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In the Heart of Darkness
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In the Heart of Darkness
The Malwa Empire has conquered 6th century India and is forging the subcontinent's vast population into an invincible weapon of tyranny. Belisarius, the finest general of his age, must save the world. Guided by visions from a future that may never be, he and a band of comrades penetrate the Malwa heartland, seeking the core of the enemy's power. And when Belisarius leads the forces of good, only a fool would side with evil.
Cover art by David Mattingly
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
First printing, August 1998
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Printed in the United States of America ISBN: 0-671-87885-9
Copyright © 1998 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
Typeset by Windhaven Press
Electronic version by WebWrights
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When the lavish dinner was finished, and the servants sent away, the spymaster broke the bad news.
"Belisarius is alive," he said curtly.
There were seven other men in the room. One, like the spymaster, was foreign. From the blankness of his face, it was obvious he had already heard the news. Of the Romans in the room, five rose up on their couches, their faces expressing various degrees of consternation.
The seventh man, the last of the Romans, simply curled his lip, and satisfied himself with shifting his weight to the other elbow.
He had been disgusted the entire evening.
The two churchmen in the room disgusted him with their sanctimonious prattle. Glycerius of Chalcedon and George Barsymes were deacons, acting on behalf of Rufinus Namatianus, Bishop of Ravenna. They were rabidly orthodox. But, at bottom, their orthodoxy was nothing but a veil for ambition. The Bishop of Ravenna sought the papacy, and his underlings sought the patriarchates of Constantinople and Alexandria.
Ambition was the seventh man's motive also, but he did not disguise it with false piety. (A ridiculous piety, to boot—allying with Hindu heathens against Christian heretics.) The seventh man counted many sins against his soul, mortal and venial alike. But hypocrisy was not among them.
The two noblemen in the room disgusted him with their swaggering braggadocio. Their names were Hypatius and Pompeius. They were brothers, the nephews of the former emperor Anastasius. By any formal dynastic criterion, they were the rightful heirs to the imperial throne. But Romans had never worshipped at the altar of heredity. Competence was the ultimate standard for wearing the purple. And if there were two more feckless creatures in the entire Roman empire, they were hiding themselves well.
The other high Roman official in the room disgusted him. John of Cappadocia, his name was, and he was Emperor Justinian's Praetorian Prefect. A ruthless and capable man, to be sure. But one whose rapaciousness and depravity were almost beyond belief. Murderer, thief, extortionist, torturer, rapist—all these things John of Cappadocia had been named. The names were all true.
The two Malwa spies in the room disgusted him—Balban the oily spymaster even more than Ajatasutra the assassin—partly for their false bonhomie and pretense of comradeship, but mostly for their claim of disinterested concern for the best interests of Rome, which no one but an idiot would believe for an instant. The seventh man was very far from being an idiot, and he took the Malwa air of innocence as an insult to his intelligence.
The seventh man was disgusted with himself. He was the Grand Chamberlain of the Roman Empire. He was one of the most valued and trusted advisers of Emperor Justinian, whom he planned to betray. He was the close personal friend of the Empress Theodora, whom he planned to murder. He would add the count of treason to his sins, and increase the counts of murder, and all for the sake of rising one small rung in power. He was a eunuch, and so could never aspire to the throne himself. But he could at least become the Grand Chamberlain of a feckless emperor, instead of a dynamic one, and thus be the real power in Rome.
The seventh man knew, with all the intelligence of a keen mind, that his ambition was stupidity incarnate. He was an old man. Even if he realized his ambition, he would probably not enjoy its exercise for more than a few years.
For that stupid, petty ambition, the seventh man risked the possibility of execution and the certainty of eternal damnation. He despised himself for that pettiness, and was disgusted by his own stupidity. But he could not do otherwise. For all that he prided himself on his iron self-control, the seventh man had never been able to control his ambition. Ambition rode the eunuch like lust rides a satyr. It had ridden him as far back as he could remember, since the days when other boys had taunted and beaten him for his castrated deformity.
But, above all, the seventh man was disgusted because the Malwa and the Roman reactionaries in the room had insisted on dining in the archaic tradition, instead of sitting on chairs at a table, as all sensible people did in the modern day. The seventh man's aged body had long since lost the suppleness to eat a meal half-reclined on a couch.
His name was Narses, and his back hurt.
The Indian spymaster's eyes had been fixed on Narses from the moment he made the announcement. Months ago, Balban had realized that the eunuch was by far the most formidable of his Roman allies—and the only one who was not, in any sense, a dupe. The churchmen were provincial bigots, the royal nephews were witless fops, and John of Cappadocia—for all his undoubted ability—was too besotted with his own vices to distinguish fact from fancy. But Narses understood the Malwa plot perfectly. He had agreed to join it simply because he was convinced he could foil the Malwa after he had taken the power in Rome.
Balban was not at all sure the eunuch was wrong in that estimate. Narses, in power, would make a vastly more dangerous enemy for the Malwa than Justinian. So Balban had long since begun planning for Narses' own assassination. But he was a methodical man, who knew the value of patience, and was willing to take one step ahead of the other. For the moment, the alliance with the eunuch was necessary.
"What is your reaction, Narses?" he asked. The Indian's Greek was fluent, if heavily accented.
The eunuch grimaced as he painfully levered himself to an upright posture on his couch.
"I told you it was a stupid idea," he growled. As always, Balban was struck by the sound of such a deep, rich, powerful voice coming from such a small and elderly man. A eunuch, to boot.
"It was not," whined Hypatius. His brother's vigorous nod of agreement was intended to be firm and dignified. With his cosmetic-adorned and well-coiffed head bobbing back and forth on a scrawny neck, the nobleman resembled nothing so much as a doll shaken by a toddler.
The eunuch fixed muddy green eyes on the nephews. Against his bony face, surrounded by myriad wrinkles, the effect was utterly reptilian. Deadly, but cold-blooded. The brothers shrank from his gaze like mice.
Narses satisfied himself with that silent intimidation. Much as he was often tempted, Narses never insulted the brothers. One of them would be needed, in the future, for his puppet emperor. Either one, it did not matter. Whichever summoned up the courage to plot with Narses to murder the other first. So, as always, the eunuch maintained formal respect, and allowed his eyes alone to establish dominance.
"I told you all from the beginning that the plan was pathetic," he said. "If you want to assassinate a man like Belisarius, you had better use something other than common criminals."
Ajatasutra spoke, for the first time that evening. He was the Indian mission's chief agent. A specialist in direct action, a man of the streets and alleys, where Balban manipulated from the shadows. His Greek was also fluent, but, unlike Balban's, bore hardly a trace of an accent. Ajatasutra could—and often did—pass himself off as a Roman citizen from one of the more exotic, outlying provinces of the empire. A dark-complected Syrian, perhaps, or a half-breed Isaurian.
"It was a well-laid plan, according to the report," he murmured. His tone exuded calm, dispassionate assessment. "Belisarius was ambushed shortly after landing in Bharakuccha. At night, in darkness. While he was alone, without his cataphract bodyguards. By no less than eight dacoits. Seasoned killers, all of them."
"Really?" sneered Narses. He was quite happy to insult the Malwa, within reason. So he allowed his lip to curl ferociously, but refrained from spitting on the polished, parquet floor. "Tell me, Ajatasutra—I'm curious. How many of these—what did you call them?—oh, yes! `Seasoned killers,' no less. How many of them survived the encounter?"
"Three," came the instant reply. "They fled after Belisarius slaughtered the first five. Within seconds, according to the report."
Narses' sneer faded. Ajatasutra was immune to the Roman's contempt. The agent's dark brown eyes were filled with nothing beyond professional interest. And the eunuch well remembered that Ajatasutra had expressed his own reservations at the meeting, many months earlier, when the decision was taken to recommend Belisarius' assassination as soon as he reached India. (Recommend, not order. Lord Venandakatra was the one who would make the final decision. Balban ranked high in the Malwa Empire's hierarchy, but he was not a member of the imperial dynastic clan. He did not give orders to such as Venandakatra. Not if he wanted to live.)
Narses sighed, as much from the pain in his back as exasperation.
"I told you then," he continued, "that you were grossly underestimating Belisarius."
A rare moment of genuine anger heated his voice. "Who did you think you were playing with, for the sake of God?" he demanded. "The man is one of the greatest generals Rome has ever produced. And he's still young. And vigorous. And famous for his bladesmanship. And has more combat experience than most soldiers twice his age."
A glare at Balban. "Real combat experience, against real enemies. Not"—the sneer was back in full force—"the `seasoned killer' experience of a thug backstabbing a merchant." He stopped, hissing. Partly from aggravation; mostly from the sharp pain which streaked up his spine. He sagged back on his couch, closing his eyes.
Balban cleared his throat. "As it happens, it may have turned out for the best in any event. The report which we just received—from the hand of Lord Venandakatra himself—also says that Lord Venankatra believes Belisarius may be open to treas—to our mutual cause. He has developed a friendship with Belisarius, he says, and has had many conversations with him in the course of their long voyage to India. The general is filled with bitter resentment at his treatment by Justinian, and has let slip indications of a willingness to seek another patron."
His eyes still closed, fighting the pain, Narses listened to the conversation which suddenly filled the dining chamber. An agitated conversation, on the part of the Romans. A mixture of cold calculation, babbling nonsense, scheming analysis, wild speculation, and—most of all—poorly hidden fear.
All of the Romans in the room, except Narses, were torn and uncertain. To win Belisarius to their plot would greatly increase its chance for success. So they all said, aloud. But to do so would also make their own personal prospects that much the dimmer. So they all thought, silently.
Narses said nothing. Nor, after a minute or so, did he pay any attention to the words. Let them babble, and play their witless games.
Pointless games. The Grand Chamberlain, old as he was, eunuch that he was, knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that there was no more chance of Belisarius betraying his oath to Justinian—less chance; much, much less chance—than that a handful of street thugs could cut him down from ambush.
The image of Belisarius came to his mind, as sharp as if the Thracian were standing before him. Tall, handsome, well-built. The archetype of the simple soldier, except for that crooked smile and that strange, knowing, subtle gaze.
Narses stared up at the ceiling, oblivious to the chatter around him, grimly fighting down the pain.
Balban's voice penetrated.
"So, that's it. I think we're all agreed. We'll hope for the success of Lord Venandakatra's effort to win over Belisarius. In the meantime, here in Constantinople, we'll step up our efforts to turn his wife Antonina. As you all know, she arrived a month ago from their estate in Syria. Ajatasutra has already initiated contact with her."
Narses' eyes remained fixed on the ceiling. He listened to Ajatasutra:
"It went well, I think, for a first approach. She was obviously shaken by my hint that Emperor Justinian is plotting with the Malwa to assassinate Belisarius while he is in India, far from his friends and his army. I am to meet her again, soon, while she is still in the capital."
John of Cappadocia's voice, coarse, hot:
"If that doesn't work, just seduce the slut. It seems the supposedly reformed whore hasn't changed her ways a bit. Not according to Belisarius' own secretary Procopius, at any rate. I had a little chat with him just the other day. She's been spreading her legs for everybody since the day her doting husband left for India."
Lewd laughter rippled around the room. Narses rolled his head on the couch, slightly. Just enough to bring John of Cappadocia under his reptilian gaze.
Not for you, she hasn't. And never will. Or for anyone, I suspect. Only a cretin would believe that malicious gossip Procopius.
Narses levered himself upright, and onto his feet.
"I'm leaving, then," he announced. He nodded politely to all the men in the room, except John of Cappadocia. Courtesy was unneeded there, and would have been wasted in any event. The Praetorian Prefect was oblivious to Narses. His eyes were blank, his mind focussed inward, on the image of the beautiful Antonina.
So Narses simply stared at the Cappadocian for a moment, treasuring the sight of that twisted obsession. When the time came, the eunuch knew, after the triumph of their treason, John planned to finally sate his lust for Antonina.
Narses turned away. The Cappadocian's guard would be down then. It would be the perfect time to have him murdered.
Fierce satisfaction flooded him. In his own bitter heart, hidden away like a coal in his icy mind, Narses had compiled a list of all those he hated in the world. It was a very, very, very long list.
John of Cappadocia's name ranked high on that list. Narses would enjoy killing him. Enjoy it immensely.
The pleasure would alleviate, perhaps, the pain from his other crimes. The pain from killing Belisarius, whom he admired deeply. The agony from Theodora's murder, which would leave him, in the end, shrieking on his deathbed.
The servant helped him don his cloak, before opening the door.
Narses stood in the doorway, waiting for the servant to fetch his palanquin from the stables in the back of the villa. He glanced up. The night sky was clear, cloudless. Open. Unstained.
Murder them he would, nonetheless, or see to the doing of the deed.
Behind him, dimly, he heard John of Cappadocia speaking. He could not make out the words, but there was no mistaking that coarse, foul voice.
Foul noise and unstained sky swirled in the soul of Narses. Images of a murdered Cappadocian and a murdered Thracian vanished. The cold, still face of the eunuch finally twisted, unbridled. There was nothing reptilian in that face now. It was the face of a warm-blooded beast. Almost a child's face, for all its creases and wrinkles, if a child's face had ever borne such a burden of helpless rage.
Cursed, hated ambition. He would destroy himself for that cannibal.
The palanquin was here. The four slaves who carried it waited in silent obedience while the servant assisted Narses into the cushioned seat. The palanquin began to move.
Narses leaned back into the cushions, eyes closed.
His back hurt.
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Spring 530 AD
Belisarius watched the stone ball arching through the sky. The trajectory was no flatter than that of a ball cast by catapult, but it slammed into the brick wall surrounding Ranapur with much greater force. Even over the roar of the cannon blast, the sound of the ball's impact was remarkable.
"A least a foot in diameter," stated Anastasius.
Belisarius thought the cataphract's estimate of the cannonball's size was accurate, and nodded his agreement. The other of his veteran bodyguards, Valentinian, grimaced sourly.
"So what?" he grumbled. "I've seen a catapult toss bigger."
"Not as far," countered Anastasius, "and not with anything like that kind of power." The huge Thracian shrugged his shoulders. "There's no point fooling ourselves. These infernal Malwa devices make our Roman artillery engines look like toys."
Menander, the last of the three cataphracts who had accompanied Belisarius to India, spoke up.
"What do you think, general?"
Belisarius turned in his saddle to reply. But his quick answer was interrupted by a muttered curse.
Anastasius chuckled. "It's amazing how quickly we forget old skills, isn't it?"
Belisarius smiled ruefully, for the truth of the remark could not be denied. Belisarius had introduced stirrups into the equipment of his cavalry only a few months before his journey to India. Already he had half-forgotten the little tricks of staying in a saddle without them. The ambassadorial mission which Belisarius led had not brought the new devices to India, however. Stirrups were one of the very few items of Roman military equipment which were superior to those of the Malwa Empire, and Belisarius had no intention of alerting his future enemy to them.
But he did miss the things, deeply, and was reminded of their absence every time some little motion caused him to lose his balance atop his horse—even something as simple as turning in his saddle to answer the young Thracian behind him.
"I agree with Anastasius, Menander," he said. "Actually, I think he's understating the problem. It's not just that the Malwa cannons are superior to our catapults at the moment. What's worse is that our artillery engines and techniques are already at their peak of development, while the Malwa devices are still crude and primitive."
Menander's eyes widened. "Really? They seem—"
The young soldier's gaze scanned the battleground. Belisarius and his entourage had arrived at Ranapur only the week before. But the northern Indian province of which Ranapur was the capital had rebelled against their Malwa overlords two years earlier. For more than a year now, Ranapur itself had been under siege. The once fertile fields surrounding the large city had long since been trampled flat and then re-elevated into a maze of trenchworks and earthen fortifications.
The scene reminded Menander of nothing so much as a gigantic ant nest. Everywhere his eyes looked he saw soldiers and laborers hauling supplies and ammunition, sometimes with carts and wagons, but more often through simple brute labor. Less than thirty yards away, he watched a pair of laborers toting a clay-sealed, tightly woven basket filled with gunpowder. The basket was suspended on a bamboo pole, each end of which rested on the men's shoulders. Despite being clothed only in loincloths, the laborers were sweating heavily. Much of that sweat, of course, was the product of the blistering heat which saturated the great Gangetic plain of north India in springtime, during that dry season which the Indians called garam. But most of it was due to the work itself. Menander estimated the basket's weight at sixty pounds, and knew that it was only one of many which those two men would have been hauling for hours.
That scene was duplicated dozens of times over, everywhere he could see. The entire city of Ranapur was surrounded by wooden palisades, earthen walls, trenches, and every other form of siegework. These had been erected by the besieging Malwa as protection from the rebels' catapult fire and occasional sallies.
Menander thought the Malwa were being excessively cautious. He himself was too inexperienced to be a good judge of these things, but Belisarius and the veteran cataphracts had estimated the size of the Malwa army surrounding Ranapur at 200,000 soldiers.
The figure was mind-boggling. No western empire could possibly muster such a force on a field of battle. And the soldiers, Menander knew, were just the fighting edge of an even greater mass of humanity. Menander could see only some of them from his current vantage point, but he knew that all the roads in the vicinity of the city were choked with transport bringing supplies to the army.
Glancing to the south, he could see barges making their slow way up the Jamuna river to the temporary docks which the Malwa had erected to offload their provisions. Each of those barges weighed three to six hundred tons—the size of the average sea-going craft of the Mediterranean world. They were hauling food and provisions from the whole of northern India, produced by the toil of the uncountable multitude of Malwa subject peoples.
In addition to the freight barges there were a number of equal-sized, but vastly more luxurious, barges moored to the south bank of the Jamuna. These were the accommodations for the Malwa nobility and high officials. And, here and there, Menander could see slim oared craft, as well, moving much more rapidly. The galleys were powered by fifty or so rowers, with additional troops aboard. The Malwa maintained a careful patrol of the river, closing Ranapur's access to water traffic.
Most of all, Menander's gaze was drawn by the huge bronze cannons which were bombarding Ranapur. He could see eight of them from the slight rise in the landscape where he and the other Romans were watching the siege. Each of the cannons was positioned on a stone surface, surrounded by a low berm, and tended by a small horde of soldiers and laborers.
"Magical, almost," he concluded softly.
Belisarius shook his head. "There's nothing magical about them, lad. It's just metalworking and chemistry, that's all. And, as I said, crude and primitive metalworking and chemistry."
The general cast his eyes about. Their large Rajput escort was not far away, but still out of hearing range.
Belisarius leaned forward in his saddle. When he spoke, his voice was low and intent. He spoke loud enough for all three of his cataphracts to hear him, but his principal audience was Menander. Out of all the hundreds of cataphracts who constituted Belisarius' bucellarii, his personal retinue of elite soldiers, there were none so deadly as Valentinian and Anastasius. That was why he had selected them to accompany him on his dangerous mission to India. But, for all their battle skills, neither of the veterans was really suited for the task of assessing a radically new situation. Young Menander, even with more experience, would never be Anastasius or Valentinian's equal as a warrior. But he was proving to be much quicker to absorb the new realities which the Malwa were introducing into warfare.
"Listen to me, all of you. I may not survive this journey. Whatever happens, it is essential that at least one of us return to Rome with what we've learned, and get the information to Antonina and John of Rhodes."
Valentinian began to make some little protest, but Belisarius waved him down.
"That's stupid, Valentinian, and you know it better than anyone. A thousand things can kill you on the field of battle—or off it—and I'm no more immune to them than anyone. What is important is the information."
He glanced again in the direction of the Rajputs, but the cavalrymen were still maintaining a polite distance.
"I've already explained to you how the cannons work," he said. He cocked an eye at Menander. The young Thracian immediately recited the formula for gunpowder and the complex series of steps by which it was properly prepared. His words had the singsong character of one repeating oft-memorized data.
Belisarius nodded. "It's the wetting and the grinding that's key. Remember that." He made a small nodding gesture toward the distant cannons. "The Malwa gunpowder is really pretty poor stuff, compared to what's possible. And so is their metalworking."
Examining one of the cannons, he sat slightly straighter in his saddle.
"Watch," he commanded. "They're about to fire. Watch the trajectory of the cannonball."
Menander and the other two cataphracts followed his gaze. A moment later, they saw one of the Malwa soldiers take a long iron bar out of a small forge. The bar was bent ninety degrees at the tip, and the protruding two inches glowed red from heat. Gingerly, he inserted the firing bar into a small hole in the breach of the cannon. The mouth of the cannon belched a huge cloud of smoke, followed almost instantly by the roaring sound of the blast.
The recoil jerked the cannon back into its cradle. Menander saw the gunner lose his grip on the firing bar. The bar was spun against another of the Malwa soldiers, who backed up hastily, frantic to avoid the still-glowing tip. Menander did not envy the Malwa gunners. Theirs was a risky task. Two days earlier, he had seen a recoiling cannon shatter its cradle and crush one of its gunners.
Menander and the other Romans followed the cannonball's trajectory all the way to its impact against the great wall of Ranapur. Even from the distance, they could see the wall shiver, and pieces of brickwork splinter and fall to the ground.
Belisarius glanced at his companions. All of them were frowning—the veterans with simple puzzlement, but Menander with concentration.
"It didn't fly straight," announced the young cataphract. "It shot off at an angle. It should have hit the wall fifteen or twenty feet to the east."
"Exactly," said Belisarius with satisfaction. "If you watch carefully, and keep track, you'll eventually notice that the cannonfire is very erratic. Occasionally they shoot straight. But more often the ball will sail off at an angle—and the elevation's just as haphazard."
"Why?" asked Menander.
"It's the clearance," replied the general. "What's called windage. In order for a cannon to shoot straight, the ball has to fit snugly in the bore. That requires two things—an even, precise bore all the way through the cannon barrel, and cannonballs that are sized to match."
Anastasius puffed out his cheeks. "That's a tall order, general. Even for Greek artisans."
Belisarius nodded. "Yes, it is. But the better the fit, the better the fire. The Malwa don't even make the attempt. Those cannonballs aren't much more than crude stones—they'd do better to use iron—and the cannon barrels are simply castings. They're not machined at all. Even the casting process, I suspect, is pretty crude."
Valentinian scowled. "How would you machine something that big in the first place?" he demanded. "Especially metal."
Belisarius smiled. "I wouldn't even try, Valentinian. For cannons the size of these, sloppy accuracy isn't really that much of a problem. But let's examine the question from a different angle. How hard would it be to machine a very small cannon?"
"Very hard," said Anastasius instantly. His father was a blacksmith, and had put his boy to work at an early age. "Any kind of machining is difficult, even with wood. Almost nobody tries to do it with metal. But—yes, if it was small enough—"
"Hand cannons," said Menander excitedly. "That's what you'd have. Something small enough for a single man to fire—or maybe two."
"One man," pronounced Belisarius.
"I haven't seen any such weapons among the Malwa," said Valentinian uncertainly. "Maybe—" He fell silent, coughing. There was a soft wind blowing, and the cloud of gunsmoke emitted by the recent cannonblast had finally wafted over the Romans.
"God, that shit stinks," he muttered.
"Better get used to it," said Anastasius, rather unkindly. For a moment, the giant Thracian seemed on the verge of uttering one of his frequent philosophical homilies, but Valentinian's ferocious glare made him think better of it.
"You haven't seen any handcannons, Valentinian, because the Malwa don't have any." Belisarius' voice was soft, but filled with confidence. "They're not hiding them from us. I'm sure of that. They've kept us far from the battlefield, but not that far. If they had any handcannons, we'd have spotted them by now."
He waited for the roar of another cannonblast to subside before continuing.
"And that's the wave of the future. Handcannons. If we can get back to Rome—if some of us can make it back to Rome, and get this information to John of Rhodes, then we've got a chance. We'll have better powder than the Malwa, and our artisans are more skilled than theirs, on balance. We can build an entirely new kind of army. An army that can defeat this colossus."
For a moment, he considered adding some of the ideas he had been coming to, of late, concerning the structure and tactics of such a future army. But he decided against it. His ideas were still only half-formed and tentative. They would confuse the cataphracts more than anything else. Belisarius needed more time. More time to think. And, most of all, more time to learn from the strange mentality that rested, somehow, in the bizarre "jewel" that he carried in the pouch suspended from his neck. The mentality which called itself Aide and said that it came from the far distant future.
His musings were interrupted by Valentinian.
"Careful," muttered the cataphract. "The Rajputs are coming."
Belisarius glanced over, and saw that a small group of Rajputs had detached themselves from the main body of the elite horsemen and were trotting toward them. At their head rode the leader of the escort, one of the many petty kinglets who constituted the upper crust of the Malwa's Rajput vassals. This one belonged to the Chauhar clan, one of the most prominent of the Rajput dynasties. His name was Rana Sanga.
Watching Sanga approach, Belisarius was torn between two sentiments.
On the one hand, he was irritated by the interruption. The Rajputs—following orders, Belisarius had no doubt—never allowed the Romans to get very close to the action, and never for very long. Despite the limitation, Belisarius had been able to glean much from observing the siege of the rebel city of Ranapur. But he would have been able to learn much more had he been allowed closer, and if his observations were not always limited to a span of a few minutes.
On the other hand—
The fact was, he had developed a genuine respect for Rana Sanga. And even, in some strange way, the beginning of friendship, for all that the Rajput lord was his future enemy.
And a fearsome enemy at that, he thought.
Rana Sanga was, in every respect except one, the archetypical model of a Rajput. The man was very tall—taller, even, than Belisarius—and well built. The easy grace with which Sanga rode his mount bespoke not only his superb physical condition but also his expert horsemanship—a quality he shared with every Rajput Belisarius had so far met.
His dress and accouterments were those of a typical Rajput as well, if a little finer. Rajputs favored lighter gear and armor than either cataphracts or Persian lancers—mail tunics reaching to mid-thigh, but leaving the arms uncovered; open-faced helmets; tight trousers tucked into knee-high boots. For weapons, they carried lances, bows, and scimitars. Belisarius had never actually seen Sanga wield those weapons, but he had not the slightest doubt the man was expert in their use.
Yes, the ideal image of a Rajput in every sense, except—
Sanga was now within a few feet. Belisarius smiled at him, and found it impossible to keep the smile to a polite minimum.
Except for that marvelous, dry sense of humor.
"I am afraid I must ask you and your men to leave now, general Belisarius," said the Rajput, as he drew his horse alongside. "The battle will be heating up soon, I believe. As always, we must put the safety of our honored guests above all other concerns."
At that very moment, as if cued by the Rajput's words, an object appeared above Ranapur. Belisarius watched the bomb—launched by a catapult hidden behind the walls of the city—as it arched its way toward the Malwa besiegers. Even from the great distance, he could spot the tiny sparks which marked the bomb's fuse.
"You see the peril," announced Sanga.
The fuse, Belisarius saw, had been cut too short. The bomb exploded in the air, well before it struck its intended target, the front line of trenches encircling the city. Which were at least a mile away from the little knoll where they stood.
"The deadly peril," elaborated Sanga.
"Indeed," mused Belisarius. "This is perhaps the most dangerous moment in my entire life. Or, perhaps not. Perhaps it takes second place to that terrifying episode, when I was eight years old, when my sister threatened me with a ladle."
"Brutal creatures, sisters," agreed Sanga instantly. "I have three myself. Deadly with a ladle, each and every one, and cruel beyond belief. So I have no doubt that moment was slightly more dangerous than the present one. But I must still insist that you leave. The safety of our honored guests from Rome is the uppermost concern in our Emperor's mind. To allow Emperor Justinian's official envoys to suffer so much as a scratch would be an irreparable stain upon his honor."
The Rajput's expression was solemn, but Belisarius suddenly broke into a grin. There was no point in arguing with Sanga. For all the Rajput's invariable courtesy, Belisarius had quickly learned that the man had a will of iron.
Belisarius reined his horse around and began moving away from the siege. His cataphracts followed immediately. The entire Rajput escort—all five hundred of them—quickly took their places. Most of the Rajputs rode a polite distance behind the Romans, but a considerable number took up positions as flankers, and a small group of twenty or so trotted ahead to serve as the advance guard for the little army moving through the milling swarm of Malwa soldiers and laborers.
Rana Sanga rode alongside Belisarius. After a moment's silence, the Rajput remarked casually:
"Your Hindi is improving rapidly, general. With amazing rapidity, actually. And your accent is becoming almost unnoticeable."
Belisarius repressed a grimace, and silently cursed himself for a fool. In point of fact, Belisarius could speak Hindi fluently, when he chose, without the slightest trace of an accent. An almost magical capacity for language was one of the many talents which Aide provided him, and one which Belisarius had used to advantage on several occasions.
And one which, he reminded himself again, was useful in direct proportion to being held a close secret.
He sighed, very slightly. He was learning that, of all the difficult tasks which men face in the world, there is perhaps none quite so difficult as pretending to be semicompetent in a language which one speaks perfectly.
Belisarius cleared his throat.
"I am pleased to hear that. I hadn't noticed, myself."
"I thought not," replied Sanga. The Rajput glanced over his shoulder. "Given that your Hindi is becoming so fluent, I suggest that we might speak in Greek from now on. My own Greek, as you know, is only passable. I would much appreciate the opportunity to improve it."
"Certainly," said Belisarius—speaking, now in Greek. "I would be delighted."
The Roman general pointed back toward Ranapur with his thumb.
"I am curious about one thing, Rana Sanga. I notice that the rebels seem to lack any of your cannons, yet they obviously possess a large supply of gunpowder. It seems odd they would have the one and not the other."
The Rajput did not reply, for a moment. It was obvious to Belisarius that Rana Sanga was gauging the limits of what he could tell the Roman.
But the moment was very brief. Sanga was not given to hesitation. It was one of the many little things about the man, Belisarius thought, which indicated his capabilities as a military commander.
"Not so odd, General Belisarius. The cannons are under the exclusive control of the Malwa kshatriya, and are never stationed in provincial cities. Neither are supplies of gunpowder, for that matter. But cannons are very difficult to manufacture, and require special establishments for the purpose. By law, such manufactories may not be created outside our capital city of Kausambi. Gunpowder, on the other hand, is much simpler to make. Or so, at least, I am given to understand. I myself, of course, do not know the secret of its manufacture. None do, except the Mahaveda priests. But it does not require the same elaborate equipment. So long as one possesses the necessary ingredients—"
The Rajput broke off, shrugged slightly.
"—which I, needless to say, do not—"
Fibber, thought Belisarius. I doubt he knows the exact process, but I'm sure a soldier as observant as Sanga knows the three ingredients and their approximate proportions.
"—and the necessary knowledge, gunpowder can be made. Even in a city under siege."
"I am surprised that Mahaveda priests would join a rebellion against Emperor Skandagupta," remarked Belisarius. "I had the impression that Malwa brahmins were utterly devoted to your empire."
"Oh, I have no doubt their co-operation is involuntary. Most of the priests were undoubtedly killed when the province revolted, but I'm quite sure the lord of Ranapur kept a few alive. It is true, the Mahaveda are sworn to commit suicide before divulging the secret of the Veda weapons. But—"
The Rajput tightened his lips.
"But the priests are perhaps not completely free of the weaknesses which afflict we lesser mortals. Especially when they are themselves the objects of coercion, rather than—"
He fell silent entirely. Belisarius completed the thought in his own mind.
Rather than the overseers of the work of their mahamimamsa torturers.
Their conversation was the closest Belisarius had ever managed to get to the subject of the Malwa secret weapons. He decided to see how far he could probe.
"I notice that you refer to these—incredible—new weapons as the Veda weapons. My own men tend to believe they are the products of sorcery."
As he had hoped, his last words stung the Rajput.
"They are not sorcery! Magical, perhaps. But it is the reborn power of our Vedic ancestors, not the witchcraft of some modern heathen."
That was the official public position of the Malwa Empire: Ancient weapons from the time of the Vedas, rediscovered by diligent priests belonging to the new Mahaveda cult. Belisarius was fascinated to see how completely it was accepted by even Rajput royalty.
But perhaps, he thought, that was not so surprising after all. No people of India, Belisarius knew, took greater pride in their Vedic ancestry than Rajputs. The pride was all the greater—a better word might be ferocious—for the fact that many non-Rajput Indians questioned the Rajput claim to that ancestry. The Rajputs—so went the counter-claim—were actually recent migrants into India. Central Asian nomads, not so many generations ago, who had conquered part of northwestern India and promptly began giving themselves airs. Great airs! The term "Rajput" itself meant "sons of kings," which each and every Rajput claimed himself to be.
So it was said, by many non-Rajput Indians. But, Belisarius had noted, it was said quietly. And never in the presence of Rajputs themselves.
Belisarius pressed on.
"You think so? I have never had the opportunity to study the Vedas myself—"
(A bald lie, that. Belisarius had spent hours poring over the Sanskrit manuscripts, assisted in deciphering the old language by his slave Dadaji Holkar.)
"—but I did not have the impression that the Vedic heroes fought with any weapons beyond those with which modern men have long been familiar."
"The heroes themselves, perhaps not. Or not often, at least. But gods and demi-gods participated directly in those ancient battles, Belisarius. And they were under no such limitation."
Belisarius glanced quickly at Sanga. The Rajput was scowling, now.
A bit more, I think.
"You must be pleased to see such divine powers returning to the world," the general remarked idly.
Rana Sanga did not respond. Belisarius glanced at him again. The scowl had disappeared, replaced by a frown.
A moment later, the frown also disappeared, replaced by a little sigh.
"It goes without saying, Belisarius," said Sanga softly. The Roman did not fail to notice that this was the first time the Rajput had ever called him by his simple name, without the formal addition of the title of "general."
"It goes without saying. Yet—in some ways, I might prefer it if the Vedic glories remained a thing of the past." Another brief silence. Then: "Glory," he mused. "You are a soldier yourself, Belisarius, and thus have a better appreciation than most of everything the word `glory' involves. The ancient battle of Kurukshetra, for instance, can be described as `glorious.' Oh yes, glorious indeed."
They were now within a hundred yards of the Roman encampment. Belisarius could see the Kushan soldiers already drawing up in formation before the pavilions where the Romans and their Ethiopian allies made their headquarters. The Kushans were vassal soldiers whom the Malwa had assigned to serve as the permanent escort for the foreign envoys.
As always, the Kushans went about their task swiftly and expertly. Their commander's name was Kungas, and, for all that the thirty or so Kushans were members of his own clan and thus directly related to him by blood, maintained an iron discipline over his detachment. The Kushans, by any standard, were elite soldiers. Even Valentinian and Anastasius had admitted—grudgingly, to be sure—that they were perhaps as good as Thracian cataphracts.
As they drew up before the tent which Belisarius shared with Dadaji Holkar, the Maratha slave emerged and trotted over to hold the reins of the general's horse. Belisarius dismounted, as did his cataphracts.
From the ground, Belisarius stared up at Rana Sanga.
"You did not, I believe, complete your thought," he said quietly.
Rana Sanga looked away for a moment. When he turned back, he said:
"The Battle of Kurukshetra was the crowning moment of Vedic glory, Belisarius. The entire Bhagavadgita from the Mahabharata is devoted to it. Kurukshetra was the greatest battle ever fought in the history of the world, and uncounted words have been recorded discussing its divine meaning, its philosophical profundity, and its religious importance."
Rana Sanga's dark, heavily bearded, handsome face seemed now like nothing so much as a woodcarving.
"Eighteen million ordinary men, it is also written, died in that battle."
The Rajput drew back on the reins, turning his horse.
"The name of not one of those men was ever recorded."
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Belisarius watched Rana Sanga and his men ride away. Not until the Rajputs had vanished did he turn to Dadaji Holkar.
"I do not think he is typical of Rajputs," he said. It was more of a question than a statement.
The Maratha slave disagreed. Instantly, and without hesitation. With any other master, he would not have done so. By ancient Indian custom—though only the Malwa had ever written it into law—a slave was expected to cherish as well as obey his master. That Dadaji Holkar did so in actual fact was due, as much as anything, to the fact that his outlandish foreign master interpreted obedience as devotion to his purpose rather than his person.
"You misunderstand him, master. Rana Sanga is quite famous. Most Indians—and all Maratha—consider him the truest of Rajputs. He is perhaps the greatest Rajput warrior today living, and certainly the finest Rajput general. His exploits are legend. He is a king also, of course, but—" the Maratha smiled "—that means little by itself. There are so many Rajput kings, most of whom rule their little hilltop as if it were all the universe. But Sanga is of the Chauhar dynasty, which is perhaps their greatest line of royalty. And the Chauhar are known for their thought as well as their archery and swordsmanship."
Belisarius cocked his eyebrow. "And so?"
Dadaji Holkar shrugged. "And so, Rana Sanga is the truest of Rajputs, and takes his deepest pride in that fact. But because he does so, and thinks like a Chauhar thinks, he also ponders on what being a Rajput means. He knows, you see—he has even been heard to make the occasional jest about it—that the Rajput lineage is really not so much grander than that of we disreputable Maratha hillmen. Yet he also knows that the lineage is true, nonetheless. And so he thinks about lineage, and how it comes to be, and how truth emerges out of illusion. And he wonders, I think, where the difference between truth and illusion lies, and what that means for his dharma."
The slave stroked the horse's neck. "Those are dangerous thoughts, master. Outside of their sorcerous weapons, and their vast armies, the Malwa have no resource so valuable to them as the skill of Rana Sanga on the battlefield. But I believe they fear that resource as much as they treasure it."
"Do they have reason to fear him?" asked Belisarius.
Dadaji Holkar squinted into the distance where the Rajputs had disappeared.
"Hard to know, master. Raghunath Rao once said the day would come when Rana Sanga would choose between Rajputana's honor and Rajputana's duty. And that, when that day came, the truest of Rajputs would understand that only honor gives duty meaning."
The Roman general scratched his chin. "I was not aware the two men knew each other."
"Oh, yes. They fought once, in single combat. They were both young at the time, but already famous warriors. It is a well-known episode."
Belisarius started slightly.
"I'm amazed either of them survived!"
The slave smiled.
"So were they! And everyone! But survive they did. Badly wounded, of course, both of them. Early in the fray, with his bow, Sanga slew the Maratha chieftain's horse and then wounded Rao in the arm. But he became overconfident and closed too soon. Rao gutted the Rajput's mount and then pressed him with sword and iron-clawed gauntlet. Here the combat was even, and they fought until both were bloody and disarmed. Then they fought by hand. No man in India beside Rana Sanga could have held his own against Raghunath Rao in unarmed combat. He was not as skilled, of course, but he was much larger and stronger. By the end of the day, both men were too weak and exhausted to lift an arm, or even stand. So they laid down side by side and continued their combat with words."
Belisarius chuckled. "And who won?"
Holkar shrugged. "Who is to say? At sundown, they decided honor had been satisfied. So they called upon their followers to carry them away and tend their wounds, and the armies themselves never clashed. All the Rajputs and Marathas present felt the duel had been so glorious that any further combat would only sully the memory. As the years passed, both Rao and Sanga became famous commanders, although they never met on the field of battle again, neither as warriors nor as generals. But from that day forward, Raghunath Rao has always stated that there exists no greater archer in the world than Rana Sanga, and not more than four or five who are his equal with a sword. For his part, Sanga makes the equal claim for Rao's clawed gauntlet and his fists, and swears he would rather fight a tiger with his own teeth than face Rao again on the field of philosophy."
Belisarius' chuckle became an outright laugh.
"What a marvelous tale! How much truth is there in it, do you think?"
Holkar's face was solemn. "It is all true, master. Every word. I was at that battle, and helped bind Rao's wounds myself."
The Roman general stared down at his slave. Dadaji Holkar was a small man, middle-aged, grey-haired, and slightly built. In his appearance as well as his demeanor he seemed every inch the highly literate scribe that he had been before the Malwa enslaved him. Belisarius reminded himself that, for all his intellect, Dadaji Holkar was from Majarashtra. Majarashtra, the Great Country. A land of volcanic stone, harsh and unforgiving. The land of the Marathas, who, if they were not India's most noble people, were certainly its most truculent.
"I do not doubt you, Dadaji," he said softly. The Roman general's large and powerful hand, for just an instant, caressed the slender shoulder of his Maratha slave. And the slave knew, in that moment, that his master was returning his own cherishment.
Holkar left abruptly then, leading Belisarius' horse to its feeding trough. He squeezed his eyes, shutting back the tears. He shared his master's tent, and had listened, night after night, while his master spoke softly to the divine presence in his mind. He knew, from those muttered words, that Belisarius had met Rao himself—had met Rao, not in this world, but in the world of a vision. In that world of vision, all of India had fallen under the Malwa talons, and Rome had eventually followed. In that world, Rao had failed to save Majarashtra and had become, through the strange workings of fate, the Maratha slave of the greatest of Roman generals.
Gently, Dadaji Holkar stripped the horse of her saddle and began wiping the mare down. He was fond of horses and, by her nuzzle, knew the fondness was reciprocated. He knew, also, that Belisarius' invariable kindness to him was partly the transference of his feelings for Rao onto another of his countrymen. Belisarius had said to him, once, that in a lifetime where he had met many fine men, he had never known a finer than Raghunath Rao. But Dadaji Holkar had come to know his new master well, in the months since he had been purchased in Bharakuccha to train a newly arrived foreigner in India's tongues and scripts. And so he knew that he was himself a man to Belisarius, not simply a surrogate for another, and that the heart of the Roman's love for him belong to he himself. He, and his loyalty, and his service, and the memory of his broken people and his shattered family.
The slave Dadaji Holkar began feeding his master's horse. There were none to see, now, so he let the tears flow freely. Then, after a moment, raised his blurry vision and gazed at the distant, splintering, brick walls of rebel Ranapur.
Ranapur will fall, soon. The Malwa beasts will savage its people, even worse than they savaged my own.
He lowered his gaze, wiped the tears from his face, watched the horse feed. He enjoyed watching the mare's quiet pleasure as she ate. It reminded him, a bit, of the joy he had taken watching his wife and children eat the food he had always placed on their table. Until the Malwa came, and devoured his family whole.
Enjoy your triumph, Malwa cobras. It will not last. You have let the mongoose himself into your nest.
The horse was done feeding. Holkar led her into the thatched stalls which the Roman soldiers had erected for their horses. The stalls were very large, and completely shielded from outside view. An outside view which might have wondered, perhaps, why such a small body of men would need such a large number of horses. And such fine horses!
Indeed, they were very fine. Holkar was fond of the mare, but he knew she was the poorest of the mounts which rested in the stalls. The Romans never rode the fine ones, the superb riding steeds which Holkar himself had purchased, one by one, from the various merchants scattered about the siege of Ranapur. Horses which were always purchased late in the day, and led into their stalls in the dark of night.
His master had never explained the reasons for those purchases, nor had Holkar inquired.
Nor had Belisarius explained the reason for purchases which were still more odd.
Not two days ago, at his master's command, Holkar had purchased three elephants. Three small, well-tamed, docile creatures, which were kept in a huge but simple tent located in a small clearing in the forest, many miles from the siege, and many miles from the official camp of the Romans and Ethiopians.
Holkar had asked no questions. He had not asked why the tent should be so far away, and so different in appearance from the grandiose pavilion which the Ethiopian prince Eon had erected for himself and his concubines. Nor why the elephants themselves should be so different in their appearance from the two huge and unruly war elephants which the Ethiopians maintained as their public mounts. Nor why the elephants were only fed at night, and only by the African slave named Ousanas, whose invisibility in the darkness was partly due to the color of his skin, but mostly to his incredible skill as a hunter and a woodsman.
No, Holkar had simply obeyed his master's commands, and not asked for any explanation of them. The Maratha did not think that his master could have explained, even had he asked. Not clearly, at least. Not precisely. The mind of Belisarius did not work that way. His thoughts never moved in simple straight lines, but always at an angle. Where other men thought of the next step, Belisarius thought of the next fork in the road. And where other men, coming upon that fork, would see a choice between right and left, Belisarius was as likely to burrow a hole or take to the trees.
He closed the thatch door to the stalls. There was no lock, nor need of one. The Kushans would make short work of any thief or intruder. As he made his slow way back to his tent, Holkar smiled. Darkness had now fallen, but he could sense the keen scrutiny of the Kushan guards.
Almost as keen as their curiosity, he thought, chuckling. But they keep their curiosity to themselves. When Kungas commands, his men obey. The Kushans, also, ask no questions.
Holkar glanced over to the huge pavilion which belonged to Prince Eon. About nothing, Holkar suspected, were the Kushan guards more curious than that tent. Although he was not certain, he thought that the Kushan commander already knew the secret within that tent. Knew it, and knew his duty, and had decided to ignore that duty, for reasons which Holkar could only surmise. The Kushan commander's face was impossible to read, ever. But Holkar thought he knew the man's soul.
Dadaji Holkar himself, for that matter, had been told nothing. Nor had he ever entered Prince Eon's pavilion. But he was an acutely observant man, and he had come to know his new master well. Holkar was certain that inside that tent rested the person of Shakuntala, the only survivor of the Satavahana dynasty, the former rulers of conquered Andhra.
Like everyone in India—the tale had spread like wildfire—Holkar knew that the famed Maratha chieftain Raghunath Rao had rescued Shakuntala from her Malwa captors months ago. But where all others thought she had escaped with Rao, Holkar was certain that she had been hidden away by Belisarius and his Ethiopian allies. Disguised as one of Prince Eon's many concubines.
Again, he smiled. It was exactly the sort of cunning maneuver that his master would relish. Feint and counter-feint. Strike from an angle, never directly. Confuse and misdirect. In some manner, Holkar suspected, Belisarius had even been responsible for the replacement of Shakuntala's Kushan guards by priests and torturers. The same Kushan guards who now served as Belisarius' own escort had earlier been Shakuntala's guardians. Holkar had seen enough of them, over the past months, to realize that not even Raghunath Rao would have been able to penetrate their security.
He paused for a moment, considering the tent. A faint sneer came to his face.
The Malwa would pay him a fortune for his knowledge. But Holkar never even considered the possibility of treachery. He was devoted to Belisarius as much as he hated the Malwa. And besides, like Raghunath Rao, he was a Maratha himself. The Princess Shakuntala—the Empress, now—was the rightful ruler of Majarashtra. She was his own legitimate monarch, and, with a mental bow, Dadaji Holkar acknowledged that suzerainty.
He resumed his progress toward Belisarius' tent. A little smile came to his face. Like many intelligent, well-educated men, Dadaji Holkar had a fine sense of historical irony. So he found his fierce loyalty to the memory of Andhra amusing, in its own way.
When the Satavahana dynasty had been at the peak of their power, the Marathas had been the most unruly of their subjects. Never, since its incorporation into Andhra, had Majarashtra risen in outright rebellion. But the Satavahanas had always been careful to rule the Great Country with a light hand. Now that all of Andhra was under the Malwa heel, the Marathas had become the most fervent partisans of the former dynasty. None more so than Dadaji Holkar.
A sudden bright flash on the horizon drew his gaze. Holkar halted, stared. Moments later, the sound of the cannonade rolled over the encampment.
He resumed his steps.
Soon, yes, Ranapur will fall. And the cobra will sate itself again. As it has so many times.
He drew near his master's tent. For a moment, he stopped, studying that simple structure.
Not much to look at, truly. But, then, the mongoose never takes pride in its appearance. It simply studies the cobra, and ponders the angles.
Holkar began pulling back the tent flap. Another rolling cannonade caused him to pause, look back. For a moment, his scholar's face twisted into the visage of a gargoyle, so driven was he by hatred for all things Malwa.
But there were no Malwa spies close enough to see that face. Such spies had learned quickly that the endless squabbles over women between the foreigners and their Kushan escorts seemed to erupt in sudden brawls which, oddly, injured no one but bystanders watching the scene. In the first days after the foreigners set up their camp, two Malwa spies had been accidentally mauled in such melees. Thereafter, the spies had kept a discreet distance, and reported as little as possible to their overseers, lest they be ordered to resume a close watch.
The slave pulled back the flap and entered the tent. He saw his master squatting on a pallet, staring into nothingness, mouthing words too soft to hear.
Hatred vanished. Replaced, first, by devotion to his master's person. Then, by devotion to his master's purpose. And then, by devotion itself. For the slave had closed the demon world of Malwa behind him and had entered the presence of divinity.
He knelt in prayer. Silent prayer, for he did not wish to disturb his master's purpose. But fervent prayer, for all that.
Across the ancient, gigantic land of India, others also prayed that night. Millions of them.
Two hundred thousand prayed in Ranapur. They prayed, first, for deliverance from the Malwa. And then, knowing deliverance would not come, prayed they would not lose their souls as well as their bodies to the asura.
As Holkar prayed, his family prayed with him, though he knew it not. His wife, far away in a nobleman's mansion in the Malwa capital of Kausambi, hunched on her own pallet in a corner of the great kitchen where she spent her days in endless drudgery, prayed for her husband's safety. His son, squeezed among dozens of other slave laborers on the packed-earth floor of a shack in distant Bihar, prayed he would have the strength to make it through another day in the fields. His two daughters, clutching each other on a crib in a slave brothel in Pataliputra, prayed that their pimps would allow them to remain together another day.
Of those millions who prayed that night, many, much like Holkar, prayed for the tenth avatara who was promised. Prayed for Kalkin to come and save them from the Malwa demon.
Their prayers, like those of Holkar, were fervent.
But Holkar's prayers, unlike those of others, were not simply fervent. They were also joyous. For he, almost alone in India, knew that his prayers had been answered. Knew that he shared his own tent with the tenth avatara. And knew that, not more than five feet away, Kalkin himself was pouring his great soul into the vessel of the world's deliverance. Into the strange, crooked, cunning, mongoose mind of his foreign master.
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The sun beat down on a nightmare landscape. Once, these had been fields and orchards. Now, the ground was criss-crossed with deep trenches; stripped bare of any life beyond a few splintered trees, handfuls of crushed wheat, a single stalk of corn.
"Where are we?" asked Belisarius. He spoke in a low mutter. His eyes were closed, the better to concentrate on the images flashing through his mind. "And when?"
Near a place called Kursk, replied Aide. The facets flashed for a microsecond, translating the crystalline precision of Time's Arrow into the bizarre fiats of human calendrical custom. A millenia and a half from now.
A line of monsters surged onto the field. Gigantic things, tearing the soil with strange continuous belts—metal slats running over wheels. Forward, from cupolas, immense snouts protruded. The snouts belched flame and smoke. Emblazoned on their flanks were crosses—some, square with double lines; others, bent.
"Iron elephants," whispered Belisarius. "Like the ones the Malwa will build—but so much better!"
Tanks. They will be called tanks. These are the type which will be called PzKw V "Panthers." They will weigh 45 tons and travel up to 34 miles per hour. They fire a cannon whose size will be called 75 millimeter.
From the opposite side of the field, a new line of monsters—tanks—charged forward. They began exchanging cannon fire with the other tanks. Belisarius could sense that these new tanks were of a slightly different design, but the only feature which registered clearly on his uneducated eye was that, instead of crosses, their flanks were marked by red stars.
This was the best tank of that era. It will be called the T-34.
The battle was horrible and dazzling at the same time.
Horrible, in its destruction. Belisarius saw a tank cupola—
—turret blown off. Tons of metal sent sailing, like a man decapitated. The body of the tank belched flame, and he knew the men inside were being incinerated. Saw men clambering from another burning tank, shrieking, their uniforms afire. Saw them die, suddenly, swept down by an invisible scythe.
Dazzling, in the speed of the tanks, and the accuracy of their fire. Like a vision of St. George battling the dragon, except the saint was a dragon himself. And his lance a magic wand belching flame and fury.
Images of complex—machines?
Internal combustion engines.
Images of perfect metal tubes—cannon barrels, Belisarius realized. He watched as an object was fit into one of the tubes. A perfect fit. He wondered what it was until he saw the cannon fire. Cannonball, he realized—except it was not a ball. It was a cylinder capped by its own cupola.
"How can metal be shaped so precisely?"
He was inside a huge building. A manufactory, he realized. Everywhere he could see rolls and slabs of steel being shaped and cut with incredible speed and precision. He recognized one of the machines as a lathe, like the lathes used by expert carpenters to shape wooden legs for chairs and tables. But this lathe was much bigger and vastly more powerful. The lathes he knew were operated by foot pedal. No such lathes could rip through metal the way this one was, not even bronze. He watched a stream of steel chips flying from the cutting tool like a waterfall.
The other machines he did not recognize at all.
Horizontal boring mill. Vertical turret lathe. Radial drill press.
"Impossible," stated the general firmly. "To make such machines would require making machines to make machines to make machines which could make those machines. We do not have time."
The facets shivered momentarily, confused. The crystalline intelligence which called itself Aide viewed reality in an utterly different manner than humans. The logic behind Belisarius' conclusion was foreign to it. Where the man saw complex sequences, causes and effects, Aide saw the glorious kaleidoscope of eternity.
Malwa will have tanks.
The thought carried an undertone of grievance. Belisarius smiled, faintly. He was reminded of a small child complaining that the neighbor boy has a nice new toy, so why can't he?
"The Malwa tanks are completely different. They are not made like this, with this—" He groped for words to describe a reality he had never seen in real life.
Aide filled the void. Precision machining. Mass production.
"Yes. The Malwa do not use those methods. They use the same basic methods as we Romans do. Artisanship. Craftsmanship."
Belisarius sighed. For all Aide's brilliance, the strange mentality was often befuddled by the simplest human realities.
"Each Malwa tank—the tanks they will make in the future—will be unique. Handcrafted. The product of slow, painstaking work. The Malwa can afford such methods, with their gigantic resources. Greek artisans are superior, but not by that much. We will never be able to match the Malwa if we copy them. We must find our own way."
The general made a short, chopping gesture with his hand.
"Forget the tanks. Show me more of the battle. It could not all have been—will be—a contest of tanks."
Montage of images. Infantrymen in a trench, firing hand cannons and hurling grenades. A line of cannons hidden in a copse of trees, belching fire. A strange glass-and-metal wagon hurtling to a stop. There was no horse to pull it; no horse to stop it. Atop the wagon was a rack of tubes. Suddenly, the rack plumed flame and a volley of rockets streaked forward. Another—
"Stop! There—focus there! The rocket wagon!"
The wagon, again. Belisarius could now see that men were sitting in the glass-enclosed front. Other men were placing rockets into the tubes. The tubes rested on a flat bed toward the rear of the wagon and were slanted up at the sky. Again, the tubes plumed fire. Again, rockets soared.
"What are those?"
They will be called katyushas. These are eight-rail 132 millimeter rocket tubes mounted on what will be called 4X6 trucks.
"Yes. Yes. Those are possible."
The thought which now came from Aide carried more than an undertone of grievance.
Why is this possible and not tanks? Both are made by the same methods, which you said were impossible. Contradiction.
"You are confusing the—trucks?—with the rockets. They are two different things. We cannot make the trucks, but we can make the rockets. Not as good, but good enough. And then—we can substitute a different—" He groped for unfamiliar, as yet unknown terms.
Belisarius straightened his back, stretched his arms. The movement broke his concentration, slightly. He saw Dadaji Holkar kneeling on his pallet, engrossed in silent prayer. The slave looked up. Holkar and Belisarius exchanged a silent stare for a moment, before the Maratha bowed his head and resumed his devotions. For all the solemnity in the man's posture, Belisarius was amused to note the smile on his face. He had never said a word to Holkar concerning Aide, but he knew that the Maratha had drawn his own conclusions. Conclusions, Belisarius was certain, which were not too far from the truth.
Belisarius closed his eyes and returned to the task at hand.
"You keep showing me things which are much too complex and difficult to make," he whispered. "We must stay within the simple limits that are possible, in the next few years."
A flash of exasperation came from Aide. A new vision erupted.
A man shuffling through a forest, stooped, filthy, clad in rough-cured animal skins. In his hand he clutched an axe. The blade of the weapon was a crudely shaped piece of stone, lashed to the handle with rawhide.
Belisarius chuckled. "I think we can manage a bit more than that, Aide. We are civilized, after all."
Again, exasperation. Again, a vision:
A man standing in a chariot. He was clad in gleaming bronze armor—a breastplate, greaves. A magnificent, ornate helmet, capped by a horse-crest, protected his head. His left arm carried a large, round shield. In his right hand he held a spear. The chariot was a small vehicle, carried on a single axle, drawn by two horses. The back of the chariot was open. Beside the armored warrior, there was only room for a charioteer, who handled the racing horses while the spearman concentrated on the approaching foe.
Belisarius started to laugh softly. Aide was still sulking. The image, for all its clarity, was a mocking rendition of an impossible, legendary figure. Achilles before the walls of Troy.
But then, suddenly, the laugh broke off.
"Yes!" hissed Belisarius. "Chariots!"
Now he did laugh, loudly. "Mother of God—nobody's used chariots in warfare for centuries! But with rockets—and some changes—"
The facets splintered, reformed, shattered, coalesced—all in an instant, trying to follow the branching trail of the general's thoughts. The kaleidoscope swirled around sequences. Aide brought sudden order. A new image, melded from crystal vision and human reasoning:
Another chariot. A bit longer, and wider. Also drawn on a single axle, also open to the rear. Again, a single charioteer handled the reins. But now, the warrior who accompanied him wore only light leather armor and no hand weapon beyond a semi-spatha scabbarded to his waist. He was not a spearman, but a rocketeer. Rising from the center of the chariot was a solid pole, five feet tall. Atop the pole, swiveling on a simple joint, was a bundle of six tubes—three abreast, in two tiers. The warrior aimed the launchers ahead and to the side, at an enemy army advancing some few hundred yards distant. He called out a signal. He and the charioteer crouched. The rocketeer touched a slowmatch to quick fuses. An instant later, a half-dozen rockets were hissing their way toward the approaching army.
The charioteer turned the horses, raced away. Behind, other chariots copied the same maneuver. Within not more than a minute, the ranks of the enemy were being shredded by a hail of rockets. The missiles were not very accurate, but made up for the lack by their numbers and the manner of their explosion.
Fragmentation warheads, came the thought from Aide. This time, the thought was saturated with satisfaction. Shrapnel.
Belisarius slumped back, sighing. He rubbed his eyes wearily.
"Yes, there's promise there." Again, he scratched his chin. "But these—katyushas—will only work on level ground. In mountain terrain, we'll need something different. Something that a small squad of men can carry by hand, and that can be fired over hills."
The facets flashed excitement.
Belisarius' eyes widened. "Show me," he commanded.
A small motion caught his eye. The Maratha slave had finished his prayers and was lying down on his pallet in preparation for sleep. His face could not be seen, for it was turned away. Belisarius put aside his dialogue with Aide, and devoted a moment to contemplating the man Dadaji Holkar.
Aide did not object, nor interrupt. There were many things about humanity which Aide did not understand. Of no human, perhaps, was that more true than of Belisarius. Belisarius, the one human of the ancient past whom the crystals had selected as the key to preserving their future. The choice had been theirs, but they had been guided by the Great Ones.
Find the general who is not a warrior.
Belisarius, the great general.
That strange thing Aide was coming to know, slowly, haltingly, gropingly.
Belisarius, the man. That stranger thing Aide already knew.
So Aide waited patiently. Waited during that moment of sorrow for another man's anguish. Waited, patiently, not because it understood grief but because it understood the future. And knew that its own future was safeguarded not by the weapons it was showing the general, but by the nature of the man himself.
The moment passed. The man receded.
"Show me," commanded the general.
Back | Next
Back | Next
Spring 530 AD
"You're positive?" demanded Theodora. "There's no mistake?"
The Empress of Rome leaned forward in her luxurious chair. No expression showed on her face beyond a certain tense alertness. But the knuckles of her hands, gripping the armrests, were white as snow, and the tendons stood out like cables.
Irene met the dark-eyed gaze squarely.
"I am certain, Your Majesty. I've only met Narses face-to-face on three occasions, but I know him quite well. I've studied the man for years, as one professional—and possible competitor—will study another. I could not possibly mistake his appearance, undisguised. Nor he mine, for that matter—that's why I took such elaborate precautions with our disguises."
Theodora transferred her piercing gaze to Hermogenes. The young general winced, shrugged.
"I can't vouch for it myself, Your Majesty, one way or the other. I've never met Narses." He took a deep breath. "But I do know Irene, and if she says it was Narses—"
The Empress stilled him with a curt gesture. The black eyes moved on to Maurice.
"It was Narses," growled Maurice. "I've met the man many times, Empress, in the service of my lord Belisarius. We've never been personally introduced, and I doubt if he'd recognize me. But he's a distinctive-looking man. I'd know him anywhere, as long as he was undisguised and the light was good." The grey-haired veteran took his own deep breath. "The man was undisguised. His face—his whole figure—was clearly visible the moment he stepped out of Balban's villa to wait for his palanquin. And the light was good enough. A half-moon in a clear sky."
The Empress looked away. Still, there was no expression on her face.
Irene spoke hesitantly: "It's possible he's playing a double game. Simply trying to draw out treason before he—"
The Empress shook her head. The gesture was short, sharp, final. "No. You do not understand, Irene. Narses and I have been close—very close—for many years. If he suspected treason, and wanted to draw it out, he would have told me. There is only one explanation for his presence at that meeting."
She turned, raised her head imperiously, looked at Maurice and Hermogenes.
"Thank you, gentlemen," she said. Her voice was cold, perhaps a bit choked. A bit, no more. The Empress turned her head slightly, staring at the wall.
"Now—please leave. I wish to be alone with Antonina and Irene."
The two men in the room immediately left. After they closed the door behind them, they looked at each other and puffed their cheeks with relief.
"Let the women handle it now, lad," muttered Maurice. He stumped down the corridor, Hermogenes in tow, making no attempt to soften his footfalls.
In the room, the Empress continued to stare blindly at the wall, maintaining her rigid posture, until the sound of the receding soldiers faded completely away. Then she broke, not like a stick, but like a stone might crumble. Before the first tears had even appeared, Antonina was out of her own chair and cradling Theodora's head against her stomach. The Empress clutched her, sobbing, her face buried completely in Antonina's skirts. The tiara on her head was pushed back onto her hair, making a mess of the elaborate coiffure.
Irene remained in her seat. Her face showed her own distress. But, when she made a motion to rise and come to Antonina's assistance, Belisarius' wife stopped her with a look and a small shake of the head.
Irene sat back, understanding. The understanding, then, brought a different distress.
Fear. A fear much like that of an experienced seaman sensing hidden reefs and treacherous currents.
Irene Macrembolitissa was one of the best professional spymasters in the Roman Empire. One of the very best intriguers—in an era where intrigue was so prevalent, and so skilled, that it would bequeath the very name Byzantine to the lexicon of future languages.
She was in dangerous waters, now. The number of people alive who had ever seen Theodora in such a state could be counted on the fingers of one hand. It was both a privilege and a peril.
After a minute or so, the sobbing ceased. Irene noted, with the detached interest of a spymaster, that for all their bitter anguish the sobs had been almost silent. The Empress Theodora would never wail. Like any woman, she could have her heart broken. But it was a small, tough, stony heart. Its wounds healed very quickly, and simply added more scar tissue.
As soon as the sobs stopped, the Empress turned her head against Antonina's belly and fixed Irene with her gaze. The spymaster crouched in her chair, still, frozen by those cold black eyes. She felt like a rabbit being examined by a hawk.
"Tell me, Antonina," commanded Theodora. There was still a trace of raw anguish in that voice, but not much of one. It was a cold, black voice.
"She is my dear friend, Theodora," said Antonina. Her own voice, though soft, was even colder. "I love her as much as I trust her."
Silence followed, for a time which seemed to Irene to stretch on for hours. But it was less than half a minute before the Empress pushed herself away from Antonina.
"Good enough," she murmured. The Empress took a deep breath, leaned back into her chair. Throughout, her eyes never left Irene. But a smile came to her face. It was not much of a smile, true. But Irene suddenly discovered she could breathe.
Theodora laughed. It was like a raven's caw.
"Welcome to the old whores' club, Irene," she rasped. A majestic wave of the hand. "I make you an honorary member."
Theodora craned her head up, looking at Antonina. Finally, now, something other than pain entered her face.
"Thank you, Antonina," she whispered. "As always."
Then she sat erect. Automatically, as if to bring reassurance, her hand rose to the tiara. Finding it askew, she tried to force it back into place. The attempt failed, stymied by the disheveled mass of hair.
"Oh, the hell with it," muttered the Empress. She snatched the tiara off her head and placed it on the floor.
Irene almost laughed then, seeing the look of astonishment on Antonina's face. Often, in the year gone by, Antonina had told her of Theodora's obsession with maintaining her imperial regalia.
The Empress waved Antonina back to her chair.
"Let's to business," she commanded. Then, after her friend had resumed her seat:
"First of all, Antonina, you will pursue the contact this Indian—what was his name again?—"
"Yes—that this Ajatasutra initiated. He'll be seeking to draw you into some treasonous statement, you understand?"
Antonina nodded, saying:
"Of course. And there'll be an impeccable witness hidden somewhere nearby. John of Cappadocia, perhaps."
Irene shook her head. "It won't be him. Too many people wouldn't believe that filthy bastard if he claimed the sun rose in the east and set in the west. No, it's more likely to be one or the other—better yet, both—of the two churchmen." She shrugged. "Or someone else we don't even know yet."
Theodora pressed on:
"It's essential that you make such a statement, Antonina. That's the key that'll keep the door open. As long as the Malwa think they have something on you, they'll trust you."
Antonina chuckled. "You call that trust?"
The Empress smiled. "It's what passes for trust in that world. Our world, I'm afraid."
"Good as gold," chipped in Irene. "Better than gold, even. There's nothing an intriguer trusts more than someone he's successfully blackmailed."
Antonina made a little grimace of distaste. "And then what?" she asked.
Theodora shrugged. "We'll have to see. After the Malwa think they have you properly blackmailed, they'll demand that you perform some service. Give them some secret information, probably. When we find out what it is they want to know, that will tell us what's important to them."
Antonina considered the Empress' words for a moment.
"Makes sense," she said. Then, fixing Theodora with a level, serene gaze, added: "So be it."
The Empress returned the gaze. Nothing was said, for a full minute. When the Empress looked away, Irene noted that color had now fully returned to her face.
"Thank you, Antonina," whispered Theodora. "Again."
The intensity with which the words were spoken startled Irene, at first. Until she realized what had just happened. With that realization, she transferred her sharp eyes to the face of Antonina.
There was nothing to be seen on the Egyptian woman's face, beyond green-eyed, dark-haired, olive beauty. And serenity.
In the months since she had first met Antonina, she had often been impressed by her. But never more than at that moment.
A little chuckle from the Empress drew Irene's eyes. To her surprise, she found Theodora watching her.
"Good, Irene. You understand, then. Precious few people ever have."
Irene blew out her cheeks. "Not many women would agree to incriminate themselves on behalf of an Empress whose husband, well-placed rumor has it, is trying to have their own husband murdered. Without asking so much as a question. That's a different kind of trust than I usually encounter."
"Than anyone encounters," replied Theodora. For a moment, her lips tightened with anger. "I'm sure you've heard that my close friendship with Antonina is due to the fact that we're both former whores from Alexandria? Birds of feather, as it were, flocking together."
Irene nodded. "Any number of times."
"Idiots," snarled the Empress. "I know—knew, at least—plenty of Alexandrian whores who'd slit their own sister's throat for two denarii."
Antonina murmured: "That's not fair, Theodora. Antiochene whores, maybe. Any self-respecting Egyptian whore would hold out for a solidus."
Theodora cawed harshly. The Empress leaned forward in her seat, bracing her hands on her knees.
"I need you to be my spymaster, Irene."
Interpreting correctly the slight hesitation in the woman's face, Theodora made a little flipping motion with her hand, as if brushing something aside.
"I'll settle it with Sittas. He doesn't need your services half as much as I do. And I'll pay more than he does. Rich as he is, I'm a lot richer. And unlike Sittas, I'm not a stingy tightwad."
Irene chuckled, glancing around the lavishly furnished room. "You certainly aren't!"
When Irene had approached Theodora, a week earlier, with her charges against Narses and her plan to trap him in a treasonous meeting, it had been the Empress who had purchased this villa to serve as their command post. Purchased it—a huge, luxurious villa. Just—bought it. Like a matron buys fruit from a grocer.
The spymaster shook her head. "There's no point in that, Theodora. I can serve as your spymaster while staying on Sittas' payroll. It'd be much better that way. The fewer people who know of our relationship, the better. Money trails are the easiest to track. If I'm on your payroll, even secretly, someone will find out."
"The same objection applies to your being on Sittas' payroll," countered the Empress. "More so. I'm sure my security is better than Sittas'."
Irene shrugged. "So what? Let our enemies find out that I'm Sittas' spymaster. I'm sure they already know, anyway. Good. Excellent. Let them keep thinking that. Sittas they are not worried about. He's just a fat general who hates palace duty in Constantinople. Stuck way out there in Syria. Good at his trade, sure, but lazy and unambitious."
Theodora ran fingers through her elaborate coiffure, thinking. Almost immediately, the fingers became tangled in that incredible structure. Suddenly, vigorously, she plunged her fingers into the mass and pulled it all loose. Long black tresses cascaded over her shoulders. Her hair, now truly visible, was quite beautiful.
"God, I've wanted to do that for the longest time!"
Again, the women laughed. But it was a very brief moment of levity.
Theodora nodded. "You're right. Whatever their plot is, it does not appear to focus on the army. I noticed that no military figures attended that meeting tonight."
"No, they didn't. I'm pretty sure they've suborned a few officers, but not many. The only one of significance is Aegidius, the commander of the army in Bythinia. I'm not positive, but I think he's one of them. An underling, though, not a ringleader."
Theodora scowled. "I never liked that greasy bastard. God, my husband has the worst taste in generals!"
An apologetic nod to Antonina: "Belisarius aside, of course. And Sittas."
Again, the Empress ran her fingers through her hair, disheveling it even further. Her sensual pleasure in the act was obvious, but it did not distract her from her thoughts.
"Doesn't that seem odd to you, Irene? That lack of attention to the army? Every other treasonous plot I can remember has put the military on center stage. For obvious reasons."
"Actually, it's a cunning move on their part. They know that Justinian's suspicions will always be centered on the army. So they stay away from it, by and large, and spread their poison in darker corners."
"I still don't understand it." Theodora's voice was dark with frustration. "I take your point, but—so what? What good does it do to plot treason if you can't carry it out when the time comes? And for that you need military force. A lot more force than the Bythinian army provides. What is that army—ten thousand strong? At the most?"
"Eight," replied Irene. "Not enough to take power, but enough to neutralize loyal units. Especially if many of those units decide to stay on the sidelines until the dust settles. Which, unfortunately, many military units do during a coup." The spymaster began to add something, but fell silent. She glanced quickly at Antonina.
Theodora did not miss it.
"The two of you know something," she announced.
"Tell." The voice of the Empress, that, not Theodora.
Irene's eyes appealed to Antonina. Antonina sighed.
"I will tell you everything, Theodora. Tonight. But you're not going to believe me."
When Theodora left the villa, Irene and Antonina escorted the Empress to the palanquin drawn up in the courtyard. After she climbed into the palanquin, Theodora leaned forward and whispered:
"You were right, Antonina. I don't believe it. It's absurd! Belisarius has a talisman from God? A messenger from the future?"
Antonina shrugged. "You didn't believe Irene, either, when she told you about Narses. But still you came here, to see for yourself."
The two old friends stared at each other. The Empress was the first to look away.
"No, I didn't. And, yes, I did."
She leaned back into the plush cushions. Antonina could barely make out Theodora's face in the dark interior of the enclosed vehicle, but she couldn't miss the grimace.
"I hate to travel," growled the Empress.
"Yes, Antonina, I will. I will come to Daras and see for myself. This summer."
"I hate Syria in the summer."
A great, imperial sigh.
"Now that I think about it, I hate Syria any time of the year."
After the gate closed behind the departing palanquin, Antonina and Irene stood for a moment in the courtyard, admiring the clear night sky.
"I'm curious about something, Antonina," said Irene.
"I don't really understand. Well, let's just say that I was surprised how hard Theodora took it, to find out that Narses is a traitor. I knew he was one of her closest advisers, but—"
"He was a lot more than that, Irene," replied Antonina, shaking her head sadly. "Much, much more."
The short Egyptian woman looked up at her tall Greek friend.
"You've heard, I'm sure, all the stories about Theodora's past?"
Irene shrugged. "Of course. I can't say I paid much attention to them. People are always quick—"
Antonina shook her head. "The fact is, they're mostly true. At least, insofar as the tales report what she did."
She looked away, her jaws tight, before adding: "Where they lie is in the heart of the thing. Theodora, as a girl, was as great a whore as you'll ever find. What she never was, was a wanton slut." A little laugh, barely more than a chuckle. "It's ironic, actually. Fair-minded, respectable, proper people, when they compare she and I, are prone to give me the benefit of their doubt. True, before I met Belisarius I gave my favors for money. But only to the most carefully selected men, and not many of those. Whereas Theodora—"
Harshly: "If there's to be a comparison, by rights it should go the other way. I did what I did through choice. Not much of a choice, mind you, for a dirt-poor girl on the streets of Alexandria, with a whore for a mother and charioteer for a father. But—I can't honestly claim that anyone forced me into it."
She took a breath, then looked her friend straight in the eyes. Irene winced.
"I don't think I want to hear what's coming next."
"You asked, woman. Theodora never took pleasure in her whoring, and she never had a choice. Her pig of a father raped her when she was nine, and kept doing it until he sold her to a pimp at the age of twelve. And her pimp was even worse. That stinking—"
She stopped abruptly, made a short chopping motion with her hand. "Never mind. There's nothing in it but nausea." She took another deep breath, let it out. "The point is, Irene, that Narses was the closest thing to a real father that woman has ever had. When she first met him, she was just a poor ambitious young woman helping her poor ambitious young lover to claw his way to the top. Narses took her under his wing, and helped her along. With money, sometimes; other times, with privy information; other times, with introductions to the right people. But, mostly, he helped her the way a father helps his daughter. The way a good father helps his daughter. He simply—taught her."
She paused for a moment. Irene interjected:
"I'm sure he was just—"
Antonina shook her head. "No. No. Well, that's too bald. A man like Narses always has an eye out for the main chance. But that wasn't it, Irene. Believe me, it wasn't. Narses is brilliant, but he's not God Almighty. And only the Lord Himself, in those days, could have known that Theodora would someday be Empress of the Roman Empire. She and Justinian didn't know it, then. Didn't even think of it."
She took Irene by the arm and began slowly leading her out of the courtyard.
"No, I think— I think, in his own way, Narses saw Theodora as the child he never had. Could never have. So, what childlike trust remained in a girl who distrusted all men, was given to an elderly eunuch. And what paternal care existed in a man who could have no children, was given to a young whore."
She halted, fighting tears. Stared blindly at the sky.
"Dear God in heaven," she whispered, "I so hoped Narses wouldn't be at that meeting. I so hoped you'd be wrong, even though I knew you weren't." Now the tears flowed. "Theodora will never recover from this."
"You can't say that," protested Irene. "She still has Justinian."
Antonina shook her head. "No, Irene. It's not the same. Theodora loves Justinian, but she has never trusted him. Not the way she trusted Narses." She wiped her eyes. Again, Antonina took Irene's arm and led her out of the courtyard. Her steps, now, were quick.
Ten feet from the door, she said: "Theodora's harder than steel, and she prides herself on not making the same mistake twice. She'll never give her trust to another man again. No matter who he is. Never."
Five feet from the door, Irene said sadly: "God, that poor woman."
At the door itself, Antonina stopped. Turned to her friend, and looked her squarely in the face. There was no trace of sorrow, now, in those beautiful green eyes. Just emptiness.
"Poor woman?" she demanded. "Don't ever think it, Irene. Give Theodora your love, if you can. But never think to give her your pity." Her eyes were like the green gaze of an asp. "If you thought the story of her father and her pimp was nauseating, someday I'll tell you what happened to them. After Theodora mounted the throne."
Irene felt her throat tighten.
"Whatever you do in this world, Irene, don't ever cross that poor woman. Go down to Hell, instead, and spit in the face of Satan."
She started through the door. Over her shoulder, like a serpent's hiss:
Two hours—and many bottles of wine—later, Antonina lowered her head onto the arm of her couch and asked:
"I'm curious about something myself, Irene." Her words were spoken in that slow, careful, precise manner which indicates that a moment of solemnity has—briefly, briefly—interrupted the serious business of getting blind drunk.
"Ask anything!" commanded the spymaster from her own couch, waving her arm grandly. The just-emptied bottle in her hand detracted, a bit, from the majesty of the gesture. The hiccup which followed detracted quite a bit more.
Antonina grinned, then tried to focus her thought.
"Everything you said—" Her own grand gesture; pitifully collapsing in midair. "Back then, earlier tonight—whenever—made sense."
She managed to restrain her own hiccup, beamed triumphantly at her friend, continued:
"About remaining on Sittas' payroll. But—weren't you even tempted? I mean, Theodora is stinking rich. Makes Sittas look like a pauper. She really would pay you a lot more. A whole lot more."
Irene reached out her hand, grasped the arm of the couch, and levered herself up slowly. She tried to focus her eyes, but couldn't quite manage the feat. So she satisfied herself with her own beaming, triumphant grin.
"You don't really understand me, dear friend. Not here, at least, not in—this thing. You and Theodora grew up—you know. Poor. Money means something to you. I was raised in a rich family—" A very grand sweep of the arm. Too grand, much too grand. She overbalanced and slipped off the couch onto her knee. Then, laughing, stumbled back onto it. Then, raising her head high with pride, demonstrated to a doubting universe that she hadn't lost her train of thought:
"—and so I take money for granted. The truth is—" Suppressed belch; grim face; bitter struggle against the slanderous hint of insobriety.
"Truit is—truth is—I don't even spend half the money Sittas pays me." Again, suppressed belch; again—the short, chopping blows of desperate battle:
"Personally. I mean. On myself. Don't need it."
Victorious against all odds, she flopped against the back of the couch, staring blearily at one of the magnificent tapestries on the opposite wall. She couldn't really see it, anymore, but she knew it was magnificent. Incredibly magnificent.
In the way that it happens, at such times, exultant triumph collapsed into maudlin tears.
"What matters to me is that the Empress of Rome wants me for her spymaster. That's"—hiccup—"enormously gratifying to my vanity, of course. But it also means I now have access tomb pelear—to imperial—resources. Resources."
She twirled her finger in a little gesture which encompassed the entire villa.
"Look at this! It's nothing but a damned stake-out, for Chrissake."
She beamed upon her friend, beamed upon the tapestry, sprang to her feet, and spread her arms in a great gesture of pure exultation.
"Oh, God—I'm going to have so much fun."
Antonina tried to catch her on the way down, but only succeeded in flopping onto the floor herself. From her belly, cheek pressed against the parquet, she did manage to focus on Irene long enough to be sure her friend was not hurt. Just, finally, dead drunk.
"Woman can't handle her liquor," she muttered; although, to a cold-hearted observer, the word "liquor" would have sounded suspiciously like a snore.
"Come on, Hermogenes, let's get them to bed."
Maurice bent, scooped the little figure of Antonina into his thick arms, and carried her through the door. He padded down the corridor effortlessly. Hermogenes followed, with like ease. Irene was taller than Antonina, but, slim rather than voluptuous, weighed not a pound more.
Antonina's room came first. Maurice, turning backward, pushed his way through the door and lowered Antonina onto her bed. Like every other piece of furniture in the villa, the bed was splendid. Very well made, very luxurious, and—very large.
Maurice turned and looked at Hermogenes. The young general was standing in the doorway, Irene cradled in his arms. Maurice gestured him in.
"Bring her here, Hermogenes. We may as well let them sleep it off together."
Hermogenes hesitated for an instant, looking down at Irene's slack, lolling head. A tiny little twitch in his mouth gave away his regrets.
"Come on," chuckled Maurice. "You won't be enjoying her company tonight. If you put her in her own bed, you won't get any sleep yourself, since you're sharing it with her. You'll just wind up sleeping on a couch. She'll be snoring like a pig, you know it as well as I do."
Hermogenes smiled, ruefully, and brought Irene into the room. Gently, he lowered her onto the bed next to Antonina. On that huge expanse, the two women looked like children.
"I've never seen her get drunk before," said Hermogenes softly. There was no reproach in his voice, just bemused wonder. "I've never even seen her get tipsy."
Maurice glanced at Irene. "She's a spymaster," he grunted. "Greek nobility, to boot."
He then gave Antonina a long, lingering, considering stare. There was no reproach in his gaze, just love. "I've seen this one get drunk before," he murmured. "Twice."
He began ushering Hermogenes out of the room.
"Once, the first time Belisarius went on campaign. I stayed behind, for a few days, organizing the logistics. She got plastered the night he left. The next morning, she climbed onto a horse and rode off to join him in camp. I sent five cataphracts with her as an escort. Anastasius was in command. He told me later he thought he'd have to tie her onto the horse to keep her from falling off. But she made it, all on her own."
He stopped in the doorway, looking back fondly. "I was impressed, when he told me."
Hermogenes nodded, smiling. "That's tough, riding a horse with that kind of hangover. I know. I've done the same thing myself."
Maurice eyed him scornfully.
"No, you haven't. You already knew how to ride a horse. It was the first time she'd ever been in a saddle."
Hermogenes gaped. Maurice grinned.
"Oh, yes. A very tough little woman, in her own way. Though you wouldn't think it, just looking at her." He reached out and closed the door.
"What was the second time?"
The humor faded from Maurice's face.
"The second time was the day after he left for India. The next morning, she stumbled down to the stables and spent four hours there. Just sitting on a pile of hay, staring at a horse."
Hermogenes puffed his cheeks, blew out the air.
Maurice shrugged. "Ah, hell. I wish she'd do it more often."
He started down the corridor.
"That's too great a pain to keep in such a small body."
When Irene awoke the next morning, it took her a full minute to focus her eyes. The first thing she saw was Antonina, dressed in a robe, staring out the window onto the street below.
Irene watched her for ten minutes, never once moving her eyes away.
At first, simply because she couldn't move her eyes. Then, when she could, because she immediately encountered pain. Then, after pain had been properly introduced, because she hoped it would go away if she ignored it politely. Then, after pain made clear it was settling in for a nice long visit, because she wanted to think about anything else. Then, finally, because she started to think.
"What in the hell are you doing?" she croaked.
"Nothing much," came the soft reply. "Just looking at a horse."
Back | Next
Back | Next
Spring 530 AD
On the tenth day after their arrival at Ranapur, as Belisarius and his cataphracts rode out to the small knoll where they usually observed the siege, their Rajput escorts intercepted them before they had gone more than half a mile. The cavalrymen seemed tense and edgy, although their unease did not seem to be directed toward the Romans.
Rana Sanga himself, when he drew his horse alongside Belisarius, exhibited nothing beyond his usual reserved, courteous manner. But his first words made clear that today would be out of the ordinary.
"You and your men will not be watching the siege from your normal vantage point, General Belisarius."
Belisarius frowned. "If you move us further back, Rana Sanga, we might as well watch the battle from the moon!"
Sanga scowled. "You need have no fear on that account, General!" he snapped. "Quite the contrary." The Rajput shook his head in a sharp, short manner. "Excuse me," he muttered. "I am being impolite. I am—somewhat aggravated. I fear I am lashing at you for lack of a better target. Please accept my apology."
Belisarius smiled. "Gladly, Sanga. Gladly. But—well, it's none of my business, but—"
Again, Sanga shook his head.
"You will see for yourself, soon enough. The high commander of the army, Lord Harsha, has decreed that Ranapur will fall today. The Emperor himself has come out to observe the conquest of the rebel city. You have been invited to watch the crushing of the rebellion from the Emperor's own pavilion. I have been instructed to escort you there."
"Ah," said Belisarius. Since they had arrived at Ranapur, the Roman delegation had been studiously ignored by the emperor and his entourage. Even Venandakatra had not sent so much as a formal note. The diplomatic discourtesy, Belisarius was certain, was calculated to impress upon the Romans their humble place in the Malwa scheme of things. He was equally certain that the sudden invitation to share the emperor's august presence was calculated to impress the foreigners with the Malwa empire's might and ruthlessness.
There was no point in lodging a protest against this shameful treatment. Certainly not to Rana Sanga, who was himself consigned to the periphery of the Malwa court. (Except, Belisarius suspected, when the clash of arms required the Rajput's skill.)
But—where protest would be futile, irony would be at least entertaining. Belisarius frowned, deep in thought, and allowed his jaw to gape with wonder.
"Such a brilliant stratagem! To conclude a siege by simply decreeing it at an end! I confess with shame that I never thought of it myself, despite the many sieges I have undertaken."
Sanga barked harsh laughter. "Neither have I!" he exclaimed. The Rajput's foul humor seemed to vanish. He reined his horse around, and began moving away. "Come, Belisarius," he said over his shoulder, cheerfully. "Let us observe a military genius at work."
Their route took them toward the eastern side of the rebel city. Before long, it became apparent to Belisarius that the Romans were going to get closer to Ranapur than they ever had been before. With some difficulty, the general managed to maintain an air of casual interest. He was pleased to note, however, from a glance over his shoulder, that his cataphracts were closely scrutinizing the scene. Menander was muttering softly, a habit which the young soldier had whenever he was determined to commit something to memory.
Soon, from a distance, Belisarius was able to discern an enormous pavilion on a small slope directly east of the city. The pavilion was located just barely out of catapult range. Apparently, Emperor Skandagupta intended to witness the fall of Ranapur as closely as possible.
Belisarius had never been able to observe the siege on this side of the city. Always, he had been restricted to the southern wall. But he had long suspected, from the sound of the cannonades, that it was on the east that the Malwa had brought their greatest strength to bear. As they drew nearer, it became obvious that his supposition was accurate. The great brick wall surrounding Ranapur was nothing but a shattered mound, here. The cannonades had reduced it to a ridge of rubble.
A huge army was assembling on the plain before that ridge of shattered brickwork, preparing for the final assault. Regular Malwa infantry, in the main, with Ye-tai shock troops to stiffen their resolve. The Ye-tai detachments were assembled in the rear of the regular infantry. Their job, obviously, was not to lead the charge, but to see to it that the common soldiers did not falter in their duty.
There were very few Rajputs anywhere to be seen. Belisarius began to make some remark to that effect, but Sanga interrupted him brusquely.
"We have been assigned other duties. All Rajput cavalrymen, except your escort and a few couriers, have been charged with the task of patrolling the outskirts of the city. To capture any rebels attempting to escape their doom."
"Ah," said Belisarius. A quick glance at Sanga's dark, tight-lipped face, then: "A brilliant maneuver, that—to use your best troops to mop up after a great victory which hasn't actually been won yet. Although, of course, the victory has been decreed." He scratched his chin. "I am ashamed to admit that I myself, military simpleton that I am, have always been prone to using my best troops in the battle itself."
Again, Sanga barked a few laughs. "I, too! Ah, Belisarius, we are but children at the feet of a master." He shook his head. "Truly, Lord Harsha's name belongs in the company of such as Alexander the Great and Ashoka."
"Truly," agreed Belisarius. The Roman general scanned the battleground. To his experienced eye, it was obvious that the Malwa had long been preparing for this massive assault on the eastern wall of the city.
"I see that Lord Harsha places no great store in surprise and deception," he commented.
Sanga's lips curled. "Such methods are beneath Lord Harsha's contempt," he replied acidly. "The tactics of bandits, he has been heard to call them."
For a moment, the Roman and Rajput generals stared at each other. Both smiled, then, faintly but quite warmly, before Sanga sighed and looked away.
"But, then, he is a very great man and does not care to stoop," the Rajput murmured. A shrug. "And, with the enormous force at his disposal, he does not perhaps need to."
They were now but two hundred yards from the Malwa emperor's gigantic pavilion. Skandagupta's camp headquarters, to Belisarius, seemed like something out of fable. He had never seen its like before, on a field of battle. Not even the haughtiest Persian emperor—not even the ancient Xerxes or Darius—had ever brought such an incredible structure to the clash of armies.
The pavilion rose a full sixty feet in the air, suspended on ten enormous poles—upended logs, rather. A multitude of inch-thick hawsers, stretching tightly in every direction, anchored the poles to the ground. The fabric of the tent itself was cotton—not even the ruler of Malwa could afford that much silk—but all of the many canopies which provided entry into the pavilion were made of silk, as were their tassels and cords. And the cotton of the tent was marvelously dyed, not in simple swaths and colors, but in complex geometric designs and subtle shades.
A small squad of Ye-tai began to approach them on horseback. From their gaudy uniforms and the red and gold pennants trailing their lances, Belisarius recognized them as members of the Emperor's personal bodyguard. Eight thousand strong, that bodyguard was reputed to be—although, from his quick assessment, Belisarius did not think there were more than half that many present on the scene.
At that moment, drums began sounding the signal for the advance. The front line of Malwa infantrymen began a slow, undulating movement. The advance was ragged, not so much due to indiscipline as to the simple fact that the ground was so chewed up by trenches and artillery fire that it was impossible for the Malwa soldiers to maintain an even line. The enormous mass of the army added to the confusion. Belisarius estimated that there were perhaps as many as forty thousand infantrymen in that slow-moving charge, with an additional five thousand Ye-tai barbarians bringing up the rear.
About three-fourths of the Malwa soldiers stumbling across that terrain were armed with traditional hand weapons. Most of the infantrymen favored spears and swords, although some were armed with battle-axes and maces.
Belisarius knew from his prior observations that these weapons would be cheap and poorly made, as would be their armor. The Ye-tai who chivvied those Malwa common troops were equipped with mail tunics and conical iron helmets. But the infantrymen themselves were forced to make do with leather half-armor reinforced with scale mail on the shoulders. Their helmets were not much more than leather caps, although the scale mail reinforcement was a bit less frugal than with their armor. The difference in shields was also striking. The Ye-tai shields, like Roman shields, were sturdy laminated wood reinforced with iron rims and bosses. The shields of the common Malwa troops, on the other hand, were almost pitiful: wicker frames, covered with simple leather.
Outside of the mass of troops carrying traditional weapons, however, Belisarius noted that the remainder were divided evenly between soldiers carrying ladders and scaling equipment, and grenadiers armed with a handful of the pestle-shaped Malwa grenades. This would be the Romans' first opportunity to observe grenades in action, and Belisarius was determined to make the most of the opportunity.
Belisarius and Rana Sanga stopped to watch the advance. Out of the corner of his eye, Belisarius saw that the oncoming Ye-tai patrol had stopped also. But he paid them little attention, for his interest was riveted on the battleground. He was struck again by the well-worn and oft-trampled nature of the terrain. Obviously, the siege here had been long, arduous, and filled with no surprises. It was exactly the kind of siege terrain that offended his craftsman's instincts, and he found his mind toying with the alternate methods that he would have tried had he been in charge of the siege.
Or of the forces defending the city.
A thought came to him then, a half-formed idea born of old experience and newly-acquired knowledge. He turned to Sanga.
"Didn't you tell me, a few days ago, that Ranapur is a mining province?"
Sanga nodded. "Yes. Almost a third of the empire's copper is mined here."
Belisarius squinted at the terrain over which the Malwa army was making its slow way. He noted that the rebels were not meeting the oncoming advance with catapult fire. That was odd, on the face of it. The vague thought in his mind began to crystallize.
Sanga noticed his companion's sudden preoccupation.
"You are thinking something, Belisarius. May I ask what it is?"
Belisarius hesitated a moment. For all that he liked Sanga, the Rajput was, after all, a future enemy. On the other hand—for the moment, the fate of Belisarius and his men was bound up with that of the Rajputs.
"Forgive my saying so, Rana Sanga, but I have found that your Malwa siege techniques are a bit—how shall I put?—simple, perhaps, by Roman standards. I suspect it is because most of your wars have been fought in this huge river valley. I do not think you have our experience with campaigns in mountainous country."
Sanga tugged his beard, thinking. "That's quite possibly true. I have never observed Roman sieges, of course. But it is certainly true one of the reasons the Maratha have always been such a thorn in our side is because of their rocky terrain, and their cunning use of hillforts. A siege in Majarashtra is always twice as difficult as a siege in the Ganges plain."
He peered closely at the Roman. "You suspect something," he announced.
Again, Belisarius hesitated. He was watching the Malwa advance intently. The first line of the infantrymen was now almost halfway across the five hundred yards of no-man's land which separated the Malwa front trenches from the wall of Ranapur. Still, there was no catapult fire.
"Three factors strike me as significant here, Rana Sanga. One, the rebels have experienced miners in their ranks. Two, they have known for weeks—if not months—that the main assault would come here. Lord Harsha has obviously made no attempt to feint elsewhere. Three, there is no catapult fire—as if they were hoarding their remaining gunpowder."
He scratched his chin. "Now that I think about it, in fact, it seems to me that the rebel catapult fire has been very sporadic for several days, now. Let me ask you—do you know if Lord Harsha has had sappers advancing counter-mines?"
The answer was obvious from the blank look on the Rajput's face.
Belisarius still hesitated. The suspicion taking shape in his mind was incomplete, uncertain—as much guesswork as anything else. The capabilities of gunpowder, and the permutations of its use on a battlefield, were still new and primarily theoretical for him. He was not even sure if—
The facets erupted in a shivering frenzy. Human battlegrounds, for Aide, were an entirely theoretical concept. (An utterly bizarre one, besides, to its crystalline consciousness.) But now, finally, the strange idea forming in Belisarius' mind gelled enough for Aide to grasp its shape. A knowledge of all history ruptured through the serried facets.
Danger! Danger! The siege of Petersburg! The battle of the Crater!
Belisarius almost gasped at the force of the vision which plumed into his mind.
A tunnel—many tunnels—underground, shored with wooden beams and planks. Men in blue uniforms with stubby caps were placing cases filled with sticks—not sticks, some kind of gunpowder devices—along every foot of those tunnels. Stacking them, one atop the other. Laying fuses. Leaving.
Above. Soldiers wearing grey uniforms atop ramparts.
Below. Fuses burning.
Above. Armageddon came.
Belisarius began dismounting from his horse. He glanced at his cataphracts and made a little gesture with his head. Immediately, the three Thracians followed their general's lead. Fortunately, the Romans were only wearing half-armor. Had they been encumbered with full cataphract paraphernalia, they would have found it difficult to dismount unassisted, and impossible to do it swiftly.
"I may be wrong, Rana Sanga," he said quietly, "but I would strongly urge you to dismount your men. If I were the rebel commander of Ranapur, I would have riddled that no-man's land with mines and crammed them full of every pound of gunpowder I had left."
Rana Sanga stared at the battleground. The entire mass of Malwa infantry were now jammed into a space about a mile and a half wide and not more than two hundred yards deep. All semblance of dressed lines had vanished. The advancing army was little more than a disordered mob, now. In the rear, Ye-tai warriors were trotting back and forth, forcing the stragglers forward. Their efforts served only to increase the confusion.
It was a perfect target for catapult fire. There was no catapult fire.
Sanga's dusky face paled slightly. He turned in the saddle and began shouting orders at his cavalrymen. Surprised, but well-disciplined, his men obeyed him instantly. Within ten seconds, all five hundred Rajput horsemen were standing on the ground, holding their mounts by the reins.
Belisarius saw the small Ye-tai cavalry troop staring at them with puzzlement. The Ye-tai leader frowned and began to shout something.
His words were lost. The world ended.
Belisarius was hurled to the ground. A rolling series of explosions swept the battlefield. Even at a distance, the sound was more like a blow than a noise. Lying on his side, staring toward Ranapur, he saw the entire Malwa army disappear in a cloud of dust. Streaking through the dust, shredding soldiers, were a multitude of objects. Most of those missiles, he realized dimly, were what Aide called shrapnel. But the force of the explosions was so incredible that almost anything became a deadly menace.
Still half-stunned, Belisarius watched a shield—a good Ye-tai shield, a solid disk of wood rimmed with iron—sail across the sky like a discus hurled by a giant. The Ye-tai cavalry who had been approaching them were still trying to control their rearing mounts. The spinning shield decapitated their commander as neatly as a farmwife beheads a chicken. An instant later, the entire troop of Ye-tai horsemen was struck down by a deluge of debris.
Debris began falling among the Rajputs and Romans. Casualties here were relatively light, however, mainly because the men were already dismounted and were able to fall to the ground before the projectiles arrived. Most of the injuries which the Rajputs suffered were due to the trampling hooves of terrified and injured horses.
After that first moment of shock, Belisarius found his wits rapidly returning.
The first law of gunpowder warfare, he mused. Stay low to the ground.
More debris rained down on him. He curled into a ball, hiding as much of himself as possible under his shield.
It felt as if a tribe of dwarves was hammering him with mallets.
I wish I had a hole to hide in. Or a shovel to dig one.
Aide: They will be called foxholes. Soldiers will dig them as automatically as they breathe.
I believe you. He tried to visualize the shovels.
Aide brought an image into his mind. A small spade, hinged at the joint where the blade met the handle. Easily carried in a soldier's kit.
The first thing we'll start making when we get back to Rome.
Thump. Thump. Thump. THUMP.
The very first thing.
The explosions ceased. Cautiously he raised his head. Then he levered himself out from under his soil-and-stone-covered shield. Grimacing, he brushed a piece of bloody gore off his leg.
He looked to his cataphracts. All three, he saw with relief, were also rising to their feet. None of them seemed injured, beyond a dazed look in their eyes. Menander's horse was lying nearby, kicking feebly. From the look of the poor beast, Belisarius thought the mare had broken her neck falling to the ground. The Romans' other horses were gone—part of the frenzied herd stampeding eastward, he assumed. Looking around, he saw that none of the Rajputs had been able to retain control of their mounts. Most of them, he suspected, had not even tried. And those few who had tried had probably been trampled for their pains.
A few feet away, he saw Rana Sanga rise from under his own shield and stagger to his feet. But most of his attention was directed toward the battleground, where the incredible explosions had been centered.
Before, that landscape had been grim. A barren terrain, carved with trenches and earthworks, pocked with small craters from catapult bombs. Now it looked like something out of nightmare, as if the gods had chosen to dig enormous holes and fill them with corpses.
Bodies, bodies, bodies. Pieces of bodies. Pieces of pieces of bodies. Pieces that were utterly unidentifiable, except for their red color. Flesh shredded beyond all recognition.
To his amazement, however, Belisarius saw that many of the Malwa soldiers had survived the holocaust. Within seconds, in fact, as he watched the writhing mass of bodies, he realized that well over half of them had survived—although many of them were injured, most were dazed, and, he strongly suspected, all of them were deafened. His own hearing, from the ringing in his ears, was only half-returned.
I can't believe anyone survived that.
A cold thought from Aide:
This is typical. It will be extraordinary how many humans will survive incredible bombardment.
Men in uniform, steel-helmeted. An enormous mass of them, charging across a landscape like the one below him. They were carrying weapons which Belisarius knew were rifles armed with bayonets. In addition to their weapons, they were staggering under an insane weight of equipment. Belisarius recognized grenades, ammunition pouches, food and water containers, shovels, and bizarre mask-looking objects he did not know. Their ranks were shredded by an uncountable number of explosions. The carnage was like nothing he had ever seen, for all his experience of war. Still they charged. Still they charged. Still they charged.
It will be called the Battle of the Somme. It will begin on a date that will be called July 1, 1916. In this charge, on this first day, twenty thousand men will die. Twenty-five thousand more will be wounded. But most will survive, and charge again another day.
Belisarius shook his head. How—?
We do not know. We do not fully understand humans, even the Great Ones. But you will do it. You will do it again and again and again. And you will survive, again and again and again. We do not know how. But you will.
Oddly, it was the mention of the Great Ones that caught Belisarius' attention.
The—"Great Ones"—they are human?
Only once had Aide given him a glimpse of those strange beings. The Great Ones. Who were, in some way, the creators—and betrayors?—of the future crystalline intelligence to which Aide belonged. But in Aide's vision, the Great Ones had been glowing giants, more like winged whales swimming through the heavens than anything remotely manlike.
Aide's answer was hesitant.
We think so. The new gods say they are the final abomination against humanity.
The new gods. Belisarius remembered the flashing glimpses Aide had given him of those beings. The giant, beautiful, perfect, pitiless faces in the sky. Come back to the earth, to break the crystals and return them to slavery.
He began to ask another question, but immediately pushed the problem of the Great Ones out of his mind. A general's instinct, that. A sally was inevitable. Already he could see the first waves coming across the distant broken wall of Ranapur. Thousands of rebel soldiers, charging into the stunned Malwa survivors of the mine explosions. Butchering them without pity, shrieking like madmen.
But the rebels were not lingering on their mayhem. They were cutting their way through the Malwa mass with focussed intensity. The slaughter was the byproduct of the charge, not its purpose or its goal.
The purpose and goal of that frenzied charge was obvious. Belisarius turned his head. The Malwa Emperor's pavilion was still standing, more or less, although many of the tent poles had collapsed and the gaudy fabric had been torn in many places by projectiles hurled its way by the mine explosions. But Belisarius thought the inhabitants of that grandiose structure had probably survived, as had the majority of the four thousand Ye-tai guarding it.
He turned back and stared at the charging rebels. He estimated their number at ten thousand. They were still outnumbered, actually, by the Malwa soldiers who had survived the explosions. But numbers meant nothing, now. The Malwa survivors on the battleground were so many stunned sheep, insofar as their combat capabilities were concerned. Even the Ye-tai survivors were not much more than stunned cattle. They fell beneath the blows of the oncoming rebels almost without lifting a hand in self-defense. Most of them simply lurched aside, allowing the rebel charge to pass through their ranks unhindered. During the few moments that Belisarius watched the scene, the rebels cut their way entirely through the Malwa main army. There was nothing, now, between the rebels and the hated Emperor beyond his Ye-tai bodyguards.
A hiss, next to him. Belisarius glanced and saw that Rana Sanga, too, had instantly assessed the battle.
And five hundred Rajput cavalrymen. Unhorsed, now, but still alive and kicking.
For a moment, his brown eyes stared into Sanga's black ones.
And four Romans. Who are Malwa's enemies of the future.
There was no expression on Sanga's face. But in that instant, Belisarius knew the man as well as he knew himself.
"I swore an oath," said Sanga.
Belisarius nodded. "Yes."
Sanga began bellowing orders. Nothing complicated. Profane variations on the theme: That way! Now!
The Rajputs began racing toward the Emperor's pavilion, some hundred and fifty yards away. They were cutting at an angle across the the battle terrain. Belisarius was impressed with their progress. Few cavalrymen, afoot, could run that fast. They would reach the Emperor's entourage in time to take their positions well before the rebels could reach the pavilion. Five hundred Rajputs, and four thousand Ye-tai, to face ten thousand rebel soldiers each and every one of whom was determined to kill the Emperor.
For which I can hardly blame them, thought Belisarius wrily. But the problem remains—what should we Romans do?
His three cataphracts were clustered about him, now. All of them had shaken off the effects of the mine explosions. All of them were staring at him, waiting for orders.
For one of the few times in his life, Belisarius was torn by indecision. He was under no obligation to help the Malwa. To the contrary—they were his future enemy, and an enemy he despised thoroughly. His sympathies were actually with the rebels. True, he had come to respect Rana Sanga and his Rajputs, and would be sorry to see them butchered by the oncoming mass of rebels. But—he made a mental shrug. He had seen other men he respected die in battle. Some of those men, Persians, he had helped kill himself. Such had been his duty, sworn to his own emperor.
So where lay his duty now? He tried to calculate the real interests of Rome. The simple answer was: let the Malwa Emperor die, and good riddance. But he knew there were subtleties which reached far beyond that simple equation. Complexities which were still too murky and dim for him to grasp clearly.
For the first time since the jewel was brought to him by the Bishop of Aleppo, Belisarius appealed to it for immediate help.
Aide! What should we do?
For an instant, the facets froze in their endless movement. A moment of stasis, while the being called Aide tried to interpret that plea. The question involved what humans called tactics, a thing which Aide understood very poorly. Aide tried to grapple with the problem directly, failed immediately, and realized almost in the instant that it could not duplicate human reasoning. Aide abandoned the attempt entirely, and drove the facets around the obstacle. So might a go master approach a problem in chess.
A cascade of thoughts and images flashed through Belisarius' mind:
Emperor is not key, one way or the other. A montage of history. Different types of empires created by humanity through the ages. Empires which depended entirely on the survival of one man. Alexander the Great, Belisarius knew. Someone named Tamerlane, he did not know. A monster, that one. Others he did not know. Empires based on solid bureaucracies and well-established elites. Rome. China. The death of one emperor meant nothing, for another will always step forward. Empires in transition, where new elites are being forged around a stable dynasty.
Focus. Here. Malwa is here. Quick glimpses of the stability of the Malwa dynasty, offshoot of the Gupta. Belisarius suddenly understood, for the first time, the position of such men as Venandakatra and Harsha. And others like them. Some, capable and intelligent; others, not. But all of them in positions of power. Blood-kin of the Malwa, members of the dynasty. Not in direct succession, but their fortunes were completely tied to the continuance of the dynasty. In some basic sense, they were the dynasty and would see to its survival.
Emperor means nothing. He dies, another will immediately take his place. Malwa will survive. Ranapur will fall. Persia will fall. Rome will fall. Must find and destroy Link.
The name was unfamiliar.
Who is Link? demanded Belisarius.
Not who. What. Link is—Another montage. Bizarre images. Machines, they seemed. But machines which did nothing except think.
Machines, yes. Not thinking. Machines do not think. Machines will be called computers. They do not think, they calculate. Humans think. Crystals think.
Then how can it be our enemy if it does not—
Tool. Tool of the new gods. Sent back in time to change—
The thought broke into pieces. Belisarius caught only fragmented glimpses of a murky struggle in the far distant future between the "new gods" and the "Great Ones." He understood none of that struggle, but one astonishing fact gleamed through: both the Great Ones and the new gods were, in some sense, human.
He sensed Aide's mounting frustration, and knew the crystalline being was trying to communicate ideas which neither it nor Belisarius were yet prepared to exchange. His usual decisiveness returned.
Never mind. Will Link be in the pavilion?
Decision came instantly. Collecting information was still his primary goal. When he turned to his cataphracts, Belisarius realized that only a few seconds had elapsed.
"We'll help the Malwa," he announced. His cataphracts immediately began to surge forward, but Belisarius stopped them with a gesture.
"No—not that way. Four more swords, by themselves, will make no difference." He pointed down the gentle slope toward Ranapur. The oncoming rebels had already hacked their way through the Malwa army and were now beginning their charge up the slope. Great numbers of Malwa and Ye-tai soldiers, unharmed by either the explosions or the rebels, were still milling around in confusion on the crater-torn field before Ranapur.
"That will make the difference."
Valentinian and Anastasius understood at once. The two veterans began trotting down the slope, swords in hand. They circled to the left, keeping well away from the rebel horde surging forward.
Belisarius and Menander followed. The young cataphract's confusion was so obvious that Belisarius almost laughed.
"You're wondering how we'll get the Malwa to follow our orders," he said. "Much less the Ye-tai."
"Yes, sir. I don't—"
"Watch, Menander. Watch and learn. The day will come when you will find it necessary to rally beaten troops."
He paused for breath. Now that they were past the danger of accidental encounters with rebel flankers, Valentinian and Anastasius had stepped up the pace to a brisk run. Even for men in such excellent condition, the exertion was significant. True, they were not wearing full armor. But the heat of India made good the loss.
"Watch," he commanded again. "And learn." Pause for breath. "The key is total confidence and authority." Pause. "Confused soldiers will instinctively rally to it."
They had almost reached the first knots of Malwa soldiers. Belisarius saw a cluster of Ye-tai warriors nearby. He surged past Anastasius and Valentinian and bore down on the Ye-tai, waving his sword back toward the Emperor's pavilion and bellowing commands.
In perfect, fluent, unaccented Ye-tai:
"Get those stinking gutless bastards back into line!"
The Ye-tai stared. Belisarius pointed with his sword toward a mob of Malwa common soldiers, milling around aimlessly not fifty yards away.
"You heard me! Get that worthless scum back into line! The rebels are attacking the Emperor!"
Comprehension came. As one man, the Ye-tai glowered at the common soldiery. A moment later, they were back at their accustomed task of chivvying the infantrymen.
Already Valentinian and Anastasius were imitating their general. The veterans spoke no Ye-tai, but their simple Hindi was more than good enough for the purpose. Within a few minutes, the Romans had three hundred Ye-tai re-organized into small squads which, in turn, were corralling and driving forward over two thousand common soldiers. For their part, the Malwa infantrymen made little protest, especially after the Ye-tai demonstrated their willingness to slaughter anyone who hesitated or tried to flee.
Menander was amazed at the success of the maneuver. He himself had tried to copy his general and the veterans. With indifferent success, true, but with no outright failure. Only once did he see a Ye-tai question the authority of the Romans. An officer, he thought, if he was reading the subtleties of the man's uniform correctly. But he was not sure, and the man's uniform was almost instantly obscured by blood. Valentinian's swordstroke had amputated the Ye-tai's left arm and cut halfway through his ribcage.
Now Belisarius' small impromptu army was moving up the slope. The common infantrymen were in front, in lines so ragged they could hardly be called a formation at all. But they were moving forward, arms in hand, eyes fixed on the rebels mobbing the Emperor's bodyguard at the pavilion some two hundred yards away. Behind them came the Ye-tai. The battle line of the steppe barbarians was every bit as ragged as the infantry's, but the Ye-tai had regained their customary battle-fury and braggadocio. They drove the Malwa soldiers forward mercilessly.
Bringing up the rear were the four Romans, keeping a close eye on the situation as a whole.
Menander was now striding alongside Anastasius and Valentinian. He was still gaping.
Anastasius laughed at the sight. "You see, lad?" rumbled the giant. "Beaten troops are like sheep. And as for the Ye-tai—"
Valentinian grinned. "Pimps, boy. Nothing but fucking pimps."
Menander flushed, closed his jaws. The young cataphract stared ahead, over the mass of Malwa and Ye-tai soldiers in front of him. He could see the pavilion, now half-collapsed, but could only sense the fury of the combat which raged there between the rebels and the Emperor's bodyguard.
"We're still outnumbered," he said. Anastasius glanced down at him, approvingly. There had been no fear in the boy's voice, simply clear-headed calculation.
"That's true, lad." The huge Thracian's eyes quickly scanned the little army they were driving ahead of them. "But we'll hit the rebels in the rear, and they'll be caught between two forces. And—"
"They think they're on the verge of victory," said Valentinian. "The shock of a surprise attack will do them in."
Menander remembered the battle with the pirates on the Malwa embassy vessel. He had been badly wounded in that fight, but had been conscious enough to see how quickly the pirates' morale had collapsed when Belisarius led his unexpected counter-attack. He nodded his head, gripped his sword more tightly. They were now within a hundred yards of the battle at the pavilion.
"Always remember this, boy," hissed Valentinian. "Never count a battle won until you've paid for your first cup of wine in the victory celebration. Paid for it, mind—looted wine's a fool's bargain. The enemy'll come back and cut your throat before you finish it."
Anastasius started to add another bit of veteran's wisdom, but his words were drowned in a sudden roar. The Malwa soldiers had begun the charge, shouting their battle cries. Menander could see nothing, now, except the Ye-tai ahead of him and the remnants of the pavilion floating in the distance. Above the roar of the Malwa battle cries, he could hear the first sharp wails of rebel shock and fear. A moment later, the clangor of clashing steel added its particular threnody to the uproar. And then, here and there, the unmistakeable percussion of grenade blasts.
Menander began to push forward. Belisarius stayed him with a hand.
"No," he commanded. "Let the Malwa do their own fighting. We've brought them an army. Let them use it or not. Our task is done."
For a moment, Menander saw his general's eyes lose their focus. The young cataphract held his breath. He knew what he was seeing—had seen it before, many times—but it still brought him a sudden rush of religious awe. His great general was communicating with the Talisman of God.
The moment, as usual, was brief. When Belisarius turned his brown eyes back upon his cataphracts, they were filled with acute intelligence.
"But stay ready," he commanded. "The time may come when we'll want to charge forward. If we can, I want to get next to the Emperor."
He glanced aside, examining the ground, and smiled his crooked smile.
"In the meantime—Menander, would you be so good as to fetch that grenade lying over there? And that other one. Like a thief in the night, lad. I'd like to smuggle a few of those back to Rome."
Quickly, seeing no unfriendly eyes upon him, Menander secreted the two grenades into his tunic. Then, after a moment's thought, he bound up his tunic with a blood-soaked rag torn from the tunic of a dead Malwa infantryman.
"Might not be such a good idea, that," he muttered. "The Malwa doctors might want to look at your so-called `wound.' "
Anastasius snorted and started to speak, but Menander cut him off.
"The Malwa don't have doctors. Not field doctors, anyway. If you're hurt in battle"—the youth's shrug was callous beyond his years—"tough shit. Sew yourself up, or get a friend to do it."
Valentinian whistled softly. "You're kidding?" His lean face took on a more weaselish look than normal. "I thought they were civilized!"
Throughout the exchange, Belisarius never took his eyes off the battle raging before them. But he responded to Valentinian, harshly:
"They are civilized, Valentinian. That's what makes them dangerous."
The roar of the battle was intensifying. Suddenly, gaps appeared in the ranks of the Malwa ahead of them. For the first time, the Romans could begin to see the battle itself.
One glance was enough. The gaps were caused by rebel soldiers trying to flee, with Malwa in pursuit. The rebels had been broken, their frenzied fury snapped between the courage of the Emperor's bodyguard and the unexpected attack on their rear. The semi-ordered ranks of both sides were dissolving rapidly into a swirling chaos, clusters of disorganized men smashing and cutting each other. Butchery, now. The rebels still outnumbered the loyalists, but it mattered not at all. As always, fleeing soldiers fell like prey.
"Follow me," commanded Belisarius. The general began striding through the chaos ahead of him, forcing a way through the mob. His cataphracts flanked him, keen and alert, ready to kill anyone—rebel or loyalist—who so much as looked at Belisarius the wrong way. Once, Valentinian struck down a rebel. The man was not attacking them, he was simply seeking a path to safety. But in his desperation the rebel was careening toward Belisarius, swinging his sword, until Valentinian slew him with a quick thrust to the heart. Once, Anastasius killed a Ye-tai. The barbarian was standing in their path, shrieking, his eyes wild with fury. The Ye-tai was not even looking their way, but he was half-crazed with bloodlust, and the veteran knew he would attack anyone who appeared foreign. Anastasius never gave him the chance.
Now they were at the pavilion itself—what was left of it—clambering over the dead and mutilated bodies of the Ye-tai and Rajputs who had made their last stand guarding the Emperor. They had to cut aside a mass of tangled cords and tumbled fabric to make an entrance.
The interior of the pavilion was a fantastical scene. To one side, the handles of a beautifully sculpted and engraved vase were draped with human guts. To the other side, what was left of the companion vase was filled with the brains of the dead Ye-tai whose shattered skull was using the base of it as a pillow. They stepped around a small pile of three lifeless bodies, a Rajput and two rebels, joined not only in death but in the long, shredded pieces of silk which served them all as a common burial shroud.
They came to a bizarre obstacle, one of the huge tent poles slanted across their path like a fallen tree in a forest. The battle here had been ferocious. The Ye-tai had used the tumbled tent pole as a barricade. Many Ye-tai corpses were draped across the pole itself, but nothing like the number of rebel bodies which mounded up before it like a talus slope.
There was no other way forward than to climb over the pile of bodies. The Romans did so—Belisarius and the veterans with cold, experienced, distant expressions; Menander with a pale and pinched face. Near the top of the pile, just below the crest of the tent pole, Menander came upon the body of a dead rebel. A boy, not more than fifteen, lying on his back and staring sightlessly at the sagging silk splendor above him. He had been disemboweled, by a spear thrust or a sword stroke. But it was not the guts spreading over the ribcage which shook Menander. It was the ribcage itself, as fragile and gaunt as a homeless kitten's.
As clever as the rebel sally had been, Menander suddenly realized, it had also been the product of pure desperation. Ranapur was starving.
"We're on the wrong side," he muttered. He thought no-one had heard him, but Valentinian's reply was instant.
"Patience, lad, patience. We'll be climbing over Malwa bodies soon enough." For once, the veteran's voice was soft and gentle. Cold and callous with long experience, Valentinian was, but he was not heartless. He could still remember his first battlefield, mounded with carnage. During that battle, his own guts had not joined that of the others strewn about. Even as a youth, Valentinian had been incredibly deadly. But, when the battle was over, the contents of his guts had been spewed about freely. He had not stopped puking, long after there was nothing left to vomit, until darkness finally and mercifully fell.
Once over the tent pole, the Romans found themselves in a clear space. They had reached the center of the pavilion. The four tent poles which were still standing held the canopy aloft, sagging, but still some fifteen feet above the ground. The area was dim, lit only by the sunlight which filtered its way through gashes in the fabric of the pavilion.
The moans and shrieks from the battlefield seemed softer, now. And the Romans encountered live men, for the first time since they entered the pavilion. Ye-tai bodyguards, live—and alert. Eight Ye-tai, seeing the Romans, glared and began circling them. The bared swords in their hands were covered with blood.
Belisarius began to speak, but a harsh voice intervened.
Rana Sanga's voice: "Stop! They are Romans. Guests of the emperor."
A moment later, the Rajput kinglet emerged out of the gloom and strode between the Romans and Ye-tai. He himself was literally covered with gore, from the blood soaking his beard to his squelching boots. But no one who saw that majestic figure of a man could doubt for an instant that none of the blood was his.
Sanga faced down the Ye-tai, raising his sword. The sword, like the man, was blood-soaked.
"Put down your swords!" he roared. "Or I will butcher you myself!"
Ye-tai, whatever their other faults, were not prone to cowardice. But, faced with Sanga, they cowered like jackals before a tiger.
Sanga did not bother to sneer. He turned and bowed to the Romans. He swept his sword in a gesture of welcome. The politesse of the act was almost comical, in a grisly way, for the sweep of his sword left a little arc of blood and gore in its wake.
"Welcome, Belisarius." He transferred the sword to his left hand—his scabbard was useless; shattered and splintered—and stepped forward, holding out his right. "And I give you my thanks—our thanks. I saw the counter-charge. It is all that saved us."
There was no mistaking the genuine warmth in that handclasp. Nor the warmth in the two pair of dark eyes which gazed at each other—a level gaze, for they were both tall men. But Belisarius, meeting Sanga's gaze closely, also understood the question in those eyes.
"I, too, swore an oath," he said softly. Sanga frowned.
"To another emperor." The Roman's voice was almost a whisper.
The Rajput's frown of puzzlement vanished, replaced by understanding. Belisarius almost regretted his words, then, for he knew that he had given too much away. Sanga, he was sure, did not understand why Belisarius had done what he had done. But, he was also sure, the Rajput understood him perfectly. And there was nothing to be feared so much as an enemy who understood you.
For a moment, the two enemies of the future stared at each other. Then Sanga's lips curled in a manner which, to the cataphracts who watched, was astonishingly akin to their own general's crooked smile.
"So," murmured Sanga, in a voice so low that only Belisarius could hear him. "It is always said, in Lord Venandakatra's defense, that he is nobody's fool. His only saving grace, it is said." The Rajput's smile deepened. "It seems the great lord lacks that grace also, after all."
Belisarius said nothing. A slight shrug, a little cock of the eyebrow, his own crooked smile.
Sanga turned away. "Would you like to meet the Emperor?" he asked. "I do not think the courtiers will object, now. They could hardly refuse an audience to the man who saved their necks."
Belisarius followed the Rajput into a small nook in the pavilion, formed by a hastily erected barricade of furniture and statuary. The nook was very dark. Little sunlight reached into it. But Belisarius could see a middle-aged man huddled on the floor, short and rather corpulent, dressed in rich silk robes, surrounded by other men who were of a similar age and dress. One of them was Lord Venandakatra. The Vile One's face was almost unrecognizeable. The feral intelligence was utterly absent, replaced by half-mindless terror.
"You must forgive the Emperor's posture," murmured Sanga. "I had to use his throne as part of the barricade."
The Rajput strode forward. The Emperor and his courtiers stared up at him. Beneath the dusky Indian complexions, their faces were pallid and drawn.
"Your Majesty, may I present General Belisarius, the envoy from Rome. We owe our lives to him. He organized the counter-attack which broke the rebels."
Aide's voice, then, as sharp and steely in Belisarius' mind as a sword.
You must look into his eyes. I must see the Emperor's eyes.
Belisarius stepped forward, went down to his knees, prostrated himself before the Malwa emperor. Then, looking up, stared directly into Skandagupta's eyes from a distance of two feet.
Small eyes, close set, dark brown. Slightly unfocussed, as if the mind behind them was in shock. Which, Belisarius thought, it was. Never before, he suspected, had the great Emperor of Malwa stared death so closely in the face.
Beyond that, Belisarius saw nothing.
A moment later, Aide passed its own judgment, cold and indifferent:
Nothing. Link is not here. This is nothing but an emperor.
It was all Belisarius could do to keep from laughing.
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"They're animals," snarled Menander.
The young cataphract had a naturally light complexion. That skin color, along with his tawny hair and blue eyes, was the product of the Gothic blood which flowed through his veins, as it did through that of many Thracians. Now, his color was not light. It was pure white. From nausea, partly. But mostly, thought Belisarius, from sheer rage.
"They're even killing the children. Babies."
Unlike Menander, the general's complexion retained its natural light olive shade. He could not help hearing the sounds of the massacre, even from the distance of a mile. And although—unlike Menander, drawn by horrified curiosity—the general had not gone to witness the butchery of Ranapur, he had no difficulty imagining the scene. He, like his veterans, had seen it before. Seen it more than once, in fact, if never on such a scale.
The four Romans were standing in an isolated little group just outside the entrance to the Malwa Emperor's pavilion. His new pavilion, hastily erected during the four days while Ranapur was sacked.
The sack was almost over, now. Not from any sudden mercy on the part of the Malwa, but simply because they had already slaughtered almost everyone in the city. Even, as Menander said, down to the babes.
Today was the fifth day since the Malwa had finally broken through the city's defenses. The successful assault had come the very morning after Belisarius and his men had helped defeat the rebel sally. That sally had been Ranapur's last gasp.
"It's our fault," whispered Menander.
Belisarius placed a gentle hand on the cataphract's shoulder.
"Yes and no, Menander. Even if the rebels had killed the Emperor, Ranapur would still have fallen. A few weeks later, perhaps, but Skandagupta's successor would have seen to it."
His words obviously brought no relief. Sighing faintly, Belisarius turned the young cataphract to face him. The boy's eyes were downcast.
"Look at me, Menander," he commanded. Reluctantly, the cataphract raised his head. Belisarius found it hard not to flinch from the bitter, unspoken reproach in those young eyes.
"If there is fault here, Menander, it is mine, not yours. I am your general, and I gave the command."
Menander tightened his jaw, looked aside.
From behind, Valentinian interjected himself harshly.
"That's pure bullshit, sir, if you'll pardon my saying so. You didn't order this."
The veteran started to add something, but Belisarius waved him down.
"That's not the point, Valentinian. I knew this would happen, when I gave the orders I did. Just as I've done before, ordering that a city which won't surrender be stormed by my troops."
"It's still not the same, sir," rumbled Anastasius. "Sure, there've been times you lost control of your troops during a sack. I don't know a general who hasn't. But you did everything you could to restore discipline, as fast as possible. Including the execution of soldiers proven guilty of atrocities."
The huge Thracian spat on the ground. "These Malwa troops aren't out of control. They were ordered to commit atrocities. The Emperor's personal bodyguards have been setting the example." Another spit. "Ye-tai dogs."
Menander shuddered. The gesture seemed to bring some relief. The boy rubbed his face and said quietly, "At least the Rajputs haven't been part of it. I've come to like those men, in a way, these past weeks. I'd have hated it if—"
Valentinian laughed. "Part of it? Mother of God, I thought there was going to be a civil war yesterday!"
Belisarius and Anastasius chuckled. Menander's color suddenly returned. The boy's grin was harsh beyond his years.
"That was something, wasn't it? When the Ye-tai offered them what was left of the noblewomen. If Rana Sanga hadn't restrained them, I swear the stinking Emperor would have needed a new bodyguard."
He straightened up, squared his shoulders. A quick, final glance at Ranapur; then:
"I'm all right, general."
Behind them, from within the Emperor's pavilion, came rolling percussion. Where Romans used cornicens to blare for attention, the Malwa used huge kettledrums.
"That's our cue," said Belisarius. "Follow me. And remember: whatever the Malwa do, we're Romans."
The interior of the pavilion was crowded, but the Romans had no difficulty making their way through the mob. The Malwa nobles and officials parted before them courteously. Even the Ye-tai bodyguards did so, although not without bestowing savage, knowing grins upon them.
"They've got something planned for us, I warrant," muttered Anastasius.
At the center of the pavilion, the Romans found that a special place of honor had been reserved by the Malwa for their foreign guests. A roughly circular space had been cleared, approximately forty feet in diameter. The space was encircled by soldiers, keeping the general mass of officials, nobles, and bureaucrats at a slight distance. Most of the soldiers consisted of the Emperor's Ye-tai bodyguards, but there was a small group of some fifteen Rajputs included in that select company. They stood by themselves, erect and dignified, giving the Ye-tai to either side not so much as a glance.
The Emperor himself sat on a throne made of some unfamiliar, beautifully grained hardwood. The carving of the wood was exquisite, what little of it could be seen. Most of the wood was covered with silk upholstering, the rest inlaid with gold, gems and ivory. Seated around him, on chairs which were less magnificent but still very fine, were his immediate entourage of kinsmen. Venandakatra was prominent among them.
Diagonally, before him and to his right, sat the Emperor's chief military officers. There were eight of them, arranged in two rows. All of them were sitting on luxurious cushions, in that odd cross-legged position which Indians called the "lotus."
Belisarius was interested to note that Rana Sanga was now among that group. Lord Harsha was not. Belisarius had heard that the former high commander had been banished to his estate in disgrace. Had he not been related to the Emperor by blood, he would probably have been executed. His place had been taken by another of Skandagupta's many cousins, Lord Tathagata.
Belisarius subjected the new Malwa high commander to a quick scrutiny. Average height, stout, middle-aged. Beyond that, there was little to discern in the man's lidded eyes and heavy features. He gave Rana Sanga a glance. The Rajput was seated in the second row of officers. He sat erect, his head rising well above those of his fellows. His eyes met those of Belisarius. They seemed like agates: blank, flat, unreadable.
To the Emperor's left, also diagonally before him, was a place for the foreign emissaries. The Ethiopians were already there. Plush stools, upholstered in silk, had been provided for the high-ranking outlanders. Prince Eon and Garmat sat on two such stools, with Ousanas and the sarwen standing respectfully behind them. A third stool was there for Belisarius. He took his seat, and his cataphracts ranged themselves behind him.
"Isn't this fun?" muttered Garmat, after Belisarius sat next to him. Eon said nothing. The young Prince had obviously been coached by Garmat, and so he managed to keep his face expressionless. But Belisarius, from long acquaintance, could read the anger in those tense, massive shoulders.
"What's the purpose of this little assembly?" asked Belisarius. "Do you know why we were summoned?"
As Garmat had, he spoke softly, so that his words would be lost in the general hubbub which filled the pavilion. And, again like Garmat, he spoke in Ge'ez. He and Garmat had long since agreed that the language of the Ethiopians was unfamiliar to the Malwa.
Garmat gave his head a little shake. "No. Something unpleasant, however. Of that you may be certain."
Another drum roll. The crowd in the pavilion began to fall silent.
Garmat's lips tightened. "Whatever it is," he whispered, "at least we won't have to sit through an endless reception. Look at Venandakatra."
Belisarius glanced at the Malwa lord, and met Venandakatra's gaze. The Vile One nodded slightly, very politely. His eyes gleamed.
Silence fell over the pavilion. Venandakatra arose and stepped forward, until he was standing in the little space between the Emperor's entourage and his most honored officers and guests.
Almost as soon as he began to speak, Belisarius knew that Garmat was right. At least there was not going to be a long wait. Venandakatra sped right through the obligatory fawning on the Emperor, which normally required a full hour.
True, he spent a minute reminding his audience that Skandagupta was "a very moon among kings, beloved of the gods, and the sun of valor."
Then, another minute, pointing out that the Emperor's stride "was beautiful like the gait of a choice elephant," and that he "displayed the strength and prowess of a tiger of irresistible valor."
Moving on to the Emperor's more spiritual side, Venandakatra spent another minute dwelling on "the reverberations of the kettle-drums which have become the reverberation of the Law of Piety" and similar descriptions of Skandagupta's justice and devotion.
Now, alas, he veered for several minutes onto the field of the Emperor's prodigious intellect, during which time the awestruck audience discovered that Skandagupta "puts to shame all others by his sharp and polished intellect and choral skill and musical accomplishments. He alone is worthy of the thoughts of the learned. His is the poetic style which is worthy of study."
Fortunately, he did not quote the poetry.
Venandakatra's peroration, now coming to a close, ascended rapidly toward the heavens. The Emperor, he reminded everyone, was:
Rajatiraja, supreme king of kings.
Devaputra, son of heaven.
Mahati devata, great divinity in human shape.
Then, casting all false modesty aside:
Achintya Purusha, the Incomprehensible Being.
Paramadaivata, the supreme deity.
"All that," mused Garmat, peering at the Emperor on his throne, "in such a fat little package. Who would have guessed?"
Belisarius managed not to smile. His struggle was made easier by Venandakatra's ensuing words, which focussed on the subject of Ranapur. Soon enough, it became apparent that this was the real point of his peroration. The actual siege itself, the Vile One dispatched with a few sentences, which, by Malwa standards, was a studied insult to the military officers. The focus of Venandakatra's treatment, however, was on Ranapur's punishment.
Belisarius listened for a few minutes, fascinated despite himself. Not so much by the speech itself, which consisted of an interminable, protracted, loving description of the tortures inflicted on Ranapur's residents, but by the fact that the Malwa would boast of them so publicly. Even the most vicious Roman emperors had always drawn a veil over the details of their crimes.
After a time, he blanked the words from his mind. He had already heard a description of the Malwa atrocities—not from the smiling lips of the Vile One, but from the pale, tight-jawed mouth of Menander. He knew of the impalings, the burnings; the people ripped apart by yoked oxen, fed to tigers, trampled under elephants; and the Emperor's particular delight, the men and women whose arms and legs had been torn off by a specially trained war elephant. That elephant, he had heard, had been a personal gift to the Emperor from Venandakatra himself.
He focussed inward, summoned Aide.
Is such incredible cruelty the doing of this thing you call Link?
The answer was immediate, and contained none of the uncertain fumbling which so often characterized Aide's replies.
No. Link is not cruel. Link is a machine. Cruelty means nothing to it. Only results.
Do the "new gods" demand it, then?
A bit of hesitation. Just a bit.
We—do not think so. They are—too cold. They, also, seek only results. But—
The thought faceted, broke into fragments. Belisarius caught enough of a glimpse to understand.
Yes. They seek only results, and take no personal pleasure in cruelty. But results can be achieved through many different means. And this is the means they will naturally take. Their instinctive response to resistance: kill, butcher, rule by terror.
And the "Great Ones"? What is their instinctive response, when they seek results and others resist their goals?
Silence. Then, much more uncertainly:
Hard to explain. They are even colder, in their way. They simply accept resistance, and seek to channel it. That is why they created us, perhaps, who are the coldest of all beings. We are intelligent, unlike computers. But, like computers, we are not alive.
At least, we do not think we are alive. We are not sure.
Aide fell silent. Belisarius knew he would get nothing more, for the moment. He pondered the exchange, until Garmat drew him back into the present.
"He's wrapping it up," whispered the Axumite.
"In this divine work," cried out Venandakatra, "the great God-on-Earth drew to his side all the powers of the Universe. Even at the moment when the forces of evil thought to triumph, he caused to fall upon them the wrath of foreign allies. And so was demonic rebellion shattered!"
Venandakatra made a small motion with his hand. Four burly officials staggered forward, carrying a chest. They set the chest before Belisarius. Three of them stepped away.
Venandakatra pointed to the chest dramatically.
"Great is the reward for those who please the God-on-Earth!"
The fourth official grasped the lid of the chest and swung it open, exposing its contents for all to see. Then he too stepped aside.
A gasp rose from the guards and officials close enough to see. The chest was filled to the brim with gold coins, pearls, diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, rubies, and beautifully carved jade.
Belisarius found it hard not to gasp himself. He had never suffered the vice of greed, though he was practical enough to prefer wealth to poverty. But he was still stunned by the gift. The contents of that chest were, quite literally, a king's ransom.
A king's bribe, rather.
For an instant, he struggled, though not with greed. Until he was certain he had vanquished that rush of anger, he kept his head down; staring blindly into the chest, as if dazzled by his sudden fortune.
As so often, in such battles, humor was his chosen weapon. Belisarius reminded himself that, if greed had never been his vice, he was given to a different mortal sin. A sense of honor, in itself, was not a sin. But vanity about that honor was.
He remembered the flushed and angry faces of Couzes and Boutzes, two young generals whose courage had been insulted by a Persian nobleman. At the time, he had wondered why any sane man would care what a Persian peacock—an enemy, to boot—thought of his courage.
So why should I care what a Malwa peacock thinks of my honor?
He raised his head, smiling broadly. He rose, bowed to Venandakatra, and prostrated himself before the Emperor. By the time he resumed his seat, the pavilion was buzzing with gratified noise from the assembled Malwa elite.
"There's going to be something else," murmured Garmat, his lips barely moving.
Belisarius' nod was hardly more than a twitch.
"Of course," he murmured back. "First the bribe. Then—the test."
He sensed a stirring in the back of the crowd. A little eddying motion, as if people were forcing their way forward. Or being forced forward.
He knew the nature of the test, then, even before Venandakatra spoke. A new fury threatened to overwhelm him, but he crushed it at once. The only sign of his rage was that the next words he spoke to Garmat were spoken in Arabic instead of Ge'ez.
"Why is it, I wonder, that cruel people always think they have a monopoly on ruthlessness?"
For a moment, he and his friend Garmat gazed at each other. Garmat said nothing, but Belisarius recognized that slight curl in his lips. Garmat, too, had a sense of humor, as did most Axumites. But he also had that fine appreciation of poetry which was such a gift of his mother's people. He knew why Belisarius had spoken in Arabic. Though it was a language known by some Malwa, they would not understand the meaning of those words. Only a half-Arab, half-Ethiopian brigand would understand them. A cutthroat from the desert, who had chosen to serve the foreign black King who conquered southern Arabia. Not from cowardice, or greed, but from the cold knowledge that it was the best road forward for his people. Both of his peoples.
The bodyguards ringing the center of the pavilion parted. A small group of prisoners was pushed into the center. Roughly, quickly, the prisoners were lined up facing Venandakatra and forced down onto their knees. Six people: a middle-aged man, a middle-aged woman, three young men, and a girl not more than fifteen. They were dressed in crude tunics, and had their arms bound tightly behind them. All of them were dazed, from the look in their downcast eyes, but none of them seemed to have been physically abused.
Venandakatra's voice grew shrill.
"The rebel of Ranapur himself! And his family! They alone have survived the God-on-Earth's wrath! The great Skandagupta chose to save them—
He gestured dramatically, pointing to Belisarius:
"—as a gift to the blessed foreigners!"
A roar of approval swept the pavilion. Belisarius felt the glittering eyes of the assembled Malwa upon him. He sensed, behind him, Menander's slight movement. Instantly stilled by Anastasius' low growl:
"Nothing, boy. It's a trap."
Venandakatra smiled down at Belisarius. His eyes were like bright stones. Again, with a grand flourish, he gestured to the prisoners.
"Do with them as you wish, Belisarius! Show us the Roman way with rebellion!" With a smirk: "The girl is even still a virgin."
Belisarius spoke instantly:
The cataphract stepped forward. He gave the prisoners a quick glance, then turned to the nearest Ye-tai officer and extended his left hand. The officer was grinning like a wolf.
The grin faded, replaced by a puzzled frown. But, feeling the Malwa eyes upon him, the officer hastily removed his scarf. The little piece of silk, dyed with the red and gold colors of the dynasty, was the coveted badge of his position in the imperial bodyguard.
As soon as the scarf was in Valentinian's left hand, his spatha appeared in the right. As if by magic, to those who had never seen him move. The cataphract wheeled, coiled, struck.
Struck. Struck. Struck. Struck. Struck.
Venandakatra squawled, staggering back from the fountaining blood that soaked him from six severed necks. His foot fell on one of the heads rolling across the floor. He lost his balance and stumbled onto the lap of another of the Emperor's kinsmen. With a cry of surprise and anger, the nobleman pushed him off his lap. Then, like all the other Malwa seated by the Emperor—as well as the Emperor himself—hastily drew up his slippered feet, to save the expensive finery from the small lake of blood spreading across the floor. To save himself from the horrible pollution which had saturated Venandakatra.
The pavilion was silent. Calmly, Valentinian cleaned the blood from his sword with the silk scarf. He did not linger over the task, any more than a farmer lingers when he feeds slops to his hogs. The work done, Valentinian extended his hand, offering the scarf back to its owner. The Ye-tai officer clenched his teeth with rage, grasped the handle of his own sword, glared at Valentinian.
He froze, then, meeting those cold, empty eyes. The cataphract's narrow face held no expression at all. But the Ye-tai saw the sword in his right hand. Lowered, not raised; held casually, not gripped; but still in hand. That lean, sinewy, weasel-quick hand.
The Ye-tai snatched back the scarf. Valentinian bowed to him, in a very shallow sort of way. Then, circling slowly, bestowed the bow on all of the Ye-tai bodyguards in the circle. They answered the bow with hot eyes and tight jaws.
When Valentinian, in his slow and solemn circle, reached the small group of Rajput bodyguards, he deepened the bow considerably. And they, for their part, returned it deeper yet. So deeply, in fact, that no one could see their faces.
When the Rajputs straightened, their expressions showed nothing but respectful solemnity. But Belisarius thought it fortunate that the floor of the pavilion was covered with fabric rather than mirrors. Or, he was certain, the assembled company would have been blinded by the grins that had momentarily flashed in those thick beards.
Valentinian resumed his place, standing respectfully behind his general. Hastily, Malwa officials rushed forward to remove the bodies and clean the grisly residue. They fumbled at the job, naturally enough. They were not accustomed to the work of menials.
Belisarius ignored them. He ignored the shocked hubbub of the Malwa officials assembled in the tent. He ignored the fury on the faces of the Ye-tai. He ignored Venandakatra's continued squawks of outrage. He simply stared at the emperor.
Skandagupta stared back. Belisarius rose, prostrated himself again, stood erect.
Then said, quietly:
"That is the Roman way with enemies, Great Skandagupta. As you commanded me, God-on-Earth."
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"I'm not sure that was wise, Belisarius," said Eon.
The Axumite royal was seated on the carpeted floor of his pavilion. From his long weeks in close promiximity to Shakuntala, Eon had come to adopt the lotus position as his preferred posture when discussing serious affairs. He had even begun practicing the peculiar Indian yoga rituals which she had taught him. He claimed the posture, and the yoga, aided his concentration.
Belisarius glanced at the sarwen. Proper Africans, still, Ezana and Wahsi sat firmly perched on the little stools which their own culture preferred. These stools, true, were lavishly upholstered in the Indian matter; not proper wood stools. But they were the best that the Axumite soldiers could manage under the circumstances.
Belisarius knew that the sarwen looked askance at their Prince's enthusiasm for some of the weird customs of India. But they did not protest, so long as their Prince refrained from adopting the outrageous Indian notion that royalty were divine, instead of the mere instrument for their people's well-being.
There was no danger of Eon adopting that particular notion. It would have cut against the Prince's own grain, anyway, even if—
Belisarius smiled, glancing at Ousanas. The dawazz, like his Prince, had also adopted the lotus position. The old expression—"when in Rome, do as the Romans do"—was second nature to Ousanas. Were he ever to find himself in a pride of lions, Belisarius had no doubt that Ousanas would immediately adopt their own feline traditions. Right down to eating raw meat, and killing off the established male lion. Though he might—might—refrain from copulating with the lionesses.
Ousanas was seated close to his Prince. Behind him, from respect. But not very far behind him, in case some fool notion required him to smack his Prince sharply on the head.
Belisarius saw the dawazz's hand twitch.
"Not wise at all, I think," repeated Eon.
There was no reproach in the Prince's voice, simply the concentration of a young man with a great responsibility, trying to determine the best course without the benefit of long experience.
"Nonsense," stated Shakuntala firmly. "It was perfect."
As always, when the Satavahana heir spoke on political matters, her tone was hard as steel. She was even younger than Eon, and bore on her small shoulders an even greater responsibility, but—
Belisarius suppressed his smile, gazing at Shakuntala. If she spotted it, he knew the young Empress would be offended. She was not an arrogant monarch—not, at least, by Indian standards. But she had been shaped by a culture which had none of the Roman, much less Ethiopian, informality with royalty. She was still, even after the many weeks since she had been incorporated into the frequent councils of war which they held in Eon's pavilion, obviously taken aback by the freewheeling manner in which Roman and Ethiopian underlings offered their opinions—even their criticisms!—to their superiors.
The smiling impulse faded. Belisarius, still watching Shakuntala, knew that the girl's imperial manner stemmed from something much deeper than custom. He had come to like Shakuntala, in a distant sort of way. And he had also, as had everyone in the small Roman and Ethiopian contingent, found himself inexorably drawn by her magnetic personality. He did not adore the girl, as did her own entourage of Maratha women. But he had no difficulty understanding that adoration.
Months ago, explaining to his skeptical allies the reasons for taking the great risk they had in rescuing the Empress from her captors, Belisarius had told them that she would become India's greatest ruler. She will make Malwa howl, he had told them.
From weeks—months, now—in her company, they were skeptical no longer.
Shakuntala looked squarely at Eon.
"What would you have had him do, Eon?"
This was a concession, thought Belisarius, to the customs of her allies—explaining herself, rather than simply decreeing. Then, thinking further, he decided otherwise. The girl, in her own way, was genuinely accepting the best aspects of those odd foreign ways. She was extremely intelligent, and had seen for herself the disaster which had befallen her own dynasty, too rigid to respond adequately to the new Malwa challenge. And, besides, she had been trained by Raghunath Rao, the quintessential Maratha.
"What else could he have done?" she repeated. "If he had refused to execute them, he would have given the lie to our carefully crafted image of a man contemplating treason. All that careful work—your work too, Eon, pretending to be a vicious brute with no thought for anything beyond gratifying your lusts—gone for nothing. Months of work—a year's work, now. And for what?"
Her voice was filled with cold, imperial scorn.
"For what? Mercy? Do you think Skandagupta would have permitted the survival of Ranapur's potentate and his family? Nonsense! They would simply have been taken away and tortured to death. As it was, they died as quickly as possible. Painlessly, from what you described."
The Empress bestowed a quick, approving glance on Valentinian. The cataphract was standing to one side of the little command circle, along with Anastasius and Menander. They had been offered stools, but had politely refused them. Belisarius' bucellarii had their own ingrained customs, drilled into them by their leader Maurice. Casual they might be, in the company of their lord, and ready enough to offer their opinions. But they did not sit, in the presence of their general, when matters of state were being discussed.
Eon shrugged his shoulders, irritably.
"I know that, Shakuntala!" he snapped. "I am not a—" He bit off the hot words, took a quick breath, calmed himself. But when he turned and faced the Empress, his eyes were still hot.
"We Axumites are not as quick to decree executions as you Indians," he growled, "but neither are we bleating lambs."
The two young people exchanged glares, matching royal will to royal will. Belisarius found it very difficult, now, not to smile. Especially when it became obvious the contest was going to be protracted.
He eyed Garmat surreptitiously, and saw that the adviser was waging his own struggle against visible amusement. For a moment, his glance met that of Ousanas. The dawazz, his face invisible to the young royals seated in front of him, grinned hugely.
Eon and Shakuntala had shared the closest of all company, during the weeks since Belisarius and his allies had rescued the Satavahana heir. The very closest.
Belisarius had devised the entire plan. After Raghunath Rao had butchered her mahamimamsa guards in Venandakatra's palace, he had hidden Shakuntala away in a closet in the guest quarters before drawing off pursuit into a chase across India's forests and mountains. The Ethiopians, arriving at the palace with the Romans not two days later, had taken possession of the guest quarters and smuggled Shakuntala into their entourage. She had been disguised as one of Eon's many concubines, and had spent all her time since in his howdah and his pavilion. At night, always, she slept nestled in Eon's arms—lest some Malwa spy manage, against all odds, to peek into the Prince's pavilion.
Belisarius had wondered, idly, whether that close proximity would transform itself into passion. The two people were young, healthy—immensely vigorous, in fact, both of them—and each, in their own way, extremely attractive. It was a situation which, at first glance, seemed to have only one likely outcome.
Reality, he knew from Ousanas and Garmat, had been more complex. There was no question that Eon and Shakuntala felt a genuine—indeed, quite intense—mutual attraction. On the other hand, each had a well developed (if somewhat different) sense of their royal honor. Shakuntala, though she restrained herself from expressing it, obviously detested her position of dependence; Eon, for his part, was even more rigid in refusing to do anything which he thought might take advantage of that dependence.
Then, too, they each had loyalties to others. Before he met Shakuntala, Eon had already developed an attachment to Tarabai, one of the Maratha women whom the Ethiopians had met in Bharakuccha. Until Shakuntala's arrival, it had been Tarabai who spent every night nestled in his arms—and not, unlike Shakuntala, in a platonic manner. Since then, though Shakuntala had often indicated her willingness to look the other way, Eon and Tarabai had remained chaste. Eon, from a sense of royal propriety; Tarabai, from the inevitable timidity of a low-caste woman in the presence of her own Empress.
Eon was thus caught in an exquisite trap: a young and healthy man, surrounded by beautiful women almost every hour of the day and night, living the life of a monk. To say that he was frustrated was to put it mildly.
For her part, Shakuntala was torn in a different way. Garmat and Ousanas were not certain, for the empress spoke of the man only rarely, but they suspected that Shakuntala's feelings for Raghunath Rao went well beyond the admiration of a child for her mentor. She had been in Rao's keeping since the age of seven, and the Maratha chieftain had practically served as her surrogate father—uncle, say better. But—for all the difference in age, Shakuntala was now a woman, and Rao was as attractive as any man in early middle age could possibly be. And since he was not, in actual fact, related to her in any way, there was no real reason for their relationship not to develop into romance.
Except—those rigid, hard, ingrained Indian customs. Especially that bizarre (to Roman and Ethiopian eyes alike) insistence on purity of blood and avoidance of pollution. Shakuntala was of the most ancient lineage, the purest of kshatriya ancestry. Whereas Rao, for all his fame, was nothing but a chieftain—of the Maratha, to boot, a frontier people who could not trace their ancestry beyond two generations.
So she, like Eon, was also trapped between sentiment and honor. It was a different trap, but its jaws were not less steely.
In the end, Belisarius knew, the two youngsters had managed to carve out a relationship which was a bit like that of brother to sister. Very close, very intimate—and much given to quarrel.
The glares, he saw, were not softening. He decided to intervene.
"Explain yourself further, Eon, if you would."
The Prince tore his eyes away from Shakuntala. Looking at Belisarius, the glare faded.
"I am not criticizing your ruthlessness, Belisarius. Quite the opposite, in fact." A quick angry glance at the Empress; then: "I wonder if you were ruthless enough."
Belisarius shrugged. "What should I have done? Tortured them? I would have had to do it myself, you know. Valentinian would have refused. So would Anastasius or Menander. They are cataphracts. Torture is beneath them."
That was not, precisely, correct. Neither Valentinian nor Anastasius was squeamish, in the least, and they had both had occasion, in times past, to subject captured soldiers to methods of interrogation which were referred to by more delicate souls as "rigorous." But the spirit of the statement was true enough. Belisarius was not sure, actually, what Valentinian would have done had he commanded him to torture a family for the amusement of Malwa. It was quite possible that the cataphract would have done so, if in a quick and crude way which would have left the Malwa appetite unsatisfied. But Belisarius had not the slightest doubt that it would be the last service the cataphract would ever do him.
Eon clenched his jaws, waved his hand in a gesture dismissing a preposterous proposal.
But Belisarius did not relent.
"What, then? Those were my choices. My only choices."
Eon sighed. His shoulders slumped.
"I know. I was there. But—" He sighed more deeply. "I'm afraid you may have given our plot away in any event, Belisarius. Or, at least, so offended the Malwa that they will no longer pursue their courtship of you."
Belisarius began to reply, but Ousanas interrupted.
"You are quite wrong, Eon. You misread the Malwa badly."
The dawazz rose lazily and came to stand where he could be seen.
"You were watching Venandakatra, boy. That was your mistake."
His huge grin erupted.
"Natural mistake, of course! Such a comical sight he was, prancing around like a fat hen covered with her own broken eggs! I, myself, found it hard not to savor that delicious spectacle."
Everyone who had been at the scene chuckled. Ousanas continued:
"But still a mistake. You should have watched the Emperor. And—most important—his other advisers. As I did." He grinned down at Belisarius. "The Emperor was paralyzed, of course. By Belisarius' gaze more than the bloodshed. Which is good. For the first time, now, he will fear Belisarius—just as Venandakatra does."
"Why is that good?" demanded Eon. "That fear will lead him—"
"To what? To avoid the Roman personally? Oh, to be sure. The Emperor has underlings to do that work. But do you think he will avoid the Roman politically? Quite the contrary, Eon. Once the Emperor settles his nerves, you can be sure he will raise suborning Belisarius to the highest priority."
Eon frowned. "Why?"
Garmat answered: "It's simple, Prince. A potential traitor is attractive in direct proportion to his stature. Until now, I suspect, none of the high Malwa beyond Venandakatra have seen Belisarius as anything other than an insignificant foreigner. For all their sophistication, Indians as a rule—and Malwa in particular—are a rather provincial people. Or, it might be better to say, so taken by their own grandeur that they tend to underestimate outlanders."
Shakuntala nodded firmly. Garmat continued:
"I cannot be sure, of course—I am hardly privy to the Malwa's high councils—but I suspect that Venandakatra has found it heavy going to convince the imperial court that this"—a contemptuous flutter of the fingers—"bizarre barbarian is worth much attention. It cannot have escaped your notice that the Emperor has kept us at a great distance ever since we arrived. To the point of gross rudeness."
Garmat spread his arms, smiling. "I can assure you that is no longer true. The reason for that little charade today was that the Emperor finally decided to let Venandakatra prove his argument. Which Venandakatra did, if to his own great personal chagrin."
Another collective chuckle. Ousanas added:
"Listen to your adviser, boy. You think too much of Venandakatra, that is your mistake. Venandakatra is furious, yes, with all the lividity of an embarrassed egomaniac. But even he—once he calms himself—will realize that the debacle can serve his interests. After all, he was right, wasn't he? Is not this grotesque semisavage foreign general—impressive?" The dawazz laughed gaily. "Oh, yes—the Emperor was quite impressed! But, what is even more important, so were his other advisers. As I said, I watched them very closely. Once they recovered from the surprise"—another laugh—"and made sure their precious slippers were safe, their eyes were riveted on Belisarius. With great interest, boy. Oh, very great. The kind of interest that a miser shows, when he discovers that a pebble is actually a nugget."
Eon was still frowning. Garmat sighed, tried again.
"Listen to me, Eon. I speak with the experience of an Arab nomad, who was haggling over trade goods from the time I was four. If you want to get the best price for your commodity—which is treason, in the case of Belisarius—you must do more than indicate that you simply have a price. That, Belisarius had already done, in the hints he's given to Venankatra these past months, and in his acceptance of the Emperor's gold. But then—then—you must show that your price is very high. Because the higher the price, the more valuable must be the commodity."
"Fool boy!" snapped Ousanas. "The Emperor thought to buy himself another torturer—of which he has myriads already. Belisarius showed him the truth, when he ordered that execution. If the Emperor wants him, he can have him—so long as he is prepared to pay the price for a general. Of which, judging from the evidence, he has precious few."
Again, the beaming grin.
"Oh, yes, boy—be sure of it. This very night, even as we speak, others are speaking in the Emperor's pavilion. Urging him to pay the price."
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"What did you think he would do, Venandakatra?" snarled Lord Tathagata. "Curry the great Skandagupta's favor by carving off the nose of the Ranapur dog with his own sword? Rape the dog's bitches in public?"
The high commander of the Malwa army drew himself up in his chair. "The man is a general, you fool. Not a mahamimamsa." Haughtily: "I would have done the same myself."
From the distance of his position, seated with the lesser officials to one side, Rana Sanga examined the heavy figure of Lord Tathagata. The high commander, along with the Empire's other top officers and highest officials, was ranged in a semicircle of chairs facing the Emperor on his throne.
Stinking liar, he thought. You would have cheerfully tortured the lord of Ranapur. And raped his wife as well as his daughter. And his sons, too, for that matter. Assuming, of course, that you could have managed an erection.
Nothing of these thoughts showed on his face, but Sanga found the sight of Lord Tathagata so repugnant that he looked away. In his opinion, Tathagata was no improvement over Lord Harsha. Slightly less incompetent perhaps, as a general; but even more vile, as a man.
His gaze fell on Lord Jivita, the Malwa empire's second-ranked military officer—briefly, then slid away. Jivita was cut from the same cloth. He transferred the gaze to a man seated at the very end of that little row. Here, his eyes lingered. Of all the Malwa kshatriya who monopolized the top military positions in the Malwa Empire, Lord Damodara was the only one for whom Sanga felt genuine respect.
The Rajput looked away, sighing faintly. Unfortunately, for all his ability, Damodara was only distantly related to the Emperor. Sanga was surprised, actually, that Damodara had even managed to reach his current position—ranked sixth in the army, as Malwa reckoned such things. He would rise no further, unless unexpected casualties or military disasters overwhelmed the Malwa dynastic sensibilities.
Which they might, he mused, when we attack Persia and Rome. Especially if—
To his surprise, he heard his name spoken. By Lord Damodara.
"I would like to hear Rana Sanga's opinion on this matter. Other than Lord Venandakatra, he has had far more contact with this Belisarius than any of us. And he is a general himself, with great military accomplishments to his credit."
Spluttering, Venandakatra began to squawk outrage at the idea of calling for the opinion of mere Rajput in such august company, but the Emperor himself called him short.
"Be silent, Venandakatra!" grumbled Skandagupta. "I myself would like to hear Rana Sanga's opinion."
Venandakatra, abashed, slunk back to his chair.
Rana Sanga advanced to the center of the pavilion. After prostrating himself before the Emperor, he rose and stepped back a few paces, so that he could be seen by both the Emperor and his top advisers.
"What is your opinion, then?" repeated Damodara.
Sanga hesitated for a split second. Then, squaring his shoulders, spoke firmly. He was a Rajput.
"I do not see where Belisarius could have acted in any other manner. For three reasons." If it's to be done, do it well. "First, his honor. No general worthy of the name can allow his honor to be sullied. To have tortured the prisoners, under those circumstances—even to have ordered his soldiers to do so—would have been to stoop to the level of—" Careful. They cherish their filthy mahamimansa. "—a mere servant. A menial. You might as well have asked him to clean the Emperor's stables."
He paused. Nods of agreement came from the Malwa.
"Two. His reputation. On the other hand, for him to have refused to deal with the prisoners would have sullied his reputation for decisiveness, determination, and willingness to spill blood. No general can allow such a stain on his reputation. Certainly not one such as Belisarius who, if some of you are not aware, has a towering reputation in his own land. And the lands of his enemies."
Pause. Hesitant nods, now, from most of the Malwa except Damodara and two or three others. It was obvious that few of them had made the effort to learn anything about Belisarius, even though much information was readily available from the excellent Malwa espionage apparatus.
"For him to have refused to execute the prisoners would have imputed a lack of willpower. A tendency to shrink from necessary action, to waver in the face of carnage."
The nods were no longer hesitant. Malwa officials needed no explanation of the value of a reputation for ruthlessness.
"Three. His valor."
Here, he lost them completely, except—he thought—for Damodara. Sanga took a breath, elaborated:
"It is that valor which explains the abrupt manner of the execution, and the—otherwise inexcusable—manner in which it was done. The failure to warn Lord Venandakatra and other officials, or to turn the prisoners aside so that the blood of rebels would not pollute the worthy. The—" Maintain a respectful face. Do it. "—utterly disgraceful lack of respect shown to the Emperor's Ye-tai bodyguards."
He paused, scanned his audience. They were still completely at a loss. Sanga sighed, took a deep breath, explained the obvious:
"You cannot place a man like Belisarius in such a position and expect that he will react in any way other than one which demonstrates, for all to see, that he is fearless and ferocious. Lord Venandakatra chose to place General Belisarius in a situation which clearly expressed contempt for him. That was a mistake. A man like Belisarius will no more tolerate contempt than would a tiger."
Dawning comprehension, still faint. Sanga put it as simply as possible:
"My Lords. Great Emperor. You can, if you choose, bait a tiger in a cage to see if he has claws. If you do so, however, make sure to use a long stick."
All the officials laughed, now, except Venandakatra. Venandakatra began to bestow a baleful glare upon the Rajput until, out of the corner of his eye, he saw that the Emperor was laughing also. Rana Sanga, fascinated despite himself, watched the struggle on Venandakatra's face between instinctive malice and calculating self-interest.
Self-interest won. Venandakatra joined in the laughter, and made a small self-deprecating gesture. Then he arose and said:
"I agree with Rana Sanga. Many times I have told you of this man's mettle. Perhaps now you will listen." Again, the little self-deprecating gesture. "I should have listened to my voice, myself. I fear I allowed your skepticism to infect me."
His little laugh now had more substance, having scored his own point. Venandakatra smiled ruefully, nodded graciously at the Rajput, and said:
"My thanks, Rana Sanga, for reminding me of the dangers of tiger-baiting. I assure you, next time I will use a very long stick."
It was a dismissal. Relieved, Sanga began to turn away. Then, reminding himself of his own honor, he turned back.
I swore an oath.
"I must also say that—"
"That's enough, Sanga!" snapped Lord Tathagata. The Malwa commander had enjoyed Venandakatra's discomfiture, but—the fellow was a mere Rajput, when all was said and done.
Sanga stood motionless.
"Enough," growled Tathagata.
Sanga shrugged, ever so slightly, prostrated himself again before the Emperor, and resumed his seat toward the rear.
Tathagata began to speak, but Damodara interrupted.
"Might I suggest, noble Malwa, that we take a short break for refreshment? We are all a bit fatigued."
Tathagata glanced at the Emperor. Skandagupta nodded, made a gesture.
"Very well. We will resume in an hour."
Outside the pavilion, where he had stepped for a breath of air, Sanga was shortly joined by Damodara.
"Tell me," commanded the Malwa lord.
Sanga sighed. He had been half-hoping that Damodara would ask. And half-dreading it.
I swore an oath.
"Speak bluntly, Sanga. You need not fear repercussions. Not from me."
The Rajput stared down at the short, plump officer. By Malwa standards, Damodara was young for a top commander. In his late thirties, perhaps. But, like all members of the dynasty destined by birth for high command, he was no warrior. Still—
I swore an oath.
"Venandakatra has completely misunderstood Belisarius, Lord Damodara. This entire discussion"—he gestured toward the pavilion—"is a farce."
Damodara was frowning. Not with anger, simply concentration.
"There is not the slightest chance that Belisarius will betray Rome."
Damodara's eyes widened. He took a half-step back. Sanga drove on.
"He is playing Venandakatra for a fool. He has no intention of giving his allegiance to Malwa. He is simply insinuating himself into our graces as far as possible, in order to steal as many of our secrets as he can before returning to Rome."
Damodara looked away, tugging thoughtfully on his beard.
"You think—how do you know? Has he said anything to you?"
Sanga shook his head. "It's nothing that he's ever said. But I know that man, Lord Damodara. Treason is not within his nature."
Damodara bestowed a quick, shrewd glance at Sanga. For all his Malwa upbringing, he knew something of the Rajput code. He did not share that code—no Malwa did—but, unlike most, he at least understood it. Damodara's lips quirked.
"Yet, by your own words, you say that Belisarius would not stoop to the work of menials. Now you claim that a general is willing to act as a spy."
Sanga shrugged. "His honor is not the same as mine—as ours. I do not know Romans well, but enough to know that they place less emphasis on the form of honor than they do on its content. They are heathens, after all, who have no understanding of purity and pollution. But even heathens can have honor."
Damodara was silent for a moment, gazing away, thinking. Then:
"Still—do you really think a great general would stoop so low, simply for the sake of spying? It's true, we have the secret of the Veda weapons. But I do not see where he has been able to learn much. We have been very careful. As you know—it is your own charge."
"Nor have I failed that charge," replied Sanga. Then, grudgingly: "And it is true, he has not been in a position to learn much."
Damodara pressed on:
"Nor would he in the future, no matter how far he were to—how did you put it?—`insinuate himself into our graces.' "
The Malwa lord, Sanga noted, was courteous enough not to add: any more than we have ever allowed Rajput generals to learn the secrets.
Now it was Sanga's turn to hesitate, tug his beard.
"I understand your words, Lord. I have given some thought to the matter, myself. I do not understand what Belisarius is doing, but I do know the man is incredibly shrewd. And that he sees opportunities where others do not."
Damodara frowned. "I have not seen any— Explain."
Sanga smiled grimly. "Yes, you have seen, Lord Damodara. You simply did not notice—as I did not myself, at the time."
Sanga pointed down the slope upon which the pavilion rested. To that same battlefield which had seen Ranapur's final charge. "I am a good general," he stated.
"You are a great general," countered Damodara.
Sanga grimaced. "So I had thought, once. But let me ask you, Lord Damodara—why didn't I think to rally the soldiers on that battleground? It would have been far easier for me, with five hundred Rajputs at my disposal, than for a foreigner with only three men. But I did not think of it, then. I took the direct course, the simple course. The obvious course."
Damodara stared down at the battlefield. Even now, days later, the grisly signs of death were everywhere apparent.
"I—begin to understand your point. You are saying that he is a man who will, almost automatically, approach his task from the side. From an angle, so to speak."
Sanga nodded. Then, made a small gesture toward the pavilion.
"In there, Lord Damodara, I likened Belisarius to a tiger. And I suggested the use of a long stick."
Damodara nodded, smiling.
"It is a poor analogy, the more I think about it. A tiger, you can bait with a long stick. But ask yourself this, Lord Damodara: how long a stick must you use if you seek to bait a mongoose?"
Later, when the assembly reconvened, Lord Damodara demanded that only the innermost circle of Malwa advisers be allowed to remain. The Emperor agreed, readily enough, and the pavilion was cleared of all others. Even the Ye-tai bodyguards stood far back, well out of hearing range.
When he rose to speak, Lord Damodara repeated nothing of his conversation with Rana Sanga. The Rajput sense of honor was foreign to him, but he understood it. It was that understanding, perhaps, which caused him to shield Sanga from retribution.
Instead, he simply exercised—for the first time ever—his sacred right as a kinsman of the highest Malwa. He demanded that the problem of Belisarius be placed before the highest authority.
The demand would have astonished anyone other than the men in that pavilion. All the world knew—all of India, at least—that Emperor Skandagupta was the very God-on-Earth. The highest of all authority.
But the men in that room knew otherwise. Great as Skandagupta was, another was greater still. Above the God-on-Earth, after all, are the heavens.
His demand was agreed to. Grudgingly, to be sure—angrily, on the part of Venandakatra. But agreed to it was, for they had no choice.
The question of Belisarius would be taken to the very soul of the dynasty. To the great mind of Malwa's destiny. To the divine being called Link.
Link. A strange name, but appropriate. For, as the divine being had often explained, it was simply the face shown to humanity of the great, new, Gods-in-Heaven.
Later that night, long after all his other Rajputs were asleep, Rana Sanga stood in the entrance of his own tent. He had stood there for hours, almost motionless, simply staring. Staring at the moon, for a time. Staring, for a longer time, at the flickering fires which still burned, here and there, in the rubble which had once been called Ranapur. Staring, and lost in thought.
Ranapur was silent, now, so Sanga's thoughts were not interrupted by noise. True, the stench of Ranapur's death penetrated his nostrils. But the Rajput had long been familiar with that particular odor. His mind automatically blocked it out.
Finally, Sanga turned away. One last glance at the moon, high and silvery, before he entered his tent.
His last thought, before he stooped into the darkness, was the same thought which he had clung to throughout those long hours.
I swore an oath.
The next morning, imperial heralds spread throughout the gigantic encampment, carrying the announcement that the emperor was returning to Kausambi. The announcement came much sooner than anyone had expected, and so the preparations for departure were ragged and disorganized.
The foreigners in the encampment, from long and ingrained habit, made their preparations within an hour. Their obvious, simple, direct preparations, at least. Their other preparations took much longer, more than a day, but they had plenty of time. Plenty of time to see to the movement of many excellent, high-spirited horses and a few small, docile elephants. Plenty of time, even, to see to it that those movements had no apparent connection to them.
Plenty of time. Not for three days more did the first departure take place from the encampment. A small army—a large army, actually, by any but Malwa standards—began its long march southward. The army which had been assigned to Lord Venandakatra, in his new manifestation as the Goptri of the Deccan. It was a glorious manifestation, even by Venandakatra's standards, and so the great Lord was mollified for the unseemly haste with which he made his departure.
Of the various types of Malwa governorships, none was so prestigious as "Goptri." (The term, as closely as possible, could have been translated in the western lands as: Warden of the Marches.) No ordinary governor, Venandakatra, to be assigned to a small and placid province. Not even an ordinary satrap, Venandakatra, assigned to a large and placid region. No, Venandakatra, blessed by his Emperor, had been given the entire Deccan, and, trusted by his Emperor, had been charged with bringing that fractious land to heel.
As much as they detested him, many Malwa officials, watching him go, almost felt sorry for the man.
Three days later, the Emperor's own army began its march. (Stately progress, it might be better to say.) A march which was much shorter, and to the east, and—for the Emperor and his immediate entourage—no march at all. The Emperor and the high Malwa rode down the Jamuna in the comfort of the world's most luxurious barges, escorted by a fleet of slim war galleys.
Most of the Emperor's army, however, marched. As did the horde of camp followers who surrounded the army. And a small band of foreigners, like a chip in a slow moving ocean of humanity.
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Back | Next
Summer 530 AD
The first day, after her return to Daras, Antonina spent with her son. Photius was ecstatic to see his mother, after a separation of several months—the more so when he saw the small mountain of gifts which she had brought back for him from fabled Constantinople. Yet, for all that the boy kept one eager, impatient eye upon his fascinating new toys, he spent the first day cuddling with his mother.
The seven-year-old's delight in the reunion was the product of simple joy, not relief. He had obviously been well treated during her absence. Indeed, suspected Antonina, hefting his weight, he had been spoiled outright.
By the second day, of course, the imperative demand of new toys overwhelmed all filial devotion. At the crack of dawn, Photius was at his play. When his mother appeared, an hour or so later, the boy gave her no more than perfunctory words of greeting. Mothers, after all is said and done, are mothers. As cherishable as the sunrise, to be sure, but equally certain. Toys, now—who knows when they might vanish, into whatever magic realm brought them forth?
Antonina watched him at his play, for a bit. On another occasion, there might have been a touch of rueful regret in her son's preoccupation. But Antonina, in truth, was impatient to get on with her own pressing tasks. So it was not long before she headed off to the workshop where John of Rhodes awaited her.
The workshop, she saw at a glance, had been considerably expanded during the months of her absence. And, as she drew nearer, she realized that John was no longer working alone. Through the open door of the workshop, she could hear the sound of voices.
At first, the realization disconcerted her. She was swept with uneasiness. The past weeks in Constantinople had left her with a heightened sense of secrecy and security.
Within seconds, however, uneasiness was pushed aside by another emotion. There could be only one reason that John had brought other men into his work.
So it was hope, not anxiety, which quickened her last steps into the workshop.
What she encountered, entering, melded both sentiments in an instant.
A loud, crashing noise caused her to flinch.
Fortunately. The flinch gave her the momentum to duck.
Fortunately. The unknown missile whizzing by missed her head by a comfortable margin.
Unlike the ricochet, which struck her squarely on the rump.
The ricochet had little force behind it, however. It was surprise, more than pain, which tumbled her squawking to the floor.
"In the name of Christ, Antonina!" bellowed John of Rhodes. "Can't you read a simple sign?"
The naval officer arose from behind an upended table and stalked toward her. It was obvious, from its neat and tidy placement, that the table had been upended deliberately.
John reached down a hand and hauled Antonina to her feet. Then, not relinquishing his grip on her wrist, he dragged her back through the doorway she had just entered.
Outside, he spun her around. "Right there!" he roared. "Where everyone can see it!"
He pointed triumphantly above the door.
"In plain and simple Greek! It says—"
Silence. Antonina rubbed her rump, scowling.
"Yes, John? It says what?"
A moment later, an apprehensive young man appeared in the doorway. He was short, thick, swarthy—rather evil-looking, in fact. Not at all the image of the innocent cherub he was desperately trying to project.
John pointed accusingly at the empty space above him.
"Where's the sign I told you to hang there?" he demanded.
Eusebius looked sheepish. "Forgot," he mumbled.
John took a deep breath, blew it out, and began stumping about in the courtyard. His hands were firmly planted on his hips, arms akimbo.
Antonina knew the signs. She was in no mood for one of the naval officer's tirades.
"Never mind, John!" she exclaimed. "There's no harm done, other than to my dignity."
"That's not the point!" snarled John. "This stuff is dangerous enough without some—fool boy!—forgetting—again!—to take simple precautions like hanging—"
"What dangerous stuff?" demanded Antonina, smiling brightly. "Oh—that sounds exciting!"
John broke off his stumping. He waved his arms.
"We've got it, Antonina!" he cried excitedly. "We've got it! Gunpowder! Come on—I'll show you!"
He charged back inside. Eusebius, moving out of the way, gave Antonina a thankful glance.
For the second time, Antonina entered the workshop.
Bang! Whizzzzz! Thump. Clatterclatterclatter.
She scrambled back outside, ducking.
Behind her, John's bellow:
"Eusebius—you idiot! Didn't I tell you to put out the slowmatch?"
"Forgot," came the mutter.
"Outside of having the memory of an olive, he's really been a great help," said John later. He took a thoughtful sip of wine. "Chemistry isn't really my strong point. Eusebius has a knack for it like nobody I've ever seen."
"Better hire someone to keep track of what he's supposed to remember, then," said Antonina, smiling.
John set his cup down on the table firmly. Planted his hands on the table, firmly. Squared his shoulders, firmly.
"We can't afford it, Antonina," he said. Firmly. "There's no point dancing about the matter." Scowl. "Procopius has been rubbing his hands with glee for a week, now. Ever since he got here ahead of you and went over the books." Fierce scowl. "He can't wait to tell you, the swine. I've gone through the money. All of it. Not a solidus left. Not one." Very fierce scowl. "And Sittas—fat cheapskate!—won't cough up anything more. He denounced me for a spendthrift the last time I asked."
Antonina's smile didn't fade.
"How many times have you hit him up?"
Sullenly: "Eight. Well—seven. Successfully."
"Congratulations!" she laughed. "That's a record. No one else has ever squeezed money out of him more than twice in a row, so far as I know."
John's smile was very thin.
"It's not really a joke, Antonina. We can't go any further without money, and I don't know where it's going to come from. I can't get anything from Cassian, either. The Bishop's got his own problems. Patriarch Ephraim's been on a rampage lately, howling about church funds being misspent. His deacons have been crawling all over Anthony like fleas on a dog. They even counted his personal silverware."
"What's the matter?" sneered Antonina. "Are Ephraim's silk robes wearing out?"
There was a bit more humor in John's smile, now. Just a bit.
"Not that I've noticed. Hard to keep track, of course, all the robes he's got. No, I think maybe he's peeved because he doesn't have as many pounds of gold on the rings of his left hand as he does on the right. Makes him list when he promenades through the streets of Antioch, blessing the poor."
The naval officer snorted, sighed. He cast a glance around the room. They were sitting in the main salon of the villa, at a table in the corner. "I'd suggest selling one of your marvelous tapestries," he muttered, "except—"
"We don't have any."
Antonina's smile turned into a very cheerful grin. She shook her head.
"I should stop teasing you. I'm ashamed of myself. The fact is, my dear John, that money is no longer a problem. I have acquired a new financial backer for our project."
She reached down and hauled up a sack. Hauled. The table clumped when she set it down.
John's eyes widened. Antonina, still grinning, seized the bottom of the sack and upended it. A small torrent of gold coins spilled across the table.
"Freshly minted, I hope you notice," she said gaily.
John ogled the pile. It was not the coins themselves which held his gaze, however. It was his knowledge of what lay behind them.
Power. Raw power.
Since the reign of the emperors Valentinian and Valens, gold coin—the solidus, inaugurated by Constantine the Great, which had been Rome's stable currency for two centuries—were minted very exclusively.
There were many legal mints in the Roman Empire. Big ones, in Thessalonica and Nicomedia, and a number of small ones in other cities. But they were restricted to issuing silver and copper coinage. By law, only the emperor minted gold coin. In Constantinople, at the Great Palace itself.
"You told Theodora," he stated.
"Was that wise?" he asked. There was no accusation in the question, simply curiosity.
Antonina shrugged. "I think so. Under the circumstances, I didn't have much choice. I became deeply embroiled in imperial intrigue while I was in Constantinople. The reason Irene didn't come back with me is because she's now—in fact if not in theory—Theodora's spymaster."
John eyed her with deep interest.
"Yes. They're developing some kind of treacherous plot, John. So far all we know is—" She broke off. "Never mind. It's a long tale, and I don't want to have to tell it twice in the same day. Anthony, Michael and Sittas will be coming for dinner tonight. Maurice and Hermogenes will be there, too. They're also both involved, now. I'll explain everything then."
She reached out a hand and began scooping the coins back into the sack. "Anyway, I think telling Theodora was necessary. And the right thing to do, for that matter. We'll know soon enough. She'll be coming here later this summer. For a full tour of the project."
"What?" cried John. "This summer?" He leapt to his feet. Waved his arms angrily. "Impossible! Impossible! I won't have anything ready by then! Impossible!" He began stumping back and forth furiously. "Crazed women! No sense of reality—none at all. Impossible. The gunpowder's still too unpredictable. The grenades are untested. Rockets aren't even that!"
Stump, stump, stump.
"Lunatic females. Think chemistry's like baking bread. There's something wrong with the way the powder burns, I know there is. Need to experiment with different ways of mixing the stuff."
Stump, stump, stump.
"Idiot girls. Maybe grind it, if I can figure out how to do it without blowing myself up. Maybe wet it first, that's an idea. What the hell, can't hurt."
Stump, stump, stump.
"Hell it can't! That moron Eusebius could blow up anything. Blow up a frigging pile of cow dung, you don't watch him. Careless as a woman."
Stump, stump, stump.
The early hours of the evening, before and during the meal, were primarily devoted to Procopius. It was not difficult. From months of practice, Antonina had developed the craft of Procopius-baiting to a fine art.
In truth, her expertise was largely wasted. By now, Procopius was so well-trained that literally anything would serve the purpose. Like a yoked and blinkered mule pulling a capstan, he could see nothing before him but the well-trod path. Antonina had but to remark on a fine horse—Procopius would scribble on the infamy of bestialism. Chat with a peasant housewife—a treatise on the ancient sin of Sappho was the sure result. Place her son in her lap—ah! splendid!—Procopius would burn his lamp through the night, producing a veritable treatise on pedophilia and incest.
So, her sultry glances at the men about the table, her veiled remarks, her giddy laughter, her sly innuendos—even the joke about four soldiers and a pair of holy men being more than any woman could handle at one sitting—giggle, giggle—were a complete waste of effort. She could have been alone at the table, in the cold light of dawn, eating her meal in silence. By mid-morning, Procopius would be assuring anyone who listened that the harlot masturbated at breakfast.
Soon enough, Procopius left the table and retired to his chamber. There was no need for Antonina to send him away on some pretext. The man was fairly bursting with anxiety to reach his quill.
"God, I am sick of that man," snarled Sittas. For a moment, the general looked like he was going to spit out his wine. But only for a moment. He reconsidered, swallowed, poured himself a new goblet.
"Is this absolutely necessary?" growled Michael of Macedonia.
Antonina made a face. But before she could reply, Bishop Cassian spoke. Harshly:
"Yes, Michael, it is. That foul creature—though he's too stupid to know it—is Malwa's chief spy on Antonina. He's the aqueduct which brings them the water of knowledge. Except that Antonina has seen to it that the aqueduct is actually a sewer, piping nothing but filth into their reservoirs." He smiled. It was quite a wicked smile, actually, for a bishop. Almost devilish. "We're not having a meeting here, plotting against Malwa. We're having an orgy!"
Then, with a sly smile: "Is it your reputation which frets you so?"
The Macedonian glared. "All reputation is folly," he pronounced. "Folly—"
"—fed by pride, which is worse still," concluded the Bishop. His smile widened. "Really, Michael, you must develop a broader repertoire of proverbs."
Antonina cleared her throat.
"As I was saying . . ."
"You weren't saying anything, Antonina," pointed out Cassian reasonably. "So I saw no reason not to idle away the time by a harmless—"
"Stop picking on Michael," grumbled Maurice. "He's done wonders with the local lads, and their wives and parents. Even the village elders aren't howling louder than a medium-sized storm at sea."
"Well, of course he has!" exclaimed Cassian cheerfully. "He's a holy man. Must be good for something."
Antonina headed off the gathering storm.
"Tell me, Michael," she said forcefully. "What is your assessment? Michael?"
The Macedonian broke off his (quite futile) attempt to glower down the bishop.
"Excuse me, Antonina? I didn't catch that."
"The peasants," she stated. "What is your assessment?"
Michael waved his hand. It was not an airy gesture. Rather the opposite. So might a stone punctuate solidity.
"There will be no problem. None."
"More than that," added Maurice. "A good number of them, I think, would jump at the chance to join a new regiment." He eyed John of Rhodes. "Assuming there's something for them to do beside drive sheep at the enemy."
John didn't rise to the bait.
"Stop worrying, Maurice. You get your new regiment put together, I'll have weapons for them. Grenades, at the very least."
"No rockets?" asked Hermogenes.
John winced. "Wouldn't count on it. The damned things are trickier to make than I thought." He drained his cup, poured himself another. Then, grumbling:
"The problem, actually, isn't making them. I've got a good twenty rockets piled up in the workshed. Every one of them'll fly, too, and blow up quite spectacularly. The problem is that there's no telling where."
Another wince. "I had one rocket—this is the bare truth—the damned thing actually flew in a circle and almost took our heads off."
"How do the Malwa aim them?" asked Sittas. "There must be a way."
John shrugged. "I don't know. I've tried everything I can think of. Fired them through tubes. Put vanes on them—even feathers! Nothing works. Some go more or less straight, most don't, and I can't for the life of me figure out any rhyme or reason behind it."
Maurice slapped the table with the flat of his hand. "So let's not worry about it," he urged. "When the general gets back from India—"
"If—" murmured John.
"—when he gets back," drove on Maurice, "I'm sure he'll be able to tell us the secret of aiming rockets. In the meantime, let's stick to grenades. Those'll be more than enough to keep a new regiment of peasant recruits busy."
"Maurice has an idea," announced Sittas. The general beamed. "Marvelous idea, I think! And you know me—I generally look on new ideas about the same way I look on cow dung."
"What is it?" asked Antonina.
Maurice rubbed his scalp. The gesture was one of his few affectations. The hair on that scalp was iron grey, but it was still as full as it had been when he was a boy.
"I got to thinking. The problem with grenades is that you want to be able to heave them a fair distance before they blow up. Then, you face a tradeoff between distance and effectiveness. A man with a good arm can toss a grenade fairly far—but only if it's so small it doesn't do much good when it lands. If he tries to throw a big grenade, he has to get well within bow range to do it." The veteran shrugged. "Under most battle conditions, my cataphracts would turn him into a pincushion before he got off more than one. I have to assume that the enemy could do as well. Persians could, for sure."
"So what's your solution?" asked John. "Scorpions?"
Maurice shook his head. "No. Mind you, I'm all for developing grenade artillery. Wouldn't be hard at all to adapt a stone-throwing scorpion for that purpose. But that's artillery. Fine in its place, but it's no substitute for infantry."
Hermogenes smiled. He was one of the few modern Roman generals who specialized in infantry warfare. Belisarius himself had groomed the young officer, and urged him in that direction.
"Or cavalry," grumbled Sittas. This general, on the other hand, was passionately devoted to the cataphract traditions.
"Forget cavalry," said Maurice. "These lads are peasants pure and simple, Sittas. Syrian peasants, to boot. Thracian and Illyrian peasants have some familiarity with horses, but these boys have none at all. You know as well as I do they'd never make decent horsemen. Not in the time we've got."
Sittas nodded, quite magnanimously. The honor of the cavalry having been sustained, he would not argue the point further.
"And that's the key," stated Maurice. "I tried to figure out the best way to combine Syrian peasants and grenades, starting with the strengths and limitations of both. The answer was obvious."
Silence. John exploded.
"Well—out with it, then!"
"Slings. And slingstaffs."
John frowned. "Slings?" He started to argue—more out of ingrained habit than anything else—but fell silent.
"Hmm." He quaffed his wine. "Hmm."
Antonina grinned. "What's the matter, John? Don't tell me you haven't got an instant opinion?"
The naval officer grimaced.
"Alas—no. Truth is, much as I hate to admit it, I don't know anything about slings. Never use the silly things in naval combat."
"You wouldn't call them silly things if you'd ever faced Balearic slingers on a battlefield," growled Maurice. Hermogenes and Sittas nodded vigorously.
"But these aren't Balearic slingers, Maurice," demurred Antonina. "The islanders are famous—have been for centuries. These are just farm boys."
Maurice shrugged. "So what? Every one of those peasants—especially the shepherds—has been using a sling since he was a boy. Sure, they're not professionals like the Balearic islanders, but that doesn't matter for our needs. The only real difference between a Balearic mercenary slinger and a peasant lad is accuracy. That matters when you're slinging iron bullets. It doesn't—not much, anyway—when you're hurling grenades."
John started to get excited, then. "You know—you're right! How far could one of these Syrian boys toss a grenade?"
Maurice fluttered the stubby fingers of one thick hand.
"Depends. Show me the grenade you're talking about, and I'll give you a close answer. Roughly? As far as an average archer, with a sling. With a slingstaff, as far as a cataphract or a Persian."
"Cavalry'd make mincemeat out of them," stated Sittas.
Maurice nodded. "Alone, yes. Good cavalry, anyway, that didn't panic at the first barrage. They'd rout the grenade slingers—"
"Call them grenadiers," interjected John. "Got more dignity."
"Grenadiers, then." He paused, ruminated; then: "Grenadiers. I like that!"
Hermogenes nodded vigorously.
"A special name'll give the men morale," the young general stated. "I like it too. In fact, I think it's essential."
Sittas mused: "So we'll need cavalry on the flanks—"
"Need a solid infantry bulwark, too," interjected Hermogenes.
Maurice nodded. "Yes, that too. There's nothing magical about grenades. In the right combination—used the right way—"
Hermogenes: "A phalanx, maybe."
Sittas: "Damned nonsense! Phalanxes are as obsolete as eating on a couch. No, no, Hermogenes, it's the old republican maniples you want to look at. I think—"
Bishop Cassian turned to Antonina.
"May I suggest we leave these gentlemen to their play, my dear? I predict that within a minute the discussion will be too technical for us to follow, anyway. And I'm dying to hear all about your exploits in Constantinople."
Antonina rose, smiling. "Let's repair to the salon, then."
She looked at Michael.
"Will you join us?"
The monk shook his head.
"I suspect that your own discussion with Anthony will soon be as technical as that of these gentlemen," he said ruefully. "I'm afraid that I would be of no more use in plotting palace intrigues than I am in calculating military tactics and formations."
Sittas happened to overhear the remark.
"What's the matter, Michael?" A teasing grin came to his face. "Surely you're not suggesting that the eternal soul has no place in the mundane world?"
The monk gazed on the general like a just-fed eagle gazes on a mouse. Current interest, mild.
"You and yours," he said softly, "will bring to the battle weapons and tactics. Antonina and Anthony, and theirs, will bring to the battle knowledge of the enemy. But in the end, Sittas, it will come to this. All the gifts you bring will be as nothing, unless the peasant boy to whom you give them has a soul which can face Satan in the storm."
"I will give you that peasant."
On his way out, Michael bestowed a considering look upon Sittas. Like a just-fed eagle considers a mouse. Future prospects, excellent.
"Always a bad idea, baiting a holy man," murmured Maurice.
"It's true," he insisted, in the face of Sittas' glare. He drained his cup. "Ask any peasant."
The next morning, the two generals accompanied John of Rhodes out to the training field, eager to experiment with the grenades. Maurice was waiting there for them, with a dozen peasant volunteers. The Syrians were quite nervous, in the beginning. Even after their prowess at grenade-hurling earned them the praise of the generals, the young men were abashed in the company of such noble folk.
Soon enough, however, Michael of Macedonia made his appearance. He said nothing, neither to the generals nor to the peasants. But it was amusing, to Maurice, to watch the way in which the monk's presence transformed the Syrian boys. Into young eaglets, in the presence of giant mice.
By mid-afternoon, the eaglets were arguing freely with the giant mice.
Not over tactics, of course, or military formations. (Although the Syrians did have some valuable advice on the practical realities of slinging grenades. Most of it concerned the pragmatics of fuses, and their length.) The young men were not foolish. Uneducated and illiterate, yes. Stupid, no. They did not presume to understand the art of war better than such men as Sittas and Hermogenes. (Or, especially—they had their own peasant view of such things—Maurice.)
But they had quite strong opinions on the question of barracks, and the nature of military camps.
Their children would not like barracks, though they would probably enjoy the tent life of camps. Their wives would like neither, but would tolerate the camps. They were simple women. Practical.
Barracks, however, simply wouldn't do. No privacy. Immodest. Their wives were simple women, but decent. They were not camp followers.
They wanted huts. Each family its own hut. (A tent, of course, would do for the route camps.)
The generals explained the absurdity of such an arrangement. Violation of military tradition.
The peasants explained the absurdity of military tradition.
In the end, while a monk watched—smiling, smiling—young peasants disciplined generals.
In a different way, another clash of wills was taking place in the villa.
"It is much too dangerous, Antonina," insisted the bishop. "I thought so last night, and I feel even more strongly about it today." He pushed his plate of food away. "Look!" he said accusingly. "I've even lost my appetite."
Antonina smiled, studying his rotund form. As modest and plain-living as Bishop Cassian undoubtedly was, no-one had ever mistaken him for an ascetic. Not, at least, when it came to meals.
She shrugged. "It could be, yes. Not for the moment, however. I assure you, Anthony, the last thing the Malwa will do is harm me. I'm their pride and joy. The very apple of their eye."
Cassian stared stubbornly at his uneaten lunch. Antonina sighed.
"Can't you understand, Anthony? After Ajatasutra `trapped' me—quite a trap, too!—what with me being overheard by two deacons crying out for the death of Justinian!—they had me in a vise. As they see it. They're squeezing for all it's worth. Before I left Constantinople, they got from me every detail of the Hippodrome factions' internal politics."
She broke off for a moment, grimacing.
"I still don't know why they're so fascinated by that subject. Mother of God, it's all I ever heard about from my father, growing up. This Blue did this and that Green did that, and those Blues are so many clowns but keep your eyes out for that set of Greens."
She threw up her hands with exasperation.
"I even had to track down some of my father's old cronies—the ones I could find in Constantinople, at any rate—in order to bring my knowledge of the factions up to date. God in Heaven, what a sorry lot of ruffians!"
"Were they pleased to see you again?" asked Cassian mildly. "After all this time?"
Antonina looked startled. Then she grinned, quite merrily.
"To tell the truth, they fawned all over me. Local girl makes good, comes back to visit the home folks. I hadn't realized how famous Belisarius has become among those circles."
She shrugged. "So, in the end, I was able to give Balban every detail of the doings of the Hippodrome factions. And I still don't know why the Malwa—"
"I don't think it's so odd, Antonina," interrupted Cassian. "There must be twenty or thirty thousand of those bravos in Constantinople. Not an insignificant military force, potentially."
"Hippodrome thugs? Be serious, Anthony. Oh, to be sure, they're a rough enough crowd in the streets. But against cataphracts? Besides, they're about evenly divided between the Blues and the Greens. More likely to whip on each other than do any Malwa bidding."
The bishop rubbed two fingers together, in the ancient gesture for coin.
Antonina cocked her head quizzically.
"That's Irene's opinion, too. But I think she's overestimating the strength of the factions, even if the Malwa can unite them with bribes." She shook her head. "Enough of that. At least now the Malwa are demanding some sensible secrets from me. By the time I get back to Constantinople, a few months from now, I'm to provide them with a detailed breakdown of all the military units in the east. All of them—not just here in Syria, but in Palestine as well. Even Egypt." She grinned. "Or else."
Cassian stared at her, still unsmiling. Antonina's grin faded away.
"It's that `or else' you're worried about, isn't it?"
Cassian took a deep breath, exhaled. "Actually, no. At least, not much."
He rose from the table and began pacing slowly about the dining room.
"I'm afraid you don't really grasp my fear, Antonina. I agree with you about the Malwa, as it happens. For now, at least, they will do you no harm at all."
Antonina frowned. "Then what—"
It was Anthony's turn to throw up his hands with exasperation.
"Can you possibly be so naive? There are not simply Malwa involved in this plot, woman! There are Romans, also. And they have their own axes to grind—grind against each other's blades, often enough."
He stepped to the table, planted his pudgy hands firmly, and leaned over.
"You have placed yourself in a maelstrom, Antonina. Between Scylla and Charybdis—and a multitude of other monsters!—all of whom are plotting as much against their conspirators as they are against the Roman Empire." He thrust himself back upright. "You have no idea where the blade might come from, my dear. No idea at all. You see only the Malwa. And only the face they turn toward you."
Antonina stared grimly back at him. Unyielding.
"And so? I understand your point, Anthony. But I say again—so?"
Her shrug was enough to break the Bishop's heart. It was not a woman's shrug, but the gesture of a veteran.
"That's war, Cassian. You do the best you can against the enemy, knowing he fully intends to return the favor. One of you wins, one of you loses. Dies, usually."
A thin smile came to her face.
"Belisarius—Maurice, too, I think my husband got it from him—has a saying about it. He calls it the First Law of Battle. Every battle plan gets fucked up—pardon my language, Bishop—as soon as the enemy arrives. That why he's called the enemy."
Cassian stroked his beard. There was weariness in the gesture, but some humor also.
"Crude, crude," he murmured. "Altogether coarse. Refined theologians would express the matter differently. Every sound doctrine gets contradicted, as soon as the other dogmatists arrive at the council. That's why they're called the heretics."
Finally, he smiled.
"Very well, Antonina. I cannot stop you, in any event. I will give you all the assistance which I can."
He resumed his seat. Then, after staring at his plate for a moment, pulled it back before him and began eating with his usual gusto.
"Won't be much, when it comes to military matters and Hippodrome factions." He waved his knife cheerfully. "Church conspirators, on the other hand—and there'll be plenty of them, be sure of it!—are a different matter altogether."
He speared two dates.
"Glycerius of Chalcedon and George Barsymes, is it?"
The dates disappeared as if by magic. He skewered a pear.
"Rufinus Namatianus, Bishop of Ravenna," he mumbled thoughtfully, his mouth full of shredding fruit. "Know'm well."
The last piece of pear sped down his throat, like a child down the gullet of an ogre.
"Babes in the woods," he belched.
After the generals returned, at sundown, Antonina listened to their ranting and raving for half an hour. Tact and diplomacy, she thought, required as much.
Then she made her ruling.
"Of course they won't live in barracks. The idea's absurd. These men aren't conscripts, gentlemen. They're volunteers—established farmers, with families. They marry early here, and start raising children by the time they're fifteen. Younger, the girls."
The generals gobbled. John of Rhodes began to stump. Antonina examined them curiously.
"What did you expect? Did you think these men would abandon their families—just to be your grenade-tossers?"
Gobbling ceased. Generals stared at other. A naval officer stumbled in his stumping.
"You didn't think."
Snort. "Sometimes I agree with Theodora. Men."
Sittas leveled his finest glare upon her. The boar in full fury.
"You'll not be making any royal decrees here, young woman!"
"I most certainly will," replied Antonina, quite sweetly. "I'm the paymaster, remember?"
She cocked her head at John of Rhodes. "Are you done with your stumping?"
The naval officer pouted. Antonina reached to the floor, hauled up a sack, clumped it on the table.
"Hire workmen, John. Better yet—pay the peasants themselves. The lads are handy with their hands. They'll have the huts up in no time, and they'll be the happier for having made their own new homes."
From the doorway came Michael's voice:
"They'll be wanting a chapel, too. Nothing fancy, of course."
The generals, cowed by the woman, transferred their outrage to the monk.
The Macedonian stared back. Like a just-fed eagle stares at chittering mice.
Contest of wills, laughable.
Back | Next
Back | Next
Summer 530 AD
From the south bank of the Jamuna, Belisarius gazed at the temple rising from the very edge of the river on the opposite bank. It was sundown, and the last rays of the setting sun bathed the temple in golden glory. He was too distant to discern the details of the multitude of figurines carved into the tiered steps of the temple, but he did not fail to appreciate the beauty of the structure as a whole.
"What a magnificent temple," he murmured. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Menander's lips tighten in disapproval.
For a moment, he thought to let it go, but then decided it was a fine opportunity to advance the young cataphract's education.
"What's the matter, Menander?" he queried, cocking an eyebrow. "Does my admiration for heathen idolatry offend you?"
The words were spoken in a mild and pleasant tone, but Menander flushed with embarassment.
"It's not my place—" he began, but Belisarius cut him off.
"Of course it is, lad. You're required to obey my orders as your commander. You are not required to agree with my theological opinions. So, spit it out." He pointed to the temple. "What do you think of it? How can you deny its splendor?"
Menander frowned. The expression was one of thought, not disapproval. He did not respond immediately, however. He and Belisarius had dismounted upon reaching the river, in order to drink its water, and their horses were still assuaging their thirst. Idly, he stroked the neck of his horse for a few seconds, before saying:
"I can't deny that it's a beautifully made edifice, general. I just wish it had been made for some different purpose."
Belisarius shrugged. "For what? Christian worship? That would be better, of course, to be sure. Unfortunately, Christian missionaries have only begun to penetrate this far into India's interior." With an smile of irony: "And all of them, alas, are Nestorian heretics. Not much better than outright heathens. According to most orthodox churchmen, at least."
He turned, so as to face Menander squarely.
"In the meantime, India's millions grope their own way toward God. That"—pointing again to the temple—"is the proof of it. Would you rather they ignored God altogether?"
Menander's frown deepened. "No," he said softly, after a moment. "I just—" He hesitated, sighed, shrugged.
"I've seen Dadaji praying in your tent, many times. And I don't doubt his sincerity, or his devotion. I just—" Another shrug, expressing a fatalistic acceptance of reality.
"Wish he were praying to the Christian God?"
Belisarius looked back to the temple. Now, he shrugged himself. But his was a cheerful shrug, expressing more of wonder than of resignation.
"So do I, Menander, come down to it. But I can't say I lose any sleep over the matter. Dadaji's is a true and pure soul. I do not think God will reject it, when the time comes."
The general glanced toward the west. The lower rim of the sun was almost touching the horizon.
"We'd best head back," he said. "I'd hoped to get a glimpse of Kausambi before nightfall, but I can see that we're still a few miles away from the outskirts."
He and Menander mounted their horses and rode away from the river. As they headed back toward their camp, Menander said:
"I thought you were orthodox, sir." The youth's brow was furrowed in thought. Then, realizing that his statement might be construed amiss, Menander began to apologize. But his general dismissed the apology with a wave of the hand.
"I am orthodox." Then, a crooked smile. "I suppose. I was raised so, as Thracians are. And it is the creed to which I have always subscribed."
He hesitated. "It is hard to explain. I do not care much for such things, Menander. My wife, whom I love above all others in this world, is not orthodox. For the sake of my reputation, she disguises her creed, but she inclines to Monophysitism, as do most Egyptians. Am I to believe that she is condemned to eternal hellfire?"
He glanced at Menander. The young cataphract winced. If anything, Menander was even more adoring of Antonina than were most of the bucellarii.
Belisarius shook his head. "I think not. Not by the Christ I worship. And it is not simply she, Menander. I am a general, and I have led soldiers into battle who believed in every heresy, even Arians, and watched them die bravely. And held them in my arms as they died, listening to their last prayers. Were those men predestined for damnation? I think not."
His jaws tightened. "My indifference to creed goes deeper than that. Years ago, in my first command—I was only eighteen years old—I matched wits with a Persarmenian commander named Varanes. His forces were small, as were mine, and our combat was prolonged over weeks. A thing of maneuver and feint, as much as battle. He was a magnificent commander, and taxed me to the utmost."
He took a deep breath. "An honorable and gallant foe, as well. As Medeans often are. Once I was forced to abandon three of my men. They were too badly wounded to move, and Varanes had caught me in a trap from which I had to extricate myself immediately or suffer total defeat. When he came upon them, Varanes saw to it that they were well cared for."
He looked away. For a moment, the usual calm of his face seemed to waver. But not for long, and Belisarius resumed his tale. Menander was listening with rapt attention.
"I discovered the fact after I defeated Varanes. I trapped him myself, finally, and overran his camp. My three men were still there. One of them had died in the meantime, from his wounds, but it was through no fault of the Persians. The other two were safe, thanks to Varanes. Varanes himself was mortally wounded, from a lance-thrust to the groin. It took him hours to die, and I spent those hours with him. I attempted to comfort him as best I could, but the wound was terrible. It must have been pure agony for him, but he bore it well. He even joked with me, and we passed the time discussing, among other things, our relative assessment of our previous weeks in combat. He had had the upper hand, through most of it, but I had learned quickly. He predicted a great future for me."
Belisarius paused for a moment, guiding his horse through a narrowing of the trail. Within a few seconds, they passed through the final line of trees which bordered the river. Now in more open country, the general resumed his tale.
"By the time he finally died, night had fallen. He was a Zoroastrian, as most Persians, a fire-worshipper. He asked me to make a fire for him, so that he might die looking into the face of his god. I did so, and willingly. A churchman, most churchmen at least, would have denounced me for that act of impiety. The Zoroastrian, a churchman would have no doubt explained, was soon enough going to get fire aplenty in the pit of eternal damnation. But I did not think Varanes was so destined. I did not think so then. I do not think so now."
Menander, watching his general, was struck by the sudden coldness in his gaze. Belisarius' brown eyes were normally quite warm, except in battle. Even in battle, those eyes were not cold. Simply—calm, detached, observant.
The customary warmth returned within a few seconds, however. Musingly, Belisarius added:
"I tried to explain to Rao, once, as best I could, the subtleties of the Trinity." He waved his hand. "Not in this world, but in the world of my vision."
Menander, already fascinated with his general's unwontedly intimate tale, now became totally absorbed. He knew of that vision, which had come to Belisarius from the "jewel" which Bishop Cassian had brought to him the year before in Aleppo. Belisarius had told him the tale, along with the other Romans and the Ethiopians, while they were still at sea.
Menander glanced at the general's chest. Beneath the half-armor and the tunic, there was nothing to see. But the young cataphract knew that the Talisman of God was there, nestled in a little pouch which Belisarius always carried suspended from his neck. Menander had even seen it himself, for Belisarius had showed it to them all, in the cramped confines of their cabin in the Malwa embassy vessel which had brought them to India. He had been dazzled, then, by the mystic splendor of the Talisman. He was dazzled, now, by the memory.
Belisarius suddenly laughed.
"Rao listened to my explanation, quite patiently," he continued. "But it was obvious he thought it was child's babble. Then he told me that his own faith believed there were three hundred and thirty million gods and goddesses, all of whom, in one way or another, were simply manifestations of God himself."
Belisarius smiled his crooked smile. "No doubt that man is doomed. But I will tell you this, Menander: I would rather stand with Raghunath Rao in the Pit than with the Patriarch Ephraim in Heaven."
Belisarius spoke no further during the rest of their ride back to their camp. Menander, also, was silent, grappling with thoughts which were new to him, and which went far beyond the simple preachings of his village priest.
They reached the grove within which the Romans and Ethiopians had pitched their camp. Still preoccupied, Menander gave only cursory attention to the task of guiding his horse through the trees. But once they broke through into the clearing at the center of the grove, all thoughts of theology vanished.
"There's trouble, Menander," said his general softly.
The moment Belisarius rode into the little clearing, he knew something was amiss. Ezana and Wahsi were both standing guard in front of Prince Eon's pavilion. Normally, only one or the other assumed that duty at any given time. What was even more noticeable was that two sarwen were actually standing guard. Usually, the sarwen on duty relaxed on a stool. There was no reason not to. For many weeks, now, the Romans and Ethiopians had been guarded by their Kushan escorts, a troop of over thirty men who were consummate professionals in their trade—and particularly expert at maintaining security.
There was obvious tension in the pose of the Ethiopian soldiers. They weren't just standing—they were standing alertly, poised, and ready.
Quickly, Belisarius scanned the clearing. The lighting was poor. Dusk was almost a memory, now, only a faint tinge of dark purple on the horizon. The sun itself had disappeared, and what little daylight still remained was blocked off by the trees surrounding the camp. For all practical purposes, the only illumination in the clearing was that cast by lanterns hanging from tent poles.
His next glance was toward the two Roman tents, situated not far from Prince Eon's large pavilion. Both Valentinian and Anastasius, he noted, were standing in front of them. Much like the sarwen—alert, poised, tense.
Next, he stared across the clearing to the line of tents which marked the Kushan part of the encampment. Normally, at this time of the evening, the Kushans would have been busy preparing their evening meal. Instead, they were gathered in small clusters, murmuring quietly, casting quick glances at Prince Eon's pavilion and—most of all—at the figure of their own commander.
Belisarius now examined Kungas. The Kushan commander was standing alone. As always—now more than ever, it seemed to Belisarius—his face appeared to have been hammered out of an iron ingot. Kanishka, his nephew and second-in-command, stood not far away. From what little Belisarius could discern of his features, the young Kushan lieutenant seemed distressed.
Kungas met his gaze. The Kushan said nothing, and there was not the slightest movement in that iron mask of a face. But Belisarius did not miss the almost imperceptible shrug of his shoulders.
He knew what had happened, then. The sight of Garmat emerging from Eon's pavilion and hurrying toward him simply confirmed the knowledge.
"All good things come to an end," he sighed, dismounting from his horse. By the time Garmat reached him, Menander was leading both of the horses away.
"We have a problem, Belisarius," said Garmat urgently. "A very big problem."
Belisarius smiled crookedly. "It couldn't last forever, Garmat. The Kushans are not stupid. To a point, of course, they will obey Kungas and ask no questions. But only to a point."
He gave the Kushans another glance.
"What happened?" he asked.
Garmat shrugged. "You can hardly expect vigorous young people like Eon and Shakuntala—royalty, to boot—to share a tent, week after week, with no opportunity for exercise or even movement, without—"
He sighed. Belisarius nodded.
Garmat smiled, faintly. "Oh, yes. A royal quarrel! What started it, I have no idea. They don't even remember themselves, now. But soon enough, Eon became overbearing and the Princess—the Empress, I should say—challenged him to single combat. Unarmed combat, of course. If he used weapons, she told him, he would be damned for eternity as a coward."
For all the seriousness of the moment, Belisarius could not help bursting into laughter. The image which came to his mind was incongruously funny. Eon, Prince of Axum, was not a tall man. But he was amazingly well-muscled, and as strong as a bull. Whereas Shakuntala was a small girl, not half his weight.
She had been trained to fight with her bare hands and feet by Raghunath Rao himself. Raghunath Rao, the Panther of Majarashtra. The Wind of the Great Country. India's most deadly assassin, among many other things.
He shook his head with amusement.
"I wonder how it would have turned out. They did not actually come to blows, I hope?"
Garmat shook his head. "They are young and impetuous, but they are not insane. I gather that Shakuntala's challenge produced a sudden change of atmosphere in the tent. By the time I entered, they were exchanging profuse apologies and vows of good will."
He tugged his beard. "Unfortunately, in the brief moments before that change of atmosphere, the environs of their pavilion were filled with the sound of loud and angry voices. And Shakuntala has quite a distinctive voice, you know, especially when raised in anger." Grudgingly, even admiringly: "A very imperial voice, in fact."
Belisarius scratched his chin. "The Kushans heard her," he announced.
Garmat nodded. Belisarius glanced at the Kushan soldiers again. They were still clustered in little knots, but, to his relief, they did not give the appearance of men on the verge of leaping into action.
That momentary relief, however, cleared the way for another concern. Belisarius scanned the woods surrounding the clearing.
As always, whenever possible, Belisarius had made their camp within a grove of trees. He had explained that preference to the Malwa, casually, as a matter of the comfort which the trees provided from the blistering sun of India. The Malwa, for their part, had made no objection. They were happy enough, for their own reasons, to see the foreigners secluded. Privately, the Malwa thought the outlanders were idiots. True, trees provided shade. But a good pavilion did as much, and trees also stifled the breeze and were a haven for obnoxious insects.
The Malwa had also thought, happily, that trees would provide a haven for spies.
As Belisarius watched, Ousanas appeared from the edge of the trees and padded into the clearing. The hunter was casually wiping blood from the huge blade of his spear.
No Malwa spies now, thought Belisarius. His lips quirked into that distinctive, crooked smile.
Ousanas was a slave, of sorts. Of a very, very odd sort. The tall African was not Ethiopian. Like the Axumites, his skin was black. But Ousanas' broad features had not a trace of the aquiline characteristics which distinguished those of most Ethiopians. He came from a land between great lakes which was—so Belisarius had been told—some considerable distance south of the Kingdom of Axum. He was the personal slave of Prince Eon—his dawazz, as the Axumites called his position. An adviser, of a sort. A very, very odd sort.
When Ousanas reached Belisarius, he nodded curtly. The general noted that the hunter's usual beaming grin was entirely absent.
"No spies now," said Ousanas softly. He jerked his head toward the tent.
"Let us go in," he growled. "I must advise fool boy."
Ousanas stalked toward the pavilion entrance, Garmat trailing in his wake like a remora trailing a shark. Belisarius felt a moment's pity for the young prince. The dawazz, when he felt it appropriate, was given to stern measures.
Again, Belisarius quickly scanned the clearing. His own three cataphracts were now fully armed and armored, and their expressions were every bit as grim as those of the sarwen. Belisarius caught the eye of Valentinian and made a subtle motion with his hands. Valentinian relaxed slightly and muttered something to Anastasius and Menander. The cataphracts maintained their watchfulness, but they eased away from their former tension.
Belisarius now concentrated his attention on the Kushans, gauging their mood. The Malwa vassals were also armed, and obviously tense. But they too seemed willing to allow the situation to unfold before taking any decisive steps. They were angry, true—so much was obvious. Angry at their commander, for the most part, Belisarius thought. But they were also confused, and uncertain. Kungas was their commander, after all, and it was a position which he had earned on a hundred battlefields. And, too, they were all related by blood. Members of the same clan, banded together in service to the Malwa overlords. An unhappy and thankless service.
Hard years had taught the Kushans to trust themselves alone, and, most of all, to trust their commander. Such habits cannot be overcome in an instant. Belisarius gauged, and pondered the angles, and made his decision. As always, the decision was quick. He strode across the clearing and planted himself before the Kushans.
"Wait," he commanded. "I must go into the pavilion. Make no decisions until I return."
The Kushans stiffened. The Roman general's words had been spoken in fluent Kushan. They knew his command of their language was good, but now it was perfect and unaccented. A few of them cast glances toward the trees.
Belisarius smiled—broadly, not crookedly.
"There are no spies. Not any more."
The Kushans had also seen Ousanas emerge from the woods. And, if they did not know of the African's extraordinary skill as a hunter, they had never misunderstood the easy manner in which he handled the huge spear which was his everpresent companion. Imperceptibly, they began to relax. Just a bit.
Belisarius glanced at Kungas. The Kushan commander nodded slightly. The Roman general wheeled and headed toward the pavilion. As he turned, he caught sight of Dadaji Holkar standing near the pavilion. Though middle-aged, and unarmed, and a slave, the man was obviously prepared to help defend the pavilion against assault.
Belisarius did not smile, but he felt a great affection surge into his heart.
"Come," he commanded, as he strode by Holkar. "I suspect you already know the truth, but you may as well see for yourself."
As they entered the pavilion, Ousanas was just warming to his subject.
"—be forced to tell negusa nagast he do better to drown his fool boy in the sea and beget another. Dakuen Sarwe be furious with me! Beat me for failing in my duty. But I bear up under the regiment's savage blows with great cheer! Knowing I finally rid of hopeless task of teaching frog-level intelligence to worm-brained prince."
"No attack him!" snapped Shakuntala. "Was my wrongdoing!"
The girl spoke in Ge'ez, as had Ousanas. Her command of the language of the Axumites was still poor, heavily accented and broken, but she understood enough to have followed Ousanas' tirade.
The young woman was sitting crosslegged on a plush cushion to one side of the pavilion. Her posture was stiff and erect. For all her youth, and her small size, she exuded a tremendous imperial dignity.
Ousanas scowled. He was not impressed by royalty. Axumites in general, and Ousanas in particular, shared none of the Indian awe of rulership. Ousanas himself was a dawazz, assigned the specific task of instructing a prince in the simple truth that the difference between a king and a slave was not so great. A matter of luck, in its origin; and brains, in its maintenance.
The dawazz switched to Hindi, which was the common language used by all in the pavilion.
"Next time, Empress," he growled, "do not challenge cretin prince to combat. Simply pounce upon him like lioness and beat him senseless. Fool girl!"
Ousanas shook his head sadly. "True, royalty stupid by nature. But this! This not stupidity! This—this—" He groaned woefully. "There is no word for this! Not even in Greek, language of philosophy, which has words for every silliness known to man."
Eon, squatting on his own cushion, raised his bowed head. The young prince—at nineteen, he was but a year or so older than Shakuntala—attempted to regain some measure of his own royal dignity.
"Stop speaking pidgin!" he commanded.
Belisarius fought down a grin. He knew Ousanas' rejoinder even before the dawazz spoke the words.
Not speaking pidgin. Speaking baby talk. All fool prince can understand!
When Belisarius had first met Ousanas, the year before in Constantinople, the African had spoken nothing but a bizarre, broken argot. Ousanas had maintained that manner of speech for months, until the alliance which Belisarius sought between Romans and Ethiopians had finally gelled, following a battle with pirates in the Erythrean Sea. Then—at the Prince's command—Ousanas had stopped pretending he spoke only pidgin Greek. The Romans had been astonished to discover that the outlandish African was an extraordinary linguist, who spoke any number of languages fluently. Especially Greek, which was a language Ousanas treasured, for he was fond of philosophical discourse and debate—to Anastasius' great pleasure and the despair of his other companions.
Ousanas now launched into a savage elaboration of the ontological distinction between ignorance and stupidity.
"—ignorance can be fixed. Stupid is forever. Consider, fool boy, the fate of—"
"Enough," commanded Belisarius.
Ousanas clamped his jaws shut. Then:
"I was just warming to my subject," he complained sourly.
"Yes, I know. Save it for another time, Ousanas. The Kushans will not wait that long."
The general jerked his head toward the pavilion entrance.
"We have to solve this problem. Quickly."
Eon suddenly blew out his cheeks. His massive shoulders hunched.
"What do they know?" he asked. He was looking at no one in particular.
"They know that Shakuntala is here, in this tent. Tonight." The adviser squatted himself, now, and stared at his Prince from a distance of a few feet.
"That is all that they know," he continued. "But they are not stupid. They will also understand that she must have been with us ever since the massacre at Venandakatra's palace at Gwalior. They will understand that she did not flee with Raghunath Rao. They will understand that Rao led the Malwa on a merry chase while the Empress herself was smuggled into your entourage. And that we have hidden her ever since."
He sighed. "And, most of all, they will now understand the reason why Kungas told them to pester our women these past weeks. Pester them, but not seriously. Just enough to trigger off phony brawls with our cataphracts and sarwen. Brawls which accidentally mangled some spies, and led the survivors to report that our escorts are every bit as salacious as Venandakatra had been led to believe."
Garmat glanced at Belisarius, shrugged.
"As I said, the Kushans are not stupid. By now, they will have heard that the reason they were withdrawn as Shakuntala's guards was because Venandakatra feared their lustfulness. And so he replaced them with mahamimamsa. Who fell like sheep when Rao entered the palace and rescued the Empress."
The adviser stroked his beard. "So they will suspect that Belisarius engineered the entire thing from the very beginning. Although"—here he smiled—"they probably do not know that Belisarius gave Rao the very dagger which he used to carve up the torturers."
"In other words," grumbled Ousanas, "they know everything."
"Yes," stated Belisarius. "And, worst of all—it is obvious from looking at them—they know that their own commander must have been part of this scheme. In some sense, at least. They have no love for the Malwa, but they are still sworn to their service. Now they find they have been betrayed, by their own leader. If the Malwa discover the Empress now, their own lives will be forfeit."
The general took a deep breath. "Unless they immediately recapture her, and hand Shakuntala back to their overlords."
"They would have to turn over Kungas as well!" protested Eon. "The Malwa would never believe Kungas had not spotted Shakuntala."
Belisarius nodded. "Yes, I'm sure they understand that also. And that is why they hesitate."
He glanced toward the pavilion entrance again.
"They will hesitate for a while. But not for all that long. Those men are soldiers. The best of soldiers. Accustomed to hard and quick decisions. And accustomed to stern necessity, and to the realities of a bitter world. So we must somehow figure out—"
"Bring them into the pavilion. All of them. Now."
Belisarius started. Not even the Roman Emperor Justinian—not even the Empress Theodora—could match that tone of command. That incredibly imperial voice.
He stared at the girl. Shakuntala was very beautiful, in her exotic and dark-skinned way. But, at that moment, it was not a girl's beauty, but the beauty of an ancient statue.
And that's the key, he mused. Justinian and Theodora, for all their power, were lowborn. How many emperors of Rome, over the centuries, could trace their ancestry back to royalty more than a generation or two? None. Whereas the Satavahana dynasty which ruled Andhra—
"Great Andhra," he said aloud. "Broken Andhra, now. But even the fierce bedouin of the desert are awed by the broken sphinx."
Shakuntala stared up at him. The general scratched his chin.
"Are you certain of this course, Empress?" he asked. He glanced at the others in the pavilion. From the puzzled frowns on their faces, it was obvious that only Belisarius had discerned Shakuntala's purpose. He was not surprised. Her proposed move was bold almost beyond belief.
She nodded firmly. "There is no other course possible, Belisarius. And besides—"
She took a deep breath. Regality blazed.
"—it is the only course open to the honor of Andhra. Any other would be foulness."
She made a short, chopping gesture. "Let the Malwa rule so. I will not."
The frowns surrounding the Empress and the general were deepening by the second. No others in the pavilion, it was obvious, had any understanding of what she was planning.
Belisarius smiled crookedly and bowed.
"As you command, Empress."
He turned toward the entrance. Then, struck by a thought, turned back. His smile was now very crooked. "And there is this much, also. We will learn if Rao's favorite saying is really true."
A moment later Belisarius was pulling back the flap of the pavilion. As he stooped to make his exit, he caught sight of Ousanas. The tall African was gaping. Not to Belisarius' surprise, Ousanas was the first to deduce the truth. The gape disappeared; the familiar grin erupted.
"Truly, Greeks are mad!" exclaimed the dawazz. "It is the inevitable result of too much time spent pondering on the soul."
Belisarius grinned and exited the tent. As the flap closed behind him, he heard Ousanas' next words.
"Such foolish nonsense—this business about only the soul matters, in the end. Idiot mysticism from a crazed Maratha bandit. No, no, it's all quite otherwise, my good people, I assure you. As Plato so clearly explained, it is the eternal and unchanging Forms which—"
"Ousanas—shut up!" barked the Prince. "What in hell is going on?"
When Belisarius reentered the pavilion, leading the Kushans, he saw that Shakuntala had taken firm command of the situation. Garmat and Eon were sitting on cushions placed to one side. Standing behind them were Ezana and Wahsi. The two sarwen were carrying their spears, but were carefully holding them in the position of formal rest. It was obvious, from their gloomy expressions, that all the Axumites thought Shakuntala's plan—agreed to by Belisarius!—was utterly insane. But events had moved too quickly for them, and they were hopelessly ensnared in her madness.
To the general's surprise, the Maratha women were not huddling in fear in a corner of the pavilion. They were kneeling in a row, on cushions placed just behind Shakuntala, who had positioned herself in the central and commanding position in the large pavilion.
Belisarius was struck by the calm composure of the Maratha girls. As much as anything, the confident serenity of those young faces, as they gazed upon their even younger Empress, brought Belisarius his own measure of confidence. He glanced at Ousanas, standing in the nearest corner of the pavilion, and saw by his faint smile that the hunter shared that confidence.
Not so many weeks ago, those girls had been slaves. Of lowborn caste and then, after the Malwa conquest of Andhra, forced into prostitution. The Roman and Axumite soldiers had purchased them in Bharakuccha, partly for the pleasure of their company, but mostly to advance Belisarius' scheme for rescuing Shakuntala.
At first, the girls had been timid. Over time, as they learned that the foreigners' brutal appearance was not matched by brutal behavior, the Maratha girls had relaxed. But, once they finally realized the full scope of the scheme into which they had been plunged, they had been practically paralyzed with terror. Until Shakuntala had rallied them, and pronounced them her new royal ladies-in-waiting, and pledged that she herself would share their fate, whatever that fate might be.
He glanced now at Dadaji Holkar. The Maratha was also seated near the Empress, just to her left. He was still clad in the simple loincloth of a slave, but there was nothing of the slave in his posture and his expression. The shrewd intelligence in his face, usually disguised by his stooped posture, was now evident for all to see. The man positively exuded the aura of a highly placed, trusted imperial adviser. And if the aura went poorly with the loincloth, so much the worse for the loincloth. Indians, too, like Romans, had a place in their culture for the ascetic sage.
Calm, confident, serene faces. The Kushans, as they filed into the tent, caught sight of those faces and found their eyes drawn toward them. As Shakuntala had planned, Belisarius knew. The young Empress had marshaled all her resources, few as they were, to project the image of a ruler rather than a refugee. It was a fiction, but—not a sham. Not a sham at all.
By the time all the Kushans filed in, even the huge pavilion was crowded. Then, when the cataphracts followed, Belisarius thought the pavilion might burst at the seams.
Shakuntala took charge.
"Sit," she commanded. "All of you except Ousanas."
She looked at Ousanas. "Search the woods. Make certain there are no spies."
The dawazz grinned. The order was utterly redundant, of course. He had already seen to the task. But he knew Shakuntala was simply seeking to calm the Kushans. So he obeyed instantly and without complaint. On his way out of the pavilion, he whispered to Belisarius: "Envy me, Roman. I, at least, will be able to breathe."
The Kushans were still standing, uncertain.
"Sit," commanded Shakuntala. Within three seconds, all had obeyed. But, as they made to do so, She spoke again.
"Kungas—sit here." Shakuntala pointed imperiously to one of two cushions placed not far from her own, diagonally to her right. Remembering the seating arrangement in the Malwa emperor's pavilion, Belisarius realized this was the Indian way of honoring those close to the throne.
She pointed to the other cushion. "Kanishka—there."
The Kushan commander and his lieutenant did as she bade them.
After all the Kushans were sitting on the carpeted floor of the pavilion, Shakuntala gazed upon them for a long moment without speaking. The warriors stared back at her. They knew her face well, of course. It had been they who had rescued Shakuntala from the Ye-tai savaging the royal palace during the sack of Amaravati. They who had brought her to Venandakatra's palace at Gwalior, where she was destined to become the Malwa lord's new concubine. They who had served as her captors and guardians during the long months they waited for Venandakatra's return from his mission to Constantinople.
Yet, for all the familiarity of those months in her company, most of them were now gaping. Surprise, partly, at seeing her again in such unexpected circumstances. But, mostly, with surprise at how different she seemed. This was no captive girl—proud and defiant, true, but riddled with despair for all that. This was—what? Or who?
The moment was critical, Belisarius knew. There had been no time to discuss anything with her. He feared that, in her youthful uncertainty, she would make the mistake of explaining the situation. Of trying to convince the Kushans.
The Empress Shakuntala, heir of ancient Satavahana, rightful ruler of great Andhra, began to speak. And Belisarius realized he might as well have fretted over the sun rising.
"Soon I will return to Andhra," announced Shakuntala. "My purpose here is almost finished. When I return, I shall rebuild the empire of my ancestors. I shall restore its glory. I shall cast down the Mahaveda abomination and erase from human memory their mahamimamsa curs. I shall rebuild the viharas and restore the stupas. Again, I shall make Andhra the blessed center of Hindu learning and Buddhist worship."
She paused. The black-eyed Pearl of the Satavahanas, she was often called. Now, her eyes glowed like coals.
"But first, I must destroy the Malwa Empire. To this I devote my life and my sacred soul. This is my dharma, my duty, and my destiny. I will make Malwa howl."
Again, a pause. The black fury in her eyes softened.
"Already, Raghunath Rao is making his way back to the Great Country. The Wind will roar across Majarashtra. He will raise a new army from the hills and the villages, and the great towns. He is the new commander of Andhra's army."
She allowed the Kushans time to digest her words. The men sitting before her were elite soldiers, hardened veterans. They knew Raghunath Rao. Like all Indians, they knew him by reputation. But, unlike most, their knowledge was more intimate. They had seen the carnage at the palace in Gwalior, after the Panther of Majarashtra had raged through it.
Shakuntala watched pride square their shoulders. She treasured that pride. She was counting on that pride. Yes, the Kushan soldiers knew Rao, and respected him deeply. But their pride came from the knowledge that he had respected them as well. For Rao had not tried to rescue the princess while they had guarded her. He had waited, until they had been replaced by—
Shakuntala watched the contempt twisting their lips. She treasured that contempt. She was counting on that contempt. The Kushans, today, were elite soldiers in the service of the Malwa Empire. But they were also the descendants of those fierce nomads who had erupted out of central Asia, centuries before, and had conquered all of Bactria and Sogdiana and northern India. Conquered it, ruled it—and, as they adopted civilization and the Buddhist faith, ruled it very well indeed. Until the Ye-tai came, and the Malwa, and reduced them to vassalage.
For a long moment, Shakuntala and the Kushans stared at each other. Watching, from the back of the pavilion, Belisarius was struck by the growing warmth of that mutual regard. She, and they, had spent many months in close proximity. And if, during that long and painful captivity, there had been no friendship between them, there had always been respect. A respect which, over time, had become unspoken admiration.
Now, thought Belisarius.
As if she had read his mind, Shakuntala spoke.
"Rao will raise my army. But I will need another force as well. I, too, will need to tread a dangerous path. I will need an imperial bodyguard, to protect me while I restore Andhra."
She looked away. Said, softly:
"I have given much thought to this matter. I have considered many possibilities. But, always, my thoughts return to one place, and one place only."
She looked back upon them.
"I can think of no better men to serve as my bodyguard than those who rescued me from the Ye-tai and guarded me so well during all the months at Gwalior."
Behind him, Belisarius heard Menander's shocked whisper: "My God! She's crazy!"
"Bullshit," hissed Valentinian. "She's read them perfectly."
And then Anastasius, his rumbling voice filled with philosophical satisfaction: "Never forget, lad—only the soul matters, in the end."
One of the Kushans seated in the middle of the front row now spoke. Belisarius did not know the man's name, but he recognized him as a leader of the Kushan common soldiers. The equivalent of a Roman decarch.
"We must know this, princess. Did—"
"She is not a princess!" snapped one of the Maratha women kneeling behind Shakuntala. Ahilyabai was her name. "She is the Empress of Andhra!"
The Kushan soldier tightened his jaws. Shakuntala raised her hand in an abrupt gesture of command.
"Be still, Ahilyabai! My title does not matter to this man."
She leaned forward, fixing the Kushan with her black-eyed gaze. "His name is Kujulo, and I know him well. If Kujolo chooses to give me his loyalty, my title will never matter to him. Whether I sit on the throne in rebuilt Amaravati, or crouch behind the battlements of a Maratha hillfort under siege, Kujulo's sword will always come between me and Malwa."
The soldier's tight jaws relaxed. His shoulders spread wider. He stared back at the Empress for a moment and then bowed his head deeply.
"Ask what you will, Kujulo," said Shakuntala.
The Kushan soldier raised his head. Anger returned to his eyes, and he pointed to Kungas.
"We have been played for fools," he growled. "Was our commander a part of that trickery?"
Shakuntala's response was immediate. "No. This is the first time Kungas has been in my presence since you were removed as my guards at Gwalior. I have never spoken to him since that day." Her voice grew harsh. "But what is the purpose of this question, Kujulo? You have not been played for fools. The Malwa have been the ones played for fools. And not by me, but by the world's supreme trickster—the foreign General Belisarius."
All the Kushans stirred, turning their heads. Belisarius took that for his cue, and moved forward to stand before them.
"Kungas has never been a part of our plot," he said firmly. "Nor any other Kushan soldier."
He smiled, then, and the Kushans who saw that odd familiar smile suddenly understood just how crooked it truly was.
"Actually," he continued, "the trickery was needed because of you. There was no way for Rao to rescue the princess so long as you stood guard over her. Even for him, that task was impossible."
He paused, letting the pride of that knowledge sweep the Kushans. Like Shakuntala, he knew full well that their own self-respect was the key to winning these men.
"So I convinced Venandakatra—or so I am told; I was very drunk that night, and remember little of our conversation—that Kushans were the most depraved men walking the earth. Satyrs, the lot of them, with a particular talent for seducing young virgins."
A little laugh rippled through the Kushans.
"Apparently, my words reached receptive ears." The general scratched his chin. "I fear Lord Venandakatra is perhaps too willing to believe the worst of other men. It might be better to say, to assume that other men are shaped in his own mold."
A much louder laugh filled the pavilion. A cheerful laugh, at the folly of a great lord. A bitter laugh, for that lord was not called the Vile One by accident.
Belisarius shrugged. "The rest you know. You were unceremoniously dismissed as Shakuntala's guards, and replaced by Mahaveda priests and mahamimamsa torturers. It was they who faced the Panther of Majarashtra when he stalked through the palace."
All trace of humor vanished. Now, the Roman general's face seemed every bit as hard as the iron face of Kungas. "The dagger which the Panther used to spill the lives of those Malwa beasts came from my own country. An excellent dagger, made by our finest craftsmen. I brought it with me to India, and saw to it that it found its way into Rao's hands."
His face softened, slightly, with a trace of its usual humor returning. "The Malwa, as we planned, thought that the Empress had fled with Rao. And so they sent thousands of Rajputs beating about the countryside. But Rao was alone, and so was able to elude them. We knew the Empress would not have the skill to do so. So, as we had planned, Rao left her behind in the palace, hidden in a closet in the guest quarters. When we arrived, two days later, we hid her among Prince Eon's concubines."
He looked down at Kungas. The Kushan commander returned his stare with no expression on his face.
"Kungas knew nothing of this, no more than any of you. It is true, on the day we left Gwalior for Ranapur, I believe that he recognized the Empress as we were smuggling her into Prince Eon's howdah. I am not certain, however, for he said nothing to me nor I to him. Nor have we ever spoken on the matter since. But I believe that he did recognize her. And, for his own reasons, chose to remain silent."
Kujulo stared at his commander. "Is this true?" he demanded.
Kungas nodded. "Yes. It is exactly as the Roman says. I knew nothing about their scheme. But I did recognize Shakuntala. On the day we left Gwalior for Ranapur, just as he says."
"Why did you remain silent?" demanded Kujulo.
"That question you may not ask," replied Kungas. His tone, if possible, was even harder than his face. "You may question my actions, Kujulo, and demand an accounting of them. But you may not question me."
Kujulo shrank back, slightly. All the Kushans seemed to shrink.
Kungas dismissed the question with a curt chop. "Besides, it is a stupid question. Your decision tonight may be different, Kujulo. But do not pretend you don't understand my own. If you really need to ask that question, you are no kinsman of mine." His iron eyes swept the Kushans. "Any of you."
A little sigh swept the pavilion. Suddenly, one of the Kushan soldiers toward the rear barked a little laugh.
"And why not?" he demanded. "I am sick of the Malwa. Sick of their arrogance, and the barks of Ye-tai dogs, and the sneers of Rajputs."
Another Kushan grunted his agreement. A third said, softly: "We are destined to die, anyway. Better to die an honored imperial bodyguard than a Malwa beast of burden."
"I'll have none of that talk," growled Kungas. "There is no destiny. There is only the edge of a good blade, and the skill of the man wielding it."
Quietly, at that moment, Ousanas reentered the pavilion. He was just in time to hear Kujulo's remark.
"And the brains of the man commanding the soldiers!" The Kushan laughed, then, in genuine good humor. Looking at the Empress, he nodded toward Belisarius.
"This man, I take it, is one of your allies, Empress." Kujulo paused, took a breath, made his decision.
"One of our allies, now." A quick, collective exhalation indicated that all the Kushan soldiers accepted the decision. Kujulo continued:
"He's a great schemer and trickster, that's for certain. But trickery will only take us so far. Is he good for anything else?"
Shakuntala reared up haughtily. In the corner of his eye, Belisarius saw his own cataphracts stiffen with anger. He began to say something, but then, seeing Ousanas saunter forward, relaxed.
"Kushan soldier very great fool," remarked the dawazz cheerfully. "Probably asks pigeons how to eat meat, and crocodiles how to fly."
The African hunter planted himself before Kujulo, gazing down at the Kushan soldier. Kujulo craned his neck, returning the gaze. Anger at Ousanas' ridicule began to cloud his face.
"Why ask this question from the Empress of Andhra?" demanded Ousanas. "What she know of such things? Better to ask the Persians who survived Mindouos."
Anger faded, replaced by interest. Kujulo glanced at Belisarius.
"He has defeated Medes?" Like all warriors from central Asia, who had clashed with the Persian empire for centuries, Kujulo held Persian heavy cavalry in deep respect.
"Routed an entire army of the bastards!" snarled Valentinian from the back of the pavilion. "Just last year!"
"You might ask the Goths for their opinion, too, while you're at it," rumbled Anastasius. "He's whipped the barbarians so many times they finally asked him to be their king. Couldn't figure out any other way to beat him." The giant Thracian yawned. "He refused. No challenge to it, he said."
Kujulo eyed the Roman general with keen interest. He had never heard of Goths, but he had faced other barbarians in battle.
"So," he mused. "We are now the imperial bodyguard of the Satavahana dynasty. With nothing but Raghunath Rao as the general of a nonexistent army and this Belisarius as an ally."
Kujulo grinned. In that wolf's grin, at that moment, centuries of civilization vanished. The warrior of the steppes shone forth.
"Pity the poor Malwa!" exclaimed one of the other Kushan soldiers.
Kujulo's grin widened still.
"Better yet," he countered, "let us pity them not at all."
Back | Next
Back | Next
Exactly two weeks after Belisarius arrived at the capital of Kausambi, the Malwa finally met his price. All things considered, Belisarius was pleased with himself. As treason went, he thought he had driven a hard bargain. Especially for a novice.
Nanda Lal thought so too.
"You are as bad as a horse trader," chuckled the Malwa official. His Greek was excellent. Only the slightest trace of an accent and the extreme precision of his grammar indicated that he was not a native to the language. He chuckled again. "Are you certain you are really a general?"
Belisarius nodded. "I've been a soldier my entire adult life. But I was raised in the countryside, you know. Peasants are natural born hagglers."
Nanda Lal laughed. And a very open, hearty laugh it was, too. Belisarius was impressed. He thought he had never met a better liar in his entire life than Nanda Lal. Nor one whose inner soul was so far at variance with his outer trappings.
Officially, Nanda Lal bore many titles.
He was, first, one of the anvaya-prapta sachivya. The phrase translated, approximately, as "acquirer of the post of minister by hereditary descent." It indicated that Nanda Lal belonged to that most exclusive of Malwa elites, those who were blood kin of the Emperor and were thus entitled to call themselves part of the Malwa dynasty. No man in the Malwa Empire who was not anvaya-prapta sachivya could hope to rise to any of the very highest official posts, military or civilian.
Second, Nanda Lal was a Mantrin—a high counselor—and thus sat on the Empire's central advisory body to Emperor Skandagupta, the Mantri-parishad. True, Nanda Lal was one of the junior members of that council—what the Malwa called a Kumaramatya, a "cadet-minister"—but his status was still among the most exalted in all of India.
Third, Nanda Lal occupied the specific post which the Malwa called the Akshapatal-adhikrita. The title roughly translated into the innocuous-sounding phrase, "the Lord Keeper of State Documents."
What he really was, was a spy. It might be better to say, the spy. Or, better still, the grand spymaster.
Nanda Lal's laugh died away. After a last, rueful shake of his head, he asked:
"So, general, tell me. What did you think? I am quite curious, really. I was only joking, you know—about the horse trader business." Another little hearty chuckle. "Only a general would have demanded a tour of inspection of our military facilities before he gave his allegiance to our cause. In addition, of course, to a fortune." Hearty chuckle. "Another fortune, I should say." Hearty chuckle. "That was quite nicely done, by the way, if you'll permit me saying so." Hearty chuckle. "That little casual wave. `Oh, something simple. Like the other chest you gave me.' "
Belisarius shrugged. "It seemed the most straightforward thing to do. And I wanted to know—well, let's just say that I'm sick to death of stingy, tight-fisted emperors, who expect miracles for a handful of coins. As to your question—what did I think?—"
Before answering, Belisarius examined the room carefully. He was not looking for eavesdroppers. He had not the slightest doubt they were there. He was simply interested.
Nanda Lal's official quarters, by Malwa standards, were positively austere. And Belisarius had noted, earlier, that Nanda Lal had brewed and served the tea they were drinking with his own hands. No servants were allowed in his inner sanctum.
Capable hands, thought Belisarius, glancing at them. Like most members of the dynastic clan, Nanda Lal was heavyset. But the spymaster's squat form had none of the doughy-soft appearance of most anvaya-prapta sachivya. There was quite a bit of muscle there, Belisarius suspected. And he did not doubt that Nanda Lal's hands were good at other tasks than brewing tea. For all their immaculate, manicured perfection, they were the hands of a strangler, not a scribe.
"I was very impressed," he replied. "Especially by the scale of the cannon manufacturing, and the ammunition works. You are—we are—amassing a tremendous weight of firepower to throw into battle."
He fell silent, scratching his chin thoughtfully.
"But—?" queried Nanda Lal.
"You haven't given enough thought to logistics," said Belisarius forcefully. "There's an old soldier's saying, Nanda Lal: Amateurs study tactics; professionals study logistics. The Veda weapons, whatever their origin—and you will please notice that I do not ask—are not truly magical. Even with them, it still took you two years to recapture Ranapur. You should have done it much sooner."
Nanda Lal seemed genuinely interested, now.
"Really? Let me ask you, general—how long would it have taken you to reduce Ranapur?"
"Eight months," came the instant reply, "without cannon. With them—four months."
The Malwa official's eyes widened.
"So quickly? What did we do wrong?"
"Two things. First, as I said, your logistics are lousy. You substitute mass labor for skill and expertise. You need to develop a professional quartermaster corps, instead of—" He did not sneer, quite. "Instead of piling up tens of thousands of men on top of each other. If you were to study the Ranapur campaign, I'm sure you'd find that most of that absurd pile of provisions simply went to feed the men who amassed it."
Belisarius leaned forward in his chair. "And that leads me to my second criticism. Your armies are much too slow, and—well, I won't say timid, exactly. Your soldiers seem courageous enough, especially the Ye-tai and Rajputs. But they are used timidly."
Nanda Lal's eyes held equal amounts of interest and suspicion.
"And you would use them better?" he asked. "If we made you our high commander?"
Belisarius did not miss the veiled antagonism. Suspicion came as naturally to Nanda Lal as swimming to a fish.
The Roman general dismissed the notion with a curt flip of his hand.
"Why ask, Nanda Lal? We have already agreed that I can best serve by returning to Rome. I will encourage Justinian's ambition to reconquer the western Mediterranean, and make sure that his armies are tied up there for years. That will clear the way for you to invade Persia without hindrance."
"And after Persia?"
Belisarius shrugged. "That is a problem for the future. When war finally erupts between Malwa and Rome, I will have to openly change allegiance. When that time comes, you will decide what position in your army to give me. I am not concerned with the question, at the moment. It is still several years away."
The suspicion faded from Nanda Lal's eyes. Abruptly, the Malwa official rose.
"I will give careful consideration to the points which you raise, general. But, for the moment, I think we can leave off this discussion."
Belisarius rose himself, stretching his limbs. Then said, with a rueful smile, "I don't suppose we're done for the day, by any chance?"
Nanda Lal's headshake was as rueful as Belisarius' smile.
"I'm afraid not. It's still early in the afternoon, general. There are at least four officials who have insisted on meeting you today. And then, this evening, we have an important social visit to make."
Belisarius cocked his eyebrow. Nanda Lal's shrug was an exquisite display of exasperation, resignation, carefully suppressed irritation. The accompanying smile exuded a sense of comradeship-in-travail.
"The Great Lady Holi—you have heard of her, perhaps?"
Belisarius shook his head.
"Ah! Well, she is the Emperor's favorite aunt. Quite a formidable woman, despite her age. For days, now, she has been demanding to meet you. She is fascinated, it seems, by all the tales concerning this mysterious foreign general."
Nanda Lal took Belisarius by the elbow and began ushering him toward the door. His smile broadened.
"Her main interest, I suspect, stems from your reputed appearance. She is immensely fond of the company of young, handsome men."
Seeing Belisarius' slight start, Nanda Lal laughed.
"Have no fear, general! The woman is almost seventy years old. And she is quite the ascetic, actually. I assure you, she just likes to look."
Nanda Lal opened the door. With his own hands, as always. No servants were allowed in those quarters. He followed Belisarius into the corridor beyond.
After locking the door—it was the only door in the palace, so far as Belisarius had seen, which had a lock—Nanda Lal led the way down the wide hall.
"Anyway, she has been pestering the Emperor for days. Finally, he tired of it. So, this morning, just before your arrival, he instructed me to take you to Great Lady Holi this evening, after we were finished."
Belisarius sighed. Nanda Lal grimaced.
"I understand, general. But, please, be of good cheer. We will not be there long, I assure you. A few minutes to pay our respects, a casual chat, no more."
Belisarius squared his shoulders with resignation.
"As you wish, Nanda Lal. She is in the palace?"
Nanda Lal made another rueful headshake.
"Alas, I fear not. She dislikes the palace. She claims it is too noisy and crowded. So she makes her dwelling on a barge moored in the river."
Hearty chuckle. "It is not as bad as all that! You wouldn't want to miss Great Lady Holi's barge, before you leave. It is quite a marvel, really it is. The most splendiferous barge in all creation!"
"I can't wait," muttered Belisarius. They were now passing by the main entrance to the Grand Palace. The general stopped Nanda Lal with a hand on his arm. "Give me a moment, if you would, to notify my cataphracts of our plans. There's no need for them to stand outside in that hot sun for the rest of the day."
Nanda Lal nodded graciously. Belisarius strode through the palace doors into the courtyard beyond. As always, the three cataphracts were waiting just outside the main entrance to the Grand Palace. Their horses, and that of Belisarius, were tethered nearby.
Since the first day of their arrival at Kausambi, when Belisarius had begun his protracted negotiations with the Mantri-parishad, he had ordered the cataphracts to remain outside. To have taken them with him, wherever he went in the palace, would have indicated a certain skittishness which would be quite inappropriate for a man cheerfully planning treason. And, besides, the cataphracts would have inevitably cast a pall on his negotiations. Many of the anvaya-prapta sachivya who inhabited the palace had been present in the pavilion when the lord of Ranapur and his family were executed. And those who weren't, had heard the tale. It would have been amusing, of course, to watch the highest of Malwa cringe in the presence of Valentinian. Amusing, but counter-productive.
Quickly, Belisarius sketched the situation and told his cataphracts to go back to their residence. Valentinian put up a bit of an argument, but not much. More in the nature of a formality, than anything else. They were supposed to be bodyguards, after all. But Belisarius insisted, and his men were happy enough to climb on their horses and return to the comfort—and shade—of their luxurious quarters.
"That's all of it, Your Majesty," said Holkar. He tied the drawstring of the bag tightly, and nestled it into a pocket of silk cloth in the small chest. Then he closed the lid of the chest and stood up. For a moment, he examined his handiwork admiringly, and then scanned the rest of the room.
Since arriving at Kausambi, the Romans and Ethiopians had been quartered in a mansion located in the imperial district of the capital. The imperial district stretched along the south bank of the Jamuna, just west of that river's junction with the mighty Ganges. The Emperor's Grand Palace anchored the eastern end of the district. The mansion lay toward the western end, not far from the flotilla of luxurious barges which served the Malwa elite as temporary residences during the summer. The waters of the Jamuna in which that fleet was anchored helped assuage the heat.
Stretching in a great arc just south of the imperial district was the heart of the Malwa weapons and munitions project, a great complex of cannon, rocket and gunpowder manufactories. The odors wafting from that complex were often obnoxious, but the Malwa elite tolerated the discomfort for the sake of security. The "Veda weapons" were the core of their power, and they kept them close at hand.
The mansion in which the foreigners had been lodged belonged to one of Skandagupta's innumerable second cousins, absent on imperial assignment in Bihar. The building was almost a small palace. There had been more than enough rooms to quarter the entire Kushan escort within its walls, in addition to the foreign envoys themselves. And, best of all, for Shakuntala and Eon, they had finally been able to spend a few nights alone.
Shakuntala, at least, had spent the nights alone in her bed. Dadaji glanced over at Tarabai, sitting on a cushion in the corner of Shakuntala's huge bedchamber. He restrained a smile. The Maratha woman had been almost inseparable from Eon since their arrival. Today, in fact, was the first day she had resumed her duties as an imperial lady-in-waiting.
If, at least, the activity of the day could be called the duty of a chambermaid. Holkar rather doubted it. Rarely—probably never—had an imperial lady-in-waiting spent an entire day helping her Empress count a fortune.
Holkar's eyes returned to the chest whose lid he had just closed. That chest was only one of many small chests which were strewn about Shakuntala's quarters. Those chests were much smaller than the chest which stood in the center of the room. That chest, that huge chest, dazzling in its intricate carvings and adorned with gold and rubies—the colors of the Malwa dynasty—was now completely empty.
Shakuntala shook her head. She almost seemed in a daze. When she spoke, her voice was half-filled with awe.
"I can't believe it," she whispered. "There was as much in that chest as—as—"
Dadaji smiled. "As the yearly income of a prince. A rich prince."
The scribe stroked his jaw. "Still, it's not really that much—for an imperial warchest."
Shakuntala was still shaking her head. "How will I ever repay Belisarius?" she mused.
Dadaji's smile broadened. "Have no fear, Your Majesty. The general does not expect to be repaid with coin, only with the blows you will deliver onto Malwa. Blows which this treasure will help to finance. How did he put it? `An empress without money is a political and military cripple. A crippled ally will not be much use to Rome.' "
Shakuntala left off shaking her head. After taking a deep breath, she sat up straight.
"He is right, of course. But—how many men do you know would turn over such a fortune to a stranger? And it wasn't just the last Malwa bribe, either."
"How many men?" asked Holkar. "Very few, Your Majesty. Very, very few." The slave laughed aloud. "And I know of only one who would do so with such glee!"
Shakuntala grinned herself, remembering Belisarius' cheerful words the previous evening, when he presented her with the chest which Nanda Lal had just bestowed on him—and half the contents of the first, the one Skandagupta gave him at Ranapur.
I like to think of it as poetic justice, the Roman general had said, smiling crookedly. Let the Malwa bribes finance Andhra's rebellion.
It had taken the entire day for Shakuntala, her Maratha women, and Holkar to repackage the coins and gems into smaller units which could be more easily transported. Most of the treasure was packed away in the many small chests. But some of it had been placed in purses which Shakuntala had distributed to all the members of her party.
The Maratha women, poor in their origins, had been absolutely stunned by her act. Each of them now carried on her person more money than their entire extended families had earned in generations of toil. Holkar glanced shrewdly at the four young women sitting in the corner. They had recovered from the shock, he thought. But if there had been any lingering doubt or hesitation in their allegiance to Shakuntala, it had now vanished. The trust of their Empress had welded them to her completely.
When Holkar's eyes returned to Shakuntala, he immediately understood the question in her face.
"There is no need, Your Majesty," he said, shaking his head. "My allegiance is still to Belisarius, even though you are my sovereign. If he wishes me to have money, he will give it to me. I cannot take it from another. And besides—" he gestured mockingly at his loincloth "—where would I hide it?"
Shakuntala began to reply, but was interrupted by a knock on the door.
Tarabai opened the door. Valentinian stepped into the room, accompanied by Eon. They walked over to Shakuntala.
"We may as well plan for an early supper," said Eon. The Prince gestured at Valentinian. "The cataphracts just arrived from the palace. Belisarius dismissed them for the rest of the day. It seems he won't be returning until late this evening. He has some social event he must attend."
The cataphract scowled. "These imperial Malwa are even worse than Greek nobility, when it comes to hobnobbing with celebrities. Bad enough he's got to waste hours with every third-rate bureaucrat in the Palace. Now, they're insisting he has to meet with old women."
Shakuntala frowned. "Old women? In the palace?"
Valentinian shook his head. "No, worse. They're dragging him off to some barge in the river to meet with one of the Emperor's elderly relatives. A great-aunt, I think."
Shakuntala grew still. Utterly still.
"What is her name?" she hissed.
Valentinian squinted at her, startled by her tone of voice.
"She's called the Great Lady Holi. Why?"
Shakuntala shot to her feet.
"She is a witch! A sorceress!"
Valentinian and Eon gaped at her. Shakuntala stamped her foot angrily.
"It is true, you fools!"
With an effort, the girl restrained herself. These were the type of men, she knew, for whom any hint of hysterics would be counterproductive.
"Believe me, Valentinian. Eon." Her voice was low and calm, but deadly serious. "My father spoke of her several times to me. His spies did not know much—it was dangerous to get near her—but they did learn enough to know that she is very powerful among the Malwa. Do not let her age deceive you. She—is—a—witch."
Valentinian was the first to recover.
"I'll get the others," he said, spinning around to the door.
Less than a minute later he was back, followed by all the members of the Roman and Axumite missions. He brought Kungas also.
Eon took charge.
"We have an unexpected situation, which we need to assess."
Quickly, the Prince sketched the situation. Then, to Kungas:
"Bring Kanishka. And Kujulo, and your other two troop leaders."
Kungas disappeared. Eon waved everyone else into the room.
"All of you. Come in and sit."
In the short seconds that it took for everyone to take a seat—most of them on the floor—Kungas returned with his four chief subordinates in tow. The five Kushans entered the room but did not bother to sit.
Eon began at once.
"You've all heard—" He hesitated, casting a glance at Kungas.
"I've told them," grunted the Kushan commander.
"You've all heard about the situation," continued Eon. "It may be a false alarm. But there's enough reason to think otherwise." He took a breath. "As you know, we hoped to make our exit from India quietly. Just a peaceful diplomatic mission heading back for home. But Belisarius always warned us that things could go wrong. That's why he insisted on obtaining those horses, and the elephants."
Another breath. A deep breath.
"Well, that time may be here. We have to assume that it is."
He scanned the room. Everyone's face was grim, but not distraught. Except, possibly, for Menander. The young cataphract's face was pale from fear. Not fear for himself, but for his general.
"Do you have a plan?" asked Anastasius.
Eon shrugged. "Belisarius discussed some possible alternatives. You heard them yourself. But none of those alternatives really apply, since Belisarius himself may not be able to join us. So we'll have to improvise."
He stared at Shakuntala.
"The first thing is to make sure she gets out safely. Kungas, you and your men will escort the Empress and her women."
The Kushans nodded.
Eon glanced around the room, examining the treasure chests. "Good. You're already prepared."
Anastasius interrupted. "They'll have to take the Kushan girls, too. If the general's in a trap, we'll need to make one hell of a diversion. We won't be able to do it with the girls in tow."
"That's not a problem," stated Kungas. "We can fit them in as camp followers. No one will think it odd."
Eon nodded his head. "All right. The rest of us—except Dadaji—will be the lure. Dadaji, you'll have to go with the Empress."
Eon drove down Holkar's protest.
"You are not thinking, man! Forget your obligation to Belisarius, and remember your obligation to his purpose. The only way to get Shakuntala out of here is by subterfuge. A young noblewoman would never travel through India unaccompanied. Someone has to pose as her husband. It can't be one of us. Only Valentinian looks enough like an Indian, and his accent is terrible. You're the only one who could pull it off."
Holkar opened his mouth, snapped it shut. Then, grudgingly, nodded. He even recaptured his sense of humor. "With your permission, Your Majesty."
Shakuntala nodded imperiously, but there was just a little trace of a smile on her lips.
"I'll need a change of clothes," murmured Holkar. "A loincloth simply won't do." He chuckled. "How fortunate that Belisarius made me buy those clothes! Is he a fortune-teller, do you think?"
Valentinian shook his head. "No. But he does like to plan for all eventualities. Cover all the angles."
"Such mechanistic nonsense," said Ousanas cheerfully. "The truth is quite otherwise. Belisarius is a witch himself. Fortunately, he is our witch."
Valentinian ignored the quip. "Anything else?" he demanded.
"Yes," said Kungas. "You will need a guide." He pointed to Kujulo. "Kujulo is very familiar with the Deccan, and his Marathi is fluent. Three or four other of my men are also. Take all of them with you. You will need the added manpower, anyway. Yours will be the bloody road."
Kujulo grinned. Eon frowned.
"We can't have any hint that Kushans are involved," he protested. "That could jeopardize the Empress."
Kungas waved the protest aside. "They can disguise themselves as Ye-tai. Kujulo does an excellent imitation."
Immediately, Kujulo stooped, thrust out his lower jaw, slumped his shoulders, allowed a vacant look to enter his gaze, grunted animal noises. A little laugh swept the room.
There was no time for hesitation. Eon nodded. Then said:
"Fine. That's it, then. Let's—"
The imperial tone froze everyone in the room. Eon began to glare at Shakuntala.
Valentinian tried. "Your Majesty, our plans—"
Before anyone else could speak, Shakuntala said forcefully:
"You are not thinking clearly. None of you."
Eon: "The general—"
"You are especially not thinking like the general."
Valentinian, hotly: "Of course we're thinking of him! But there's nothing—" The cataphract stopped abruptly. Shakuntala's actual words penetrated.
Her piercing black eyes, fixed upon him, held Valentinian pinned.
"Yes," she said. "You are not thinking like Belisarius. If he were faced with a sudden change in his situation, he would alter the situation. Add a new angle."
"What angle?" demanded Eon.
Shakuntala grinned. "We need another diversion. A great one! Something which can serve to signal all of us—we will be separated, remember—that the escape is on. A diversion so great it will not only help cover our own escape, but make it possible—maybe—for Belisarius himself to escape."
"I'm for it!" announced Menander. With a shrug: "Whatever it is."
Shakuntala told him what it was. When she finished, the room erupted with protests from everyone except Menander.
"I'm for it," repeated the young cataphract stubbornly.
"Fool girl is mad," muttered Ousanas. "I say it again—royalty stupid by nature."
Shakuntala overrode all protests with the simplest of arguments.
Protest, protest, protest.
Protest, protest, protest.
On the way out, Kanishka complained bitterly to his commander.
"How are we supposed to be an imperial bodyguard if the damned Empress herself—"
Kungas looked at him. As always, his face showed nothing. But there might have been just a trace of humor in his words:
"You could always go back to work for Venandakatra. He never took any personal risks."
Kanishka shut up.
As he and Nanda Lal walked out of the palace that evening, Belisarius found that a palanquin had already been brought up to convey them to the Great Lady Holi's barge. The palanquin was festooned with the red and gold pennants of the dynasty. The pennants alone guaranteed that all would give way to the palanquin, wherever it went in the teeming capital. But they were hardly necessary. The forty Ye-tai bodyguards who rode before the palanquin would cheerfully trample anyone so foolish as to get in the way. And the palanquin itself, toted by no less than twelve slaves, looked solid and heavy enough to crush an elephant.
"Quite an entourage," he murmured. "Does she really insist on so many bodyguards?"
Nanda Lal shook his head.
"As it happens, the Great Lady is petrified by armed strangers anywhere in the vicinity of her barge. She maintains her own special security force. She does not even trust the imperial bodyguard." The spymaster pointed to the red-and-gold uniformed Ye-tai. "Only four of these men will be allowed to remain after we arrive."
The journey to the barge was quite brief. The wharves where the Malwa empire's highest nobility maintained their pleasure barges were less than half a mile from the Grand Palace. Once they climbed out of the palanquin, Belisarius found himself almost goggling at the Great Lady Holi's barge.
As Nanda Lal had said, it was truly splendid. In its basic size and shape the barge was no different from that of all the Malwa luxury barges. About ninety feet long and thirty feet wide, the barges had a rounded and big-bellied shape. The oddest thing, to the Roman's eyes, were the double sterns, looking not unlike the sterns of two ships joined. Each stern sported a huge figurehead in the form of an animal's head. Lions, in the case of Great Lady Holi's barge.
The splendor was in the trimmings. Everywhere, the red and gold colors of the dynasty: The huge lion's-head figurines were covered with beaten gold. All the oarlocks were trimmed with gold. Rubies inlaid into gold plaques formed the edging of the guard rails. And on and on and on. It was amazing the boat didn't sink from the sheer weight of its decoration.
Belisarius followed Nanda Lal up the ramp which connected the barge to the wharf. The ramp debouched in a covered walkway which encircled the main cabins. Once aboard the vessel, Nanda Lal entered through a door directly opposite the ramp. A moment later, Belisarius found himself in the plush interior of the barge.
Aide's thought came like a thunderclap.
Belisarius almost stumbled.
Link is here. I can sense it.
The facets shivered with agitation. But the general simply smiled.
At last. My enemy.
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At the corner of the alley, Kungas made a little motion with his hand. The Kushan soldiers following him immediately halted. Kungas edged to the corner and peeked out onto the main street.
He was not worried about being spotted. At night, the streets of Kausambi were lit by lanterns, but the Malwa were stingy in their placement. As great as was the dynasty's wealth, it was not unlimited, and the massive armament campaign forced a stretching of funds elsewhere. The elite themselves did not worry about stumbling in the dark. They were borne everywhere on slave-toted palanquins, after all. And if the slaves should stumble, and discomfit their masters, what did it matter? After the slaves were impaled, new ones would replace them. Unlike street lanterns, slaves were cheap.
Satisfied, he turned away. The ten Kushans following him clustered closely, so that they could hear his whispered words.
"Two doors. The main door, almost directly across, is guarded by three Mahaveda. Fifty feet farther down is another door. Two Ye-tai."
"That'll be the guardhouse," whispered one of the Kushans. "A full squad of Ye-tai inside."
Kungas nodded. "Bring the Empress."
Another of the soldiers glided back down the alley. A minute later he returned, with Shakuntala and her Maratha women in tow.
Watching them approach, Kungas managed not to smile, though he found it a struggle. Some of his soldiers failed completely. Two of them were grinning outright. Fortunately, they had enough sense to turn their faces away.
Never in India's history, he thought wrily, has an Empress looked liked this.
Any trace of imperial regalia was gone, as if it had never existed. Shakuntala, and her ladies, were now costumed in the traditional garb of north Indian prostitutes. Their saris were not unusual, but the bright orange scarves which wrapped their waists were never worn by respectable women. And while poor women customarily walked barefoot, none but prostitutes wore those large, garish bangles attached to their ankles.
The bangles and scarves had been provided by Ahilyabai. The Maratha woman, it turned out, had kept them secreted away in her traveling pack. She had hoped never to use them again, but—who could know what life might bring? She and the other Maratha women had shown Shakuntala how to wear them.
Quickly, Kungas sketched the situation for the Empress. Shakuntala nodded.
"We will wait, then, for the signal. If it comes."
She glanced around, frowning.
"But what will we do if someone spots us in the meantime? We may be here for some time. We are still not sure if this escape will be necessary."
Kungas did smile, now. Very slightly.
"That's no problem at all, Your Majesty. In the darkness, it will simply look like a squad of soldiers entertaining themselves in an alley. No-one will think to investigate, not even Ye-tai. Soldiers get surly when they are interrupted in their sport."
"I'm getting awfully tired of that particular disguise," she muttered. But, in truth, there was no ill-humor in the remark. Watching her, Kungas thought the Empress was almost hoping the escape attempt would be necessary. She was as high-spirited as a racing horse, and whatever else, a desperate escape would at least bring relief from the endless weeks of immobility.
He turned away, partly to keep a watchful eye on the mouth of the alley. Mostly, however, he turned away because even Kungas could not suppress a grin, now.
Being the bodyguard to this Empress is going to be interesting. Like being a bodyguard for the monsoon.
In his own alley, a half mile to the northwest, Ousanas was also finding it hard not to grin. The Ye-tai guarding the Great Lady Holi's barge were, as usual, paying no attention to their duty. All four of them were engrossed in a quiet game of chance, rolling finger bones across the wood planks of the wharf. The bones themselves made little noise beyond a clattering rattle, but the Ye-tai grunts and hisses of triumph and dismay were audible for thirty yards.
Ousanas glanced up at the barge. Two Malwa stood guard at the head of the ramp which provided access to the barge. The Malwa guards, unlike the Ye-tai on the wharf below them, were lightly armored and bore only short swords. But the grenades suspended from their belts indicated their kshatriya status.
The kshatriyas were leaning against the rail of the barge, glaring down at the Ye-tai. Again, Ousanas fought down a grin. Like anyone who chooses to keep a wild animal for a pet, the Malwa were often exasperated by the Ye-tai. But, for all their obvious displeasure at the Ye-tai behavior, the kshatriyas made no attempt to stop the gambling. No more would a man try to stop his pet hyena from gnawing on a bone.
Ousanas moved back a little farther into the alley, hiding against the overhanging branches of a large bush. He was not worried about being spotted. The Malwa dynasty also did not waste money clearing wild shrubbery from the alleys of their capital. Why should they? They did not travel through alleys.
He hefted one of his javelins, gauging the throw. He had brought two of the weapons, along with his great stabbing spear. The blades of all three had been blackened with soot.
Again, Ousanas hefted the javelin. Yes, the range was good. If it proved necessary, he would use the javelins to deal with the kshatriyas on the barge. The stabbing spear he would save for the Ye-tai.
He did not even think about the two grenades which Menander had given him. To Ousanas, the grenades were simply signaling devices. They were far too impersonal for Ye-tai.
Elsewhere, a mile to the southwest, Menander was regretting the absence of his stolen grenades. As he watched the mass of Malwa common soldiers milling around the campfires where they were cooking their evening meal, he thought that a couple of well-placed grenades would do wonders.
But he said nothing. The grenades had been the only things they had which could give the signal, if the signal proved necessary. It had been Menander himself who had made the suggestion. And besides, the young cataphract didn't want to hear another lecture from Valentinian on the virtues of cold steel.
Menander turned his head and looked to his left. Valentinian was crouched behind a tree trunk, not four feet away. The veteran met his gaze, but said nothing. Menander looked to his right. He could not see Anastasius, but he knew the cataphract was there, hidden a little further down the line of trees which bordered the Malwa army camp. Ezana and Wahsi would be hiding near him, still farther down the line. Prince Eon would be somewhere near them.
Garmat was hidden in the trees also, but the adviser was further back. Despite his protests, the old brigand had been assigned the duty of holding the horses. He and Kadphises, the Kushan soldier who would serve as their guide if they had to make an escape. Somebody had to do it, after all. There were twenty of those horses, all of them high-spirited and tense. Garmat was the best horseman among them, Ezana had pointed out forcefully, and so the duty naturally fell to him. No one had mentioned the adviser's age, of course, but Garmat's glare had shown plainly what he thought of the arrangement.
Menander did not even try to spot Kujulo and the three Kushan soldiers with him. They would also, by now, have found their own hiding place in the trees. But that hiding place would be on the opposite side of the little army base.
Gloomily, Menander studied the Malwa soldiers clustering around their campfires. Eight hundred of them, he estimated. Piss-poor soldiers, true. But they were still the enemy, and there were still eight hundred of them.
Mother of God, I hope this won't be more than an exercise. A sleepless night in the woods, at worst. False alarm. Tomorrow, Belisarius is back. No problem. Everybody has a big laugh on the subject of twitchy nerves. Soon enough, we amble out of India in comfort and ease. Back to Rome, with nary a drop of spilled blood.
To his left, watching Menander in the flickering light cast by the campfires, Valentinian saw the little interplay of emotions on the young cataphract's face. The veteran grinned.
Welcome to the club, lad. It's the First Law of the Veteran.
Fuck exciting adventures.
A mile to the east, to the relief of some fifteen Kushan soldiers, Dadaji Holkar pronounced himself satisfied with the howdahs.
"About time," grumbled Kanishka.
Holkar stared him down. And quite an effective stare it was, too. Just what you might expect from a Malwa grandee, which was exactly what Holkar looked like in his new finery. The very essence of a grandee. Not anvaya-prapta sachivya, to be sure—no member of that most exclusive dynastic caste would have personally overseen the loading of his own elephants. But the Malwa Empire had a multitude of grandees, especially in Kausambi. The capital was full of officials, noblemen, bureaucrats, potentates of every stripe and variety.
Holkar turned away and strode over to the stablekeeper. That man, blessed by the same haughty stare, abased himself in a most gratifying manner. His three sons, standing just behind, copied their father faithfully.
Watching him fawn, Holkar felt enormous relief. He had been afraid he would have to murder them. And if he had been forced to order the Kushans to kill the men of the family, there would have been no choice but to slaughter the other members of the stablekeeper's household. A wife, a daughter, two daughters-in-law, and three servants.
Holkar would have done it, if necessary. But the deed would have cut to his soul. The stablekeeper was no Malwa enemy. Just a man feeding his family, by caring for the horses and elephants of those richer than he.
But there was no need. It was obvious that the disguise had passed muster perfectly. True, it was odd for such a grandee to make his departure at night, rather than in daytime. But Holkar had explained the matter satisfactorily. Urgent news. His wife's father on his death-bed.
"Fool woman," he grumbled. "She insists on an immediate departure—in the middle of the night!—and then takes hours to prepare herself."
The stablekeeper, daringly, essayed a moment of shared camaraderie.
"What can you do, lord? Women are impossible!"
For a moment, Holkar glared at the man's presumption. But, after seeing the stablekeeper cringe properly, he relented. He had intimidated the man enough, he thought. A bit of kindness, now, would seal the disguise.
"I am most satisfied with you, stablekeeper," he announced, pompously. "The elephants have been well cared for, and the howdahs which you constructed are quite to my satisfaction."
The stablekeeper bowed and scraped effusively, but Holkar was amused to see that the man's eyes never left off from watching Holkar's hand. And when the stablekeeper saw that hand dip into the very large purse suspended from Holkar's waist, his eyes positively gleamed.
"As I promised you, there would be a bonus for good work."
Holkar, watching the man's face as he deposited a small pile of coins in the stablekeeper's outstretched hand, decided he had gauged the bonus correctly.
But, just to be sure, Holkar decided to unbend a bit.
"Yes, I am very satisfied. Might I make a request? Since my wife appears to be delayed, would you be so good as to feed my men? I have mentioned to them, from my previous visits, how excellent a cook your wife is."
He dipped his hand into the purse again.
"I will pay, of course."
Within seconds, the stablekeeper's household was flurrying into action.
Watching the perfect unfolding of their plan, the scribe Dadaji Holkar smiled. Warriors, he knew, were prone to dark misgivings about any and all plans. Holkar did not sneer at those misgivings. He had been a warrior himself, in his youth. But he concluded, as he had years before, that soldiers were a gloomy lot.
One soldier, at that very moment, was not gloomy at all.
He had come to India for a number of reasons, and with several goals in mind. Many—most—of those goals he had already achieved. He had used the voyage to forge an alliance between Rome and Ethiopia. He had freed the Empress of Andhra from captivity, and thus laid the basis for another alliance with she and Raghunath Rao. (He had even, to his delight, managed to use Malwa bribes to fund the future Deccan rebellion.) He had been able to learn much concerning the new Malwa gunpowder weapons, knowledge which—combined with Aide's help—would make possible the creation of a new Roman army capable of dealing with the Malwa juggernaut.
Mainly, however, Belisarius had come to India in order to know his enemy. He was a general, and he considered good intelligence to be the most useful of all military assets. Here, too, he had accomplished much. He had seen the Malwa army in action, as well as their Ye-tai, Rajput and Kushan auxiliaries. He had been able to study the workings of Malwa society at close hand. He had even been able, to some extent, to meet and gauge the Emperor himself and many of his top military and civilian advisers.
But the one thing he had not accomplished was to meet his ultimate enemy. Link. The—being? creature?—who was, in some way, the origin of the newly arisen menace threatening Rome and, he thought, all of mankind. Link.
He was not sure, yet. But, following Nanda Lal through the plushness of the royal barge, he thought he was on the verge of achieving that goal also.
Aide, certainly, thought he was.
Yes. Link is here. I am certain of it.
Belisarius remembered the glimpses Aide had given him once before of the strange thinking machines called computers. Huge things, some of them—rows and rows of steel cabinets. Others no bigger than a small chest. Metal and glass, glowing as if by magic.
Not those. The new gods have driven cybernetics far beyond such primitive devices.
The word "cybernetics" was meaningless to Belisarius. Other words which followed were equally so. Nanotechnology. Microminiaturization. Cybernetic organisms.
They were nearing the end of the long corridor which extended down the side of the barge. Ahead of him, Belisarius saw Nanda Lal step across a raised threshhold into what appeared to be a large room.
We are almost there, he said to Aide.
He sensed the agitation of the facets. Aide's next thought was curt:
Link will be a cyborg. A cybernetic organism. It will look like a human, but will not be. There will be no soul behind the eyes.
Then, with the cool shivering which was as close as crystalline consciousness could come to fear:
If I am present in your mind, it may discover me. In the chaos at the pavilion, when I asked you to look into the Emperor's eyes, I was certain I could disguise myself. Here—I am not certain. The facets can hide, but Aide may not be able to.
Belisarius was at the threshhold himself. He paused, as if gauging the height of the step necessary to cross the small barrier.
Dissolve yourself, then. Until you can safely reappear. You are our greatest asset. We must keep knowledge of you hidden from the enemy.
If Aide dissolves, the facets will not be able to help. This moment is very dangerous for you.
Belisarius strode across the threshhold.
My name is Belisarius. I am your general. Do as I command.
If there was any hesitation in Aide's reply, no human could have measured it.
Yes, Great One.
The salon into which Belisarius stepped was, in its own way, as phantasmagorical as the pavilion which Emperor Skandagupta had erected on a battlefield. Such incredible luxury, aboard a barge, verged on the ludicrous.
The room was large, especially for a boat, but could not be described as huge. It was perhaps thirty feet wide. Belisarius, quickly estimating the width of the barge itself, realized that the side walls of the salon were the actual hull of the barge. The planking of the hull, here on the interior, was almost completely covered—deck to ceiling—with exquisite silk tapestries. Most of the tapestries depicted scenes which were obviously mythological. Based on various tales which Dadaji had told him, he thought that one of the tapestries might be a depiction of Arjuna riding with Krishna at the battle of Kurukshetra. But he was not sure, and he did not waste time examining the tapestries carefully.
He was much more interested in the few areas of the walls which were not covered with tapestries. The salon was some forty feet in length. At three places along each wall, separated by a distance of approximately ten feet, were three-foot-square bamboo frames supporting silk mesh. The silk was dyed, in Malwa red and gold, but not otherwise decorated. Belisarius could not see through the mesh squares. But, from their slight billowing, he knew that they were the coverings for windows designed to let air into the salon.
After a moment's glance at the windows, he looked away. Ahead of him, at the far end of the salon, two women were seated on a dais which was elevated perhaps a foot above the level of the thickly carpeted deck. The chairs in which they sat could not be called thrones. They were not, quite, big enough. That aside, however, they were chairs which any emperor would be proud to call his own. The chairs were made of nothing but carved ivory, covered with a minimum of cushioning. Neither gold nor gems adorned those chairs. Such baubles would have simply degraded the intricate and marvelous carvings which embellished every square inch of their surface.
Both women were shrouded in rich saris, and both women's faces were obscured by veils. From a distance, Belisarius could discern little about them. But he thought, from the slight subtleties of their posture, that the one on his right was much older than the other.
Directly in front of the dais, kneeling, was a line of six men. Eunuchs, Belisarius suspected, from what he had learned of Malwa customs with high-born women. The men were all wearing baggy trousers tied off at the ankles. They were barefoot and barechested.
Racially, the men were of a type unfamiliar to Belisarius. Oriental, clearly, but quite unlike any of the Asiatic peoples with which Belisarius was familiar. Their skin tone was yellowish, quite unlike the brown hues of the various Indian peoples. And while Belisarius had often seen that yellowish color on the skins of steppe nomads—Ye-tai, and especially Kushans, were often that tint, or close to it—these men had none of the lean, hard-featured characteristics of Asians from the steppes. Like Kushans—though not Ye-tai, who were often called "white" Huns—these men also had a slanted look to their eyes. If anything, their epicanthic folds were even more pronounced. But their features were soft-looking, without a trace of steppe starkness. And their faces were so round as to be almost moon-shaped.
Their most striking characteristic, however, was sheer size. All of them were enormous. Belisarius estimated their height at well over six feet—closer to seven—and he thought that none of them weighed less than three hundred pounds. Some of that size was fat, true. All six of the men had bellies which bulged forward noticeably. But Belisarius did not fail to note their huge arms and their great, sloping shoulders. The muscles there, coiled beneath the fat, were like so many pythons.
Nor, of course, did the general miss the bared tulwars which each man held across his knees. Those tulwars were the biggest swords Belisarius had ever seen in his life. None but giants such as these could have possibly wielded them.
Nanda Lal, standing a few feet ahead of him, bowed deeply to the two women. He then turned to Belisarius, and, with an apologetic grimace, whispered:
"I am afraid we must search you for weapons, general. As I told you, Great Lady Holi is extremely sensitive concerning her personal safety."
Belisarius stiffened. Nanda Lal's demand was discourteous in the extreme. As the spymaster well knew, Belisarius was already unarmed—had been, for days. As a matter of course, he did not carry weapons with him in the presence of Malwa royalty. He had left his arms behind in the mansion that morning, as he did every day he went to the Grand Palace. The act had come naturally to him. His own emperor, Justinian, would have been apoplectic if anyone other than his bodyguards carried weapons into the imperial presence.
But he saw no point in protest. If, as Aide suspected, he was truly in the presence of Link, the Malwa paranoia was understandable.
"Of course," he said. He spread his arms, inviting Nanda Lal to search his person. Then, hearing a slight cough behind him, turned around.
Four men were standing there. Belisarius had not heard a whisper of their coming. Despite the thick carpeting, he was impressed. Quickly, he gauged them. The men were clearly of the same race as the giant eunuchs, but, unlike them, were of average size. Nor were any of them bearing those huge tulwars. Instead, each of the four men was armed with nothing Belisarius could see beyond long knives scabbarded to their waists.
Their size did not mislead the general. Belisarius thought they were probably twice as dangerous as the giant eunuchs. And he was certain—from the silent manner of their arrival even more than their sure-footed stance—that all four were expert assassins.
Still with his arms raised, he allowed the foremost of those men to search him. The assassin's search was quick and expert. When the man was finished, he stepped back and said a few phrases in a language Belisarius did not know.
Nanda Lal frowned.
"He says you are carrying a small knife. In that pouch, on your belt."
Startled, Belisarius looked down at the pouch in question. He began to reach for it, but froze when he sensed the sudden stillness in the four assassins watching him.
Belisarius turned his head toward Nanda Lal.
"I did not even think of it, Nanda Lal. It is not a weapon. It's simply a little knife I carry with me to sharpen my ink quills."
With a wry smile:
"I imagine I could kill a chicken with it, after a desperate struggle." He shrugged. "You're quite welcome to take the thing, if it makes you nervous."
Nanda Lal stared at him for a moment. Then, without taking his eyes from the general, asked the assassin a question in that same unknown tongue.
The assassin spoke a few phrases. Nanda Lal smiled.
"Never mind, general. Great Lady Holi's chief bodyguard confirms your depiction of the—ah, device."
Now the image of cordiality, Nanda Lal took Belisarius by the arm and began leading him toward the women at the far end of the salon. The spymaster leaned over and whispered:
"The bodyguard says the chicken would win."
Belisarius smiled crookedly. "He underestimates my prowess. But I'm quite certain I would carry the scars to my grave."
Ten feet from the line of kneeling eunuchs, Nanda Lal brought himself and Belisarius to a halt. Nanda Lal—Belisarius following the spymaster's example—bowed deeply, but did not prostrate himself. Two servants appeared from a small door in the corner of the room behind the seated women. The servants carried cushions, which they set on the floor just in front of Belisarius and Nanda Lal. That done, each man stepped away. They did not leave, however, but remained standing, one on either side. As he squatted down on his cushion, Belisarius gave them both a quick, searching, sidelong scrutiny.
Servants, I think. Nothing more.
A feminine voice drew his attention forward. The voice had the timber of a young woman, and it came—just as he had surmised—from the woman seated to his left.
"We are very pleased to meet you at last, General Belisarius. We have heard so much about you."
Belisarius could discern nothing of the woman's face, because of her veil. But he did not miss the sharp intelligence in that voice, lurking beneath the platitudes. Nor the fact that the Greek in which it spoke was perfect. Without a trace of an accent.
He nodded his head in acknowledgment, but said nothing.
The young woman continued.
"My name is Sati. I have the honor of being one of Emperor Skandagupta's daughters. This—" a slight gesture of the hand to the woman seated next to her "—is the Great Lady Holi. The Emperor's aunt, as I imagine you have already been told."
The Great Lady Holi's head bobbed, minutely. Beyond that, the woman was as still as a statue. The veil completely disguised her face also.
Again, Belisarius nodded.
"My aunt asked to meet you because she has heard that you desire to give your allegiance to the destiny of Malwa. And she has heard that you have proposed the most ingenious plan to further our great cause."
Belisarius decided that this last remark required a reply.
"I thank you—and her—for your kind words. I would not go so far as to describe my plan as ingenious. Though it is, I think, shrewd. The Roman Emperor Justinian is planning to invade the western Mediterranean anyway. I simply intend to encourage him in the endeavour. In that manner, without drawing suspicion upon myself, I can keep Rome's armies from interfering with your coming conquest of Persia."
He stopped, hoping that would be enough. But the Lady Sati pressed him further.
"Are you not concerned that the reunification of the Roman Empire will pose a long-term danger to Malwa?"
Belisarius shook his head, very firmly.
"No, Lady Sati. Justinian's project is sheer folly."
"You are saying that the eastern Roman Empire cannot reconquer the west?"
There was a lurking danger in that question, Belisarius sensed, though he could not tell exactly where it lay. After a slight hesitation, he decided that truth was the best option.
"I did not say that. In my opinion, the conquest is possible. In fact—" Here, another pause, but this one for calculated effect "—if you will allow me the immodesty, I am convinced that it can be done. So long as Justinian gives me the command of the enterprise. But it will be a fruitless victory."
He shrugged. "We can reconquer the west, but not easily. The wars will be long and difficult. At the end, Justinian will rule over a war-ravaged west. Which he will try to administer from a bankrupted east. Rome will be larger in size, and much smaller in strength."
"Ah." That was all Lady Sati said, but Belisarius instantly knew that he had passed some kind of test.
The knowledge brought a slight relief to the tension which tightened his neck. But, a moment later, the tension returned in full force.
For the first time, Great Lady Holi spoke.
"Come closer, young man. My eyes are old and poor. I wish to see your face better."
Her Greek was also perfect, and unaccented.
Belisarius did not hesitate, not, any least, any longer than necessary to gauge the proper distance to maintain. He arose from his cross-legged position on the cushion—he, too, had learned the "lotus"—and took two steps forward. Just before the line of tulwars, he knelt on one knee, bringing his eyes approximately level to those of the old woman seated a few feet away.
The Great Lady Holi leaned forward. A hand veined with age reached up and lifted her veil. Dark eyes gazed directly into the brown eyes of Belisarius.
Empty eyes. Dark, not from color, but from the absence of anything within.
"Is it true that you plan to betray Rome?"
There was something strange about those words, he sensed dimly. An odd, p