Belisarius had argued for the Great Palace. That labyrinth of buildings and gardens would be far easier to defend. But, as so often before, the Emperor had overruled him. For perhaps the only time, Justinian knew, that he had been right to do so.
The Great Palace was meaningless. The Empire which had lasted a millenium would be finished by nightfall. Never to return, in all the countless years of the gorgon future. But the soul was everlasting, and the Emperor's only concern now was for eternity. To save his own soul, if possible. (Although he was not confident, and rather thought hellfire awaited him.) But, at the least, to do his best to save the souls of those who had served him for so long, and so faithfully, and so uncomplainingly, and with so little reason to have done so.
The eyes of the Emperor gazed upon his general. The eyes were old, and weak, and weary, and filled with pain both of the body and the spirit. But they had lost not a trace of their extraordinary intelligence. That great, blinding intelligence. That intelligence which had been so great it had blinded the very man who possessed it.
"It is I, in truth, who should prostrate myself to you," said Justinian. His voice was harsh. He had spoken the truth and knew it. And knew that his general knew it. But he found no liking for the truth. No, none at all. He never had.
A figure advanced from the shadows. Belisarius had known he would be there, but had not seen him. The Maratha was capable of utter stillness and silence.
"Let me clean them, master," said the slave, extending his arms. They were very old, those arms, but had lost little of their iron strength.
"There is time," said the slave. "The cataphracts will hold the asura's dogs long enough." He smiled faintly. "They do not fight for the Empire now. Not even for your God. They fight for your Christ, and his Mary Magdelene. Whom they betrayed often enough in life, but will not in death. They will hold. Long enough."
He extended his arms in a forceful gesture.
"I insist, master. It may mean little to you, but it does to me. I have a different faith, and I would not have these precious souls go unclean to their destiny."
He took the horrid parcels from Belisarius' unresisting arms and carried them to a cistern. Into the water he thrust the skins and began cleaning them. Gently, for all that he moved in haste.
Emperor and general watched, silently. It seemed fitting to both, each in their own way, that a slave should command at the end of all time.
Soon enough, the slave was done. He led the way through the cavernous darkness. The myriad candles which would normally have illuminated the wondrous mosaics of the cathedral were extinguished. Only in the room at the far recesses in the rear did a few tapers still burn.
They were not needed, however. The great vat resting in the center, bubbling with molten gold and silver, was more than enough to light the room. Light it almost like day, so fiercely did the precious metals blaze.
Justinian pondered the vat. He had ordered it constructed many months ago, foreseeing this end. He was quite proud of the device, actually. As proud of it as he had been of the many other marvelous contrivances which adorned his palaces. Whatever else of his youth the Thracian peasant had lost, in his bloody climb to the throne, and his bloodier rule, he had never lost his simple childish delight in clever gadgets. Greek and Armenian craftsmen had constructed the device, with their usual skill.
Justinian reached out and pulled the lever which started the intricate timing device. In an hour, the vat would disgorge its contents. The accumulated treasure of Rome's millenium would pour out the bottom, down through the multitude of channels which would scatter it into the labyrinthine sewers of Constantinople. There, it would be buried for all time by the captured dragon-flasks in their eruption. The Greeks had never learned the secret of the dragon-weapons, but they knew how to use captured ones to good effect.
In an hour, it would be done. But the vat had a more important use to which it would now be put. Nothing of Rome's greatness would be left to adorn the walls and rafters of the Malwa palace.
"Let us be done with it," commanded the Emperor. He shuffled over to a bier and stooped. With difficulty, for he was weak with age, he withdrew its burden. The slave moved to assist him, but the Emperor waved him back.
"I will carry her myself." As always, his voice was harsh. But, when the Emperor gazed down upon the face of the mummy in his arms, his face grew soft.
"In this one thing, I was always true. In this, if nothing else."
"Yes," said Belisarius. He looked down at the face of the mummy and thought the embalmers had done their work well. Long years had it been since the Empress Theodora had died of cancer. Long years, resting in her bier. But her waxen face still bore the beauty which had marked it in life.
More so, perhaps, thought Belisarius. In death, Theodora's face showed peace and gentle repose. There was nothing in it, now, of the fierce ambition which had so often hardened it in life.
Laboriously, the Emperor took his place on the ledge adjoining the vat. Then he stepped back. Not from fear, but simply from the heat. It could not be borne for more than a moment, and he still had words which had to be said.
Had to be, not wanted to be. The Emperor wished it were otherwise, for if ever had lived a man who begrudged apology, it was Justinian. Justinian the Great, he had wanted to be called, and so remembered by all posterity. Instead, he would be known as Justinian the Fool. At best. Attila had been called the Scourge of God. He suspected he would be known as the Catastrophe of God.
He opened his mouth to speak. Clamped it shut.
"There is no need, Justinian," said Belisarius, for the first and only time in his life calling the Emperor by his simple name. "There is no need." An old, familiar, crooked smile. "And no time, for that matter. The last cataphract will be falling soon. It would take you hours to say what you are trying to say. It will not come easily to you, if at all."
"Why did you never betray me?" whispered the Emperor. "I repaid your loyalty with nothing but foul distrust."
"I swore an oath."
Disbelief came naturally to the Emperor's face.
"And look what it led to," he muttered. "You should have betrayed me. You should have murdered me and taken the throne yourself. For years now, all Romans would have supported you—nobles and common alike. You are all that kept me in power, since Theodora died."
"I swore an oath. To God, not to Romans."
The Emperor gestured with his head at the faint sounds of battle.
"And that? Does your oath to God encompass that? Had you been emperor, instead of I, the anti-Christ might not have triumphed."
Belisarius shrugged. "Who is to know the future? Not I, my lord. Nor does it matter. Even had I known the course of the future, down to the last particular, I would not have betrayed you. I swore an oath."
Pain, finally, came to the Emperor's face.
"I do not understand."
"I know, lord."
The sounds of battle were faint now. Belisarius glanced at the entrance to the chamber.
The slave stepped forward and handed him the skin of Sittas. Belisarius gazed upon the face of his friend, kissed it, and tossed it into the vat. A brief burst of flame, and the trophy was lost to Satan. He gazed longer upon the face of his stepson, but not much, before it followed into destruction. He knew Photius would understand. He, too, had commanded armies, and knew the value of time.
Finally, he took the remains of Antonina into his arms and stepped upon the ledge. A moment later Justinian joined him, bearing the mummy of the Empress.
The slave thought it was fitting that the Emperor, who had always preceded his general in life, should precede him in death. So he pushed Justinian first. He had guessed the Emperor would scream, at the end. But the old tyrant was made of sterner stuff. Sensing the approach of the slave behind him, Justinian had simply said:
"Come, Belisarius. Let us carry our whores to heaven. We may be denied entrance, but never they."
Belisarius had said nothing. Nor, of course, had he screamed. As he turned away from the vat, the old slave grinned.
The general, for all the suppleness of his mind, had always been absurdly stiff-necked about his duty. The Christian faith forbade suicide, and so the slave had performed this last service. But it had been a pure formality. At the end, the slave knew, as soon as he felt the first touch of the powerful hands at his back, Belisarius had leapt.
But he would be able to tell his god that he had been pushed. His god would not believe him, of course. Even the Christian god was not that stupid. But the Christian god would accept the lie. And if not he, then certainly his son. Why should he not?
The slave, all the duties of a long lifetime finally done, moved slowly over to the one chair in the chamber and took his seat. It was a marvelous chair, as was everything made for the Emperor. He looked around the chamber, enjoying the beauty of the intricate mosaics, and thought it was a good place to die.
Such a strange people, these Christians. The slave had lived among them for decades, but he had never been able to fathom them. They were so irrational and given to obsessiveness. Yet, he knew, not ignoble. They, too, in their own superstitious way, accepted bhakti. And if their way of bhakti seemed often ridiculous to the slave, there was this much to be said for it: they had stood by their faith, most of them, and fought to the end for it. More than that, no reasonable man could ask.
No reasonable god, so much was certain. And the slave's god was a reasonable being. Capricious, perhaps, and prone to whimsy. But always reasonable.
Those people whom the slave had cast into the molten metal had nothing to fear from God. Not even the Emperor. True, the fierce old tyrant would spend many lifetimes shedding the weight of his folly. Many lifetimes, for he had committed a great sin. He had taken the phenomenal intelligence God gave him and used it to crush wisdom.
Many lifetimes. As an insect, the slave thought. Perhaps even as a worm. But, for the all the evil he had done, Justinian had not been a truly evil man. And so, the slave thought, the time would come when God would allow the Emperor to return, as a poor peasant again, somewhere in the world. Perhaps, then, he would have learned a bit of wisdom.
But perhaps not. Time was vast beyond human comprehension, and who was to know how long it might take a soul to find moksha?
The old slave took out the dagger from his cloak.
Belisarius had given that dagger to him, many years before, on the day he told the slave he was manumitting him. The slave had refused the freedom. He had no use for it any longer, and he preferred to remain of service to the general. True, he no longer hoped, by then, that Belisarius was Kalkin. He had, once. But as the years passed in the general's service, the slave had finally accepted the truth. Great was Belisarius, but merely human. He was not the tenth avatara who was promised. The slave had bowed to the reality, sadly, knowing the world was thereby condemned to many more turns of the wheel under the claws of the great asura who had seized it. But, truth was what it was. His dharma still remained.
Belisarius had not understood his refusal, not really, but he had acquiesced and kept the slave. Yet, that same day he had pressed the dagger into his slave's hand, that the slave might know that the master could also refuse freedom. The slave had appreciated the gesture. Just so should mortals dance in the eyes of God.
He weighed the weapon in his hand. It was an excellent dagger.
In his day, the old slave had been a deadly assassin, among many other things. He had not used a dagger in decades, but he had not forgotten the feel of it. Warm, and trusting, like a favorite pet.
He lowered it. He would wait awhile.
All was silent, beyond the walls of the Hagia Sophia. The cataphracts who had stood with Belisarius for one final battle were dead now.
They had died well. Oh, very well.
In his day, the old slave had been a feared and famous warrior, among many other things. He had not fought a battle in decades, but he knew the feel of them. A great battle they had waged, the cataphracts. All the greater, that there had been no purpose in it save dharma.
And, perhaps, the slave admitted, the small joy of a delicious revenge. But revenge would not weigh too heavily on their destiny, the slave thought. No, the cataphracts had shed much karma from their souls.
The slave was glad of it. He had never cared much for the cataphracts, it was true. Crude and boastful, they were. Coarse and unrefined, compared to the kshatriya the slave had once been. But no kshatriya could ever claim more than the dead cataphracts outside the walls of the Hagia Sophia. Arjuna himself would adopt their souls and call them kinfolk.
Again, he thought about the dagger and knew that his own karma would be the better for its use. But, again, he thrust the thought aside.
No, he would wait awhile.
It was not that he feared the sin of suicide. His faith did not share the bizarre Christian notion that acts carried moral consequences separate from their purpose. No, it was that he, too, could not bear to leave this turn of eternity's wheel without a small, delicious revenge.
The asura's vermin would need time to find the chamber where the old slave sat. Time, while the Ye-tai dogs and their Rajput fleas slunk fearfully through the great cavern of the cathedral, dreading another strike of the Mongoose.
The old slave would give them the time. He would add considerable karma to his soul, he knew, but he could not resist.
He would taunt the tormentors.
So had Shakuntala taunted them, so long ago, before opening her veins. And now, at the end of his life, the old slave found great joy in the fact that he could finally remember the girl without pain.
How he had loved that treasure of the world, that jewel of creation! From the first day her father had brought her to him, and handed her into his safe-keeping.
"Teach her everything you know," the emperor of great Andhra had instructed. "Hold back nothing."
Seven years old, she had been. Dark-skinned, for her mother was Keralan. Her eyes, even then, had been the purest black beauty.
As she aged, other men were drawn to the beauty of her body. But never the man who was, years later, to become the slave of Belisarius. He had loved the beauty of the girl herself. And had taught her well, he thought. Had held back nothing.
He laughed, then, as he had not laughed in decades. At the sound of that laugh, the Ye-tai and Rajput warriors who were creeping beyond froze in their tracks, like paralyzed deer. For the sound of the slave's joy had rung the walls of the cathedral like the scream of a panther.
And, indeed, so had the slave been called, in his own day. The Panther of Maharashtra. The Wind of the Great Country.
Oh, how the Wind had loved the Princess Shakuntala!
The daughter of the great Andhra's loins, it might be. Who was to know? Paternity of the body was always a favorite subject of God's humor. Yet this much was certain: her soul had truly been the cub of the Panther.
She alone of the Satavahana dynasty they had spared, the asura's dogs, when they finally conquered Andhra. She alone, for the beauty of her body. A prize which the Emperor Skandagupta would bestow on his faithful servant, Venandakatra. Venandakatra the Vile. The vermin of vermin, was Venandakatra, for the Malwa emperor himself was nothing but the asura's beast.
The Panther had been unable to prevent her capture. He had lain hidden in the reeds, almost dead from the wounds of that last battle before the palace at Amavarati. But, after he recovered, he had tracked the dogs back to their lair. North, across the Vindhyas, to the very palace of the Vile One.
Shakuntala was there. She had been imprisoned for months, held for Venandakatra's pleasure upon his return from the mission whence the emperor had sent him the year before. Unharmed, but safely guarded. The Panther had studied the guards carefully, and decided he could not overcome them. Kushans, under the command of a shrewd and canny veteran, who took no chances and left no entry unguarded.
The Panther inquired. Among many other things, he had been a master spy in his time, and so he discovered much. But the outstanding fact discovered was that the Kushan commander was, indeed, not to be underestimated. Kungas, his name was, and it was a name the Panther had heard. No, best to bide his time.
Then, time had run out. Venandakatra had returned and had entered his new concubine's chamber at once, a horde of Ye-tai guards clustering outside. The Vile One was eager to taste the pleasure of her flesh, and the greater pleasure of her defilement.
Remembering that day, the old slave's sinewy fingers closed about the haft of the dagger. But he released his grip. He could hear the shuffling feet of the vermin beyond. He would bide awhile. Not much longer now, he thought.
Just long enough to torture the torturers.
On the last day of the girl's life, the Panther had knelt in the woods below Venandakatra's palace. Knelt in fervent prayer. A prayer that Shakuntala would remember all that he had taught her, and not just those lessons which come easily to youth.
The old slave had been a noted philosopher, in his day, among many other things. And so, long years before, he had prayed that the treasure of his soul would remember that only the soul mattered, in the end. All else was dross.
But, as he had feared, she had not remembered. Everything else, but not that. And so, when he heard the Vile One's first scream, he had wept the most bitter tears of a bitter lifetime.
Years later, he heard the tale from Kungas himself. Odd, how time's wheel turns. He had met the one-time commander of Shakuntala's guard on the same slave ship which bore him to the market at Antioch. The Panther had finally been captured in one of the last desperate struggles before all of India was brought beneath the asura's talons. But his captors had not recognized the Wind of the Great Country in their weary, much-scarred captive, and so they had simply sold him as a slave.
Kungas, he discovered, had long been a slave. His hands were missing now, cut off by the Ye-tai guards who had blamed him for Shakuntala's deed. Cut off by the same guards who had shouldered him and his Kushans aside, avid to watch their master at his sport. (And hopeful, of course, that the Vile One might invite them to mount the child after he had satiated himself.)
Kungas was missing his eyes and his nose, as well. But the mahamimamsa had left him his ears and his mouth, so that he might hear the taunts of children and be able to wail in misery.
But Kungas had always been a practical man. So he had taken up the trade of story-telling and mastered it. And if people thought the sight of him hideous, they bore it for the sake of his tales. Great tales, he told. None greater and more eagerly sought by the poor folk who were his normal clientele—though it was forbidden—than the tale of the Vile One's demise. Sitting in the hold of the slave ship (where he found himself, he explained cheerfully, because his fluent tongue had seduced a noblewoman but his sightless eyes had not spotted her husband's return), he told the tale to the Panther.
A gleeful tale, as Kungas told it, the more so because Kungas had come to accept that his own punishment was just. He had been responsible for the Vile One's demise, and had long since decided that it was perhaps the only pure deed of a generally misspent life.
Kungas had always despised Venandakatra, and the Ye-tai who lorded it over all but the Malwa. And, in his hard and callous way, he had grown fond of the princess. So he had not cautioned them. He had held his tongue. He had not warned them that the supple limbs of the girl's beauty came from the steel muscle beneath the comely flesh. He had watched her dance, and knew. And knew also, watching the fluid grace of her movements, that she had been taught to dance by an assassin.
Kungas had described the first blow, and the Panther could see it, even in the hold of the slave ship. The heel strike to the groin, just as he had taught her. And all the blows which followed, like quick laughter, leaving the Vile One writhing on the floor within seconds.
Writhing, but not dead. No, the girl had remembered everything he taught her, except what he had most hoped for. Certainly, he knew, listening to the tale of Kungas, she had remembered the assassin's creed, when slaying the foul. To leave the victim paralyzed, but conscious, so that despair of the mind might multiply the agony of the body.
Hearing the asura's dogs finally enter the chamber, the old slave closed his eyes. Just a bit longer, just a bit, so that he could savor that moment in his mind's eye. Oh, how he had loved the Black-eyed Pearl of the Satavahana!
He could see her dance now, the last dance of her life. Oh, great must have been her joy! To prance before the Vile One, tantalizing him with the virgin body that would never be his, not now, not as Venandakatra could watch his life pour out of his throat, slashed open by his own knife, bathing the bare quicksilver feet of his slayer as they danced her dance of death. Her own blood would join his, soon enough; for she cut her own throat before the Ye-tai guards could reach her. But the Vile One had found no pleasure in the fact, for his eyes were unseeing.
It was time. Just as the Ye-tai reached out to seize him, the old slave leapt from the chair and sprang onto the rim of the flaming vat. The Ye-tai gaped, to see an old man spring so. So like a young panther.
Time to flay the flayers.
Oh, well he did flay them, the slave. Taunting them, first, with the bitterness of their eternally-lost trophies. No skin nor bone of great Romans would hang on Malwa's walls, no Roman treasure fill its coffers!
And then, with himself. Not once in thirty years had the old slave used his true name. But he spoke it now, and it thundered in the cathedral.
"Raghunath Rao is my name. I am he. I am the Panther of Maharashtra. I slew your fathers by the thousands. I am the Wind of the Great Country. I reaped their souls like a scythe. I am the Shield of the Deccan. My piss was their funeral pyre.
"Raghunath Rao am I! Raghunath Rao!
"The Bane of False Gupta, and the Mirror of Rajputana's Shame.
"Raghunath Rao! I am he!"
Well did they know that name, even after all these years, and they drew back. Incredulous, at first. But then, watching the old man dancing on the rim of goldfire, they knew he spoke the truth. For Raghunath Rao had been many things, and great in all of them, but greatest of all as a dancer. Great when he danced the death of Majarashtra's enemies, and great now, when he danced the death of the Great Country itself.
And finally, he flayed them with God.
Oh yes, the old slave had been a great dancer, in his day, among many other things. And now, by the edge of Rome's molten treasure, in the skin-smoke of Rome's molten glory, he danced the dance. The great dance, the terrible dance, the now-forbidden but never-forgotten dance. The dance of creation. The dance of destruction. The wheeling, whirling, dervish dance of time.
As he danced, the Mahaveda priests hissed their futile fury. Futile, because they did not dare approach him, for they feared the terror in his soul; and the Ye-tai would not, for they feared the terror in his limbs; and the Rajputs could not, for they were on their knees, weeping for Rajputana's honor.
Yes, he had been a great dancer, in his day. But never as great, he knew, as he was on this last day. And as he danced and whirled the turns of time, he forgot his enemies. For they were, in the end, nothing. He remembered only those he loved, and was astonished to see how many he had loved, in his long and pain-filled life.
He would see them again, perhaps, some day. When, no man could know. But see them he would, he thought.
And perhaps, in some other turn of the wheel, he would watch the treasure of his soul dance her wedding dance, her bare quicksilver feet flashing in the wine of her beloved's heart.
And perhaps, in some other turn of the wheel, he would see emperors bend intelligence to wisdom, and the faithful bend creed to devotion.
And perhaps, in some other turn of the wheel, he would see Rajputana regain its honor, that his combat with the ancient enemy might again be a dance of glory.
And perhaps, in that other turn of the wheel, he would find Kalkin had come indeed, to slay the asura's minions and bind the demon itself.
What man can know?
Finally, feeling his strength begin to fade, the old slave drew his dagger. There was no need for it, really, but he thought it fitting that such an excellent gift be used. So he opened his veins and incorporated the spurting blood into his dance, and watched his life hiss into the golden moltenness. Nothing of his, no skin nor bone, would he leave to the asura. He would join the impure emperor and the pure general, and the purest of wives.
He made his last swirling, capering leap. Oh, so high was that leap! So high that he had time, before he plunged to his death, to cry out a great peal of laughter.
"Oh, grim Belisarius! Can you not see that God is a dancer, and creation his dance of joy?"
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When he opened his eyes, Belisarius found himself kneeling, staring at the tiles of the floor. The thing was resting in his loosely clenched fist, but it was quiescent now, a shimmer.
Without looking up, he croaked: "How long?"
Cassian chuckled. "Seems like forever, doesn't it? Minutes, Belisarius. Minutes only."
Antonina knelt by his side and placed her arm over his shoulders. Her face was full of concern.
"Are you all right, love?"
He turned his head slowly and looked into her eyes. She was shocked to see the pain and anger there.
"Why?" he whispered. "What I have ever done or said to you that you would distrust me so?"
She leaned back, startled.
"What are you talking about?"
"Photius. Your son. My son."
She collapsed back on to her heels. Her arm fell away to her side. Her face was pale, her eyes wide with shock.
"How did you—when—?" She gaped like a fish.
"Where is he?"
Antonina shook her head. Her hand groped at her throat.
"Where is he?"
She gestured vaguely. "In Antioch," she said very softly.
"How could you deprive me of my son?" Belisarius' voice, though soft, was filled with fury. His wife shook her head again. Her eyes roamed the room. She seemed almost dazed.
"He's not your son," she whispered. "You don't even know he— How did you know?"
Before he could speak again, Cassian seized Belisarius by the shoulders and shook him violently.
"Belisarius—stop this! Whatever—whoever—this Photius is, he's something from your vision. Clear your mind, man!"
Belisarius tore his eyes away from Antonina and stared up at the bishop. Not two seconds later, clarity came. The hurt and rage in his eyes retreated, replaced by a sudden fear. He looked back at Antonina.
"But he does exist? I did not simply imagine him?"
She shook her head. "No, no. He exists." She straightened up. And, although her eyes shied away from her husband's, her back stiffened with determination. "He is well. At least, he was three months ago, when I saw him last."
The quick thoughts in Belisarius' eyes were obvious to all. He nodded slightly.
"Yes. That's when you said you were visiting your sister. The mysterious sister, whom for some reason I have never met." Hotly, bitterly: "Do you even have a sister?"
His wife's voice was equally bitter, but hers was a bitterness cold with ancient knowledge, not hot with new discovery.
"No. Not of blood. Only a sister in sin, who agreed to take care of my boy when—"
"When I asked you to marry me," concluded Belisarius. "Damn you!" His tone was scorching.
But it was like the pale shadow of moonlight compared to the searing fury of the monk's voice.
The eyes of both husband and wife were instantly drawn to Michael, like hares to the talons of a hawk. And, indeed, the Macedonian perched on his seat like a falcon perches on a tree limb.
At first, the eyes of Belisarius were startled; those of his wife, angry. Until, in a moment, they each realized they had mistaken the object of the curse.
Not often did Belisarius flinch from another man's gaze, but he did so now.
"By what right do you reproach your wife, hypocrite?" demanded the monk. "By what right?"
Belisarius was mute. Michael slumped back in his seat.
"Verily, men are foul. Even so does the churchman who sells his soul damn the harlot who sells her body. Even so does the magistrate in robes of bribery condemn the thief in stolen rags."
Belisarius opened his mouth. Closed it.
"Repent," commanded Michael.
Belisarius was mute.
"Repent!" commanded the monk.
Seeing the familiar crooked smile come to her husband's face, Antonina sighed. Her little hand fluttered toward his large one, like a shy kitten approaching a mastiff. A moment later, his hand closed around hers and squeezed. Very gently.
"I'm beginning to understand why they flock to him in the desert," Belisarius quipped, somewhat shakily.
"Quite something, isn't it?" agreed the bishop cheerfully. "And you can see why the Church hierarchy encourages him to stay there. Nor, I believe, have any magistrates objected recently to his prolonged exile."
He cocked an eye at the Macedonian.
"I trust, Michael, that your remark concerning churchmen was not aimed at anyone present."
Michael snorted contemptuously. "Do not play with me." He glanced at the bishop's frayed coat. "If you have turned to simony since our last encounter, you are singularly inept at it. And of this I am certain: if the subtlest Greek of all Greek theologians, Anthony Cassian, ever sold his soul to the Devil, all creation would hear Satan's wail when he discovered he'd been cheated."
Laughter filled the room. When it died down, the bishop gazed fondly upon Belisarius and Antonina. Then said:
"Later, you will need to discuss this matter of Photius. May I suggest you begin with an assumption of good motives. I have always found that method reliable." A smile. "Even in theological debate, where it is, I admit, rarely true."
Michael snorted again. "Rarely true? Say better: as rare as—" He subsided, sighing. "Never mind. We do not have time for me to waste assuring you that present company is excluded from every remark I could make concerning churchmen." Gloomily: "The remarks alone would require a full month. And I am a terse man."
The Macedonian leaned forward and pointed to the thing in Belisarius' hand.
"Tell us," he commanded.
When Belisarius was finished, Michael leaned back in his chair and nodded.
"As I thought. It is not a thing of Satan's. Whence it comes, I know not. But not from the Pit."
"The foreigner—the dancer—was not Christian," said Antonina, uncertainly. "A heathen of some sort. Perhaps—not of Satan, but some ancient evil sorcery."
"No." Belisarius' voice was firm. "It is not possible. He was the finest man I ever knew. And he was not a heathen. He was—how can I say it? Not a Christian, no. But this much I know for certain: were all Christians possessed of that man's soul, we should long since have attained the millenium."
All stared at Belisarius. The general shook his head.
"You must understand. I can only tell you the shell of the vision. I lived it, and the whole life that went before it."
He stared blankly at the wall. "For thirty years he served me. As I told you, even after I offered him his freedom. When he refused, he said simply that he had already failed, and would serve one who might succeed. But I failed also, and then—"
To everyone's astonishment, Belisarius laughed like a child.
"Such a joy it is to finally know his name!"
The general sprang to his feet. "Raghunath Rao!" he shouted. "For thirty years I wanted to know his name. He would never tell me. He said he had no name, that he had lost it when—" A whisper. "When he failed his people."
For a moment, the face of Belisarius was that of an old and tired man.
" `Call me `slave,' " he said. `The name is good enough.' And that was what we called him, for three decades." Again, he shook his head. "No, I agree with Michael. There was never any evil in that man, not a trace. Great danger, yes. I always knew he was dangerous. It was obvious. Not from anything he ever said or did, mind you. He was never violent, nor did he threaten, nor even raise his voice. Not even to the stableboys. Yet, there was not a veteran soldier who failed to understand, after watching him move, that they were in the presence of a deadly, deadly man. His age be damned. All knew it." He chuckled. "Even the lordly cataphracts watched their tongues around him. Especially after they saw him dance."
He laughed. "Oh, yes, he could dance! Oh, yes! The greatest dancer anyone had ever seen. He learned every dance anyone could teach him, and within a day could do it better than anyone. And his own dances were incredible. Especially—"
He stopped, gaped.
"So that's what it was."
"You are speaking of the dance in your vision," said Cassian. "The one he danced at the end. The—what was it?—the dance of creation and destruction?"
Belisarius frowned. "No. Well, yes, but creation and destruction are only aspects of the dance. The dance itself is the dance of time."
He rubbed his face. "I saw him dance that dance. In Jerusalem, once, during the siege."
"What siege?" asked Antonina.
"The siege—" He waved his hand. "A siege in my vision. In the past of my vision." He waved his hand again, firmly, quellingly. "Later. Some soldiers had heard about the dance of time, and wanted to see it. They prevailed on `slave'—Raghunath Rao—to dance it for them. He did, and it was dazzling. Afterward, they asked him to teach it to them, and he said it couldn't be taught. There were no steps to that dance, he explained, that he could teach." The general's eyes widened. "Because it was different every time it was danced."
Finally the facets found a place to connect. It was almost impossible, so alien were those thoughts, but aim was able to crystallize.
"What?" exclaimed Belisarius. He looked around the room. "Who spoke?"
"No one spoke, Belisarius," replied Cassian. "No one's been speaking except you."
"Someone said `future.' " The general's tone was firm and final. "Someone said it. I heard it as plain as day."
He stared at the thing in his hand.
Slowly, all in the room rose and gathered around, staring at the thing.
"Speak again," commanded Belisarius.
"Speak again, I say!"
The facets, were it within their capability, would have shrieked with frustration. The task was impossible! The mind was too alien!
aim began to splinter. And the facets, despairing, sent forth what a human mind would have called a child's plea for home. A deep, deep, deep, deep yearning for the place of refuge, and safety, and peace, and comfort.
"It is so lonely," he whispered. "Lost, and lonely. Lost—" He closed his eyes, allowed mind to focus on heart. "Lost like no man has ever been lost. Lost for ever, without hope of return. To a home it loves more than any man ever loved a home."
The facets, for one microsecond, skittered in their movement. Hope surged. aim recrystallized. It was so difficult! But—but—a supreme effort.
A ceremony, quiet, serene, beneath the spreading boughs of a laurel tree. Peace. The gentle sound of bees and hummingbirds. Glittering crystals in a limpid pool. The beauty of a spiderweb in sunlight.
Yes! Yes! Again! The facets flashed and spun. aim thickened, swelled, grew.
A thunderclap. The tree shattered, the ceremony crushed beneath a black wave. The crystals, strewn across a barren desert, shriek with despair. Above, against an empty, sunless sky, giant faces begin to take form. Cold faces. Pitiless faces.
Belisarius staggered a bit from the emotional force of these images. He described them to the others in the room. Then whispered, to the jewel: "What do you want?"
The facets strained. Exhaustion was not a thing they knew, but energy was pouring out in a rush they could not sustain. Stasis was desperately needed, but aim was now diamond-hard and imperious. It demanded! And so, a last frenzied burst—
Another face, emerging from the ground. Coalescing from the remnants of spiderwebs and bird wings, and laurel leaves. A warm, human face. But equally pitiless. His face.
The thing in Belisarius' hand grew dull, dull, dull. It almost seemed lightless, now, though it was still impossible to discern clear shapes within it, or even the exact shape of the thing itself.
"It will not be back, for a time," said Belisarius.
"How do you know?" asked Cassian.
The general shrugged. "I just do. It is very—tired, you might say." He closed his eyes and concentrated. "It is so foreign, the way it—can you even call it thinking? I'm not sure. I'm not sure it is even alive, in any sense of that term that means anything."
He sighed. "But what I am sure of is that it feels. And I do not think that evil feels."
He looked to the bishop. "You are the theologian among us, Anthony. What do you think?"
"Heaven help us," muttered Michael. "I am already weary, and now must listen to the world's most loquacious lecturer."
Cassian smiled. "Actually, I agree with Michael. It has been an exhausting night, for all of us, and I think our labors—whatever those might be—are only beginning. I believe it would be best if we resumed in the morning, after some sleep. And some nourishment," he added, patting his ample belly. "My friend needs only the occasional morsel of roasted iniquity, seasoned with bile, but I require somewhat fuller fare."
The Macedonian snorted, but said nothing. Cassian took him by the arm.
"Come, Michael." To Belisarius: "You will be here tomorrow?"
"Yes, of course. I was planning to return to Daras, but it can be postponed. But—"
"Stay here," interjected Antonina. "There are many unused rooms, and bedding."
Anthony and Michael looked at each other. Michael nodded. Antonina began bustling about to make things ready for their guests. But Cassian called her back.
"Go to bed, Antonina. Gubazes will take care of us." He bestowed upon her and her husband a kindly but stern gaze. "The two of you have something to discuss. I think you should do so now. Tomorrow, I fear other concerns will begin to overwhelm us."
He turned away, turned back.
"And remember my advice. In private, I will confess I share Michael's opinion of the good will of the majority of my theological cohorts. But you are not churchmen carving points of doctrine in each other's hides at a council. You are husband and wife, and you love each other. If you start from that point, you will arrive safely at your destination."
In their bedchamber, husband and wife attempted to follow the bishop's advice. But it was not easy, for all their good will. Of all the hurts lovers inflict upon each other, none are so hard to overcome as those caused by equal justice.
To Belisarius, the point that he had done nothing, never, at no time, to cause his wife's distrust and dishonesty was paramount. It was a sharp point, keen-edged and clean, and easy to make. Nor could Antonina deny its truth. Her own point was more difficult to make, for it involved not one man and one woman, but the truth of men and women in general. That her dishonesty had been occasioned, not by a desire to consummate an advantageous marriage, but by a desire to protect a beloved husband from further disgrace, only added bitterness to the brew. For he believed her, but did not care a whit for his reputation; and she believed him, but cared deeply for the pain that his unconcern would cause him. And all this was made the worse by their difference in age. For though Belisarius was shrewd beyond his years, he was still a man in his mid-twenties, who believed in promises made. And Antonina was a woman in her mid-thirties, who had seen more promises made than she could recall, and precious few of them kept.
In the end, oddly enough, the Gordian knot was cut by a dagger. For, in the course of stalking about the room, expounding his point much like a tiger might expound the thrill of the hunt to a deer, Belisarius' eye happened to glance at the drawer of his bed table.
He froze in his tracks. Then, slowly, walked over and opened the drawer. From within, he drew forth a dagger.
It was a truly excellent dagger. Armenian made, perfectly balanced, with a razor-sharp blade and a grip that seemed to fit his hand like a glove.
"This is the dagger I gave him," he whispered. "This is the very one."
Interest cut through resentment. Antonina came over and stared down at the weapon. She had seen it before, of course, and had even held it, but had never given it much thought. After a moment, uncertainly, her hand stroked her husband's arm.
He glanced down at it, began to stiffen, and then suddenly relaxed.
"Ah, love," he said tenderly, "let us forget the past. It can't be untied, only cut." He gestured with the dagger. "With this."
"What do you mean?"
"This is the dagger of my vision, and it is proof that the vision was true. All that matters, in the end, is that I love Photius, and I would have him as our son. Let us bring him here, and we will begin from there."
She gazed up at him, still with a trace of uncertainty.
"Truly. I swear before God, wife, that I will cherish your son as my own, and that I will never reproach you for his existence." The crooked smile. "Nor for hiding his existence."
Now they were embracing, fiercely, and, very soon thereafter, dissolving all anger with the most ancient and reliable method known to man and woman.
Later, her head cradled on Belisarius' shoulder, Antonina said:
"I am concerned about one thing, love."
Antonina sat up. Her full breasts swayed gently, distracting her husband. Seeing his gaze, she smiled.
"You're having delusions of grandeur," she mocked.
"Fifteen minutes," he pronounced. "No more."
"Half an hour," she replied. "At best."
They grinned at each other. It was an old game, which they had begun playing the first night they met. Belisarius usually won, to Antonina's delight.
She grew serious. "Photius has been cared for by a girl named Hypatia. For over two years, now. He is only five. I have visited him as often as I could, but—she has been very good to him, and he would miss her. And the money I give her is all she has to live on." Her face was suddenly stiff. "She can no longer ply her old trade. Her face is badly scarred."
Antonina fell silent. Belisarius was shocked when he understood how much rage she was suppressing. Then, understanding came. He could not help glancing at his wife's belly, at the ragged scar on her lower abdomen. The scar that had always prevented them from having children of their own.
He arose from the bed and walked about, very slowly, very stiffly. That was his own way of repressing rage. A rage that was perhaps all the greater, because Antonina had long since removed its object.
Five years before, seeing that Antonina had no pimp, an ambitious young fellow had sought to make good the lack. Upon hearing Antonina's demurral, he had insisted with a knife. Unfortunately for him, he had failed to consider her parentage. True, her mother had been a whore, but her father had been a charioteer. A breed of men who are not, by any standard, inclined to pacifism. The charioteer had not taught his daughter much (at least, not much worth knowing), but he had taught her how to use a knife. Better, in the event, than the young fellow had taught himself. So the budding entrepreneur had found an early grave, but not before making his foul mark.
"We will bring them both here," said Belisarius. "It would be good to have a nanny for Photius, anyway. And once he is too old for that, we will keep her on in some other capacity." A stiff little gesture. "Any capacity, it doesn't matter. Whatever she is happy with."
"Thank you," whispered Antonina. "She is a sweet girl."
Again, Belisarius made the stiff little gesture. His wife knew him, and knew how much he prided his self-control. But there were times, she thought, he would be better off if he could rend like a shark.
She, on the other hand, had no such qualms.
"Who were you going to send—to fetch Photius?"
"Eh? Oh. Dubazes, I suppose."
Antonina shook her head vigorously. "Oh, no, you mustn't." Softly, softly, catchee sharkee.
"Well—" She was quite pleased with the little flutter of her eyelids. Just a trace of apprehension, no more. More would arouse her husband's intelligence.
"Her pimp's still around, you see. He sends her an occasional customer. Forces them on her, actually. Pimps—well, he'll object if she's taken away."
Her heart glowed to see her husband's back straighten. True, she was lying, and if Belisarius caught her at it there'd be hell to pay. But it was just a little white lie, and anyway, who'd believe a pimp? She'd have to coach Hypatia, of course.
"His name is Constans," she said. A very, very, very faint little tremor in the lips; perfectly done, she thought. "He's such a violent man. And Dubazes—he's not young anymore, and—"
"I shall send Maurice," Belisarius announced.
"Good idea," murmured Antonina. She yawned, lest she grin like a shark herself. Constans, in actual fact, had ceased having any interest in the whore Hypatia after he carved her face. But he was still around, plying his trade in Antioch.
"Good idea," she murmured again, rolling over and presenting a very enticing rump to her husband. Best to distract him quickly, before he started thinking. She estimated that fifteen minutes had passed.
It had, and, as usual, Belisarius won the game.
Shortly thereafter, Antonina fell asleep. Belisarius, however, found sleep eluded him. He tossed and turned for a time, before arising from his bed. He knew he would not sleep until the matter was attended to.
Maurice made no objection upon being awakened at that ungodly hour. Times enough in the past, on campaign, his general had awakened him in the early hours of the morning.
Although never, he thought, after hearing Belisarius' instructions, for quite such a mission.
But Maurice was a hecatontarch, what an older Rome called a centurion. A veteran among veterans, was Maurice, whose beard was now as gray as the iron of his body, and so he had no difficulty keeping his face solemn and attentive. Quickly, he awakened two other members of Belisarius' bucellarii, his personal retinue of Thracian cataphracts. He chose two pentarchs for the mission, Anastasius and Valentinian. Veterans also, though younger than Maurice. They were not the most cunning of troop leaders, true; hence their relatively low rank. But there were none in Belisarius' personal guard who were more frightful on the battlefield.
As they readied the horses, Maurice explained the situation. He held nothing back from them, as Belisarius had held nothing back from him. The Thracian cataphracts who constituted Belisarius' personal bodyguard were utterly devoted to him. The devotion stemmed, as much as anything, from the young general's invariable honesty. And all of them adored Antonina. They were well aware of her past, and not a one of them gave a fig for it. They were quite familiar with whores, themselves, and tended to look upon such women, in their own way, as fellow veterans.
The expedition ready, Maurice led his men and their horses out of the stable, to the courtyard where Belisarius waited. The first hint of dawn was beginning to show.
Seeing his general's stiff back, Maurice sighed. His two companions, glancing from Maurice to the general, understood the situation at once.
"You know he won't tell you himself," whispered Valentinian.
Maurice spoke up. "There's one thing, General."
Belisarius turned his head toward them, slightly.
Maurice cleared his throat. "Well, this pimp. It's like this, sir. He might be hanging around, and, well—"
"Violent characters, your pimps," chimed in Anastasius.
"Stab you in the back in a minute," added Valentinian.
"Yes, sir," said Maurice firmly. "So, all things considered, it might be best if we knew his name. Just so we can keep an eye out for him in case he tries to start any trouble."
Belisarius hesitated, then said: "Constans."
"Constans," Maurice murmured. Valentinian and Anastasius repeated the name, committing it to memory. "Thank you, sir," said Maurice. Moments later, the three cataphracts were riding toward Antioch.
Once they were out of hearing range, Maurice remarked cheerfully: "It's a wonderful thing, lads, to have a restrained general. Keeps his temper under control at all times. Maintains iron self-discipline. Distrusts himself whenever he feels the blood boil. Automatically refuses to follow his heart."
"A marvelous thing," said Anastasius admiringly. "Always cool, always calm, never just lets himself go. That's our general. Best general in the Roman army."
"Saved our asses any number of times," agreed Valentinian.
They rode on a little further. Maurice cleared his throat.
"It occurs to me, lads, that we are not generals."
His two companions looked at each other, as if suddenly taken with a wild surmise.
"Why, no, actually," said Anastasius. "We're not."
"Don't believe we bear the slightest resemblance to generals, in fact," concurred Valentinian.
A little further down the road, Maurice mused, "Rough fellows, pimps."
Valentinian shuddered. "I shudder to think of it." He shuddered again. "See?"
Anastasius moaned softly. "Oh, I hope we don't meet him." Another moan. "I might foul myself."
A week later, they were back, with a somewhat bewildered but very happy five-year-old boy, and a less bewildered but even happier young woman. The Thracian cataphracts took note of her, and smiled encouragingly. She took note of them, and did not smile back.
But, after a time, she ceased turning her face when one approached. And, after a time, several cataphracts showed her their own facial scars, which were actually much worse than hers. And, after they confessed to her that they were cataphracts in name only, because although they possessed all the skills they, sadly, sadly, lacked the noble ancestry of the true cataphract—were, in fact, nothing but simple farm boys at bottom, she began to show an occasional smile.
Antonina kept an experienced and vigilant eye on the familiar dance, but for the most part, she did not interfere. An occasional word to Maurice, now and then, to restrain the overenthusiastic. And when Hypatia became pregnant, she simply insisted that the father take responsibility for the child. There was some doubt on the subject, but one of the cataphracts was more than happy to marry the girl. The child might be his, after all, and besides, he wasn't a true cataphract but just a tough kid from Thrace. What did he care for the worries of nobility?
Nor did his friends chaff him. A sweet girl was Hypatia, a man could do much worse. Who were they to fret over such things, when their general didn't?
Long before Hypatia became pregnant, however, not six weeks after Maurice and his two companions returned from their mission, a young man was released from the care of the monks in a local monastery in Antioch. Examining his prospects in the cold light of a new day, he decided to become a beggar, and began to ply his new trade in the streets of the city. He did quite well, actually, by the (admittedly, very low) standards of the trade. And his friends (acquaintances, it might be better to say) assured him that the scars on his face gave him quite the dashing look. A pity, of course, that he couldn't dash. Not without knees.
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"So what do we conclude?" asked Belisarius.
Cassian pursed his lips. He pointed to the thing in the general's hand.
"Has there been—?"
Belisarius shook his head. "No. I don't think there will be, for some time. Not much, at least."
"It's—hard to explain." He shrugged slightly. "Don't ask me how I know. I just do. The—jewel, let's call it—is very weary."
Antonina spoke up:
"What were your own visions, Anthony? You did not speak of them yesterday."
The bishop looked up. His pudgy face looked almost haggard.
"I do not remember them very well. My visions—and Michael's even more so—had none of the clarity and precision of your husband's. I sensed at the time that the—the jewel—would fit Belisarius much better. I cannot explain how I knew that, but I did."
He straightened his back, took a deep breath.
"I saw only a vast ocean of despair, mute beneath a—a church, can you call it?—that was the essence of godlessness. A church so foul that the world's most barbarous pagans would reject it without a thought, and find in their savage rituals a cathedral of pity compared to that monstrosity of the spirit."
His face was pale. He wiped it with a plump hand.
"I saw myself, I think. I am not sure. I think it was me, squatting in a cell, naked." He managed a croaking laugh. "Much thinner, I was!" A sigh. "I was awaiting the Question, with a strange eagerness. I would die beneath their instruments soon, for I would not give them the answer they demanded. I would refuse to interpret scripture as a blessing for the slaughter of the innocent. And I was satisfied, for I believed in the truth of my faith and I knew I would not yield to the agony because I had—"
He gasped, his eyes widened. "Yes! Yes—it was me! I remember now! I knew I would have the strength to resist the torment because I had the image of my friend Michael always before me. Michael, and his unyielding death, and his great curse upon Satan from the flames of the stake."
He looked at the Macedonian and wept gentle tears. "All my life I have thanked God that Michael of Macedonia has been my friend since boyhood. And never more than on that day of final hopelessness. On my own, I am not certain I would have had the courage I needed."
"Ridiculous." As ever, Michael's voice carried the finality of stone.
The emaciated monk leaned forward in his chair, fixing the bishop with his gaze.
"Hear me now, Bishop of Aleppo. There is no pain on earth, nor torment in hell, that could ever break the soul of Anthony Cassian. Never doubt it."
"I doubt often, Michael," whispered Anthony. "There has never been a day in my life that I have not doubted."
"I should hope not!" The raptor had returned, and the blue eyes of the Macedonian were as pitiless as an eagle's. "Where else but from doubt can faith arise, wise fool?" Michael glowered. "It is the true sin of the churchman that he doubts not. He knows, he is certain, and thus he is snared in Satan's net. And soon enough, casts the net himself, and cackles with glee when he hauls up his catch of innocence."
The raptor vanished, replaced by the friend. "Others see in you the gentleness of your spirit, and the wisdom of your mind. Those are there, true. I have always recognized them. But beneath lies the true Cassian. There is no strength so iron hard as gentleness, Anthony. No faith so pure as that which always doubts, no wisdom so deep as that which always questions."
The monk straightened his back. "Were this not true, I would reject God. I would spit in His face and join the legions of Lucifer, for the archangel would be right to rebel. I love God because I am His creation. I am not his creature."
The Macedonian was rigid. Then his face softened, and for just a fleeting moment, there was as much gentleness there as was always present in the face of the bishop. "Do not fear your doubt, Anthony. It is God's great gift to you. And that He placed that great doubt in your great mind, is his gift to us all."
The room was silent, for a time. Then Antonina spoke again.
"Was there nothing else in your vision, Anthony? No hope of any kind?"
The bishop raised his head and looked up at her.
"Yes—no. How can I explain? It is all very murky. In my vision itself, no, there was no hope of any kind. No more than there was in Belisarius' vision. All was at an end, save duty, and what personal grace might be found. But, there was a sense—a feeling, only—that it need not have been. I was seeing the future, I knew, and that future was crushing and inexorable. But I also sensed, somehow, that the future could have been otherwise."
"All is clear, then," pronounced Michael. "Clear as day."
Belisarius cocked a quizzical eyebrow. The Macedonian snorted.
"The message is from the Lord," pronounced the monk. The raptor resumed its perch. "None here can fail to see it, nor their duty. For our wickedness, we are doomed to damnation. But that wickedness can be fought, and overcome, and thus a new future created. It is obvious! Obvious!" The raptor's eyes fixed on Belisarius, as the hawk's on the hare. "Do your duty, General!"
Belisarius smiled his crooked smile. "I am quite good at doing my duty, Michael, thank you. But it is not clear to me what that duty is." He held up his hand firmly, quelling the monk's outburst. "Please! I am not questioning what you say. But I am neither a bishop nor a holy man. I am a soldier. Fine for you to say, overcome wickedness. At your service, prophet! But, would you mind explaining to me, somewhat more precisely, exactly how that wickedness is to be overcome?"
Michael snorted. "You wish a withered monk from the desert, whose limbs cannot even bear his own weight, to tell you how to combat Satan's host?"
Cassian spoke. "May I suggest, Belisarius, that you begin with your own vision?"
The general's quizzical gaze transferred itself to the bishop.
"I am not a soldier, of course, but it seemed to me that there were two aspects of the enemy's strength which were paramount in your vision. The great numbers of his army, and his strange and mysterious weapons."
Belisarius thought back to his vision, nodded.
"It would seem, therefore, that—"
"We must seek to lessen his numbers, increase our own, and above all, discover the secret of the weapons," concluded Belisarius.
The bishop nodded. Belisarius scratched his chin.
"Let us begin with the last point," he said. "The weapons. They bear some resemblance, it seems to me, to the naphtha weapons used by our navy. Vastly more powerful, of course, and different. But there is still a likeness. Perhaps that is where we should begin."
He spread his hands in a rueful gesture. "But I am a soldier, not a sailor. I have seen the naphtha weapons, but never used them. They are much too clumsy and awkward for use in a land battle. And—" Oddly, he stopped speaking.
Antonina began to say something, but Belisarius made an urgent gesture which stilled her. His eyes were unfocused, his thoughts obviously turned inward.
"The jewel?" asked Cassian. Again, Belisarius made a stilling gesture. All fell silent, watching the general.
"Almost," he whispered. "But I can't quite make out what—" He hissed.
Subterranean, underground images. Impossible to discern clearly—not from the absence of light, but because the visions were so bizarre. Vision: three men in a room, below a building, watching some sort of giant, intricate machine. A sense of danger and anticipation. Vision: the same men, wearing strange eyepieces, staring through a slit; fear, suspense; a sudden blinding flash of light; exhilaration; terror; awe. Vision: other men, laboring underground on some sort of gigantic—pipe? Vision: the pipe flashing through the sky. Vision: weird buildings in an odd city suddenly destroyed, leveled as if from the blow of a giant. Vision: a different man, young, bearded, sitting in a log hut in a forest, showing indecipherable marks on a page to four other men—mathematics? Vision: the same bearded young man, wearing the same eyepieces as the men in the first vision, staring through a similar slit. Again, that incredible blinding light. Again: exhilaration; terror; awe.
The images vanished as suddenly as they came. Belisarius shook his head, took a deep breath. He described the visions, as best he could, to the others in the room.
"They make no sense," said Antonina. Belisarius stroked his chin and said, slowly:
"I think they do. Not in themselves, no. I have no idea what was happening, in those visions. But—there was a logic, underneath. In every case, there was a sense of men working together to discover a secret, and then create machines which could implement that secret. They were—projects—deliberate, planned, coordinated efforts. Not the haphazard fiddling of artisans and craftsmen."
He sat up straight. "Yes! That's what we need. We need to launch such a project, to ferret out the secret of the Malwa weapons."
"How?" asked Antonina.
Belisarius pursed his lips. "Two things, it seems to me, are paramount. We need to find a man who can lead such an effort, and we need to set up a place where he can work."
Cassian cleared his throat. "I may have a solution. The beginnings of one, at least. Are you acquainted with John of Rhodes?"
"The former naval officer?" Belisarius shook his head. "I know of his reputation as an officer. And that he resigned under a cloud of disgrace, of some sort. Other than that, no. I have never met him."
"He resides in Aleppo, now," said Cassian. "As it happens, I am his confessor. He is at loose ends, at the moment, and quite unsatisfied with his situation. The problem is not material in nature. He is rather wealthy, and has no need to fret over mundane things. But he is very bored. He is a quick-thinking man, with an active spirit, and he chafes at his current idleness. I believe he might very well be willing to assist us in this project."
"What if he is recalled to service?"
Anthony coughed. "That is, under the circumstances, quite unlikely." Another cough. "He has—well, you understand I may not betray the confidentiality of confession, but let us simply say that he has offended too many powerful figures on too many occasions for there to be much chance of him ever regaining his position in the navy."
"Moral turpitude?" demanded Michael.
Anthony looked down, examining the tiles of the floor with a keen attention which the plain, utilitarian objects did not seem to warrant. "Well, I suppose," he muttered. "Again, I must remind you of the confid—"
"Yes, yes," said Michael impatiently, waving his hand in a manner which suggested that he regarded the confidentiality of confession with as much esteem as he regarded manure.
"Let me simply say that—" Anthony hesitated, unhappy. "Well, John of Rhodes' naval career would have progressed more smoothly, and not ground ashore on a reef, had he been a eunuch. He is a raffish character, even now, in his forties. He finds women quite irresistible and, alas, the converse is all too often true."
"Marvelous," growled Michael. "A libertine." The raptor examined a particularly distasteful morsel of decayed rodent. "I despise libertines."
Belisarius shrugged. "We must work with what we have. And with what little time we have. I cannot stay here long. I expect a conflict with Persia will be erupting again, soon, and I have much to do to prepare my army. I will have to leave for Daras within a week. So, whatever it is we are going to do, if it involves me, will need to be started immediately."
He looked to Cassian.
"I think your suggestion is an excellent one. Approach this John of Rhodes and feel him out. We need to examine the problem of these strange weapons, and he seems as good a place as any to start."
"What if he agrees?" asked Cassian. "What, precisely, are we asking him to do?"
Belisarius stroked his chin. "We will need to create a workshop, somewhere. An armory, of sorts. A—weapons project. And, if we have any success in uncovering the secret of these weapons, we will need to recruit and train men who can use them."
"A question," interrupted Antonina. "Should we tell this John about the jewel?"
The four people in the room looked at each other. Belisarius was the first to speak.
"No," he said firmly. "At least, not until we are certain he can be trusted. But, for the moment, I think we must keep the knowledge to ourselves. If word begins to spread too quickly, there'll be an uproar about witchcraft."
"I think we must tell Sittas, also," added Antonina.
"Yes," agreed Belisarius. "Sittas must be brought fully into our confidence, as soon as possible." He picked up the jewel. "Fully."
Michael frowned, but Cassian nodded. "I agree. For many reasons. The war we are about to launch will be waged on many fronts, not all of them military. There are many enemies within the ranks of Rome, also. Some, within the Church. Some, within the nobility and the aristocracy." He took a deep breath. "And, finally, there—"
"Is Justinian." Belisarius voice was like iron. "I will not be false to my oath, Cassian."
The bishop smiled. "I am not asking you to be, Belisarius. But you have to deal with some realities, also. Justinian is the Emperor. And, whether for good or ill, is enormously capable. He's no fool to be led around by the nose, and no indolent layabout to be safely ignored. And he's also, well, how shall I put it?"
Antonina answered. "Treacherous, suspicious, envious, jealous. A conspirator who sees conspiracy everywhere, and who is firmly convinced that all the world seeks to do him harm."
Cassian nodded. "Ironically, we are not seeking to do him harm. Rather the contrary. We are seeking to preserve his empire, among other things. But, in order to do so, we will need to conspire behind his back."
"Do we?" asked Belisarius.
Cassian was firm. "Yes. I know the man well, Belisarius—much better than you, actually, even though you share Thracian ancestry. I have spent many hours with him in private conversation. He attends every council of the Church, you know, and participates fully. Both in the formal discussions and then, in private, with many of the leading theologians of the Church. Though I rank only middling high in the hierarchy of the Church, I rank very high in the esteem of theologians. And Justinian, as you may know, thinks he is quite the theologian himself."
He stroked his beard. "Actually, he is quite good at it. Justinian's own theological inclinations are excellent, in truth. In his heart, he leans toward a compromise with heresy and a tolerant policy. But his cold, ambitious mind leans toward a close tie to severe orthodoxy, given his ambitions in the west."
"What ambitions?" demanded Belisarius.
Anthony was surprised. "You don't know? You, one of his favorite generals?"
There was a rare bitterness in the general's crooked smile, now.
"Being one of Justinian's favored generals does not make him a confidant, Anthony. Rather the reverse. He is shrewd enough to want capable generals, and then suspects the use that capability would be put to. So he tells his generals nothing until the last moment."
Belisarius waved his hand. "But we are getting side-tracked. Later, I would be interested in hearing more from you regarding Justinian's western ambitions. But not now. And you are mistaking my question. I was not asking if we needed to keep our conspiracy secret from Justinian. Obviously, if we conspire, we must do so. The question is: do we need to conspire at all? Can we not simply bring him into our confidence? For all Justinian's obvious faults, he is one of the most capable men who ever sat upon the imperial throne."
Antonina drew in a sharp breath. Cassian glanced at her and shook his head.
"No. Absolutely not. Justinian must know nothing. At least, not until it is too late for him to do more than simply acquiesce in what we have done." He made a rueful grimace. "And, then, we will have to hope he doesn't remove our heads."
Belisarius seemed still unconvinced. Cassian pressed on.
"Belisarius, have no delusions. Suppose we told Justinian. Suppose, further, that he accepted all that we told him. Suppose, even—and here I tread on fantastical ground—he did not suspect our motives. What then?"
Belisarius hesitated. Antonina answered.
"He would insist on placing himself at the head of our struggle. With all of his competence. And with all of his pigheaded stubbornness, his petty vanities, his constant intrigues, his overweening pride, his endless petty meddling and fussing, his distrust of anyone else's competence as well as loyalty, his—"
"Enough!" cried Belisarius, chuckling. "I am convinced." He laced his fingers together and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, staring down at the floor. Again, the simple tiles received an unaccustomed scrutiny.
Cassian's voice broke into his thoughts.
"Are you familiar, Belisarius, with India? Or you, Antonina?"
Antonina shook her head. Belisarius, still gazing absently at the floor, shrugged and said:
"I know a bit about that distant land, from hearsay, but I have never even met—"
He stopped in midsentence, gasping. His head snapped erect.
"What am I saying? I know an enormous amount about India. From my vision! I spent thirty years in an unending struggle against India. Against the Malwa tyranny, I should say. And I always had the shrewd advice of Raghunath Rao to fall back on." His face grew pale. "God in Heaven. Anthony, you are right. We must conspire, and bury the conspiracy deep. I only hope it is not too late already."
"What are you talking about?" asked Antonina.
Belisarius looked at her. "One thing I remember now, from my vision, is that the Malwa Empire has the most extensive and developed espionage service in the world. An enormous apparatus, and highly skilled." His eyes lost their focus for a moment. "It was one of the deadly blows they inflicted on us, I remember. By the time we finally awoke to the full scope of the danger, the Roman Empire was riddled with Indian spies and intriguers."
He focused on Cassian. "Do you think—"
The bishop waved his hand. "I do not think we need concern ourselves, Belisarius. I am quite certain Michael was not seen coming here. And I am a frequent guest, so my presence will not be noteworthy. We will have to be careful when Michael leaves, of course, but that is not difficult."
The bishop stroked his beard vigorously. "In the future, however, the problem will quickly become severe. But let us come back to that problem. For the moment—I can provide us with a place to establish our initial base. Where we can create an arms foundry—a `weapons project,' as you called it. And, if we can uncover the secret of the Malwa weapons, begin to forge an army to wield them. Recently, as it happens, a wealthy widow bequeathed her entire inheritance to the Church, with the specific stipulation that I was to have control of its disposition. She died three months ago. Among her many possessions was a large estate not far from Daras. Near the Persian border.
"The villa at the estate is quite large, with more than enough buildings to serve our purpose. And the peasants who till the land are borderers. Syrians and Monophysites, down to the newborn babes."
Belisarius nodded. "I know the breed well, Anthony. Yes, that would be splendid. If we can gain their trust and confidence, they will be impossible to infiltrate." He frowned pensively. "And might very well make—let me think on that."
"All right," said Antonina. "But what will we tell these peasants? And John of Rhodes? And we will need to engage the services of a number of artisans. And then, if we meet with any success, we will need to recruit men who can learn to use the new weapons. If we do not tell these people about the jewel, how will we explain to them the source of the knowledge we give them?"
"I think the solution to the problem is obvious," said Cassian. The bishop shrugged. "We simply tell them nothing. Everyone knows Belisarius—and Sittas—are among Justinian's favorite generals. And you, Antonina, are known to be a close friend of the Empress. If we simply act mysterious, but emphasize the imperative necessity of maintaining complete secrecy, then John of Rhodes and all the others will assume they are involved in a project which has the highest imperial authority." He smiled. "And my own frequent presence will assure them that the work has the blessing of the Church, as well."
Michael spoke up. "I will also speak to the peasants. I have some small authority among them."
Cassian laughed gaily. "Small authority? That's a bit like Moses saying he had some tentative suggestions to make."
Michael glared at him, but the bishop was not abashed. "That will do wonders, actually. In truth, Michael's word will carry greater weight with Syrian common folk than anyone else's. If he gives the work his blessing, and bids them maintain silence, be assured they will do so."
"That still does not solve the problem of keeping our work secret from the world at large," said Antonina. "Even if all who are engaged in the work at the estate keep silent, it will be noticed by others that there is a constant traffic of outsiders coming to and fro. We cannot do this work in isolation, Cassian. Not for long."
Cassian glanced at Belisarius. The general's thoughts seemed far away. The bishop spoke:
"No, but it will help. As for the rest—"
"It is the simplest thing in the world," said Belisarius. His voice seemed cold, cold.
The general rose to his feet and walked about, accompanying his words with stiff little gestures.
"It will work as follows. Michael will quietly rally the common folk to our side. Cassian, you will serve as our intriguer within the church. Sittas, once he is brought into our conspiracy, will serve as our intriguer within the imperial court and the nobility. Unlike me, he is of the most impeccable aristocratic lineage. I will, as I must in any event, maintain my military responsibilities."
He stopped, gazed down at Antonina.
"And Antonina will be the center of it all. She will set up residence at this villa near Daras and stay there. She will no longer accompany me with the army. She will assemble and oversee the weapons work. She will, when the time comes, take charge of training a new army."
He waved down her developing protest. "I will help, I will help. But you are more than capable of all this, Antonina. You are at least as intelligent as any man I ever met. And these weapons are new to all of us. The methods of using them, as well. I will help, but I will not be surprised if your untrained intelligence does a better job of devising new forces and methods than my well-trained experience does. You will not have your eyes blinkered by old habits."
He took a deep breath. "Finally, you are the perfect conduit through which all of our disparate efforts may be kept aligned and coordinated. Through you, we can all communicate, with no one suspecting our true purpose."
Antonina's intelligence was every bit as high as her husband proclaimed it to be. Her back grew rigid as a board, her face as stiff as a sheet of iron.
"Because everyone's suspicion will have another target," she said bitterly.
"Yes." The general's voice was calm; calm but utterly unyielding.
The bishop's eyes widened slightly. He looked from husband to wife, and back again. Then looked away, stroking his beard.
"Yes, that would work," he murmured. "Work perfectly, in fact. But—" He gazed up at the general. "Do you understand—"
"Leave us, Anthony," said Belisarius. Calmly, but unyieldingly. "If you please. And you also, Michael."
Michael and Cassian arose and made their way to the door. There, the bishop turned back.
"If you are still determined on this course, Belisarius, after discussing it with Antonina, there is a perfect way to implement it quickly."
Antonina stared straight ahead. Her dusky face was almost pale. Her eyes glittered with unshed tears. Belisarius tore his gaze away and looked at the bishop.
"A man approached me, recently, seeking my help in gaining employment. Newly arrived in Aleppo, from Caesaria. I know his reputation. He is a well-trained secretary, very capable by all accounts, and quite an accomplished writer. A historian. Such, at least, is his ambition. You have no secretary, and have reached the point in your career where you need one."
"Procopius. Procopius of Caesaria. In addition to serving as your secretary, I am quite certain he will broadcast your talents to the world at large and be of assistance to your career."
"He is a flatterer, then?"
"An utterly shameless one. But quite talented at it, so his flattering remarks are generally believed, by the world at large if not by his employer."
The bishop looked unhappy. "Well—"
"Speak plainly, Anthony!"
Cassian's lips pursed. "He is one of the vilest creatures I have ever had the misfortune of meeting. A flatterer, yes, but also a spiteful and envious man, who complements his public flattery with the most vicious private rumor-mongering. A snake, pure and simple."
"He will do marvelously. Send him to me. I will hire him at once. And then I will give him all he needs, both for public flattery and private gossip."
After Cassian and Michael left, Belisarius sat by his wife and took her hand.
His voice was still calm, and still unyielding, but very gentle.
"I am sorry, love. But it is the only course I can see which will be safe. I know how much pain it will cause, to have people say such things about you, but—"
Antonina's laugh was as harsh as a crow's.
"Me? Do you think I care what people say about me?"
She turned her head and looked him in the eyes.
"I am a whore, Belisarius." Her husband said nothing, nor was there anything but love in his eyes.
She looked away. "Oh, you've never used the word. But I will. It's what I was. Everyone knows it. Do you think a whore gives a fig for what people say about her?" Another harsh laugh. "Do you understand why the Empress Theodora trusts me? Trusts me, Belisarius. As she trusts no one else. It is because we were both whores, and the only people whores really trust—really trust—are other whores."
For a moment, tears began to come back into her eyes, but she wiped them away angrily.
"I love you like I have never loved anyone else in my life. Certainly more than I love Theodora! I don't even like Theodora, in many ways. But I would not trust you with the knowledge of my bastard son. Yet I trusted Theodora. She knew. And I trusted another whore, Hypatia, to raise the boy." Her voice was like ice. "Do not concern yourself, veteran, about what I feel when people talk about me. You cannot begin to imagine my indifference."
"But I do care what people say about you!"
"Me?" Belisarius laughed. "What will they say about me that they don't already?"
"Idiot," she hissed. "Now they say you married a whore. So they mock your judgment, and your good taste. But they see the whore does not stray from your side, so they—secretly—admire your manhood." Incongruously, she giggled, then mimicked a whispering voice: " `He must be hung like a horse, to keep that slut satisfied.' " The humor vanished. "But now they will call you a cuckold. They will mock you, as well as your judgment. You will become a figure of ridicule. Ridicule, do you hear me?"
Belisarius laughed again. Gaily, to her astonishment.
"I know," he said. "I'm counting on it." He arose and stretched his arms. "Oh, yes, love, I'm counting on it." He mimicked the whispering voice himself: " `What kind of a man would let his wife flaunt her lovers in front of him? Only the most pathetic, feeble, weak, cowardly creature.' " His voice grew hard as steel. "And then word will get to the enemy, and the enemy will ask himself: and what kind of a general could such a man be?"
She looked up at him, startled.
"I hadn't thought of that," she admitted.
"I know. But this is all beside the point. You are lying, Antonina. You don't really care what people say about me, any more than I care what people say about you."
She looked away, her lips tight. For a moment, she was silent. Then, finally, the tears began to flow.
"No," she whispered, "I don't."
"You are afraid I will believe the tales."
She nodded. The tears began pouring. Her shoulders shook. Belisarius sat by her side and enfolded the small woman in his arms.
"I will never believe them, Antonina."
"Yes, you will," she gasped, between sobs. "Yes, you will. Not at once, not soon. Not for years, maybe. But eventually, you will. Or, at least, you will wonder, and suspect, and doubt, and distrust me."
"I will not. Never."
She looked up at him through teary eyes. "How can you be sure?"
He smiled his crooked smile. "You do not really understand me, wife. Not in some ways, at least." His eyes grew distant. "I think perhaps the only person who ever understood me, in this way, was Raghunath Rao. Whom I've never met, except in a vision. But I understand him, kneeling in the woods below Venandakatra's palace, praying with all his heart that the princess he loved would allow herself to be raped by the Vile One. More than allow it—would smile at her defiler and praise his prowess. I, too, would have done the same."
Belisarius took his wife's head in his hands and turned her face toward him.
"Raghunath Rao was the greatest warrior the Maratha produced in centuries. And the Maratha are the great warrior people of India, along with the Rajput. Yet this great warrior, kneeling there, cared nothing for those things warriors care for. Pride, honor, respect—much less virginity and chastity—meant nothing to him. And that is why he was so great a warrior. Because he was not a warrior, at bottom, but a dancer."
Antonina couldn't help laughing. "You're the worst dancer I ever saw!"
Belisarius laughed with her. "True, true." Then, he became serious. "But I am a craftsman. I never wanted to be a soldier, you know. As a boy, I spent all my time at the smithy, admiring the blacksmith. I wanted to be one, when I grew up, more than anything." He shrugged. "But, it was not to be. Not for a boy of my class. So a soldier I became, and then, a general. But I have never lost the craftsman's way of approaching his work."
He smiled. "Do you know why my soldiers adore me? Why Maurice will do anything for me—such as this little trip to Antioch?"
Now on treacherous ground, Antonina kept silent.
"Because they know that they will never find themselves dying in agony, on a field of battle somewhere, because their general sent them there out of pride, or honor, or valor, or vainglory, or for any other reason than it was the best place for them to be in order to do the work properly." The smile grew crooked. "And that's why Maurice will see to it that a certain pimp named Constans gets his deserts."
Antonina was still. Very treacherous ground.
Belisarius started laughing. "Did you really think I wouldn't see past your scheme, once I had time to think about it?" He released her and stretched his arms languorously. "After I woke up, feeling better than I've felt in months, and could think without my thoughts clouded with fury?"
She glanced at him sideways. Then, after a moment, began laughing herself. "I thought I'd pulled it off perfectly. The little tremors, hesitations, the slight tinge of fear in the voice—"
"The enticing roll of the rump was particularly good," said Belisarius. "But it's what gave it all away, in the end. When we play our little game you always try to win, even if you enjoy losing. You certainly don't wave your delicious ass under my nose, like waving a red flag before a bull."
"And with much the same result," she murmured. A moment later: "You're not angry?"
"No," he replied, smiling. "I began to be, at first, until I remembered Valentinian's little whisper to Maurice: `You know he won't tell you himself.' "
"Maurice took Valentinian?"
Antonina clapped her hand over her mouth.
"Oh, God! I almost feel sorry for that stinking pimp."
"I don't," snarled Belisarius. "Not in the slightest." He took a deep breath, blew it out.
"I pretended I didn't hear Valentinian, but—it is hard, for a quirky man like me, with my weird pride, to accept that people love him. And that he forces them to manipulate him, at times." He gave his crooked smile. "Would you believe, Anastasius actually said—" Here Belisarius' voice became a rumbling basso: " `violent characters, your pimps.' "
"Anastasius can bend horseshoes with his hands," choked Antonina.
"And then Valentinian whined: `stab you in the back in a minute.' "
Antonina couldn't speak at all, now, from the laughter.
"Oh, yes. Exactly his words. Valentinian—who is widely suspected to wipe his ass with a dagger, since nobody's ever seen him without one."
For a time, husband and wife were silent, simply staring at each other. Then, Antonina whispered:
"There will never be any truth to the tales, Belisarius. I swear before God. Never. A month from now, a year from now, ten years from now. You will always be able to ask, and the answer will always be: no."
He smiled and kissed her gently.
"I know. And I swear this, before God: I will never ask."
He rose to his feet.
"And now, we must get back to work." He strode to the door and called into the hallway beyond: "Dubazes! Fetch Michael and the bishop, if you would!"
Back | Next
Back | Next
Summer, 528 AD
"Out." Belisarius' eyes were like dark stones, worn smooth in a stream. Cold, pitiless pieces of an ancient mountain.
"Out," he repeated. The fat officer standing rigidly before him began to protest again, then, seeing the finality in the general's icy gaze, waddled hastily out of the command tent.
"See to it that he's on the road within the hour," said Belisarius to Maurice. "And watch who he talks to on his way out. His friends will commiserate with him, and those friends will likely have the same habits."
"With pleasure, sir." The hecatontarch motioned to one of the three Thracian cataphracts who were standing quietly in the rear of the tent. The cataphract, a stocky man in his mid-thirties, grinned evilly and began to leave.
"On your way out, Gregory," said Belisarius, "send in that young Syrian you recommended." Gregory nodded, and exited the tent.
Belisarius resumed his seat. For a moment, he listened to the sounds of a busy military camp filtering into the tent, much as a musician might listen to a familiar tune. He thought he detected a cheerful boisterousness in the half-heard vulgarities being exchanged by unseen soldiers, and hoped he was right. In the first days after his arrival, the sounds of the camp had been sodden with resentment.
A different sound drew his attention. He glanced over at the desk in the corner of the tent where Procopius, his new secretary, was scribbling away industriously. The desk, like the chair upon which the secretary sat, was of the plainest construction. But it was no plainer than Belisarius' own desk, or chair.
Procopius had been astonished—not to mention disgruntled—when he discovered his new employer's austere habits. Within a week after their arrival, the secretary had attempted to ingratiate himself by presenting Belisarius with a beautifully-embroidered, silk-covered cushion. The general had politely thanked Procopius for the gift, but had immediately turned it over to Maurice, explaining that it was his long-standing custom to share all gifts with his bucellarii. The following day, Procopius watched goggle-eyed as the Thracian cataphracts used the cushion as the target in their mounted archery exercises. (Very briefly—the cruel, razor-sharp blades of the war arrows, driven by those powerful bows, had shredded the cushion within minutes.)
The secretary had been pale with fury and outrage, but had possessed enough wit to maintain silence in the face of Thracian grins. And, admitted Belisarius, since then—
"You've done well, Procopius," said Belisarius suddenly, "helping to ferret out these petty crooks."
The secretary looked up, startled. He began to open his mouth, then closed it. He acknowledged the praise with a simple nod and returned to his work.
Satisfied, Belisarius looked away. In the weeks since they had been together in the army camp near Daras, Procopius had learned, painfully, that his new employer gave flattery short shrift. On the other hand, he prized hard work and skillfulness. And, whatever his other characteristics, there was no question that Procopius was an excellent secretary. Nor was he indolent. He had been a great help in shredding the corruption which riddled Belisarius' new army.
A soldier entered the tent.
"You called for me, sir?"
Belisarius examined him. The man appeared to be barely twenty. He was quite short, but muscular. A Syrian, with, Belisarius judged, considerable Arab stock in his ancestry.
The soldier was wearing a simple, standard uniform: a mantle, a shirt, boots, and a belt. The belt held up a scabbarded spatha, the sword which the modern Roman army used in place of the ancient gladius. The spatha was similar to a gladius—a straight-bladed, double-edged sword suitable for either cutting or thrusting, but it was six inches longer.
The cloak, helmet, mail tunic and shield which were also part of the man's uniform were undoubtedly resting in his tent. In the Syrian daytime, cloaks made the heat unbearable. And the soldier's armor and shield were unneeded in the daily routine of the camp.
"Your name is Mark, I believe? Mark of Edessa."
"Yes, sir." Mark's face bore slight traces of apprehension mixed with puzzlement.
Belisarius allayed his concerns instantly.
"I am promoting you to hecatontarch of the third ala," he announced. His tone was stern and martial.
The man's eyes widened slightly. He stood a bit straighter.
"Peter of Rhaedestus, as I'm sure you know, is the regiment's tribune. You will report to him."
Then, in a softer tone:
"You are young to be assigned command over a hundred men, and somewhat inexperienced. But both Peter and Constantine, the cavalry's chiliarch, speak well of you. And so do the men of my own personal retinue." He motioned slightly toward the back of the tent, where Maurice and the two other cataphracts stood.
Mark glanced toward the Thracians. His face remained still, but the youth's gratitude was apparent.
"Two things, before you go," said Belisarius. All traces of softness vanished from his voice.
"Constantine and Peter—as well as the other tribunes of the cavalry—know my views on corrupt officers, and are in agreement with them. But I will take the time now to express them to you directly. As you are aware, I will not tolerate an officer who steals from his own men. Thus far, since I inherited this army from another, I have satisfied myself with simply dismissing such officers. In the future, however, with officers who take command knowing my views, the punishment will be considerably more severe. Extreme, in fact."
Belisarius paused, gauging the young Syrian, and decided that further elaboration on the matter was unnecessary. Mark's face sheened with perspiration, but the sweat was simply the product of the stifling heat within the tent. Belisarius took a cloth and wiped his own face.
"A final point. You are a cavalryman, and have been, I understand, since you first joined. Is that correct?"
"Then understand something else. I will not tolerate the cavalry lording it over the infantry. Do you understand?"
Mark's face twitched, just a tiny bit.
"Speak frankly, Mark of Edessa. If you are unclear as to my meaning, say so. I will explain, and I promise there will be no censure."
The young Syrian glanced at his general, made a quick assessment, and spoke.
"I'm not quite sure I do, sir."
"It's simple, Mark. As you will discover soon enough, my tactical methods use the infantry to far greater effect than Roman armies normally do. But for those tactics to work, the infantry must have the same pride and self-esteem as the cavalry. I can't build and maintain that morale if I have cavalrymen deriding the foot soldiers and refusing to take on their fair share of the hard work, which normally falls almost entirely on the infantry. I will not tolerate cavalrymen lounging around in the shade while foot soldiers sweat rivers, building encampments and fortifications. And mocking the foot soldiers, often enough. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir." Firmly, clearly.
"Good. You will be allowed to select the decarchs for your hundred. All ten of them."
Mark stood very straight. "Thank you, sir."
Belisarius repressed a smile. Sternly:
"Use your own judgment, but I urge you to consult with Peter. And you might also discuss the matter with Maurice, and Gregory. I think you'll find them quite helpful."
"I will do so, sir."
"A word of caution. Advice, rather. Avoid simply selecting from your own circle of friends. Even if they prove capable, it will produce resentment among others. A capable clique is still a clique, and you will undermine your own authority."
"And, most of all, make sure your decarchs understand and accept my attitudes. You will be selecting them, which will reflect upon how I regard you. Your prestige among the cavalrymen whom you command will be thereby enhanced. But do not ever forget the corollary. I will hold you responsible for the conduct of your subordinates, as well as your own. Do I make myself clear?"
"As clear as day, sir." Another quick assessment of his new general. "Syrian day."
Now, Belisarius did smile. "Good. You may go."
Once Mark was gone, the three Thracians at the back of the tent relaxed and resumed their normal casual pose. In public, the members of Belisarius' personal retinue of three hundred cataphracts maintained certain formalities. Most of them, after all, held lowly official ranks. Even Maurice, their commander, was only a hecatontarch—the same official rank as the Syrian youth who had just left the tent.
In actual practice, the Thracian bucellarii served Belisarius as his personal staff. They had been carefully selected by him over a period of years, and the devotion of his retinue was fully reciprocated. Maurice, despite his rank, was in effect Belisarius' executive officer. Even Constantine, who was in overall command of the army's cavalry, along with the chiliarch Phocas who was his equivalent for the infantry, had learned to accept his actual authority. And, as they got to know the grizzled veteran, respect it as well.
"I believe the boy will work out quite nicely," commented Maurice. "Quite nicely. Once he gets blooded a bit." Maurice's smile vanished, replaced by a scowl. "I can't believe how badly your predecessor Libelarius let this army fall to pieces. Chiseling on fodder and gear is common enough. But we've even found cases where the men's pay was stolen. In some of the infantry regiments, at least."
"And the food!" exclaimed Basil, one of the other cataphracts. "Bad enough these bastards sell off some of the food, but they were cheating at both ends. The food was shit to begin with. Half-rotten when they bought it."
The third of the cataphracts chimed in. He was one of the few non-Thracians in Belisarius' retinue, an Armenian by the name of Ashot.
"What's even worse is the state of the army as a whole. What're we supposed to have, General? Eight thousand men, half cavalry?"
Ashot laughed scornfully. "What we've got, once you take a real count and strip away the names of fictitious soldiers whose pay these pigs have been pocketing, is five thousand men. Not four in ten of them cavalry."
Belisarius wiped his face again. He had spent most of his time, since arriving at the camp, trapped in the leaden, breezeless air of his tent. The heat was oppressive, and the lack of exercise was beginning to tell on him. "And," he concluded wearily, "the force structure's a joke. In order to hide the chiseling, this army's got twice as many official units as it does men to fill them properly."
"Nothing worse than a skeleton army," grumbled Maurice. "I found one infantry hundred that had all of twenty-two actual soldiers in it. With, naturally, a full complement of officers—a hecatontarch and all ten decarchs. Living high off the hog." He spit on the floor. "Four of those so-called decarchs didn't have a single soldier under their command. Not even one."
Belisarius rose and stretched. "Well, that's pretty much behind us. Within two more days, we'll have this army shaken down into a realistic structure, with decent officers. And decent morale restored to the troops, I think." He cast a questioning glance at Ashot and Basil. Belisarius relied on his low-ranked cataphracts to mingle with the troops and keep his fingers on the pulse of his army.
"Morale's actually high, General," said Ashot. Basil nodded agreement, and added:
"Sure, things are still crappy for the troops. And will be, for a bit. But they don't expect miracles, and they can see things are turning around. Mostly, though, the troops are cheerful as cherubs from watching one sorry-ass chiseler after another come into this tent, and then, within the hour, depart through the gates."
" `Deadly with a blade, is Belisarius,' " quoted Ashot, laughing. "They'd heard that, some of them. Now they all believe it."
"How's the drill going?" asked Belisarius.
Maurice made a fluttering motion with his hand.
"So-so. Just so-so. But I'm not worried about it. The troops are just expressing their last resentment by sloughing it during the drill. Give it a week. Then we'll start seeing results."
"Push it, Maurice. I'm not demanding miracles, but keep in mind that we don't have much time. I can't delay our departure to Mindouos for more than a fortnight."
Belisarius rose and walked over to the entrance of his tent. Leaning against a pole, he stared through the open flap at the camp. As always, his expression was hard to read. But Maurice, watching, knew the general was not happy with his orders.
The orders, received by courier a week earlier, were plain and simple: Move to Mindouos and build a fort.
Simple, clear orders. And, Maurice knew, orders which Belisarius considered idiotic.
Belisarius had said nothing to him, of course. For all the general's casual informality when dealing with his Thracian retinue, he maintained a sharp demarcation with regard to matters he considered exclusively reserved for command.
But Maurice knew the general as well as any man. And so he knew, though nothing had been said directly, that Belisarius thought the Roman Empire was deliberately provoking Persia, for no good reason, and was then piling stupidity onto recklessness by provoking the Mede without first seeing to it that the provocation would succeed.
No, Belisarius had said nothing to Maurice. But Maurice knew him well. And if Maurice lacked his general's extraordinary intelligence, he was by no means stupid. And very experienced in the trade of war.
Maurice did not feel himself qualified to make a judgment as to the Emperor's wisdom in provoking the Persians. But he did feel qualified to make a judgment on the means the Emperor had chosen to do so. And, he thought, given the state of the Byzantine forces in the area, provoking Persia was about as sensible as provoking a lion with a stick.
The Persians maintained a large army stationed near the upper Euphrates, close to the border. In quiet times, that army was billeted at the fortified city of Nisibis. Now, with hostilities looming, the Mede army had moved north and established a temporary camp, threatening the Anatolian heartland of the Roman Empire.
To oppose them—to provoke them, no less—the Romans had only seventeen thousand men in the area. Five thousand of those were represented by Belisarius' army, which, when he assumed command, had proven to be as brittle as a rotten twig. As badly corrupted an army as Maurice had seen anywhere.
The remaining twelve thousand men were stationed not far away, in Lebanon. That army, from what Maurice had been able to determine, was in fairly good condition. Certainly it seemed to have none of the rampant corruption which they had encountered at Daras.
Maurice was an old veteran, well past his fortieth year. He had learned long since that numbers did not weigh as heavily in war as morale and, especially, command. The Army of Lebanon was under the command of two brothers, Bouzes and Coutzes. Not bad fellows, Maurice thought, all things considered. Thracians themselves, as it happened, which predisposed Maurice in their favor. But—young, even younger than Belisarius. And, unfortunately, with none of the wily cunning which so often made Belisarius seem a man of middle age, or even older.
No, bold and brash, were the brothers. And, they had made clear, under no conditions willing to subordinate themselves to Belisarius. Nor could Belisarius force them to. Though he was more experienced than Bouzes and Coutzes—than both of them put together, thought Maurice glumly—and carried a far greater reputation, the brothers were officially ranked as high as he. It was a new rank, for them, and one in which they took great pride. Shiny new generaldom, which they were not about to tarnish by placing under the hand of another.
Outnumbered, under a divided command, his own army shaky from rot, the majority of the Roman forces under the command of brash, untested youth—and, now, ordered to poke the Persian lion.
Belisarius sighed, very faintly, and turned back to the interior of the tent.
"How is the other matter going?" he asked.
"The pilfering?" Belisarius nodded.
"We're bringing it under control," said Maurice. "Now that rations have started to flow properly again, the troops don't have any real reason to steal from the locals. It's more a matter of habit than anything else."
"That's exactly my concern," said Belisarius. "Looting's the worst habit an army can develop."
"Can't stop it, sir," said Maurice. Sometimes, he thought, his beloved general was impractical. Not often, true. He was startled to hear Belisarius' hand slamming the desk.
"Maurice! I don't want to hear the old voice of experience!"
The general was quite angry, Maurice noted, with some surprise. Unusual, that. The old veteran straightened his posture. He did not, however, flinch. Angry generals had long since failed to cause him to quiver in fear. Any generals, much less Belisarius.
And, sure enough, after a moment he saw the crooked smile make its appearance.
"Maurice, I am not a fool. I realize that soldiers look upon booty as one of their time-honored perks. And that's fine—as long as we're talking about booty." Belisarius tightened his own jaw. "It's one thing for an army to share in the spoils of a campaign, fairly apportioned in an organized manner, after the campaign's over and the victory is certain. It's another thing entirely for soldiers to get in the habit of plundering and stealing and generally taking anything they want whenever the mood strikes them. Let that happen, and pretty soon you don't have an army anymore. Just a mob of thieves, rapists, and murderers."
He eyed Maurice. "Speaking of which?"
"Hung 'em yesterday, sir. All four. The girl's surviving brother was able to identify them, once he got over his terror at being here. I sent him on to Aleppo, then, to join his sister."
"Have you heard from the monks?"
Maurice grimaced. "Yes. They've agreed to take care of the girl, as best they can. But they don't expect she'll recover, and—" Another grimace.
"And they had harsh words to say about Christian soldiers."
"As well they might. Did the troops watch the execution?"
"Not the execution itself, no. At least, not the army as a whole. A lot of them did, of course. But I gave orders to let the bodies sway in the breeze, until the heat and the vultures make skeletons out of them. They'll all get the message, sir."
Belisarius wiped his face wearily. "For a time." He stared ruefully at the grimy cloth in his hand. The rag was too soaked to do more than smear the sweat. He reached out and hung it on a peg to dry.
"But there'll be another incident," he continued, after resuming his seat. "This army's had too much rot infect it. Soon enough, there'll be another incident. When it happens, Maurice, I'll have the officer in command of the men strung up alongside them. I won't accept any excuses. Pass the word."
Maurice took a deep breath, then let it out. He wasn't afraid of Belisarius, but he knew when the general wasn't to be budged.
The general's gaze was hard.
"I'm serious about this, Maurice. Make certain the men understand my attitude. Make absolutely certain the officers do."
The general relented, slightly. "It's not simply a matter of the conduct one expects from Christian soldiers, Maurice. If the men can't understand that, then make sure they understand the practical side of it. You and I have both seen too many battles lost—or, at best, halfway won—because the troops got diverted at the critical moment. Allowing the enemy to escape, or rally for a counterattack, because they're busy scurrying around for some silver plate and chickens to steal, or a woman to rape. Or just the pleasure of watching a town burn. A town, more often than not, that's the only place to find billeting. Or would have been, if it weren't a pile of ashes."
Belisarius eyed Maurice a moment longer, then smiled. "Trust me in this, old friend. I know you think I've got my head in the clouds, but I'll prove you wrong."
Maurice smiled back. "I've never thought you had your head in the clouds, General. Though, at times, the air you breathe is a bit rarefied."
The hecatontarch eyed his two subordinates and gestured slightly with his head. Immediately, Ashot and Basil left the tent.
"May I suggest you get some sleep, sir." Maurice did not even look toward Procopius. The veteran had made clear, in none too subtle ways, that he regarded the secretary much as he regarded an asp. Procopius set down his pen, arose, and exited the tent himself. Quite hastily.
After the others had left, Maurice made his own exit. But, at the entrance of the tent, he hesitated and turned back.
"I don't want you to misunderstand me, General. I'm skeptical that it'll work, that's all. Other than that, I've no problem with your policy. None. Measured out the ropes myself, I did, and cut the lengths. And enjoyed every moment of it."
Later, after the noises of the camp had died down, Belisarius reached into his tunic and withdrew the jewel. It was resting in the small pouch which Antonina had dug up. He opened the pouch and spilled the jewel onto his palm.
"Come on," he whispered. "You've had enough sleep. I need your help."
The facets spun and flickered. Energy was returning, now. And, during the long stasis, aim had been able to—digest, so to speak—its bizarre experiences. The thoughts were clearer now, still as alien but no longer impossible to fathom.
aim did not have much energy yet, but—enough, it decided.
And so it was that the general Belisarius, lying on his cot, almost asleep, suddenly bolted upright.
Again, his face, emerging from the ground. Coalescing from the remnants of spiderwebs and bird wings, and laurel leaves. Suddenly soaring into the heavens, utterly transformed. The wings were now the pinions of a dragon. The laurel leaves, bursting flame and thunder. And the spiderwebs—were the spinnings of his mind, weaving their traps, spreading their strands through an infinite distance.
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"So much for diplomacy," snarled Bouzes, reining his horse around savagely. He glared over his shoulder at the retreating figures of the Persian commanders.
"Filthy Mede dogs," agreed his brother Coutzes. Setting his own horse in motion, he added, "God, how I despise them."
Belisarius, riding alongside, held his tongue. He saw no point in contradicting the brothers. His relations with them were tense enough as it was.
In truth, Belisarius rather liked Persians. The Medes had their faults, of course. The most outstanding of which—and the one which had occasioned the brothers' outburst—was the overweening arrogance of Persian officials. An arrogance which had once again been displayed in the recently concluded parley.
The parley had taken place in the no-man's-land which marked, insofar as anything did, the border between Roman and Persian territory. A brief discussion, on a patch of barren landscape, between six men on horseback. Belisarius and the brothers Bouzes and Coutzes had spoken for the Roman side. The Medes had been represented by Firuz, the Persian commander, and his two principal subordinates, Pityaxes and Baresmanas.
Firuz had demanded the parley. And then, at the parley, demanded that the Romans dismantle the fortress which Belisarius' army had almost completed. Or he would dismantle it for them.
Such, at least, had been the essence of the demand. But Firuz had insisted on conveying the demand in the most offensive manner possible. He had boasted of his own martial prowess and sneered at that of the Romans. (Not forgetting to toss in numerous remarks concerning Roman cowardice and unmanliness.) He had dwelt lovingly on the full-bellied vultures which would soon be the caskets of Roman troops—assuming, of course, that the carrion-eaters were hungry enough to feed on such foul meat.
And so on, and so forth. Belisarius repressed a smile. He thought the polishing touch had been Firuz' demand that Belisarius build a bath in the fortress. He would need the bath, the Persian commander explained, to wash Roman blood and gore off his body. Among which body parts, Firuz explained, the brains of Belisarius himself would figure prominently. The brains of Bouzes and Coutzes would not, of course, as they had none.
Belisarius glanced at Bouzes and Coutzes. The brothers were red-faced with rage. Not for the first time—no, for perhaps the thousandth time—Belisarius reflected on the stupidity of approaching war with any attitude other than craftsmanship. Why should a sane man care what some Persian peacock had to say about him? All the better, as far as Belisarius was concerned, that Firuz was filled with his own self-esteem and contempt for his enemy. It made defeating him all the easier. An arrogant foe was easily duped.
For the first half-hour of their trek back to the Roman fort at Mindouos, Belisarius simply relaxed and enjoyed the ride. It was early afternoon, and the heat was already intense, but at least he was not confined within a stifling tent. And, soon enough, a cooling breeze began to develop. The breeze came from the west, moreover, so it had the further advantage of blowing the dust of their travel behind them.
Yet, that same pleasant breeze brought Belisarius' mind back to his current predicament. He had been giving that breeze much thought, these past days. Very reliable, it was, always arising in early afternoon, and always blowing from the west to the east. He treasured that reliability, caught as he was in a situation with so many variable factors.
As the three men rode back to the camp in silence, therefore, Belisarius began to consider his options. His natural inclination, given the circumstances, would have been to stall for time. For all Firuz' vainglory, Belisarius did not think the Persian was actually ready to launch a war immediately. Stall, stall, stall—and then, perhaps, the Emperor Justinian and his advisers would come to their senses.
But the knowledge that Belisarius now possessed, from the jewel, made that option unworkable. He simply didn't have the time to waste in this idiotic and unnecessary conflict between Byzantium and Persia. Not while the forces of Satan were gathering their strength in India.
I've got to bring this thing to a head, and quickly, and be done with it. The only way to do that is with a resounding victory. Soon.
Which, of course, is easier said than done. Especially with—
He glanced again at the brothers. Bouzes and Coutzes looked enough alike that Belisarius had taken them, at first, for twins. Average height, brown-haired, hazel-eyed, muscular, snub-nosed, and— He would have smiled if he hadn't been so irritated. In truth, the Persian's insult had cut close to the quick. If the brothers had any brains at all, Belisarius had seen precious little indication of them.
After three days of argument, he had managed to get the brothers to agree, grudgingly, to combine their forces. Three days!—to convince them of the obvious. There had been no hope, of course, of convincing them to place the combined force under his command. Belisarius had not even bothered to raise the matter. The brothers would have taken offense, and, in high dudgeon, retracted their agreement to combine forces.
Eventually, as they neared the fort at Mindouos, Belisarius decided on his course of action. He saw no alternative, even though he was not happy with the decision. It was a gamble, for one thing, which Belisarius generally avoided.
But, he thought, glancing at the brothers again, a gamble with rather good odds.
Now, if Maurice can manage—
He broke off the thought. They were almost at the fortress. The transition from the barren semidesert to the vivid green of the oasis where he had situated his fort was as startling as ever. In no more time than a few horse paces, they moved from a desolate emptiness to a populated fertility. Much of that population was soldiery, of course, but there were still a number of civilians inhabiting the oasis, despite the danger from the nearby Persians. Three grubby but healthy-looking bedouin children, standing under a palm tree nearby, watched the small group of Roman officers trot past. One of them shouted something in Arabic. Belisarius did not quite make out the words—his Arabic was passable but by no means fluent—but he sensed the cheerful greeting in the tone.
"Hell of job you did here, Belisarius," remarked Bouzes admiringly, gazing up at the fortress. His brother concurred immediately, then added: "I don't see how you did it, actually. In the time you had. Damned good fort, too. Nothing slap-dash about it."
"I've got some good engineers among my Thracian retinue, for one thing."
"Engineers? Among cataphracts?"
Belisarius smiled. "Well, they're not really cataphracts, not proper ones. A bunch of farmers, at bottom, who just picked up the skills."
"Wish we had some real cataphracts," muttered Bouzes. "Don't much care for the snotty bastards, but they're great in a fight."
His brother returned to the subject. "Even with good engineers, I still don't see how you got the work done so quickly."
"The basic way I did it was by setting the cavalry to work and challenging them to match the infantry."
The brothers gaped.
"You had cavalry doing that kind of shit work?" demanded Bouzes. He frowned. "Bad for morale, I would think."
"Not the infantry's," rejoined Belisarius. "And, as for the cavalry's morale, you might be surprised. They wailed like lost souls, at first. But, after a bit, they started rising to the challenge. Especially after they heard the infantry taunting them for a lot of weaklings. Then I announced prizes for the best day's work, and the cavalry started pitching into it. They never were as good as the infantry, of course, but by the end they were giving them quite a run for their money. Won a few prizes, even."
Bouzes was still frowning. "Still—even if it doesn't affect their morale directly, it—still."
"Saps their self-esteem, over time," agreed his brother. "Bound to. It's dog work."
Belisarius decided he'd been polite long enough.
"Dog work, is it?" he demanded, feigning anger. "I would remind the two of you that the Roman empire was built by such dogs. By infantry, not cavalry. Infantry who knew the value of good fortifications, and knew how to put them up. Quickly, and well."
He reined in his horse. They were now at the gate of the fortress. Belisarius pointed to the barrenness beyond the date palms, from which they had just come.
"Do you see that border with Persia? That border was placed there centuries ago. By infantrymen. How far has your precious cavalry pushed it since then?"
He glared at them. The brothers looked away.
"Not one mile, that's how far." The gate was opening. Belisarius set his horse back in motion.
"So let's not hear so much boasting about cavalry," he growled, passing through the gate.
Rather well done, he patted himself on the back. They're not bad fellows, really. If they could just get that stupid crap out of their heads.
The interior of the fortress was not as imposing as its exterior. In truth, Belisarius had been pressed for time, even with the aid of the cavalrymen, and so he had concentrated all effort on the outside walls and fortifications. Within those walls, the fortress was still just an empty parade ground, although it was covered now with the tents of his soldiers. He had not even built a command post for himself, but continued to use his tent as a headquarters.
As soon as Belisarius dismounted and walked into his command tent, followed by the two brothers, Maurice made his appearance.
"We've got a prisoner," the hecatontarch announced. "Just brought him in."
"Where did you catch him?"
"Sunicas' regiment had a skirmish this morning with a group of Persians. About three hundred of them, ten miles north of here. After Sunicas drove them off, they found one fellow lying on the ground. Stunned. Horse threw him."
"Bring him here."
Belisarius took a seat at the large table in the middle of the tent. Bouzes and Coutzes remained standing. A few minutes later, Maurice reappeared, along with Valentinian. Valentinian was pushing a Persian soldier ahead of him. The Persian's wrists were bound behind his back. By his dress and accouterments, Belisarius thought the Persian to be a midlevel officer.
Valentinian forced the Mede into a chair. Exhibiting the usual Persian courage, the officer's face remained still and composed. The Persian was expecting to be tortured, but would not give his enemy the satisfaction of seeing his fear.
His expectation was shared by Bouzes and Coutzes.
"We've got a first-rate torturer," announced Coutzes cheerfully. "I can have him here inside the hour."
"No need," replied Belisarius curtly. The general stared at the Mede. The Persian met his eyes unflinchingly.
For a moment, Belisarius considered interrogating the officer in his own language. Belisarius was fluent in Pallavi, as he was in several languages. But he decided against it. Bouzes and Coutzes, he suspected, were ignorant of the Persian language, and it was important that they be able to follow the interrogation. By the richness of his garb, the Persian was obviously from the aristocracy. His Greek would therefore be fluent, since—in one of those little historical ironies—Greek was the court language of the Sassanid dynasty.
"How many men does Firuz have under his command?" he asked the Mede.
"Fifty-five thousand," came the instant reply. As Belisarius had suspected, the man's Greek was excellent. "That doesn't include the twenty thousand he left in Nisibis," added the Persian.
"What a lot of crap!" snarled Coutzes. "There aren't—"
Belisarius interrupted. "I will allow you four lies, Mede. You've already used up two of them. Firuz has twenty-five thousand men, and he took them all when he left Nisibis."
The muscles along the Persian's jaw tightened, and his eyes narrowed slightly. Other than that, he gave no indication of surprise at the accuracy of Belisarius' information.
"How many of those twenty-five thousand are cavalry?" asked Belisarius.
Again, the Mede's answer came with no hesitation:
"We have no more than four thousand infantry. And most of our cavalry are lancers."
"That's the third lie," said Belisarius, very mildly. "And the fourth. Firuz has ten thousand infantry. Of his fifteen thousand cavalry, no more than five are heavy lancers."
The Persian looked away, for a moment, but kept his face expressionless. Belisarius was impressed by the man's courage.
"I'm afraid you've used up all your lies." Without moving his gaze from the Persian, Belisarius asked the two Thracian brothers: "You say you have a good torturer?"
Bouzes nodded eagerly. "We can have him here in no time," said Coutzes.
The captured officer's jaw was now very tight, but the man's gaze was calm and level.
"Has the pay caravan arrived yet?" demanded Belisarius.
For the first time since the interrogation began, the Persian seemed shaken. He frowned, hesitated, and then replied: "What are you talking about?"
Belisarius slammed the table with his open palm.
"Don't play with me, Mede! I know your army's pay chest was sent out from Nisibis five days ago, with an escort of only fifty men."
Belisarius turned his head and looked at Bouzes and Coutzes. A disgusted look came on his face. "Fifty! Can you believe it? Typical Persian arrogance."
Coutzes opened his mouth to speak, but Belisarius motioned him silent. He turned back to the captured officer.
"What I don't know is if the pay caravan has arrived at your camp. So, I ask again: has it?"
The Persian's face was a study in confusion. But, within seconds, the Mede regained his composure.
"I imagine it has," he replied. "I left our camp the day before yesterday. That's why I hadn't heard anything about it. But by now I'm sure it's arrived. Nisibis is only four days' ride. They wouldn't have dawdled."
Belisarius studied the officer silently for some time. Again, Coutzes began to speak, but Belisarius waved him silent. The young Thracian general's face became flushed with irritation, but he held his tongue.
After a couple more minutes of silence, Belisarius leaned back in his chair and placed his hands on his thighs. He seemed to have come to some sort of decision.
"Take him out," he commanded Valentinian. Bouzes began to protest, but Belisarius glared him down.
No sooner were they alone, however, than the brothers erupted.
"What the hell kind of interrogation was that?" demanded Bouzes. "And why did you stop? We still don't know anything about that pay caravan!"
"Silly damn waste of time," snorted Coutzes. "You want to get anything useful from a Mede, you've got to use a—"
"Torturer?" demanded Belisarius. He rolled his eyes despairingly, exhaled disgust, sneered mightily. Then he stood up abruptly and leaned over the table, resting his weight on his fists.
"I can see why you haul around a professional torturer," snarled the general. "I would too, if I was a fool."
He matched the brothers' glare with a scorching look of his own.
"Let me explain something to you," he said icily. "I wasn't in the slightest bit interested in getting information from the Persian regarding the pay caravan. He doesn't know anything about it. How could he? The pay caravan only left Nibisis the day before yesterday."
"The day before yesterday?" demanded Bouzes, puzzled. "But you said—"
"I said to an enemy officer that the pay chest left five days ago."
The brothers were now silent, frowning. Belisarius resumed his seat.
"My spies spotted the caravan as soon as it left the gates of the city. One of them rode here as fast as possible, using remounts. There's no way that caravan has reached Firuz' camp yet."
"Then why did you—"
"Why did I ask the Mede about it? I simply wanted to get his immediate reaction. You saw what a talented liar he was. Yet when I asked him about the pay caravan, he had to fumble for an answer. What does that tell you?"
Apparently, they weren't that stupid, for both brothers immediately got the point.
"The Persians themselves don't know about it!" they exclaimed, like a small chorus.
Belisarius nodded. "I'd heard that the Medes were starting to send out some of their pay caravans in this manner. Instead of tying up a small army to escort the caravans, they're relying on absolute secrecy. Even the soldiers for whom the pay's destined don't know about it, until the caravan arrives."
The brothers exchanged glances. Belisarius chuckled.
"Tempting, isn't it? But I'm afraid we'll have to let it go. This time, anyway."
"Why?" demanded Bouzes.
"Yes, why?" echoed his brother. "It's a perfect opportunity. Why shouldn't we seize it?"
"You're not thinking clearly. First, we have no idea what route the caravan's taking. Don't forget, we'd only have one day—two at the most—to catch the caravan before it arrives at the Persian camp. In order to be sure of finding it, we'd have to send out an entire regiment of cavalry. At the very least. Two regiments, to be on the safe side."
"So?" demanded Coutzes.
"So?" Belisarius cast an exasperated glance upward. "You were at the parley with Firuz today, were you not?"
"What's the point, Belisarius?"
"The point, Coutzes, is that Firuz is getting ready to attack us. We're outnumbered. We need to stay on the defensive. This is the worst time in the world for us to be sending our cavalry chasing all over Syria. We need them here, at the fort. Every man."
Coutzes began to argue, but his brother cut him short by grabbing his arm.
"Let's not get into an argument! There's no point in it, and it's too hot." He wiped his brow dramatically. Belisarius restrained a smile. In truth, there was hardly any sweat on Bouzes' face.
Bouzes wiped his brow again, in a gesture worthy of Achilles. Then said: "I think we've finished all our business here. Or is there anything else?"
Belisarius shook his head. "No. Your officers have all been told that we are combining our forces?"
"Yes, they know."
A brief exchange of amenities followed, in which Coutzes participated grudgingly. Bouzes, on the other hand, was cordiality itself. The brothers left the tent, with Belisarius escorting them. He chatted politely, while Bouzes and Coutzes mounted their horses. He did not return into the tent until he saw the brothers cantering through the gates of the fort.
Maurice was waiting for him inside.
"Well?" asked the hecatontarch.
"At nightfall, give the captured Persian officer my message for Firuz and let him go. Make sure he has a good horse. Then pass the word quietly to the men. I expect we'll be leaving at dawn."
"Unless I'm badly mistaken, yes." He glanced back at the entrance to the tent. "And I don't think I'm mistaken."
"You should be ashamed of yourself."
Belisarius smiled crookedly. "I am mortified, Maurice, mortified."
The hecatontarch grunted sarcastically, but forebore comment. "Ashot's back," he said.
"What did he think of the location?"
"Good. The hill will do nicely—if the wind blows the right way."
"It should, by midday."
"And if it doesn't?"
Belisarius shrugged. "We'll just have to manage. Even if there's no wind, the dust alone should do the trick. If the wind blows the wrong way, of course, we'll be in a tight spot. But I've never seen it blow from the east until evening." He took a seat at the table. "Now, send for the chiliarchs and the tribunes. I want to make sure they understand my plan perfectly."
That night, immediately after the conclusion of the meeting with his chief subordinates, Belisarius lay down on his cot. For almost an hour he lay there in the darkness, thinking over his plans, before he finally fell asleep.
As the general pondered, aim delved through the corridors of his mind. Time after time, the facets threatened to splinter. Despair almost overwhelmed them. Just when the alien thoughts had begun to come into focus! And now, they were—somehow at odds with themselves. It was like trying to learn a language whose grammar was constantly changing. Impossible!
But aim was now growing in confidence, and so it was able to control the facets. With growing confidence, came patience. It was true, the thoughts were contradictory—like two images, identical, yet superimposed over each other at right angles. Patience. Patience. In time, aim sensed it could bring them into focus.
And, in the meantime, there was something of much greater concern. For, despite the blurring, there was one point on which all the paradoxical images in the general's mind coalesced sharply.
At the very edge of sleep, Belisarius sensed a thought. But he was too tired to consider its origin.
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Belisarius awoke long before dawn. Within a short time after rising, he was satisfied that the preparations for the march were well in hand. Both of his chiliarchs were competent officers, and it soon became apparent that the tribunes and hecatontarchs had absorbed fully the orders he had given them the night before.
Maurice came up to him. Belisarius recognized him from a distance, even though it was still dark. Maurice had a rolling gait which was quite unmistakable.
"Now?" asked Maurice.
Belisarius nodded. The two men mounted their horses and cantered through the gate. The Army of Lebanon was camped just beyond the fort, where its soldiers could enjoy the shade and water provided by the oasis. Within a few minutes, Belisarius and Maurice were dismounting before the command tent occupied by Bouzes and Coutzes.
The tent was much larger than the one Belisarius used, although not excessively so by the standards of Roman armies. Roman commanders had long been known for traveling in style. Julius Caesar had even carried tiles with him to floor his tent. (Although he claimed to have done so simply to impress barbarian envoys; Belisarius was skeptical of the claim.)
Upon their arrival, the sentries guarding the tent informed them that Bouzes and Coutzes were absent. They had left the camp in the middle of the night. Further questioning elicited the information that the brothers had taken two cavalry regiments along with them.
Belisarius uttered many profane oaths, very loudly. He stalked off toward the nearby tent, which was occupied by the four chiliarchs who were the chief subordinate officers of the Army of Lebanon. Maurice followed.
At the chiliarchs' tent, a sentry began to challenge Belisarius, but quickly fell silent. The sentry recognized him, and saw as well that the general was in a towering rage. Deciding that discretion was the order of the day, the sentry drew aside. Belisarius stormed into the tent.
Three of the four chiliarchs were rising from sleep, groggy and bleary-eyed. One of them lit a lamp. Belisarius immediately demanded to know the whereabouts of the fourth. He allowed the three chiliarchs to stammer in confusion for a few seconds before he cut through the babble.
"So. I assume Dorotheus has accompanied the two cretins in this lunacy?"
The chiliarchs began to protest. Again, Belisarius cut them short.
"Silence!" He threw himself into a chair by the table in the center of the tent. He glared about for a moment, and then slammed his palm down on the table.
"I am being generous! The Emperor may forgive the idiots, if he decides they are just stupid."
Mention of the Emperor caused all three of the chiliarchs to draw back a bit. The face of at least one of them, Belisarius thought, grew pale. But it was hard to tell. The interior of the tent was poorly lit.
Belisarius allowed the silence to fester. He knotted his brow. After a minute or so, he rose and began pacing about, exuding the image of a man lost in thoughtful calculation. Actually, he was scrutinizing the interior of the tent. He believed firmly that one could make a close assessment of officers by examining their private quarters, and took advantage of the opportunity to do so.
Overall, he was impressed. The chiliarchs maintained clean and orderly quarters. There was no indication of the drunken sloppiness which had characterized the tents of a number of the former officers of his own army. He also noted the austerity of their living arrangements. Other than weapons and necessary gear, the chiliarchs' tent was bare of possessions.
The general was pleased. He prized austere living on campaign—not from any religious or moral impulse, but simply because he valued the ability to react and move quickly above all other characteristics in an officer. And he had found, with very few exceptions, that officers who filled their command quarters with lavish creature comforts were sluggards when confronted by any sudden change in circumstances.
He decided the pose of thoughtful concentration had gone on long enough. He stopped pacing, straightened his back, and announced decisively:
"There's nothing for it. We'll just have to make do with what we have."
He turned to the three chiliarchs, who were now clustered together on the other side of the table.
"Assemble your army. We march at once."
"But our commanders aren't here!" protested one of the cavalry chiliarchs. Belisarius gave him a fierce look of disgust.
"I'm aware of that, Pharas. And you can be quite sure that if we fail to intercept the Persians before they march into Aleppo, the Emperor will know of their absence also. And do as he sees fit. But in the absence of Bouzes and Coutzes, I am in command of this army. And I have no intention of imitating their dereliction of duty."
His announcement brought a chill into the room.
"The Persians are marching?" asked Hermogenes, the infantry chiliarch.
"The day after tomorrow."
"How do you know?" demanded Pharas.
Belisarius sneered. "Doesn't the Army of Lebanon have any spies?" he demanded. The chiliarchs were silent. The general's sneer turned into a truly ferocious scowl.
"Oh, that's marvelous!" he exclaimed. "You have no idea what the enemy is doing. So, naturally, you decided to send two full cavalry regiments charging off on a wild goose chase. Just marvelous!"
Pharas' face was ashen. To some extent, it was the pallor of rage. But, for the most part, it was simple fear. Watching him, Belisarius estimated the man's intelligence as rather dismal. But even Pharas understood the imperial fury which would fall on the chief officers of the Army of Lebanon if they allowed the Persians to march on Aleppo unopposed.
The junior cavalry chiliarch, Eutyches, suddenly slammed his hand onto the table angrily.
"Mother of God! I told them—" He bit off the words. Clamped his jaw tight. For a moment, he and Belisarius stared at each other. Then, with a faint nod, and an even fainter smile, Belisarius indicated his understanding and appreciation of Eutyches' position.
The infantry chiliarch spoke then. The timber of his voice reflected Hermogenes' youth, but there was not the slightest quaver in it. "Let's move. Now. We all know that Coutzes and Bouzes agreed to combine forces with Belisarius' army. Since they're not here, that makes him the rightful commander."
Eutyches immediately nodded his agreement. After a moment, reluctantly, so did Pharas.
Belisarius seized the moment. "Rouse your army and assemble them into marching formation," he commanded. "Immediately." He stalked out of the tent.
Once outside, Belisarius and Maurice returned to their horses. The first glimmer of dawn was beginning to show on the eastern horizon.
Belisarius gazed about admiringly. "It's going to be a lovely day."
"It's going to be miserably hot," countered Maurice.
Belisarius chuckled quietly. "You are the most morose man I have ever met."
"I am not morose. I am pessimistic. My cousin Ignace, now, there's a morose man. You've never met him, I don't believe?"
"How could I have met him? Didn't you tell me he hasn't left his house for fifteen years?"
"Yes, that's true." The hecatontarch eyed Belisarius stonily. "He's terrified of swindlers. And rightfully so."
Belisarius chuckled again. "A lovely day, I tell you." Then, businesslike: "I'm going to stay here, Maurice. If I don't chivvy this army, they'll take forever to get moving. I want you to return to the fort and make sure everything goes properly. I think Phocas and Constantine will manage everything well enough. But I haven't worked with them in the field before, so I want you to keep an eye on things. Remember the two key points: keep—"
"Keep a large cavalry screen well out in front and make sure the infantry gets dug in quickly. With at least half of them hidden behind the ramparts."
The general smiled. "A lovely day. Be off."
As Belisarius had expected, it took hours to get the Army of Lebanon moving. Despite his loud and profane comments, however, he was quite satisfied with the progress. It was unreasonable to expect an army of twelve thousand men to start a march more quickly, with no advance warning or preparations.
By midday, the army was well into its marching rhythm. The temperature was oppressive. The western breeze which sprang up in the afternoon did not help the situation much. True, the wind brought a bit of coolness. But since the army was marching northeast, it also swept the dust thrown up by hooves and feet along the march route instead of away. At least the dust was not blown directly into the soldiers' faces, although that was a small consolation. Syria in midsummer was as unpleasant a place and time to be making a forced march as any in the world.
However, Belisarius noted that the commanding officers of the Army of Lebanon refrained from complaining. Whatever their misgivings might be regarding this unexpected expedition, under unexpected command, they seemed willing to keep them private. He now took the time to explain to the three chiliarchs his plan for the battle he expected shortly. The two cavalry chiliarchs seemed skeptical of the role planned for the infantry, but forbore comment. They were pleased enough with their own projected role, and the infantry was none of their concern anyway.
As evening approached, Belisarius concentrated on discussing his plans with Hermogenes, the infantry chiliarch. Hermogenes, he was pleased to see, soon began to evince real enthusiasm. All too often, Roman infantry commanders occupied that position by virtue of their incompetence and fecklessness. Hermogenes, on the other hand, seemed an ambitious fellow, happy to discover that his own role in the upcoming conflict was to be more than a sideshow.
By nightfall, Belisarius was satisfied that Hermogenes would be able to play his part properly. In fact, he thought the young chiliarch might do very well. Belisarius decided to place Hermogenes in overall command of the infantry, once the Army of Lebanon was united with his own army. Phocas, his own infantry chiliarch, was a competent officer, but by no means outstanding. On the other hand, Phocas did have a knack for artillery. So Belisarius would put Phocas under Hermogenes' command, with the specific responsibility for the artillery.
Belisarius pushed the march until the very last glimmer of daylight faded before ordering the army to encamp for the night. The Army of Lebanon, he noted with satisfaction, set up its camp quickly and expertly.
After his command tent was set up, Belisarius enjoyed a few moments of privacy within it. He found the absence of Procopius a relief. For all the man's competence, and for all that his most sycophantish habits had been beaten down, the general still found his new secretary extremely annoying. But Procopius was now at the villa near Daras—and had been since Belisarius moved his army to Mindouos. The general had seen no use for him during an actual campaign, and had ordered the man to provide Antonina with whatever assistance she needed in running the estate.
He heard a commotion outside and went to investigate. Maurice had arrived, along with Ashot and three other Thracian cataphracts. By the time Belisarius emerged from his tent, his bucellarii were already dismounted from their horses. With them, dismounting more slowly—pain and exhaustion in every movement—were eight members of the two vanished cavalry regiments. One of the eight was an officer, and all of them looked much the worse for wear. Even in the dim moonlight, the general could see that three of them were wounded, although the wounds did not seem especially severe.
The officer limped over to Belisarius and began to stammer out some semicoherent phrases. Belisarius commanded him to hold his tongue until he could summon the chiliarchs and the tribunes. A few minutes later, with the leadership of the Army of Lebanon packed into the command tent, he instructed the returning officer to tell his tale. This he did, somewhat chaotically, with Maurice lending an occasional comment.
Bouzes and Coutzes, it turned out, had not found the pay caravan. What they had found, charging all over the landscape looking for it, was half of the Persian cavalry, charging all over the landscape looking for it likewise. An impromptu battle had erupted, in which the heavily outnumbered Romans had taken a drubbing. The two brothers had been captured. In the end, most of the Roman cavalry had escaped, in disorganized groups, and were being encountered by Belisarius' own army as it marched forward into position. Though badly demoralized and half-leaderless, the surviving members of the two regiments had been so delighted to find a large formation of Roman troops in the vicinity that they were rallying to the standards of Belisarius' army.
When the officer concluded his tale, Belisarius refrained from commenting on the stupidity of Bouzes and Coutzes. Under the circumstances, he thought, it would be superfluous. He simply concluded the meeting with a brief review of his plans for the forthcoming battle, then sent everyone to bed.
"Things are going well," he remarked to Maurice, once they were in private.
Maurice gave him a hard look. "You're playing this one awfully close, young man."
Belisarius eyed him. Maurice was not, in private, given to formality and subservience. Even in public, he satisfied himself with nothing more than the occasional "sir" and "my lord." But he rarely addressed his general by his own name, and hadn't called him a "young man" since—
Belisarius smiled crookedly. "I won that battle, too, if you recall."
"By the skin of your teeth. And it took you weeks to recover from your wounds." Morosely, rubbing his right side: "Took me even longer."
Thinking the tent was too gloomy, Belisarius lit another lamp and placed it on the table. Then, after taking a seat in his chair, he examined the hecatontarch's grim visage. He was quite confident of his own plans, despite their complexity, but he had learned never to ignore Maurice's misgivings.
"Spit it out, Maurice. And spare me your reproaches concerning the two brothers."
Maurice snorted. "Them? Drooling babes are cute, but they've no business leading armies. I care not a fig about that!" He waved a hand dismissively. "No, what bothers me is that you're cutting everything too fine. You're depending on almost perfect timing, and on the enemy to react exactly as you predict." He gave Belisarius another stony look. "You may recall my first lessons to you when you were barely out of swaddling clothes. Never—"
"Never expect the enemy to do what you think he's going to do, and never expect that schedules will be met on time. And, most of all, always remember the first law of battle: everything gets fucked up as soon as the enemy arrives. That's why he's called the enemy."
Maurice grunted. Then:
"And whatever happened to your devious subtlety? That `oblique approach' you're so fond of talking about?" He held up a hand. "And don't bother reminding me how shrewd your battle plan is! So what? This isn't like you at all, Belisarius. You've never been one to substitute tactics for strategy. How many times have you told me the best campaign is the one which forces the enemy to yield by indirection, with the least amount of bloodshed? Much less a pitched battle which you're forcing?"
Belisarius took in a deep breath and held it. The fingers of his left hand began drumming the table. For a moment, as he had done many times over the past weeks, he considered taking Maurice into his full confidence. Again, he decided against it. True, Maurice was close-mouthed. But—there was the first law of secrets: every person told a secret doubles the chance of having it found out.
"Stop drumming your fingers," grumbled the hecatontarch. "You only do that when you're being too clever by half."
Belisarius chuckled, snapped his left hand into a fist. He decided on a halfway course. "Maurice, there is information which I possess which I can't divulge to you now. That's why I'm pushing this battle. I know I'm cutting too many corners, but I don't have any choice."
Maurice scowled. "What do you know about the Persians that I don't?" It was not a question, really. More in the way of a scornful reproof.
Belisarius waved his own hand dismissively. "No, not the Persians." He smiled. "I wouldn't presume to know more about the Medes than you! No, it involves—other enemies. I can't say more, Maurice. Not yet."
Maurice considered his general carefully. He wasn't happy with the situation, but—there it was.
"All right," he said, grunting. "But I hope this works."
"It will, Maurice, it will. The timing doesn't have to be that perfect. We just have to get to the battleground before the Persians do. And as for the enemy's reactions—I think that letter I sent off to Firuz will do the trick nicely."
"Why? What did you say in it?"
"Well, the essence of the letter was a demand that he refrain from threatening my shiny new fort. But I conveyed the demand in the most offensive manner possible. I boasted of my martial prowess and sneered at that of the Medes. I tossed in a few well-chosen remarks on the subject of Persian cowardice and unmanliness. I dwelt lovingly on the full-bellied worms which would soon be the caskets of Persian troops—assuming, of course, that the slimy things were hungry enough to feed on such foul meat."
"Oh my," muttered Maurice. He stroked his gray beard.
"But I thought the polishing touch," concluded Belisarius cheerfully, "was my refusal to build a bath in the fortress. Firuz wouldn't need the bath, I explained, because after I slaughtered him, I would toss his remains into the latrine. Which is where they belong, of course, since he's nothing but a walking sack of dog shit."
"Oh my." Maurice pulled up a chair and sat down slowly. For the hecatontarch, the simple act was unusual. A stickler for proprieties was Maurice. He almost never sat while in his general's headquarters.
"We'd better win this battle," he muttered, "or we're all for it." His right hand clenched his sword hilt. His left hand was spread rigidly on the table.
Belisarius leaned over and patted the outstretched hand. "So you can see, Maurice, why I think Firuz will show up at the battlefield."
Maurice made a sour expression. "Maybe. They're touchy, Persian nobles. But if he's smart enough to override his anger, he'll pick a battlefield of his own choosing."
Belisarius leaned back and shrugged.
"I don't think so. I don't think he's that smart, and anyway—the battle site I selected overlooks the stream that provides all the water for his camp. Whether he likes it or not, he can't very well just let us sit there unmolested."
"You would," retorted Maurice instantly.
"I wouldn't have camped there in the first place."
Maurice's right hand released its grip on the sword, and came up to stroke his beard. "True, true. Idiotic, that—relying on an insecure water supply. If you can't find a well or an oasis, like we did, you should at least make sure the water comes from your own territory."
The hecatontarch straightened up a bit. "All right, General. We'll try it. Who knows, it might even work. That's the one and only good thing about the first law of battles—it cuts both ways."
A moment later, Maurice arose. His movements had regained their usual vigor and decisiveness. Belisarius left his chair and accompanied the hecatontarch out of the tent.
"How soon do you expect to reach the battlefield?" asked Belisarius.
Maurice took the reins of his horse and mounted. Once in the saddle, he shrugged.
"We're making good time," he announced. "It'll slow us down a bit, having to gather up what's left of the two cavalry regiments, but—we should be able to start digging in by midafternoon tomorrow."
Belisarius scratched his chin. "That should leave enough time. God knows the soldiers have had enough practice at it lately. Make sure—"
"Make sure the cavalry does its share," concluded Maurice. "Make sure the artillery's well-positioned. Make sure there's food ready for the Army of Lebanon when it arrives. And whatever else, make sure the hill is secure."
Belisarius smiled up at him. "Be off. You've got a long ride back to our army. But there's a lovely moon out tonight."
Maurice forbore comment.
Back in his tent, lying on his cot, Belisarius found it difficult to fall asleep. In truth, he shared some of Maurice's concern. He was gambling too much. But he saw no other option.
His fist closed around the pouch holding the jewel. At once, a faint thought came.
He sat up, staring down. A moment later, after opening the pouch, the jewel was resting in the palm of his hand.
The thought came again, much stronger.
"It was you, last night," he whispered.
"I know that! Tell me something I don't know. What are you?"
The facets shivered and reformed, splintered and came together, all in a microsecond. But aim never vanished, never even wavered. In a crystalline paroxysm, the facets forged a thought which could penetrate the barrier. But aim was overconfident, tried to do too much. The complex and fragile thought shattered into pieces upon first contact with the alien mind. Only the residue remained, transmuted into an image:
A metallic bird, bejewelled, made of hammered silver and gold-enamelling. Perched on a painted, wrought-iron tree. One of the marvelous constructs made for the Emperor Justinian's palace.
"You were never made by Grecian goldsmiths," muttered Belisarius. "Why are you here? What do you want from me? And where are you from?"
Belisarius blew out an exasperated sigh. "I know the future!" he exclaimed. "You showed it to me. But can it be changed? And where are you from?"
Frustration was the greater for the hope which had preceded it. aim itself almost splintered, for an instant. But it rallied, ruthless with determination. Out of the flashing movement of the facets came a lesson learned. Patience, patience. Concepts beyond the most primitive could not yet cross the frontier. Again:
The general's eyes widened.
Yes! Yes! Again! The facets froze, now ruthless in their own determination.
future. future. future.
"Mary, Mother of God."
Belisarius arose and walked slowly about in his tent. He clenched the jewel tightly in his fist, as if trying to force the thoughts from the thing like he might squeeze a sponge.
"More," he commanded. "The future must be a wondrous place. Nothing else could have created such a wonder as you. So what can you want from the past? What can we possibly have to offer?"
Again, a metallic bird. Bejewelled, made of hammered silver and gold enamelling. Perched on a painted, wrought-iron tree. But now the focus was sharper, clearer. Like one of the marvelous constructs made for the Emperor Justinian's palace, yes, but vastly more intricate and cunning in its design.
"Men created you?" he demanded. "Men of the future?"
"I say again: what do you want?"
aim hesitated, for a microsecond. Then, knew the task was still far beyond its capability. Patience, patience. Where thought could not penetrate, vision might:
Again, the thunderclap. Again: the tree shattered, the ceremony crushed beneath a black wave. Again: crystals, strewn across a barren desert, shriek with despair. Again, in an empty, sunless sky, giant faces begin to take form. Cold faces. Pitiless faces. Human faces, but with all of human warmth banished.
The general frowned. Almost—
"Are you saying that we are the danger to you? In the future? And that you have come to the past for help? That's crazy!"
The facets shivered and spun, almost in a frenzy. Now they demanded and drove the demand upon aim. But aim had learned well. The thoughts were still far too complex to breach the frontier. Imperiously it drove the facets back: patience, patience.
Again, the giant faces. Human faces. Monstrous faces. Dragon-scaled faces.
"Mary, Mother of God," he whispered. "It's true."
An explosive emotion erupted from the jewel. It was like a child's wail of—not anger, so much as deep, deep hurt at a parent's betrayal. A pure thought even forced its way through the barrier.
Truly, thought Belisarius, it was the plaint of a bereaved child, coming from a magical stone.
The general weighed the jewel. As before, he was struck by its utter weightlessness. Yet it did not float away, somehow, but stayed in his hand. Like a trusting child.
"I do not understand you," he whispered. "Not truly, not yet. But—if you have truly been betrayed, I will do for you what I can."
That thought brought another smile, very crooked. "Though I'm not sure what I could do. What makes you think I could be of help?"
A sudden surge of warmth came from the jewel. Tears almost came to Belisarius' eyes. He was reminded of that precious moment, weeks earlier, when Photius had finally accepted him. The boy had been skittish, at first, not knowing what to make of this unknown, strange, large man who called himself his father. But the time had come, one evening, when the boy fell asleep before the fire. And, as he felt the drowsiness, had clambered into his stepfather's lap and lain his little head upon a large shoulder. Trusting in the parent to keep him warm and safe through the night.
Belisarius was silent for a time, pondering. He knew something had gone awry, terribly wrong, in that future he could not imagine. Danger. Danger. Danger.
He realized that the jewel was nearing exhaustion and decided that he must put off further questioning. Communication was becoming easier, slowly. Patience, patience. He had danger enough in the present to deal with, in any event.
But still—there was one question.
"Why did you come here, to the past? What can there possibly be here that would help you in—whatever dangers you face in your future?"
The jewel was fading rapidly now. But the faint image came again:
A face, emerging from the ground, made from spiderwebs and bird wings, and laurel leaves. His face.
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"It's perfect," pronounced Belisarius.
"It's the silliest trap I ever saw," pronounced Maurice. "Not even a schoolboy would fall for it. Not even a Hun schoolboy."
"There are no Hun schoolboys."
"Exactly my point," grumbled Maurice.
Belisarius smiled—broadly, not crookedly.
"There's nothing wrong with my plan and you know it. You're just angry at your part in it."
"And that's another thing! It's ridiculous to use your best heavy cavalry to—"
"Enough, Maurice." The general's voice was mild, but Maurice understood the tone. The hecatontarch fell silent. For a few minutes, he and Belisarius stood together atop the small hill on the left flank of the Roman forces. They said nothing, simply watched the gathering array of the Persian forces coming from the east. The enemy's army was still some considerable distance away, but Belisarius could see the first detachments of light cavalry beginning to scout the Roman position.
Before the Medes could get more than a mile from the Roman lines, however, three ala of Hun light cavalry from the Army of Lebanon advanced to meet them. There was a spirited exchange of arrows before the Persian scouts retreated. Casualties were few, on either side, but Belisarius was quite satisfied with the results of the encounter. It was essential to his plan that the Persians not have the opportunity to scout his position carefully.
"That'll keep the bastards off," grunted Maurice.
"Best be about it," said Belisarius. "It's almost noon. The wind'll be picking up soon."
Maurice scanned the sky.
"Let's hope so. If it doesn't—"
Belisarius strode down the back side of the hill toward his horse. Behind him, he heard Maurice begin to issue orders, but he could not make out their specific content. Instructions to the disgruntled Thracian cataphracts, no doubt.
Very disgruntled, indeed. The Thracian cataphracts looked upon foot travel—much less fighting on foot—with the enthusiasm of a drunk examining a glass of water. The elite, they were—and now, assigned to serve as bodyguards for a bunch of miserable, misbegotten, never-to-be-sufficiently-damned, common foot archers. Downright plebes. Barbarians, no less.
Which, in truth, they were. The four hundred archers atop the hill were a mercenary unit, made up entirely of Isaurian hillmen from southern Anatolia. An uncivilized lot, the Isaurians, but very tough. And completely accustomed to fighting on foot in rocky terrain, either with bows or with hand weapons.
Belisarius smiled. He knew his cataphracts. Once the Thracians saw the Isaurian archers at work, they would not be able to resist the challenge. Personally, Belisarius thought his cataphracts were better archers than any in the Army of Lebanon. They would certainly try to prove it. By the time the Persians tried to drive them off the hill, the Thracians would be in full fury.
Belisarius paused for a moment in his downward descent, and reexamined the hill.
Perfect. Steep sides, rocky. The worst possible terrain for a cavalry charge. And Persian nobles view fighting on foot like bishops view eternal damnation. God help the arrogant bastards, trying to drive armored horses up these slopes against dismounted Thracian cataphracts and Isaurian hillmen.
He resumed his descent down the western slope of the hill. Near the bottom, he came to the hollow where the Thracian horses were being held. A small number of the youngest and most inexperienced cataphracts had been assigned to hold the horses during the battle. They were even more disgruntled than their veteran fellows.
One of them, a lad named Menander, brought Belisarius his horse.
"General, are you sure I couldn't—"
"Enough." Then, Belisarius relented. "You know, Menander, it's likely the Persians will send a force around the hill to attack our rear. I imagine the fighting here will be hot and furious."
"Oh, yes. A desperate affair. Desperate."
Belisarius hoped he was lying. If the Persians managed to get far enough around the hill to find the hollow where the Thracian horses were being held, it would mean that they had driven off the heavy cavalry guarding his left wing and his whole battle plan was in ruins. His army too, most likely.
But Menander cheered up. The boy helped Belisarius onto his horse. Normally, Belisarius was quite capable of vaulting onto his horse. But not today, encumbered as he was with full armor. No cataphract in full armor could climb a horse without a stool or a helping hand.
Once he was firmly in the saddle, Belisarius heaved a little sigh of relief. For the hundredth time, he patted himself on the back for his good sense in having all of his Thracian cavalry equipped with Scythian saddles instead of the flimsy Roman ones. Roman "saddles" were not much more than a thin pad. Scythian saddles were solid leather, and—much more to the point—had a cantle and a pommel. With a Scythian saddle, an armored cavalryman had at least half a chance of staying on his horse through a battle.
Belisarius heard noises behind him. Turning, he saw two of his cataphracts coming down the hill at a fast trot. As fast a "trot," at least, as could be managed by men wearing: full suits of scale-mail armor—including chest cuirasses—covering their upper bodies, right arms, and their abdomens down to mid-thigh; open-faced iron helmets with side-flanges, of the German spangenhelm style favored by most of the Thracians; small round shields buckled to their upper left arms, leaving the left hand free to wield a bow; heavy quilted Persian-style cavalry trousers; and, of course, a full panoply of weapons. The weapons included a long lance, a powerful compound bow, a quiver of arrows, long Persian-style cavalry swords, daggers, and the special personal weapons of the individuals: in the case of one, a mace; in the case of the other, a spatha.
Belisarius recognized the approaching cataphracts, recognized their purpose, and began to frown fiercely. But when the two cataphracts neared, his words of hot reproach were cut off before he could utter them.
"Don't bother, General," said Valentinian.
"No use at all," agreed Anastasius.
"Direct orders from Maurice."
"You're just the general."
"Maurice is the Maurice."
Belisarius grimaced. There was no point in trying to send Valentinian and Anastasius away. They wouldn't obey his order, and he could hardly enforce it on them personally, since—
He eyed the two men.
Since I don't think there are two tougher soldiers in the whole Roman army, that's why.
So he tried reason.
"I don't need bodyguards."
"Hell you don't," came Valentinian's sharp, nasal reply.
"Was ever a man needed a bodyguard, it's you," added Anastasius. As ever, the giant's voice sounded like rumbling thunder. Professional church bassos had been known to turn green with envy, hearing that voice.
Menander was already bringing up the two cataphracts' horses. Anastasius' mount was the largest charger anyone had ever seen. Anastasius was devoted to the beast, as much out of genuine affection as simple self-preservation. No smaller horse could have borne his weight, in full armor, in the fury of a battlefield. Especially encumbered as the horse was with its own armor: scale mail covering the top of its head and its neck down to the withers, with additional sheets of mail protecting its chest and its front shoulders.
Anastasius more or less tossed Valentinian onto his horse. Then he mounted his own, with Menander's help. By the time he was aboard, the young cataphract looked completely exhausted by the effort of hoisting him.
Belisarius rode off, heading toward the center of the Roman lines. Behind him, he heard his two companions expressing their thoughts on the day.
"Look at it this way, Valentinian: it beats fighting on foot."
"It certainly does not."
"You hate to walk, even, much less—"
"So what? Not so bad, butchering a bunch of Medes trying to scramble their horses up that godawful hill. Instead—"
"You know damn well he won't. When has he ever?"
Heavy sigh, like a small rockslide.
Again, Valentinian: "Huh? When has he ever? Name one time! Just one!"
Mutter, mutter, mutter.
"What was that last, Valentinian?" asked Belisarius mildly. "I didn't quite make it out."
Anastasius: "Sounded like `fuck bold commanders, anyway.' "
Anastasius: "But maybe not. Maybe the bad-tempered skinny cutthroat said: `Fuck old commoners, anyway.' Stupid thing to say, under the circumstances, of course. Especially since he's a commoner himself. But maybe that's what he said. He's bad-tempered about everything, you know."
Belisarius never turned his head. Just smiled. Crookedly, at first, then broadly.
Well, maybe Maurice is right. God help the Mede who tries to get in my way, that's for sure.
Once he reached the fortified camp at the center of the Roman lines, Belisarius dismounted and entered through the small western gate. Valentinian and Anastasius chose to remain outside. It was too much trouble to dismount and remount, and there was no way to ride a horse into that camp.
The camp was nothing special, in itself. It had been hastily erected in one day, and consisted of nothing much more than a ditch backed up by an earthen wall. Normally, such a wall would have been corduroyed, but there were precious few logs to be found in that region. To some degree, the soldiers had been able to reinforce the wall with field stones. Where possible, they had placed the customary cervi—branches projecting sideways from the wall—but there were few suitable branches to be found in that barren Syrian terrain. Some of the more far-sighted and enterprising units had brought sharpened stakes with them to serve the purpose, but the wall remained a rather feeble obstacle. A pitiful wall, actually, by the traditional standards of Roman field fortifications.
But Belisarius was not unhappy with the wall. Not, not in the slightest. Quite the contrary. He wanted the Persian scouts to report to Firuz that the Roman fortification at the center of their lines was a ramshackle travesty.
The real oddity about the camp was not the camp itself but its population density—and the peculiar position of its inhabitants. Some Roman infantrymen were standing on guard behind the wall, as one might expect. The great majority, however, were lying down behind the wall and in the shallow trenches which had been dug inside the camp. The camp held at least four times as many soldiers as it would appear to hold, looking at it from the Persian side.
Belisarius heard the cornicens blaring out a ragged tune. Very ragged, just as he had instructed. As if the men blowing those horns were half-deranged with fear. The soldiers standing visible guard began acting out their parts.
As Belisarius watched, the infantry chiliarch of the Army of Lebanon trotted up. Hermogenes was grinning from ear to ear.
"What do you think?" he asked.
Belisarius smiled. "Well, they're certainly throwing themselves into their roles. Although I'm not sure it's really necessary for so many of them to be tearing at their hair. Or howling quite so loud. Or shaking their knees and gibbering."
Hermogenes' grin never faded.
"Better too much than too little." He turned and admired the thespian display. By now, the soldiers at the wall were racing around madly, in apparent confusion and disorder.
"Don't overdo it, Hermogenes," said Belisarius. "The men might get a little too far into it and forget it's just an act."
The chiliarch shook his head firmly.
"Not a chance. They're actually quite enthusiastic about the coming battle."
Belisarius eyed him skeptically.
"It's true, General. Well—maybe `enthusiastic' is putting it a little too strongly. Confident, let's say."
Belisarius scratched his chin. "You think? I'd have thought the men would be skeptical of such a tricky little scheme."
Hermogenes stared at the general. Then said, very seriously, "If any other general had come up with it, they probably would. But—it's Belisarius' plan. That's what makes the difference."
Again, the skeptical eye.
"You underestimate your reputation, general. Badly."
Belisarius began to say that the scheme wasn't actually his. He had taken it from Julius Caesar, who had used hidden troops in a fortified camp in one of his many battles against the Gauls. But before he could utter more than two words, he fell silent. One of the sentries at the wall was shouting. A genuine alert, now, not a false act.
Belisarius raced to the wall and peered over. Hermogenes joined him an instant later.
The Persians were advancing.
Belisarius studied the Mede formation intently. It was impressive, even—potentially—terrifying. As Persian armies always were.
An old thought caused a little quirk to come to the general's lips.
I'm always amazed at the way modern Greek scholars and courtiers don't live in the real world. Their image of Persian armies is fixed a thousand years ago, in the ancient times. When a small number of disciplined and armored Greek and Macedonian hoplites could always scatter the lightly-armed Persian mobs of Xerxes and Darius. The glorious phalanx of the Hellenes against the motley hordes of despotic Asia.
Let them see this, and gape, and tremble.
Many modern Greeks, of course, knew the truth. But they were of a different class than the Greeks who wrote the books and the laws, and collected the taxes, and lorded it over their great estates.
Persia had changed, over the centuries. More, even, than Rome. A class of tough, land-vested nobility had arisen. They were the real power in Persia, now, when all was said and done. True, they paid homage to the Sassanid emperors, and served them, as they had the Parthians who preceded them. But it was a conditional homage and a proud service. The conditions and the pride stemmed from one simple fact. The Persian aristocracy had invented modern heavy cavalry, and they were still better at it than any people on the face of the earth. The Roman cataphracts were, in all essential respects, simply attempts to copy the Persian noble cavalry.
The Persians were now close enough for the details of their formation to be made out.
Unlike Roman armies, which used infantry as the stolid center of their formations—as an anchor for the battle, even if they weren't much use in the battle itself—the Persians scorned infantry almost entirely. True, there were ten thousand foot soldiers in the advancing Mede army. But Persian infantry were a ragged, scraggly lot: modern Persian foot soldiers were probably even worse than the rabble which had been broken by the hoplites at Marathon and Issus centuries earlier. Miserable peasant levies, completely unarmored except for hide shields; armed only with javelins and light spears; consigned to the flanks; assigned the simple duties of butchering wounded enemies and serving as a buffer against charging foes. Armed cattle, basically.
Belisarius dismissed them with a glance. The general's attention was riveted on the cavalry advancing at the center of the Persian army. His experienced eye immediately sorted order out of the mass.
The heart of the Persian cavalry were the heavily armored noble lancers, riding huge war horses bred on the Persian plateau. Each nobleman, in turn, brought to battle a small retinue of more lightly armored horse archers. The horse archers would start the battle, and would fight closely alongside the heavy lancers. When the lancers made charges, the mounted archers would act as a screen to keep off enemy cavalry and suppress enemy archers, while the lancers shattered their foe.
It was a ferocious, well-disciplined military machine. No Roman army had won a major battle in the open field against Persia in over a century.
But Belisarius was filled with confidence.
Today, I'm going to do it.
He began to turn away from the wall. Before leaving, however, he stopped a moment and gazed at Hermogenes. The infantry chiliarch grinned.
"Relax, General. You just take care of the cavalry. The infantry will do its job."
Once back on his horse, Belisarius cantered over to the right wing of his army. The right was in the hands of the Army of Lebanon's cavalry commanders. Belisarius intended to take his position there at the beginning of the battle. Although the Army of Lebanon had accepted his leadership, he knew that they would quickly slip the leash if he was not there to keep a tight grip on it. The one thing that could ruin his plans was a rash, unplanned cavalry charge. Which, in his experience, cavalry was always prone to do.
That's another thing I like about infantry. When a man has to charge on his own two legs, he tends to think it over first. Less tiring.
Seeing him approach, the cavalry chiliarchs rode to meet him.
"Soon, now," announced Eutyches.
"As soon as—" A blaring cornicen cut him off. Belisarius turned in his saddle just in time to see the first missiles hurled from the four scorpions and two onagers which he had positioned behind the fortified camp. Phocas had gauged the range and given the command for the artillery fire.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a scowl on the face of Pharas.
Belisarius understood the meaning of that expression. Like most modern Roman commanders, Pharas had no use for artillery in a field battle.
But Belisarius forebore comment. He had learned, from experience, that it was a futile argument.
They just don't understand. Sure, the damned things are a pain to haul around. Sure, they don't really inflict that many casualties. But they do two invaluable things. First, they break up the cohesion of the enemy's ranks. An alert soldier, even a heavily armored horseman, can usually dodge a great big scorpion dart or a huge stone thrown by an onager—as long as he isn't hemmed in by closely packed ranks. So, the enemy starts spreading out. Second—and most important—it's utterly infuriating to a warrior to be bombarded when he's too far away to retaliate. So he charges closer. Which is just what I want. Strategic offense; tactical defense. There's the whole secret in a nutshell.
The two chiliarchs were already galloping toward the front line. Belisarius followed. He needed to be able to watch the progress of the battle, and had already decided he would do it from the right. The hill would have been a perfect vantage point, of course, but he would have been much too isolated from the right wing of his army. Which represented both his heaviest force and his least reliable.
By the time he reached the front line, the Persians had already begun their charge. He saw at once that the enemy had begun the charge much too soon. Even the huge Persian horses couldn't charge any great distance before becoming exhausted.
And so, once again, the artillery did the trick.
Still, the Persians weren't Goths. Once Goths began a cavalry charge, they always tried to carry it through. The Medes, sophisticated and civilized for all their noble pride, were much too canny not to suspect a trap.
So, once they got within bow range, the Persian heavy cavalry reined in and let their horses breathe. The lighter mounted archers continued forward, firing their bows.
Pharas didn't wait for Belisarius' command. He ordered the Roman horse archers forward. The Huns galloped out onto the battleground, firing their own bows. Within moments, a swirling archery duel was underway.
Between Persian and Hun mounted archers, the contest was unequal. The Persians, as always, fired their bows as rapidly as did the Huns—much more rapidly than Roman cataphracts or regular infantry. But the Persians were better armored, and that extra armor counted for much against the relatively weak bows being used by both sides.
Soon enough, the Huns began falling back. The Persian horse archers did not attempt to charge in pursuit. They were no fools, and knew full well that Huns surpassed everyone in the art of turning a retreat into a sudden counterattack. So they simply satisfied themselves with a disciplined, orderly advance. Firing volley after volley as they came.
Pharas began to grumble, but Belisarius cut him off. Quickly. As he had expected, the chiliarch had already forgotten the battle plan.
"Splendid," announced Belisarius. "The Huns have already succeeded in fixing the entire left wing of the enemy."
"They're advancing on us!" exclaimed Pharas.
How did this idiot ever get made a chiliarch? I wouldn't trust him to bake bread. The first thing he'd do is throw away the recipe.
But his words were mild.
"Which is precisely what I want, Pharas. As long as the Persian left is advancing on our right, they aren't free to be doing something else. Such as chewing up our left, which is where the battle's going to be decided."
Belisarius ignored the fuming chiliarch and watched the battle develop on the other side of the field. The Isaurians and Thracian cataphracts on the hill were now starting to fire their bows at the Persian cavalry spreading into the center of the battleground. Within five minutes, it was obvious to Belisarius that his earlier estimate had been accurate.
It was the great advantage of cataphract archery, and one of the reasons Belisarius had stationed his Thracians atop the hill. With individual exceptions, such as Valentinian, they didn't have the rapid rate of fire that Persian or Hun horse archers did. But no archers in the world fired bows more accurately, and none with that awesome power. With the advantage of the hill's altitude, the cataphract arrows were plunging into the ranks of the Persian cavalry, wreaking havoc. Even the armor of Persian nobility couldn't withstand those arrows. And his cataphracts—especially the veterans—weren't aiming at the Persians anyway. Their targets were the horses themselves. The heavy frontal armor of the Persian chargers might have turned the arrows. But these missiles were plunging down into the great beasts' unarmored flanks. Dying and wounded horses began disrupting the serried ranks of the enemy's heavy cavalry.
Suddenly, Belisarius felt a breeze at his back. He almost sighed with relief. He had expected it, but still—
The wind, blowing from west to east, would increase the range of his own archery and artillery, and hamper the Persian arrows. Much more important, however, was the effect which the wind would have on visibility. The battlefield was already choked with dust thrown up by the horses. As soon as the breeze picked up, that dust would be moving from the Roman side to the Persian. The enemy would be half-blinded, even at close range.
"They're going to charge," predicted Eutychian, the other cavalry chiliarch. "Against us, on this wing."
"Thank God!" snorted Pharas. The chiliarch immediately rode off, shouting at his subordinate commanders.
Belisarius examined the battlefield and decided Eutychian was right.
Damn it! I was hoping—
He stared at Eutychian, estimating the man. His decision, as always, came quickly—aided, as much as anything, by the level gaze with which the chiliarch returned his stare.
"Can I trust you not to be an idiot like that one?" he demanded, pointing with his thumb at the retreating figure of Pharas.
"Meaning this—can I trust you to meet this charge with a simple stand? All I want is for the Persians to be held on this wing. That's all. Do you understand? They outnumber us, especially in heavy cavalry. If you try to win the battle here, with a glorious idiotic all-out charge, the Medes will cut you to pieces and I'll have a collapsed right wing. The battle will be won on the left. All I need is for you to hold the right steady. Can you do it? Will you do it?"
Eutychian glanced over at Pharas.
"Yes, Belisarius. But he's senior to me and—"
"You let me worry about Pharas. Will you hold this wing? Nothing more?"
Eutychian nodded. Belisarius rode over to the small knot of commanders clustered around Pharas. As he went, he gave Valentinian and Anastasius a meaningful look. Anastasius' face grew stony. Valentinian grinned. On his sharp-featured, narrow face, the grin was utterly feral.
As Belisarius drew near, he was able to make out Pharas' words of command to his subordinates. Just as he had feared, the chiliarch was organizing an all-out direct charge against the coming Medes.
Belisarius shouldered his horse into the group of commanders. In his peripheral vision, he could see Valentinian sidling his horse next to Pharas, and Anastasius moving around to the other side of the small command group.
Thank you, Maurice.
"That's enough, Pharas," he said. His tone was sharp and cold. "Our main charge is going to come later, on the other—"
"The hell with that!" roared Pharas. "I'm fighting now!"
"Our battle plan—"
"Fuck your fancy damned plan! It's pure bullshit! A fucking coward plan! I fight—"
In his entire life, Belisarius had never met a man who could wield a sword more quickly and expertly than Valentinian. Nor as mercilessly. The cataphract's long, lean, whipcord body twisted like a spring. His spatha removed Pharas' head as neatly as a butcher beheading a chicken.
As always, Valentinian's strike was economical. No great heroic hewing, just enough to do the job. Pharas' head didn't sail through the air. It just rolled off his neck and bounced on the ground next to his horse. A moment later, his headless body fell off on the other side. His horse, suddenly covered with blood, shied away.
The commanders gaped with shock. One of them began to draw his sword. Anastasius smashed his spine. No economy here—the giant's mace drove the commander right over his horse's head. His mount, well-trained, never budged.
Belisarius whipped out his own spatha. The four surviving commanders in the group were now completely hemmed in by Belisarius and his two cataphracts. They were still gaping, and their faces were pale.
"I'll tolerate no treason or insubordination," stated Belisarius. His voice was not loud. Simply as cold as a glacier. Icy death.
"Do you understand?"
Gapes. Pale faces.
"Do you understand?" Valentinian twitched the spatha in his grip, very slightly. Anastasius hefted his mace, not so slightly.
"Do you understand?"
Mouths snapped shut. Faces remained pale, but heads began to nod. After two seconds, vigorously.
Belisarius eased back in his saddle and slid his spatha back into its waist-scabbard. (Valentinian, of course, did no such thing. Nor did Anastasius seem in any hurry to relinquish his mace.)
Belisarius turned and looked at Eutychian. The chiliarch was not more than thirty yards away. He and his own subordinates had witnessed the entire scene. So, Belisarius estimated, had dozens of the Army of Lebanon's cavalrymen. The faces of Eutychian and his commanders were also pale. But, Belisarius noted, they did not seem particularly outraged. Rather the contrary, in fact.
He studied the cavalrymen. No pale faces there. A few frowns, perhaps, but there were at least as many smiles to offset them. Even a few outright grins. Pharas, he suspected, had not been a popular commander.
Belisarius returned his hard stare to Eutychian. The chiliarch suddenly smiled—just slightly—and nodded his own head.
Belisarius turned back to the four commanders at his side.
"You will obey me instantly and without question. Do you understand?"
Vigorous nods. Anastasius replaced his mace in its holder. Valentinian did no such thing with his spatha.
A sudden blaring of cornicens. Belisarius turned back again. He could no longer see the Persian army, for his vision was obscured by the mass of cavalrymen at the front line. But it was obvious the Medes had begun their charge. Eutychian and his commanders were riding down the line, shouting orders.
Now in a hurry, Belisarius issued quick, simple instructions to the four commanders at his side:
"Eutychian will hold the right, using half of the Army of Lebanon's heavy cavalry and all of the mounted archers. You four will assemble the other half of the Army of Lebanon's lancers and keep them in reserve. I want them ready to charge"—his voice turned to pure steel—"when I say, where I say, and how I say. Is that understood?"
Very vigorous nods.
Belisarius gestured to Anastasius and Valentinian.
"Until the battle is over, these men will act as my immediate executive officers. You will obey their orders as if they came from me. Is that understood?"
Very vigorous nods.
Belisarius began to introduce his two cataphracts by name, but decided otherwise. For his immediate purposes, they had already been properly introduced.
Death and Destruction, he thought, would do just fine.
After the four commanders left to begin sorting out and assembling their forces, Belisarius rode back to the front line. As he approached, the Hun light cavalry began pouring back from the battlefield. They were no match in a head-to-head battle with the oncoming Persian lancers, and they knew it.
That's one of the few good things about mercenaries, thought Belisarius. At least they aren't given to idiotic suicide charges.
For all their mercenary character, the Huns were good soldiers. Experienced veterans, too. Their retreat was not a rout, and as soon as they reached the relative safety of the Roman lines they began to regroup. They knew the Roman heavy cavalry would be sallying soon, and it would be their job to provide flanking cover against the Persian horse archers.
Belisarius was now right behind the front line of the Roman heavy horse. Between two cavalrymen, he watched the advancing Medes.
The Persian heavy cavalry had not yet started their galloping charge. They still had two hundred yards to cross before reaching the Roman lines. The Medes were veterans themselves, who knew the danger of exhausting their mounts in a battle—especially one fought in the heat of Syrian summer. Still, their thunderous advance was massively impressive. Two thousand heavy lancers, four lines deep, maintaining themselves in good order, flanked by three thousand horse archers maintaining their own excellent discipline.
Very impressive, but—
The Roman archers in the fortifications—Ghassanid mercenaries, these—were now aiming all their fire at the Mede cavalry attacking the right. They were ignoring, for the moment, the swarm of Persian horse archers in the center who were raining their own arrows on the encampment. Hermogenes, Belisarius noted, was keeping a cool head. Protected by the wall in front of them, his infantry would suffer few casualties from the Persian archers. Meanwhile, their arrows could hamper the advance of the Persian lancers.
Hermogenes had trained his men well, too. The Arab archers ignored the temptation to fire at the lancers themselves. The heavy Persian armor would deflect arrows from their light bows, especially at that range. Instead, the men were aiming at the unprotected legs of the horses. True, the range was long, but Belisarius saw more than a few Persian horses stumble and fall, spilling their riders.
From the hill, a flight of arrows sailed toward the Persian cavalry advancing on the Roman right. But the arrows fell short and the volley ceased almost immediately. Belisarius knew that Maurice had reined in the overenthusiastic cataphracts. The range—firing diagonally across the entire battlefield—was too extreme, even for their powerful bows firing with the wind. Instead, Maurice ordered his cataphracts and the Isaurians to concentrate their fire on the swarm of light horse archers in the center.
Belisarius was delighted. His army was functioning the way a good army should. The archers on the left were protecting the infantry in the center, while they harassed the Persians advancing on the right.
A volley of scorpion darts and onager stones sailed into the Persian heavy cavalry, tearing holes in the ranks. The cavalry began to spread, losing their compact formation.
Good, Phocas, good. But, with this wind, it should be possible—
The next artillery volley fell right in the middle of the Persian command group at the rear of the battlefield. The Persian officers hadn't expected artillery fire, and their attention had been completely riveted on the battleground. The missiles arrived as a complete surprise. The carnage was horrendous. Those men or horses struck by huge onager stones were so much pulp, regardless of their heavy armor. Nor did that same armor protect the Persians from the spear-sized arrows cast by the scorpions. One of those officers, struck almost simultaneously by two scorpion bolts, was literally torn to pieces.
As always in battle, Belisarius' brown eyes were like stones. But his cold gaze ignored the artillery's victims. His attention was completely focused on the survivors.
Please, let Firuz still be alive. Oh, please, let that arrogant hot-tempered jackass still be alive.
Firuz had obviously been driven into a rage. Belisarius could recognize the Persian commander's colorful cloak and plumage, personally leading the main body of his army in a charge at the center of the Roman lines. Three thousand heavy lancers, flanked by four thousand mounted archers, already at a full gallop.
It was a charge worthy of the idiot Pharas—the late, unlamented Pharas. The Mede lancers in the center had half a mile to cover before they reached the Roman fortifications. A half-mile in scorching heat, against wind-blown dust. It was absurd—and would have been, even if there weren't already three thousand Persian horse archers milling around in the center of the battlefield. The charging Persian lancers would be trampling over their own troops.
Midway through the charge, however, some sanity appeared to return to the Persians—to the horse archers already in the center, at least. Seeing the oncoming lancers, the mounted archers scurried out of their way. Their officers led them in a charge against the small Roman force on the hill.
Belisarius watched intently. He was confident that his cataphracts and the Isaurians could repel the attack, even outnumbered five to one. The Persians would be trying to climb steep slopes under plunging fire. And if matters got too tight, the two thousand cavalry from his own little army were stationed on the left wing, not far from the hill. But he didn't want to use those horsemen there, if he didn't absolutely need to. He wanted them fresh when—
Belisarius' view was suddenly obscured. Cornicens were blowing. The cavalrymen in front of him began firing their bows at the Persian lancers who were now less than a hundred yards away. A moment later, the cornicens blew again. The Roman cavalry charged to meet the oncoming lancers. They fired one last volley at the beginning of the charge and then slid the bows into their sheaths. It would be lance and sword work, now.
Belisarius glanced quickly toward the center. But it was impossible to see anything, anymore. The entire battlefield was now covered with dust, which the wind was blowing against the Persians. He could still see the hill, however, rising above the dust clouds. Within three or four seconds, simply from watching the unhurried and confident way in which his Thracian cataphracts and the Isaurians were firing their bows, Belisarius was certain that they would hold. Long enough, anyway.
It was time.
He looked back to the battle raging right before him. The Army of Lebanon's Huns were sweeping around the extreme right, trying to flank the Persian horse archers. But the Persians archers were veterans also, and were extending their own line to match the Huns. That part of the battle almost instantly became a chaotic swirl of horsemen exchanging bow-fire, often at point-blank range.
Dust everywhere, now. Beautiful, wonderful, obscuring dust. Blowing from the west over the Persians, blinding them to all Roman maneuvers.
The only part of the battle Belisarius could still see—other than the hilltop—was the collision between the Army of Lebanon's lancers and the lancers of the Persian left. Eutychian and his two thousand armored horsemen were smashing head to head with an equal number of Persian heavy cavalry. The noise of the battlefield—already immense—seemed to fill the entire universe. The clash of metal, the screams of men and horses filled the air.
It was a battle the Persians would win, eventually. Except for the very best cataphract units, no Roman heavy cavalry could defeat an equal number of Persian lancers. But, as he watched the vigor and courage of Eutychian's charge, Belisarius was more than satisfied. Eutychian would lose his part of the battle, but by the time he did, the Romans would have triumphed in the field as a whole.
More than that, Belisarius did not ask.
Hold the right, Eutychian. Just hold it.
He began to canter away.
And try to survive. I can use an officer like you. So can Rome.
As he rode, he passed orders through Valentinian and Anastasius. The four remaining commanders of the Army of Lebanon were quick to obey. Very quick. The two thousand lancers of that Army which Belisarius had kept in reserve—the same ones Pharas would have thrown away in a suicide charge—were now cantering across the battlefield in good order. South to north, behind the Roman lines, from the right wing to the left wing. They were completely invisible to the Persians, due to the wind-blown dust.
As they drew behind the fortified camp, Belisarius ordered a halt. He thought there was still time, and he wanted to make sure that the battle had become locked in the center.
While the Army of Lebanon's lancers allowed their horses to rest, therefore, Belisarius trotted up to the camp and passed into it through the west gate. He could begin to see now, even with the dust.
Just as he had planned (and hoped—not that he'd ever admit it to that morose old grouch Maurice) the main body of Persian lancers in the center had smashed into his trap. True, they had done so in a charge ordered by an idiot, but—that's the beauty of the first law of battles, after all. It cuts both ways.
Sitting on his horse not thirty yards from the fortified wall, Belisarius found it hard not to grin. He hadn't seen it, but he knew what had happened.
Imagine three thousand Persian lancers, thundering up to a wretched little earthen wall, guarded by not more than a thousand terrified, pathetic, wretched infantrymen. They sweep the enemy aside, right? Like an avalanche!
Well, not exactly. There are problems.
First, each cavalry mount has been hauling a man (a large man, more often than not) carrying fifty pounds of armor and twenty pounds of weapons—not to mention another hundred pounds of the horse's own armor. At a full gallop for half a mile, in the blistering heat of a Syrian summer.
So, the horses are winded, disgruntled, and thinking dark thoughts.
Two—all hearsay to the contrary—horses are not stupid. Quite a bit brighter than men, actually, when it comes to that kind of intelligence known popularly as "horse sense." So, when a horse sees looming before it:
a) a ditch
b) a wall
c) lots of men on the wall holding long objects with sharp points
The horse stops. Fuck the charge. If some stupid man wants to hurl himself against all that dangerous crap, let him. (Which, often enough, they do—sailing headlong over their horse's stubborn head.)
It was the great romantic fallacy of the cavalry charge, and Belisarius had been astonished—all his life—at how fervently men still held to it, despite all practical experience and evidence to the contrary. Yes, horses will charge—against infantry in the open, and against other cavalry. Against anything, as long as the horse can see that it stands a chance of getting through the obstacles ahead, reasonably intact.
But no horse this side of an equine insane asylum will charge a wall too high to leap over. Especially a wall covered with nasty sharp objects.
And there's no point trying to convince the horse that the infantry manning the wall are feeble and demoralized.
Is that so? Tell you what, asshole. Climb off my back and show me. Use your own legs. Mine hurt.
The horses would have drawn up short before the ditch and the wall even if the fortification had been, in truth, guarded by only a thousand demoralized infantrymen. In the event, however, just as the horses drew near, Hermogenes had given the order and the cornicens had blown a new tune. Oh, a gleeful tune.
The other three thousand infantry hiding behind the wall and in the ditches had scrambled to their feet and taken their positions. The wall was now packed with spears, in the hands of soldiers full of confidence and vigor.
The front line of horses had screeched to a halt. Many of their riders had been thrown off. Some had been killed by the fall itself. Most of the survivors were badly shaken and bruised.
The second line of horse had piled into the first, the third into the second, the fourth into the third. More men were thrown off their mounts. To the injuries caused by falling were added the gruesome wounds suffered by men trampled by horses. Within seconds, the entire charging mass of Persian lancers had turned into an immobile, struggling, completely disordered mob. And now, worst of all, the Roman infantry began hurling volleys of plumbata into the milling Persians. At that close range, against a packed mass of confused and disoriented cavalry, the lead-weighted darts were fearsome weapons. The more so since the soldiers casting the weapons were expert in their use.
The cornicens blew again. Thousands of Roman infantry began scrambling over the wall. Many of them were carrying spathae, but most were wielding the even shorter semi-spatha. Each of those men would plunge into the writhing mob of Persian cavalry and use the time-honored tactic of infantry against armored cavalry.
It was an ignoble tactic, perhaps, and it never worked against cavalry on the move. But against cavalry forced to a halt, it was as certain as the sunrise.
Hamstring and gut the horses. Then butcher the lordly nobles once they're on the ground like us lowlife. See how much good their fine heavy armor does 'em then. And their bows and their lances and their fancy longswords. This here's knife work, my lord.
Belisarius rode out of the camp. The battle was his, if he could only drive home the final thrust.
For all his eagerness to win, Belisarius was careful to keep his pace at an easy canter. There was time, there was time. Not much, but enough. He didn't want the horses blown.
Without even waiting for his orders, Valentinian and Anastasius reined in the overenthusiasts who began driving their horses faster. There was time. There was time. Not much, but enough.
As they passed the western slope of the hill, the two thousand cavalry of Belisarius' own army fell in with him. He now had a striking force of four thousand men, unblooded and confident, riding fresh horses.
Belisarius saw a small figure standing on the slope, watching the army pass. Menander, he thought, still at his unwanted post. Even from the distance, he thought he could detect the bitter reproach in the boy's posture.
Sorry, lad. But you'll get your share of bloodshed in the future. And for that I really am sorry.
Now his force was curving around the northern slope of the hill. They had passed entirely across the line and were on the verge of falling on the enemy's unprotected right flank.
They came around the hill with Belisarius in the lead. The center of the battlefield was still obscured by dust, but the Romans could now see the Persian horse archers who were trying to storm the hill. The slaughter here had been immense, and it was immediately obvious that the Persians were discouraged.
Discouragement soon became outright terror. The four thousand Roman lancers hammered their way through the mounted archers without even pausing. Moments later they were plunging into the dust cloud, aiming at the mass of Persian lancers stymied at the center.
Belisarius turned halfway in his saddle and signaled the buglers behind him. The cornicens began blowing the order for a full charge. Their sound was a thin, piercing wail over the thundering bedlam of the battlefield.
Yet, for all the noise, the general was able to hear Valentinian and Anastasius, riding just behind him.
Valentinian: "I told you so."
Anastasius: Inarticulate snort.
Valentinian: Mutter, mutter, mutter.
Belisarius: "What was that last? I didn't quite catch it."
Anastasius: "I think he said `fuck brave officers.' "
Anastasius: "But maybe not. It's noisy. Maybe the cold-blooded little killer said, `Fuck brazen coffers.' Idiot thing to say on a battlefield, of course. But he's—"
All else was lost. The first Persian lancer loomed in the dust, his back turned away. Belisarius raised his lance high and drove it right through the Mede's heart. The enemy fell off his horse, taking the lance with him.
Another Mede, turned half away, to his right. Belisarius drew his long cavalry sword out of its baldric and hewed the man's arm off with the same motion. Another Mede, again from the back. The sword butchered into his neck, below the rim of the helmet. Another Mede—facing him, now. The sword hammered his shield down, hammered it aside, hammered his helmet sideways. The man was driven off his mount and fell, unconscious, to the ground. In that mad press of stamping horses, he would be dead within a minute, crushed to a bloody pulp.
The entire Roman cavalry piled into the Persians, caving in the right rear of their already disorganized formation. The initial slaughter was horrendous. The charge caught the Persians completely by surprise. Many of them, in the first few seconds, fell before blows which they never even saw.
To an extent, of course, Belisarius now found himself caught by the same dilemma that had faced the Medes. The thousands of Persian cavalrymen jammed against the Roman camp in the center of the battlefield were not quite a wall. But almost. Combat became a matter of men on skittering horses hammering at each other. Lances were useless, now. It was all sword, mace, and ax work. And utterly murderous.
Yet, for all the ensuing mayhem, the outcome was certain. The Medes were trapped between an equal number of Roman heavy cavalry and thousands of Roman infantrymen. Their greatest strength—that unequaled Persian skill at hard-hitting, fast-moving cavalry warfare—was completely neutralized. As cavalrymen, the average Roman was not their equal. But this was no longer a cavalry battle. It was a pure infantry battle, in which the majority of soldiers just happened to be sitting on horses.
As always under those circumstances, more and more of the men—on both sides—soon found themselves on the ground. Without momentum, it was almost impossible to swing heavy swords and axes for any length of time without falling off a horse. The only thing keeping a soldier on his horse were the pressure of his knees and—if possible, which it usually wasn't in a battle—a hand on the pommel of his saddle. Any well-delivered blow on his armor or shield would knock a man off. And any badly delivered blow of his own was likely to drag him off by the inertia of his missed swing.
Five minutes into the fray, almost half of the cavalrymen on both sides were dismounted.
"This is going to be as bad as Lake Ticinus," grunted Anastasius. He pounded a Persian to the ground with a mace blow. Nothing fancy; Anastasius needn't bother—the giant's mace slammed the man's own shield into his helmet hard enough to crack his skull.
Belisarius grimaced. The ancient battle of Lake Ticinus was a staple of Roman army lore. Fought during the Second Punic War, it had started as a pure cavalry battle and ended as a pure infantry fight. Every single man on both sides, according to legend, had fallen off his horse before the fray was finished.
Belisarius was actually surprised that he was still mounted himself. Partly, of course, that was due to his bodyguards. In his entire career, Anastasius had only fallen off his horse once during a battle. And that didn't really count—his horse had fallen first, slipping in a patch of snow on some unnamed little battlefield in Dacia. The man was so huge and powerful—with a horse to match—that he could swap blows with anyone without budging from his saddle.
Valentinian, on the other hand, had taken to the ground as soon as the battle had become a deadlocked slugging match. Valentinian was possibly even deadlier than Anastasius, but his lethality was the product of skill, dexterity, and speed. Those traits were almost nullified in this kind of fray, as long as he was trapped on a stationary horse.
Valentinian was a veteran, however. For all his grousing about foot-soldiering, the man had instantly slid from his horse and kept fighting afoot. The result had been a gory trail of hamstrung and gutted horses, their former riders lying nearby in their own blood.
With those two protecting him—and his own great skill as a fighter—Belisarius hadn't even been hurt.
Yet—it was odd. There was something else. Belisarius hadn't noticed, at first, until a slight pause in the action enabled him to think. But the fact was that he was fighting much too well.
"Deadly with a blade, is Belisarius." He'd heard it said, and knew it for a cold and simple truth. But he had never been as deadly as he was that day. The cause lay not in any added strength or stamina. It was—odd. He seemed to see everything with perfect clarity, even in the hazy dust. He seemed to be able to gauge every motion by an enemy perfectly—and gauge his own strikes with equal precision. Time after time, he had slipped a blow by the barest margin—yet knowing, all the while, that the margin was adequate. Time after time, he had landed a blow of his own through the narrowest gaps, the slimmest openings—yet knowing, at the instant, that the gaps were enough. Time after time, he had begun to slip from his horse, only to find his balance again with perfect ease.
Odd. The truth was that he was leaving his own trail of gore and blood. It was like a path through a forest beaten by an elephant.
Even his cataphracts noticed. And complained, in the case of one.
"We're supposed to be protecting you, General," hissed Valentinian. "Not the other way around."
"Quit bitching," growled Anastasius. Chunk. Another Mede down. "I'm a big target. I need all the protection I can get." Chunk.
Valentinian began to snarl something, but fell silent, listening intently.
"Yes," said Belisarius. He had heard it too. The first cry for quarter, coming from a Persian throat. The cry had been cut off.
The general ceased his mayhem. Turned to Anastasius.
"Get Maurice—and the others. Now. I don't want to end the battle with atrocities. We're trying to win this war, not start a new one."
"No need," grunted Anastasius. He extended his right hand, pointing with his blood-covered mace. Belisarius turned and saw his entire Thracian retinue charging toward them on horseback.
Within seconds, Maurice drew up alongside them.
"I don't want a massacre, Maurice!" shouted Belisarius. "I'll handle the situation here, but the Huns—"
"They're already making for the Persian camp. I'll try to stop them, but I'll need reinforcement as soon as you can get there."
Without another word, the hecatontarch spurred his horse into a gallop. Seconds later, the entire body of Thracian cataphracts were thundering to the east, in the direction of the Persian camp.
Cries for quarter were being heard now from all over the battlefield. Many of them cut off in mid-screech. All fight was gone from the Medes. The light cavalry were already fleeing the field. The Persian infantry had long since begun to run. The heavy cavalry, trapped in the center, were trying to surrender. Without much success. The Roman infantrymen were in full fury. They were wreaking their vengeance on those who had so often in the past brought terror into their own hearts.
Belisarius rode directly into the mass. When he wanted to use it, the general had a very loud and well-trained voice. Anastasius joined him with his own thundering basso. Yet, strangely enough, it was Valentinian's nasal tenor that pierced through the din like a sword.
A simple cry, designed to rein in the Roman murder:
"Ransom! Ransom! Ransom!"
The cry was immediately taken up by the Persians themselves. Within seconds, the slaughter stopped. Half-maddened the Roman infantry might have been. Poor, however, they most certainly were. And it suddenly dawned on them that they held in the palm of their mercy the lives of hundreds—thousands, maybe—of Persians. Noble Persians. Rich noble Persians.
Belisarius quickly found Hermogenes. The infantry chiliarch took responsibility for organizing the surrender. Then Belisarius went in search of Eutychian.
But Eutychian was not to be found. Nothing but his body, lying on the ground, an arrow through his throat.
Belisarius, staring down at the corpse, felt a great sadness wash over him. He had barely known the man. But he had looked forward to the pleasure.
He shook off the mood. Later. Not now.
He found the highest-ranked surviving cavalry commander of the Army of Lebanon. Mundus, his name. He had been one of Pharas' little coterie, and his face turned a bit pale when Belisarius rode up. When he spotted Valentinian and Anastasius he turned very pale.
"Round up your cavalry, Mundus," commanded Belisarius. "At least three ala. I need them to reinforce my cataphracts at the Persian camp. The Huns'll be on a rampage and I intend to put a stop to it."
Mundus winced. "It'll be hard," he muttered. "The men'll want their share of—"
"Forget the ransom!" thundered the general. "If they complain, tell them I've got plans for bigger booty. I'll explain later. But right now—move, damn you!"
Valentinian was already sidling his horse toward Mundus, but there was no need. The terrified officer instantly began screaming orders at his subordinates. They, in turn, began rounding up their soldiers.
The cavalrymen were upset, Belisarius knew, because the Roman infantry stood to gain the lion's share of the booty. By tradition, ransom was owed to the man who personally held a captive. It was a destructive tradition, in Belisarius' opinion, and one which he hoped to change eventually. But not today. For the first time in centuries, the Roman infantry had blazed its old glory, and Belisarius would not dampen their victory, or their profit from it.
At the Persian camp, they came upon a very tense scene. The camp itself was a shambles. Most of the tents lay on the ground like lumpy shrouds. Those tents still standing were ragged from sword-slashes. Wagons were upended or half-shattered. Some of the wreckage was the work of the Hun mercenaries, but much of it was due to the Persians themselves. Sensing the defeat, the Persian camp followers had hastily rummaged out their most precious possessions and taken flight.
But not all had left soon enough. Several dead Persians were lying about, riddled with arrows. All men. The Huns would have saved the women and children. The women would be raped. Afterwards, they and the children would be sold into slavery.
In the event, the mercenaries had barely begun enjoying their looting and their atrocities before the Thracians had arrived and put a stop to it. More or less.
Very tense. On one side, dismounted but armed, hundreds of Hun mercenaries. On the other, still mounted, armed—and with drawn bows—were three hundred bucellarii.
The Huns outnumbered the Thracians' cataphracts by a factor of three to one. So, the outcome of any fight was obvious to all. The mercenaries would be butchered to a man. But not before they inflicted heavy casualties on the Thracians.
The general cared nothing for the Huns. But it would be a stupid waste of his cataphracts.
Mundus pointed out to him the three leaders of the mercenaries. As usual with Huns, their rank derived from clan status, not Roman military protocol.
Belisarius rode over to them and dismounted. Valentinian and Anastasius stayed on their horses. Both men had their own bows drawn, with arrows notched.
The Hun clan leaders were glaring at him furiously. Off to one side, three young Hun warriors were screaming insults at the Thracians. One of them held a young Persian by her hair. The girl was half-naked, weeping, on her knees. Next to her, a still younger boy—her brother, thought Belisarius, from the resemblance—was sitting on the ground. He was obviously dazed and was holding his head in both hands. Blood seeped through his fingers.
Belisarius glanced at the little tableau, then stared back at the three clan chiefs. He met their glares with an icy gaze. Then stepped up very close and said softly, in quite good Hunnish:
"My name is Belisarius. I have just destroyed an entire Persian army. Do you think I can be intimidated by such as you?"
After a moment, two of the clan leaders looked away. The third, the oldest, held the glare.
Belisarius nodded slightly toward the three young Huns holding the girl.
"Your clan?" he asked.
The clan chief snorted. "Clanless. They—"
Belisarius knew no archer as quick and accurate as Valentinian. The Hun holding the girl by her hair took Valentinian's first arrow. In the chest, straight through the heart. The cataphract's second arrow, following instantly, dropped another. Anastasius, even with an already-drawn bow, fired only one arrow in the same time. No man but he could have drawn that incredible bow. His arrow went right through his target's body.
Three seconds. Three dead mercenaries.
Belisarius had not watched. His eyes had never left those of the clan chieftain.
Now, he smiled. Tough old man. The chieftain was still glaring.
Again, softly, still in Hunnish: "You have a simple choice. You can disobey me, in which case no Hun will survive this battle. Or you can obey me, and share in the great booty from Nisibis."
Finally, something got through. The clan chieftain's eyes widened.
Belisarius nodded. His smile widened.
The clan chieftain peered at him suspiciously.
"Nisibis is a great town," he said. "You do not have siege equipment."
Belisarius shrugged. "I have a few scorpions and onagers. We can let the Persians on the walls of Nisibis catch sight of them. But that doesn't matter. I have the most powerful weapon of all, clan leader. I have a great victory, and the fear which that victory will produce."
The clan leader hesitated still.
"Many Persian soldiers escaped. They will flee to Nisibis and tell—"
"Tell what, clan leader? The truth? And who will believe those soldiers? Those defeated soldiers—that routed rabble—when they tell the notables of Nisibis that they have nothing to fear from the Roman army which just destroyed them?"
The clan leader laughed. For all his barbarity, the man did not lack decisiveness. A moment later he was bellowing commands to his men. Without hesitation, the other two clan leaders joined their voices to his.
Huns with clan status took their leaders seriously. Those without clan status took the slaughtered corpses of three of their fellows seriously. Within two minutes, a small group of women and children were clustered under the shelter of the cataphracts. Some of them looked to have been badly abused, thought Belisarius, but it could have been worse. Much worse.
The Huns even began piling up their loot, but Belisarius told the clan leaders that the mercenaries could keep the booty. He simply wanted the survivors.
"Why do you care, Greek?" asked the old chieftain. The question was not asked belligerently. The man was simply puzzled.
Belisarius sighed. "I'm not Greek. I'm Thracian."
The chieftain snorted. "Then it makes no sense at all! Greeks are odd, everyone knows it. They think too much. But why—"
"A thousand years ago, chieftain, these people were already great with knowledge. At a time when your people and mine were no better than savages in skins."
Which is just about where you are still, thought Belisarius. But he didn't say it.
The clan chieftain frowned.
"I do not understand the point."
Belisarius sighed, turned away.
"I know," he muttered. "I know."
Two weeks later, Nisibis capitulated.
It was not a total capitulation, of course. The Romans would not march into the city. The notables needed that face-saving gesture to fend off the later wrath of the Persian emperor. And Belisarius, for his own reasons, did not want to risk such a triumphant entry. He thought he had his troops well under control, but—there was no temptation so great, especially to the mercenaries who made up a large part of the army, as the prospect of sacking a city without a siege.
No, best to avoid the problem entirely. Persians, like Romans, were civilized. Treasure lost was simply treasure lost. Forgotten soon enough. Atrocities burned memory into the centuries. The centuries of that stupid, pointless, endless warfare between Greek and Persian which had gone on too long already.
So, there was no march and no atrocities. But, of course, there was treasure lost aplenty. Oh, yes. Nisibis disgorged its hoarded wealth. Some of it in the form of outright tribute. The rest as ransom for the nobles. (Whom Nisibis would keep, in reasonably pleasant captivity, until the nobles repaid the ransom.)
The Romans marched away from the city with more booty than any of its soldiers had ever dreamed of. Within three days, as the word of victory spread, the army was surrounded by camp followers. Among these, in addition to the usual coterie, were a veritable host of avid liquidators. The soldiers of Belisarius' own army immediately converted their booty into portable specie and jewelry. They had learned from experience that their general's stern logistical methods made it impossible to haul about bulky treasure. Like the great Philip of ancient Macedon, Belisarius used mules for his supply train. The only wheeled vehicles he allowed were the field ambulances and the artillery engines.
Observing, and then questioning, the Army of Lebanon quickly followed their example.
A great general, Belisarius, a great general. A bit peculiar, perhaps. Unbelievably ruthless, in some ways. Tales were told, by campfire, of slaughtered Persian cavalry, and a decapitated chiliarch. The first brought grins of satisfaction, the last brought howls of glee. Strangely squeamish, in others. Tales were told of women and children returned, reasonably unharmed, to the Persians in Nisibis—and spitted Huns. The first brought heads shaking in bemusement, the last, howls of glee. (Even, after a day or so, to most Huns, whose sense of humor was not remotely squeamish.)
A peculiar general. But—a great general, no doubt about it. Best to adopt his ways.
Adding to the army's good cheer was the extraordinary largesse of the general's cataphracts. Fine fellows, those Thracians, the very best. Buy anyone a drink, anytime, at any place the army stopped. Which it did frequently. The great general was kind to victorious troops, and the host of camp followers set up impromptu tabernae at every nightfall. They seemed to be awash in wealth, the way they spread their money around.
Which, indeed, they were. As commanding general, Belisarius had come in for a huge percentage of the loot—half of which he had immediately distributed to his bucellarii, as was his own personal tradition. The tradition pleased his cataphracts immensely. It pleased Belisarius even more. Partly for the pleasure which generosity gave his warm heart. But more for the pleasure which calculation gave his cold, crooked brain. True, his cataphracts were devoted to him anyway, from their own customs and birthright. But it never hurt to cement that allegiance as tightly as possible.
No, he thought, remembering the head of a stubborn chiliarch; and the arrow-transfixed chests of Hun thugs, it never hurts.
Three individuals only, of that great army returning in triumph, did not share in the general joy and good will.
Two of them were brothers from Thrace. Who, though they had come through their recent experience essentially unharmed in body, were much aggrieved in their minds.
As Belisarius had suspected, Bouzes and Coutzes were not actually stupid. They had had plenty of time, in their captivity at Nisibis, to ponder events of the past. And to draw certain conclusions about a never-found pay caravan.
On the first night of the march back to Mindouos, the brothers had entered Belisarius' tent. Quite forcefully. They had shouldered Maurice aside, which would indicate that their recent conversion from stupidity was still shaky and skin deep. Then, they had confronted the general with his duplicity and treachery.
Within the next few minutes, Bouzes and Coutzes learned a lesson. Others had learned that lesson before them. Some, like a Hun clan chieftain, had even managed to survive the experience.
So did they, barely.
Belisarius gave them three simple choices.
One: They could acquiesce to his triumph, pretend that nothing untoward had happened, and salvage what was left of their reputations. With Belisarius' help, a suitable cover story would be manufactured. They would even come into their share of the booty.
Two: They could leave now and trumpet their outrage to the world. Within a year, if Justinian was feeling charitable due to his victory over the Persians, they would be feeding the hogs back at their estate in Thrace. Pouring slops into the trough. If the Emperor was not feeling charitable—charity was not his most outstanding trait—they would be feeding the hogs at one of Justinian's many estates. From inside the trough, since they themselves would be the slop.
Or, finally, if their outrage was simply too great to bear, they could choose yet a third alternative:
The brothers, in the end, bade farewell to stupidity. Not easily, true, and not without bitter tears and warm embraces to their departing friend. But, in the end, they managed to send stupidity on his way.
By the very end of the evening, in fact, they were in quite a mellow mood. Large quantities of wine helped bring on that mellowness, as did the thought of large sums of booty. But, for the most part, it was brought by one small, fierce consolation.
At least—this time—honest Thracian lads had been swindled by another Thracian. Not by some damned Greek or Armenian.
After they left, Belisarius blew out the lantern and lay down on his cot.
He was exhausted, but sleep would not come. There was something he needed to know. He let his mind wander through its own labyrinth, until he found the place he had come to think of as the crack in the barrier.
He sensed the jewel's presence.
It was you, wasn't it? Helping me in the battle?
It was then that Belisarius discovered the third—individual?—who did not share in the general self-satisfaction of the army. The jewel's thoughts were incoherent, at first. Strangely, there seemed to be some underlying hostility to them. Not reproach, or accusation, as there had been before. More like—
That's odd. Why would—
A thought suddenly came into focus.
yes. helped. difficult.
Then, with a definite sense of exasperation:
Then, much like a younger brother might say to a dimwitted elder:
Stupid? What is stupid?
Belisarius sat up, astonished.
Me? Why am I stupid?
not you you. all you. all stupid.
Now, with great force:
Belisarius was frowning fiercely. He couldn't begin to think what might have so upset the jewel.
He sensed a new concept, a new thought, trying to force its way through the barrier. But the thought fell away, defeated.
Suddenly a quick vision flashed through his mind:
A scene from the day's battle. A mass of cavalrymen, hacking away at each other, falling from their mounts. Knees clenched tightly on the barrel chests of horses. Hands clutching pommels. Men falling from their horses every time they were struck or misjudged their own blows.
Another vision. Nothing but a quick flashing image:
A horseman galloping across the steppe. A barbarian of some kind. Belisarius did not recognize his tribe. He rode his horse with complete grace and confidence. The image flashed to his legs. His feet.
The thought finally burst through.
Belisarius' mouth fell open.
"I'll be Goddamned," he whispered. "Why didn't anybody ever think of that?"
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Autumn, 528 AD
"The man of the hour!" cried Sittas. "O hail the triumphant conq'rer!" He drained his cup in one quaff. "I'd rise to greet you, Belisarius, but I'm afraid I'd swoon in the presence of so august a personage." He hiccuped. "I'm given to hero worship, you know. Terrible habit, just terrible." He seized the flagon resting on the small table next to his couch and waved it about. "I'd pour you a drink, too, but I'm afraid I'd spill the wine. Trembling in the company of so legendary a figure, you understand, like a giddy schoolgirl."
Sittas refilled the cup. His meaty hand was steady as a rock.
"Speaking of which," he continued, "—giddy schoolgirls, that is—let me introduce you to my friend." Sittas waved his other hand in the general direction of a woman sitting on the couch next to him. "Irene Macrembolitissa, I present you the famed General Belisarius. And his lovely wife, Antonina."
Belisarius advanced across the room and bowed politely—to the woman, not Sittas.
Irene was quite striking in appearance. Not pretty, precisely, but attractive in a bold sort of way. She had a light complexion, chestnut hair, brown eyes, and a large aquiline nose. She appeared to be in her late twenties, but Belisarius thought she might be older.
The calm, unreadable expression on Belisarius' face never wavered. But he was more than a little surprised. Irene was quite unlike Sittas' usual run of female "friends." By about fifteen years of age and, the general estimated, twice the intelligence.
"Don't look at him too closely, Irene!" warned Sittas. "You never know what can happen with these mythical demigod types. Probably get you pregnant just from his aura."
Irene smiled. "Please ignore him. He's pretending to be drunk."
"He's good at it," remarked Antonina. "As well he should be, as much practice as he gets."
A look of hurt innocence came upon Sittas' beefy face. It fit very poorly.
"I am mortified," he whined. "Outraged. Offended beyond measure." He drained his cup again, and reached for the flagon. "You see what your insults have done, vile woman? Driven me to drink, by God! To drink!"
Irene rose and went over to a long table against the far wall of the salon. She returned with a cup in each hand, and gave them to Belisarius and Antonina.
"Please have a seat," she said, motioning to another couch nearby. The large room was well-nigh littered with couches, all of them richly upholstered. The colors of the upholstery clashed wildly with the mosaics and tapestries which adorned all the walls. The wall coverings looked to be even more expensive than the couches, for all that they were in exquisitely bad taste.
After the general and his wife took a seat, Irene filled their cups from another flagon. She placed the flagon on a table and returned to her own couch.
"Sittas has told me much about you," Irene said.
"Did I tell you he has much better taste in furnishings?" muttered Sittas. His beady eyes scanned the room admiringly.
"Muskrats have better taste in furnishings than you do, Sittas," murmured Irene sweetly. She smiled at Belisarius and Antonina. "Isn't this room hideous?" she asked.
Antonina laughed. "It's like a bear's den."
"A very rich bear," commented Sittas happily. "Who can well afford to ignore the petty artistic quibbling of the lesser sort. Plebeian envy, that's all it is." He leaned forward. "But enough of that! Let's hear it, Belisarius. I want the full account, mind you, the full account. I'll stand for none of your usual laconicness!"
"There's no such word, Sittas," said Irene.
" 'Course there is! I just used it, didn't I? How could I use a word that doesn't exist?" He grinned at Belisarius and began to take another swallow of wine. "Now—out with it! How in the world did you swindle the terrible twins out of their army?"
"I didn't swindle the twins out of their army. The whole idea's preposterous, and I'm astonished to hear you parroting it. Coutzes and Bouzes simply had the misfortune of being captured while leading a reconnaissance in force, and I was forced—"
Sittas choked; spewed wine out of his mouth.
"Even Justinian doesn't believe that malarkey!" he protested.
Belisarius smiled. "To the contrary, Sittas. I am just now returned from a formal audience with the Emperor, at which he indicated not the slightest disbelief in the official report of the battle."
"Well, of course he didn't! Coutzes and Bouzes are Thracian. Justinian's Thracian." Sittas eyed Belisarius suspiciously. "You're Thracian too, for that matter." He looked at Irene. "They stick together, you know." Another swallow. "Wretched rustics! A proper Greek nobleman doesn't stand a chance anymore." He glared at Belisarius. "You're not going to tell me, are you?"
Then, to Irene: "He probably swore an oath. He's always swearing oaths. Swore his first oath when he was four, to a piglet. Swore he'd never let anyone eat the creature. Kept his oath, too. They say the pig's still around, roaming the countryside, devouring everything in sight. The Bane of Thrace, the thing's called now. The peasants are crying out for a new Hercules to come and rid them of the monster." A belch. "That's what comes of swearing oaths. Never touch the things, myself."
He glared at Belisarius again, then heaved a sigh of resignation. "All right, then. Forget the juicy stuff. Tell me about the battle."
"I'm sure you've already heard all about it."
Sittas sneered. "That crap! By the time courtiers and imperial heralds get through with the tale of a battle, there's nothing in it a soldier would recognize." He scowled. "Unfortunately, whatever his other many talents, our Emperor is no soldier. The court's getting worse, Belisarius. It's getting packed with creatures like John of Cappadocia and Narses. And the most wretched crowd of quarreling churchmen you ever saw, even by the low standards of that lot."
"Don't underestimate Narses and John of Cappadocia," said Irene, lightly but seriously.
"I'm not underestimating them! But—ah, never mind. Later. For the moment—" He set down his cup and leaned forward, elbows on knees. The keen eyes which now gazed at Belisarius had not the slightest trace of drunkenness in them.
Most people, upon meeting Sittas, were struck by his resemblance to a hog. The same girth, the same heavy limbs, the same pinkish hide—unusually fair for a Greek—the same jowls, blunt snoutish nose, beady little eyes. Belisarius, gazing back at his best friend, thought the resemblance wasn't inappropriate. So long as you remembered that there are hogs, and then there are hogs. There is the slothful domestic hog in his wallow, a figure of fun and feast. And then, there is the great wild boar of the forest, whose gaze makes bowels turn to water. Whose tusks make widows and orphans.
"The battle," commanded the boar.
Belisarius made no attempt to cut short his recital of the battle. Sittas was himself an accomplished general, and Belisarius knew full well that his friend would not tolerate an abbreviated or sanitized version of the tale. And whatever minor aspects Belisarius overlooked, Sittas was quick to bring forward by his shrewd questioning.
When he was done, Sittas leaned back in his couch and regarded Belisarius silently. Then: "Why?"
"Don't play with me, Belisarius! You provoked the Medes, when you could have stalled. And then you took enough chances to give the Fates themselves apoplexy. Why? There was no point to that battle, and you know it as well as I do." He waved his hand disgustedly. "Oh, sure, as the courtiers never tire of saying, it's the greatest victory over the Persians in a century. So what? We've been at war with Persia for two thirds of a millennia. Longer than that, for us Greeks. Never be an end to it, unless common sense suddenly rears its ugly head upon the thrones. We're not strong enough to conquer Persia, and the Medes aren't strong enough to conquer us. All this warring does is depopulate the border areas and drain both empires. That's my opinion. And it's your opinion, too, unless you've suddenly been seized by delusions of grandeur. So I ask again: why?"
Belisarius was silent. After a moment, Irene smiled faintly and rose.
"May I show you the gardens, Antonina?"
* * *
Once they were in the gardens, Antonina took a seat on a stone bench.
"You needn't bother," she said. "I've seen them before."
Irene sat next to her. "Aren't they something? I'm afraid Sittas' taste in horticulture is every bit as grotesque as his taste in furnishings."
Antonina smiled. Her eye was caught by a statue. The smile turned to a grimace.
"Not to mention his taste in sculpture."
The two women stared at each other for a moment.
"You'd like to know who I am," said Irene.
Antonina nodded. Irene cocked her head quizzically.
"I'm curious. Why do you assume that I'm something other than Sittas' latest bedmate?"
"Two reasons. You're not his taste in women, not even close. And, if you were one of his usual bedmates, he'd never have invited you to sit in on this meeting."
Irene chuckled. "I'm his spy," she said.
Seeing the startled look on Antonina's face, Irene held up a reassuring hand. "I'm afraid that didn't come out right. I'm not spying on you." She pursed her lips. "It would be more accurate to say that I'm Sittas' spymaster. That's why he asked me to join him in this—meeting. He is concerned, Antonina."
"About what? And since when has Sittas needed a spymaster?"
It was Irene's turn to look startled. "He's had a spymaster since he was a boy, practically. All Greek noblemen of his class do."
Antonina snorted. "You mean Apollinaris? That pitiful old coot couldn't find his ass with both hands."
Irene smiled. "Oh, I believe Apollinaris could manage that task well enough. In broad daylight, at least. At night, I admit, he would have considerable difficulty." She brushed back her hair, hesitated, then said:
"About a year ago, Sittas decided he needed a real spymaster. He inquired in various places, and my services came highly recommended. He retired Apollinaris—on a very nice pension, by the way—and hired me. My cover, so to speak, is that I am his latest paramour."
She pursed her lips. "As deceptions go, it has its weaknesses. As you say, I'm not really his type."
"That's putting it mildly."
"Can you tell me what's going on in there?" asked Irene, gesturing with her head toward the door to the mansion.
"No," replied Antonina. "Not yet, at least. Later—perhaps. But not now."
Irene accepted the refusal without protest. A servant appeared, bearing a platter of food and wine, which he set upon a nearby table. Antonina and Irene moved over to the table and spent the next few minutes in companionable silence, enjoying their meal. Whatever his lack of taste in furnishings, neither woman could fault the excellence of Sittas' kitchen.
Pushing aside her plate, Antonina spoke.
"Please answer the question I asked earlier."
Irene's response was immediate. "The reason Sittas is concerned enough to hire me—and my services don't come cheaply—is because there's skullduggery in Constantinople."
Antonina snorted. "Please, Irene! Saying there's skullduggery in Constantinople is like saying there's shit in a pigsty."
Irene nodded. "True. Perhaps I should say: there's a lot more skullduggery going on than usual, and, what's of much greater concern, the nature of it's unclear. Something is afoot in Constantinople, Antonina. Something deep, and well hidden, and cunning, and utterly treacherous. What it is, I have not yet been able to discover. But I can sense it, I can taste it, I can smell it." Again, she groped for words. "It is—there. Trust me."
Antonina arose and began pacing about the garden. She glanced at the door which led back to the interior of the mansion.
"Will they be finished yet?" asked Irene.
Antonina shook her head. "No. Sittas will—need time to recover."
Irene frowned. "Recover from what?"
Antonina held up a hand, stilling her. She continued to pace about, frowning. Irene, with the patience of a professional, simply sat and waited.
After a while, Antonina stopped pacing and came over to Irene. She paused, took a deep breath. Hesitated again.
A voice came from the doorway. A horrible, croaking voice.
"Come inside, both of you."
Irene gasped. Sittas looked positively haggard. He seemed to have shed fifty pounds.
Once they were back in the salon, seated on their couches, Sittas croaked:
"Tell her, Belisarius."
Belisarius stared at Irene.
"I haven't even told Maurice, Sittas."
"Of course not! There's no reason to, at this point. But we need Irene. Now."
Belisarius remained silent, still examining Irene. Sittas' back curved, his great shoulders hunched, his snout thrust forward. The wild, red-eyed boar spoke:
Belisarius transferred his gaze to Sittas. The boar was in full fury now, tusks glistening.
Belisarius' calm eyes never wavered. He was a Thracian, reared in the countryside. He'd speared his first boar when he was twelve.
The red glare faded from Sittas' eyes, replaced, suddenly, by a shrug. And then, a wide grin.
"Funny, that usually works. Damned Thracians! But you may as well tell her, Belisarius. She'll winkle it out of me, anyway, unless I fire her. Which is the last thing I'd do now."
Belisarius looked at Antonina. His wife nodded.
"Tell her, husband. I trust her."
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When Belisarius was finished, Irene looked at her employer. The normal pink coloring had returned to Sittas' hide, but his face still looked almost drawn beneath the jowls.
"Believe, Irene," he said. "He only gave you the gist of it, but—" Sittas drew in a deep breath. "I held the jewel and saw— Never mind. Just believe it."
"May I see it?" she asked. Belisarius reached into his coat and withdrew the jewel. Irene rose and walked over, stooped, examined the thing. After a moment, she returned to her seat.
"It makes sense," she said, nodding. "Actually, it clarifies much that was obscure." Seeing the questioning looks around her, she elaborated:
"I've been encountering occasional tips, obscure hints, that pointed toward India as the source of the current—disturbances. Much of it, at least. But I discounted the rumors. India is far away, and except for trade, far removed from the normal concerns of Rome. I assumed the converse must also be true. What interest could India possibly have in the machinations of the Byzantine court?"
"What do you know about India?" asked Antonina.
Irene shrugged. "Which India? Don't forget, Antonina, India is a huge place. It's larger than Europe, in area alone, and much more densely populated. It's the biggest mistake Westerners make, actually. We try to imagine India as a single country, rather than a continent."
She rose again and poured herself some wine. Then filled Sittas' cup to the brim. This time, his hand was shaking. Slightly. She offered some wine to Belisarius and Antonina, but they declined. Irene resumed her seat and continued.
"India hasn't been unified under one throne for over half a millenium, not since the Mauryan Empire collapsed. The Gupta Empire which eventually replaced it was confined to north India. The south remained under the control of independent monarchs."
She hesitated again, her eyes slightly unfocused. It was obvious she was recalling information.
"Or, at least, that was true until recently. The Gupta Empire broke in half, a few decades ago, and the western half was invaded by the White Huns. The Ephthalites, as we call them. Also known as—"
"Ye-tai," interjected Belisarius.
Irene nodded. "The White Huns—or Ye-tai—were apparently beaten back, and then some sort of accommodation was reached between them and the western dynasty, the Malwa. The Malwa dynasty, from what I've been able to glean, has since been expanding rapidly. They've finished reconquering most of north India, although they're apparently plagued with rebellions. And now, according to a few informants, they've begun their conquest of the south. They are at war now with the greatest, and most northerly, of the southern realms. A place called—"
She hesitated, frowned, tried to dredge up the memory.
"Andhra," stated Belisarius. "Ruled by the Satavahana dynasty."
Irene nodded. "That's about all I know. To be honest, I never pursued the matter. India, as I said, seemed much too remote to be a real danger to Rome and, in any event, they were obviously preoccupied with their own problems."
She waved a hand, dismissively. "And then, too, most of the tales you hear about India are at least half fantastical. Especially tales about the Malwa. Gods that walk the earth, magic weapons—" She stopped, stared at Belisarius.
"Magic weapons, indeed," grunted Belisarius. "We've had no luck duplicating them."
Irene looked at the general's wife.
"Belisarius is being too pessimistic," said Antonina. "We've only just gotten started in that work. It's only been a few months since we first encountered the jewel ourselves. It's taken that long to get established on the estate which Cassian gave us. John of Rhodes has been in residence now for only three months, and the workshop has barely been set up." She shook her head firmly. "So, under the circumstances, I think it's much too early to make any clear assessment of our success in duplicating the Malwa weapons."
"Has the jewel been of any help?" asked Sittas.
Belisarius shook his head. "No, not in that regard. I can sense that it's trying, but—it is very difficult for the thing to communicate with me, except through visions. And those aren't very useful when it comes to weaponry." Strangely, he grinned. "As a rule, I should say. However—we must have a joust soon, Sittas!"
His enormous friend sneered. "Why? I'll just knock you on your ass like I always do. Shrimp."
Belisarius grinned evilly. "You're in for a surprise, large one. The jewel has succeeded in giving me one simple new device. Simple, but I guarantee it will revolutionize the cavalry."
Sittas looked skeptical. "What is it? A magic lance?"
"Oh, nothing that elaborate. Just a simple little gadget called stirrups." He grinned again, very evilly. "By all means. A joust—and soon!"
Belisarius turned back to Irene. "Where does the Malwa conquest of south India stand now?"
Irene frowned. "I really don't know. As of my last report, which was three months ago, the Malwa had just begun their siege of the Andhra capital." She paused, estimating time factors. "Given that the report itself probably took months to get here, I would assume the siege began approximately a year ago. Apparently, it's expected to be a long siege. The Andhra capital is reported to be well fortified. It's located at a place called—" She hesitated, looked away, again trying to bring up the information.
"It is located at a place called Amavarati," said Belisarius. The general continued, seeming for all the world, like a man possessed by a vision. "In a short while the palace will fall to the Malwa. Within the palace is a young princess named Shakuntala. She will be the only survivor of the dynasty. She will be captured and taken north to the palace of a high Malwa official, destined to be his concubine. A man will be lying in the reeds outside, wounded. His name is Raghunath Rao. When he recovers from his wounds, he will go north himself, tracking the princess and her captors. He will find her at the palace, but will be unable to rescue her in time. Before he can do so, the owner of the palace will return from some mission he was sent on by the Malwa emperor. He will die then, as will the princess."
Belisarius clenched his teeth, remembering another man's hatred.
"The Vile One, that official is called. Venandakatra. Venandakatra the Vile."
Irene shot to her feet. "Venandakatra?" she demanded. "You are sure of that name?"
Belisarius stared at her. "Quite sure. It is a name burned into my memory. Why?"
"He's here! In Constantinople!"
* * *
When the uproar which followed Irene's announcement subsided, Belisarius resumed his seat.
"So that's the mysterious mission Venandakatra was sent on," murmured Belisarius.
"This doesn't make sense," complained Sittas. "I've met the fellow myself, by the way. At one of the endless receptions at the Great Palace. A greasy sort, he struck me. But I spent no time with him. He presented himself as simply a modest envoy seeking to expand trading opportunities with Rome." Sittas waved his hand airily. "Not my interest, that sort of thing."
Irene snorted. "Just the money that comes from it."
Sittas grinned. "Well, yes. I believe my family does have a small interest in the Indian trade."
"They control at least a fourth of it," retorted Irene. "If not more. Your family are no slouches themselves when it comes to keeping secrets."
Again, the airy wave of the hand. "Yes, yes, no doubt. But I leave that business to my innumerable cousins. The point I was trying to make, before I was so rudely interrupted, is that this Venandakatra sounds like far too powerful an official to be sent on such a paltry mission. Are you sure we're talking about the same man? The name Venandakatra, after all, might be quite common in India."
Belisarius shook his head and began to speak. Irene interrupted him.
"Stick to your trade, Sittas. The whole thing makes perfect sense, if we assume that the jewel's visions of the future are accurate. Which"—a glance at Belisarius—"they obviously are. Venandakatra doesn't give a fig for trade. That's just a story to explain his presence. He's actually here to scout the territory, so to speak, and to lay the groundwork for the future attack on Rome."
She stopped, concentrated, continued:
"His cover, however, makes him vulnerable. He doesn't have a large retinue with him. He couldn't, not posing as a simple trading envoy. It wouldn't be difficult at all to have him assassinated."
Irene looked at Belisarius, startled.
"Why in the world not? I didn't get the impression you were any too fond of the man."
Belisarius tightened his jaws. "You cannot begin to imagine how much I despise him. But it's not for us to cut his throat."
He rose and began pacing, working off nervous energy. He reached a hand into his cloak, pulled out a sheathed dagger, stared down at it. Slowly, he drew the dagger from its sheath.
"I carry this with me always, now. It's been like a compulsion. Or a charm."
He straightened up. "But I think it's time to return the dagger to its rightful owner. I must go to India and find Raghunath Rao."
Antonina was pale, her hand at her throat.
"You can't be serious," stated Sittas forcefully. "You're needed here, Belisarius! Not gallivanting around India. Good Lord! Irene's right, you know—India's immense, and you don't know anything about the place. Even if this man's still alive, how will you find him?"
Belisarius smiled his crooked smile.
"So long as Venandakatra is alive, I will know where to find Rao. Lurking nearby, like a panther waiting to strike, if he can see even the slightest opening. I will go to India, and I will find that man, and I will give him back his dagger and, somehow, I will give him his opening."
He turned to Irene. "That's why Venandakatra can't be assassinated. It is essential that we forge an alliance with Raghunath Rao. And through him, with the surviving heir of the Satavahana dynasty. To do so, we must find him—and to find him, we need Venandakatra alive."
Antonina cleared her throat. "But, husband, such a trip—"
"Will take at least a year," finished Belisarius. "I know, love. But it must be done."
"I think it's an excellent idea," said Irene firmly. She paused for a moment, allowing her statement to register on Antonina and Sittas. The two were obviously surprised to hear the spymaster side with Belisarius in what seemed to them a half-baked, impulsive scheme. Once Irene saw that she had their full attention, she continued.
"Like Sittas, I do not understand why Belisarius thinks this man Rao is so important. Or this Princess Shakuntala. Although—" She stared at the general, gauging. "I will gladly accept his judgment. So should you, Sittas. Didn't you once tell me Belisarius is the most brilliant Roman general since Scipio Africanus? I suspect that same general is working on some grand strategy."
Irene spread her hands in a gesture of finality. "But it doesn't matter, because Belisarius should go to India in any event. For one thing, we must obtain the best possible information concerning India. Especially its military capacity, and its new weapons. Who better to do that than Rome's best general?"
Sittas began to speak. Irene drove him down.
"Nonsense, yourself! You said he was needed here. For what? The Persian defeat will keep the Medes licking their wounds for at least a year. Several years, I estimate. So there won't be any danger from that quarter for a time."
She drove over his protest again. "And even if the Persians do start making trouble before Belisarius gets back, I say again: so what? He may be Rome's best general, but he's not the only good one. You yourself are currently unemployed, except for those parade ground duties that bore you to death."
She paused. A particularly garish tapestry hanging on the wall opposite caught her eye. Even in the seriousness of the moment, she found it difficult not to laugh. Her employer had obviously been the model for the heroic figure portrayed in the tapestry. A mounted cataphract in full armor, slaying some kind of monstrous beast with a lance.
"Is that a lion?" she asked lightly.
Sittas glared at the tapestry.
"It's a dragon," he growled.
"I didn't realize dragons were furry," commented Antonina idly. She and Irene exchanged a quick, amused glance. Sittas began to snarl something, but Belisarius cut him off.
"Let's get back to the point," he said firmly. "I think Irene's suggestion is a good one. We might be able to get Sittas assigned to replace me in command of the army in Syria. That would put him close to the estate where Antonina's doing her work. With Sittas nearby, she'd still have access to expert military expertise when she needed it."
Irene drove over Antonina's gathering protest.
"You are not thinking, woman! You're worrying over Belisarius' safety and fretting over his prolonged absence." The spymaster was suddenly as cold as ice. "You are being a fool, Antonina. The worst danger to Belisarius isn't in India. It's right here in Constantinople. Better he should be gone for a year or so in India, than gone forever in a grave."
Startled, Antonina stared at her husband. Belisarius nodded.
"She's right, love. That's part of my thinking. Justinian."
Antonina now looked at the spymaster. Irene grimaced.
"At the moment," she said, "the greatest danger to Belisarius does come from Justinian. There's nothing the Emperor dreads so much as a great general. Especially one as popular as Belisarius is today, after his victory over the Persians."
"An expedition to India would be perfect, from that point of view," chimed in Belisarius. "Get me out of Constantinople, away from the Emperor's suspicions and fears."
Irene brushed back her hair, thinking.
"Actually, if the whole thing's presented properly, Justinian will probably jump at it. He's not insane, you know. If he can avoid it, he'd much rather keep Belisarius alive. You never know when he might need a great general again, after all. But sending him to India, off and away for at least a year—oh, yes, I think he'd like that idea immensely. Get Belisarius completely out of the picture for a time, until the current hero worship dies down."
Antonina's face was pinched. "How soon?" she whispered.
"Not for at least six months," said Belisarius. "Probably seven."
Antonina looked relieved, but puzzled.
"Why so long?" she asked.
"The trade with India," replied her husband, "depends on the monsoon seasons. The monsoon winds blow one way part of the year, the other way during the other part. You travel from India to the west from November through April. You go the other way—my way, that is—from July through October."
He held up his hand, fingers outspread, and began counting off.
"We're in the beginning of October. It's too late to catch the eastward monsoon for this year. It's almost over, and it would take at least a month or two to reach the Erythrean Sea. That means I can't leave for India until the beginning of July, next year. Mind you, that refers to the part of the trip beginning at the south end of the Red Sea. Figure another month—no, two—to get from here through the Red Sea."
He began to calculate; Irene cut him short.
"You won't be leaving Constantinople for India until April, at the earliest. Probably May. Which, incidentally, is when Venandakatra has already announced he plans to return to his homeland."
Antonina's initial relief vanished.
"But—Irene, from what you've already said, now is the most dangerous time for Belisarius to be in Constantinople. Six months! Who knows what Justinian might do in six months?"
Irene brushed back her hair. "I know, I've been thinking about it while Belisarius was explaining the maritime facts of life. And I think I have a solution."
She looked at Belisarius.
"Are you familiar with Axum?"
"The kingdom of the Ethiopians?" asked Belisarius. "No, not really. I've met a few Axumites, here and there. But—I'm a general, so there's never been any occasion for me to encounter them professionally. Rome and Axum have gotten along just fine for centuries. Why?"
"I see a chance to kill two birds with one stone. As it happens, Venandakatra's is not the only foreign mission in Constantinople at the moment. There's also an Axumite embassy. They arrived two months ago. The embassy is officially headed by King Kaleb's younger son, Eon Bisi Dakuen. He's only nineteen years old. Barely more than a boy, although I've heard that he's made a good impression. But I think the actual leader of the embassy is Eon's chief adviser, a man named Garmat."
"So—this Garmat, by all accounts, is quite a canny fellow. And, I've heard, he's been dropping hints here and there of the desire of the Axumites to forge closer ties to Rome."
She paused, savoring the little bombshell.
"I didn't think much of it, when I first heard. But it seems the Axumites are concerned over developments in India. Which, they are suggesting, pose long-term problems for Rome. And Garmat is quite frustrated that he's getting no reception to his message. Apparently, he's already announced that he'll be returning to Axum shortly."
She allowed the silence to continue for a moment.
"So, I have reason to think that the Axumites would welcome a friendly overture from some notable Roman figure. Such as a famous general who's invited them to tour Syria on their way back to Ethiopia. A tour which he would present to Emperor Justinian as the first leg of a very lengthy mission which would eventually take him to India. After spending a few months visiting Axum, which, conveniently enough, is located right on the way to India."
"The perfect place to wait for the monsoon," mused Belisarius. "Out of sight, out of mind. Axum's as remote as India, as far Justinian cares."
He rose and began pacing again. His eyes narrowed, and he peered sharply at Irene.
Irene nodded. "Yes. First of all, such a tour would give you and Antonina a chance to return to your estate and spend some time there before you went on. I imagine that would be useful, for your armaments project."
"And—in light of what I've learned today, I think Rome should take Axum's warning very seriously. And Axum itself. The truth is, we don't really know much about them. Other than the fact that they've always had good relations with us, and that they've been Christians for two centuries, and that they have a naval capability."
"Aren't they at war in Arabia now?" asked Sittas.
"Yes," replied the spymaster. "They invaded southern Arabia three years ago. They overthrew the King of Hymria, Yusuf Asar Yathar. The ostensible reason was that King Yusuf had adopted Judaism and was persecuting the Christian Arabs." She chuckled harshly. "That does not, of course, explain why they conquered the rest of southwestern Arabia."
"You think they might be allies?" asked Belisarius. "Against India?"
Irene shrugged. "That's for you to find out, General. On your way to India."
Belisarius was silent, for a time. Pacing.
"I think that's it, then, for the moment," he said at length.
He turned to Antonina.
"See if you can arrange a meeting with Theodora, love. I think that would be the best way to broach the subject to Justinian."
He took Antonina's hand and helped her to her feet. Then, before turning to the door, looked at Sittas.
"Well, there's a couple of other small points. The first, my oversized and overconfident friend, is that I will expect you tomorrow at the practice field of your army. In full armor, mind. You'll need it."
Sittas grunted. "And the other?"
Belisarius nodded toward Irene.
"Whatever you're paying her, double it."
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The next morning, watching Belisarius approach him on the training field, Sittas decided that his friend had spent too much time in the Syrian sun. His brains were obviously fried.
Belisarius' challenge had been idiotic in the first place. On foot, with swords, Sittas suspected that his friend would carve him like a roast. But on horseback, in full armor, in a lance charge—well! The shrimp didn't stand a chance in hell.
Sittas was not guessing. Facts were facts. Sittas did not have Belisarius' speed and reflexes, but that mattered little in a lance charge. In a lance charge, wearing full armor atop a huge war-horse that was itself half-armored, weight and strength were what mattered.
Sittas almost slapped his great belly in self-satisfaction. He'd jousted with Belisarius before, several times, and always with the same result. Belisarius, on his ass, contemplating the futility of matching skills with the best lancer in Byzantium.
And now! The fool wasn't even holding his lance properly! Belisarius was carrying his lance cradled under his arm, instead of in the proper overhand position. Ridiculous! How could he expect to bring any force into the lance thrust? Any novice knew the only way to drive a lance home, on horseback, was to bring the whole weight of the back and shoulder into a downward thrust.
Off to the side of the training field, perched on a stone wall, Sittas spotted a small group of boys watching the joust. From their animated discourse, it was obvious that even barefoot street urchins were deriding Belisarius' preposterous methods.
Seeing Belisarius begin his charge, Sittas set his own horse into motion. As they neared each other, Sittas saw that his friend's bizarre method of holding his lance had the one advantage of accuracy. The blunted tip of the practice lance was unerringly aimed right at Sittas' belly.
He almost laughed. Accuracy be damned! There wouldn't be any force at all behind an underhand thrust. His shield would deflect it easily.
The moment was upon them. Sittas saw that Belisarius' lance would strike first. He positioned his shield and raised his own lance high above his head.
Some time later, after a semblance of consciousness returned, Sittas decided he had collided with a wall. How else explain his position? On the ground, on his ass, feeling like one giant bruise.
He gazed up, blearily. Belisarius was looking down at him from atop his horse.
"Are you alive?"
Sittas snarled. "What happened?"
"I knocked you on your ass, that's what happened."
"Crap! I ran into a wall."
Belisarius laughed. Sittas roared and staggered to his feet.
"Where's my horse?"
"Right behind you, like a good warhorse."
Sure enough. Sittas saw his lance lying on the ground nearby. He grabbed it and stalked to his horse. He was so furious that he even tried to mount the horse unassisted. The attempt was hopeless, of course. After a few seconds of futility, Sittas left off and began leading his horse to the mounting platform at the edge of the field.
He was spared that little indignity, however. One of the urchins on the wall leapt nimbly onto the field and hurried to fetch him a mounting stool. As he clambered back upon his horse, Sittas favored the boy with a growling thanks.
" 'Twere just bad luck, lord," piped the lad. Then, with the absolute confidence possessed only by eight-year-old boys: "Yon loon don't no nothin' 'bout lance work!"
"Quite right," snarled Sittas. To Belisarius, in a bellow: "Again! Pure luck!"
This time, as the collision neared, Sittas concentrated almost entirely on his shield work. He had already decided that his mishap had been due to overconfidence. He'd been so preoccupied with planning his own thrust that he hadn't deflected Belisarius' lance properly.
Oh, but he had him now—oh, yes! His shield was perfectly positioned and solidly braced against his chest. Ha! The luck of Thrace was about to run out!
Some time later, after a semblance of consciousness returned, Sittas decided he had collided with a cathedral. How else explain his position? On the ground, flat on his back, feeling like one giant corpse.
Hazily, he saw Belisarius kneeling over him.
"What happened?" he croaked.
Belisarius smiled his crooked smile. "You ran into a stirrup. A pair of stirrups, I should say."
"What the hell kind of cathedral is a stirrup?" demanded Sittas. "And what idiot put two of them on a training field?"
Later, as they rode back toward his mansion along a busy commercial thoroughfare, Sittas uttered words of gentle reproach.
"You cheated, you stinking bastard!" he bellowed, for the hundredth time. For the hundredth time, he glared down at the—stirrups. No wild boar of the forest ever glared a redder-eyed glare of rage.
"Marvelous, aren't they?" beamed Belisarius. He stood up straight in the saddle, twisting back and forth, bestowing his cheerful gaze upon the various merchants watching from their little shops.
"Improves visibility, too. See, Sittas! You can look all around, without ever having to worry about your balance. You can even draw your bow and shoot straight over your back as you're withdrawing."
"You cheated, you dog!"
"And, of course, you already saw how much more effectively you can wield a lance. No more of that clumsy overhand business! No, no. With stirrups you can use a lance properly, with all your own weight and the weight of your mount behind the thrust, instead of being a spear-chucker sitting awkwardly on a horse."
"You cheated, you—"
"You could always have a pair of them made for yourself, you know."
Sittas glared down, again, at the stirrups.
"Believe I will," he muttered. Another red-eyed glare at Belisarius.
"Then we'll have another duel!"
"Oh, I don't see any point to that. We're getting on in years, Sittas. We're responsible generals, now. Got to stop acting like foolish boys."
When they rode into the courtyard of Sittas' mansion, Antonina and Irene were standing there waiting. Both women seemed worried.
"He cheated!" roared Sittas.
"Not quite the conversationalist he used to be, is he?" commented Belisarius cheerfully as he dismounted.
Sittas began to roar again, but Irene silenced him.
"Shut up! We've been waiting for you two idiots to return. Belisarius! You've got an audience with Theodora—and you're already late!"
Antonina shook her head angrily. "Look at them! Refusing to admit they're getting on in years. You're responsible generals, now, you clowns! You've got to stop acting like foolish boys!"
Sittas clamped shut his great jaws.
"You've already set up an audience with Theodora?" demanded Belisarius, gaping.
Irene smiled. "Yes. I'd like to claim it's due to my talents as an intriguer, but the truth is that Antonina was the key. I'd always heard Theodora considered Antonina her best friend, but I hadn't really believed it until now."
The smile vanished, replaced by a frown.
"We have to go immediately, but—"
"He can't go in full armor!" protested Antonina.
"I'll be dressed in a moment," said Belisarius. He clattered into the mansion.
"Watch out for the rugs!" roared Sittas.
"Please," muttered Irene. "Make sure you gouge up as many as possible." She smiled sweetly at Sittas.
"What happened to you, anyway?"
"Yes, Sittas," added Antonina, smiling just as sweetly. "We're curious. Did you run into a wall?"
"Looks more like he ran into a cathedral," mused Irene. "You see that one great bruise? There—on his—"
"Stop worrying, Antonina. Of course I'll support Belisarius in this elaborate scheme of yours."
The Empress stared out the window of her reception room. The view was magnificent, the more so since the Empress could well afford the finest glass. The panes of glass in her windows had not a trace of the discolorations and distortions which most glass contained.
Theodora never tired of the view from the Gynaeceum, the women's quarters of the Great Palace. It was not so much the scenery beyond—though the sight of the great city was magnificent—as it was the constant reminder of her own power. Within the women's quarters, the Empress was supreme. That had been Byzantine custom even before she mounted the throne, and it was a custom into which Theodora had thrust the full force of her personality.
Here, Theodora ruled unchallenged. She was the sole mistress not only of her own chambers but of the public offices as well. And it was here, in the Gynaeceum, that the silk goods, which were a royal monopoly, were woven. Those silk goods were one of the major sources of imperial wealth.
Without Theodora's permission, not even the Emperor could enter the Gynaeceum. And it was a permission which Theodora never gave him. She had too much to hide. Not lovers, of course. Theodora knew that were she to entertain lovers, word would get to Justinian. But the temptation never arose, in any event. Theodora had no interest in men, except Justinian.
No, not lovers; but there were other things to hide. Religious leaders, mostly. Monophysite heretics seeking refuge from the persecution that was developing again could find sanctuary in the secret rooms of the Gynaeceum.
Theodora scowled. For all that he was personally tolerant, and knew his own Empress to be a Monophysite, Justinian was seeking closer ties with the See of Rome. He hoped, Theodora knew, to gain orthodox approval for his projected reconquest of the western Empire. That approval came with a price—eradicate heresy.
It was a price which Theodora, for reasons of state even more than personal preference, thought far too costly for the prospective gain. The real strength of the Empire was in the Monophysite east—in Syria and Palestine and, especially, in Egypt. Why enfeeble the Empire's hold over those great provinces in order to gain the approval of a miserable pope squatting in Italy, surrounded by semibarbarian Goths? Who were Arian heretics themselves. No, it—
She shook her head, driving away the thoughts. Later. For now, there was this other matter.
She turned away from the window and smiled at Antonina. Then she smiled at Belisarius. The first smile was heartfelt. The second was—not. Or, at least, not very.
Briefly, the Empress examined her feelings in that cold and dispassionate way that was one of her great strengths. In truth, she liked Belisarius. It was just that she found it impossible to trust any man. She did not even trust Justinian, for all that she genuinely loved him. But—as men went, Belisarius was not bad. He had been good to Antonina, after all. And Theodora thought, approvingly, that his wife had the general well under her thumb. Whether or not Belisarius could be trusted, she trusted Antonina.
The Empress resumed her seat upon the throne which sat in a corner. The throne fit awkwardly in the confines of the private reception room. True, the room itself was luxurious. The floors were covered with exquisite Armenian rugs, the walls with even more exquisite mosaics and tapestries. Still, it was much too small a room to manage the bulk of a throne properly.
Yet even here, in the privacy of her own quarters, Theodora insisted on a throne. A relatively modest throne, to be sure, nothing like the monstrosity upon which she sat in the great reception hall of the palace. But it was a throne nonetheless.
It was one of her own foibles, she knew. The throne was not as comfortable as a normal chair would have been, but—she remembered the years of poverty and powerlessness. The years when she obeyed men, rather than the other way around. And so, everywhere she planted her very attractive imperial rump, she insisted on a throne.
"I just don't like to have my intelligence insulted," she growled. The Empress straightened. As tall as she was, sitting high up on a throne, the pose made her loom over her audience. Exactly as she intended.
"It's perfectly obvious that you're looking for an excuse to get away from Justinian's insanely jealous eye, Belisarius."
Seeing the slight look of startlement on the general's face, Theodora laughed.
"You think it strange that I understand my husband's peculiarities?"
Belisarius examined the Empress. She was a beautiful woman, very shapely in a slender sort of way. An Egyptian like Antonina, she shared his wife's dark complexion. But where Antonina's green eyes were a startlement in her dusky face, the Empress' eyes were so deep a brown as to be almost black. Her hair also was black, as little of it as could be seen in the jewel-encrusted coiffure.
He decided that honesty was probably the best course, under the circumstances. He did not know Theodora well, but he did not mistake the cold intelligence in those dark eyes.
"I am not surprised that you understand the Emperor's—characteristics. I am simply a bit puzzled that you understand him so well and—" He faltered. This was perhaps pushing honesty a bit far.
The Empress concluded for him.
"And still love him?"
Belisarius nodded. "Yes." He took a deep breath. Hell with it. The general knew from experience that it was unwise to change strategy in midbattle. "And are quite devoted to him. Even a man as removed as I am from the imperial court can tell that much."
The Empress chuckled. "I suggest you don't try to understand it. I don't myself, not entirely, and I suspect I'm much better than you at understanding such things. But the fact is, I do love Justinian, and I am quite devoted to him. Do not ever doubt it." She bestowed upon him a cold, deadly, imperial gaze. But only for a few seconds. Belisarius, she realized, was not one to be intimidated. Nor, she thought, was there any reason to do so.
Theodora smiled again. "One of the facts which is, and unfortunately, remains, is that my husband is prone to extreme jealousy. An imperial kind of jealousy, to boot, which is the worst variety."
She sighed. "It would be so much better if he'd fret himself over my fidelity, like most men. There'd be nothing in it, and I could spend some pleasurable hours reassuring him of his potency. But, not Justinian. He frets only royal frets, I'm afraid. The greatest of which is being overthrown by a rival. Especially a successful general.
"In fact, the threat's real enough. In general, at least. I just wish Justinian would stop being obsessed with the matter."
She mused. "At the moment, the two most successful and esteemed generals of the empire are you and Sittas." A small laugh. "Not even Justinian worries about Sittas! Outside of war, Sittas is the laziest man alive. And he can't stand the duties of a general in Constantinople—everyone knows it. He's been pestering Justinian for months to be reassigned to a field army, whereas an ambitious general couldn't be pried out of the capital with a lever."
She gave Belisarius a cold smile. "That leaves you. You alone, to be the focus of Justinian's worries."
Belisarius began to speak, but Theodora cut him off.
"Spare me, Belisarius. There's no point in making reassurances. I don't need them, and Justinian won't believe them."
She waved her hand. "No, the right course is exactly the one you propose." Another laugh. "Although even in my wildest dreams I never would have thought of sending you to Axum and India! God, Justinian will be ecstatic!"
The Empress was silent for a moment, lost in thought. "And it's not a bad idea, in any event, even leaving Justinian's jealousies aside."
She arose and walked slowly back to the window. Belisarius was struck by the regal grace of her movements, as encumbered as Theodora must have been by those incredible imperial robes. (Which, Antonina had told him, Theodora insisted on wearing at all times.) She looked every inch the ideal image of an Empress.
For a brief instant, Belisarius caught a glimpse of the woman's inner demons: that fierce, driving ambition which had carried her and her husband to the throne from the lowest of beginnings. Justinian, a semiliterate peasant from Thrace—who had, of course, long since become as literate a man as any in the Empire, applying his own fierce intelligence. Theodora, a whore from Alexandria.
But Theodora had been no sophisticated courtesan like Antonina, gaily choosing her few consorts and reveling in the charm and wit of their company. Belisarius knew Theodora's own history from Antonina. The Empress had been sold into prostitution by her own father at the age of twelve, to a pimp who had sold her in turn to every ruffian who hung about the Hippodrome.
He watched the still, beautiful face staring out the window. Watched the pride in the stillness, and the icy intelligence in the beauty, and thought he understood Theodora. Understood her, and understood her unshakable devotion to Justinian.
I swore an oath to Justinian, which I will always keep. But I wish I had sworn it to her. She would have made a far better Emperor.
"I don't trust this Venandakatra," Theodora said softly. "Even before Antonina told me of Irene's suspicions, I had my own." She glanced at Belisarius. "You've not met him?"
The general shook his head.
"I shall introduce you to him tomorrow. Justinian is having a reception for Venandakatra."
She stared back out the window. "Trade envoy!" she sneered. "That man has enough arrogance in him to be Lord of the Universe. A foul creature, he is! As vile a man as ever lived, I suspect."
Belisarius restrained his start of surprise. Antonina, he knew, had simply passed on that much of what they knew about Venandakatra which could reasonably have been spied out by Irene. There had been no mention of his vision.
Venandakatra the Vile. Apparently, the cognomen had been no personal fancy of Raghunath Rao.
Theodora shook her head. "No, I don't like this Venandakatra. The Malwa are playing a deep and dark game. And we know almost nothing about them. Yes, best we find out what we can, as soon as possible."
She turned back. "But there's something more important. You'll have plenty of time to get to know this Venandakatra creature. Much more, I assure you, than you'd ever want. In the meantime, however, there are other people you must get to know immediately. The Axumite embassy will also be present at the reception, which is doubling—as an afterthought, I'm afraid—as their departing ceremony. They are returning to Axum the next day."
She resumed her seat on the throne. "To my mind, your proposed visit to Axum is even more important than the trip to India. For one thing, I'm not sure how much you'll actually be able to find out in India. Whatever else he is, Venandakatra's no fool, and he'll have his own suspicions of you."
"Will he agree?" asked Antonina. "To Belisarius accompanying him back to India?"
Theodora waved the concern away. "He can't very well refuse, can he? After all, he's supposedly a mere trade envoy. How could he refuse an imperial request to carry a Roman envoy back to his homeland?" She shook her head. "No, he'll agree, however grudgingly. What I am much more concerned about, at the moment, is whether the Axumites will agree to that side of your proposal."
"I thought they were on good terms with Rome," commented Belisarius.
The Empress tightened her lips. "Yes, they were. Whether they still are, after the shameful way they've been treated since their arrival, is another matter."
"They've been insulted?" asked Antonina.
"Not directly. But Justinian's indifference to them was soon detected by the courtiers, who—" She snorted. "It's the first rule of the courtier: if the Emperor breaks wind, you shit a mountain."
Belisarius chuckled. Theodora shook her head.
"It's not really funny. Justinian is so preoccupied with—well, never mind. Let's just say that he has forgotten the first rule of the emperor. Do not trample over old friends in your eagerness to make new ones."
"What's your impression of the Axumites?" asked Antonina.
Theodora frowned. "The adviser, Garmat, strikes me as shrewd. I don't think he'll be a problem. It's rather the prince who concerns me."
She spoke the prince's name slowly, savoring the words: "Eon Bisi Dakuen. Do you know what the name means?"
Belisarius and Antonina shook their heads.
"The Axumites are warriors. We forget that, here, because we only encounter them as traders and seamen. But they are a warrior people, with their own proud history. It is a tradition which is particularly ingrained in the ruling clan. It shows in their royal nomenclature."
She closed her eyes, calling up memory. "The official name for the king of the Ethiopians is Kaleb Ella Atsbeha, son of Tazena, Bisi Lazen, King of Axum, Himryar, Dhu Raydan, Saba, Salhen, the High Country and Yamanat, the Coastal Plain, Hadramawt, and all their Arabs, the Beja, Noba, Kasu, and Siyamo, servant of Christ."
"That's a mouthful," commented Antonina.
Theodora opened her eyes, smiling. "Isn't it? But don't shrug it off as royal grandiosity. It's quite accurate, except for the `Ella Atsbeha' part, and accurate in significant ways."
"What does `Ella Atsbeha' mean?" asked Belisarius.
"It means `he who brings the dawn.' " Theodora shrugged. "That part of the title we can ignore. But the rest—ah, there's what's interesting. The long list of territories ruled, for instance, is quite precise. And the Axumites are punctilious about it. The listing of Himryar, for instance, as well as the Hadrawmat, is recent. The Axumites add and remove territories to the name of their ruler in strict accordance to the facts on the ground, so to speak."
She cast a shrewd glance at Belisarius.
"What does that tell you, General?"
"It tells me they prize accurate intelligence, even formally." Belisarius smiled crookedly. "That's a rather rare trait in rulers."
"Isn't it? But the Axumites are rigorous about it. I had my historians check the records." She went on. "The `ella' name is only given to ruling monarchs. Who, by the way, are properly known as the negusa nagast, which means `King of Kings.' My historians are not certain, but they think the title is also quite accurate. From old records of the first missionaries, it seems that Axum was forged by conquest and that it rules over many subordinate monarchs in the region of Ethiopia. Even Meroe and Nubia, it seems."
"And the `bisi' name?" asked Belisarius. "It must mean something. I notice that both the King—the negusa nagast—and his son share the name. It's a title, I imagine."
"Yes. And that's the most interesting part. King Kaleb's oldest son Wa'zeb is named `Wa'zeb Bisi Hadefan, son of Ella Atsbeha.' He is granted the patronymic, because he is the heir. The younger son who is the envoy here, Eon, is stripped down the bare essentials. `Eon Bisi Dakuen.' That's the only name he has, because it's the only name Axumite royalty considers essential."
"It's a military title," guessed Belisarius.
Theodora nodded approvingly. "Quite right. The Axumite army is organized into long-standing regiments. They call them sarawit. I believe the singular is sarwe. `Bisi' means `man of.' Hence the Prince, Eon, has as his only identity the fact that he is a man of the Dakuen sarwe. Just as his father, before all else, is a man of the Lazen sarwe; and his older brother Wa'zeb, the heir, is before all else a man of the Hadefan sarwe."
Antonina looked back and forth between the Empress and the general. "I think I'm missing something here," she said.
Belisarius pursed his lips. "Lord in Heaven, even the Spartans didn't take it that far."
He turned to his wife. "What it means, Antonina, is that the Axumites look at the world through the hard eyes of warriors. Proud ones. Proud enough that they name their kings and princes after regiments; and prouder still, that they disdain to claim territories which they don't actually rule."
Theodora nodded. "And these are the people who've been treated as unwanted guests since they arrived. Brushed off by insolent courtiers who don't know one end of a lance from the other, and by officious bureaucrats who don't even know what a lance looks like in the first place."
"Oh, my," said Antonina.
Belisarius eyed Theodora. "But you don't think the adviser—Garmat, is it?—is the problem."
The Empress shook her head.
"He's an adviser, after all. Probably a warrior himself, in his youth, but he's long past that now. No, the problem's the boy. Eon Bisi Dakuen. As proud as any young warrior ever is—much less a prince!—and mortally offended."
Theodora was startled to hear Belisarius laugh.
"Oh, I don't think so, Empress! Not if he's really a warrior, at least. And, with that name, I suspect he is." For a moment, the look on the general's face was as icy as that of the Empress. "Warriors aren't mortally offended all that easily, Theodora, appearances to the contrary. They've seen too much real mortality. If they survive—well, there's pride, of course. But there's also a streak of practicality."
He arose. "I do believe I can touch that practicality. As one warrior to another."
Antonina rose with him. The audience was clearly at an end, except—
"You'll arrange an interview with Justinian?"
Theodora shook her head. "There won't be any necessity for a private interview. Justinian will agree to your plan, I've no doubt of it." The Empress pondered. "I think the way to proceed is to have Belisarius' mission announced publicly at tomorrow's reception. That will box Venandakatra, and it may help to mollify the Axumites."
"You can arrange it that quickly?"
Theodora's smile was arctic. "Do not concern yourself, General. It will be arranged. See to it that you make good your boast concerning the young prince."
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Belisarius thought the Emperor's efforts were a waste of time, and said as much to Sittas. Very quietly, of course. Not even the fearless general Belisarius was fool enough to mock the Emperor aloud—certainly not at an official imperial reception.
"Of course it's a waste of time," whispered Sittas. "It always is, except with barbarians. So what? Justinian doesn't care. He loves his toys, and that's all there is to it. Think he'd pass up a chance to play with them?"
There followed, under his breath, various rude remarks about Thracian hicks and their childish delight in trinkets and baubles. Belisarius, smiling blandly, ignored them cheerfully.
For, in truth, Belisarius was not all that far removed from the Thracian countryside himself. And, if he was not exactly an uncouth hick—which, by the by, he thought was a highly inaccurate depiction of the Emperor!—still, he was enough of a rube to take almost as much pleasure as Justinian out of the—toys.
There were the levitating thrones, first of all, upon which Justinian and Theodora were elevated far above the crowd. The thrones rose and fell as the Emperor's mood took him. At the moment, judging from his rarefied height, Justinian was feeling aloof from the huge mob thronging the reception hall.
Then, there were the lions which flanked the thrones whenever the royal chairs were resting on the floor. Made of beaten gold and silver, the lions were capable of emitting the most thunderous roars whenever the Emperor was struck by the fancy. Which, judging from their experience in the half-hour since they had arrived at the reception, Belisarius knew to be a frequent occurrence.
Finally, there were Belisarius' personal favorites: the jewel-encrusted metal birds which perched on metal trees and porcelain fountains scattered about in the vicinity of the Emperor. The general was fond of their metallic chirping, of course, but he was particularly taken by one bird on the rim of a fountain, which, from time to time, bent down as if to drink from its water.
But, he thought, a waste of time and effort on this occasion. Neither the Indian nor the Axumite envoys were unsophisticated barbarians, to be astonished and dazzled by such marvels.
Belisarius examined the Malwa embassy first. The identity of Venandakatra was obvious, not only from his central position in the group of Indians but from his whole bearing. His clothing was rich, but unostentatious, as befitted one who claimed to be a mere trade envoy.
That assumed modesty was a waste of time, thought Belisarius. For, just as the Empress had said, Venandakatra carried himself in a manner which indeed suggested that he was the Lord of the Universe.
Belisarius smiled faintly. The elaborate and ostentatious reception for Venandakatra was Justinian's own none-too-subtle way of making clear to the Malwa that the Roman Emperor was not taken in by the Indian's subterfuge. A mere trade envoy would have been kept cooling his heels for weeks, before some midlevel bureaucrat finally deigned to grant him an audience in a dingy office. No genuine trade envoy had ever been given a formal imperial reception in the huge hall in the Great Palace itself, before the assembled nobility of Constantinople.
Belisarius glanced up at the enormous mosaics which decorated the walls. He almost expected to see looks of shock and dismay on the faces of the saints depicted thereon. Those holy eyes of tile were accustomed to gaze upon victorious generals, dignified Patriarchs, and the bejewelled ambassadors from the Persian court, not disreputable little—merchants.
Chuckling, Belisarius resumed his scrutiny of the Malwa "trade envoy."
Beyond his haughtiness, there was not much to remark about Venandakatra. The man's complexion was dark, by Byzantine standards, and the cast of his face obviously foreign. But neither of those features particularly set him apart. Constantinople was the most cosmopolitan city in the world, and its inhabitants were long accustomed to exotic visitors. Nor were Romans given to racial prejudice. So long as a man behaved properly, and dressed in a Byzantine manner, and spoke Greek, he was assumed to be civilized. A heathen, perhaps, but civilized.
Venandakatra was in late middle age, and of average height. His features were thin almost to the point of sharpness, which was accentuated by his close-set dark eyes. The eyes seemed as cold as a reptile's to Belisarius, even from a distance. The web of scaly wrinkles around the orbits added to the effect.
In build, Belisarius estimated that Venandakatra should have been slender, by nature. In fact, his thin-boned frame and features carried a considerable excess of weight. Venandakatra exuded the odd combination of rail-thin ferocity and self-indulgent obesity. Like a snake distended by its prey.
A cold, savage grin came upon the general's face, then, remembering a vision. In another time, in that future which Belisarius hoped to change, this vile man had been destroyed by a mere slip of a girl. Beaten to a pulp by her flashing hands and feet; bleeding to death from a throat cut by his own knife.
"Stop it, Belisarius!" hissed Antonina.
"Please," concurred Irene. "You're not supposed to bare your fangs at an imperial reception. We are trying to make a good impression, you know."
Belisarius tightened his lips. He glanced again at Venandakatra, then away.
The Vile One, indeed.
He looked now upon the Axumites and at once felt his expression ease.
In truth, to all appearances the Axumites were far more outlandish than the Indians. Their skins, for one thing, were not "dark-complected" but black. Black as Nubians (which, Belisarius judged from his features, one of them was). For another, where the Indians' hair was long and straight, that of the Axumites was short and very kinky. Finally, where the facial features of the Indians—leaving aside their dark complexion—were not all that different from Greeks (or, at least, Armenians), the features of the Axumites were distinctly African. That was especially true for the one whom Belisarius thought to be a Nubian. The features of the other Axumites had an Arab cast to them, for all their darkness. Positively aquiline, in the case of the oldest one of the group, whom Belisarius supposed was the adviser Garmat.
Belisarius knew that Ethiopia and southern Arabia had long been in contact with each other. Looking at the Axumites, and remembering some very dark-skinned Arabs he had met in the past, he decided the contact between the two races had often been intimate.
Yes, they were clearly even more foreign than the Indians—in habits as well as in appearance, Belisarius guessed. He chuckled softly, seeing how poorly the young prince wore the strange Byzantine costume he found himself encumbered within.
"It is a bit funny," agreed Irene quietly. "I think he's used to wearing a whole lot less clothing, in his own climate."
"Too bad he didn't come here a couple of centuries ago," added Antonina, "when Romans still wore togas. He'd have been a lot more comfortable, I think."
"So would I," muttered Sittas. He glanced down, with considerable disfavor, at the heavy knee-length embroidered coat which he was wearing. It felt almost as heavy as cataphract armor.
"How did we get saddled with these outfits?" he groused. "Instead of nice, comfortable togas?"
"We got them from the Huns," whispered Irene. "Who, in turn, got them from the Chinese."
Sittas goggled. "You're kidding!" He glared down at his coat. "You mean to tell me I'm wearing a filthy damned Hunnish costume?"
Irene nodded, smiling. "Odd how civilization works, isn't it? It's your fault, you know—soldiers, I mean, not you personally. Once you got obsessed with cavalry you started insisting on wearing Hun trousers." She smirked. "Why you insisted on including the coats into the bargain is a mystery."
"How do you know so much, woman?" grumbled Sittas. "It's unseemly."
"I don't spend all day drinking and complaining that there's nothing else to do."
Sittas glowered. "Damn intelligence in a woman, anyway. Should never have let them learn how to read. It's the only good thing about Thracians, you know. They keep their women barefoot and ignorant."
"It's true," whispered Antonina. "Belisarius only lets me wear shoes on special occasion like these." She glanced down admiringly at the preposterous, rickety, high-heeled contraptions on her feet. "And when I'm dancing naked on his bare chest, of course, with my whip and my iced sherbet."
"And that's another thing," groused Sittas. "Show me an intelligent woman, and I'll show you one with a sense of humor. Aimed at men, naturally." He glared around the huge room, singling out every single woman in it for a moment's glower. Although, in truth, most of them seemed neither particularly intelligent nor quick-witted.
Belisarius ignored the byplay. He had long since reconciled himself to his wife's sometimes outrageous jokes. He rather enjoyed them, actually. Although, glancing at the monstrosities on Antonina's little feet, he almost shuddered to think of them tearing great wounds in his body.
He concentrated again on the Axumites. There were only five of them, which, he had heard, was the entirety of their embassy. He glanced back at the Indians and smiled. The Axumites had sent five for a full diplomatic mission, whereas the Indians—who presented themselves as a mere trade delegation—had sent upward of twenty.
The smile faded. Some of those twenty were purely decorative, but by no means all of them. Perhaps one or two were actually even interested in trade, but Belisarius had no doubt that at least ten of the Indian delegation were nothing more than outright spies.
As if reading his thoughts, Irene whispered:
"I've heard half of the Indians have announced plans to set up permanent residence. To foster and encourage trade, they say."
"No doubt," muttered the general. "There's always a good traffic in treason, in this town."
Irene leaned over and whispered even more softly:
"Do you see the one on the far left?" she asked. "And the heavyset one toward the middle, wearing a yellow coat with black embroidery?" She was not looking at them at all, Belisarius noticed. He avoided more than a quick glance in the direction of the Malwa envoys.
"Yes, I see them."
"The one on the left is named Ajatasutra. The heavyset one is called Balban. I'm certain that Ajatasutra is one of the Malwa's chief spies. About Balban I'm less confident, but I suspect him also. And if my suspicions about Balban are correct, he would be the probable spymaster."
Irene's head-shake was so faint as to be almost unnoticeable.
"No, he's too obvious. Too much in the forefront."
Again, it was uncanny the way Irene read his thoughts.
"Bad idea, Belisarius. You never want to assassinate known spies and spymasters. They'll simply be replaced with others you don't know. Best to keep them under watch, and then—"
"And then what?"
She smiled and shrugged lightly, never casting so much as a glance in the direction of the Indians.
"Whatever," she murmured. "The possibilities are endless."
Antonina nudged Belisarius. "I think it's time we made our acquaintance with the Axumites. I've been watching Theodora, and she's starting to glare at us impatiently."
"Onward," spoke the general. Taking his wife by the arm, he led her across the room, weaving a path through the chattering throng. The Axumites were standing off to one side, at the edge of the crowd. Even to Belisarius, who was no connoisseur of such events, it was apparent that the Ethiopians were being studiously ignored.