/ Language: English / Genre:antique

Destiny's Shield

Eric Flint


antiqueEricFlintDestiny's ShieldengEricFlintcalibre 0.8.3410.3.20125127cb39-e67f-4469-a7df-db7b8849354d1.0

Back | Next

Destiny's Sheild

Table of Contents

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

EPILOGUE

Back | Next

Next

Destiny's Shield

EVIL FROM BEYOND TIME

The Malwa Empire squats like a toad across 6th century India, commanded by ruthless men with depraved appetites. The thing from the distant future that commands them is far worse. AN ADVISOR WITHOUT A BODY

Those who oppose the purulent Hell the Malwa will make of Earth have sent a crystal, Aide, to halt their advance. Aide holds all human knowledge-but he cannot act by himself. A CHAMPION FOR ALL TIMES

Count Belisarius, the greatest general of the age and perhaps of all ages, must outwit the evil empire -- and then, when there is no longer room to maneuver, to meet it sword-edge to sword-edge, because,

no matter what it costs EVIL CANNOT BE ALLOWED TO RULE MEN!

"It isn't often you come across a book or series you recommend to everyone. This one is an exception. Buy all the Belisarius books. Read them. No",! After all, miser), loves company, and I shouldn't have to be the only one waiting this hard for number four!"

--David Weber

"The battle scenes and strategies are as expert as expected in a book with Drake's name on it. . . "

-- Publishers Weekly

Cover art by Keith Parkinson

Interior maps by Randy Asplund

Hardcover

Paperback

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 paperback printing, June 2000

Distributed by Simon & Schuster

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020

Printed in the United States of America ISBN: 0-671-57872-3

Copyright © 1999 by Eric Flint & David Drake

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

http://www.baen.com

Typeset by Windhaven Press

Auburn, NH

Electronic version by WebWrights

http://www.webwrights.com to Donald

COSMIC IRONY

Belisarius sensed a new presence and immediately understood its meaning. He saw a point of light in the void. A point, nothing more, which seemed infinitely distant. But he knew, even in the seeing, that the distance was one of time not space.

Time opened and the future came.

The point of light erupted, surged forward. A moment later, floating before Belisarius, was one of the Great Ones. The general understood, now, that he would never see them fully. Too much of their structure lay in mysterious forces which would never be seen by earthly eyes.

A new voice came to him, like Aide's, in a way, but different. FORCE FIELDS, ENERGY MATRICES. THERE IS LITTLE IN US LEFT OF OUR EARTHLY ORIGINS, AND NO FLESH AT ALL.

He saw into the being, now. Saw the glittering network of crystals which formed the Great One's—heart? Soul? And there came a sense of mirth; vast, yet whimsical.

And the general knew, then—finally—that these almost inconceivable beings were truly his own folk. He had but to look in a mirror, to see the crooked smile that would, someday, become that universe-encompassing irony—and that delight in irony. . . . BOOKS IN THIS SERIES

An Oblique Approach

In the Heart of Darkness

Destiny's Shield

Fortune's Stroke

BAEN BOOKS by DAVID DRAKE

Hammer's Slammers

The Tank Lords

Caught in the Crossfire

The Butcher's Bill

The Sharp End

Independent Novels and Collections

The Dragon Lord

Birds of Prey

Northworld Trilogy

Redliners

Starliner

Mark II: The Military Dimension

All the Way to the Gallows

The General Series: (with S.M. Stirling)

The Forge

The Hammer

The Anvil

The Steel

The Sword

The Chosen

The Reformer

The Undesired Princess and The Enchanted Bunny

(with L. Sprague de Camp)

Lest Darkness Fall and To Bring the Light

(with L. Sprague de Camp)

Enemy of My Enemy:

Terra Nova

(with Ben Ohlander)

Armageddon

(edited with Billie Sue Mosiman)

BAEN BOOKS by ERIC FLINT

Mother of Demons

1632

Next

Back | Next

Contents

Prologue

It was the Emperor's first public appearance since he had been acclaimed the new sovereign of Rome, and he was nervous. The ambassador from Persia was about to be presented to his court.

"He's going to be mean to me, Mommy," predicted the Emperor.

"Hush," whispered the Empress Regent. "And don't call me `Mommy.' It's undignified."

The Emperor stared up at the tall imposing figure of his new mother, seated on her own throne next to him. Meeting her cold black eyes, he hastily looked away.

His new mother made him nervous, too. Even though his old mother said his new mother was a good friend, the Emperor wasn't fooled. The Empress Regent Theodora was not a nice lady.

The Empress Regent leaned over and whispered into his ear:

"Why do you think he'll be mean to you?"

The Emperor frowned.

"Well—because Daddy gave the Persians such a fierce whipping." Then, remembering: "My old daddy, I mean."

The Emperor glanced guiltily at the figure of his new father, standing not far away to his right. Then, meeting the sightless gaze of those empty sockets, he looked away. Very hastily. Not even his real mother tried to claim that Justinian was a "nice man."

Theodora, again, hissing:

"And don't call the Empire's strategos `daddy.' It's not dignified, even if he is your stepfather."

The Emperor hunched down on his throne, thoroughly miserable.

It's too confusing. Nobody should have this many mommies and daddies.

He began to turn his head, hoping to catch a reassuring glimpse of his real parents. He knew they would be standing nearby, among the other high notables of the Roman court. But the Empress

Regent hissed him still.

"Stop fidgeting! It's not regal."

The Emperor made himself sit motionless. He grew more and more nervous, watching the stately advance of the Persian ambassador down the long aisle leading to the throne.

The Persian ambassador, he saw, was staring at him. Everybody was staring at him. The throne room was packed with Roman officials, every one of whom had their eyes fixed on the Emperor. Most of them, he thought, were not very nice—judging, at least, from sarcastic remarks he had heard his parents make. All four of his parents. The scurrilous nature of officialdom was one of the few subjects they did not quarrel about.

The ambassador was now much closer. He was rather tall, and slender of build. His complexion was perhaps a bit darker than that of most Greeks. His face was lean-jawed and aquiline, dominated by a large nose. His beard was cut in the short square style favored by Persians.

The ambassador was wearing the costume of a Persian nobleman. His gray hair was capped by the traditional gold-embroidered headdress, which Persians called a citaris. His tunic, though much like a Roman one, had sleeves which reached all the way down to the wrists. His trousers also reached far down, almost covering the red leather of his boots.

Seeing the bright color of the ambassador's boot-tips, the Emperor felt a momentary pang. His old father—his real father—had a pair of boots just like those. "Parthian boots," they were called. His father favored them, as did many of his Thracian cataphracts.

The ambassador was now close enough that the Emperor could make out his eyes. Brown eyes, just like his father's. (His old father; his new father had no eyes.)

But the Emperor could detect none of the warmth which was always in his old father's eyes. The Persian's eyes seemed cold to him. The Emperor lifted his gaze. High above, the huge mosaic figures on the walls of the throne room stared down upon him. They were saints, he knew. Very holy folk. But their eyes, too, seemed cold. Darkly, the Emperor suspected they probably hadn't been very nice either. The severe expressions on their faces reminded him of his tutors. Sour old men, whose only pleasure in life was finding fault with their charge.

He felt as if he were being buried alive.

"I'm hot," he complained.

"Of course you're hot," whispered Theodora. "You're wearing imperial robes on a warm day in April. What do you expect?"

Unkindly:

"Get used to it." Then:

"Now, act properly. The ambassador is here."

Twenty feet away, the Persian ambassador's retinue came to a halt. The ambassador stepped forward two paces and prostrated himself on the thick, luxurious rug which had been placed for that purpose on the tiled floor of the throne room.

That rug, the Emperor knew, was only brought out from its special storage place for the use of envoys representing the Persian King of Kings, the Shahanshah. It was the best rug the Roman Empire owned, he had heard.

Persia was the traditional great rival of the Roman Empire. It wouldn't do to offend its representatives. No, it wouldn't do at all.

The Persian ambassador was rising. Now, he was stepping forward. The ambassador extended his hand, holding the scroll which proclaimed his status to the Roman court. The motion brought a slight wince to the face of the ambassador, and the Roman Emperor's fear multiplied. The wince, he knew, was caused by the great wound which the ambassador had received to his shoulder three years before.

The Emperor's real father had given him that wound, at a famous place called Mindouos.

He's going to be mean to me.

"I bring greetings to the Basileus of Rome from my master Khusrau Anushirvan, King of Kings of Iran and non-Iran."

The ambassador spoke loudly, so everyone in the huge throne room could hear. His voice was very deep, as deep as anyone's the Emperor had ever heard except church singers.

"My name is Baresmanas," continued the ambassador. "Baresmanas, of the Suren."

The Emperor heard a whispering rustle sweep the throne room. He understood the meaning of that rustle, and felt a moment's pride in his understanding. For weeks, now, his tutors had drilled him mercilessly in the history and traditions of Persia. The Emperor had not forgotten his lessons.

Officially, the Suren were one of the sahrdaran, the seven greatest noble families of Persia. Unofficially, they were the greatest. Rustam, the legendary hero of the Aryans—their equivalent of Hercules—was purported to have been of that family. And the Persian general who shattered Crassus' Roman army at Carrhae had been a Suren.

Sending a Suren ambassador, the Emperor knew, was the Shahanshah's way of indicating his respect for Rome. But the knowledge did not allay his fear.

He's going to be mean to me.

The stern, haughty, aristocratic face of the Persian ambassador broke into a sudden smile. White teeth flashed in a rich, well-groomed beard.

"It is a great pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty," said the ambassador. Baresmanas bowed toward Theodora. "And your mother, the Regent Theodora."

The Emperor reached out his hand to take the scroll. After unrolling the parchment, he saw with relief that the document was written in Greek. The Emperor could read, now, though still with no great facility. And this document was full of long-winded words that he didn't recognize at all. He began studying it intently until he heard a slight cough.

Out of the corner of his eye, the Emperor saw the Empress Regent nodding graciously. Remembering his instructions, the Emperor hastily rolled up the parchment and followed her example. Then, seeing the hint of a frown on Theodora's brow, he belatedly remembered the rest of her coaching.

"We welcome the representative of our brother," he piped, "the Basileus of Pers—"

The Emperor froze with fear at his blunder.

By long-standing protocol, the Emperor of Rome always called the Emperor of Persia the "Basileus" rather than the "King of Kings." By using the same title as his own, the Roman Emperor thereby indicated the special status of the Persian monarch. No other ruler was ever granted that title by Romans, except, on occasion, the negusa nagast of Ethiopia.

But Persians never called themselves Persians. That term was a Greek bastardization of the Persian province of Fars, the homeland of the old Achaemenid dynasty. Persians called their land Iran—land of the Aryans. They were immensely snooty on the matter, too, especially the distinction between Aryans and all lesser breeds. Many non-Aryan nations were ruled by the Shahanshah, but they were not considered part of the land of the Aryans itself. Those were simply "non-Iran."

The Emperor's paralysis was broken by the slight, encouraging smile on the ambassador's face.

"—the Basileus of Iran and non-Iran," he quickly corrected himself.

The ambassador's smile widened. A very friendly gleam came into his brown eyes. For a moment—a blessed moment—the Roman Emperor was reminded of his father. His old father.

He glanced at the mutilated face of his new father, the former Emperor Justinian. That sightless face was fixed upon him, as if Justinian still had eyes to see. That sightless, harsh, bitter face.

It's not fair, whimpered the Emperor in his mind. I want my old father back. My real father.

The ambassador was backing away. The Emperor of Rome began to sigh with relief, until, catching a hint of Theodora's disapproval, he stiffened with imperial dignity.

Maybe he won't be mean to me, after all.

The ambassador was fifteen feet off, now. He still seemed to be smiling.

It's not fair. The Sassanids are from Fars, too, so why can't we call them Persians?

Now, he did sigh, slightly. He felt the Empress Regent's disapproval, but ignored it.

It's too much to remember all at once.

Another sigh. The Empress Consort hissed. Again, he ignored her reproof.

I'm the Emperor. I can do what I want.

That was patently false, and he knew it.

It's not fair.

I'm only eight years old.

The ambassador was thirty feet away, now. Out of hearing range. Theodora leaned over.

The Emperor braced himself for her reproach.

Nasty lady. I want my old mother back.

But all she said was:

"That was very well done, Photius. Your mother will be proud of you." Then, with a slight smile: "Your real mother."

"I'm proud of you, Photius," said Antonina. "You did very well." She leaned over the throne's armrest and kissed him on the cheek.

Her son flushed, partly from pleasure and partly from guilt. He didn't think being kissed in public by his mother fit the imperial image he was supposed to project. But, when his eyes quickly scanned the throne room, he saw that few people were watching. After the Empress Regent had left, to hold a private meeting with the Persian ambassador and his father (both of his fathers), the reception had dissolved into a far more relaxed affair. Most of the crowd were busy eating, drinking and chattering. They were ignoring, for all practical purposes, the august personage of the Emperor. No-one standing anywhere near to him, of course, committed the gross indiscretion of actually turning their back on the throne's small occupant. But neither was anyone anxious to ingratiate themselves to the new Emperor. Everyone knew that the real power was in the hands of Theodora.

Photius was not disgruntled by the crowd's indifference to him. To the contrary, he was immensely relieved. For the first time since the reception began, he felt he could relax. He even pondered, tentatively, the thought of reaching up and scratching behind his ear.

Then, squaring his shoulders, he did so. Scratched furiously, in fact.

I'm the Emperor of Rome. I can do what I want.

"Stop scratching behind your ear!" hissed his mother. "You're the Emperor of Rome! It's undignified."

The Emperor sighed, but obeyed.

It's not fair. I never asked them to make me Emperor.

Back | Next

Contents

Framed

Back | Next

Contents

Chapter 1

CONSTANTINOPLE

Spring, 531 A.D.

As soon as Antonina put Photius to bed, she hastened to the imperial audience chamber. By the time she arrived, the Persian ambassador was reaching the conclusion of what had apparently been a lengthy speech.

Taking her seat next to Belisarius, Antonina scanned the room quickly. Except for the guards standing against the walls, the huge chamber was almost empty. The usual mob of advisers who sat in on Theodora's audiences was absent. The only Romans present to hear the Persian ambassador were Theodora, Justinian, and Belisarius.

Baresmanas himself was the only Persian present. Antonina knew that the extremely limited participation had been at the request of the Persians. That fact alone made clear the seriousness with which they took this meeting. She focussed her attention on the ambassador's final remarks.

"And so," said Baresmanas sternly, "I must caution you once again. Do not think that Roman meddling in the current internal situation in Persia will go unchallenged. Your spies may have told you that our realm verges on civil war. I, for one, do not believe that is true. But even if it is—all Aryans will unite against Roman intrusion. Do not doubt that for a moment."

The ambassador's stern expression relaxed, replaced by a semi-apologetic smile which was, under the circumstances, quite warm. Antonina was struck by Baresmanas' change in demeanor. She suspected that the friendly face which now confronted the Roman Empress and her top advisers was much closer to the man himself than the stiff mask which had delivered the previous words.

"Of course, it is quite possible that all of my teeth-baring is unnecessary. I do not mean to be rude. Rome is known for its wisdom as well as its martial prowess, after all. It is quite possible—likely, I should say—that the thought of intervening in Persia has never once crossed your mind."

Antonina was impressed. Baresmanas had managed to deliver the last sentence with a straight face. The statement, of course, was preposterous. For the last five hundred years, no Roman emperor had spent more than three consecutive days without at least thinking about attacking Persia. The reverse, needless to say, was equally true.

She leaned over and whispered into Belisarius' ear:

"What's this about?"

His reply also came in a whisper:

"The usual, whenever the Persians have to find a new emperor. Khusrau's been the leading candidate ever since Kavad died—he's been officially proclaimed, actually—but his half-brother Ormazd is apparently not reconciled to the situation. Baresmanas was sent here by Khusrau to warn us not to muck around in the mess."

Antonina made a little grimace.

"As if we would," she muttered.

Belisarius smiled crookedly. "Now, love, let's not be quite so self-righteous. It has happened, you know. Emperor Carus took advantage of the civil war between Bahram II and Hormizd to invade Persia. Even captured their capital of Ctesiphon."

"That was over two hundred years ago," she protested softly.

"So? Persians have long memories. So do we, for that matter. Carus' invasion was retribution for Ardashir's attack on us during our civil war after Alexander Severus was murdered."

Antonina shrugged. "The situation's different. We've got the Malwa to worry about, now."

Belisarius started to make some response, but fell silent. The great double doors to the audience chamber were opening. A moment later, a worn-looking Persian officer was being ushered in by Irene Macrembolitissa, the chief of the Roman Empire's spy network.

"Speaking of which—" he muttered.

Antonina started. "You think—?"

He shrugged. "We'll know soon enough. But we've been expecting the Malwa to invade Mesopotamia, sooner or later. From the look of that Persian officer, I suspect `sooner' has arrived."

The Persian officer had reached Baresmanas. The ambassador was standing some fifteen feet away from Theodora. Although a chair had been provided for him, Baresmanas apparently felt that his stern message would carry more weight if delivered standing.

The ambassador stooped slightly to hear what the officer had to say. The newly arrived Persian whispered urgently into his ear.

Antonina could see an unmistakable look of surprise and apprehension come to the ambassador's face. But Baresmanas was an experienced diplomat. Within seconds, the ambassador had regained his composure. By the time the Persian officer finished imparting whatever report he had brought with him, Baresmanas' expression was impassive and opaque.

When the officer finished, Baresmanas nodded and whispered a few words of his own. Immediately, the man bowed to the Roman Empress and hastily backed out of the room.

Antonina glanced over at Irene. The spymaster, after ushering the officer into the audience chamber, had discreetly taken position against the wall next to the door.

Antonina's gaze met Irene's. To all outward appearance, the spymaster's own face seemed void of expression. But Antonina knew Irene very well, and could not miss her friend's suppressed excitement.

Behind Baresmanas' back, Irene gave Antonina a quick little gesture. Thumbs up.

Antonina sighed. "You're right," she whispered to her husband. "Irene's like a shark smelling blood."

"The woman does love a challenge," murmured Belisarius. "I think she'd rather be tortured in the Pit for eternity than go for a week without excitement." A chuckle. "Provided, of course, that Satan let her keep her books."

Baresmanas cleared his throat, and addressed Theodora once again.

"Your Majesty, I have just received some important news. With your permission, I would like to leave now. I must discuss these matters with my own entourage."

Theodora nodded graciously. Then:

"Would you like to schedule another meeting?"

Baresmanas' nod was abrupt, almost curt.

"Yes. Tomorrow, if possible."

"Certainly," replied Theodora.

Antonina ignored the rest of the interchange between the Empress and Baresmanas. Diplomatic formalities did not interest her.

What did interest her was Irene.

"What do you think?" she whispered to Belisarius. "Is she going to be the first person in history to actually explode?"

Belisarius shook his head. He whispered in return:

"Nonsense. Spontaneous human eruption's impossible. Says so in the most scholarly volumes. Irene knows that perfectly well. She owns every one of those tomes, after all."

"I don't know," mused Antonina, keeping a covert eye on her friend against the wall. "She's starting to tremble, now. Shiver, quiver and quake. Vibrating like a harp string."

"Not possible," repeated Belisarius. "Precluded by all the best philosophers."

Baresmanas was finally ushered out of the room.

Irene exploded.

"It's on! It's on! It's on! It's on! It's on!"

Bouncing like a ball. Spinning like a top.

"The Malwa invaded Mesopotamia! Attacked Persia!"

Quiver, shiver; quake and shake.

"My spies got their hands on the message! Khusrau's instructed Baresmanas to seek Roman help!"

Vibrating like a harp string; beating like a drum.

"See?" demanded Antonina.

Back | Next

Contents

Framed

Back | Next

Contents

Chapter 2

Three nights later, the imperial audience chamber was again the scene of a meeting. After concluding an initial round of discussions with Baresmanas, Theodora had summoned her top advisers and officials.

Theodora had a multitude of advisers, but the ten people in that room constituted the majority of what both she and Belisarius thought of as the "inner circle." Membership in that circle depended not on formal post or official position—although post and position generally accompanied them. Membership in the inner circle depended on two far more important things:

First, the personal trust of Belisarius and what passed for "personal trust" from the perennially suspicious Theodora.

Second, knowledge of the great secret. Knowledge of the messenger from the future, the crystalline quasi-jewel which called itself Aide, who had attached itself to Belisarius and warned the Roman Empire's greatest general that his world had become the battleground for powerful and mysterious forces of the far distant future.

Theodora herself occupied a place in her circle of advisers, sitting below a great mosaic depicting Saint Peter. The seating arrangement was odd, for an imperial conference—the more so in that Theodora was not sitting on a throne, but a simple chair. ("Simple," at least, by imperial standards.) Traditionally, when Roman sovereigns discussed affairs of state with their advisers, the advisers stood on their feet while the monarchs lounged in massive thrones.

But—

"Of course we should accept the Persian proposal," came a harsh voice.

The Empress cocked her head and examined the speaker. He returned her gaze, with his scarred and empty eye-sockets.

Justinian was the cause of that peculiar seating arrangement. By custom, the former Emperor could no longer sit by her side. Officially, he was nothing now but one of her advisers. But Theodora had not been able to bear the thought of humiliating her husband further, and so she had gladly accepted Belisarius' suggestion that she solve the problem in the simplest way possible. Henceforth, when she met with her advisers, Theodora would sit with them in a circle.

"Explain, Justinian," said Anthony Cassian. The newly-elevated Patriarch of Constantinople leaned forward in his chair, clasping his pudgy hands.

"Yes, do," added Germanicus forcefully. The commander of the Army of Illyria was scowling.

Germanicus nodded to Theodora. "With all due respect, Your Majesty, I do not view any alliance with Persia favorably. Damn the Medes, anyway! They've always been our enemy. Persia and the Malwa Empire can claw each other to pieces, as far as I'm concerned."

A murmur of protest began to rise from several of the people sitting in the room.

"Yes, yes," snapped Germanicus, "I know that Malwa is our ultimate enemy." He glanced at Belisarius' chest, where the "jewel" from the future lay nestled in a pouch under the general's tunic. "But I don't see why—"

Justinian's harsh voice interrupted. "Damn the Persians. And the Malwa! It's the dynasty I'm thinking about." Justinian's bony hands clenched the arms of his chair. "Don't fool yourselves," he snarled. "Do you really think the aristocracy is happy with the situation? Do you really?" He cawed a harsh, humorless laugh. "This very night—I guarantee it—half the Greek nobility is plotting our overthrow."

"Let them plot all they want," said Sittas, shrugging. The heavyset general smiled cheerfully.

"I'm a Greek nobleman, myself, mind you. So I'm not about to dispute Justinian's words. If anything, he's being charitable. By my own estimate, two-thirds of the Greek aristocracy is plotting our overthrow. This very night, just as he says."

Sittas yawned. "So are the rats in my cellar, I imagine. I'm more concerned about the rats."

Chrysopolis shook his head vigorously. "You are much too complacent, Sittas," he argued. "I myself share Justinian's concerns."

Chrysopolis had replaced the executed traitor John of Cappadocia as the empire's praetorian prefect. He was the one other member of the inner circle, who, like Germanicus, was not personally well-known to Belisarius. But the general himself had proposed his inclusion. Among the highest Roman officials who survived the purge after the failed coup d'etat which had been suppressed by Belisarius and Antonina a few months before, Chrysopolis had a reputation for ability and—a far rarer characteristic among those circles—scrupulous honesty.

"Do you really think this alliance would have that good an effect?" he asked.

"Of course," stated Justinian. He held up a thumb. "First. The Army will be ecstatic. Persia's the enemy they fear, not Malwa. Anything that prevents another war with Persia will meet their approval. Even after Belisarius' great victory at Mindouos, the Army still has no desire to match Persian lancers on the field of battle."

"The Malwa will be worse," pointed out Antonina. "Their numbers are much larger, and they have the new gunpowder weapons."

Justinian shrugged. "So? Roman soldiers have no experience with the Malwa, so they're not worried about them. Over time, that will probably change. But it's the present I'm concerned with. And, right now, I can think of no better way to cement the Army's allegiance to the dynasty than for Photius to forge a Hundred Years' Peace with Persia."

Justinian held up his forefinger alongside his thumb. "Two. It'll please the populace at large, especially in the borderlands." His head turned, the sightless sockets fixing on Anthony Cassian. "The peasants of the region are already delighted with Cassian's succession to the Patriarchate. They're Monophysite heretics, the lot of them, and they know Cassian will rein in the persecution."

"I have no formal authority over Patriarch Ephraim of Antioch," demurred Anthony. "The border regions fall under his jurisdiction."

"The hell with Ephraim," hissed Justinian. "If the dynasty's hold on the throne stabilizes, we'll crush that bastard soon enough. I know it, you know it, Ephraim knows it—and so do the peasants of the borderlands."

Belisarius saw that Germanicus was still scowling. The Illyrian general, quite obviously, was unmoved by Justinian and Chrysopolis' concerns. Belisarius decided it was time to intervene.

"We can live with Persia, Germanicus," he stated. "We have, after all, for a millennium. We cannot live with Malwa. The Malwa seek to rule the world. Their invasion of Persia is simply the first step toward their intended conquest of Rome. I say we fight them now, on Persian soil, with Persia's lancers as our allies. Or else we will fight them later, on Roman soil, with the Persian lancers shackled into the ranks of Malwa's gigantic army alongside their Rajput and Kushan vassals."

Germanicus eyed him skeptically. Belisarius repressed a sigh. He was aggravated by the man's stubbornness, but he could not in good conscience condemn him for it. The commander of the Army of Illyria had only been made privy to the great secret a month before. Germanicus, like Chrysopolis, had no longstanding personal relationship with Belisarius. But he was a close kinsman of Justinian and an excellent general in his own right. Theodora had urged his inclusion in the inner circle—this was the one subject where she never issued commands to Belisarius—and Belisarius had agreed.

Abstractly, he knew, the Illyrian general accepted the truth of Aide's nature, and the crystal's warning of the future. But, like most generals, Germanicus was conservative by temperament. Persia, not India, was the traditional rival of the Roman Empire.

No, he could not condemn Germanicus for his prejudiced blindness. He simply returned the man's glare with a serene, confident gaze.

After a moment, Germanicus stopped glaring.

"Are you so certain, Belisarius?" he asked. The Illyrian general's tone was not hostile, simply—serious. Like most Roman soldiers he had the deepest respect for Belisarius.

Belisarius nodded his head firmly. "Trust me in this, Germanicus. If Malwa is not checked, the day will come when the Roman Empire will vanish as if it had never existed."

After a moment, Germanicus sighed. "Very well, then. I will defer to your judgement. I'm not happy about it, but—" He sat up, squaring his shoulders. "Enough. I withdraw my objections."

Theodora saw that all of her advisers had reached the same conclusion.

"So be it," she announced. "We'll tell the Persian ambassador that we accept the offer of alliance. In principle, at least. Let's move on to the specifics of their proposal."

She turned to Irene Macrembolitissa. Officially, Irene was the most junior member of the high bureaucracy, having been elevated only recently to the post of sacellarius, the "keeper of the privy purse." Her actual power was immense. She was Theodora's spymaster and the chief of the Empire's unofficial secret police, the agentes in rebus. She had also become one of Theodora's few—very, very few—genuine friends.

"Begin by summarizing the situation with the invasion, if you would."

Irene leaned forward, brushing back her thick brown hair. "The Malwa attack on Persia began two months ago," she said. "As Belisarius had predicted, they began with a massive sea-borne invasion of the Tigris-Euphrates delta. Within two days, they captured the great port at Charax and have been turning it into the entrepot for their invasion of Mesopotamia."

"Aren't they attacking in the north as well?" asked Hermogenes.

Irene nodded. "Yes. They have a large army pressing into Persia's eastern provinces. That army, however, seems to be only lightly equipped with gunpowder weapons. For the most part, they're made up of traditional forces—Malwa infantry backed by Ye-tai security battalions, with a very large force of Rajput cavalrymen."

"Second-raters, then," stated Germanicus.

Belisarius shook his head.

"Not at all. The Rajput cavalry are excellent, and they're under the command of Rana Sanga. I know him from my trip to India. Know him rather well, in fact. He's as good a general as you'll find anywhere. And while I don't personally know the top Malwa commander of the northern expedition, Lord Damodara, I do know that Rana Sanga respected him deeply."

Germanicus frowned. "Why—?"

Belisarius chuckled. "There's a method to the Malwa madness. The Rajputs are the heart of Damodara's army, and the Malwa don't trust their Rajput vassals. So they put their best general in charge of the toughest campaign, gave him little in the way of gunpowder weapons, and placed almost all the Rajput cavalry at his disposal. Damodara will have no choice. He'll have to rely on Rana Sanga and the Rajputs for his shock troops, slugging it out for months against Persian cavalry in some of the worst terrain you can imagine. The Malwa are killing two birds with one stone. The Persians can't ignore the threat, so they have to divert much of their army from the main campaign in Mesopotamia. And, at the same time, the Malwa will be—"

Germanicus nodded. "Bleeding the Rajputs white."

"Exactly."

Sittas grunted. "That means the northern expedition isn't something we need to worry about. Not for some time, at least. That'll be up to the Persians to deal with."

He eyed Irene. "How big is the Malwa army in Mesopotamia?"

She hesitated, knowing that her next words would be met with disbelief. "At least two hundred thousand men. Probably more."

"That's nonsense!" exclaimed Germanicus.

Belisarius overrode him. "It is not nonsense. Believe it, Germanicus. The Malwa Empire is the one power in the world which can field that big an army. And keep it supplied, so long as they hold Charax. When I was in Bharakuccha, India's great western seaport, I saw with my own eyes the huge fleet of supply ships they were constructing."

Germanicus' face was pale. "Two hundred thousand," he whispered.

"At least," emphasized Belisarius. "And they'll have the bulk of their gunpowder units, too. About their only weakness will be in cavalry."

Irene shook her head. "Not even that, Belisarius. Not light cavalry, at least. I just got word yesterday that the Lakhmite dynasty has transferred its allegiance from Persia to the Malwa. That gives the Malwa a large force of Arab cavalry—and a camel force that can operate in the desert regions on the right bank of the Euphrates. Which, by the way, seems to be the river which the Malwa are using as their invasion route."

"Slow going," commented Hermogenes. "The Euphrates meanders all over the flood plain. The Tigris would be quicker."

Belisarius shrugged. "The Malwa aren't relying on speed and maneuver. They've got a sledgehammer moving up the Euphrates. Once they reach Peroz-Shapur, they can cross over to the Tigris. They'll have the Persian capital at Ctesiphon surrounded."

"What's the Persian response?" asked Germanicus.

"From what Baresmanas told me," responded Irene, "it seems that Emperor Khusrau intends to make a stand at Babylon."

"Babylon?" exclaimed Cassian. "There is no Babylon! That city's been deserted for centuries!" He shook his head. "It's in ruins."

Irene smiled. "The city, yes. But the walls of Babylon are still standing. And, by all accounts, those walls are almost as mighty as they were in the days of Hammurabi and Assurbanipal."

"What are the Persians asking of us?" queried Antonina.

Irene glanced at Chrysopolis. The praetorian prefect had handled that part of the initial discussions with Baresmanas.

"They want an alliance with Rome, and as many troops as we can send to help Khusrau at Babylon." He nodded to Sittas. "The Persians do not expect us to help them against the Malwa thrust into their eastern provinces. But they are—well, desperate—to get our help in Mesopotamia."

"How many troops do they want us to send?" asked Justinian.

Chrysopolis took a deep breath. "They're asking for forty thousand. The entire Army of Syria, and the remaining twenty thousand from Anatolia and our European units."

The room exploded.

"That's insane!" cried Sittas. "That's half the Roman army!"

"It'd strip the Danube naked," snarled Germanicus. "Every barbarian tribe in the Balkans would be pouring across within a month!" He turned to Belisarius. "You can't be seriously considering this proposal!"

Belisarius shook his head. "No, I'm not, Germanicus. Although I would if I thought we could do it." Again, Belisarius shrugged. "But, the simple fact is that we can't. We have to maintain a strong force on the Danube, as you said. And, unfortunately, we have to keep Sittas' army in and around Constantinople. As we all know, the dynasty's hold is still shaky. Most of the nobility would back another coup, if they thought it would succeed."

Germanicus tugged on his beard. "At the moment, in other words, we have nothing to send Persia except the existing armies in Syria and Egypt."

"Not even that," said Theodora. "We've got a crisis in Egypt, too."

She looked to her spymaster. "Tell them."

"As you all know," said Irene, "the former Patriarch of Alexandria, Timothy IV, was murdered during the Nika insurrection—at the same time as Anthony's predecessor Epiphanios. The culprits were never found, but I'm quite sure it was the work of Malwa assassins."

"Aided and abetted by ultra-orthodox forces in the Church," said Justinian forcefully.

Irene nodded. "After three months of wrangling, the Greek nobility in Alexandria imposed a new Patriarch. An ultra-orthodox monk by the name of Paul. The very next day he reinstated the persecution. Alexandria's been in turmoil ever since. Riots and street fights almost daily, mostly between ultra-orthodox and ultra-Monophysite monks. We just got the news yesterday."

"What the hell is the Army of Egypt doing?" demanded Germanicus.

"They've sided with the new Patriarch," replied Irene. "According to my reports, in fact, the army's commander was Paul's chief advocate."

"That's General Ambrose, isn't it?" asked Hermogenes.

Irene nodded. Sittas growled:

"I know that bastard. He's not worth a damn on the battlefield. A politician down to his toenails. Ambitious as Satan."

The praetorian prefect sighed. "So much for the Army of Egypt. We won't be able to send them to Persia."

"It's worse than that, Chrysopolis," stated Belisarius. "We're going to have to send a military force to Egypt to set the situation straight."

"You think we should intervene?"

"I most certainly do. Egypt is the largest and richest province of the Empire. In the long run, we're relying on Egypt to be the bastion for our naval campaign in the Erythrean Sea. The last thing we can afford is to have its population riddled with disaffection and rebellion."

Theodora added her voice. "I am in complete agreement with Belisarius on this matter." She nodded toward Cassian. "At Anthony's recommendation, I'm sending a deacon named Theodosius to replace Paul as Alexandria's Patriarch. He's a moderate Monophysite. A member of the Severan school like Timothy."

Chrysopolis frowned. "How are you going to enforce the appointment?"

For the first time since the meeting started, Theodora grinned. But there was not a trace of humor in the expression. "With a combination of the old and the new. You know of the religious order which Michael of Macedonia has founded? He's offered to send several thousand of them to Egypt, to counter the existing monastic orders."

"That's fine against other monks in the streets, armed with cudgels," grunted Hermogenes. "But the Army of Egypt—"

"Will be dealt with by the Theodoran Cohort," stated Belisarius.

The announcement brought dead silence to the room. All eyes turned to Antonina.

The little Egyptian woman shrugged. "I'm all we've got, I'm afraid."

"Not quite," said Belisarius. He looked at Hermogenes. "I think we can spare one of your legions, to give Antonina's grenadiers an infantry bulwark. And I'm going to give her five hundred of my cataphracts for a cavalry force."

Hermogenes nodded. Frowning, Germanicus looked back and forth between Belisarius and Antonina.

"I would have thought you'd want to use the grenadiers in Persia," he commented.

Before Belisarius could reply, Theodora spoke up. "Absolutely not. Other than Belisarius' small unit of rocketeers, Antonina's cohort is our only military force equipped with gunpowder weapons. They've never been in a real battle. I'm not going to risk them in Persia. Not this early in the war."

Germanicus' frown deepened. "Then who—?"

"Me," said Belisarius. "Me, and whatever troops we can scrape up." He scratched his chin. "I think we can spare five or six thousand men from the Army of Syria, along with my own bucellarii."

"I can give you two thousand cataphracts," interjected Sittas. He glanced at Germanicus.

The Illyrian army commander winced. "I can probably spare five hundred. No more than that, I'm afraid. There's bound to be trouble with the northern barbarians within the next year. The Malwa will be spreading their gold with a lavish hand."

Hermogenes finished counting on his fingers and looked up.

"That doesn't give you much of an army, Belisarius. You've got, what—a thousand cataphracts, after you give five hundred to Antonina?"

Belisarius nodded.

Hermogenes blew out his cheeks. "Plus two thousand from Sittas and five hundred from Germanicus. That's three and a half thousand heavy cavalry. The Army of Syria can probably give you three or four thousand infantry and a couple of thousand cavalry. But the cavalry will be light horse archers, not cataphract lancers."

"Ten thousand men, at the most," concluded Germanicus. "As he says, that's not much of an army."

Belisarius shrugged. "It's what we've got."

"I'm not happy at the idea of Belisarius personally leading this army," stated Chrysopolis. "He's the Empire's strategos. He should really stay here in the capital."

"Nonsense!" barked Justinian. For the first time since the meeting began, he too broke into a grin. And, like that of his wife's, the expression was utterly humorless.

"You want an alliance with Persia, don't you?" he demanded. "They won't be happy at our counter-offer of ten thousand men. But Belisarius' reputation will make up the difference." Now, a bit of humor crept into that ravaged face. "Stop frowning, Chrysopolis. I can see your sour face as if I still had eyes."

He leaned forward, gripping the armrests of his chair. His head scanned the entire circle of advisers. For just a fleeting moment, everyone would have sworn Justinian could actually see them.

"I made that man a general," said the former emperor. "It's one of the few decisions I made that I've never regretted."

He leaned back in his seat. "The Persians will be delighted. Believe it."

Back | Next

Contents

Framed

Back | Next

Contents

Chapter 3

The next morning, when the Empress Regent gave Baresmanas the Roman response to Persia's proposal, he was delighted. He had hoped for a larger army, true. But neither he nor Emperor Khusrau had really expected the Romans to send them forty thousand troops.

The Roman generosity in not demanding territorial concessions in the borderlands also pleased him immensely. That was quite unexpected.

But, best of all—Belisarius.

Not every member of the Persian delegation shared his attitude—including his own wife, the Lady Maleka. As soon as Baresmanas returned to the small palace in which the Persians had been housed, right in the middle of the imperial complex, she strode into the main salon, scowling fiercely.

"I do not approve," she told her husband, very forcefully. "We should not be currying favor from these wretched Roman mongrels, as if we were lowborn beggars."

Baresmanas ignored her. He stood before the flames burning in the salon's fireplace, warming his hands from the chill of an April morning.

"I do not approve!" repeated Lady Maleka.

Baresmanas sighed, turned away from the fire. "The Emperor approves," he said mildly.

"Khusrau is but a boy!"

"He most certainly is not," replied her husband firmly. "True, he is a young man. But he is in every respect as fine an Emperor as ever sat the Aryan throne. Do not doubt it, wife."

Lady Maleka scowled. "Even so— He is too preoccupied with the Malwa invasion! He forgets our glorious Aryan heritage!"

Her husband bit off a sharp retort. Unlike his wife, Baresmanas was well-educated. A scholar, actually, which was unusual for a sahrdaran. Lady Maleka, on the other hand, was a perfect specimen of their class. Like all Persian high noblewomen, she was literate. But it was a skill which she had never utilized once she reached adulthood. She much preferred to learn her history seated on rich cushions at their palace in Ctesiphon, listening to bards recounting the epics of the Aryans.

Baresmanas studied the angry face of his wife, trying to think of a way to explain reality that would penetrate her prejudiced ignorance.

The truth of history, he knew, was quite different from her fantasy version of it. The Iranians who ruled Persia and Central Asia had originated, like their Scythian brethren, from the steppes of Asia. They, too, had been nomadic barbarians once. Over a millennium ago, the Aryan tribes had marched south from the steppes, in their great epic of conquest. The westward-moving tribes had become known as the Iranians and had created the glory of the ancient Medes and Persians. Their eastward-bound cousins had conquered northern India and created the Vedic culture which eventually permeated the entire sub-continent.

And then, having done so, both branches of the Aryans had invented a new history for themselves. A history full of airy legends and grandiose claims, and precious little in the way of fact.

Myths and fables, grown up in the feudal soil of the east. The real power of the Iranians, now as before, lay on the Persian plateau and the great rich lands of Mesopotamia. But the Aryans—the nobility, at least—chose to remember the legends of the northeastern steppes.

And then, he thought sourly, remember them upside down. They don't remember the military strength of barbarian horsemen. Only the myth of pure blood, and divine ancestry.

Studying his wife, Baresmanas recognized the impossibility of penetrating her prejudices.

So be it. The Aryans had other customs, too.

"Obey your husband, wife," he commanded. "And your Emperor."

She opened her mouth.

"Do it."

Lady Maleka bowed her head. Sullenly, she stalked from the room.

Baresmanas lowered himself onto a couch near the fire. He stared into the flames. The hot glow seemed to lurk within his dark eyes, as if he saw a different conflagration there.

Which, indeed, he did. The memory of a fire called the battle of Mindouos. Where, three years before, a Roman general had shattered the Persian army. Outfoxed them, trapped then, slaughtered them—even captured the Persian camp.

Belisarius.

Baresmanas had been at that battle. So had his children, in the Persian camp.

He looked away from the fire, wincing.

His children would never have been at Mindouos had Baresmanas not brought them there. He, too, for all his scholarship, had lapsed into Aryan haughtiness. It was the long-standing custom of noble Persians to bring their families to the field of battle. Displaying, to the enemy and all the world, their arrogant confidence in Aryan invincibility.

His wife had refused to come, pleading her health. (Not from the enemy, but from the heat of the Syrian desert.) But his children had come, avidly—his daughter as much as his son. Avid to watch their famous father, second-in-command to Firuz, destroy the insolent Romans.

Baresmanas sighed. He reached up with his left hand and caressed his right shoulder. The shoulder ached, as always, and he could feel the ridged scar tissue under the silk of his tunic.

A Roman lance had put that scar there. At Mindouos. Baresmanas, like all the charging noble lancers, had been trapped in the center. Trapped, by the cunning of the Roman commander; and, then, hammered under by the force of his counter-blow.

Belisarius.

Baresmanas could remember little of the battle's final moments. Only the confusion and the choking dust; the growing, horrible knowledge that they had been outwitted and outmaneuvered; the shock and pain, as he lay dazed and bleeding on the trampled ground, his shoulder almost severed.

Most of all, he remembered the terror which had coursed through his heart, as if hot iron instead of blood flowed through his veins. Terror, not for himself, but for his helpless children. The Persian camp was unprotected, then, from the triumphing Romans. Baresmanas had known the Roman soldiers would ravage it like wolves, especially their Hun auxiliaries, raping and murdering.

And so they had; or, at least, had started to do.

Until Belisarius, and his cataphracts, had put a stop to the atrocities. He had been as decisive and ruthless toward his own Huns as he had been toward the Persians.

Weeks later, after he had been ransomed by his family, Baresmanas had heard the tale from his daughter Tahmina. Seeing the oncoming Huns, she and her brother had hidden themselves under the silk cushions in their tent. But the savages had not been fooled. A squad of Huns had found Tahmina soon enough, and dragged her out of the tent. Her brother had tried to come to her rescue, but it had been a futile gesture. The Huns had not killed the boy—alive, he would bring a good price on the slave market. They had simply split his scalp with a blow, casually, while they began stripping off his sister's clothing.

The Roman general had arrived then, accompanied by his cataphracts, and ordered the Huns to cease. Tahmina had described to Baresmanas how the Hun who held her by the hair had taunted Belisarius. And how the general, cold-faced, had simply spoken the name of his cataphract. A cataphract whose face was even colder, and as wicked-looking as a weasel. The cataphract had been as quick and deadly as a weasel, too. His arrows had slaughtered the Huns holding Tahmina like so many chickens.

Belisarius.

Strange, peculiar man. With that odd streak of mercy, lying under the edge of his ruthless and cunning brain.

Baresmanas turned his head, staring back at the fire. And now, for the first time since he learned of the Malwa butchery of Mesopotamia, could see the enemy roasting in the flames.

Belisarius.

Back | Next

Contents

Framed

Back | Next

Contents

Chapter 4

It was the most beautiful cathedral Justinian had ever seen. More beautiful, and more majestic, than he had even dreamed. The capstone to his life. The Hagia Sophia that he had planned to build.

The Mese, the great central thoroughfare of Constantinople, began at the Golden Gate and ended at the base of the cathedral. Down its entire length—here in scatters; there, mounded up in piles like so much offal—were the bodies of the plague victims.

Half the city was dead, or dying. The stench of uncollected rotting bodies mingled with the sickly smell of burning cadavers to produce a thick miasma, hanging over Constantinople like a constant fog. The same miasma that he had seen hanging over Italy, and North Africa, and every province which Belisarius had reconquered for him.

Justinian the Great. Who, in the name of restoring the greatness of the Roman Empire, had bankrupted the eastern half to destroy the western. And left the entire Mediterranean a war-ravaged breeding ground for the worst plague in centuries.

Justinian the Great. Who, more than any other man, caused the final splintering of Greco-Roman civilization.

* * *

Justinian jerked erect in his chair.

"No more," he croaked. "I can bear it no longer."

He leaned forward and extended his arm, shakily. In the palm of his hand rested a shimmering, glowing object. A jewel, some might have called it. A magical gem.

Belisarius took the "jewel" from Justinian and replaced it in its pouch. A moment later, the pouch was once again suspended from his neck.

The "jewel" spoke in his mind.

He is not a nice man.

Belisarius smiled crookedly.

No, Aide, he is not. But he can be a great man.

The crystalline being from the future exuded skepticism.

Not sure. Not a nice man, at all.

"Are you satisfied, Justinian?" Belisarius asked.

The former emperor nodded.

"Yes. It was everything you said. I almost wish, now, that I had never asked for the experience. But I needed—"

He made a vague motion with his hand, as if to summon up unknown words.

Belisarius provided them:

"You needed to know if your suspicions were warranted, or not. You needed to know if the elevation of my stepson to the imperial throne stemmed from motives of personal ambition and aggrandizement, or—as I claimed at the time—from the needs of the war against the Malwa."

Justinian lowered his head. "I am a mistrustful man," he muttered. "It is rooted in my nature." He opened his mouth to speak again. Clamped it shut.

"There is no need, Justinian," said Belisarius. "There is no need."

The general's smile grew more crooked still. He had had this conversation once before, in a nightmare vision. "It would take you hours to say what you are trying to say. It will not come easily to you, if at all."

Justinian shook his head. "No, Belisarius. There is a need. For my sake, if not yours." Harshly: "I sometimes think losing my eyes improved my vision." He took a deep breath. Another. Then, like a stone might bleed:

"I apologize."

The third occupant of the room chuckled. "Even in this," he said, "you are still arrogant. Do you think you are the world's only sinner, Justinian? Or simply its greatest?"

Justinian swiveled his head.

"I will ignore that remark," he said, with considerable dignity. "And are you certain, Michael of Macedonia? Of this—creatureyou call the Talisman of God?"

"Quite certain," replied the stony voice of the monk. "It is a messenger sent by the Lord to warn us all."

"Especially me," muttered Justinian. The blind man rubbed his mangled eye-sockets. "Has Theodora—?"

"No," replied Belisarius. "I offered, once, but she declined. She said she preferred to take the future as it comes, rather than seeing it in a vision."

"Good," stated Justinian. "She does not know about the cancer, then?"

It was Belisarius' turn to jerk erect in his chair, startled. "No. Good God! I never thought of that, when I offered to give her the jewel."

"Seventeen years," stated Justinian. His voice was very bleak. "She will die, then, from cancer."

The Macedonian cleared his throat. "If we succeed in defeating the Malwa—"

Justinian waved him off. "That's irrelevant, Michael. Whatever other evils the Malwa will bring, they are not responsible for cancer. And don't forget—the vision which the jewel gave me was of the future that would have been. The future where the Malwa were never elevated to world mastery by this demonic power called Link. The future where I remained emperor, and we reconquered the western Mediterranean."

He fell silent, head bowed. "I am right, Belisarius, am I not?"

Belisarius hesitated. He cast his thoughts toward Aide.

He is right, came the reply. Aide forestalled the next question:

And there is no cure for cancer. Not, at least, anything that will be within your capability for many, many years. Centuries.

Belisarius took a deep breath.

"Yes, Justinian. You are right. Regardless of what else happens, Theodora will die of cancer in seventeen years."

The former emperor sighed. "They burned out my tear ducts, along with my eyes. I damn the traitors for that, sometimes, even more than my lost vision."

Shaking himself, Justinian rose to his feet and began pacing about the room.

The plethora of statuary which had once adorned his room was gone, now. Theodora had ordered them removed, during Justinian's convalescence, worried that her blind husband might stumble and fall.

That fear had been quickly allayed. Watching the former Emperor maneuver through the obstacles littering the floor, Belisarius was struck again by the man's uncanny intelligence. Justinian seemed to know, by sheer memory, where every one of those potential obstructions lay, and he avoided them unerringly.

But the obstacles were no longer statuary. Justinian had no use, any longer, for such visual ornament. Instead, he had filled his room with the objects of his oldest and favorite hobby—gadgets. Half the floor seemed to be covered by odd contrivances and weird contraptions. Justinian even claimed that his blindness was an asset, in this regard, since it forced him to master the inner logic of his devices. Nor could Belisarius deny the claim. The general stared at one of the larger mechanisms in the room, standing in a corner. The device was quiescent, at the moment. But he had seen it work. Justinian had designed the thing based on Belisarius' own description of a vision given to him by Aide.

The first true steam engine ever built in Rome—or anywhere in the world, so far as he knew. He had not seen its like even during his long visit to Malwa India. The thing itself was not much more than a toy, but it was the model for the first locomotive which was already being planned. The day would come when Belisarius would be able to shuttle his troops from one campaign to another in the same way he had seen Aide describe in visions. Visions of a terrible carnage in the future which would be called the American Civil War.

A voice drew him back to the present.

"Seventeen years," mused Justinian sadly. "Whereas I, according to the jewel, will live to a ripe old age." Pain came to his ravaged face. "I had always hoped she might outlive me," he whispered. Justinian squared his shoulders.

"So be it. I will give her seventeen good years. The best I can manage."

"Yes," said Belisarius.

Justinian shook his head. "God, what a waste. Did the jewel ever show it to you, Belisarius? That future that would have been, had the Malwa never risen? The future where I had you ravage the western Mediterannean in the name of reconstituting Roman glory? Only to see half the Empire die from the plague while I used the royal treasury to build one grandiose, useless monument after another?"

"The Hagia Sophia was not useless, Justinian," demurred Belisarius. "It was—would have been—one of the world's genuine glories."

Justinian snorted. "I will allow that one exception. No—two. I also codified Roman law. But the rest? The—" He snapped his fingers. "That secretary of yours. You know, the foul gossip. What's his name?"

"Procopius."

"Yes, him. That fawning toad even wrote a book glorifying those preposterous structures. Did you see that?"

"Yes."

Michael spoke. "I hear you've dispensed with the reptile's services, now that you no longer need him to pass false rumors to the enemy. Good riddance."

Belisarius chuckled. "Yes, I did. I doubt very much that Malwa spies place any more credence in his claims that Antonina was spending all her time at our estate in Syria holding orgies in my absence."

"Not after she showed up at the Hippodrome with her force of Syrian grenadiers and smashed the Nika insurrection!" barked Justinian. The former emperor rubbed his eye-sockets. "Since he's out of work, Belisarius, send him to me. I'll give him a book to write. Just the kind of fawning propaganda he wrote for me in another future. Only it won't be called The Buildings. It'll be called The Laws, and it will praise to the skies the Grand Justiciar Justinian's magnificent work providing the Roman Empire with the finest legal system in the world."

Justinian resumed his seat. "Enough of that," he said. "There's something else I want to raise. Belisarius, I am a bit concerned about Antonina's expedition to Egypt."

The general cocked an eyebrow. "So am I!" he exclaimed. "She's my wife, you know. I'm not happy at the idea of sending her into a battle with only—"

"Nonsense!" snapped the former emperor. "The woman'll do fine, as far as any battles go. Don't underestimate her, Belisarius. Any woman that small who can slaughter half a dozen street thugs in a knife fight can handle that sorry bastard Ambrose. It's the aftermath I'm worried about. Once she's crushed this mini-rebellion, she'll be moving on. To the naval side of your campaign. What then?" He leaned forward, fixing Belisarius with his eyeless gaze.

"Who's going to keep Egypt under control?"

"You know our plans, Justinian. Hermogenes will assume command of the Army of Egypt and—"

The former Emperor snorted. "He's a soldier, man! Oh, a damned fine one, to be sure. But soldiers aren't much use, when it comes to suppressing the kind of religious fanatics who keep Egypt in a turmoil." He sighed heavily. "Trust me, Belisarius. I speak from experience. If you use a soldier to squash a monk, all you create is a martyr."

Justinian now turned to face Michael. "You're the key here, Michael. We will need your religious authority."

"And Anthony's," qualified the monk.

Justinian waved his hand impatiently. "Yes, yes, and the Patriarch's help, of course. But you are the key."

"Why?" demanded Michael.

Belisarius replied. "Because changing an empire's habits and customs—built through the centuries—will require religious fervor. A popular movement, driven by zeal and conviction. I don't disagree with Justinian, on that point. He's right—soldiers just create martyrs." He cleared his throat. "And, for the other—well, Anthony is as kindly, even saintly, a man as I ever hope to meet. The ideal Patriarch. But—"

A wintry smile came to the monk's gaunt face. "He is not given to smiting the unrighteous," concluded Michael. The Macedonian shifted position in his chair, much like a hawk sets his talons on a tree limb. "I have no such qualms, on the other hand."

"Rather the contrary," murmured Justinian.

The former Emperor smiled grimly. He quite approved of Michael of Macedonia. The Stylite monk was a holy man, which Justinian most certainly was not. Yet they shared a certainly commonality of spirit. A Thracian peasant and a Macedonian shepherd, as youths. Simple men, ultimately. And quite savage, each in their own way.

Belisarius spoke again, shaking his head. "We've already decided to send Michael's monks to Egypt, Justinian. I agree that they'll help. The fact remains, however, that without military force those monks will just wind up another brawling faction in the streets. Our military forces were already stretched—and now, I will be taking what few troops we can spare to combat the Malwa in Persia. We cannot divert those forces, Justinian, and the imperial treasury is too bare to finance the creation of a new army."

Suddenly, images flashed through Belisarius' mind.

Ranks of cavalrymen. Their weapons and armor, though well made, were simple and utilitarian. Over the armor, they wore plain tunics. White tunics, bearing red crosses. Parading through the main thoroughfare of a great city. Behind them marched foot soldiers, also wearing that simple white tunic emblazoned with a huge red cross.

The general burst into laughter.

Thank you, Aide!

He turned to Michael. "Have you chosen a name for your new religious order?"

The Macedonian grimaced. "Please, Belisarius. I did not create that order. It was created by others—"

"Inspired by your teachings," interjected Justinian.

"—and practically foisted upon me." The monk scowled. "I have no idea what to do with them. As much as anything else, I offered to send them with Antonina to Egypt because they were demanding some holy task of me and I couldn't think of anything else to do with them."

The general smiled. For all his incredible—even messianic—force of character, Michael of Macedonia was as ill-suited a man as Belisarius had ever met for the executive task of leading a coherent and disciplined religious movement.

"Someone must have brought them together," he said. "Organized them. It wasn't more than a month after you began your public sermons in the Forum of Constantine that bands of them began to appear in the streets spreading your message."

The Macedonian snorted. "Three of them, in fact. Their names are Mark of Athens, Zeno Symmachus, and Gaiseric. Zeno is an Egyptian, from the Fayum; Gaiseric, a Goth. Mark, of course, is Greek. Mark is orthodox, Zeno is a Monophysite, and Gaiseric is an Arian."

"And they get along?" asked Belisarius lightly.

Michael began to smolder, then relaxed. "Yes, Belisarius. They regard the issue of the Trinity as I do—a decoy of the Devil's, to distract men while Satan does his work." He smiled. "Not, mind you, that any room they jointly inhabit isn't occasionally filled with the sound of disputatious voices. But there is never any anger in it. They are each other's brothers, as they are mine."

"And what position do you advance, in these occasional disputes?" queried Justinian.

"You know perfectly well my position," snapped Michael.

The former emperor smiled. Justinian adored theological discussion. Other than Theodora's care, it had been the company of Michael and Patriarch Cassian which, more than anything, had enabled him to find his way through the darkness of the soul, in the months after his blinding.

"My opinion on the Trinity is orthodox, in the same way as Anthony's," stated Michael. "Though more plainly put." He snorted. "My friend Anthony Cassian is Greek, and is therefore not satisfied with simple truth until he can parse it with clever Greek syllogisms and make it dance to dialectical Greek tunes. But I am not Greek. I am Macedonian. True, we are a related people. But to the Greeks God gave his intellect, and to us he gave his common sense."

Here, a wintry smile. "This, of course, is why the great Philip of my ancestry lost his patience and decided to subdue the whole fractious lot of quarreling southron. And why his son, the Macedonian Alexander, conquered the world."

"So the Greeks could inherit it," quipped Justinian.

"Place them in charge of the order, then," said Belisarius. "And find women with similar talents. There must be some."

Michael stroked his great beard. "Yes," he said, after a moment's thought. "Two, in particular, come immediately to mind. Juliana Syagrius and Helen of Armenia."

"Juliana Syagrius?" demanded Justinian. "The widow of—?"

Michael nodded. "The very same. Not all of my followers are common folk, Justinian. Any number of them are from the nobility—although usually from the equestrian order. Juliana is the only member of the senatorial classes who has responded to my teachings. She has even offered to place her entire fortune at my disposal."

"Good Lord!" exclaimed Justinian. "She's one of the richest people in the empire!"

Michael glared. "I am well aware of that, thank you! And what am I supposed to do with it? I have lived on alms since I was a youth—a habit I have no intention of changing."

The sour look on his face made plain the monk's attitude toward wealth. He began to mutter various phrases concerning camels and the eye of a needle. Unkind phrases. Very unkind phrases, in point of fact.

Belisarius interrupted the gathering storm.

"You will use that fortune to buy arms and armor, Michael. And the provisions needed to support your new order."

"They will beg for their support, damn them!" snapped Michael. "Just as I do!"

Belisarius shook his head. "They will be too busy. Much too busy." The general smiled—broadly, not crookedly. "Yours will be a religious order of a new kind, Michael. A military order."

A name flashed through the general's mind.

"We will call them the Knights Hospitaler," he said, leaning forward in his chair.

Guided by Aide through the labyrinth of future history, Belisarius began to explain.

After Michael was gone, hurrying his way out of the Great Palace, Justinian sighed. "It will not work, Belisarius. Oh, to be sure, at first—" The former emperor, veteran of intrigue and maneuver, shook his head sadly. "Men are sinners. In time, your new monks will simply become another lot of ambitious schemers, grasping for anything in sight."

Image. A magnificent palace. Through its corridors, adorned with expensive statuary and tapestries, moved men in secretive discourse. They wore tunics—still white, with a simple red cross. But the tunics were silk, now, and the hilts of the swords suspended from their scabbards were encrusted with gems.

"True," replied Belisarius. His voice lost none of its good cheer. "But they will not lapse until Malwa is done. After that—" Belisarius shrugged. "I do not know much, Justinian, of the struggle in the far distant future in which we find ourselves ensnared. But I have always known we were on the right side, because our enemies—those who call themselves the `new gods'—seek human perfection. There is no such thing, and never will be." He rose from his chair.

"You know that as well as I. Do you really think that your new laws and your judgements will bring paradise on earth? An end to all injustice?"

Justinian grunted sarcastically.

"Why do it, then?" demanded Belisarius.

"Because it's worth doing," growled Justinian.

The general nodded. "God judges us by what we seek, not what we find."

Belisarius began to leave. Justinian called him back.

"One other thing, Belisarius. Speaking of visions." The former Emperor's face twisted into a half-smile. It was a skeptical sort of expression—almost sardonic.

"Have you had any further visions about your little protegé in India? Is she making Malwa howl yet?"

Belisarius returned Justinian's smile with a shake of the head. "Shakuntala? I don't know—I've certainly had no visions! Aide is not a magician, Justinian. He is no more clairvoyant than you or I." The general smiled himself, now. There was nothing sardonic in that expression, though. And it was not in the least bit crooked. "I imagine she's doing splendidly. She's probably already got a little army collected around her, by now."

"Where is she?"

Belisarius shrugged. "The plan was for her to seek exile in south India. Her grandfather's the King of Kerala. Whether she's there or not, however, I don't know. I've received no word. That's the very reason Irene is accompanying Antonina to Egypt. She'll try to re-establish contact with Shakuntala and Rao through the Ethiopians."

"I can't say I'm happy about that, by the way," grumbled Justinian. "I didn't oppose the idea at the council, since you seemed so set upon it. But—Irene's a fiendishly capable spymaster. I'd be a lot happier if she were here at Theodora's side in the capital, keeping an eye on traitors."

Skeptically:

"Do you really think this little rebellion you took so much time—and money—to foster is anything but wishful thinking?"

Belisarius studied the blind man for a moment, before replying. Justinian, for all his brilliance, was ill-equipped by temperament to gauge the power of a popular rebellion. The man thought like an emperor, still. Belisarius suspected that he always had, even when he was a peasant himself.

"I know the girl, Justinian. You don't. For all her youth, she has the potential to be a great ruler. And in Rao she has one of the finest generals in India."

"So?" grunted Justinian. "If the success of your rebellion hinges so completely on two people, the Malwa can take care of that with a couple of assassinations."

Belisarius laughed.

"Assassinate Rao? He's the best assassin in India himself! God help the Malwa who tries to slip a knife into that man's back!" He shook his head. "As for Shakuntala—she's quite a proficient killer in her own right. Rao trained her, from the time she was seven. And she has the best bodyguards in the world. An elite Kushan unit, led by a man named Kungas."

The skepticism was still evident on the former emperor's face. Belisarius, watching, decided it was hopeless to shake Justinian's attitude.

He was not there, as I was—to see Shakuntala win the allegiance of the very Kushans who had been assigned by Malwa to be her captors. God, the sheer force in that girl's soul!

He turned away. Then, struck by a memory, turned back.

"Aide did give me a vision, once, while I was in India. That vision confirmed me in my determination to set Shakuntala free."

Justinian cocked his head, listening.

"Many centuries from now, in the future—in a future, it might be better to say—all of Europe will be under the domination of one of history's greatest generals and conquerors. His name will be Napoleon. He will be defeated, in the end, brought down by his own overweening ambition. That defeat will be caused, as much as anything, by a great bleeding wound in Spain. He will conquer Spain, but never rule it. For years, his soldiers will die fighting the Spanish rebellion. The rebels will be aided by a nation which will arise on the island we call Britannia. The Peninsular War, those islanders will call it. And when Napoleon is finally brought down, they will look back upon that war and see in it one of the chief sources of their victory."

Still nothing. Skepticism.

Belisarius shrugged. Left.

Outside, in the corridor, Aide spoke in his mind.

Not a nice man, at all.

The facets flashed and spun into a new configuration. Like a kaleidoscope, the colors of Aide's emotion shifted. Sour distaste was replaced by a kind of wry humor.

Of course, the Duke of Wellington was not a nice man, either.

In the room, Justinian remained in his chair. He spent some time pondering the general's last words, but not much. He was far more interested in contemplating a different vision. Somewhere, in the midst of the horror which the jewel had shown him, Justinian had caught a glimpse of something which gave him hope.

A statue, he had seen. Carved by a sculptor of the figure, to depict justice.

The figure had been blind.

"In the future," murmured the former emperor, "when men wish to praise the quality of justice, they will say that justice is blind."

The man who had once been perhaps the most capable emperor in the long history of the Roman Empire—and certainly its most intelligent—rubbed his empty eye-sockets. For the first time since his mutilation, the gesture was not simply one of despair and bitterness.

Justinian the Great. So, more than anything, had he wanted to be known for posterity.

Perhaps . . .

Theodora, at Belisarius' urging, had created a position specifically tailored for Justinian. He was now the empire's Grand Justiciar. For the first time in centuries, the law of Rome would be codified, interpreted and enforced by the best man for the task. Whatever had been his faults as an Emperor, there was no one who doubted that Justinian's was the finest legal mind in the empire.

Perhaps . . .

There had been Solomon and Solon, after all, and Hammurabi before them.

So why not add the name Justinian to that list?

It was a shorter list, now that he thought about, than the list of great emperors. Much shorter.

Back | Next

Contents

Framed

Back | Next

Contents

Chapter 5

MUZIRIS

Spring, 531 A.D.

"Any minute now," whispered the assassin at the window. "I can see the first contingents of her cavalrymen coming around the corner."

The leader of the Malwa assassination team came to the window. The lookout stepped aside. Carefully, using only one fingertip, the leader drew the curtain aside a couple of inches. He peered down onto the street below.

"Yes," he murmured. He turned and made a gesturing motion with his right hand. The other two assassins in the room came forward, carrying the bombard between them. They moved slowly and laboriously. The bombard was two feet long and measured eight inches across. It was made of wrought iron bars, square in cross section and an inch thick. The bars were welded together to form a rough barrel about six inches in diameter, which was then further strengthened with four iron hoops. A thick plate was welded to the back of the bars. The bombard was bolted down to a wooden base—teak, reinforced with brass strips—measuring three feet by two feet. The two men strained under the effort of carrying the device.

Part of their careful progress, however, was due to the obstacles in their way. The room was littered with the squalid debris of a poor family's cramped apartment.

As they came forward, they maneuvered around the bodies of the family who had once lived there. A man, his wife, her mother, and their four children. After killing the family, the assassins had piled the corpses in a corner. But the room was so small that the seven bodies still took up a full quarter of the floor space. Most of the floor was covered with blood, dried now, but still sticky. A swarm of flies covered the corpses and the bloodstains.

One of the assassins wrinkled his nose.

"They're already starting to stink," he muttered. "Damn southwest India and its fucking tropical climate—and we're in the hot season. We should have kept them alive until—"

"Shut up," hissed the leader. "What were we going to do? Guard them for almost a full day? The baby would have begun squawling, anyway."

His subordinate lapsed into sullen silence. A few seconds later, he and his companion levered the bombard onto the hastily-improvised firing platform which the assassination squad had erected that morning. It was a rickety contraption—simply a mounded up pile of the pallets and two wicker chairs which had been the murdered family's only furniture. But it would suffice. The bombard was not a full-size cannon. It would fire only one round, a sack full of drop shot. The recoil would send the bombard hurtling into the far wall, out of action.

That would be good enough. When she passed through the street below the window of the apartment, the Empress-in-exile of Andhra would be not more than twenty yards distant. There was nowhere for her to escape, either, even if the alarm was given at the last moment. The narrow street was hemmed in, on both sides, by mud-brick tenement buildings identical to the one in which the assassins lay waiting. At that point blank range, the cannister would sweep a large swath of the street clean of life.

"Here she comes," whispered the lookout. He was peering through a second window, now. Like his leader, he had drawn the curtain aside no more than an inch or two.

"Are you certain it is she?" demanded the leader. The lookout had been assigned to the squad because he was one of the few Malwa assassins who had personally seen the rebel Empress after her capture at the siege of Amaravati. The girl had aged, of course, since then. But not so much that the lookout wouldn't recognize her.

"It must be Shakuntala," he replied. "I can't see her face, because she's wearing a veil. But she's small—dark-skinned—wearing imperial regalia. Who else would it be?"

The leader scowled. He would have preferred a more positive identification, but—

He hissed an unspoken command to the other two assassins in the room. The command was unnecessary. They were already loading the gunpowder and the cannister round into the bombard. The leader scampered back and sighted along its length. He could only estimate the angle, since the curtain hanging in the window obscured his view of the street below. But the estimate would be good enough. It was not a weapon of finesse and pinpoint accuracy.

The leader made a last inspection of the cannon. He could not restrain a grimace. The blast and the recoil, confined in that small room, was almost certain to cause some injuries to the assassins themselves. Hopefully, those injuries would not disable any of them—not enough, at least, to prevent them making their escape in the chaos and confusion after Shakuntala and her immediate entourage were slaughtered.

"I wish they'd perfected those new impact fuses they've been working on," muttered one of the assassins. "Then we could have used a real cannon at long range. This misbegotten—"

"Why not wish she didn't have thousands of Maratha cavalrymen to protect her, while you're at it?" snarled the leader. "And those fucking Kushan cutthroats? Then we could have just slid a knife into her ribs instead of—"

"She's fifty yards away," hissed the lookout. "The first cavalry escorts are already passing below."

He plastered himself against the wall, crouching down as far as he could while still being able to peek through the window. The expression on his face, beneath the professional calm, was grim. He was almost certain to be scorched by the exhaust from the cannon blast. And there was also the possibility that a weak weld could result in the cannon blowing up when it was fired.

"Forty yards."

One of the two bombard handlers retreated to a far corner, curling into a ball. The other drew out a lighting device and ignited the slow match. After handing it to the squad leader, he hurried to join his comrade in the corner. The leader crouched next to the bombard's firehole, ready to set off the charge.

"Thirty-five yards," announced the lookout by the window. "Get ready."

The men in the room took a deep breath. They had already decided to fire the bombard when the Empress was twenty-five yards distant. They knew that Shakuntala's horse would travel less than five yards in the time it took for the slow match to ignite the charge. If all went as planned, the sack full of lead pellets would turn the ruler-in-exile of conquered Andhra into so much mincemeat.

The leader held up the slow match. Brought it close to the firehole.

"Thirty yards."

The door behind them erupted like a volcano. The first man coming through the door cut the squad leader aside before the assassin had time to do more than flinch. It was a brutal sword strike—not fatal, simply enough to hurl the man away from the cannon. Quick, quick. The assassin screeched with pain. His right arm dangled loose, half-severed at the elbow. The slow match fell harmlessly to the floor, hissing in a patch of blood.

The lookout at the window had time to recognize the man who killed him, before that same sword went into his heart. As agile and skilled as he was, the assassin had no more chance of evading that expert thrust than a tethered goat.

In the few seconds that it took him to die, the assassin tried to remember his killer's name. He knew the name, but it would not come. He knew only that he had been slain by the commander of Shakuntala's Kushan bodyguard. The man whom he and his squad simply called Iron-face.

One of the assassins huddled in the corner died soon thereafter, hacked into pieces by the three Kushan soldiers who piled into the room after their commander. The commander himself took care of the last Malwa. This one he did not kill outright. He wanted him for questioning. The Kushan lopped off the man's right hand as it came up holding a blade, then struck him senseless with a blow of the sword's pommel on the forehead.

The Kushan commander scanned the room. By now, with another five Kushans crowding in, the room was packed like a meat tin. Three of them had subdued the assassin whose arm the commander had half-severed upon bursting through the door.

"That's enough," he commanded. "See to the Empress."

"No need, Kungas," murmured one of his men. The Kushan soldier had pushed back the curtains in one of the windows. "She's on her way here already."

"Damn the girl!" growled Kungas. "I told her to stay back."

The Kushan commander strode to the window and glared out onto the street below. The Empress—the supposed "Empress" at the head of the column—was sitting on her horse. The girl was beginning to shake, now. A trembling hand came up and removed the veil. She wiped her face, smearing off some of the dye which had darkened her skin.

But Kungas was looking elsewhere, farther back along the column of cavalry escort. At the figure of another small girl, urging her horse forward. Unlike the "Empress," this girl was wearing simple and unadorned clothing: nothing more than a colorfully dyed tunic over pantaloons, the garments of a typical camp-follower—a soldier's common-law wife, perhaps. She, also, was dark-skinned. But her skin-tone was natural, and there was not the slightest trace of trembling in her hands.

"You're going to catch an earful," said the Kushan standing next to Kungas. "She looks angrier than a tigress guarding her cubs." He added cheerfully: "Of course, she's a small tigress. For what it's worth."

Kungas grunted. For a moment, something that might have been a sigh almost escaped his lips. But only for the briefest instant. Thereafter, the mask closed down.

On the street below, the true Empress halted her horse long enough to see to the well-being of her double. Then she dismounted and charged into the entrance of the tenement building.

She was lost from Kungas' sight, but he could hear her stamping up the narrow wooden stairs leading to the rooms on the upper floor. He could also hear her voice.

"How can such a small girl have such a loud voice?" wondered the other Kushan. "And how can slippers make such a stamping clatter?"

"Shut up, Kanishka," growled Kungas. Kanishka smiled seraphically.

The Empress' voice, coming from below:

"Never again, Kungas! Do you hear me? Never again!"

She burst into the room. Her eyes immediately fixed on those of Kungas. Black, hot eyes.

"Never again! Jijabai might have been killed!"

Kungas' iron face never wavered. Nor did his harsh voice. "So might you, Empress. And you are irreplaceable."

Shakuntala glared at him for a few seconds. Then, recognizing the futility of trying to browbeat the commander of her bodyguard, she glared around the room. When she saw the bodies of the family, she recoiled.

"Malwa beasts," she hissed.

"It's how we spotted them," said Kungas. "Our spies saw that this building seemed lifeless, everyone hiding in their rooms. Then they smelled the bodies."

He glanced at the bombard. Three of his men were already disarming the weapon. "But we only discovered them just in time. It was a well-laid ambush. Their only mistake was killing the family too soon."

"The baby would have squawled all night," com-mented Kanishka.

Kungas shrugged. "So? It would hardly be the only shrieking infant in a slum."

Shakuntala grimaced. Kungas, in his way, was the hardest man she had ever met.

She tore her eyes away from the pitiable sight of the dead family and stared at the assassins. "How many did you keep alive?"

"Two," replied Kanishka. "Better than we hoped."

"They'll talk," said Kungas. "Not easily—not Malwa assassins. But they'll talk."

"They won't know much," said Shakuntala.

"Enough. I was right. You will see."

The Empress stared at Kungas. After a moment, she looked away. "That it would come to this. My own grandfather."

"What did you expect?" came a voice from the door.

Shakuntala turned. Dadaji Holkar was standing in the doorway. Her imperial adviser's eyes scanned the room, coming to rest on the piled-up bodies of the dead family.

"Malwa," he said softly. The word was not condemning, nor accusatory. It was simply a term of explanation. Self-evident. His eyes returned to Shakuntala. "What did you expect, girl?" he repeated. "You threaten his kingdom with Malwa's gaze, and Malwa's fury. You organize a private army in his largest seaport. You disrupt his streets with riot and tumult."

"I did not! It was Malwa provocateurs who stirred up the Keralan mob against the refugees from Andhra!"

Holkar stroked his beard, smiling. "True. But it was your Maratha cavalrymen who sabred the mob and spit them on their lances."

"As well they should!" came her hot reply. "Many of those refugees were Maratha themselves!"

Holkar chuckled. "I am not arguing the merits of the thing, girl. I am simply pointing out that you have become a major—embarrassment—to the King of Kerala. That old man is no doting village grandfather, Shakuntala. He is as cold-blooded as any ruler needs to be. With the Malwa Empire now at war with Persia, he thinks he is safe from their ambitions—as long as he can avoid drawing their attention. The last thing he wants is his granddaughter forging a rebellion in the Deccan from a base in his own kingdom."

Holkar stepped into the room, avoiding the bodies which littered the floor. When he came up to the Empress, he placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. He was the only member of her entourage who ever took that liberty. He was the only one who dared.

"He is my grandfather," whispered Shakuntala. Her voice throbbed with pain. "I can remember sitting on his knee, when I was a little girl." She stared out the window, blinking away tears. "I did not really expect him to help me. But I still didn't think—"

"He may not have given the orders, Your Majesty," said Kungas. "Probably didn't, in fact." The Kushan commander gestured at the dead assassins. "These are Malwa, not Keralan."

Shakuntala's black eyes grew hard.

"So what? You predicted it yourself, Kungas. A Malwa assassination attempt, with the tacit approval of the Keralan authorities." She turned away, shaking her shoulders angrily. "The viceroy would not have done this on his own. He would not dare."

"Why not? He can deny everything." Again, Kungas gestured to the dead assassins. "Malwa, not Keralan."

Shakuntala stalked toward the door.

"He would not dare," she repeated. At the door, she cast a final glance at the dead family. "This was my grandfather's work," she hissed. "I will not forget."

A moment later, she was gone. The stamping sounds of her slippered feet going down the stairs came through the door. Dadaji Holkar and Kungas exchanged a glance. The adviser's expression was rueful. That of Kungas' was sympathetic, insofar as a mask of iron can be said to have an expression.

Kanishka had finished tying a tourniquet around the maimed arm of the Malwa assassin leader. He stooped and hauled the man to his feet. The Malwa began to moan. Kanishka silenced him with a savage blow.

"Glad I'm not her imperial adviser," he muttered. "Be like advising a tigress to eat rice." He draped the unconscious assassin over his shoulder and made for the door.

Then he said cheerfully, "A small tigress, true. For all the good that'll do her grandpa."

Within a minute, the Kushans had cleared the bodies from the small apartment—including, at Kungas' command, the bodies of the dead family. They would find a priest to give them the rites. The two dead Malwa assassins would be tossed into a dung-heap. After their interrogation, the two still alive would follow them.

Kungas and Holkar were left alone in the room.

"That was very close," commented Holkar. The statement was not a criticism, simply an observation.

"There will be another," replied the Kushan commander. "And another after that. It's obvious that the Keralan authorities will turn a blind eye to Malwa spies and assassins coming after her. We must get the Empress to a place of safety, Dadaji—and soon. After today, she will no longer let me use Jijabai as her double."

Kungas' shoulders twitched. Coming from another man, the gesture would have been called a shrug. "I can only protect her for so long, here in Muziris."

Holkar broke into a little smile. "How about Deogiri?" he asked. Then, laughed outright, seeing Kungas' face. For once—just for an instant—there had been an expression on that iron mask. Kungas' eyes had actually widened. In another man, the gesture would have been called a goggle.

"Deogiri?" he choked. "Are you mad? The place is a Malwa stronghold! It's the largest city in Majarasthra, except for Bharakuccha. The Malwa have a garrison of—"

He broke off. The iron face was back. "You know something," he stated.

Dadaji nodded. "We just got word this morning, from a courier sent by Rao. Rao believes he can seize Deogiri. He has apparently managed to infiltrate thousands of his fighters into the city. The garrison is big, but—so he says, and he is a man who knows—sloppy and unprepared."

Kungas paced to the window. Stared out, as if he were gauging the Maratha cavalrymen in the street below.

Which, as a matter of fact, he was.

"Over three thousand of them, we've got now," he mused, "with more coming in every day as the word spreads."

"You've got more Kushans, too," pointed out Holkar.

"Six hundred," agreed Kungas. "Most of them are my own kinfolk, who deserted the Malwa once they heard the news of my change of allegiance. But a good third of them are from other clans. Odd, that."

From behind, unobserved by Kungas' sharp eyes, Holkar studied the stocky figure standing at the window. His face softened.

He had come to love Kungas, as he had few other men in his life.

Belisarius, of course, who had freed him from slavery and breathed new life into his soul. His son, still laboring in captivity somewhere in India along with the rest of Holkar's shattered family. Rao, the national hero of the Maratha people, whom he had idolized all his life. A brother, killed long ago, in battle against the Malwa. A few others.

But Kungas occupied a special place on that short list. He and Holkar were comrades-in-arms, united in a purpose and welded to a young Empress' destiny. Close friends, they had become—two men who would otherwise have been like total strangers, each to the other.

Dadaji Holkar, the former slave; low-caste by birth, and a scribe and scholar by profession. A man whose approach to the world was intrinsically philosophical, but whose soft and kindly soul had a rod of iron at its center.

Kungas, the former Malwa mercenary; a Kushan vassal by birth, a soldier by trade. A man whose view of the world was as pragmatic as a tiger's, and whose hard soul was much like his iron-masked face.

The one was now an imperial adviser—no, more. Shakuntala had named Holkar the peshwa of Andhra-in-exile, the premier of a people laboring in Malwa chains. The other, Kungas, was her chief bodyguard as well as one of her central military leaders.

The girl's own soul was like a lodestone for such men. Others had been drawn by that magnet in the months since she set herself up in exile at Muziris. Men like Shahji and Kondev, cavalry commanders—and those who followed them, Maratha horsemen burning to strike a blow at the Malwa.

Most were Maratha, of course, like Holkar himself. But not all. By no means. Men had come from all over the subcontinent, as soon as they heard that India's most ancient dynasty still lived, and roared defiance at the Malwa behemoth. Fighters, in the main—or simply men who wanted to be—from many Malwa subject nations. There were Bengali peasants in her small little army taking shape in the refugee camps at Muziris; not many, but a few. And Biharis, and Orissans, and Gujaratis.

Nor were all of them warriors. Hindu priests had come, too. Sadhus like Bindusara, who would hurl their own defiance at the Mahaveda abomination to their faith. And Buddhist monks, and Jains, seeking refuge in the shelter which the Satavahana dynasty had always given their own creeds.

In the few months since she had arrived in Muziris, Shakuntala's court-in-exile had become something of a small splendor. Modest, measured by formal standards; luminous, measured by its quality.

But of all those men who had come, Holkar treasured one sort above all others.

Malwa power rested on four pillars:

First and foremost, their monopoly of gunpowder and their Ye-tai barbarians.

Holkar intended to steal the first, or get it from the Romans. The other—death to the Ye-tai.

Then, there were the two other pillars—the soldiers who formed the Malwa army's true elite: the Rajputs and the Kushans.

No Rajputs had come. Holkar would have been astonished if they had. The Rajputs had sworn allegiance to the Malwa empire, and they were a people who held their honor sacred.

Still, he had hopes. Perhaps someday—what man can know?

But the Kushans—ah, that was a different matter. A steadfast folk, the Kushans. But they had none of Rajputana's exaggerated concept of honor and loyalty. The Kushans had been a great people themselves, in their day, conquerors and rulers of Central Asia and Northern India. But that day was long gone. Persia had conquered half their empire, and the other half had been overrun by the Ye-tai. For centuries, now, the Kushans had been mere vassals under the thumb of others, valued for their military skills, but otherwise treated with disdain. Their loyalty to Malwa, Dadaji had often thought, was much like Kungas' face. To the outer world, iron; but still a mask, when all was said and done.

Kungas' voice interrupted his little reverie.

"Odd," he repeated. He turned away from the window. "We started with only thirty. The men in my immediate command. I expected I would draw some of my own kinfolk, since I am high-ranked in the clan. But the others—"

Holkar shook his head. "I do not think it strange at all, my friend."

He reached out his hand and tapped his finger on Kungas' chest. It was like tapping a cuirass. "The Buddha's teachings still lurk there, somewhere inside your skeptical soul."

Kungas' lips quirked, just a bit. "I doubt that, Dadaji. What good did the Buddha do us, when the Ye-tai ravaged Peshawar? Where was he, when Malwa fit us with the yoke?"

"Still there," repeated the peshwa. "You disbelieve? Think more about those Kushans who have come, from other clans. What brought them here, Kungas?"

The Kushan looked away. Holkar drove on. "I will tell you, skeptic. Memory brought them here. The memory of Peshawar—and Begram, and Dalverzin and Khalchayan, and all the other great cities of the Kushan realm. The memory of Emperor Vima, and his gigantic irrigation works, which turned the desert green. The memory of Kanishka the Great, who spread Buddhism through half of Asia."

Kungas shook his head. "Ah! Gone, all gone. It is the nature of things. They come, they go."

Dadaji took Kungas by the arm, and began leading him out of the blood-soaked, fly-infested room. "Yes, they do. And then they come back. Or, at least, their children, inspired by ancient memory."

Irritably, Kungas twitched off Holkar's hand. They were in the narrow corridor now, heading for the rickety stairs leading to the street below.

"Enough of this foolishness," he commanded. "I am a man who lives in the present, and as much of the future as I can hope to see—which is not much. Tell me more of Rao's plan for Deogiri. If he takes the city, he cannot hold it alone for more than a year. Not even Deogiri is that great a fortress—not against the siege cannons which Venandakatra will bring to bear. He will need reinforcement. And then, we will need—somehow!—to maintain a supply route. How? And we will need to get cannons of our own. How? From the Romans?"

He stopped, from one step to the next, and gave Holkar a sharp glance. "Ha! They have their own problems to deal with. Belisarius will be marching into Persia, soon. You know that as well as I do. That will help, of course—help greatly. The Malwa will not be able to release forces from their Persian campaign—not with Belisarius at their front—but Venandakatra still has a powerful army of his own, in the Deccan."

He strode on, almost stamping down the stairs. Over his shoulder:

"So—tell me, philosopher! How will we get the cannons?"

Dadaji did not reply until both men were out on the street. He took a deep breath, cleansing the stench of death out of his nostrils. Then said, still smiling:

"Some of them, we will steal from the Malwa. As for the rest—Belisarius will provide."

Kungas' brow lowered, slightly. On another man, that would have been a fierce scowl. "He is thousands of miles away, Dadaji!"

Holkar's smile was positively serene, now. For an instant, Kungas was reminded of a statue of the Buddha. "He will provide, skeptic. Trust me in this. Belisarius set this rebellion of ours in motion in the first place. He has not forgotten us. Be sure of it."

Kungas made his little version of a shrug, and strode off behind the diminishing figure of his Empress. Holkar remained behind, staring after him.

"Trust me in this, my friend," he whispered. "Of five things in this world I am certain. Malwa will fall. My Empress will restore Andhra. Peshawar will rise again. Belisarius will not fail us. And I—"

His eyes teared. He could not speak the words.

I will find my wife and children. Wherever the Malwa beasts have scattered them, I will find them.

Back | Next

Contents

Framed

Back | Next

Contents

Chapter 6

"I will not take Maurice with me to Egypt, Belisarius. Absolutely not. So stop pestering me about it. And stop pestering me about Valentinian and Anastasius. I refuse to take them either."

Belisarius stared at his wife for a moment, before blowing out his cheeks. He leaned back in his chair and glared at Antonina. "You do not understand the danger, woman! You need the best military adviser in the world. And the best bodyguards."

Seeing the set and stubborn expression on his wife's face, and the way she clasped her hands firmly on the table between them, Belisarius cast a furious glare about the salon. His hot eyes scanned the mosaics which decorated the walls of their small palace within the imperial complex, without really seeing them. The gaze did, however, linger for a moment on a small statue perched on a corner stand.

"Damn cherub," he growled. "What's that naked little wretch smirking about?"

Antonina tried to fight down a smile. Her struggle was unsuccessful, however, and the sight of her quirking lips only added to her husband's outrage.

Belisarius grit his teeth and twisted in his chair, swiveling his head to the right. "Sit down, Maurice!" he commanded. "Damn you and your stiff ways! I promoted you, remember? You're a general yourself, now. A chiliarch, no less!" Belisarius made a curt motion with his hand, as if to sweep Maurice forward. "So sit down!"

The commander of Belisarius' personal retinue of bucellarii shrugged, stepped forward, and pulled up a chair. As soon as he took his seat at the table, Belisarius leaned toward him and said:

"Explain it to her, Maurice. She won't listen to me, because she thinks I'm just being a fretful husband. But she'll listen to you."

Maurice shook his head. "No."

Belisarius' eyes widened. "No?" His eyes bulged. "No?" His next words were not, entirely, coherent.

Maurice grinned at Antonina.

"Never actually seen him gobble before. Have you?"

Antonina matched his grin. "Oh, any number of times." The grin began a demure smirk. "Intimate circumstances, you understand?"

Maurice nodded sagely. "Of course. Dancing naked on his chest, that sort of thing."

"Not to mention the whip and the iced—"

"Enough!" roared Belisarius. He slammed his fist on the table.

Antonina and Maurice peered at him with identical, quizzical expressions. Much like two owls might study a bellowing mouse.

"He usually does that much better, I seem to recall," mused Antonina.

"Much better," agreed Maurice. "The key is under-statement. The sense of steel under the soft voice."

Belisarius began to roar again; but, seeing the widening grins, managed to bring himself under control.

"Why not?" he demanded, through clenched teeth.

Maurice's grin faded. The grizzled veteran stroked his stiff, curly gray beard. "I won't do it," he replied, "because she's right and you're wrong. You are thinking like a fretful husband—instead of a general."

He waved down Belisarius' protest. "She doesn't need me because she's not going to be fighting pitched battles on the open field against vastly superior forces. You are."

Antonina nodded.

Again, Belisarius began to protest; again, Maurice drove him down.

"Besides, she'll have Ashot. That stubby little Armenian may not have quite as much battlefield experience as I do, but he's not far short of the mark. You know that as well as I do. He's certainly got the experience to handle whatever Antonina will run up against in Alexandria."

"But—"

"Oh—be quiet, young man," snapped Maurice. For just an instant, the chiliarch's stony face reverted to an expression he had not worn in years. Not since the days he had taken under his wing a precocious teenage officer, fresh from his father's little estate in Thrace, and taught him the trade of war.

"Have you already forgotten your own battle plan?"

Belisarius sat back. Maurice snorted.

"Thought so. Since when do you subordinate strategy to tactics, young man? Alexandria's just a step on the road. Your whole strategy against the Malwa pivots on seapower. While you distract them in Persia, Antonina will lead a flanking attack against the enemy's logistics, in alliance—we hope—with the Kingdom of Axum. The Ethiopians, with their naval power, are critical to that plan. For that matter, the Axumite navy will be essential for providing support to the rebellion in Majarashtra which you did everything in your power to foment, while you were in India. They'll need cannons, gunpowder—everything you've talked about supplying them. That's why you've always insisted on building our armaments industry in Alexandria. So we can provide logistical support for the Ethiopians and the Indian rebellion."

The chiliarch took a deep breath. "For all those reasons, Ashot is far better suited to serve as her adviser than I am. The man's a former seaman. What I know about boats—" He snapped his fingers. "Not to mention the Ethiopians," he rolled on. "Ashot's familiar with them—even speaks the language. I know exactly two words in Ge'ez. Beer, and the future subjunctive tense of the verb `to copulate.' That'll be useful, coordinating an allied naval campaign and a transoceanic logistics route!"

Belisarius slumped into his chair.

"All right," he said sourly. "But I still insist that she take Valentinian and Anastasius! They're the best fighters we've got. She'll need the protection they can—"

"For what?" demanded Maurice. He planted his thick hands on his knees and leaned forward. For a moment, he and Belisarius matched glares. Then Maurice's lips quirked. He cocked an eye at the little Egyptian woman sitting across the table.

"Are you planning to lead any cavalry charges, girl?"

Antonina giggled.

"Furious boarding parties, storming across the decks of ships?"

Giggle, giggle.

"Leading the troops scaling the walls of a town under siege?"

Giggle, giggle, giggle.

"Cut and thrust? Hack and hew?"

The giggles erupted into outright laughter.

"Actually," choked Antonina, "I was thinking more along the lines of guiding from the rear. You know. Ladylike."

She leaned back, arching her neck haughtily, and began pointing with an imperious finger. "You there! That way. And you—over there. Move smartly, d'you hear?"

Belisarius rubbed his face. "It's not that simple, Maurice—and you know it, even if Antonina doesn't."

For a moment, the old crooked smile came back. A feeble travesty of it, rather.

"Aren't you the one who taught me the law of battle? `Everything gets fucked up as soon as the enemy arrives. That's why—' "

"—he's called the enemy," concluded Maurice. The veteran shook his head. "That's not the point, Belisarius. It may well happen, despite all our plans, that Antonina finds herself swept up in the fray. So be it. She'll still have hundreds of Thracian bucellarii protecting her, each and every one of whom—as you damn well know—will lay down his life for her, if need be. None of them may be quite as murderous as Valentinian or Anastasius, but they're still the best soldiers in the world. In my humble opinion. If they can't protect her, Valentinian and Anastasius won't make the difference.

"Whereas," he snarled, "the two of them might very well make the difference for you. Because unlike Antonina, you will be leading cavalry charges and hacking and hewing way more than any respectable general has any business doing."

Glare.

"As you well know."

Maurice stared at Belisarius in silence. The general slouched further down in his chair. Further. Further.

"Never actually seen him pout before," mused the chiliarch. Again, he cocked his eye at Antonina. "Have you?"

"Oh, certainly!" piped the little woman. "Any number of times. Intimate circumstances, of course. When I have a headache and refuse to smear olive oil all over his—"

"Enough," whined Belisarius.

Antonina and Maurice peered at him with identical, quizzical expressions. Much like two mice might study a whimpering piece of cheese.

Several hours later, Belisarius was in a more philosophical mood.

"I suppose it'll work out all right, in the end," he said, almost complacently.

Antonina levered herself up on her elbow and smiled down at her husband.

"Feeling less anxiety-ridden, are we?"

Belisarius stretched out his legs and clasped his hands behind his head.

"Now that I've had more time to think about it," he allowed graciously, "I've decided that perhaps Maurice was—"

"Liar!" laughed Antonina, slapping his arm. "You haven't been doing any thinking at all since we came to bed! Other than figuring out new and bizarre positions from which to stick your—"

"Don't be coarse, woman," grunted Belisarius. "Besides, I didn't hear you complaining. Rather the opposite, judging from the noises you were making."

"You didn't hear me claim that I was enjoying the metaphysics of the enterprise, either."

She sprawled flat on the bed, aping her husband's pose. Hands clasped behind her head, legs stretched out.

"I say," she pontificated, "now that I've had a bit of time to ponder the question—in between getting fucked silly—I have come to the conclusion that perhaps that uncouth Maurice fellow may have raised the odd valid point, here and there."

Belisarius eyed his wife's naked body, glistening with sweat. Antonina smiled seraphically. She took a deep breath, swelling her heavy breasts, then languidly spread her legs.

"Ontologically speaking, of course," she continued, "the man's daft. But the past several hours of epistemological discourse have led me to the tentative conclusion that perhaps—"

She spread her legs wider. Took another deep breath.

"—some of the fellow's more Socratic excogitations may have elucidated aspects of the purely phenomenological ramifications of—"

Belisarius discarded all complacency. Antonina stopped talking then, though she was by no means silent.

Some time later, she murmured, "Yes, all anxieties seem to be gone."

"That's because my brains are gone," came her husband's sleepy reply. "Fucked right out of my head."

In the morning, Photius made an entrance into his parents' sleeping chamber and perched himself upon their bed. Despite the many other changes in his life, the boy insisted on maintaining this precious daily ritual. A pox on imperial protocol and decorum.

The gaggle of servants and bodyguards who now followed the young Emperor everywhere remained outside in the corridor. The servants thought the entire situation was grotesque—and quite demeaning to their august status as imperial valets and maids. But they maintained a discreet silence. The bodyguards were members of the general's Thracian bucellarii, led by a young cataphract named Julian. Julian had been assigned the task of serving as Photius' chief bodyguard for two reasons. First, he was married to Hypatia, the young woman who had been Photius' nanny for years. (And still was, though she now bore the resplendent title of "imperial governess.") Second, for all his youth and cheerful temperament, Julian was a very tough soldier. Julian and the men under his command had made quite clear upon assuming their new duties that they were not even remotely interested in listening to the complaints of menials. So, while Photius enjoyed his private moment with his parents, his bodyguards chatted amiably in the corridor outside and his servants nursed their injured pride.

Photius' stay in his parents' bedroom was longer than usual. His stepfather was leaving that day, to begin his new campaign in Mesopotamia. Photius no longer felt the same dread of that prospective absence that he once had. The boy's confidence in Belisarius' ability to overcome all obstacles and perils was now positively sublime. But he would miss him, deeply. More deeply now, perhaps, than ever before.

Eventually, however, he emerged. A new sense of duty had fallen on the boy's little shoulders, and he knew that his stepfather had many responsibilities of his own that day.

"All right," he sighed, after closing the door behind him. "Let's go. What's first?"

Julian grinned down at him. "Your tutor in rhetoric insists—insists—that you must see him at once. Something to do with tropes, I believe. He says your slackness in mastering synecdoche has become a public scandal."

Glumly, Photius began trudging down the corridor. "That's great," he muttered. "Just great." The boy craned his neck, looking up at Julian's homely, ruddy-hued face. "Do you have any idea how boring that man is?"

"Look at it this way, Emperor. Some day you'll be able to have him executed for high tedium."

Photius scowled. "No I won't. I think he's already dead."

Trudge, trudge.

"Life was a lot more fun, before they made me Emperor."

Trudge, trudge.

* * *

Before mounting his horse, Belisarius gave Antonina a last, lingering embrace.

"How long, do you think?" she whispered.

Her husband shrugged. "Impossible to tell, love. If things go as we've planned—and that's a big if—we won't see each other for a year and a half, thereabouts. You'll have to wait until July of next year for the monsoon to be blowing the way we need it."

She grimaced. "What a way to meet."

Belisarius smiled. "That's if things go as planned. If they don't—who knows? We may meet sooner."

Staring up at him, Antonina found it impossible to match his smile. She knew the unspoken—and far more likely—corollary.

If our plans fail, one or both of us will probably be dead.

She buried her face into his shoulder. "Such a long time," she murmured. "You've only been back for a few months since your trip to India. And that lasted a year and a half."

Belisarius stroked her long black hair. "I know. But it can't be helped."

"Damn Theodora," hissed Antonina. "If it weren't for her obsession with keeping the gunpowder weapons under female control, I wouldn't have to—"

"That's nonsense!" snapped Belisarius. He took his wife by the shoulders and held her away from him. Then, with none of his usual whimsy, said:

"Even if Theodora didn't have her foibles, I'd insist that you command the Theodoran Cohort. You're the best person for the job. It's that simple."

Antonina stared back at him for a moment, before lowering her eyes. "So long," she whispered. "A year and a half." Suddenly, unexpectedly, she smiled. "But at least we'll be able to stay in touch. I almost forgot—a present came from John of Rhodes yesterday."

She turned and summoned a servant standing nearby in the courtyard. The man advanced, bearing a package wrapped in heavy layers of wool.

Antonina took the package from him and unfolded the cloth. Within, carefully nestled, were two identical objects.

She held one of them out to her husband.

"Here they are. John's first telescopes. One for you and one for me."

Grinning delightedly, Belisarius immediately began looking through the telescope. He became so entranced with the marvelous contrivance that he momentarily forgot everything else, until Antonina's little cough brought him back.

"Wonderful," he said, wrapping the telescope back into the woolen cloths. "With these, and the new semaphore stations, we'll be able to communicate within days."

Antonina chuckled. "Once the stations are built, that is. And assuming John can produce enough of the telescopes."

"They will and he will," said her husband confidently. He stroked her cheek. "Count on it, love. Within a few months, you'll get your first message from me."

There was nothing more to be said. For a moment, husband and wife gazed at each other. Then, a last embrace; a last kiss. Belisarius mounted his horse and rode out of the courtyard, Maurice at his side. His two personal bodyguards, Anastasius and Valentinian, followed just behind.

At the gate, Belisarius turned in his saddle and waved. Antonina did not wave back. She simply held up the telescope.

"I'll be waiting for your message!" she shouted.

An hour later, Irene arrived, bearing her own cloth-wrapped gifts.

"Don't drop them!" she warned Antonina, as she passed the bundle over. "I stole them from Theodora's own wine cellar. Best vintage in the Roman Empire."

Antonina staggered a bit, from the weight.

"Mother of God, how many bottles did you bring?"

Irene propelled her little friend down the corridor. "As many as we need to get you through the day. Tradition, girl, tradition. The last time Belisarius went off on one of these quests, you and I got blind drunk. Well, you did. I was simply there to lend a comforting shoulder."

"Lying wench!" squawked Antonina. "You passed out before I did."

"A fable," stated Irene firmly. "I fell asleep, that's all."

Antonina snorted. "Sure. On the floor, flat on your belly."

"I've only got your word for that," came the dignified response. "Hearsay, pure hearsay."

Once in the salon, Antonina lined up the bottles on a side table. "Like so many soldiers," she murmured admiringly.

Irene seized the first bottle. "It'll be a massacre. Get the goblets."

Two hours later, well into the carnage, Antonina hiccuped.

"'Nough o' this maudlinnininess!" Another hiccup. "Le'ss look t'the future! Be leaving soon, we will. For Egypt. 'S'my homeland, y'know?" Hiccup. "Land o' my birt. Birth."

Studiously, she poured more wine into her goblet. "I'm still s'prised Theodora agreed t'let you go," she said. "Never thought she let her chief spy"—giggle—"spy-ess, should say, out of her zight. Sight."

Irene's shrug was a marvel—a simple gesture turned into a profound, philosophical statement.

"What else c'ld she do? Somebody has to go to India. Somebody 'as to rish—re-ish—" Deep breath; concentration. "Re-es-ta-blish contact with Shakuntala."

Irene levered herself up on the couch, assuming a proud and erect stance. The dignity of the moment, alas, was undermined by flatulence.

"How gross," she pronounced, as if she were discussing someone else's gaucherie. Then, breezed straight on to the matter at hand. Again, a pronouncement:

"I am the obvious person for the job. My qualifications are immense. Legion, I dare say."

"Ha!" barked Antonina. "You're a woman, that's it. Who else would Theodora trust for that kind of—of—of—" She groped for the words.

"Subtle statecraft," offered Irene. "Deft diplomacy."

Antonina sneered. "I was thinking more along the lines of—of—"

"Sophisticated stratagems. Sagacious subterfuges."

"—of—of—"

"Dirty rotten sneaky—"

" 'At's it! 'At's it!"

Both women dissolved into uproarious laughter. This went on for a bit. Quite a bit. A sober observer might have drawn unkind conclusions.

Eventually, however, they settled down. Another bottle was immediately brought to the execution block. Half the bottle gone, Antonina peered at Irene solemnly.

"Hermogenes'll be staying wit' me, you know. In Egypt. After we part comp'ny and you head off t'India. You'll be having your own heartbreak then. But we prob'ly won' be able to commimmi—commiserate—properly. Then. Be too busy. Ressaponzabilities. So we better do it now."

Irene sprawled back on her couch. "Too late. 'S'already done." She shook her head sadly. "Hermo-genes and I are hic—" Hiccup. "Are hic— Dammit! Hist—hicstory. Dammit! History."

Antonina's eyes widened.

"What? But I heard—rumor flies—he asked you to marry him."

Irene winced. "Yes, he did. I'd been dreading it for months. That was the death-knell, of course."

Seeing her friend's puzzled frown, Irene laughed. Half-gaily; half-sadly.

"Sweet woman," she murmured. "You forget Hermogenes's not Belisarius." She spread her hands ruefully. Then, remembering too late that one hand held a full wine goblet, stared even more ruefully at the floor.

"Sorry about that," she muttered.

Antonina shrugged. "We've got servants to clean it up. Lots of 'em."

"Don't care about th'floor! Best wine in the Roman Empire." She tore her eyes from the gruesome sight. Tried to focus on Antonina.

"Something about Hermogenes not being Belisarius," prompted the little Egyptian. "But I don't see the point. You don't have a disreputable past to live down, like I did." Giggle. "Still do, actually. That's the thing about the past, you know? Since it's over it never goes away and you're always stuck with the damned thing." Her eyes almost crossed with deep thought. "Hey, that's philosophical. I bet even Plato never said it so well."

Irene smiled. "It's not the past that's the problem. With me and Hermogenes. It's the future. Hermogenes—" She waved her hand again, but managed to restrain the gesture before adding further insult to the best vintage in the Roman Empire. "—Hergomenes," she continued. "He's a sweet man, no doubt about it. But—conventional, y'know? Outside of military tactics, anyway. He wants a proper Greek wife. Matron. Not—" She sighed, slumping back into the couch. "Not a spymaster who's out and about doing God knows what at any hour of the day and night."

Irene stared sadly at her half-filled wine goblet. Then, drained away her sorrows.

Antonina peered at her owlishly.

"You sure?" she asked. Irene lurched up and tottered over to the wine-bearing side-table. Another soldier fell to the fray.

"Oh, yes," she murmured. She turned and stared down at Antonina, maintaining a careful balance. "Do I really seem like the matron-type to you?"

Antonina giggled; then, guffawed.

Irene smiled. "No, not hardly." She shrugged fatalistically. "Fact is, I don't think I'll ever marry. I'm jus—I don' know. Too—I don' know. Something. Can't imagine a man who'd live wit' it."

She staggered back to her couch and collapsed upon it.

Antonina examined her. "Does that bother you?" she asked, very slowly and carefully.

Irene stared at the far wall. "Yes," she replied softly. Sadly.

But a moment later, with great vehemence, she shook her head.

" 'Nough o' this maudilinitity!" she cried, raising her goblet high. " 'Ere's to adaventureness!"

Two hours later, Antonina gazed down at Irene in triumph. "Belly down, onna floor, jus' like I said."

She lurched to her feet, holding the last wine bottle aloft like a battle standard. "Vittorous again!" she cried. Then, proving the point, collapsed on top of her friend.

The servants who carried the two women into Antonina's bedroom a short time later neither clucked with scandal nor muttered with disrespect. Not with Julian and three other grinning bucellarii following close behind, ready to enforce Thracian protocol.

"Let 'em sleep it off together," commanded Julian.

He turned to his comrades.

"Tradition."

Thracian heads nodded solemnly.

The next morning, after he entered the bedchamber, Photius was seized with dismay.

"Where's my mother?" he demanded.

Irene's eyes popped open. Closed with instant pain.

"Where's my mother?" he cried.

Irene stared at him through slitted eyelids.

"Who're you?" she croaked.

"I'm the Emperor of Rome!"

Irene hissed. "Fool boy. Do you know how many Roman emperors have been assassinated?"

"Where's my mother?"

Her eyelids crunched with agony. "Yell one more time and I'll add another emperor to the list."

She dragged a pillow over her head. From beneath the silk-covered cushion her voice faintly emerged:

"Go away. If you want your stupid mother—the drunken sot—go look for her somewhere else."

"Where's my mother?"

"Find the nearest horse. Crazy woman'll be staring at it."

After the boy charged out of the room, heading for the stables, Irene gingerly lifted the pillow. The blinding sight of sunrise filtering through the heavy drapes immediately sent her scurrying back for cover. Only her voice remained at large in the room.

"Stupid fucking tradition."

Moan.

"Why can't that woman just commit suicide like any reasonable abandoned wife?"

Moan.

Back | Next

Contents

Framed

Back | Next

Contents

Chapter 7

MESOPOTAMIA

Summer, 531 A.D.

When he encountered the first units from the Army of Syria, just outside Callinicum, Belisarius heaved a small sigh of relief.

Baresmanas, riding next to him at the head of the column, said nothing. But the very stillness of his face gave him away.

"Go ahead and laugh," grumbled Belisarius.

Baresmanas did not take Belisarius up on the offer. Diplomatic tact was far too ingrained in his habits. He simply nodded his head, and murmured in return:

"There are certain disadvantages to elite troops from the capital, accustomed to imperial style. It cannot be denied."

The sahrdaran twisted in his saddle and looked back at the long column. The cavalrymen were riding along a road near the right bank of the Euphrates. The road was not paved, but it was quite wide and well-maintained. The road ran from Callinicum to the Cilician Gates, passing through the river towns of Barbalissus and Zeugma. It was the principal route bearing trade goods between the Roman Empire and Persia.

Belisarius' own bucellarii rode at the head of the column—a thousand cataphracts, three abreast, maintaining good order. Behind them came the small contingent of artillery wagons and ambulances, along with the ten rocket-bearing chariots which the general had dubbed katyushas. These vehicles were also maintaining a good order.

Then—

Straggling and straying, drifting and disjointed, came the remaining twenty-five hundred heavy cavalry in Belisarius' little army.

The majority of these—two thousand men—were from the Constantinople garrison. The remainder were from Germanicus' Army of Illyria. The Illyrians had maintained a semblance of good order for the first few hundred miles of their forced march. Unlike the troops from the capital, they had some recent experience on campaign. But even they, by the time the army passed through the Cilician Gates into the northern desert of Syria, had become as disorganized as the Greek cataphracts.

Disorganized—and exceedingly disgruntled.

The troops were much too far back for Baresmanas to hear their conversations, but he had no difficulty imagining them. He had been listening to their grousing for days, even weeks. The troops from Constantinople, in particular, had not been hesitant in making their sentiments known, each and every night, as they slumped about their campfires.

Crazy fucking Thracian.

How did this lunatic ever get to be a general, anyway?

By the time we get there, a litter of kittens could whip us, we'll be so worn out.

Crazy fucking Thracian.

How did this lunatic ever get to be a general, anyway?

"You have been pushing them rather hard," said Baresmanas.

Belisarius snorted. "You think so?" He turned in his own saddle, scowling. "In point of fact, Bares-manas, the pace we've been maintaining since we left Constantinople is considerably less than my own troops are accustomed to. For my bucellarii, this has been a pleasant promenade."

His scowl deepened. "Two months—to cover six hundred miles. Twenty miles a day, no better. For a large infantry army, that would be good. But for a small force of cavalrymen—on decent roads, most of the time—it's disgraceful."

Now, Barasmanas did laugh. More of a dry chuckle, perhaps. He pointed to the small group, led by two officers, trotting toward them from the direction of Callinicum.

"I take it you think these Syrian lads will be a good influence."

Belisarius examined the approaching Roman soldiers. "Not exactly. Those damned garritroopers are too full of themselves to take a bunch of scruffy border troops as an example. But I do believe I can use them to shame the bastards."

The oncoming officers were now close enough to discern their individual features.

"If I'm not mistaken," commented Baresmanas, "the two in front are Bouzes and Coutzes. The same brothers whom we captured just a few days before the battle at Mindouos. While they were—ah—"

"Leading a reconnaisance in force," said Belisarius firmly.

"Ah. Is that what it was?"

The sahrdaran's eyebrows lifted.

"At the time, I had the impression the headstrong fellows were charging about trying to capture a mysterious pay caravan which, oddly enough, was never found by anyone."

Belisarius shook his head sadly. "Isn't it just terrible? The way vicious rumors get started?"

Very firmly:

"Reconnaissance in force."

Less than a minute later, the oncoming Romans reached Belisarius. The general reined in his horse. Behind him, the long column came to a halt. A moment later, Maurice drew up alongside.

Bouzes and Coutzes sat in their saddles stiff-backed and erect. Their young faces were reasonably expressionless, but it took no great perspicacity to deduce that they were more than a bit apprehensive. Their last encounter with Belisarius had been unfortunate, to say the least.

But Belisarius had known that the brothers would be leading the troops from the Army of Syria, and he had already decided on his course of action. Whatever hotheaded folly the two had been guilty of in the past, both Sittas and Hermogenes had been favorably impressed by the brothers in the three years which had elapsed since the battle of Mindouos.

So he greeted them with a wide smile and an outstretched hand, and made an elaborate show of introducing them to Baresmanas. He was a bit concerned, for a moment, that the brothers might behave rudely toward the sahrdaran. Bouzes and Coutzes, during the time he had worked with them leading up to the battle of Mindouos, had been quite vociferous regarding their dislike for Persians. But the brothers allayed that concern immediately.

As soon as the introductions were made, Coutzes said to Baresmanas:

"Your nephew Kurush has already arrived at Callinicum. Along with seven hundred of your cavalrymen. They've set up camp just next to our own."

"We would have brought him with us to meet you," added Bouzes, "but the commander of the Roman garrison in Callinicum wouldn't allow it."

"The stupid jackass is buried up to his ass in regulations," snapped Coutzes. "Said it was forbidden to allow Persian military personnel beyond the trading emporium."

Belisarius laughed. Romans and Persians had been trading for as long as they had been fighting each other. In truth, trade was the basic relationship. For all that the two empires had clashed many times on the field of battle, peace was the more common state of affairs. And, during wartime or peacetime, the trade never stopped. Year after year, decade after decade, century after century, caravans had been passing along that very road.

But—empires being empires—the trade was heavily regulated. (Officially. The border populations, Roman and Persian alike, were the world's most notorious smugglers.) For decades, Callinicum had been established as the official entrepot for Persians seeking to trade with Rome—just as Nisibis was, on the other side of the border, for Romans desiring to enter Persia.

"Leave it to a garrison commander," growled Maurice. "He does know we're at war with the Malwa, doesn't he? In alliance with Persia?"

Bouzes nodded. Coutzes snarled:

"He says that doesn't change regulations. Gave us quite a lecture, he did, on the unrelenting struggle against the mortal sin of smuggling."

Now, Baresmanas laughed. "My nephew wouldn't know how to smuggle if his life depended on it! He's much too rich."

Belisarius spurred his horse into motion. "Let's get to Callinicum. I'll have a word or two with this garrison commander."

"Just one or two?" asked Coutzes. He seemed a bit aggrieved.

Belisarius smiled. "Five, actually. You are relieved of command."

"Oh."

" `Deadly with a blade, is Belisarius,' " murmured Maurice.

They entered Callinicum two hours later, in mid-afternoon.

The general's first order of business was to ensure that the last group of builders and artisans still with him were adequately housed. When he left Con-stantinople, Belisarius had brought no less than eight hundred such men with his army. Small groups of them had been dropped off, at appropriate intervals, to begin the construction of the semaphore stations which would soon become the Roman Empire's new communication network. Callinicum would be the final leg of the Constantinople-Mesopotamia branch of that web.

That business done, Belisarius went off to speak his five words to the garrison commander.

Five words, in the event, grew into several hundred. The garrison commander's replacement had to be relieved, himself. After the general took a few dozen words to inform the new commander that Belisarius would be taking half the town's garrison with him into Mesopotamia, the man sputtered at length on the imperative demands of the war against illicit trade.

Belisarius spoke five more words.

His replacement, in turn, had to be relieved. After Belisarius used perhaps two hundred words, more or less thinking aloud, to reach the decision that it made more sense to take the entire garrison except for a token force, the third commander in as many hours shrieked on the danger of brigand raids.

Belisarius spoke five more words.

In the end, command of the Roman forces in Callinicum fell on the shoulders of a grizzled, gap-toothed hecatontarch.

"Hundred men'll be dandy," that worthy informed the general. "Just enough to keep reasonable order in the town. Nothing else for them to do. Callinicum's a fortress, for the sake of Christ—the walls are forty feet high and as wide to match. The sorry-ass brigands in these parts'd die of nosebleed if they climbed that high."

Cheerfully: "As for smuggling, fuck it. You couldn't stop it with the whole Roman army. Soon as the sun goes down, you throw a rock off these walls in any direction you'll bounce it off three smugglers before it hits the ground. At least one of them'll be a relative of mine."

Very cheerfully: "Any given Tuesday, prob'ly be my wife."

At sunset, Belisarius led his army out of Callinicum toward the military camp a few miles away where the forces from the Army of Syria were awaiting them. The freshly-conscripted soldiers from the town's garrison—seven hundred very unhappy infantrymen—were marched out between units of the general's bucellarii. The Thracians encouraged the new recruits with tales of glory in the past, booty in the future, and drawn bows in the present. Cataphract bows, with hundred-pound pulls and arrowheads you could shave with.

Baresmanas, riding at the head of the column, was out of earshot of the Callinicum garrison. But he had no difficulty imagining their muttered conversation.

Crazy fucking Thracian.

How did this lunatic ever get to be a general, anyway?

Back | Next

Contents

Framed

Back | Next

Contents

Chapter 8

Kurush's pavilion was far smaller than the gigantic construct which the Emperor of Malwa had erected at the siege of Ranapur. But, thought Belisarius, it was possibly even more richly adorned and accoutered. And with much better taste.

As he reclined on a pile of plump, silk-covered cushions placed at one end of a low table, Kurush himself placed a goblet of wine before him. Belisarius eyed the thing uneasily. It was not the wine which caused that trepidation. The general had no doubt that it was the finest vintage produced by Persia. No, it was the goblet itself. The drinking vessel was easily the most elaborate and expensive such object Belisarius had ever seen. For all the goblet's massive size, the design was thin and delicate, especially the flower-shaped stem—and, worst of all, made entirely of glass. Embedded throughout the bowl was gold leaf, highlighting the intricate facets cut in the form of overlapping, slightly concave disks. The finishing touch was the four medal-lions inset around the side of the bowl, standing out in high relief. About an inch in diameter, each carried a marvelous etching of a winged horse.

Gold medallions, naturally. Except for the silver wings, and the tiny little garnet eyes.

Belisarius glanced around the table. Bouzes, Coutzes and Maurice were all staring at their own identical goblets. The brothers with astonishment, Maurice with deep gloom.

"Afraid to touch the damned thing," he heard Maurice mutter.

Fortunately, Baresmanas intervened.

"Have no fear, comrades," he said, smiling. "My nephew has two chests full of these things."

He gestured gaily. "Besides, even if you should happen to drop one, it would hardly break on this floor."

The four Romans eyed the carpet. In truth, the pile was so thick that the cushions on which they sat were entirely redundant.

Kurush, taking his place at the other end of the table from Belisarius, frowned. Not with irritation, but simply from puzzlement. "Is there a problem?" he asked. His Greek, like that of most Persian noblemen, was accented but fluent.

Baresmanas chuckled. "Not everyone, nephew, is accustomed to drinking wine out of a king's ransom."

The young Persian stared at the goblet in his hand. "This thing?" He looked up at his uncle. "It is valuable?"

All four of the Romans joined Baresmanas in the ensuing laughter. Their reaction was not diplomatic, perhaps, but they found it impossible to resist.

Fortunately, Kurush proved to be the affable type. He seemed to possess little of the prickly hauteur of most Persian noblemen. After a moment, he even joined in the laughter himself.

"I'm afraid I don't pay any attention to these matters," he confessed. Shrugging: "My retainers take care of that." He made a sweeping gesture. "But—please, please! Drink up! You must all be dying of thirst, after that miserable desert."

Kurush's words swept hesitation aside. All four Romans drank deeply from their goblets. And found, not to their surprise, that the vintage was marvelous.

Belisarius took advantage of the distraction to give Kurush a careful study. He had already learned, from Baresmanas, that Kurush had been charged by Emperor Khusrau to be the Persians' principal military liaison with Belisarius and his Roman forces.

The nobleman was in his mid-twenties, he estimated. The young officer was tall and slender, with a narrow face and rather delicate features.

At first glance, he reminded Belisarius of certain hyper-cultured Athenian aesthetes whom the general had occasionally encountered. The sort of soulful young men who could not complete a sentence without two or three allusions to the classics, and whose view of the world was, to put it mildly, impractical.

The likeness was emphasized by the way in which Kurush wore his clothing. The garments themselves were expensive and well-made. (As were those of Athenian aesthetes—all of whom were aristocrats, not shepherds.) But they seemed to have been tossed on with little care for precision of fit and none at all for color coordination.

Closer examination, however, undermined the initial impression. Kurush's hands, though slim-fingered, were strong-looking. And Belisarius did not miss the significance of the worn indentation on Kurush's right thumb. Unlike Romans, who favored the three-fingered draw, Persians drew their bows with thumb-rings.

Then, there was the way he moved. Kurush's stride, his gestures—even his facial expressions—all had a nervous quickness about them. Almost eager, like a spirited thoroughbred before a race. They bore no resemblance whatever to the affected languor of aesthetes.

Finally, there were the eyes. Like most Medes—and most Athenian aesthetes, for that matter—Kurush's eyes were brown. But there was nothing vague and unfocussed in their gaze. Despite his youth, the Persian was already beginning to develop faint wrinkles around the sockets. Those wrinkles did not come from studying poetry in Athens by candlelight. They came from studying terrain under the scorching desert sun.

Kurush's first words, after setting down his goblet, were to Maurice. "I understand that you were in command of the Roman forces on the hill, at Mindouos."

Maurice nodded. Kurush shook his head.

"You must have laughed at us, trying to drive our horses up that demon-created slope."

Maurice hesitated, gauging the Persian. Then, with a little shrug:

"You'd have done better to dismount."

Kurush smiled. Quite cheerfully. "So I discovered! My horse was shot out from under me right at the start. I cursed my bad luck, at the time. But I think it was all that saved my life. On foot, I could duck behind boulders. Not even your arrows could penetrate rock!"

Again, he shook his head. "I'd been warned—" He nodded toward Baresmanas. "—by my uncle, in fact, that no one in the world uses more powerful bows than Roman cataphracts. I didn't shrug off his warning—not that voice of experience—but I still hadn't expected to see an arrow drive right through my mount's armor."

Then, with a frown:

"You've got a very slow rate of fire, though. Do you really think the trade-off is worth it?"

Belisarius had to fight down a laugh. The young Persian's frown was not hostile. Not in the least. For all the world, it reminded the general of nothing so much as a young aesthete's frown, contemplating the relative merits of two styles of lyric poetry.

Maurice shrugged. "I don't think the question can be answered in purely military terms. There's the matter of national temperament, too. You Persians have a flair for mounted archery that I don't think Romans could ever match. So why make the attempt? Better to concentrate on what we do well, rather than become second-rate Persian imitations."

Kurush nodded. "Well said." The young officer sighed. "It's probably all a moot point, anyway. These infernal new Malwa devices have changed everything."

"Have you seen them in action?" asked Belisarius.

Kurush winced. "Oh, yes. Three times, in fact. I've been at all the pitched battles we fought against the invaders on the open field, until we finally decided to withdraw and take a defensive stance at Babylon."

"Describe the invasion for me, if you would," requested Belisarius. He gestured politely toward Baresmanas. "Your uncle has given me an excellent overall picture, but he was not a direct eyewitness. I would appreciate more detail."

"Certainly." Kurush drained his goblet and reached for one of the small amphorae on the table. He began speaking while in the process of pouring himself more wine.

"There were hundreds of ships in the Malwa invasion fleet. Gigantic vessels, many of them. I'm no seaman, but those of my staff with maritime experience tell me that their big sailing ships have a carrying capacity of at least a thousand tons."

"More like two thousand," interjected Belisarius, "if they're the same ships I saw being built at Bharakuccha."

Kurush eyed him with respectful surprise. "I did not realize you had experience with naval matters."

Belisarius chuckled. "I don't. Or very little, at least. But one of my companions in Bharakuccha was Garmat, the chief adviser for the King of Axum. That was his estimate, after seeing the ships. I think that estimate can be trusted. In my experience, all high-ranking Ethiopians are most definitely naval experts."

"That's my experience as well," commented Baresmanas. He grimaced. "Two thousand tons. I don't think any Persian ship has that big a carrying capacity."

"Nor any of ours," added Bouzes. "Except for a handful of the grain ships which sail out of Egypt."

Belasarius nodded toward Kurush. "Please continue."

"The fleet arrived with no warning—well—" He scowled. "No warning which was heeded. A few merchants gave the alarm, but they were ignored by the imperial authorities." The scowl deepened. "Arrogant bastards."

Belisarius was amused to see the stiff, diplomatically expressionless faces of Bouzes, Coutzes, and Maurice. It was the commonly held opinion of most Romans that all Persian officials were "arrogant bastards." Belisarius did not share that opinion—Baresmanas and Kurush were not the first Persian nobles he had found likeable, even charming—but there was no denying that the charge had some basis in fact. Roman officials also, of course, could often be accused of "arrogant bastardom." But there was nothing in the world quite like a Persian aristocrat—especially one who also occupied a post in the imperial hierarchy—when it came to sheer, unadulterated, icy haughtiness. Compared to such, Rajput nobility could almost be described as casual and warm-hearted. Even the Malwa dynastic clan, for all their unparalleled brutality and megalomania, did not—quite—exhibit that sense of unthinking superiority over all other men.

Apparently, Roman tact was insufficient. Either that, or Kurush was more perceptive than Belisarius had realized. The young Persian glanced around the table at the distant, polite expressions of the Romans. Then, with a little smile, added, "But perhaps no more so than others of their ilk."

He quaffed some wine. Then continued:

"The fleet entered the confluence of the Tigris-Euphrates Rivers and landed a huge army. The ships carried horses and even a score of elephants, in addition to their terrible new weapons. Within two days, they overwhelmed the garrison at Charax."

The scowl returned in full force. "The murderous swine massacred the garrison and enslaved the entire population. The womenfolk were treated horridly, especially by those stinking Ye-tai barbarians whom the Malwa seem to dote on. The nobility were singled out for particular persecution. The Malwa were not in the least interested in obtaining ransom. Instead, they slaughtered all the male azadan—even babies—and all noblewomen except those who were young and pretty. Such girls were taken by the Malwa officers as concubines."

He ran his long fingers through his thick hair. The scowl faded a bit, pushed aside by an expression of scholarly thoughtfulness. "In all the centuries that we Persians and you Romans have fought each other, there have been many atrocities committed." He waved his hand. "By both sides, by both sides. Still—I cannot think of a single instance of such gross and unvarnished cruelty. Not one."

"There is no such instance," stated Baresmanas firmly. "Nothing on such a scale, at least. And let us also note that, for all the savageries which both our people have been guilty of in our dealings with each other, there have also been many—many—instances of generosity and chivalry."

He bestowed an appreciative look on Belisarius. "Your mercy at Mindouos being one of the most outstanding examples."

"Well said!" exclaimed his nephew. Kurush drained his wine. When he set the goblet back on the table, his expression combined good cheer and ruefulness.

"I know," he chuckled. "For a time, there, I was quite certain my throat was going to be slit." He shuddered, slightly. "Three of your damned Isaurians had me down—talk about mean, tough bastards!—grinning like wolves. They sounded like wolves, too, quarreling over which one was going to get the first bite."

He grinned at Maurice. "Then one of you Thracian lads rode up and reasoned with them. Partly with a drawn bow, and partly with talk of my money."

Maurice grinned back. "And how much was your ransom?"

Kurush snorted. "Enough to set those three Isaurians up for life! Would you believe, the damned barbarians demanded—"

He broke off. "But I'm straying. That was three years ago. The Malwa are here today—and, as my learned uncle so cogently remarks, I think we will see no such instances of mercy and forbearance coming from the Malwa."

"It is not their method," agreed Belisarius. "The Malwa aristocracy is already rich. They are not even slightly interested in ransom. And the troops, who might be, are completely subjugated to their rule."

He drained his own cup. "The Malwa seek to conquer the world. Nothing less. And they intend to rule it with a hand of iron. Charax was only the first atrocity of the many they will commit in Persia—and Rome, later, if Persia falls. But it was by no means their first. By no means." The gen-eral's face grew bleak. "I was at Ranapur, when the Malwa broke the rebellion. Two hundred thousand people were still alive in that great city, when the Malwa finally breached the walls. Five days later, after unspeakable atrocities, there were not more than fifty survivors. A few young noblewomen tough enough to survive their ordeal, and then sold into slavery."

For a moment, the pavilion was filled with a grim silence. Then Maurice muttered:

"Continue, please."

Kurush shook off the mood. "After the Malwa finished their conquest of Charax, the bulk of their army proceeded upriver, accompanied by over a hundred of their smaller ships. The remainder of the fleet waited in Charax, while the Malwa began expanding and strengthening the port. We assume that those ships will return to India for further provisions, once the monsoon changes." He glanced toward the entrance of the pavilion, as if to gauge the season. "We're in the beginning of June, now. Within a month, the winds will be right for them."

Belisarius nodded. "Their fleet will sail for Bharakuccha in July. Then, after reprovisioning, they'll begin their return journey toward the end of October. Early November, at the latest."

"What are their actual military forces?" asked Coutzes.

Kurush spread his hands on the table and leaned back. "You'll find this hard to believe, but—"

"No, we won't," said Belisarius, quite forcefully, with a warning glance at Bouzes and Coutzes.

"—based on my own personal observation, I estimate the total number of their troops—not counting the large garrison they left in Charax—at two hundred thousand men."

When the expected Roman reaction did not emerge, Kurush's eyes widened slightly.

Maurice cleared his throat. "Break that down a bit, if you would."

Kurush paused, thinking.

"I don't think they have more than forty thousand cavalry. The great mass of their troops are infantry, and most of them seem of mediocre quality. The Ye-tai, of course, are quite ferocious in combat. But the Malwa seem to use them principally as a stiffener for their common troops."

"They're primarily security battalions," interjected Belisarius. "That's how I saw the Malwa using them, when I was in India. In battle, their main job is to make sure that the common soldiers obey their officers. They're utterly ruthless toward deserters or even stragglers."

Kurush nodded. "Most of the infantry are simply armed with traditional weapons. Spears, swords, axes. And their armor is flimsy, for the most part. As I said, mediocre-quality troops." He shrugged. "But with those huge numbers, they simply overwhelm their opposition. After they've ravaged the opponent with their demon weapons."

"Describe the weapons," said Belisarius.

Kurush spread his hands apologetically. "I will do so as best I can, Belisarius. But keep in mind that I only saw the damned things at a distance, and I was never sure exactly what I was watching."

"Let's do it the other way around, then. Let me tell you what I think the Malwa are using, and you can correct me based on your direct experience."

The Persian nodded. Belisarius took a sip of his wine, thinking, and then said, "I think—I hope, actually—their weapons fall into three main categories. Siege cannons, rockets, and grenades." After describing these three types of gunpowder weapons, based on his observations in India, Belisarius continued, "The rockets will be used in much the same manner that we Romans have traditionally used field artillery in a battle. The disadvantage of the rockets is their extreme inaccuracy—"

He hesitated for a moment, fighting temptation. His own rockets—the katyusha rockets—had proven to be fairly accurate, in tests. Not as accurate as catapults, but much less erratic than the Malwa rockets he had observed. Guided by Aide, Belisarius had had real venturi made for his rockets, using all the skills of Greek metalsmiths. He had even insisted on machining the bronze exhaust nozzles. But he hoped their accuracy would come as a surprise to the enemy. He had no reason to distrust Baresmanas and Kurush, or to suspect they were loose-mouthed. Still—

He glided over the problem, for the moment.

"—but they compensate by their destructiveness and their relative ease of operation. You don't have to lug around a heavy onager or scorpion to fire a rocket. Just a trough and a simple firing device. Then, too, the things tend to panic the opponent's cavalry horses."

Kurush nodded gloomily. "It's impossible to control horses under a rocket barrage."

Again, Belisarius hesitated, torn between the need for secrecy and distaste at hiding secrets from his own allies. This time, distaste won the struggle.

"That's not actually true, Kurush." Seeing the look of surprise in the young sahrdaran's face, Belisarius smiled crookedly.

"I thought the same, once, when I first encountered rockets. My subsequent experience, however, taught me that horses can become accustomed to the sound and fury of gunpowder weapons. The secret is to expose them to the noise at an early age. A full-grown warhorse, as a rule, will usually remain skittish. But a horse trained as a foal will manage well enough."

He gestured toward the open flap of the pavilion. "The horses which pull my katyushas, for instance, have been specially selected for their steadiness under fire. And most of my bucellarii have been equipped with mounts trained to stand up under gunpowder fire."

The two Persians at the table were stroking their beards thoughtfully. To Belisarius, their thoughts were obvious. Awkwardly obvious.

Great news. But we Persians have no gunpowder weapons with which to train our horses. How to steal them from the enemy? Or—better yet—convince the Romans to supply us with the infernal things?

For a moment, Belisarius and Baresmanas stared at each other. Then, seeing the Roman general's faint nod, Baresmanas looked away.

We will discuss the matter later was the meaning of the nod. That, and:

I have my opinion, but—

That was enough. An experienced diplomat, Baresmanas was well aware of the controversies which were undoubtedly raging among the Romans over this very delicate problem. An alliance with Persia was one thing. Arming the ancient Medean foe with gunpowder weapons was a different proposition altogether.

There was no point in pressing the matter at the moment, so Baresmanas changed the subject.

"And the grenades?" He pointed to Kurush. "According to my nephew, the things are solely used in close order assaults."

"He's quite right. That is their function. I never observed them used any other way in India."

He decided to pass on a secret, now. The enemy almost certainly knew it anyway. Some of their spies must have escaped the slaughter at the Hippodrome where Belisarius and Antonina crushed the Malwa-engineered Nika rebellion. If nothing else, the bodies of the traitor Narses and his companion Ajatasutra had never been found. Both Belisarius and Theodora were certain that the former Grand Chamberlain, with his legendary wiliness, had managed to make his escape.

So:

"My wife—she commands our only force of grenadiers, the Theodoran Cohort—has introduced a more long-range capability to grenade warfare."

He described, briefly, the sling and sling-staff methods of Antonina's grenadiers, before concluding: "—but, even so, we are still talking about bow-range, no more."

Baresmanas and Kurush nodded understandingly. Slings were not a weapon which Persian nobility favored personally, but they were quite familiar with the ancient devices.

Belisarius poured himself some more wine and, then, after glancing inquiringly about the table, refilled the goblets of Bouzes and Baresmanas as well.

As he set the wine down, the general reflected upon the absence of servants in the pavilion. That simple fact told him a great deal about his host, all of which met his complete approval.

Kurush seemed otherwordly and absent-minded, in some ways. More precisely, he seemed absent-minded in the way that very rich people often are—so accustomed to personal service that they treat it as a routine fact of life. But when it came to military matters, Kurush had obviously been able to discard his class attitudes. The battle-tested officer had not made the nobleman's mistake of forgetting that lowly menials have ears, and minds, and tongues. So he and his distinguished guests would pour their own wine, and serve each other as comrades.

Belisarius, after taking a sip of that excellent vintage, continued:

"You will probably not have experienced the siege cannons, as yet. The devices are huge, heavy, and ungainly. Useless in a field battle. But you will encounter then soon enough, at Babylon. The Malwa will surely bring them up to reduce the walls."

"How powerful are they?" asked Baresmanas.

"Think of the largest catapult you've ever seen, and then multiply the force of the projectile by a factor of three. No, four or five." He shrugged. "The Malwa do not use the things particularly well, in my opinion. Based, at least, on my observations at Ranapur. But they hardly need to. Ranapur was a great city, with the tallest and thickest brick walls I've ever seen. By the time the siege cannons were done—which still took months, mind you—those great walls were so much rubble."

Kurush grimaced. "The walls of Babylon are not brick, more's the pity. At least, not kiln-brick. The outer walls were, at one time, but the city's been deserted for centuries. Over the years, the peasants of the region have used that good brick to build their own huts. All that's left of the outer walls is the rubble core. The inner walls are still standing, but they're made entirely of sun-dried bricks. After all these centuries, the walls aren't much stronger than packed earth."

"Thick walls, though, aren't they?" asked Maurice.

Kurush nodded. "Oh, yes. Very thick! The outer walls are still over fifty yards wide, with a hundred yard moat in front of them. The inner walls are a double wall, with a military road in the middle. Counting that road—say, seven yards in width—the inner walls probably measure some twenty yards in thickness."

Maurice's eyes widened. Coutzes whistled softly, shaking his head. "God in heaven," he muttered. "I had no idea the ancients could build on such a scale."

Bouzes snorted. "Why not, brother? You've seen the pyramids in Egypt. I know you have. I was standing right next to you when you whistled softly, shook your head, and said: `God in Heaven. I had no idea the ancients could build on such a scale.' "

The room erupted in laughter. Even Coutzes, after a momentary glare at his brother, started chuckling ruefully.

The moment of humor was brief, however. Soon enough, grim reality returned.

Again, Belisarius was torn by warring impulses. The need for secrecy, on the one hand, especially with regard to Aide's existence; the need—certainly the personal desire—for frankness with his new allies, on the other.

He decided to steer a tricky middle course.

"Actually," he said, clearing his throat, "I think the nature of Babylon's walls will work entirely to your—I should say, our—advantage. Cannon fire—delivered by gigantic siege cannon, at any rate—is too powerful to be resisted by hard walls, whether brick or even stone. You're actually much better off using thick, soft walls. Such walls simply absorb the cannon shot, rather than trying to deflect it."

All the other men at the table, except Maurice, stared at Belisarius with wide-eyed surprise. Maurice simply tightened his lips and gazed down at his goblet.

Maurice was the only one in the pavilion who knew Belisarius' secret. The general had finally divulged it to him, months earlier, after his return from India. Belisarius had always felt guilty, during the long months he had kept that secret from Maurice. So, when he finally did reveal Aide's existence, he compensated by sharing Aide's insights with Maurice to a greater extent than he ever had with anyone else, even Antonina.

Yet, if he had initially done so from guilt, his reasons had changed soon enough. In truth, he had found Maurice to be his most useful confidant—when it came, at least, to Aide's military advice. Not to Belisarius' surprise, the phlegmatic and practical Thracian peasant-turned-cataphract had been more receptive to Aide's often-bizarre advice than anyone else.

"You saw this in India?" queried Kurush. "Such fortifications?"

Maurice gave Belisarius a quick, warning glance. The chiliarch knew full well where Belisarius had seen "such fortifications." Not in India, but in visions. Visions which Aide had put in his mind, of the siege warfare of the future. Especially the theories and the practice of a great student of fortifications over a millennium in the future. A man named Vauban, who would live in a country which would be called France.

"Not directly, no, Kurush. But I did notice, toward the end of the siege of Ranapur, that the crumbled walls actually resisted the siege cannons better than they had while the brickwork was still intact."

He mentally patted himself on the back. It was not entirely a lie, after all. He consoled himself with the thought that the rubbled walls of Ranapur had, in retrospect, resisted the cannon shot quite well. Even if he hadn't noticed at the time.

Fortunately, the lie passed muster. Kurush and Baresmanas seemed so relieved by the information that they showed no inclination to press Belisarius on the point.

The conversation now began to turn toward the Malwa's relative weakness in cavalry, especially heavy cavalry, and how the allied forces might best take advantage of it. But before the discussion had gotten very far, they were interrupted.

A Persian officer bearing the insignia of an imperial courier entered the tent, somewhat apologetically, and approached the table. As he leaned over and whispered something to Baresmanas, Belisarius politely looked away and diverted the Romans' attention with an anecdote from the siege of Ranapur. The anecdote, involving his assessment of the relative merits of Rajput and Ye-tai cavalry, was interesting enough to capture the full attention of Bouzes and Coutzes and, to all appearances, Maurice. But he noted that Kurush was paying hardly any attention at all. The young sahrdaran's face was stiff. Whatever news was being whispered into Baresmanas' ear, Belisarius was certain, his nephew suspected its content. And was not happy in his suspicion.

When the courier left, Baresmanas gave Belisarius a quick look which, subtly, conveyed both apology and request.

Understanding, Belisarius rose and said: "It's late, and we're all tired. I think it would be best to continue this discussion later. We'll have plenty of opportunity to talk during our march south."

The other Romans immediately followed his example. Within two minutes, they were mounting their horses outside the pavilion and riding toward the Roman encampment nearby.

"Something's up," said Coutzes.

"Politics," announced his brother. "Got to be."

Belisarius was a bit startled. Abstractly, he knew Bouzes and Coutzes were not stupid. But the brothers had behaved with such thoroughgoing foolishness, during his previous encounter with them three years earlier, that he had not expected such quick perspicacity.

He said nothing in reply, however. Not until he and Maurice parted company with the brothers at their tent, and began riding toward the Thracian part of the encampment.

"He's right, you know," commented Maurice.

Belisarius nodded. "They've got a succession crisis. Khusrau's new to the throne and he's got lots of half-brothers. Ormazd, in particular, was not happy with the situation. Civil war probably would have broken out, if the Malwa hadn't invaded. Persians can sneer at us crude adoption-happy Romans all they want, but they've got their own sorry history of instability whenever the throne's up for grabs. Often enough in the past, when a Persian Emperor died, a civil war erupted. One claimant from the Sassanid dynasty fighting another. Three or four of them at once, sometimes."

They rode on a little further in silence. Then, Maurice smiled and remarked:

"I thought you did quite well, by the way. Lying through your teeth, I mean. The little touch about the crumbling brick walls of Ranapur was especially nice. Had such a ring of authenticity about it. Completely avoided the—uh, awkwardness—of explaining to a couple of Persian sahrdaran that your experience with fortifications in the new age of gunpowder comes from the advice of a fucking barbarian—a Gaul, no less—who won't even be born for twelve hundred years."

Belisarius grimaced. Maurice plowed on cheerfully.

"You did let one thing slip, though. When you mentioned that you hoped the only weapons the Malwa had were siege guns, rockets and grenades."

Belisarius winced. But Maurice seemed determined to till the entire field.

"Bad slip, that. Fortunately, the Persians didn't catch it. Or they might have asked: `what particular weapons do you fear seeing?' "

The chiliarch glanced at his general slyly. "Then what would you have said?"

Belisarius stared ahead, stiff-faced, silent.

"Oh, yes," chuckled Maurice. "Difficult, that would have been."

He mimicked Belisarius' distinctive baritone: "I hope we don't see mobile artillery. Or, even worse, handcannons. You know—the stuff we Romans have been trying to develop through our secret weapons project, guided by visions of the future from a magical jewel some of us call the Talisman of God. Not, mind you, with any instant success."

They were at the tent which they shared. Belisarius dismounted. On the ground, he stared up at Maurice's grinning countenance. Then said, firmly, even severely, "I have the utmost confidence in John of Rhodes."

Maurice shook his head. "That's because you've never worked with him."

The chiliarch dismounted from his own horse, and followed Belisarius into the tent. "I have, on the other hand," he grumbled. "Quite the exciting experience, that is."

Back | Next

Contents

Framed

Back | Next

Contents

Chapter 9

RHODES

Summer, 531 A.D.

"Get down, you idiot!"

Antonina ducked behind the barricade. Just in time. There was a sharp, nasty-sounding, explosive crack. An instant later, an object went whizzing overhead somewhere in her vicinity.

John's head popped up behind his own barricade. When Antonina gingerly looked up, she found the naval officer's blue eyes glaring at her fiercely.

"How many times do I have to tell you?" he demanded. "This stuff is dangerous!"

The other observers of the test, five Roman officers, were beginning to rise from behind the heavy wooden barricades which surrounded, on three sides, the cannon which had been tested.

The late, lamented cannon. Lying on its side, off the heavy wooden cradle, with one of the wrought iron bars which made up its barrel missing. Seeing that gaping, scorched split running down the entire length of the barrel, Antonina winced. The missing iron bar was the object which had whizzed past—and it could have easily taken off her head.

John stumped out from behind his barricade.

"That's it! That's it!" he cried. He transferred his glare to the little cluster of Roman officers and pointed a imperious finger at Antonina. "This woman is henceforth banned for all time from the testing area!" he pronounced. "You are encharged with enforcing that order!"

Hermogenes cleared his throat. "Can't do that, John. Antonina's in command, you know. Of you and me both. Direct imperial mandate. If you want to inform the Empress Theodora that you're over-riding her authority, you go right ahead and do it. Not me."

"'Druther piss on a dragon, myself," muttered one of the other officers, the young Syrian named Euphronius who served as Antonina's chief executive officer for the Theodoran Cohort.

The regular infantry officer standing next to him, who served Hermogenes in the same capacity, nodded sagely.

"So would I," agreed Callixtos. "A big, angry, wide-awake, hungry dragon—"

"—guarding its hoard," concluded another officer. This man, Ashot, was the commander of the Thracian bucellarii whom Belisarius had assigned to accompany his wife to Egypt.

The last of the officers said nothing. His name was Menander, and he was new to his post. A hecatontarch, he was now—theoretically, the commander of a hundred men. A lad of twenty, who had never before commanded anyone. But Menander's title was a mere formality. His real position was that of Antonina's "special adviser."

Menander was the third of the three cataphracts who had accompanied Belisarius in his expedition to India. The other two, Valentinian and Anastasius, had remained with the general as his personal bodyguards. Menander, who had little of their frightening expertise in slaughter, had been assigned a different task. Belisarius thought Menander had gained an excellent grasp of gunpowder weapons and tactics during the course of their adventures in India, and so he had presented him to his wife with praise so fulsome the fair-skinned youth turned beet-red.

So, unsure of himself, Menander said nothing. But, quite sure of his loyalties, he squared his shoulders and stepped to Antonina's side.

John, seeing the united opposition of the entire military command of the expedition, threw up his hands in despair.

"I'm not responsible then!" The blue-eyed glare focussed again on Antonina. "You are doomed, woman. Doomed, I say! Destined for an early grave!"

John began stumping about, arms akimbo. "Dismembered," he predicted. "Disemboweled," he forecast. "Decapitated."

With a serene air of augury: "Shredded into a bloody, corpuscular mass of mutilated and mangled flesh."

Antonina, from long experience, waited until John had stumped about for a minute or so before she spoke.

"Exactly what happened, John?" she asked.

As always, once his irascibility was properly exercised, the naval officer's quick mind moved back to the forefront.

John gave the splintered cannon a cursory glance. "Same thing that usually happens with these damned wrought-iron cannons," he growled. "If there's any flaw at all in the welding, one of the staves will burst."

He stepped over to the cannon and squatted next to it.

"Come here," he commanded. "I'll show you the problem."

Antonina came around the barricade and stooped next to him. A moment later, the five officers were also gathered around.

John pointed to one of the iron bars which ran down the length of the barrel. The barrel was made up of twelve such bars—eleven, now, on this ruptured one. The bars were an inch square in cross-section and about three feet long. The corners of each bar joined its mates on the inside of the barrel, forming a dodecagonal tube about three inches in diameter. On the outside diameter of the barrel, the gaps between the bars had been filled up with weld.

John pointed to the broken welds which had once held the missing bar in place. "That's where they always rupture," he said. "And they do it about a third of the time."

He scowled, more thoughtfully than angrily. "I wouldn't even mind if the things were predictable. Then I could just test each one of them, and discard the failures. Won't work. I've seen one of these things blow up after it had fired successfully at least twenty times."

Hesitantly, Euphronius spoke up. "I notice you don't have the same hoops welded around the barrel that you have on the handcannons. Wouldn't that strengthen the barrel, if you added them?"

Antonina watched John struggle with his temper. The struggle was very brief, however. When the naval officer spoke his voice was mild, and his tone simply that of patient explanation. It was one of the many things she liked about the Rhodian. For all of John's legendary irritability, Antonina had long ago realized that John was one of those rare hot-tempered people who is rude to superiors yet, as a rule, courteous to social inferiors.

"Yes, it would, Euphronius," he said. "But here's the problem. The handcannons are small, and reasonably light—even with the addition of a few reinforcing hoops. Furthermore, the powder charge isn't really all that big. But to accomplish the same purpose with these three-inchers, I'd have to surround the barrel with hoops down its entire length. That adds a lot of weight—"

He hesitated, calculating.

"Right now, these things weigh about one hundred and fifty pounds. If you add the hoops—as I said, we'd have to run the hoops all the way down the length, not just occasional reinforcement like the handcannons—you'd wind up with a barrel weighing another fifty pounds or so. Say two hundred pounds—and that's just the weight of the barrel. Doesn't include the cradle."

"That's not so bad," commented Ashot. "Especially if you use it on a warship."

"Yes and no," replied John. "It's true that the weight wouldn't matter on a ship. The problem is with the integrity of the iron."

He glanced at Antonina.

"One of the things Belisarius told me—and I've verified it with my own tests—is that these welded wrought-iron cannons have to be properly maintained. The damned things have to be cleaned in boiling water after each period of use, or else the powder residues build up and start corroding the metal." He grimaced. So did Ashot.

Hermogenes, staring back and forth at the two men, frowned with puzzlement. "I don't see the problem," he said. "Sure, that'd be a real nuisance for a land army, having to boil water and wash out the cannons. Especially in the desert. But on a ship—"

John's eyes bugged out. Before the naval officer could give vent to his outrage, Ashot intervened.

"Don't forget, John. He's never served at sea."

John clenched his jaws. "Obviously not," he growled.

Ashot, smiling, said to Hermogenes, "The one thing you do not want to do on a ship is build a big fire in order to boil a huge kettle of water. Believe me, Hermogenes, you don't. There's nothing in the world that'll burn like a ship. All that oil-soaked wood—pitch—rigging—"

"Damned ships are like so much kindling, just waiting to go up," concurred John. "Besides, what water would you use? Sea-water? That'd corrode the barrels even faster!"

Antonina straightened. "That's it, then. We'll go with cast bronze guns for the warships. And the field artillery. We'll restrict the wrought-iron weapons for the infantry's handguns."

"They'll still blow up, now and then," warned John.

Euphronius smiled, with surprising good cheer. "Yes, John, they will. I've seen it happen—had it happen to me, once—and it's a bit scary. But my grenadiers can handle it. The one nice thing about these wrought-iron guns, when they do go, is that they blow sideways, not back. Startling as hell, but it's not really that dangerous."

"Except to the man standing next to you," muttered Callixtos.

"Not really. Don't forget—the handcannons have those hoop reinforcements. So far, every time one of the guns has blown—which, by the way, doesn't happen all that often—the hoops have kept the staves from flying off like so many spears. What you get is ruptured pieces. Those can hurt you, sure—even kill you, maybe—but the odds aren't bad." Euphronius shrugged. "That's life. We're farmers and shepherds, Callixtos. Farming's dangerous too, believe it or not. Especially dealing with livestock. My cousin was crippled just last year, when—"

He broke off, waving aside the incident. All who watched the Syrian peasant-turned-grenadier were struck by the calm fatalism of the gesture.

"We'll manage," he repeated. The cheerful smile returned. "Though I will emphasize the importance of keeping the guns clean, to my grenadiers. Even if that means having to haul a bunch of heavy kettles around."

Now, chuckling:

"The wives'll scream bloody murder, of course, since they'll wind up doing most of the hauling."

John was still not satisfied. "Bronze is expensive," he complained. "Iron cannons are a lot cheaper."

Antonina shook her head.

"We'll just have to live with the cost. I won't subject my soldiers and sailors to that kind of gamble. Let the treasury officials wail all they want."

Grimly: "If they wail too much, I'll refer them to Theodora."

Her usual good humor returned. "Besides, John, we can make the giant fortress cannons out of wrought iron. Once we get to Alexandria. It won't matter what they weigh, since they'll never be moved once they're erected to defend the city. And there'll be no problem keeping them clean. The garrison gunners won't have anything else to do anyway. Hopefully, the guns'll never be used."

John scowled. "Are you sure about this?" he demanded.

He was not talking about the cannons, now. He was raising—again—the argument he had been having with Antonina since she arrived at Rhodes. The very first instruction Antonina had given John, almost the minute she set foot on the island, was to organize the transfer of the armaments complex he had so painstakingly built up, in its entirety, to Alexandria.

Antonina sighed.

"John, we've been over this a hundred times. Rhodes is just too isolated. The war with the Malwa will be won in the south. Egypt's the key. And besides—"

She hesitated. Like most Rhodians of her acquaintance, John had a fierce attachment to his native island. But—

"Face the truth, John. Rhodes isn't just isolated—it's too damn small."

She waved her hand toward the cluster of workshops some fifty yards away from the testing range. The workshops, like the testing area, were perched on a small bluff overlooking the sea. Behind them rose a steep and rocky ridge.

"This is a war like no other ever fought. We need to build a gigantic arms complex to fight it. That means Alexandria, John, not this little island. Alexandria's the second largest city in the Empire, after Constantinople, and it has by far the greatest concentration of manufactories, artisans, and skilled craftsmen. There's nowhere else we can put together the materials—and, most importantly, the workforce—quickly enough."

"Egypt's the richest agricultural province of the Empire, too," added Hermogenes. "So we won't have any problems keeping that workforce fed. Whereas here on Rhodes—"

He left off, gesturing at the rugged terrain surrounding them. Rhodes was famous, throughout the Mediterranean world, for the skill of its seamen and the savvy of its merchants. Both of which talents had developed, over the centuries, to compensate for the island's hardscrabble agriculture.

John stood up slowly. "All right," he sighed. Then, with a suspicious glance at Antonina:

"You sure this isn't just an elaborate scheme to justify a triumphant return to your native city?"

Antonina laughed. There was no humor in that sound. None at all. "When I left Alexandria, John, I swore I'd never set foot in that place again." For a moment, her beautiful face twisted into a harsh, cold mask. "Fuck Alexandria. All I remember is poverty, scraping, and—"

She paused, shrugged. All of the men standing around knew her history. All of them except Euph-ronius had long known.

The Syrian peasant had only learned that history three months earlier, when Antonina selected him as her executive officer and invited him and his wife to her villa for dinner. She had told them, then, over the wine after the meal. Watching carefully for their reaction. Euphronius had been shocked, a bit, but his admiration for Antonina had enabled him to overcome the moment.

His wife Mary had not been shocked at all. She, too, admired Antonina. But, unlike her husband, she understood the choices facing girls born into poverty. Mary had chosen a different path than Antonina—for a moment, her hand had caressed her husband's, remembering the tenderness of a sixteen-year-old shepherd boy—but she did not condemn the alternative. She had thought about it herself, more than once, before deciding to marry Euphronius and accept the life of a peasant's wife.

Antonina turned away. "Fuck Alexandria," she repeated.

Back | Next

Contents

Framed

Back | Next

Contents

Chapter 10

MESOPOTAMIA

Summer, 531 A.D.

An hour into the march from Callinicum, Bares-manas passed on the bad news.

"It seems we may face a civil war, after all, on top of the Malwa invasion," he said grimly.

The Persian nobleman stared out over the arid landscape of northern Mesopotamia. Other than the occasional oasis, the only relief from the bleak desolation was the Euphrates, half a mile east of the road the army was taking.

Belisarius cocked an eyebrow toward the sahrdaran, but said nothing. After a moment, Baresmanas sighed.

"I had hoped it would not come to this. But Ormazd was always a fool. Khusrau's half-brother has a great deal of support among some of the sahrdaran families, especially the Varazes and the Andigans. A large part of the Karen are favorable to him, also. And he is quite popular among the imperial vur-zurgan. All of that has apparently gone to his head.

"Stupid!" he snorted. "The great mass of the dehgans have made clear that their loyalty is to Khusrau. Without them—" Baresmanas shrugged.

Belisarius nodded thoughtfully, reviewing his knowledge of the power structure in Persia.

Persian society was rigidly divided into classes, and class position usually translated directly into political power. The seven sahrdaran families provided the satraps of major provinces and, often enough, the royalty of subordinate kingdoms. Below the great sahrdaran houses came the class of "grandees," whom the Persians called vurzurgan. The vuzurgan ruled small provinces, and filled the higher ranks of the imperial officialdom.

Finally, at the base of the Persian aristocracy, came the azadan—"men of noble birth." Most of these consisted of small landed gentry, that class which the Persians called the dehgans. It was the dehgans who provided the feared armored lancers which were the heart of the mighty Persian army.

So—Khusrau's rival Ormazd, for all that he had gained the support of many high-ranked noblemen, had failed to win the allegiance of the men who provided Persia's rulers with their mailed fist.

Belisarius smiled his crooked smile. "Even Aryan principles," he murmured, "have to take crude reality into account."

Baresmanas matched the sly smile with one of his own, saying: "It's your fault, actually."

Belisarius' eyes widened. "My fault? How in the world—"

"Ormazd's most powerful and influential supporter is Firuz. Who is a Karen, as you may know."

Belisarius shook his head. "No, I did not know. We are speaking of the same Firuz who—"

"Yes, indeed. The same Firuz—the same illustrious champion—who led the Aryan army at Mindouos. Led it to its most ignominious defeat in well over a century—at your hands, my friend."

Belisarius frowned. "I knew he had survived the battle. I even visited, while we held him captive, to pay my respects. He was quite rude, so my visit was very brief. But I did not know he was Karen, and I had no idea he held such sway in dynastic affairs."

Baresmanas chuckled scornfully. "Oh, yes. He is quite the favorite of imperial grandees, and the Mazda priesthood thinks well of him also. That favoritism, in fact, is what led to him being given the command of the army at Nisibis. Despite his obvious"—all humor vanished—"military incompetence."

Belisarius was distracted for a moment. A serpent slithering off the road had unsettled his mount. After calming the horse, he turned back to Baresmanas and said: "That would explain, I imagine, the hostility of the dehgans to his candidate Ormazd."

The sahrdaran tightened his lips. "They have not forgotten that insane charge he led at Mindouos, which trapped us against your field fortifications." He shuddered. "What a hideous slaughter!"

For a moment, the sahrdaran's face was drawn, almost haggard. Belisarius looked away, controlling his own grimace. It had been pure butchery in the center at Mindouos. Just as he had planned—trapping the Persian lancers against his infantry while he hammered them from the flank with his own heavy cavalry.

He sighed. Over the past months, he had become quite fond of Baresmanas. Yet he knew he would do it all again, if the necessity arose.

Something of his sentiments must have been clear to the Persian. Baresmanas leaned over and said, almost in a whisper:

"Such is war, my friend. In this, if nothing else, we are much alike—neither of us gives any credence to myths of glory and martial grandeur."

"As my chiliarch Maurice taught me," Belisarius replied harshly, "war is murder. Organized, systematic murder—nothing more and nothing less. It was the first thing he said to me on the day I assumed command as an officer. Seventeen, I was, at the time. But I had enough sense to ask my chief subordinate—he was a decarch, then—his opinion."

Baresmanas twisted in his saddle, looking back at the long column which followed them.

"Where is Maurice, by the way? I did not see him when we set out this morning." He studied the column more closely. "For that matter, where are your two bodyguards?"

Now, Belisarius did grimace. "There's been a problem. I asked Maurice to deal with it. I sent Valentinian and Anastasius with him, along with a regiment of my bucellarii."

Baresmanas eyed him shrewdly. "Looting?"

The general's grimace deepened. "Worse. In Callinicum last night, some of the Constantinople garrison got drunk in a tavern and raped the girl who was serving them. The tavernkeeper's own daughter, as it happened. When the tavernkeeper and his two sons tried to intervene, the soldiers murdered all three of them."

Baresmanas shook his head. "It happens. Especially with troops—"

"Not in my army it doesn't." The general's jaws were tight. "Not more than once, anyway."

"You have punished the culprits."

"I had all eight of them beheaded."

Baresmanas was silent for a moment. An experienced officer, he understood full well the implications. Armies, like empires, have their own internal divisions.

"You are expecting trouble from the Constantinople garrison troops," he stated. "They will resent the execution of their comrades by your Thracian retinue."

"They can resent it all they want," snarled Belisarius. "Just so long as they've learned to fear my bucellarii."

He twisted in his saddle, looking back.

"The reason Maurice and his men aren't at the front of the army this morning is because they're riding on the flanks of the Constantinople troops. Dragging eight bodies behind them on ropes. And a sack full of eight heads."

He turned back, his face set in a cold glare. "We've got enough problems to deal with. If those garrison soldiers get the idea they can run wild in a Roman town, just imagine what they'd do once we reach Persian territory."

Baresmanas pursed his lips. "That would be difficult. Especially with Ormazd stirring up trouble against what he's calling Khusrau's `capitulation' to the Roman Empire."

Belisarius chuckled. "The Malwa Empire is ravaging Persia and Ormazd is denouncing his half-brother for finding an ally?"

The sahrdaran shrugged. "If it weren't that, it would be something else. The man's ambitions are unchecked. We had hoped he would accept his status, but—"

Belisarius looked at him directly. "What exactly is the news that was brought by your courier?"

"It is not news, Belisarius, so much as an assessment. After the Malwa invaded, Ormazd formally acquiesced to Khusrau's assumption of the throne. In return, Khusrau named him satrap of northern Mesopotamia—the rich province we call Asuristan and you call by its ancient name of Assyria. Ormazd pledged to bring thirty thousand troops to the Emperor's aid at Babylon. We have learned that he has in fact gathered those troops, but is remaining encamped near the capital at Ctesiphon. At your ancient Greek city of Seleucia, in fact, just across the Tigris."

The sahrdaran bestowed his own cold glare on the landscape. "Well positioned, in short, to seize our capital. And serving no use in the war against Malwa. We suspect the worst."

"You think Ormazd is in collusion with the Malwa?"

Baresmanas heaved a sigh.

"Who is to know? For myself, I do not believe so—not at the moment, at least. I think Ormazd is simply waiting on the side, ready to strike if Khusrau is driven out of Babylon." He rubbed his face wearily. "I must also tell you, Belisarius, that the courier brought instructions for me. Once we reach Peroz-Shapur, I will have to part company with your army. I am instructed by the Emperor to take Kurush and my soldiers—and the remainder of my household troops, who await me at Peroz-Shapur—to Ormazd's camp."

"And do what?" asked Belisarius.

Baresmanas shrugged. "Whatever I can. `Encourage' Ormazd, you might say, to join the battle against the invaders."

Belisarius eyed him for a moment. "How many household troops will there be at Peroz-Shapur?"

"Two thousand, possibly three."

Belisarius looked over his shoulder, as if to gauge Baresmanas' forces. The seven hundred Persian cavalrymen who escorted the sahrdaran were barely visible further back in the long column.

"Less than four thousand men," he murmured. "That's not going to be much of an encouragement."

Again, Baresmanas shrugged.

Belisarius broke into a grin. "Such a diplomat! Do you mean to tell me that Emperor Khusrau made no suggestion that you might request a bit of help from his Roman allies?"

Baresmanas glanced at him. "Well . . . The courier did mention, as a matter of fact, that the Emperor had idly mused that if the Roman commander were to be suddenly taken by a desire to see the ancient ruins of the glorious former capital of the Greek Seleucids—that he would have no objections." Baresmanas nodded. "None whatsoever."

Belisarius scratched his chin. "Seleucia. Yes, yes. I feel a sudden hankering to see the place. Been a life-long dream, in fact."

They rode on for a bit, in companionable silence, until Belisarius remarked: "Seleucia wasn't actually founded by Greeks, by the way. Macedonians."

Baresmanas waved his hand. "Please, Belisarius! You can hardly expect a pureblood Aryan to understand these petty distinctions. As far as we are concerned, you mongrels from the west come in only two varieties. Bad Greeks and worse Greeks."

Back | Next

Contents

Framed

Back | Next

Contents

Chapter 11

Two days later, the long-simmering discontent of the Constantinople troops came to a boil. After the midday break, when the order was given to resume the march, the garrison soldiers remained squatting by their campfires, refusing to mount up.

Their action had obviously been coordinated in advance. Several of his Thracian bucellarii, including Maurice, reported to Belisarius that the garrison troopers' sub-officers had been seen circulating through the route camp during the break. The top officers of the Constantinople soldiers, the chiliarch and the tribunes, were apparently not involved directly. But they were just as apparently making no effort to restore discipline to their troops.

"It's an organized mutiny," concluded Maurice angrily. "This is not just some spontaneous outburst."

Belisarius made a calming gesture with his hand. For a moment, he stared at the Euphrates, as if seeking inspiration from its placidly moving waters. As usual, whenever possible, the army had taken its mid-day break at a place where the road ran next to the river.

He wiped his face with a cloth. The heat was oppressive, even in the shade provided by the canopy which his men had erected for him at the break. The shelter was not a tent—simply a canvas stretched across six poles. Enough to provide some relief from the sun, while not blocking the slight breeze.

"Let's not use that term," the general stated firmly. He met Maurice's glare with a calm gaze. " `Mutiny' isn't just a curse word, Maurice. It's also a legal definition. If I call this a mutiny, I am required by imperial edict to deal with it in specific ways. Ways which, at the moment, I am not convinced are necessary. Or wise."

Belisarius scanned the faces of the other men crowded into the shelter of the lean-to. All of the top commanders of the army were there, except for the officers in charge of the Constantinople troops. Their absence made their own shaky allegiance quite clear.

Baresmanas and Kurush were also standing there. Belisarius decided to deal with that problem first.

"I would appreciate it, Kurush, if you would resume the march with your own troops. Move as slowly as you can, without obviously dawdling, so that we Romans can catch up to you as soon as this problem is settled. But, for the moment, I think it would be best if—"

Kurush nodded. "There's no need to explain, Belisarius. You don't need Aryan soldiers mixed into this brew. We'd just become another source of tension."

He turned away, moving with his usual nervous energy, and began giving quick orders to his subordinates. Baresmanas followed, after giving Belisarius a supportive smile.

With none but Romans now present, the atmosphere eased a bit. Or, it might be better to say, Roman inhibitions relaxed.

"Call it what you want," snarled Coutzes. "I think you ought to give those fucking garrison commanders the same treatment you gave those eight fucking—"

"I think we ought to hear what the general thinks," interjected Bouzes. He laid a restraining hand on his brother's arm. "He is noted for his cunning, you know. Or have you forgotten?"

Coutzes made a sour face, but fell silent. Bouzes grinned at Belisarius. "Perhaps we might announce the suddenly-discovered presence of a Malwa pay caravan?" he suggested cheerfully. "Send the garritroopers off on a `reconnaissance-in-force'?"

All the officers standing around erupted in laughter, except Belisarius. But even he, in the humor of the moment, could not help returning Bouzes' grin.

In the few days since Bouzes and Coutzes had joined his forces, Belisarius had come to share Sittas and Hermogenes' assessment of the two brothers. Neither one, it was true—especially Coutzes—had entirely shed their youthful tendencies toward hot-headedness. But those tendencies, in the three years since Mindouos, had clearly been tempered by experience.

Belisarius' grin faded, but a smile remained. Yes, he had already decided that he approved of the Thracian brothers. Not all men have the temperament to learn from experience. Belisarius himself did, and he prized that ability in others.

Humor, he thought, was the key—especially the ability to laugh at oneself. When he heard Bouzes and Coutzes, in Callinicum, invite Maurice to join them in a "reconnaissance-in-force" to the nearest tavern, he knew the brothers would work out just fine.

He shook off the humor. His problem remained, and it was not comical in the least. "I want to settle this without bloodshed," he announced. "And I don't think it's needed, anyway. Maurice, I'm not quibbling with you over legal definitions. I simply think that you're misreading the situation."

Maurice tugged his beard. "Maybe," he said, grudgingly. "But—"

Again, Belisarius held up a hand. Maurice shrugged, slightly, and fell silent.

The general now turned toward Timasius, the commander of the five hundred Illyrian cavalrymen given to him by Germanicus.

"Your men are the key to the situation," he announced. "Key, at least, to the way I handle it. Where do they stand?"

Timasius frowned. "Stand? Exactly how do you mean that, general?"

Timasius' thick accent—like most Illyrians from Dacia, his native language was Latin rather than Greek—always made him seem a bit dull-witted. At first, Belisarius had dismissed the impression, until further acquaintance with the man had led him to the conclusion that Timasius was, in fact, a bit on the dim side. He seemed a competent enough officer, true, when dealing with routine matters. But—

Belisarius decided he had no time to be anything other than blunt and direct.

"What I mean, Timasius, is that you Illyrians have also been complaining loudly since we began the march two months ago." He waved down the officer's gathering sputter of protest. "I am not accusing you of anything! I am simply stating a fact."

Timasius lapsed into mulish, resentful silence. Belisarius tightened his jaws, prepared to drive the matter through. But it proved unnecessary. Timasius' chief subordinate, a hecatontarch by the name of Liberius, spoke up.

"It's not the same, general. It's true, our men have been grousing a lot—but that's just due to the unaccustomed exertions of this forced march."

The man scowled. On his heavy-set, low-browed face, the expression made him seem like an absolute dullard. But his ensuing words contradicted the impression.

"You've got to distinguish between that and what's eating the Constantinople men. They're a lot of pampered garrison troops. True, they're not nobility, except the officers—not that unit—but they've picked up the attitude. They're used to lording it over everybody, friend and foe alike." The scowl deepened. The man's brow disappeared almost completely. "Especially over their own, the snotty bastards. That girl in Callinicum wasn't the first tavern maid they've been free with, you can be sure of that. Probably been quite a few in Constantinople itself given that same treatment—and had it hushed up afterward, by the capital's authorities."

A little growl from several of the other officers under the canopy indicated their concurrence.

"Illyrian soldiers aren't exactly famous for their gentle manners, either," commented Belisarius mildly.

Liberius winced. In point of fact, Illyrian troops had the reputation of being the most atrocity-prone of any Roman army, other than outright mercenaries.

"It's still not the same," he stated—forcefully, but not sullenly. Belisarius was impressed by the man's dispassionate composure.

Liberius gestured toward Bouzes and Coutzes, and the other officers from the Syrian army. "These lads are used to dealing with Persians. Civilized, the Medes are. Sure, when war breaks out both sides have been known to act badly. But, even then, it's a matter between empires. And in between the wars—which is most of the time—the borderlands are quiet and peaceful."

Several of the Syrian officers nodded. Liberius continued: "What you don't get is what we have in Illyricum—constant, unending skirmishes with a lot of barbarian savages. Border villages ravaged by some band of Goths or Avars who are just engaging in casual plunder. Their own kings—if you can call them that—don't even know about it, most of the time." He shrugged. "So we repay the favor on the nearest barbarian village."

The scowl returned in full force. "That is not the same thing as raping a girl in your own town—and then murdering half her family in the bargain!"

Again, the growl of agreement swept the room. Louder, this time. Much louder.

Belisarius glanced at Timasius. Liberius' slow-thinking commander had finally caught up with his subordinate's thoughts. He too, now, was nodding vehemently.

Belisarius was satisfied. For the moment, at least. But he made a note to speak to the Illyrian commanders in the near future. To remind them that they would soon be operating in Persia, and that the treatment which Illyrians were accustomed to handing out to barbarians in the trans-Danube would not be tolerated in Mesopotamia.

He moved out of the shade, toward his horse. "All right, then."

His officers made to follow. Belisarius waved them back. "No," he announced. "I'll handle this myself."

"What?" demanded Coutzes. "You're not taking anyone with you?"

Belisarius smiled crookedly, holding up two fingers.

"Two." He pointed toward Valentinian and Anas-tasius, who had been waiting just outside the canopy throughout the conference. As soon as they saw his gesture, the two cataphracts began mounting their horses.

Once he was on his own horse, Belisarius smiled down at his officers—all of whom, except Maurice, were staring at him as if he were insane.

"Two should be enough," he announced placidly, and spurred his horse into motion.

As the three men began riding off, Valentinian muttered something under his breath.

"What did he say?" wondered Bouzes. "I didn't catch it."

Maurice smiled, thinly. "I think he said `piss on crazy strategoi.' "

He turned back toward the shade of the shelter. "But maybe not. Be terribly disrespectful of the high command! Maybe he just said `wish on daisies, attaboy.' Encouraging his horse, you know. Poor beast's probably as sick of this desert as we are."

* * *

As they headed down the road, Belisarius waved Valentinian and Anastasius forward. Once the two men were riding on either side, he said:

"Don't touch your weapons unless the muti—ah, dispirited troops—take up theirs."

He gave both men a hard glance. Anastasius' heavy face held no expression. Valentinian scowled, but made no open protest.

A thin smile came to the general's face. "Mainly, what I want you to do after we arrive at the Greeks' camp is to disagree with me."

Anastasius' eyes widened. "Disagree, sir?"

Belisarius nodded. "Yes. Disagree. Not too openly, mind. I am your commanding officer, after all. But I want you to make clear, in no uncertain terms, that you think I'm an idiot."

Anastasius frowned. Valentinian muttered.

"What was that last, Valentinian?" queried Belisarius. "I'm not sure I caught it."

Silence. Anastasius rumbled: "He said: `That won't be hard.' "

"That's what I thought he said," mused Belisarius. He grinned. "Well! You won't have any difficulty with the assignment, then. It'll come naturally to you."

Valentinian muttered again, at some length. Anastasius, not waiting for a cue, interpreted. "He said—I'm summarizing—that clever fellows usually wind up outsmarting themselves. Words to that effect."

Belisarius frowned. "That's all? It seemed to me he muttered quite a few more words than that. Entire sentences, even."

Anastasius shook his head sadly. "Most of the other words were just useless adjectives. Very redundant." The giant bestowed a reproving glance on his comrade. "He's given to profanity."

They were nearing the encampment of the Con-stantinople garrison troops. Belisarius spurred his horse into a trot. After Valentinian and Anastasius dropped back to their usual position as his bodyguards, Belisarius cocked his head and said:

"Remember. Disagree. Disapprove. If I say something reasonable, scowl. Pleasant, snarl. Calm and soothing—spit on the ground."

Mutter, mutter, mutter.

Belisarius repressed his smile. He did not ask for a translation. He was quite sure the words had been pure profanity.

They began encountering the first outposts of the Constantinople garrison. Within a minute, trotting forward, they passed several hundred soldiers, huddled in small groups at the outer perimeter of the route camp. As Belisarius had expected, a large number of the troops were holding back from the body of men milling around in the center. These would be the faint-hearts and the fence-sitters—or the "semi-loyalists," if you preferred.

He made it a point to bestow a very cordial smile upon all those men. Even a verbal greeting, here and there. Valentinian and Anastasius immediately responded with their own glowers, which Valentinian accompanied by a nonstop muttering. The garrison troops responded to the general's smile, in the main, with expressions of uncertainty. But Belisarius noted that a number of them managed their own smiles in return. Timid smiles; sickly smiles—but smiles nonetheless.

I knew it, he thought, with considerable self-satisfaction.

Aide's voice came into his mind. Knew what? And what is going on? I am confused.

Belisarius hesitated, before responding. To his—"its," technically, but the general had long since come to think of Aide as "he"—consciousness, insubordination and rebellion were bizarre conceptions. Aide had been produced by a race of intelligent crystals in the far distant future and sent back in time, to save them from enslavement (and possibly outright destruction) by those they called the "new gods." The intelligence of those crystals was utterly inhuman, in many ways. One of those ways was their lack of individuality. Each crystal, though distinct, was a part of their collective mentality—just as each crystal, in its turn, was the composite being created by the ever-moving facets which generated that strange intelligence. To those crystals, and to Aide, the type of internal discord and dispute which humans took for granted was almost unfathomable.

We are having what we call a "mutiny," Aide. Or a "rebellion."

From long experience, Belisarius had learned how to project his own visions into the consciousness of Aide. He had found that such visions often served as a better means of communication than words.

He did so now, summoning up images of various mutinies and rebellions of the past, culminating with the revolt of Spartacus and its gruesome finale.

He could sense the facets flashing around the visions, trying to absorb their essence.

While they did so, and Aide ruminated, Belisarius and his bodyguards reached the center of the camp. At least four hundred soldiers from the Constantinople garrison were clustered there, most of them in small groups centered around the older soldiers.

Belisarius was not surprised. The men, he gauged, were leaning heavily on the judgements and opinions of their squad leaders and immediate superiors. This was an army led by pentarchs, decarchs, and hecatontarchs, now, not officers.

Good. I can deal with those veterans. They'll be sullen and angry, but they'll also be thinking about their pensions. Unlike the officers, they don't have rich estates to retire to.

Silence fell over the mob. Belisarius slowly rode his horse into the very center of the crowd. After drawing up his mount, he scanned the soldiers staring up at him with a long, calm gaze.

A thought came from Aide.

This is stupid. Your plan is ridiculous.

The facets had reached their conclusion, firmly and surely, from their assessment of the general's vision. Especially the last vision, the suppression of the Spartacus rebellion.

Preposterous. Absurd. Irrational. You cannot possibly crucify all these men. There is not that much wood in the area.

Belisarius struggled mightily with sudden laughter. He managed, barely, to transform the hilarity into good cheer.

So it was, to their astonishment, that the mutinous soldiers of the Constantinople garrison witnessed their commanding general, whom they assumed had come to thunder threats and condemnation, bestow upon them a smile of sheer goodwill.

They barely noticed the savage snarls on the faces of his two companions. Only two or three even took umbrage at Valentinian's loud expectoration.

An officer scurried forward, after pushing his way through the first line of the crowd standing around the general. Four other officers followed.

Belisarius recognized them immediately. The officer in front was Sunicas, the chiliarch who commanded the Constantinople troops. The men following him were the tribunes who served as his chief subordinates. He knew only one of them by name—Boraides.

When the five men drew up alongside his horse, Belisarius simply looked down upon them, cocking an eyebrow, but saying nothing.

"We have a problem here, general," stated Sunicas. "As you can see, the men—"

"We certainly do!" boomed Belisarius. His voice was startlingly loud, enough so that an instant silence fell over the entire mob of soldiers. The general was so soft-spoken, as a rule, that men tended to forget that his powerful baritone had been trained to pierce the din of battles.

Belisarius, again, scanned the immediate circle of soldiers. This time, however, there was nothing benign in that gaze. His scrutiny was intent and purposeful.

He pointed to one of the soldiers in the inner ring. A hecantontarch, young for his rank. The man was bigger than average, and very burly. He was also quite a handsome man, in a large-nosed and strong-featured way. But beneath the outward appearance of a muscular bruiser, Belisarius did not miss the intelligence in the man's brown eyes. Nor the steadiness of his gaze. "What is your name?" he asked.

"Agathius." The hecatontarch's expression was grim and tightly-held, and his answer had been given in a curt growl which bordered on disrespect. But the general was much more impressed by the man's instant willingness to identify himself.

Belisarius waved his hand in a casual little gesture which encompassed the entire encampment. "You are in command of these men." The statement was firm, but matter-of-fact. Much like a man might announce that the sun rises in the east.

Agathius frowned.

"You are in command of these men," repeated Belisarius. "Now. Today."

Agathius' frown deepened. For a moment, he began to look toward the men at his side. But then—to Belisarius' delight—he squared his broad shoulders and lifted his head. The frown vanished, replaced by a look of stony determination. "You may say so, yes."

"What do you say?" came the general's immediate response.

Agathius hesitated, for the briefest instant. Then, shrugging: "Yes."

Belisarius waited, staring at him. After a moment, grudgingly, Agathius added: "General. Sir."

Belisarius waited, staring at him. Agathius stared back. A little look of surprise flitted across his face, then. The young hecatontarch blew out his cheeks and stood very erect. "I am in command here, sir. Today. Now."

Belisarius nodded. "Tomorrow, also," he said. Very pleasantly, as if announcing good weather. "And, I hope, for many days to come."

From the corner of his eye, Belisarius caught a glimpse of Anastasius' bug-eyed glare of disapproval. He heard Valentinian mutter something. The words were too soft to understand, but the sullen tone was not.

The general shifted his gaze to the chiliarch and the tribunes standing by his stirrup. The calm, mild expression on his face vanished—replaced by pitiless condemnation.

"You are relieved of command, Sunicas. Your tribunes also. I want you on the road to Constantinople within the hour. You may take your personal gear with you. And your servants, of course. Nothing else."

Sunicas goggled. The tribune Boraides exclaimed: "You can't do that! On what grounds?"

Belisarius heard Valentinian immediately growl: "Quite right!" Then: loud muttering, in which the words "outrageous" and "unjust" figured prominently. Anastasius, for his part, simply glowered at the newly-promoted mutineer Agathius. But, oh, such a wondrous glower it was! Worthy of a Titan!

The hecatontarch's returning glare was a more modest affair. Merely Herculean. The sub-officers of the Constantinople troops in the circle began closing ranks with Agathius. In seconds, three other hecatontarchs and perhaps a dozen decarchs were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, matching hard stares with the Thracian cataphracts.

Belisarius immediately sided with the Greek soldiers.

Twisting sharply in his saddle, he bestowed his own very respectable glower on Valentinian and Anastasius.

"I'll stand for no insubordination!" he snapped. "Do you understand?" He almost added "from knaves and varlets," but decided that would be a bit overmuch.

Valentinian and Anastasius lowered their heads submissively. But not too submissively, Belisarius was pleased to see. Their stance exuded that of the chastened but still stubborn underlings, resentful of their commander's grotesque violation of military norms and protocol.

Belisarius whipped his harsh gaze back to Boraides.

"On what grounds?" he demanded. "On what grounds?"

The general's own glower now ascended into the mythic heights. Worthy of Theseus, perhaps, confronting the minotaur. "On the grounds of gross incompetence!" he roared.

Again, he swept his hand in a circle. The gesture, this time, was neither little nor casual. He stood erect in his stirrups, moving his arm as if to command the tides. "The first duty of any commander is to command," he bellowed. "You have obviously failed in that duty. These men are not under your command. You have admitted as much yourself." He sat back in the saddle. "Therefore I have replaced you with a man who is capable of command." He pointed to Agathius. "Him. He is the new chiliarch of this unit."

Now looking at Agathius, Belisarius gestured toward Sunicas and the tribunes. "See to it, Agathius. I want these—these fellows—on the road. Within the hour."

Agathius stared at the general. Belisarius met his gaze with calm assurance. After a few seconds, the new chiliarch cocked his head toward one of the men standing next to him, without taking his eyes from Belisarius, and murmured:

"Take care of it, Cyril. You heard the general. Within the hour."

Cyril, a scarred veteran perhaps ten years older than Agathius, gave his newly-promoted superior a sly little grin. "As you wish, sir!" he boomed.

Cyril strode toward Sunicas and the tribunes. His grin widened, widened. Became rather evil, in fact. "You've got your orders. Move."

The former commanding officers ogled him. Cyril made a little gesture. Four decarchs closed ranks with him, fingering their swords.

Anastasius' eyes bugged out. His expression verged on apoplexy.

Valentinian muttered. The words "outrageous" and "unjust" were, again, distinct. Belisarius thought he also heard the phrase "oh, heavens, what shall we do?" But, maybe not.

He glared at Anastasius and Valentinian. The cataphracts avoided his gaze, but, still, held their stubborn pose. Several more sub-officers from the garrison troops sidled forward. Two of them went to assist Cyril and his decarchs—who were now, almost physically, driving the former commanders off—but most of them edged toward Belisarius. Prepared, it was clear, to defend the general against his own bodyguards. If necessary.

"Well, that's that," announced Belisarius.

He began climbing down from his horse. A pentarch hastened forward to assist him.

Once on the ground, Belisarius strode over to Agathius and said: "It's a miserably hot day. Would you have some wine, by any chance?"

This time, Agathius did not hesitate for more than a second. "Yes, sir. We do. May we offer you some?"

"I would be delighted. And let us take the opportunity to become acquainted. I should like to be introduced to your subordinates, also. You'll need to appoint new tribunes, of course." He shrugged. "I leave it to your judgement to select them. You know your men better than I do."

Agathius eyed him wonderingly, but said nothing. He led the way to a canvas shelter nearby. Most of the sub-officers in the circle followed, in a little mob. Only a handful remained behind, faithfully at their new post, keeping a vigilant eye on the general's sullen and untrustworthy bodyguards.

Within seconds, amphorae began appearing and wine was poured. Within two minutes, Belisarius was squatting in the shelter of the canopy, with no fewer than three dozen of the Constantinople troopers' chief sub-officers forming an audience. The men were very tightly packed, trying to crowd their way into the shade.

For all the world, the impromptu gathering had the flavor of a mid-afternoon chat.

"All right," said Belisarius pleasantly, after finishing his cup. "I'll tell you what I want. Then you'll tell me what you want. Then we'll see if we can reach a settlement."

He scanned the small crowd briefly, before settling his gaze on Agathius.

"I want an end to the slackness of your marching order. The men can grouse and grumble all they want, but I want them to do it in formation. Some reasonable approximation of it, at least." He held out his cup. A decarch refilled it.

"I realize that you're unaccustomed to the conditions, here in the desert—and that it's been a long time since you've had to undertake a forced march like this. But enough's enough. You're not weaklings, for the sake of Christ. You've had two months to get into shape! The truth is, I don't think the march is that hard on you, anymore. You've just gotten into the habit of resentfulness."

He stopped to sip at his wine, gazing at Agath-ius. The new chiliarch took a deep breath. For a moment, his eyes wandered, staring out at the harsh-lit desert.

One of the sub-officers behind him started to say something—a protest, by the tone—but Agathius waved him down. "Shut up, Paul," he growled. "Tell the truth, I'm sick of it myself."

His eyes returned to Belisarius. He nodded. "All right, general. I'll see to it. What else?"

"I want you to accept some detachments from the Army of Syria. Light cavalry." A crooked smile. "Call them advisers. Part of the problem is that you've no experience in the desert, and you've been too arrogant to listen to anyone."

He pointed to the canvas stretched over his head. "You didn't figure this out, for instance, until a week ago. Till then you set up regular tents, every night, and sweltered without a breeze."

Agathius grimaced. Belisarius plowed on.

"There's been a hundred little things like that. Your cocksure capital city attitude has done nothing but make your life harder, and caused resentment in the other units. I want it to stop. I'll have the Syrian units send you some light auxiliaries. They'll be Arabs, the most of them—know the desert better than anyone. If you treat them properly, they'll be a big help to you."

Agathius rubbed the back of his neck. "Agreed. What else?"

Belisarius shrugged. "What I expect from all my other units. Henceforth, Agathius, you will attend the command conferences. Bring your tribunes. A few hecatontarchs, if you want. But don't bring many—I like my conferences to be small enough that we can have a real discussion and get some work done. I'm not given to speeches."

Agathius eyed him skeptically.

"And what else?"

"Nothing." Belisarius drained the cup, held it out. Again, it was refilled.

"Your turn," he said mildly.

Agathius twitched his shoulders irritably.

"Ah—!" he exclaimed. He was silent, for a moment, frowning. Then:

"It's like this, general. The real problem isn't the march, and it isn't the desert. As you said, we've gotten used to it by now. It's—" He gestured vaguely. "It's the way we got hauled out of the barracks, without a day's notice, and sent off on this damned expedition. Off to Mesopotamia, for the sake of Christ, while—"

He lapsed into a bitter silence. One of the decarchs behind him piped up.

"While all the fucking noble units got to stay behind, cozy in the capital. Living like lords."

Belisarius lifted his head, laughing. "Well, of course!" he exclaimed. "The last thing I wanted on this expedition was a bunch of aristocrats."

He shook his head ruefully. "God, think of it! Every cataphract in those units can't move without twelve servants and his own personal baggage train. I'd be lucky to make five miles a day."

He bestowed a very approving smile on the soldiers squatting around him.

"I told Sittas I wanted his best fighting unit. Had quite a set-to with him, I did. Naturally, he tried to fob off his most useless parade ground troops on me, but I wouldn't have it. `Fighters,' I said. Fighters, Sittas. I've got no use for anything else."

The Greeks' chests swelled a bit. Their heads lifted.

Belisarius drained his cup. Held it out for another refill.

"Stop worrying about those lordly troops, lounging in their barracks in Constantinople. Within a year, you'll have enough booty to sneer at them. Not to mention a glorious name and the gratitude of Rome."

The soldiers' gaze became eager. "Booty, sir?" asked one. "Do you think so? We'd heard—"

He fell silent. Another spoke: "We'd heard you frown on booty, sir."

Belisarius' eyes widened. "From whom did you hear that? Not the Syrian soldiers! Each one of those lads came away from Mindouos with more treasure than they knew what to do with. And you certainly didn't hear it from my Thracian cataphracts!"

The Greeks exchanged glances with each other. Suddenly, Cyril laughed.

"We heard it from the other garrison units. In Constantinople. They said Belisarius was a delicate sort, who wouldn't let his men enjoy the gleanings of a campaign."

Belisarius' good humor vanished. "That's not booty. That's looting. And they're damn well right about that!"

He brought a full Homeric scowl to bear.

"I won't tolerate looting and indiscipline. I never have, and I never will. Have no doubt about that, any of you. The penalty for looting in my army is fifty lashes. And I'll execute a man who murders and rapes. On the second offense, in the same unit, the officer in command'll be strapped to the whipping post himself. Or hung."

He drained his cup. Held it out. Immediately drained the refill. Held it out again. The soldiers eyed the cup, then him. To all appearances, the general seemed not in the slightest affected by the wine he had drunk.

"Make no mistake about it," he said. Softly, but very firmly. "If you can't abide by those rules—"

He tossed his head dismissively. "—then follow those five bums back to your cozy barracks in Constantinople."

He drained the cup. Held it out. As it was being refilled, he remarked casually: "The reason those noble fellows in Constantinople are confused on this point is because those fine aristocratic champions don't know what a campaign looks like in the first place. When's the last time they went to war?"

A chuckle swept through the little crowd.

"A campaign, men, is when you set out to thrash the enemy senseless and do it. Once that job's done—we call it winning the war—booty's no problem at all. But we're not talking about `gleanings' here."

Scornfully: " `Gleanings' means stealing silver plate from a peasant's hut. His only silver plate, if he has one in the first place. Or his chickens. Booty means the wealth of empires, disgorged to their con-querors."

He lifted his cup, waved it in the general direction of the east.

"There's no empire in the world richer than the Malwa. And they travel in style, too, let me tell you. When I was at Ranapur, the Malwa Emperor erected a pavilion damned near as big as the Great Palace. And you wouldn't believe what he filled it with! His throne alone—his `traveling chair,' he called it—was made of solid—"

Belisarius continued in this happy vein for another ten minutes. Half that time he spent regaling his audience with tales of Malwa treasure, spoken in a tone of awe and wonder. The other half, with tales of Malwa fecklessness and cowardice, in tones of scorn and derision.

None of it was, quite, outright lies. None of it was, quite, cold sober truth.

By the time he finished, he had emptied another amphora of wine. His audience had emptied their fair share, also.

He glanced up at the sun. Yawned.

"Ah, hell. It's too late to start a proper march now, anyway."

He rose to his feet.

"Give me a minute, boys, to give the order. Then we can get down to some serious drinking."

The soldiers ogled him. The general was not only standing erect, with perfect ease, he wasn't even swaying. Belisarius strode toward Valentinian and Anastasius. His two cataphracts had remained on their horses, sweating rivers in the hot sun. Glaring resentfully at the Constantinople troops.

In a loud voice, he called out to them: "Pass the word to Maurice! We'll take a break for the rest of the day. Resume the march tomorrow morning."

He began to turn away, waving his hand in a gesture of dismissal. Then, as if taken by a sudden happy thought, added: "And tell my servants to bring some wine! Plenty of it—enough for all of us. Good vintage, too—d'ye hear? I'll have no swill for these men!"

By the time the servants appeared, leading a small mule train carrying many large amphorae, the encampment of the Constantinople troops had turned into a cheerful celebration. The audience surrounding the general had grown much, much larger. Dozens of common soldiers—hundreds, counting those milling on the edges—had crowded around the sub-officers in the inner circle.

When the sun fell, Belisarius ordered the canopy dismantled, so that all of his soldiers could hear him better. That done, he continued his tales.

Tales of Malwa treasure and Malwa military incompetence, of course. But, woven among those tunes, were other melodies as well. He spoke of the huge numbers of the Malwa, which could only be thwarted by disciplined and spirited troops. Of the valor of their Persian allies, and the imperative necessity of not offending them with misconduct. Of his own nature as a general—good-hearted but, when necessary, firm.

But most of all, as the evening progressed, he spoke of Rome. Rome, and its thousand years of glory. Rome, often defeated in battle—rarely in war. Rome, savage when it needed to be—but, in the end, an empire of laws. Whose very emperor—and here his troops suddenly remembered, with not a little awe, that the genial man sharing their cups was the Emperor's own father—only ruled with the consent of the governed. Especially the consent of those valiant men whose blood and courage had forged Rome and kept it safe through the centuries.

The very men who shared his wine.

He drained his last cup. "I believe I've had enough," he announced. He rose to his feet—slowly, carefully, but without staggering—and eyed his horse. "Fuck it," he muttered. "Too far to ride."

He turned toward Agathius. "With your permission, chiliarch, I'd like to make my bed here tonight."

Agathius' eyes widened. He rose himself, rather shakily, and stared about. He seemed both startled and a bit embarassed. "We don't have much in the way of—"

Belisarius casually waved his hand.

"A blanket'll do. Often enough I've used my saddle for a pillow, on campaign."

Two decarchs hastily scrambled about, digging up the best blanket they could find.

As they saw to that task, Belisarius straightened and said, very loudly:

"If there is any request that you have, make it now. It will be granted, if it is within my power to do so."

There was a moment's hesitation. Then, a heca-tontarch cleared his throat and said: "It's about the men you've—your Thracians have been dragging alongside us."

A little mutter of agreement swept the crowd. There was resentment in that mutter, even some anger, but nothing in the way of hot fury.

Agathius spoke, very firmly: "Those boys were a bad lot, sir. We all knew it. Wasn't the first time they mistreated folk. Still—"

"Shouldn't be dragged," someone complained.

A different voice spoke: "Fuck that! A stinking filthy bunch they were—and you all know it!"

The man who had spoken rose.

"Drag them all you want, sir. Just don't do it next to us. It's—it's not right."

The mutter which swept the crowd was more in the nature of a growl, now.

Belisarius nodded. "Fair enough. I'll have them buried first thing in the morning. A Christian burial, if I can find a priest to do the rites."

A soldier nearby snorted. "Fat lot of good that'll do 'em, once Satan gives 'em the eye."

A ripple of laughter swept the encampment.

Belisarius smiled himself, but said: "That's for the Lord to decide, not us. They'll have a Christian burial."

He paused, then spoke again. His powerful voice was low-pitched, but carried very well. Very well.

"There will be no more of this business."

He made no threats. The hundreds of soldiers who heard him noted the absence of threats, and appreciated it. They also understood and appreciated, now, that their general was not a man who issued threats. But that, came to it, he would have half an army drag the corpses of the other half, if that was what it took to make it his army.

"Yes, sir," came from many throats.

"My name is Belisarius. I am your general."

"Yes, sir," came from all throats.

The next morning, shortly after the army resumed its march, a courier arrived from the Persian forces who had gone ahead. The courier had been sent back by Kurush to inquire—delicately, delicately—as to the current state of the Roman army.

Belisarius was not there to meet the courier. He was spending the day marching in the company of his Constantinople troops. But Maurice apprised the Persian of the recent developments.

After the courier returned to Kurush's tent, that evening, and related the tale, the young Persian commander managed to restrain himself until the courier was gone.

Then, with only his uncle for an audience, he exploded.

"I can't believe it!" he hissed. "The man is utterly mad! He deals with a mutiny by dismissing the officers?—and then promotes the mutineers? And then spends the whole night carousing with them as if—"

"Remind me again, nephew," interrupted Bares-manas, coldly. "I seem to have forgotten. Which one of us was it—who won the battle at Mindouos?"

Kurush's mouth snapped shut.

That same evening, in the Roman encampment, the new chiliarch of the Constantinople troops arrived for his first command meeting. He brought with him the newly appointed tribunes—Cyril was one of them—and two hecatontarchs. Throughout the ensuing conference, the seven Greek soldiers sat uneasily to one side. They did not participate, that night, in the discussion. But they listened closely, and were struck by four things.

One. The discussion was lively, free-wheeling, and relaxed. Belisarius clearly did not object to his subordinates expressing their opinions openly—quite unlike most Roman generals in their experience.

Two. That said, it was always the general who made the final decisions. Clear decisions, clearly stated, leading to clear lines of action. Quite unlike the murky orders which were often issued by commanders, which left their subordinates in the unenviable position of being blamed in the event of miscommunication.

Three. No one was in the least hostile toward them. Not even the general's Thracian cataphracts.

Indeed, the commander of his bucellarii, Maurice, singled them out following the meeting, and invited them to join him in a cup of wine. And both commanders of the Syrian troops, the brothers Bouzes and Coutzes, were quick to add their company.

Many cups later in the evening, Agathius shook his head ruefully.

"I can't figure it out," he muttered, "but somehow I think I've been swindled."

"You'll get no sympathy from us," belched Coutzes.

"Certainly not!" agreed his brother cheerfully. Bouzes leaned over and refilled Agathius' cup. "At least you got swindled into an army," he murmured.

Agathius stared at him, a bit bleary-eyed. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Never mind," stated Maurice. The burly veteran held out his own cup. "I believe I'll make my own reconnaissance-in-force on that amphora, Bouzes. If you would be so kind."

And that produced the fourth, and final, impression in the minds of the Constantinople men that night.

A peculiar sense of humor, those Thracians and Syrians seemed to have. The quip was witty, to be sure—but to produce such a howling gale of knee-slapping laughter?

Back | Next

Contents

Framed

Back | Next

Contents

Chapter 12

MUZIRIS

Summer, 531 A.D.

"Under no circumstances, Empress," stated the viceroy of Muziris firmly. "Your grandfather will neither see you, nor will he rescind the ban on your travel to the capital at Vanji."

The viceroy turned in his plush, heavily-upholstered chair and gestured to a man sitting to his right. Like the viceroy, this man was dressed in the expensive finery of a high Keralan official. But instead of wearing the ruby-encrusted sword of a viceroy, he carried the emerald-topped staff of office which identified him as one of Kerala's Matisachiva. The title meant "privy councillor," and he was one of the half-dozen most powerful men in the South Indian kingdom.

The Matisachiva was slender; the viceroy, corpulent. Otherwise, their appearance was similar and quite typical of Keralans. Kerala was a Dravidian land. Its people were small and very dark-skinned—almost as dark as Africans. Shakuntala's own size and skin color, along with her lustrous black eyes, were inherited from her Keralan mother.

The Matisachiva's name was Ganapati. The moment Shakuntala had seen him, sitting next to the viceroy in his audience chamber, she understood the significance of his presence. She remembered Ganapati. Ten years before, at the age of nine, she had spent a pleasant six months in Vanji, the capital city in the interior. At the time, she had been the daughter of the great Emperor of Andhra, visiting her mother's family. She had been well-received then, even doted upon—and by none more so than her grandfather. But, even then, there had been times that a head-strong girl had to be held in check. Whenever such times came, it had always been Ganapati who was sent to do the deed.

Andhra was gone now, crushed under the Malwa heel. But she was quite sure that Ganapati retained his old special post—saying no for the King of Kerala.

Ganapati cleared his throat.

"The King—your grandfather—is in a difficult situation. Very difficult. The Malwa Empire is not directly threatening us. Nor are they likely to, in the foreseeable future. Malwa's ambitions in the Deccan seem to have been satisfied by their"—he grimaced apologetically—"conquest of your father's realm. And now their attention is focussed to the northwest. Their recent invasion of Persia, from our point of view, was a blessing. The great bulk of their army is tied up there, unavailable for use against the independent south Indian monarchies. Persia will not fall easily, not even to the Malwa."

The viceroy leaned forward, interjecting earnestly: "That's especially true in light of the newest development. According to the most recent reports, it seems that the Roman Empire will throw its weight on the side of the Aryans. Their most prestigious general, in fact, is apparently leading an army into Persia. A man by the name of Belisarius. As Ganapati says, the Malwa Empire is now embroiled in a war which will last for years. Decades, even."

Ganapati cleared his throat.

"Under these circumstances, the obvious course of action for Kerala is to do nothing that might aggravate the Malwa. They are oriented northwest, not south. Let us keep it that way."

Dadaji Holkar interrupted. "That is only true for the immediate period, Matisachiva. The time will come when Malwa will resume its march to the south. They will not rest until they have conquered all of India."

Ganapati gave Shakuntala's adviser a cold stare. For all of Holkar's decorum and obvious erudition, the Keralan councillor suspected that the headstrong Empress-in-exile had chosen a most unsuitable man to be her adviser. The impetuous child had even named the man as her peshwa! As if her ridiculous "government-in-exile" needed a premier.

The Matisachiva sniffed. No doubt Holkar was brahmin, as Maratha counted such things. But Maratha blood claims were threadbare, at best. Like all Maratha, Holkar was a deeply polluted individual.

Still—Ganapati was a diplomat. So he responded politely.

"That is perhaps true," he said. "Although I think it is unwise to believe we can read the future. Who really knows Malwa's ultimate aims?"

He held up a hand, forestalling Shakuntala's angry outburst.

"Please, Your Majesty! Let us not quarrel over the point. Even if your adviser's assessment is accurate, it changes nothing. Malwa intentions are one thing. Their capabilities are another. Let us suppose, for a moment, that the Malwa succeed in their conquest of Persia. They will be exhausted by the effort—and preoccupied with the task of administering vast and newly-subjugated territories."

He leaned back in his chair, exuding self-satisfaction.

"Either way, you see, Malwa poses no danger to Kerala—so long as we do not provoke them."

The Matisachiva frowned, casting a stony glance at Holkar.

"Unfortunately, the recent actions of the Maratha rebels are stirring up the—"

"They are not rebels," snapped Shakuntala. "They are Andhra loyalists, fighting to restore the legitimate power to the Deccan. Which is me. I am the rightful ruler of Andhra, not the Malwa invaders."

For a moment, Ganapati was nonplussed.

"Well—yes. Perhaps. In the best of all worlds. But we do not live in that world, Empress." The frown returned. "The fact is that Malwa has conquered Andhra. In that world—the real world—Raghunath Rao and his little band of outlaws—"

"Not so little," interjected Holkar. "And hardly outlaws! Speaking of new developments—we just received word yesterday that Rao has seized the city of Deogiri after overwhelming the large Malwa garrison."

Ganapati and the viceroy jerked erect in their chairs.

"What?" demanded the viceroy. "Deogiri?"

"Madness," muttered the Matisachiva. "Utter madness."

Ganapati rose to his feet and began pacing. For all the councillor's practiced diplomacy, he was obviously very agitated.

"Deogiri?"

Holkar nodded.

"Yes, Matisachiva—Deogiri. Which, as you know, is both the largest and the best fortified city in southern Majarashtra."

The Matisachiva pressed both hands against his beard.

"This is a catastrophe!" he exclaimed. He turned toward Holkar and Shakuntala, waving his hands in midair.

"Do you know what this means? The Malwa will be sending a large army to subdue the rebels! And Deogiri is not far from Kerala's northern frontier!"

Holkar smiled icily.

"What `large' army?" he demanded. "You just got through pointing out that most of the Malwa Empire's forces are tied up in Persia."

Shakuntala's adviser overrode the Matisachiva's splutter of protest.

"You can't have it both ways, Councillor Ganapati! The fact is that Rao's stroke was masterful. The fact is that he does not lead a `small band of outlaws.' The fact is that he seized Deogiri with a large force, and has every chance of holding it for some time. The Malwa satrap Venandakatra has nothing at his disposal beyond provincial troops and what small portions of the regular Malwa army can be spared from the war in Persia. Personally, I doubt if they will be able to release any of those forces. As it happens, I know the Roman general Belisarius personally. His military reputation is quite deserved."

Ganapati's hand-waving now resembled the flapping of an outraged hen. "This in intolerable! The whole situation is intolerable!" He glared furiously at Shakuntala and her peshwa. "Enough!" he cried. "We have tried to be diplomatic—but enough! You and your Marathas have practically taken possession of Muziris! At least two thousand of your brigand horsemen—"

Shakuntala shot to her feet. "They are not brigand horsemen! They are Maratha cavalrymen who escaped from Andhra after the Malwa conquest and have been reconstituted as my regular army under properly appointed officers!"

"And there are quite a bit more than `at least two thousand,' " growled Holkar. "By last count, the Empress of Andhra's Maratha cavalry force in Muziris numbers over four thousand. In addition, we have two thousand or so infantrymen, being trained by eight hundred Kushans who have spurned Malwa and given their loyalty to Shakuntala. Elite soldiers, those Kushans—each and every one of them—as you well know.

"In short," he concluded coldly, "the Empress has a considerably larger force than the Keralan garrison residing in the city." Very coldly: "And a much better force, as well."

Ganapati ogled the peshwa. "Are you threatening us?" he cried. "You would dare?"

Holkar rose to his own feet. It was not an angry, lunging gesture; simply the firm stance of a serious man who has reached the limit of his patience. "That's enough," he said, quietly but firmly. He placed a hand on Shakuntala's shoulder, restraining her anger.

"There is no point in pursuing this further," he continued. "The situation is clear. The King of Kerala has abandoned his duty to his own kin, and acquiesces in the Malwa subjugation of Andhra. So be it. In the meantime, refugees from the Malwa tyranny have poured into Kerala. Most of these refugees have concentrated in Muziris. Among them are thousands of superb Maratha cavalry loyal to Empress Shakuntala. All of which means that, at the moment, she constitutes the real power in the city."

Ganapati and the viceroy were staring wide-eyed at Holkar. The peshwa was speaking the simple, unadorned truth—which was the last thing they had been expecting.

Holkar spread his hands in a sharp, forceful gesture. "As you say, Ganapati, the situation is intolerable. For us as much as for you."

"You threaten us?" gobbled the Matisachiva. "You would dare? You would—"

"Be silent!" commanded Shakuntala.

Ganapati's gobbling ceased instantly. Holkar fought down a grin. The Keralan dignitary had never encountered Shakuntala in full imperial fury. When she threw herself into it, Shakuntala could be quite overpowering, for all her tender years.

"We do not intend to occupy Muziris," she stated, coldly—almost contemptuously. "Since my grandfather has demonstrated for all the world his unmanliness and disrespect for kin, I cast him from my sight. I will leave Kerala—and take all my people with me."

She glared at the two Keralan officials. "All of them. Not just the cavalrymen, but all of the other refugees, as well."

The viceroy shook his head, frowning. "There are at least forty thousand of them," he muttered. "Where will—"

"We will go to Tamraparni. The ruler of that great island has offered one of his sons in marriage to me. He has also said he would welcome Andhra's refugees and will assist me in my struggle to regain my rightful place. In light of my grandfather's treachery, I have decided to accept the offer."

She fell silent. After a moment, Ganapati and the viceroy exchanged stares.

At first, their expressions registered astonishment. Then, delight. Then, once the obvious obstacle occured to them, puzzlement.

Gauging the moment, Shakuntala spoke again. "Yes. I will require a fleet of transport ships. At least a hundred and fifty. Preferably two hundred. You will provide them for me, along with the funds needed to carry through this great migration."

Again, the squawks of official outrage filled the room. But Holkar, watching, sensed the victory. When it came, even sooner than he had expected, he was gratified but not surprised. Following his sovereign through the corridors of the viceregal palace, back to their waiting escort, he took the time to admire the small figure of the girl striding before him.

She is listening to me. Finally.

As they rode back toward the refugee camps, Shakuntala leaned over her saddle and smiled at Holkar.

"That went quite well."

"I told you it would work."

"Yes, yes," she murmured. "I see now that I really must listen more closely to my adviser."

Holkar did not miss the sly smile.

"Impudent child," he grumbled.

"Impudent?" she demanded. "This—coming from you? Wait till the ruler of Tamraparni discovers that he has promised to aid me in my war against Malwa! And his son's hand in marriage!"

"He has a son," replied Holkar, with dignity. "Several of them, in fact. And I have no doubt that he would have made the offer, if he listened carefully to his advisers."

Shakuntala laughed. "You are an incorrigible schemer, Dadaji!"

"Me? You are no slouch yourself, Your Majesty."

Holkar gave her a wry smile. "Although there are times you petrify me with your boldness. I thought you were mad, to order Rao—"

"I told you Rome would enter the Persian war immediately," the Empress stated. The satisfaction on the girl's face was obvious. It was not often that the nineteen-year-old Empress had been proven right in a disagreement with her canny, middle-aged peshwa. "And I told you Belisarius would be leading their army."

"Yes, you did," agreed Holkar. "That was why you overrode my protest at the insane idea of having Rao seize Deogiri immediately. I had thought to wait, until we were certain that Belisarius and the Romans had entered the war."

The humor left Shakuntala's face. "I had no choice, Dadaji," she whispered. "You were there when Rao's courier told us of Venandakatra's atrocities in the Majarashtra countryside. The beast was murdering ten villagers for every one of his soldiers lost to Rao's raiders."

Holkar's own face was drawn. "He will butcher even more, in retaliation for Deogiri."

The Empress shook her head.

"I think you are wrong, Dadaji. With southern Majarashtra's largest city in our hands, Venandakatra will have no choice. His own status with the Malwa Emperor will depend on retaking Deogiri. He does not have so great an army that he can besiege Deogiri—you know how strong it is; the place is a fortress—and still send his cavalry on punitive rampages throughout the Deccan. Nor can he call for assistance from Emperor Skandagupta. You know as well as I do that the Malwa have been pressing him to release troops for the Persian campaign. With Rome—and Belisarius—now in the war, they will most certainly not send him reinforcements."

Again, she shook her head. "No, I am right here also—I am sure of it. The pressure on the Maratha country folk will ease, while the Vile One concentrates on Deogiri."

"And what if he takes Deogiri?" demanded Holkar. "What then? And what if the Malwa defeat the Persians and Romans quickly?"

Shakuntala laughed. "Quickly? With Belisarius leading the Romans?"

Holkar smiled. "I admit, the likelihood is not great." He cocked an eye at her. "You're counting on that, aren't you?"

She nodded—firmly, seriously. "I never would have ordered Rao to take Deogiri, otherwise."

The look she now gave her adviser was not that of an impetuous child. It was almost ancient in its cold calculation.

"He is using us, you know—Belisarius, I mean. That was why he freed me from captivity, and gave me most of the treasure he stole from the Malwa. To start a rebellion in their rear, draining forces which would otherwise be sent against him."

Dadaji nodded. "It is his way of thinking." He studied her face. "You do not seem indignant about the matter," he commented.

The Empress shrugged. "Why should I be? Belisarius was never dishonest about it. He told me what he was doing. And he also promised me that he would do what was in his power to aid us. Which"—she chuckled—"he is certainly doing."

She urged her horse into a faster pace. "You know the man well, Dadaji—better than I do, when it comes down to it. He is the most cunning man in the world, yes—unpredictable, in his tactics. But there is one thing about Belisarius which is as predictacle as the sunrise."

"His honor."

She nodded. "He promised me. And he has not failed to keep that promise. He will batter the Malwa beasts in Persia, while we bleed them in the Deccan."

She urged her mount into a trot. There was no reason for that, really, other than her irrepressible energy.

"I was right to order Rao to seize Deogiri," she pronounced. "Now, we must see to it that he can keep the city."

Back | Next

Contents

Framed

Back | Next

Contents

Chapter 13

THE EASTERN

MEDITERRANEAN

Summer, 531 A.D.

The expedition which set sail from Rhodes toward the end of summer was an impressive armada.

Antonina had brought a sizable fleet with her from Constantinople, to begin with. She had enough transport ships to carry her grenadiers, the five hundred bucellari under Ashot's command, and the infantrymen from the Army of Syria who would embark later at Seleuceia. The transports, all of them merchant sailing vessels, were escorted by two dromons, the oared warships favored by the Roman navy.

She had even requisitioned three of the great grain ships. The merchant combines which financed those ships had complained bitterly, despite Anto-nina's generous compensation, but the Empress Theodora had cowed them into submission. Quite easily. A simple frown, a purse of the lips, a glance at the Grand Justiciar. The merchants had suddenly discovered their compensation was quite ample, thank you.

The huge grain haulers slowed her fleet considerably, but Antonina had had no choice. At a great ceremony in the Forum of Constantine, five days before her departure from Constantinople, Michael of Macedonia had presented her with the Knights Hospitaler who had volunteered for the Egyptian expedition. Antonina had been expecting the monks from the new religious order—but not three thousand of them, proudly drawn up in their simple white tunics, marked by the distinctive red cross.

What she had conceived of, initially, as a lean military expedition, had grown by leaps and bounds. No sooner had she obtained the grain ships for the Knights Hospitaler than a small horde of officials and bureaucrats showed up at the docks. These were staffs—the typically bloated staffs—for the newly-appointed civil and canonical authorities of Egypt, clerks, and scribes, in the main, to serve the new Praetorian Prefect of Egypt and the Patriarch of Alexandria. Each and every one of whom, naturally, luxuriated in the grandiose titles with which those mundane occupations were invariably annointed by Roman official custom: tabularii, scrinarii, cornicula-rii, commentarienses, magister libellorum, magister studiorum, speculatores, beneficiarii . . .

And so on and so forth.

They, too, wailed like lost sheep when presented with their crude shipboard accommodations—tents, for the most part, pitched on the decks of the small sailing ships which Antonina hastily rounded up, naturally over the wails of their owners. But they, too, like the disgruntled grain traders, reconciled themselves to their fate. Theodora's frown had almost magical capabilities, when it came to quelling indignant merchants and bureaucrats.

Then, the very day before departure, Michael had shown up to inform her, quite casually—insufferable saint! damnable prophet!—that many more Knights Hospitaler would be waiting in Seleuceia and Tyre and possibly other ports along the Levant, eager to join the crusade in Egypt.

Three more grain ships were seized—one of them overhauled by her dromons as it tried to flee the Golden Horn—emptied hurriedly of their cargoes and pressed into imperial service. Again, Theodora put her frown to work.

Finally, departure came. For a few days, Antonina luxuriated in the relative quiet of a sea voyage, until her arrival at Rhodes placed new demands upon her. John had been forewarned, by courier, of the imperial plan to transfer his armaments complex to Egypt. But, with his stubborn, mulish nature, he had made only half-hearted and lackadaisical efforts to organize the transfer. So, once again, the task had fallen on Antonina. She scrambled about, requisitioning ships on Rhodes itself—and then, coming up short, sending Ashot with the dromons to commandeer some of the vessels at Seleuceia—until the expedition was finally ready to sail.

But, in the end, sail it did. With the newest addition to the fleet proudly in the fore—John's new warship.

John took immense pride in the craft. It was the first warship in the history of the world, he announced, which was designed exclusively for gunpowder tactics. Menander demurred, at first, on hearing that claim, pointing out that the Malwa had already developed rocket ships. But John had convinced the young cataphract otherwise. The Malwa rocket ships, he pointed out, were a bastard breed. Clumsy merchant ships, at bottom, with a few portable rocket troughs added on. Jury-rigged artillery platforms, nothing more.

Menander, after seeing the ship for himself, had quickly changed his mind. Indeed, this was something new in the world.

John's pride and joy was not completely new, of course. In the press of time, the Rhodian had not been able to build a ship from scratch. So he had started with the existing hull of an epaktrokeles—a larger version of the Roman Empire's courier vessels. He had then added gunwales and strengthened the ship's deck with bulwarks, so that the recoil of the cannons would not cave in the planking.

In the end, he had a swift sailing craft armed with ten cast-bronze guns, arranged five on a side. The cannons were short-barreled, with five-inch bores which had been scraped and polished to near-uniform size. For solid shot, which they could fire with reasonable accuracy up to three hundred yards, John had selected marble cannon balls. The balls had been smoothed and polished to fit the bores properly. For cannister, the cannons were provided with lead drop-shot.

"What did you decide to call her?" asked Menander.

"The Theodora."

"Good choice," said Menander, nodding his head vigorously.

John grinned. "I am mulish, stubborn, contrary, pig-headed and irascible, Menander. I am not stupid."

Had her fleet consisted purely of warships, Antonina could have made the voyage to Alexandria in less than a week; with favorable winds, three or four days.

The winds, in fact, were favorable. Antonina learned, from John and Ashot, that the winds in the eastern Mediterranean were almost always favorable for southward travel during the summer months. Eight days out of ten, they could count on a steady breeze from the northwest.

The slow grain ships, of course, set the pace for the armada. But even those ships, with favorable winds, could have made the passage in a week.

Yet, she estimated the voyage would take at least a month, probably two. The reason was not nautical, but political and military.

The immediate goal of her expedition was to stabilize the Empire's hold over Egypt and Alexandria. But Irene and Cassian had counseled—and Theodora had agreed—that Antonina should kill two birds with one stone. Or, to use a more apt metaphor, should intimidate the cubs on her way to bearding the lion.

The religious turmoil had not spread—yet—to the Levant. But the same forces which were undermining the Empire in Egypt were equally at work in Syria and Palestine, and, in the person of Patriarch Ephraim, had an authoritative figure around which to coalesce.

So Theodora had instructed her, as she sailed along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, to "show the standard."

Antonina had been quite taken by that expression. When she mentioned it to Belisarius, her husband had smiled crookedly and said:

"Catchy, isn't it? She got it from me, you know. From Aide, I should say—although the proper expression is `show the flag.' "

Antonina frowned, puzzled.

"What's a `flag'?"

After Belisarius explained, Antonina shook her head.

"Some of what they do in the future is just plain stupid. Why would anyone in their right mind replace a perfectly good imperial gold standard with a raggedy piece of cloth?"

"Oh, I don't know. As a soldier, I have to say I approve. A flag's light. You try hauling around a great heavy gold standard in a battle someday. In Syria, in the summertime."

Antonina brushed the problem aside, with great dignity.

"Nonsense. I'm not a lowly foot soldier. I'm an admiral. My ships will damn well `show the standard.' "

And show it they did.

At Seleuceia, first. They stayed in that great port for a full week. Two of those days were required to embark the hundreds of new Knights Hospitaler who came aboard. But most of the time was spent bearding Patriarch Ephraim in his den.

Seleuceia was Antioch's outlet to the sea. Antioch was the Empire's third greatest city, after Con-stantinople and Alexandria. Antonina did not take her troops into Antioch itself, but she spent the week parading about the streets of Antioch's harbor. By the third day, most of the population—especially the Syrian commoners—were cheering her madly. Those who weren't were huddling in their villas and monasteries. Thinking dark thoughts, but saying nothing above the level of a mutter.

On her seventh and last day in Seleuceia, a large contingent from the Army of Syria arrived from their fortress in Daras. Most of those soldiers boarded her ships. The rest—

With great ceremony, Antonina turned over to their safe-keeping the large band of artisans who would erect the semaphore stations between Antioch and Seleuceia. Those stations would serve as the link between the coastal network she would create and the Anatolian-Mesopotamian leg which Belisarius was constructing.

While Antonina engaged in public browbeating, Irene occupied herself with subterfuge. She traveled secretly to Antioch, and, by end of the week, had solidified the previously-shaky imperial spy network in Ephraim's domain.

* * *

South, now, to Tyre. Stopping, if only for a few hours, at every port of any size along the way.

Showing the standard.

Tyre was a celebration. And a great, subtle victory.

The population of the city was out in force, packed into the harbor, awaiting her arrival. She and her soldiers could hear the cheering from a mile away. Standing on the docks, proudly drawn up, were another thousand Knights Hospitaler.

And, standing among them, the Bishop of Jeru-salem.

Theodosius, the newly-designated Patriarch of Alexandria whom Antonina was taking to Egypt, pointed him out to her as soon as her flagship drew near the docks. He began to whisper urgently into her ear, explaining the significance of the Bishop's presence. On her other side, Irene was doing the same.

Antonina stilled them both with a gesture. "I know quite well what it means, Theodosius—Irene. The Bishop of Jerusalem has decided to break from Patriarch Ephraim's authority and submit to that of the imperium's church."

She chuckled drily. "Of course, he has his own fish to fry. The See of Jerusalem has been trying to get official recognition as a Patriarchate for—what is it, now? Three centuries?"

Theodosius nodded.

Antonina's chuckle turn into a little laugh. "Well, and why not? Isn't Jerusalem the holiest city in Christendom, when you come right down to it?"

Theodosius stroked his beard furiously. "Well, yes, I suppose. But the Church councils have always ruled against Jerusalem's claim, on the grounds—"

"—that it's a dinky little border town. Filled—or rather, not so filled—by a bunch of sleepy provincials."

Theodosius winced. "That's putting it rather crudely. But—yes. In essence."

"And what's wrong with sleepy provincials? You won't see them ruining a perfectly good afternoon nap by wrangling over the relationship between the prosopon and the hypostasis of Christ."

She turned away from the rail, still smiling. "Patriarch of Jerusalem," she murmured. "Yes, yes. Has a nice sound to it."

In the end, she actually went to Jerusalem. Suspending her voyage for a full month, while she and her Theodoran Cohort—and all of the Knights Hospitaler from Constantinople, eager to finally see the Holy Land for themselves—marched inland.

A great, grand escort for the Bishop of Jerusalem in his triumphant return. Antonina found the bishop to be, in his person, a thoroughly obnoxious creature. Petty in his concerns, and petulant in his manner. But she took great delight in his persona. By the time she left Jerusalem, the Bishop—who was already calling himself the Patriarch—had given his complete and public blessing to her enterprise.

By tradition and church rulings, the Patriarch of Antioch had always held authority over that great area of Syria and the Levant which Romans called Oriens. No longer. In a week at Seleuceia, Antonina had undermined Ephraim's prestige. Now, in a month in Palestine, she had cut his ecclesiastical territory in half.

A new council would have to be called, of course, to confirm—or, again, deny—Jerusalem's claim. Antonina did not begin to have the authority to do so. Not even the Emperor, without the approval of a council, could establish a new Patriarchate. But any such council was far in the future. Theodora would stall, stall, stall. For years to come, the Bishop of Jerusalem would defy Ephraim and cling as closely as possible to the Empress Regent's imperial robes.

* * *

Show the standard, indeed. As her flagship sailed away from Tyre, Antonina gazed up admiringly at the great, gold imperial standard affixed to the mainmast.

"A `flag'!" she snorted. "How in the name of Christ could you intimidate anybody with a stupid rag?"

But the best—the very best—came at a fishing village. Antonina was pleased, of course, by the welcome given to her by the small but enthusiastic population, who greeted her armada from their boats. But she was absolutely delighted by the welcome given by the men aboard the much bigger ship which sailed among those humble fishermen.

A warship from Axum. Carrying Prince Eon and his dawazz, who bore official salutations from the negusa nagast to the new Roman Emperor. Along with a proposal for an alliance against Malwa.

Her first words to Eon were: "How in the world did you get a warship into the Mediterranean from the Red Sea?"

His, to her with a grimace. "We portaged. Don't ask me how. I can't remember."

"Fool boy!" Ousanos said. "He can't remember because it's impossible. I told him so."

Irene to Ousanas, grinning: "You must have slapped his head a thousand times."

Ousanas groaned: "Couldn't. Was much too weary. Idiot Prince made me carry the stern. All by myself."

Eon, proudly: "Ousanas is the strongest man in the world."

Ousanas slapped the Prince atop his head. "Suckling babe! Strongest man in the world is resting somewhere in his bed. Conserving his strength for sane endeavors!"

Back | Next

Contents

Framed

Back | Next

Contents

Chapter 14

MESOPOTAMIA

Summer, 531 A.D.

The first sign of trouble came just a few hours after the army bypassed Anatha. The town, located directly on the Euphrates, was one of the chain of fortified strongholds which the Sassanid emperors had erected, over the centuries, to guard Persia from Roman invasion.

Baresmanas and Kurush had offered to billet the Roman troops in the town itself, along with their own soldiers, but Belisarius had declined.

There was always the risk of incidents with the local inhabitants, whenever a passing army was billeted in a town. That was especially true with an army of foreigners. Had Belisarius' forces consisted of nothing but his Thracians and the Syrian units, he would not have been concerned. His bucellarii were long accustomed to his discipline, and the soldiers from the Army of Syria were only technically foreigners.

The Syrians were closely akin, racially and linguistically, with the people of western Mesopotamia. And the Arabs who constituted a large portion of the Syrian army were identical. Arabs—on both sides of the border—tended to view the political boundaries between Rome and Persia as figments of imperial imagination. Those soldiers were familiar with Persian ways and customs, and most of them spoke at least passable Pahlavi. Many of those men had relatives scattered all across the western provinces of the Persian empire.

The same was not true—most definitely not true—with his Greek and Illyrian troops.

The problem was that Anatha was not large enough to hold his entire army. He would not trust the Greek and Illyrian soldiers, without his Thracian and Syrian troops to help keep order. On the other hand, if he allowed the Syrians and Thracians to enjoy the comforts of the town, while the Constantinople and Illyrian troops camped outside—

He would rekindle the resentments which he had finally managed, for the most part, to overcome.

So he ordered the army to bypass the town altogether.

The command, of course, caused hard feelings among his troops—all of it aimed at him. But the general was not concerned. To the contrary—he accepted the collective glare of his soldiers quite cheerfully. The animosity expressed in those glowering eyes would cement his army, not undermine it. Not so long as all of his soldiers were equally resentful and could enjoy the mutual bond of grumbling at the lunacies of high command: Sour Thracian grousing to disgruntled Illyrian, sullen Greek cataphract to surly Arab cavalryman.

Fucking jackass.

Whoever made this clown a general, anyway?

By the time we get wherever we're going—the moon, seems like—we'll be too worn out to spank a brat.

Fucking jackass.

Whoever made this clown a general, anyway?

Three hours after the walls of Anatha fell below the horizon, Belisarius saw a contigent of the Arab light cavalry he was using as scouts come galloping up.

Maurice trotted his horse forward to meet them, while Belisarius ordered a halt in the march. After a brief consultation with the scouts, the chiliarch hastened back to Belisarius. By the time he arrived, Baresmanas and Kurush were already at the general's side, along with Bouzes and Coutzes.

"There's a mob of refugees pouring up the road from the east," reported Maurice. "The scouts interviewed some of them. They say that a large Malwa cavalry force—" He shrugged. "You know how it is—according to the refugees, there's probably a million Malwa. But it's a large enough force, apparently, to have sacked a town called Thilutha."

"Thilutha?" exclaimed Kurush. The young sahr-daran stared to the east.

"Thilutha's not as big as Anatha," he announced, "but it's still a fortified garrison town. There's no way a pure cavalry force should have been able to capture it."

"They've got gunpowder," Belisarius pointed out.

Maurice nodded. "The refugees are babbling tales about witchcraft used to shatter the town's gates."

Belisarius squinted into the distance. "What's your guess, Maurice? And how far away are they?"

The chiliarch stroked his beard thoughtfully. "It's a big force, general. Even allowing for refugee exaggeration, the Arab scouts think there must be at least ten thousand soldiers. Probably more."

"A raiding party," stated Bouzes. His snub-nosed face twisted into a rueful grimace. "A reconnaissance-in-force, probably."

Belisarius nodded. "It's good news, actually. It means Emperor Khusrau is still holding them at Babylon. So the Malwa have sent a large cavalry force around him, to ravage his rear and disrupt his supplies and communications."

He paused for a moment, thinking. "I'm not sure Khusrau can hold Babylon forever, but the longer he does the better it is. We need to buy time. Time for Persia, time for Rome. Best way to do that, right now, is to teach the Malwa they can't raid Mesopotamia with impunity."

His tone hardened. "I want to destroy that force. Hammer them into splinters." He stood in his stirrups, scanning the area around them. "We need a place to trap them."

Kurush frowned. "Anatha is only a few hours behind us. We could return and—"

Belisarius shook his head. "Anatha's much too strong, with us there to aid in the defense. The Malwa will take one look and go elsewhere. Then we'll have to chase them, and fight a battle on ground of their choosing."

A little smile came to Baresmanas' face. "You want something feeble," he announced. "Some pathetic little fortification that looks like nothing much, but has places to conceal your troops." The smile widened. "Something like that wretched infantry camp you built at Mindouos."

Belisarius' lips twisted. "Yes, Baresmanas. That's exactly what I want."

Comprehension came to Kurush. The young Persian nobleman's face grew pinched, for an instant. Then, suddenly, he laughed.

"You are a cold-blooded man, Belisarius!" he exclaimed. With a sad shake of his head:

"You'd never make a proper Aryan, I'm afraid. Rustam, dehgan of dehgans, would not approve."

Belisarius shrugged. "With all due respect to the legendary national hero of the Aryans, and the fearsome power of his bull-headed mace—Rustam died, in the end."

"Trapped in a pit by his enemies, while hunting," agreed Kurush cheerfully. "Speaking of which—"

The sahrdaran looked to his uncle. "Isn't there an imperial hunting park somewhere in this vicinity?"

Baresmanas pointed across the river, toward a large patch of greenery a few miles away.

"There," he announced.

All the officers in the little group followed his pointing finger. At that moment, Agathius rode up, along with his chief tribune Cyril. Seconds later, the Illyrian commanders arrived also. The top leadership of the Allied army was now assembled. Quickly, the newcomers were informed of the situation and Belisarius' plan.

"We'll need to cross the Euphrates," remarked Coutzes. "Is there a ford nearby?"

"Has to be," replied Maurice. "The refugees are on that side of the river. Since the scouts talked to them, they must have found a way across."

The chiliarch gestured toward the Arab cavalrymen, who had been waiting a short distance away. They trotted up to him and he began a quick consultation.

"It makes sense," commented Kurush. "Thilutha is on the left bank. At this time of year, the river can be forded any number of places. The Malwa have probably been crossing back and forth, ravaging both sides."

Maurice returned.

"The fork's not far, according to the scouts." He gauged the sun. "We can have the whole army across the river by nightfall, if we press the matter."

"Press it," commanded the general.

Belisarius scanned his group of officers. The gaze was not cold, but it was stern. His eyes lingered for a moment on Agathius.

The commander of the garrison troops broke into a grin. "Don't worry, general. My boys won't drag their feet. Not with the prospect of something besides another fucking day's march to look for-ward to."

His eyes grew a bit unfocussed. "Imperial hunting park," he mused. "Be a royal villa and everything there, I imagine."

He took up his reins, shaking his head. "Terri-ble, terrible," he murmured, spurring his horse. "Such damage the wondrous thing'll suffer, in a battle and all."

After Agathius was gone, along with all the other subordinate officers except Maurice, Kurush gave Belisarius a cold stare.

"There is always a villa in an imperial hunting park," he stated. "Accoutered in a manner fit for the King of Kings. Filled with precious objects."

The general returned the gaze unflinchingly. "He's right, Kurush. I'm afraid the Emperor's possessions are going to take a terrible beating."

"Especially with gunpowder weapons," added Maurice. The Thracian chiliarch did not seem particularly distressed at the thought.

"I'm not concerned about the destruction caused by the enemy," snapped the young Persian nobleman.

"Be silent, nephew!" commanded Baresmanas. The sahrdaran's tone was harsh, and his own icy gaze was directed entirely at Kurush.

"I know the Emperor much better than you," he growled. "I have known him since he was a child. Khusrau Anushirvan, he is called—Khusrau `of the immortal soul.' It is the proper name for that man, believe me. No finer soul has sat the Aryan throne since Cyrus. Do you think such an emperor would begrudge a few tokens to the brave men who come to his aid, when his people are ravaged by demons?"

Kurush shrank back in his saddle. Then, sighing, he reined his horse around and trotted toward his troops. A moment later, Maurice left, heading toward his own soldiers.

Once they were alone, Baresmanas smiled rue-fully. "Quite a few tokens, of course. And such tokens they are!"

Belisarius felt a sudden, deep friendship for the man beside him. And then, an instant later, was seized by a powerful impulse.

"You are quite right, you know."

Baresmanas eyed him.

"About Khusrau, I mean. He will rule the Aryans for fifty years, and will be remembered for as long as Iran exists. `Khusrau the Just,' they will call him, over the centuries."

Baresmanas' face seemed to pale, a bit, under the desert-darkened complexion.

"I had heard—" he whispered. He took a breath, shakily. "There are rumors that you can foretell the future, Belisarius. Is it true?"

Belisarius could sense Aide's agitation, swirling in his mind. He sent a quick thought toward the flashing facets.

No, Aide. There are times when secrecy defeats its purpose.

He returned the sahrdaran's piercing stare with his own steady gaze.

"No, Baresmanas. Not in the sense that you mean the term."

The army was beginning to resume the march. Belisarius clucked his own horse into forward motion, as did Baresmanas.

The general leaned toward the sahrdaran. "The future is not fixed, Baresmanas. This much I know. Though, it is true, I have received visions of the possible ways that future river might flow."

He paused. Then said, "We worship different gods, my friend. Or, perhaps, it is the same God seen in different ways. But neither of us believes that darkness rules."

He gestured ahead, as if to indicate the still-unseen enemy.

"The Malwa are guided by a demon. That demon brought them the secret of gunpowder, and filled them with their foul ambition. Do you really think such a demon could come into the world—unanswered by divinity?"

Baresmanas thought upon his words, for a time, as they rode along. Then, he said softly, "So. As always, God gives us the choice."

Belisarius nodded. The sahrdaran's pallor faded. He smiled, then, rather slyly.

"Tell me one more thing, Belisarius. I will ask nothing else on this matter, I promise. Did a divine spirit guide you at Mindouos?"

The general shook his head. "No. At least— No. I believe such a spirit kept me from harm in the battle. Personally, I mean. But the tactics were mine."

The sahrdaran's sly smile broadened, became a cheerful grin. "For some reason, that makes me feel better. Odd, really. You'd think it would be the opposite—that I would take comfort from knowing we were defeated by a superhuman force."

Belisarius shook his head. "I don't think it's strange at all, Baresmanas. There is—"

He fell silent. There was no way to explain, simply, the titanic struggle in the far distant future of which their own battles were a product. Belisarius himself understood that struggle only dimly, from glimpses. But—

"It is what we are fighting about, I think, in the end. Whether the course of human history is to be shaped by those who make it, or be imposed upon them by others."

He spoke no further words on the subject.

Nor did Baresmanas—then, or ever. In this, the sahrdaran was true to his Aryan myths and legends. He had given his word; he would keep it.

The skeptical scholar in him, of course, found his own stiff honor amusing. Just as he found it amusing that the cunning, low-born Roman would never have revealed his secret, had he not understood that Aryan rigor.

Most amusing, of course, was another thought.

To have picked such a man for an enemy! Demons, when all is said and done, are stupid.

Aide, however, was not amused at all. In the hours that followed, while the army found the ford scouted by the Arab cavalrymen and crossed to the left bank of the Euphrates, and then encamped for the night, Belisarius could sense the facets shimmering in their thoughts. The thoughts themselves he could not grasp, but he knew that Aide was pondering something of great importance to him.

The crystal did not speak to him directly until the camp had settled down, the soldiers all asleep except for the posted sentinels. And a general, who had patiently stayed awake himself, waiting in the darkness for his friend to speak.

Do you really think that is what it is about? Our struggle with the new gods?

Yes.

Pause. Then, plaintively:

And what of us? Do we play no role? Or is it only humans that matter?

Belisarius smiled.

Of course not. You are part of us. You, too, are human.

We are not! shrieked the crystal. We are different! That is why you created us, because—because—

Aide was in a frenzy such as Belisarius had not seen since the earliest days of his encounter with the jewel. Despair—frustration—loneliness—confusion—most of all, a frantic need to communicate.

But it was not the early days. The differences between two mentalities had eased, over the years. Eased far more than either had known.

Finally, finally, the barrier was ruptured completely. A shattering vision swept Belisarius away, as if he were cast into the heavens by a tidal wave.

Back | Next

Contents

Framed

Back | Next

Contents

Chapter 15

Worlds upon worlds upon worlds, circling an incomprehensible number of suns. People on those worlds, everywhere—but people changed and transformed. Misshapen and distorted, most of them. So, at least, most men would say, flinching.

Death comes, striking many of those worlds. The very Earth itself, scoured clean by a plague which spared no form of life. Nothing left—except, slowly, here and there, an advancing network of crystals.

Aide's folk, Belisarius realized, come to replace those who had destroyed their own worlds. Created, by those who had slain themselves, to be their heirs.

Belisarius hung in the darkness. Around him, below him, above him—in all directions—spun great whirling spirals of light and beauty.

Galaxies.

He sensed a new presence, and immediately understood its meaning. A great sigh of relief swept through him.

Finally, finally—

He saw a point of light in the void. A point, nothing more, which seemed infinitely distant. But he knew, even in the seeing, that the distance was one of time not space.

Time opened, and the future came.

The point of light erupted, surged forward. A moment later, floating before Belisarius, was one of the Great Ones.

The general had seen glimpses of them, before. Now, for the first time, he saw a Great One clearly.

As clearly, at least, as he ever could. He understood, now, that he would never see them fully. Too much of their structure lay in mysterious forces which would never be seen by earthly eyes.

A new voice came to him. Like Aide's, in a way, but different.

FORCE FIELDS. ENERGY MATRICES. THERE IS LITTLE IN US LEFT OF OUR EARTHLY ORIGINS. AND NO FLESH AT ALL.

Like a winged whale, vaguely, in its broad appearance. If ever a whale could swim the heavens, glowing from an inner light. But much, much larger. The Great One dwarfed any animal that had ever lived.

OUR DIMENSIONS MEASURE EIGHT BY THREE BY TWO, APPROXIMATELY, IN THE VISIBLE SPECTRUM. WHAT YOU CALL MILES. OUR MASS IS—DIFFICULT TO CALCULATE. IT DEPENDS ON VELOCITY. WE CAN ATTAIN 93% LIGHT SPEED, AT OUR UTMOST—CALL IT EXERTION. WE MUST BE VERY CAREFUL, APPROACHING A SOLAR SYSTEM. SHOULD ONE OF US IMPACT A PLANET, AT THAT VEL-OCITY, WE WOULD DESTROY IT. AND POSSIBLY OURSELVES AS WELL.

The being had no eyes, no mouth, no apparent sense organs of any kind. Yet the general knew that the Great One could detect everything that any human could, and much else besides.

He saw into the being, now. Saw the glittering network of crystals which formed the Great One's—heart? Soul?

THEY ARE OUR HERITAGE NOW. OUR CRE-ATORS, AS MUCH AS OUR CREATIONS. THEY DO FOR US WHAT SOMETHING CALLED DNA ONCE DID FOR OUR ANCIENT ANCESTORS. ALLOW THE FUTURE TO EXIST.

Belisarius studied the crystalline network more closely. The crystals, he thought, seemed much like Aide. Yet, somehow different.

AIDE IS MUCH DIFFERENT. IT—NO, FOR YOU IT WILL ALWAYS BE "HE"—BEARS THE SAME RELATIONSHIP TO THESE AS YOU DO TO A BACTERIUM. AKIN, BUT GREATER.

The Great One sensed the general's incomprehension. What is a "bacterium"?

AS YOU DO TO AN EARTHWORM. OR, BETTER, A MUSHROOM. WE DESIGNED THESE CRYSTALS FOR OUR OWN SURVIVAL. BUT THEN DISCOVERED WE COULD NOT MAKE THEM, OR USE THEM, UNLESS WE CREATED A CRYSTAL INTELLIGENCE TO GUIDE AND ASSIST US. THOSE BECAME AIDE'S PEOPLE.

They were your slaves, then. As I have heard the "new gods" say.

NEVER.

There came a sense of mirth; vast, yet whimsical. And the general knew, then—finally—that these almost inconceivable beings were truly his own folk. He had but to look in a mirror, to see the crooked smile that would, someday, become that universe-encompassing irony—and that delight in irony.

THE PEASANT WHO TILLS THE FIELD BRINGS CHILDREN INTO THE WORLD—TO HELP IN THE LABOR, AMONG OTHER THINGS. ARE THOSE CHILDREN SLAVES?

They can be, replied the general. I have seen it, more often than I like to remember.

The sense of wry humor never faded.

NOT IN YOUR HOUSE. NOT IN YOUR FIELD. NOT IN YOUR SMITHY.

No, but—

The Great One swelled, swirled. Looped the heavens, prancing on wings of light and shadow.

AND WHOSE CHILD AM I—CRAFTSMAN?

There was a soundless peal, that might be called joyful laughter. The Great One swept off, dwindling.

Wait! called out Belisarius.

NO. YOU HAVE ENOUGH. I MUST BE OFF TO JOIN MY BRETHREN AND SEE THE UNI-VERSE. OUR FAMILY—YOUR DESCENDANTS—HAVE FILLED THAT UNIVERSE. FILLED IT WITH WONDER THAT WE WOULD SHARE AND BUILD UPON. WE DO NOT HAVE MUCH TIME, IN OUR SHORT LIVES, TO DELVE THAT SPLENDOR. A MILLION YEARS, PERHAPS—NOT COUNTING TIME DILATION.

Nothing but a tiny dot of light, now.

Wait! cried Belisarius again. There is so much I need to know!

The faint dot paused; then, swirled back. A moment later, Belisarius was staring awe-struck at a towering wall of blazing glory.

THERE IS NOTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW, THAT YOU DO NOT ALREADY. WE ARE YOUR CREATION, AS AIDE'S FOLK ARE OURS. AND NOW YOUR GRANDCHILDREN HAVE COME TO YOU FOR HELP, IN THEIR TIME OF TROUBLE.

SO WHAT DO YOU NEED TO KNOW—OLD MAN? YOU ARE THE ELDER OF THAT VILLAGE WHICH NOW SPANS GALAXIES. YOU ARE THE BLACKSMITH WHO FORGED HUMANITY ON ITS OWN ANVIL.

Belisarius laughed himself then, and it seemed that the galaxies shivered with his mirth. The Great One before him rippled; waves of humor matching his own.

IT IS OUR MOST ANCIENT RELIGION, GRANDFATHER. AND WITH GOOD REASON.

Swoop—away, away. Gone now, almost. A faint dot, no more.

A faint voice; laughing voice:

CALL IT—ANCESTOR WORSHIP.

When Belisarius returned to the world, he simply stared for a time. Looking beyond the hanging canopy to the great band of stars girdling the night sky. The outposts of that great village of the future.

Then, as he had not done in weeks, he withdrew Aide from his pouch.

There was no need, really. He had long since learned to communicate with the "jewel" without holding it. But he needed to see Aide with his own eyes. Much as he often needed to hold Photius with his own hands. To rejoice in love; and to find comfort in eternity.

Aide spoke.

You did not answer me.

Belisarius:

Weren't you there—when I met the Great One?

Uncertainly:

Yes, but— I do not think I understood. I am not sure.

Plaintively, like a child complaining of the difficulty of its lessons:

We are not like you. We are not like the Great Ones. We are not human. We are not—

Be quiet, Aide. And stop whining. How do you expect to grow up if you whimper at every task?

Silence. Then: We will grow up?

Of course. I am your ancestor. One of them, at least. How do you think you got into the world in the first place?

Everything that is made of us grows up. Certainly my offspring!

A long, long silence. Then: We never dreamed. That we, too, could grow.

* * *

Aide spoke no more. Belisarius could sense the facets withdrawing into themselves, flashing internal dialogue.

After a time, he replaced the "jewel" in the pouch and lay down on his pallet. He needed to sleep. A battle would erupt soon, possibly even the next day.

But, just as he was drifting into slumber, he was awakened by Aide's voice.

Very faint; very indistinct.

What are you saying? he mumbled sleepily. I can't hear you.

That's because I'm muttering.

Proudly:

It's good you can't hear me. That means I'm doing it right, even though I'm just starting.

Very proudly:

I'll get better, I know I will. Practice makes perfect. Valentinian always says that.

The general's eyes popped open. "Sweet Jesus," he whispered.

I thought I'd start with Valentinian. Growing up, I mean. He's pretty easy. Not the swordplay, of course. But the muttering's not so hard. And—

A string of profanity followed.

Belisarius bolted upright.

"Don't use that sort of language!" he commanded. Much as he had often instructed his son Photius. And with approximately the same result.

Mutter, mutter, mutter.

Back | Next

Contents

Framed

Back | Next

Contents

Chapter 16

By the time Belisarius arrived at the hunting park, the Arab scouts had already had one brief skirmish with the advance units of the oncoming Malwa army. When they returned, the scouts repor-ted that the Malwa main force was less than ten miles away. They had been able to get close enough to examine that force before the Malwa drove them off.

There was good news and bad news.

The good news, as the scout leader put it:

"Shit-pot soldiers. Keep no decent skirmishers. Didn't even see us until we were pissing on their heads. Good thing they didn't bring women. We seduce all of them. Have three bastards each, prob-ably, before shit-pot Malwa notice their new children too smart and good-looking."

The bad news:

"Shit-pot lot of them. Big shit-pot."

Belisarius looked to the west. There was only an hour of daylight left, he estimated.

He turned to Maurice. "Take all the bucellarii and the katyushas. When the Persians arrive, I'll have them join you." He pondered, a moment. "And take the Illyrians, too."

A quick look at Timasius, the Illyrian commander. "You'll be under Maurice's command. Any problem with that?"

Timasius shook his head—without hesitation, to Belisarius' relief. His opinion of the Illyrian rose. Smart, the man might not be. But at least he was well-disciplined and cooperative.

The general studied the woods to the northeast.

"Judging from what I saw as we rode in, I think there'll be plenty of good cover over there. I want all the men well hidden, Maurice. No fires, tonight, when you make camp. You'll be my surprise, when I need it, and I don't want the Malwa alerted."

Belisarius did not elaborate any further. With Maurice, there was no need. "You've got signal rockets?"

The Thracian chiliarch nodded.

"Remember, green means—"

"Green means we attack the enemy directly. Red means start the attack with a rocket volley. Yellow—come to your assistance. White—run for our lives."

Maurice glared at Belisarius. "Any instructions on how to lace up my boots?" He glanced at the horizon. "If you're going to tell me which direction the sun goes down, you'd better make it quick. It's already setting. North, I think."

Belisarius chuckled. "Be off, Maurice."

Once the chiliarch trotted off—still glowering—Belisarius spoke to Bouzes and Coutzes.

"One of you—either one, I don't care—take the Syrian infantrymen and start fortifying the royal villa. Take the Callinicum garrison also. The men will probably have to work through the night."

The brothers grimaced. Belisarius smiled.

"Tell them to look on the bright side. They'll have to dismantle the interior of the villa. Be all sorts of loose odds and ends lying around. Have to be picked up, of course, so nobody gets hurt falling all over them."

Bouzes and Coutzes cheered up immediately. Belisarius continued.

"Don't make the fortifications look too solid, but make sure you have the grenade screens ready to be erected at a moment's notice. And make sure there's plenty of portals for a quick sally."

The brothers nodded, then looked at each other. After a moment's unspoken discussion—using facial gestures that meant nothing to anyone else—Bouzes reined his horse around and trotted off.

"All right, then," said Belisarius. "Coutzes, I want you to take the Syrian cavalry—and all of the Arab skirmishers except the few we need for scouts—and get them ready for a sally first thing tomorrow morning. It'll be a Hunnish sort of sally, you understand?"

Coutzes nodded. A moment later, he too was trotting away. Only Agathius was left, of the command group, along with his chief tribune Cyril.

Belisarius studied them for a moment.

"I want you and your Constantinople unit to get well rested, tonight. Set a regular camp, not far from the villa. Make sure it's on the eastern grounds of the park, where the terrain is open. I want you between the Malwa and the villa itself. You understand?"

Agathius nodded. Belisarius continued:

"Build campfires—big ones. Allow the men a double ration of wine, and let them enjoy themselves loudly. Encourage them to sing, if they've a taste for it. Just don't let them get drunk."

Cyril frowned. "You're not worried the enemy will see—"

"I'm hoping the enemy will scout you out."

Agathius chuckled. "So they won't go snooping through the woods on the north, where they might stumble on the Thracians and Illyrians. Or sniff around the villa itself, where they could see how the Syrians are fortifying it."

The burly officer stroked his beard.

"It'll probably work," he mused. "If their skirmishers are as bad as Abbu says, they'll be satisfied with spotting us. Easy, that'll be. They can get back to their army without spending all night creeping through a forest that might have God knows what lurking in it."

Belisarius nodded. Agathius eyed him. His gaze was shrewd—and a bit cold.

"You're going to hammer the shit out of us, aren't you?"

Again, Belisarius nodded.

"Yes, Agathius. Your men are probably going to have the worst of it. In the beginning, at least. I'm hoping the Syrian cavalrymen can draw them into a running battle, lead them back here. If they do—"

"You want us to sally. A big, straight-up, heavy cavalry lance charge. Kind of thing minstrels like to sing about."

"Yes. But you've got to be disciplined about it. That charge has to be solid, but I want you to disengage before you get cut to pieces. Can you do that? I want an honest answer. In my experience, cataphracts tend to think they're invincible. They get so caught up in the—"

Agathius barked a harsh laugh. "For the sake of Christ, general! Do we look like a bunch of aristocrats to you?"

"Right good at disengaging, we are," added Cyril, chuckling. "If you'll forgive me saying so, sir."

Belisarius grinned. "If it'll make you feel any better, I'll be joining you in the charge. I'm rather good at disengaging myself. If you'll forgive me saying so."

The two Greeks laughed—and gaily now. But when their humor died away, there was still a residue of coldness lurking in the back of their eyes.

Belisarius understood immediately. "You've had no experience under my command," he said softly. "I ask you to trust me in this matter. Don't worry about the booty. Tell your men they'll get their fair share—after the battle's won."

Cyril glanced toward the villa. The Syrian infantrymen were already pouring into the lavish structure. Even at the distance—a hundred yards—the glee in their voices was evident.

Agathius' eyes remained on the general. The suspicion in those eyes was open, now.

Belisarius smiled crookedly. "Those Syrians do have experience under my command. They know the penalty for private looting. Don't forget, Agathius, my bucellarii won't be anywhere near that villa, either. You didn't see Maurice complain, did you? That's because he's not worried about it. Anybody holds out on my Thracians, there'll be hell to pay."

Agathius couldn't help wincing.

All whimsy left Belisarius' face. When he spoke, his tone was low and earnest.

"In my army, we all share in the spoils. Fairly apportioned after the battle. Except for what we set aside to care for the disabled and the families of the men who died, each soldier will get his share. Regardless of where he was or what he was doing."

Agathius and Cyril stared at him. Then Agathius nodded his head. It was not a gesture of assent. It was more in the nature of a bow of fealty. A moment later, Cyril copied him.

When their heads lifted, the familiar crooked smile was back on the general's face.

"And now, if you don't mind, I'd like to discuss the tactics of this—what'd you call it, Agathius—minstrel charge?" He chuckled. "I like the sound of that! Especially if the minstrel can sing a cheerful tune—every hero survived, after all."

Agathius grinned. "I've always preferred cheerful tunes, myself."

"Me too," added Cyril. "Loathe dirges. Detest the damn things."

* * *

An hour after sunset, the Persian cavalry showed up at the hunting park. Belisarius met them a mile away from the villa, and explained his plans for the coming battle.

To his relief, Kurush immediately agreed. The young nobleman did cast a sour glance in the direction of the villa, but he made no inquiry as to its condition.

Belisarius himself, with the aid of several Thracian cataphracts sent by Maurice, guided the Persians to the spot in the northeast woods where his bucellarii and the Illyrians had made their camp.

Their progress was slow. The woods were dense—no local woodcutter would dare hew down an imperial tree—and the only illumination came from the last glimmer of twilight. Belisarius took advantage of the time to explain his plans in great detail. He was particularly concerned with impressing upon Kurush the need to let his katyushas open the attack. The rocket chariots had never been used in a battle before. Belisarius wanted to find out how effective they would be.

In the course of their conversation, Kurush filled in some further information on the enemy. The Persians had spent the day scouting the left flank of the approaching Malwa army. Like his own scouts, they had found the enemy's skirmish line to be ragged and ineffective. But—unlike his small group of lightly-armed Arabs—the heavy Persian cavalrymen had been willing to hammer the advance guards and press very close to the Malwa main army before disengaging.

They had seen more of that army, thus, and Kurush was able to add further speficics to the information Belisarius had already obtained.

The Malwa army was large—very large, for what was in essence a cavalry raid. Kurush estimated the main body of regular troops numbered twelve thousand. They were not as heavily armed as Persian lancers or Roman cataphracts, but they were not light cavalry either. There was a force of light cavalry serving the Malwa—about five hundred Arabs wearing the colors of the Lakhmid dynasty.

Interspersed among the regular troops were battalions of Ye-tai horsemen. Their exact numbers had been difficult to determine, but Kurush thought there were two thousand of the barbarians. Possibly more.

In addition, riding at the center of the Malwa army, the Persians had seen hundreds of Malwa kshatriya and several dozen Mahaveda priests. The priests, unlike the kshatriya, were not on horseback. They were riding in large wagons drawn by mules. The contents of those wagons were hidden under canvas, but Kurush assumed that the wagons contained their gunpowder weapons and devices.

None of this information caused the Roman general any particular distress. The force structure was about what he had guessed, and he was not disturbed by the size of the Malwa army. True, the odds were at least 3-to-2 against him, so far as the numbers were concerned. Still, he would be fighting the battle on the tactical defensive, on ground of his choosing.

But the last item of information which Kurush imparted made him wince.

"Describe them again," he commanded.

"They number perhaps two thousand, Belisarius. They form the Malwa rear guard—which is quite odd, in my opinion. If I were leading that army, I would have those troops in the vanguard. They keep formation as well as any parade ground troops I've ever seen, but I don't think—"

Belisarius shook his head. "They are most definitely not parade troops, Kurush."

He sighed. "And the reason they're bringing up the rear is because the Malwa don't trust them much. The problem, however, is not military. It's political."

"Damn," he grumbled. "There were two things I didn't want to run into. One of them are Rajputs, and the other—you're sure about the topknots?"

Kurush nodded. "It's quite a distinctive hairstyle. Their helmets are even designed for it."

"Yes, I know. I've seen them. Kushan helmets."

The Persian winced himself, now. "Kushans? You're sure?"

"Yes. No other enemy troops look like that. To the best of my knowledge, anyway—and remember, I spent over a year in India. I got a very close look at the Malwa army."

Kurush started to say something, but broke off in order to dodge a low-hanging branch in the trail. When he straightened, he muttered: "We did defeat them, you know. We Aryans. Centuries ago. Conquered half the Kushan empire, in fact."

Belisarius smiled. "No doubt your minstrels sing about it to this day."

"They sing about it, all right," replied Kurush glumly. "Dirges, mostly, about glorious victories with maybe three survivors. The casualties were very heavy."

At midnight, after his return, Belisarius took a tour of the villa. Baresmanas came with him. The Persian ambassador had been a warrior, in his day—a renowned one, in fact—but the combination of his advancing years and the terrible injury he had suffered at Mindouos made it impossible for him to participate in thundering lance charges. So he had cheerfully offered his services to the infantry who would be standing on the defensive at the villa.

Bouzes and three of his officers guided Belisarius and Baresmanas through the villa, holding torches aloft, proudly pointing out the cunning of the fortifications. They were especially swell-chested with regard to the grenade screens. The screens were doubled linen, strengthened by slender iron rods sewn lengthwise into the sheets. The design allowed for easy transportation, since the screens could be folded up into pleats and carried on mule back. The screens were now mounted onto bronze frameworks. These had been hastily brazed together out of the multitude of railings which had once adorned the balconies surrounding the villa's interior gardens. The frameworks had then been attached to every entryway or opening in the villa's outer walls with rawhide strips, looped through regularly spaced holes in the former railings.

"We didn't make the holes," admitted Bouzes. "They'd already been drilled, as fittings for the uprights. But we realized they'd allow for leather hinges. You see? Each one of the screens can be moved into place just like a door. Takes less than five seconds. Until then, there's no way to see them from outside the villa."

Belisarius was not surprised, actually, by the shrewdness of the design. He already knew that his Syrian infantrymen, with the jack-of-all-trades attitude of typical borderers, were past masters at the art of jury-rigging fortifications out of whatever materials were available. But he complimented them, nonetheless, quite lavishly.

Baresmanas was even more effusive in his praise. And he made no mention of the pearls which had once adorned the Emperor's railings, nestled in each one of the holes which now held simple rawhide lashings.

Nor did the sahrdaran comment on the peculiar appearance of the great bronze plaques which the Roman infantry had used to bulwark some of the flimsier portions of the outer wall. Those plaques had once hung suspended in the Emperor's huge dining hall, where his noble guests, feasting after a day's hunting, could gaze up at the marvelously etched figures. The etchwork was still there. But the hunting scenes they depicted seemed pallid. The lions wan, without their emerald eyes; the antelopes plebeian, without their silver antlers; the panthers drab, without their jade and ruby spots; and the elephants positively absurd—like big-nosed sheep!—without their ivory tusks.

Baresmanas said nothing in the dining room itself, either, when he and Belisarius joined the infantrymen in a late meal, other than to exchange pleasantries with the troops on the subject of the excellence of the food. Fine fare it was, the Syrians allowed—marvelous, marvelous. Truly fit for an Emperor! And if Baresmanas thought it odd that the splendid meal was served on wooden platters and eaten with peasant daggers, he held his tongue. He did not inquire as to the whereabouts of the gold plates and utensils which would, by all reasonable standards, have made much more sensible dining ware for such a regal feast.

Only once, in that entire tour, did Baresmanas momentarily lose his composure. Hearing Bouzes laud the metalworking skills of his troops, which could finally be put to full use by virtue of the extraordinarily well-equipped smithy located in the rear of the imperial compound, Baresmanas expressed a desire to observe the soldiers at their work.

Bouzes coughed. "Uh, well—it's very hot back there, lord. Terrible! And dirty? You wouldn't believe it! Oh, no, you wouldn't—with those fine clothes? No, you wouldn't—"

"I insist," said Baresmanas. Politely, but firmly. He brushed the silk sleeve of his tunic in a gesture which combined whimsy and unconcern.

"There's going to be a battle tomorrow. I doubt these garments will be usable afterward, anyway. And I am fascinated by the skills of your soldiers. There's nothing comparable in the Persian army. Our dehgan lancers and their mounted retainers wouldn't stoop to this kind of work. And our peasant levees don't know how to do anything beside till the soil."

Bouzes swallowed. "But—"

Belisarius intervened.

"Do as the sahrdaran asks, Bouzes. I'd like to see the workshop myself. I've always loved watching skilled smiths at their trade."

Bouzes sighed. With a little shrug, he turned and led the way toward the rear of the compound. Out of the royal chambers, through the servant quarters, and into the cluster of adjoining buildings where the practical needs of Persia's emperors were met, far from the fastidious eyes of Aryan royalty.

When they entered the smithy, all work ceased immediately. The dozen or so Syrian infantrymen in the workshop froze at their labors, staring goggle-eyed at the newcomers.

Baresmanas stared himself. Goggle-eyed.

The center of the shop was occupied by a gigantic cauldron, designed to smelt metal. The cauldron was being put to use. It was almost brim-full with molten substance. At that very moment, two infantrymen were standing paralyzed, staring at the sahrdaran, stooped from the effort of carrying a large two-handled ladle over to the ingot-molds ranged against a far wall.

The mystery of the imperial dining ware was solved at once. Only a small number of the gold plates—and not more than a basket's worth, perhaps, of gold utensils—still remained on a shelf next to the cauldron. That small number immediately shrank, as a handful of gold plate slipped out of the loose fingers of the Roman soldier gaping at Baresmanas. Plop, plop, plop, into the brew.

But it was not the plates which held the Persian nobleman transfixed. It was the sight of the much larger objects which were slowly joining the melt.

Baresmanas' gaze settled on a winged horse which perched atop a heavy post. The post was softening rapidly. Within a few seconds, the horse sank below the cauldron's rim.

"That was the Emperor's bed," he choked. "It's made out of solid gold."

The soldiers in the smithy paled. Bouzes glanced appealingly at Belisarius.

The general cleared his throat. "Excellent work, men!" he boomed. "I'm delighted to see how well you've carried out my instructions." He placed a firm hand on Baresmanas' shoulder. "It's terrible, what military necessity drives us to."

The sahrdaran tore his eyes away from the cauldron and stared at Belisarius.

"I believe I mentioned, Baresmanas, that I hope to capture Malwa cannons in the course of the campaign. The problem, of course, is with the shot." The general scowled fiercely. "You wouldn't believe the crap the Malwa use! Stone balls, for siege work. And the same—broken stones, for the sake of God!—do for their cannister." He pursed his lips, as if to spit. Restrained himself. "I won't have it! Proper cannister can make all the difference, breaking a charge. But for that, you need good lead."

He fixed the soldiers with an eagle eye. "You found no lead, I take it?"

The soldiers stared at him, for a moment. Then one of them squeaked: "No, sir! No, sir!"

Another, bobbing his head: "We looked, sir. Indeed we did. Scoured the place! But—"

A third: "Only lead's in the water pipes." His face grew lugubrious. "Have to tear the walls apart to get at 'em."

A fourth, shaking his head solemnly: "Didn't want to do that, of course. A royal palace, and all."

Every infantryman's face assumed a grave expression. Well-nigh funereal. Heads bobbed in unison.

"Be a terrible desecration," muttered one.

"'Orrible," groaned another.

Belisarius stepped forward and looked down into the cauldron, hands clasped behind his back. The general's gaze was stern, fastidious, determined—much like that of a farmer examining night-soil.

"Gold!" he snorted. Then, shrugging heavily: "Well, I suppose it'll have to do."

He turned away, took Baresmanas by the arm—the sahrdaran was still standing stiff and rigid—and began leading him toward the entrance.

"A cruel business, war," he muttered.

Baresmanas moved with him, but the Persian's head swiveled, staring back over his shoulder. His eyes never left the cauldron until they were out of the smithy altogether.

Then, suddenly, he burst into laughter. No light-hearted chuckling, either. No, this was shoulder-shaking, belly-heaving, convulsive laughter. He leaned weakly against a nearby wall.

"This was Emperor Kavad's favorite hunting park," he choked. "Spent half his time here, before age overcame him."

Another round of uproarious laughter. Then:

"He told me once—ho! ho!—that he was quite sure his son Khusrau was conceived on that bed! Ho! Ho! So proud he was! He had slain a lion, that day, and thought it was an omen for his son's future."