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The Dance of Time-ARC
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The Dance of Time-ARC
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Battle Across Time!
Steamboats that launch Greek fire; telegraph lines connecting the battlefront on the Indus to ancient Constantinople, Byzantine palace plots aided by wireless devices: General Belasarius and his battle-hardened troops must advance quickly through the history of technology to stave off a coming age of ultimate darkness. And now -- the epic final battle that will either give birth to or destroy Aide, Belasarius’s doughty crystalline advisor and humanity’s loyal friend!
The latest entry in New York Times best-seller Eric Flint and military SF master David Drake’s ground-breaking “Belasarius” series.
“High spirits and ingenuity…Drake and Flint…have devised an intriguing premise and developed it intelligently.”
-- Publishers Weekly on Eric Flint and David Drake’s The Tide of Victory.
Cover Art by Allan Pollack
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, February 2006
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Printed in the United States of America ISBN: 1-4165-0931-3
Copyright 2006 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
Production by Windhaven Press
Electronic version by WebWrights
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The Iron Triangle
Autumn, 533 A.D.
Belisarius watched Eusebius and his crew as they carefully slipped the mine off the deck of the Victrix, using a ramp they'd set up in the stern for the purpose. Because of its design, it had been relatively easy to adapt the fireship to the task of becoming a mine-layer. Doing so with the Justinian would have required a major reconstruction of the armored gunship.
The sun still hadn't come up, but there was enough light from the approaching dawn for Belisarius to see. Quietly, almost soundlessly, the mine slid below the surface of the water. Eusebius measured off the depth of the mine's placement using the prepared lines, squinting at the marks nearsightedly.
A trio of ducks flew past swiftly, just above the level of the reeds. Their quacking sounded like the slap of bamboo canes.
You are fortunate to see them, said Aide, the crystalline being which rested in Belisarius' neck pouch. Those are pink-headed ducks, very rare here in the Indus Basin. Indeed, they're not common even in Brahmaputra.
When we've defeated the Malwa, Belisarius replied silently to the voice in his mind, perhaps I'll retire to a monastery and write a treatise on natural history based on my travels. Of course, first we have to defeat the Malwa.
We will, said Aide firmly; and that was not a joke.
Aide had come—been sent—to Belisarius from the far future; from one of two alternate futures, more precisely. Aide's purpose was to prevent the Malwa Empire from conquering the world as it had already conquered most of the Indian subcontinent.
The real horror of a Malwa victory would come tens of tens of thousands of years in the future, when the Earth was ruled by the so-called "new gods" which had evolved from men. In human terms, though, what a Malwa victory meant in this 533rd Year of Christ was bad enough.
Laying the mine took some time, because the crew had to lower it slowly and carefully. There wasn't really much danger of the charge going off simply due to a rough landing on the river bottom, especially as muddy as the Indus was. But, understandably, no one wanted to take any chances.
Eventually, the lines grew slack. The heavy stone weight that had dragged the mine below the surface had reached the bottom.
"About where we want it," Eusebius proclaimed, checking the marks on the lines. "She'll be sitting just the right depth to cave in any ironclads the Malwa send at us."
By now, his crew had placed so many mines in the rivers that formed two sides of the Iron Triangle that the rest was routine. The lines were hauled up, after the ends were released so they could slip easily through the mine's handles. Very easily, since the shell of the mine was nothing more than an amphora sealed to contain the charge and the air that kept it floating above the weight that anchored it to the river bottom.
All that was left was the very thin wire that would transmit the detonation signal when given. Like all the mines the Romans had placed in the Indus and the Chenab, the mines were designed to be exploded on command. It would have been possible to design contact fuses, but the things were tricky and Belisarius saw no need for them.
In fact, mines with contact fuses could conceivably become a handicap. Belisarius wasn't expecting to use the rivers for a rapid assault, but war was unpredictable. If he did find himself doing so, he didn't want to be delayed by the dangerous and finicky work of removing the mines. With command detonation mines, if need be, he could clear the rivers in less than a minute. Just blow up all the mines.
Eusebius leaned over the rail of the Victrix and handed the end of the signal wire to a soldier in a rowboat. Moments later, while the soldier holding the wire kept a good grip on it, the other soldiers in the boat rowed it ashore. The wire would join others in one of the many little mine bunkers that lined the banks of both rivers in the Triangle. A spotter in the bunker would already have noted the location of the mine.
Eusebius straightened. "And that's pretty much all there is to the business, General. The old emperor had the right of it."
Grinning, then: "Much as he still pisses and moans about how much he'd like to build a submarine. But the fact is that for the purpose of fending off those ironclads the Malwa are building upriver, these mines will do the trick just fine. And it's a lot less risky than spar torpedoes."
"Not to mention a submarine," Belisarius chuckled. "All right. I just wanted to get a sense of how it was going."
Had the Malwa been simply an Indian dynasty, they would not have posed a threat to the present world, let alone that of the far future. Aide had showed Belisarius visions of both past and future. Indian nations had often been rich and powerful and influential, and would be again; but never in the timeline that led to Aide and those who created him had the men and women who ruled India looked beyond their own subcontinent. Missionaries and traders from India would turn most of Southeast Asia into a cultural extension of Hindu India; and, through Buddhism, India would have a major impact on the societies of the Far East. Still, no Indian ruler in that timeline ever attempted to conquer the world in the manner that the Malwa Empire was doing—using methods of conquest that were even more savage than Genghis Khan's, with an end goal that had none of the Mongols' tolerance as actual rulers.
But the ruler of the Malwa Empire was not a man or woman, to begin with. The real ruler of the empire was not the official emperor, Skandagupta. It was Link, a machine, a monster, which the "new gods" had sent to change the past and bring their bleak future into existence. If the Malwa armies defeated Belisarius and his outnumbered forces here in the angle of the Indus and Chenab Rivers, the losers would not only be the citizens of the Roman Empire but also all other humans in all times.
Belisarius glanced to the side, where the Justinian was slowly steaming. The gunship was keeping a distance from the mine-laying activity, but it was still close enough to come to the Victrix's support in the unlikely event that the Malwa tried to launch an attack on the fireship.
The very unlikely event. The Victrix herself had already proven to the Malwa, several times, that she could destroy any wooden riverboats sent against her. And the one time the Malwa had sent down a partially-armored boat, the Justinian had blown it into wreckage in less than a minute. For the past several weeks, there had been no Malwa incursions on the river at all. From the reports of spies, the enemy had apparently decided to wait until their new heavy ironclads were finished.
Furthermore, if Justinian and Eusebius were right, even those wouldn't do them any good. The Malwa had no way to build completely iron ships; none, at least, that would have a shallow enough draft for these rivers. Their ironclads were just that: clad in iron. The underlying boats were still wooden—and even these small mines would be enough to break such hulls in half.
"To tell you the truth, General," Eusebius commented, "I don't even understand why the Malwa have kept building those ironclads. There's no way to lay these mines secretly, even working at night the way we've been doing. By now, they must know we've got both rivers saturated with them."
Belisarius had wondered about that himself. Link had just as much knowledge of future warfare as Aide did. The effectiveness of mines against warships in any constricted area of water was so well established in that future that he couldn't imagine Link having any real hope his ironclads could bull their way through a large and well-lain mine field.
Your theory's the right one, I think, Aide said. Link is shifting to the defensive.
Yes. I hadn't thought it would, not this quickly. I'd expected the monster to try a massive assault to drive us out of the Punjab, before we could get really settled in. But... It's not. And if it waits much longer, it'll be too late.
Too late, indeed. The Romans and their Persian allies were slowly but surely gaining control of the Indus and both of its banks all the way from the Sukkur Gorge to the Iron Triangle, after already having conquered the Sind south of the Gorge. So the spearhead that Belisarius had driven into the Punjab during the course of his campaign the previous year would soon be well-supplied. The fortifications across the northern side of the Triangle were already strong enough to break any army Link could send against them within a year or two. Not even the Malwa Empire had an inexhaustible supply of men and munitions, ready to hand.
Especially men. Their morale must be close to the breaking point, I think. Link's army needs a rest, and it knows it. That's why it didn't order the assault. It can afford a stalemate, even for long period, where it can't afford another string of defeats.
The sun was coming up.
Softly, proudly: You really hammered them, these past few years.
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Bukkur Island, on the Indus river
He dreamed mostly of islands, oddly enough.
He was sailing, now, in one of his father's pleasure crafts. Not the luxurious barge-in-all-but-name-and-glitter which his father himself preferred for the family's outings into the Golden Horn, but in the phaselos which was suited for sailing in the open sea. Unlike his father, for whom sailing expeditions were merely excuses for political or commercial transactions, Calopodius had always loved sailing for its own sake.
Besides, it gave him and his new wife something to do besides sit together in stiff silence.
Calopodius' half-sleeping reverie was interrupted. Wakefulness came with the sound of his aide-de-camp Luke moving through the tent. The heaviness with which Luke clumped about was deliberate, designed to allow his master to recognize who had entered his domicile. Luke was quite capable of moving easily and lightly, as he had proved many times in the course of the savage fighting on Bukkur Island. But the man, in this as so many things, had proven to be far more subtle than his rough and muscular appearance might suggest.
"It's morning, young Calopodius," Luke announced. "Time to clean your wounds. And you're not eating enough."
Calopodius sighed. The process of tending the wounds would be painful, despite all of Luke's care. As for the other—
"Have new provisions arrived?"
There was a moment's silence. Then, reluctantly: "No."
Calopodius let the silence lengthen. After a few seconds, he heard Luke's own heavy sigh. "We're getting very low, truth to tell. Ashot hasn't much himself, until the supply ships arrive."
Calopodius levered himself up on his elbows. "Then I will eat my share, no more." He chuckled, perhaps a bit harshly. "And don't try to cheat, Luke. I have other sources of information, you know."
"As if my hardest job of the day won't be to keep half the army from parading through this tent," snorted Luke. Calopodius felt the weight of Luke's knees pressing into the pallet next to him, and, a moment later, winced as the bandages over his head began to be removed. "You're quite the soldiers' favorite, lad," added Luke softly. "Don't think otherwise."
* * *
In the painful time that followed, as Luke scoured and cleaned and rebandaged the sockets that had once been eyes, Calopodius tried to take refuge in that knowledge.
It helped. Some.
* * *
"Are there any signs of another Malwa attack coming?" he asked, some time later. Calopodius was now perched in one of the bastions his men had rebuilt after an enemy assault had overrun it—before, eventually, the Malwa had been driven off the island altogether. That had required bitter and ferocious fighting, however, which had inflicted many casualties upon the Roman defenders. His eyes had been among those casualties, ripped out by shrapnel from a mortar shell.
"After the bloody beating we gave 'em the last time?" chortled one of the soldiers who shared the bastion. "Not likely, sir!"
Calopodius tried to match the voice to a remembered face. As usual, the effort failed of its purpose. But he took the time to engage in small talk with the soldier, so as to fix the voice itself in his memory. Not for the first time, Calopodius reflected wryly on the way in which possession of vision seemed to dull all other human faculties. Since his blinding, he had found his memory growing more acute along with his hearing. A simple instinct for self-preservation, he imagined. A blind man had to remember better than a seeing man, since he no longer had vision to constantly jog his lazy memory.
After his chat with the soldier had gone on for a few minutes, the man cleared his throat and said diffidently: "You'd best leave here, sir, if you'll pardon me for saying so. The Malwa'll likely be starting another barrage soon." For a moment, fierce good cheer filled the man's voice: "They seem to have a particular grudge against this part of our line, seeing's how their own blood and guts make up a good part of it."
The remark produced a ripple of harsh chuckling from the other soldiers crouched in the fortifications. That bastion had been one of the most hotly contested areas when the Malwa launched their major attack the week before. Calopodius didn't doubt for a moment that when his soldiers repaired the damage to the earthen walls they had not been too fastidious about removing all the traces of the carnage.
He sniffed tentatively, detecting those traces. His olfactory sense, like his hearing, had grown more acute also.
"Must have stunk, right afterward," he commented.
The same soldier issued another harsh chuckle. "That it did, sir, that it did. Why God invented flies, the way I look at it."
Calopodius felt Luke's heavy hand on his shoulder. "Time to go, sir. There'll be a barrage coming, sure enough."
In times past, Calopodius would have resisted. But he no longer felt any need to prove his courage, and a part of him—a still wondering, eighteen-year-old part—understood that his safety had become something his own men cared about. Alive, somewhere in the rear but still on the island, Calopodius would be a source of strength for his soldiers in the event of another Malwa onslaught. Spiritual strength, if not physical; a symbol, if nothing else. But men—fighting men, perhaps, more than any others—live by such symbols.
So he allowed Luke to guide him out of the bastion and down the rough staircase which led to the trenches below. On the way, Calopodius gauged the steps with his feet.
"One of those logs is too big," he said, speaking firmly, but trying to keep any critical edge out of the words. "It's a waste, there. Better to use it for another fake cannon."
He heard Luke suppress a sigh. And will you stop fussing like a hen? was the content of that small sound. Calopodius suppressed a laugh. Luke, in truth, made a poor "servant."
"We've got enough," replied Luke curtly. "Twenty-odd. Do any more and the Malwa will get suspicious. We've only got three real ones left to keep up the pretense."
As they moved slowly through the trench, Calopodius considered the problem and decided that Luke was right. The pretense was probably threadbare by now, anyway. When the Malwa finally launched a full-scale amphibious assault on the island that was the centerpiece of Calopodius' diversion, they had overrun half of it before being beaten back. When the survivors returned to the main Malwa army besieging the city of Sukkur across the Indus, they would have reported to their own top commanders that several of the "cannons" with which the Romans had apparently festooned their fortified island were nothing but painted logs.
But how many? That question would still be unclear in the minds of the enemy.
Not all of them, for a certainty. When Belisarius took his main force to outflank the Malwa in the Punjab, leaving behind Calopodius and fewer than two thousand men to serve as a diversion, he had also left some of the field guns and mortars. Those pieces had savaged the Malwa attackers, when they finally grew suspicious enough to test the real strength of Calopodius' position.
"The truth is," said Luke gruffly, "it doesn't really matter anyway." Again, the heavy hand settled on Calopodius' slender shoulder, this time giving it a little squeeze of approval. "You've already done what the general asked you to, lad. Kept the Malwa confused, thinking Belisarius was still here, while he marched in secret to the northeast. Did it as well as he could have possibly hoped."
They had reached one of the covered portions of the trench, Calopodius sensed. He couldn't see the earth-covered logs which gave some protection from enemy fire, of course. But the quality of sound was a bit different within a shelter than in an open trench. That was just one of the many little auditory subtleties which Calopodius had begun noticing lately.
He had not noticed it in times past, before he lost his eyes. In the first days after Belisarius and the main army left Sukkur on their secret, forced march to outflank the Malwa in the Punjab, Calopodius had noticed very little, in truth. He had had neither the time nor the inclination to ponder the subtleties of sense perception. He had been far too excited by his new and unexpected command and by the challenge it posed.
Martial glory. The blind young man in the covered trench stopped for a moment, staring through sightless eyes at a wall of earth and timber bracing. Remembering, and wondering.
The martial glory Calopodius had sought, when he left a new wife in Constantinople, had certainly come to him. Of that, he had no doubt at all. His own soldiers thought so, and said so often enough—those who had survived—and Calopodius was quite certain that his praises would soon be spoken in the Senate.
Precious few of the Roman Empire's most illustrious families had achieved any notable feats of arms in the great war against the Malwa. Beginning with the top commander Belisarius himself, born into the lower Thracian nobility, it had been largely a war fought by men from low stations in life. Commoners, in the main. Agathius—the now-famous hero of Anatha and the Dam—had been born into a baker's family, about as menial a position as any short of outright slavery.
Other than Sittas, who was now leading Belisarius' cataphracts in the Punjab, almost no Greek noblemen had fought in the Malwa war. And even Sittas, before the Indus campaign, had spent the war commanding the garrison in Constantinople which overawed the hostile aristocracy and kept the dynasty on the throne.
Had it been worth it?
Reaching up and touching gently the emptiness which had once been his eyes, Calopodius was still not sure. Like many other young members of the nobility, he had been swept up with enthusiasm after the news came that Belisarius had shattered the Malwa in Mesopotamia. Let the adult members of the aristocracy whine and complain in their salons. The youth were burning to serve.
And serve they had... but only as couriers, in the beginning. It hadn't taken Calopodius long to realize that Belisarius intended to use him and his high-born fellows mainly for liaison with the haughty Persians, who were even more obsessed with nobility of blood-line than Greeks. The posts carried prestige—the couriers rode just behind Belisarius himself in formation—but little in the way of actual responsibility.
Standing in the bunker, the blind young man chuckled harshly. "He used us, you know. As cold-blooded as a reptile."
Silence, for a moment. Then, Calopodius heard Luke take a deep breath.
"Aye, lad. He did. The general will use anyone, if he feels it necessary."
Calopodius nodded. He felt no anger at the thought. He simply wanted it acknowledged.
He reached out his hand and felt the rough wall of the bunker with fingertips grown sensitive with blindness. Texture of soil, which he would never have noticed before, came like a flood of dark light. He wondered, for a moment, how his wife's breasts would feel to him, or her belly, or her thighs. Now.
He didn't imagine he would ever know, and dropped the hand. Calopodius did not expect to survive the war, now that he was blind. Not unless he used the blindness as a reason to return to Constantinople, and spent the rest of his life resting on his laurels.
The thought was unbearable. I am only eighteen! My life should still be ahead of me!
That thought brought a final decision. Given that his life was now forfeit, Calopodius intended to give it the full measure while it lasted.
"Menander should be arriving soon, with the supply ships."
"Yes," said Luke.
"When he arrives, I wish to speak with him."
"Yes," said Luke. The "servant" hesitated. Then: "What about?"
Again, Calopodius chuckled harshly. "Another forlorn hope." He began moving slowly through the bunker to the tunnel which led back to his headquarters. "Having lost my eyes on this island, it seems only right I should lose my life on another. Belisarius' island, this time—not the one he left behind to fool the enemy. The real island, not the false one."
"There was nothing false about this island, young man," growled Luke. "Never say it. Malwa was broken here, as surely as it was on any battlefield of Belisarius. There is the blood of Roman soldiers to prove it—along with your own eyes. Most of all—"
By some means he could not specify, Calopodius understood that Luke was gesturing angrily to the north. "Most of all, by the fact that we kept an entire Malwa army pinned here for two weeks—by your cunning and our sweat and blood—while Belisarius slipped unseen to the north. Two weeks. The time he needed to slide a lance into Malwa's unprotected flank—we gave him that time. We did. You did."
He heard Luke's almost shuddering intake of breath. "So never speak of a 'false' island again, boy. Is a shield 'false,' and only a sword 'true'? Stupid. The general did what he needed to do—and so did you. Take pride in it, for there was nothing false in that doing."
Calopodius could not help lowering his head. "No," he whispered.
But was it worth the doing?
The Indus river in the Punjab
The Iron Triangle
"I know I shouldn't have come, General, but—"
Calopodius groped for words to explain. He could not find any. It was impossible to explain to someone else the urgency he felt, since it would only sound... suicidal. Which, in truth, it almost was, at least in part.
"May—maybe I could help you with supplies or—or something."
"No matter," stated Belisarius firmly, giving Calopodius' shoulder a squeeze. The general's large hand was very powerful. Calopodius was a little surprised by that. His admiration for Belisarius bordered on idolization, but he had never really given any thought to the general's physical characteristics. He had just been dazzled, first, by the man's reputation; then, after finally meeting him in Mesopotamia, by the relaxed humor and confidence with which he ran his staff meetings.
The large hand on his shoulder began gently leading Calopodius off the dock where Menander's ship had tied up.
"I can still count, even if—"
"Forget that," growled Belisarius. "I've got enough clerks." With a chuckle: "The quartermasters don't have that much to count, anyway. We're on very short rations here."
Again, the hand squeezed his shoulder; not with sympathy, this time, so much as assurance. "The truth is, lad, I'm delighted to see you. We're relying on telegraph up here, in this new little fortified half-island we've created, to concentrate our forces quickly enough when the Malwa launch another attack. But the telegraph's a new thing for everyone, and keeping the communications straight and orderly has turned into a mess. My command bunker is full of people shouting at cross-purposes. I need a good officer who can take charge and organize the damn thing."
Cheerfully: "That's you, lad! Being blind won't be a handicap at all for that work. Probably be a blessing."
Calopodius wasn't certain if the general's cheer was real, or simply assumed for the purpose of improving the morale of a badly maimed subordinate. Even as young as he was, Calopodius knew that the commander he admired was quite capable of being as calculating as he was cordial.
Almost despite himself, he began feeling more cheerful.
"Well, there's this much," he said, trying to match the general's enthusiasm. "My tutors thought highly of my grammar and rhetoric, as I believed I mentioned once. If nothing else, I'm sure I can improve the quality of the messages."
The general laughed. The gaiety of the sound cheered up Calopodius even more than the general's earlier words. It was harder to feign laughter than words. Calopodius was not guessing about that. A blind man aged quickly, in some ways, and Calopodius had become an expert on the subject of false laughter, in the weeks since he lost his eyes.
This was real. This was—
Something he could do.
A future which had seemed empty began to fill with color again. Only the colors of his own imagination, of course. But Calopodius, remembering discussions on philosophy with learned scholars in far away and long ago Constantinople, wondered if reality was anything but images in the mind. If so, perhaps blindness was simply a matter of custom.
"Yes," he said, with reborn confidence. "I can do that."
* * *
For the first two days, the command bunker was a madhouse for Calopodius. But by the end of that time, he had managed to bring some semblance of order and procedure to the way in which telegraph messages were received and transmitted. Within a week, he had the system functioning smoothly and efficiently.
The general praised him for his work. So, too, in subtle little ways, did the twelve men under his command. Calopodius found the latter more reassuring than the former. He was still a bit uncertain whether Belisarius' approval was due, at least in part, to the general's obvious feeling of guilt that he was responsible for the young officer's blindness. Whereas the men who worked for him, veterans all, had seen enough mutilation in their lives not to care about yet another cripple. Had the young nobleman not been a blessing to them instead of a curse, they would not have let sympathy stand in the way of criticism. And the general, Calopodius was well aware, kept an ear open to the sentiments of his soldiers.
Throughout that first week, Calopodius paid little attention to the ferocious battle which was raging beyond the heavily timbered and fortified command bunker. He traveled nowhere, beyond the short distance between that bunker and the small one—not much more than a covered hole in the ground—where he and Luke had set up what passed for "living quarters." Even that route was sheltered by soil-covered timber, so the continual sound of cannon fire was muffled.
The only time Calopodius emerged into the open was for the needs of the toilet. As always in a Belisarius camp, the sanitation arrangements were strict and rigorous. The latrines were located some distance from the areas where the troops slept and ate, and no exceptions were made even for the blind and crippled. A man who could not reach the latrines under his own power would either be taken there, or, if too badly injured, would have his bedpan emptied for him.
For the first three days, Luke guided him to the latrines. Thereafter, he could make the journey himself. Slowly, true, but he used the time to ponder and crystallize his new ambition. It was the only time his mind was not preoccupied with the immediate demands of the command bunker.
Being blind, he had come to realize, did not mean the end of life. Although it did transform his dreams of fame and glory into much softer and more muted colors. But finding dreams in the course of dealing with the crude realities of a latrine, he decided, was perhaps appropriate. Life was a crude thing, after all. A project begun in confusion, fumbling with unfamiliar tools, the end never really certain until it came—and then, far more often than not, coming as awkwardly as a blind man attends to his toilet.
Shit is also manure, he came to understand. A man does what he can. If he was blind... he was also educated, and rich, and had every other advantage. The rough soldiers who helped him on his way had their own dreams, did they not? And their own glory, come to it. If he could not share in that glory directly, he could save it for the world.
When he explained it to the general—awkwardly, of course, and not at a time of his own choosing—Belisarius gave the project his blessing. That day, Calopodius began his history of the war against the Malwa. The next day, almost as an afterthought, he wrote the first of the Dispatches to the Army which would, centuries after his death, make him as famous as Livy or Polybius.
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Capital city of the Ethiopian empire
Across the Erythrean Sea, Belisarius' wife Antonina woke to the same rising sun, coming through the window in her chamber in the Ta'akha Maryam. By now, more than a year and a half since Malwa agents had blown up the royal palace of the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum, the Ta'akha Maryam's reconstruction was virtually complete.
Stubbornly, as was their way in such things, the Axumites had insisted on rebuilding the palace exactly as it had been. If the heavy stonework was still susceptible to well-placed demolitions, they would prevent such by the spears of their regiments, not the cleverness of their architects.
In the mornings, at least, Antonina was glad of it. At night, in the gloom of candlelight, she sometimes found the Ta'akha Maryam oppressively massive. But, in the daytime—especially at daybreak, with her east-facing chamber—the Ethiopian penchant for placing many windows even in outer walls was very pleasant.
The windows were massive too, admittedly, with their Christian crosses in every one to serve as supports for the heavy stone as well as reminders of the new Ethiopian faith. Still, the sunlight flooding through bathed her sleeping chamber in a golden glory that matched her mood.
Which it did, she suddenly realized. Sitting up in her bed, holding the coverings tight to ward off the chill, she pondered the fact.
It wasn't the morning. Yes, the sunlight was splendid. On the other hand—this late in autumn, in the mile-high altitude of the Ethiopian highlands—it was also damnably cold.
She shivered a little. But that was solely a matter of the body. Her spirits remained higher than they'd been in...
Months. Since Eon died, leading the Axumites in their seizure of the Indian port of Chowpatty. Not only had Antonina lost one of her closest friends in that battle, but the unexpected death of the young ruler of Ethiopia—the negusa nagast, or "King of Kings"—had plunged the kingdom of Axum into a succession crisis. A crisis which Eon himself, as he lay dying, had appointed Antonina to solve.
She'd dreaded that task almost as much as she'd grieved Eon's death. Yet now, this morning, she felt light-hearted again.
* * *
It was not an idle question. By now, a lot closer to the age of forty than thirty, Antonina had come to know herself very well. Her mind did not work the same way as her husband's. Belisarius was a calculator; a man who considered all the angles of a problem before deciding how he would handle it. Antonina, on the other hand, reached her conclusions through more mysterious, instinctive ways.
This was not the first time in her life she'd awakened in the morning, flush with the satisfaction of having come to a decision during her sleep. And if Belisarius sometimes shook his head wryly over the matter, Antonina remained serene in the knowledge that her way of handling such difficult business was so much easier than her husband's.
A servant entered, after politely coughing to announce her arrival. The woman didn't knock, for the simple reason that the Ta'akha Maryam had very few doors—and knocking on the thick walls of the entrance would be akin to rapping on a granite cliff.
"The aqabe tsentsen wishes an audience."
Antonina grinned. She really was in a good mood.
"I'll bet he didn't put it that way."
The servant rolled her eyes. "So rude, he is! No, Lady, he did not. He—ah..."
Antonina slid from under the thick coverings and scampered toward her wardrobe against the far wall. Her haste was not caused by any concern for keeping Ousanas waiting, it was simply due to the cold.
"He told you to roll the lazy Roman slut out of bed." Still grinning, Antonina removed her night clothes and began dressing for the day.
"Well. He didn't call you a slut. Lazy Roman, yes."
* * *
Ousanas was waiting impatiently in the salon of her suite.
"About time," he grumbled. He gave her figure a quick look, up and down. "How does it take so long to put on such simple garments? By now—almost mid-morning—I expected to see you bedecked in jewels and feathers."
Antonina turned her head and looked out a window. The sun had just barely cleared the rim of Mai Qoho, the great hill to the east of Ethiopia's capital.
"If this is 'mid-morning,' I'd love to see your definition of 'dawn.'" She moved to a nearby settee and sat down. "Oh, leave off, Ousanas. Whatever brought you here at this unfit hour, it can't be that urgent."
She pointed to a nearby chair. "Sit, will you?"
Ousanas sneered at the chair. Then, folded himself onto the carpet in a lotus position. Ever since he'd traveled to India with Belisarius, he claimed that awkward-looking posture was a great aid to thought—even if he'd have no truck with the ridiculous Indian notions concerning philosophy.
"That depends on how you define 'urgent.' Antonina, we must resolve the succession problem. Soon. Garmat's agents are telling him that the Arabs in the Hijaz are getting restive, especially in Mecca. And, especially, of course, the Quraysh tribe."
Antonina pursed her lips. "What about the Ethiopians themselves? Not to be crude about it, Ousanas, but so long as it's only the Arabs who are 'restive,' there's really not much they can do about it. Militarily speaking, at least."
"To be sure. The regiments of Axum can suppress any combination of Arabs, even with much of the army in India. But neither I nor Garmat is worried about an actual rebellion. What we are concerned with is the erosion of trade. Things had been going very well, in that regard, until the news of Eon's death arrived. Now..."
He shrugged. "All the Arab merchants and traders had thought the situation secure for them, with Eon married to a princess of the Quraysh and the succession running through his half-Arab son. But with a babe for a prince and a young girl for a widowed regent queen, they are fretting more and more that the dynasty will be overthrown by Ethiopians. Who will impose a new dynasty that will return the Arabs to their earlier servitude."
Antonina grimaced. "In other words, the Axumites are reasonably content with the situation but the Arabs don't believe it, and because they don't believe it there'll be more and more trouble, which will start making the Axumites angry."
The aqabe tsentsen nodded curtly. "Yes. We really can't postpone this matter, Antonina. The longer we wait, the worse it will get. We need to assure everyone that the dynasty is stable."
"More than 'stable,'" Antonina mused. "Those Arab merchants—the Axumites, too, for that matter—won't simply be worrying about attempts at rebellion. There's also a more insidious, long-term danger."
She rose and moved slowly toward another window. The glorious mood she'd awakened with was growing stronger by the minute. She was on the verge of making her decision, she could sense it. She thought the sight of the southern mountains would help. So majestic, they were. Serene, in their distance and their unmoving steadiness.
The problem was figuring out what the decision was in the first place. At was often the case, she'd made her decision while asleep—and now couldn't remember what it had been.
She smiled, thinking of how Belisarius had reacted so many times in the past to her habits. Peevish, the way men usually got when the workings of the world upset their childish notions.
How in the world can you make a decision without knowing what it is in the first place?
Antonina was moving slowly enough that she was able to finish her thought before reaching the window.
"There are really only two options, it would seem—neither of which will please anyone. The first option, and the simplest, would be for Rukaiya to remain unmarried. If not for the rest of her life, at least until the infant negusa nagast is old enough to take the throne and rule himself."
"Unmarried and chaste," Ousanas grunted. "We can't afford any royal bastards, either. Not produced by a widowed queen."
His tone skeptical, he added: "And I don't see much chance of that, being honest. Wahsi is only a few months old, and Rukaiya..."
"Has the normal urges of a young woman. Yes, I know."
She did know, in fact—and in considerable detail. She was not guessing based on generalities. In the time after their wedding, Rukaiya had confided in Antonina the great physical pleasure she took from being married to Eon.
"She's only eighteen. Expecting her to abstain from sex until she is in her late thirties is... not a gamble anyone will be pleased with. Rukaiya least of all, once her grief for Eon finally fades away. As it happens, I think she'd do it, if she agreed. She's a very strong-willed and self-disciplined person. But she wouldn't like it—and even if she restrained herself, the gossip would be endless."
"Endless—and savage," Ousanas agreed. "That would be true for any young widowed queen, even an ugly one. For one as beautiful as Rukaiya? Not a chance, Antonina. Long before Wahsi could reach an age to assume the throne, the ugly rumors would be believed by half the populace—and a much bigger portion of the kingdom's elite."
Antonina had reached the window, by now, but didn't look out of it yet. Instead, she turned to face Ousanas.
"Yes. That leaves the second option, which is no better. If she marries anyone prestigious enough to be an acceptable match, everyone will start worrying that her children by her second husband will become too powerful. A second and informal dynasty, as it were, growing up within the formal one. A recipe for civil war, a generation from now."
Ousanas nodded. "The Axumites would not accept an Arab husband, and the Arabs—though they'd have no choice, given the military realities—wouldn't like an Axumite one any better. For that matter, the Axumites wouldn't like it—except those who were part of the husband's clan."
He scowled at the floor's covering. "Ugly carpet. Ethiopians may know stone and iron work, but their weaving is wretched. You should get a Persian one."
His eyes widened, slightly, and he looked up. "Persian... You know, Antonina, that may be the solution. Find her a foreign husband of suitable rank. A Persian grandee or a Roman senator."
Antonina shook her head. "That won't work, either. A Persian husband is impossible, from Rukaiya's standpoint. Now that she's had the experience of being Eon's wife, just how well do you think she'd take to a Persian husband? With their attitudes?"
Ousanas went back to scowling at the carpet. "She'd have him poisoned, within a year. Or simply stab him herself. But a Roman..."
"No. I could probably find her a suitable Roman husband—suitable from her standpoint—but that wouldn't solve the political problem. Rome is now simply too strong, Ousanas. A Roman husband during Rukaiya's regency would make everyone fear—Arabs and Ethiopians alike—that Axum was becoming a Roman satrapy. In reality, if not in name."
"True." He gave her a sly little look. "Perhaps you should poison your husband, Antonina. It's his fault, you know. If Belisarius hadn't spent the past five years proving to everyone that Roman military power is supreme... even against the Malwa empire, the world's greatest..."
Antonina smiled back, sweetly. "Can't, I'm afraid. I'm here and he's in the Punjab. Damnation. One of the reasons I'd like to settle the succession problem is so that I can get back to him—at which point, I assure you, poisoning the fellow will be the last thought on my mind. I'm finding that my own urges haven't subsided any, even at my advanced and decrepit age."
Finally, she turned and looked out the window. "So. We need an impressive husband. Impressive to Rukaiya as much as her subjects, so she isn't tempted to stray and no one thinks otherwise. But—but!—one who has no pre-existing ties that will make anyone worry about undue influences. And whose loyalties to Axum are unquestioned."
Far to the south, the snow-capped peaks of the Simien Mountains shone brightly, but the flanks were still dark. The sun hadn't risen high enough yet to bathe them in light.
Dark, massive, majestic beneath their crowns—and quite indifferent to any of those words. What did mountains care about attempts to depict them—much less the petty political frets and worries of humans? They simply were. And, being so, dwarfed any dynasty.
She understood her decision, then. It came to her, all at once, and in all its splendor.
"It's so obvious," she said happily. "I can't believe it took me this long to figure it out."
"Perhaps you will be so kind as to make clear this 'obvious' decision to me, at some point?" Ousanas said grumpily.
Antonina bestowed the sweet smile on the mountains. "Oh, yes. You can be sure of it, when the time comes."
Peshawar, in the Hindu Kush
Kungas launched the final assault just before dawn. By sunrise, his Kushan soldiers had demonstrated to the Pathan clansmen that they were just as adept at fighting in the rocks as the rebels—and far more disciplined.
Not to mention numerous. Kungas had calculated—correctly, it was now clear—that the Malwa were too pre-occupied with Belisarius in the southern Punjab at the moment to launch any serious attack on the new Kushan kingdom he was forging in the mountains to the northwest. So, he'd left a skeleton force guarding the passes while he took most of his army to suppress this first attempt by any Pathan tribesmen to rebel against his rule.
First—and hopefully last. For all his ruthlessness, when need be, Kungas took no pleasure in killing.
"Suppress" was a euphemism.
By late morning, the clansmen were routed and the Kushans had broken into their walled town nestled in the rocks of the mountains. Then, began the massacre Kungas had ordered. No member of that Pathan clan would be allowed to survive. Not women, not children, not oldsters. All animals in the town were to be slaughtered also. Then, the town itself completely destroyed. Not simply gutted by fire, but blown up. Razed from existence. Kungas had enough gunpowder to afford that, now that the supply lines through Persia had been stabilized.
While his Kushans finished that business, Pathans from other clans allied to Kungas chased down and butchered the Pathan warriors who tried to flee into the shelter of the mountains.
There weren't many of those. Pathans could be as stupid as any humans alive, but they never lacked courage. All but a handful of the defeated clansmen died in the town, desperately trying to defend their kinfolk.
* * *
By mid-afternoon, it was done. The entire clan had ceased to exist.
Throughout, Kungas remained at his position high on a nearby mountain—a spur of the same range, really—watching.
Throughout, there was no expression on his face. None at all. To the Pathan chieftains who stood there with him, the leaders of the allied clans, it did not even seem like a face at all. Just an unmoving, iron mask.
* * *
Those old men had been told that, in his palace in Peshawar, the new king of the mountains was known to show an expression, now and then. Not often, and usually only in the presence of his Greek wife.
That was possible, they thought, although they had their doubts. It was hard to imagine that inhuman mask of a face ever showing an emotion.
Maybe. The woman was known to be a sorceress, after all.
What the clan chieftains knew, however, was that with a king like this and his witch of a queen, rebellion was insane.
Any form of open resistance. The destroyed clan hadn't even rebelled. They'd simply thought to use the old and well-tested method of intimidating a new would-be ruler of the mountains by assassinating one of his officials.
* * *
The official had, indeed, been assassinated.
In return, Kungas had now proved that he was, indeed, the king of the mountains. The arithmetic of the equation was clear even to those illiterate clan leaders.
Clans assassinated officials.
Kings—real ones—assassinated clans.
* * *
So be it. The old men, no strangers to brutality themselves, chose to look on the bright side. The new king did not meddle with them much, after all, as long as they obeyed him. And trade was picking up a lot. Even the clans in the far mountains were getting richer.
* * *
When Kungas returned to Peshawar, he was in a very foul mood.
"That was a filthy business," he told his wife Irene. Scowling openly, now, in the privacy of their quarters in the palace. "It's your fault. If you hadn't stirred up those idiot clansmen letting their young women claim to be Sarmatians and join your idiot so-called 'queen's guard,' it wouldn't have happened."
The accusation was grossly unfair, and on many counts, but Irene kept silent. Until Kungas' mood lightened, there was no point arguing with him.
Yes, it was true that Irene's subtle undermining of Pathan patriarchalism irritated the clan chiefs. So what? Everything irritated those barbaric old men. They were to "conservative thinking" what an ocean was to "wet and salty." They practically defined the term.
And, again, so what? Irene and Kungas—with Belisarius, in times past, while they'd still been with him in Persia—had discussed the matter thoroughly. No one had ever ruled these mountains, in the sense that "ruled" meant in the civilized lowlands. Just as no one had ever "ruled" the great steppes to the north into which she and Kungas planned to expand their kingdom.
But if a king couldn't rule the mountains and the steppes, he could dominate them. Dominate them as thoroughly and as completely as, in a future era in another universe, the Mongol khans would dominate them.
There was one key difference, though, and Kungas understood it as well as she did. The new Kushan realm in central Asia would use the same methods as the Mongols, true enough. Methods which, in the end, amounted to the simple principle: oppose us and we will slaughter all of you, down to the babes and dogs.
But it did not have the same goal. In the future of that different universe, Genghis Khan and his successors had had no other purpose than simply to enjoy the largesse of their rule which came with the annual tribute. Kungas and Irene, on the other hand, intended to forge a real nation here in central Asia, over time. And that could not be done simply by dominating the ancient clans. The domination was itself but a means to an end—and the end was to undermine them completely, in the only way the human race had ever found it possible to do so.
"Civilization," in a word. Create a center of attraction in the new cities and towns, with their expanding wealth and trade and education and culture and opportunities for individuals from anywhere. And then just let the old clan chiefs rot away, while their clans slowly dissolved around them. Irene's "Sarmatian women's guard" that Kungas had just denounced was only one of a hundred methods that she and Kungas were using for that purpose.
It was not even the one that irritated the clan chiefs the most. That honor probably belonged to the new Buddhist monasteries that Kungas was starting to set up all over. In the end, for all their savage attitudes toward women, the old clan chiefs didn't really care what women did—as long as they did it outside their tightly-controlled villages.
Why should they? From their viewpoint, beyond the sexual pleasure they provided, women were simply domestic animals and beasts of burden. No different, really, from their other livestock. As long as they had enough women to keep breeding clansmen, who cared what wild women did somewhere else?
Boys, on the other hand, mattered. And now—curse him!—the new king was seducing boys away from their proper and traditional allegiances to babble mystical nonsense in monasteries. Even teaching them to read, as if any Pathan tribesman ever needed such an effeminate skill.
The process would take decades, of course, even generations. But it would work, as surely as the sunrise—provided that Kungas established from the beginning that however much the clan chiefs hated him they did not dare to oppose him openly. Or try any violent tactic against him, whatsoever.
Which he had just done. More efficiently, ruthlessly, pitilessly, and savagely than any of the clan chiefs had ever imagined he would. Just as, in a different universe, the Mongols had obliterated the cult of the Hashasin which had given the world the term "assassin" to begin with—by demonstrating that they were perfectly willing to transform the definition of the word by an order of magnitude.
Irene knew her husband very well, by now. Kungas enjoyed her intelligence and her sense of humor, but this was no time for rational argument, much less jests.
She fell back on an emotional appeal that was even more powerful than horror and disgust and anger.
"There's this, if it helps. The dynasty is secured."
She looked down, stroking the silk raiment covering her belly. She was still, to all appearances, as slender as ever. "Well. Most likely. I might have a miscarriage."
His eyes were drawn to her waist, and she could sense Kungas' mood shifting. So, smiling gently, she ventured a little joke.
"Of course, you'll make that good, soon enough."
For a moment, Kungas tried to maintain his ferocious mood. "Typical! Salacious Greek women. Seductresses, every one of you. If you weren't so beautiful..."
In point of fact, Irene wasn't beautiful at all. Attractive, perhaps, but no more than that. Her thick and luxurious chestnut hair was not even much of an asset, any longer, tied back as she now had it in a pony tail. And she'd found, to her disgruntlement, that becoming a queen hadn't made her big nose any smaller or made her narrow, close-eyed face any fuller. Even with the pony tail, she still looked like exactly what she was—an intellectual, not a courtesan.
Happily, none of that mattered to Kungas. Her little joke wasn't really even that. By the end of the evening, most likely—tomorrow night, at the latest—Kungas would demonstrate that there wasn't any danger that the new dynasty would die out from lack of vigor.
Kungas sighed. "It really was a hateful business, Irene. Damn those old men! I would have preferred..."
He let the thought trail away. Then, gave her something in the way of an apologetic shrug.
In point of fact, it had been Irene who suggested that he restrict himself to simply executing all of the clan chiefs—and Kungas who had declined the suggestion.
"No," he'd said. "That won't be enough. However stupid and vicious, no clan chief is a coward. They'll accept their own deaths, readily enough, as stubborn as they are. The only thing that will really terrify them is the extinction of their entire clan. So I have no choice but to demonstrate that I'm quite willing to do so. Maybe if I do it once, right now, I'll never have to do it again."
He'd been right, and Irene had known it. She'd only advanced her suggestion because she knew how much Kungas detested the alternative. As hard a man as he was, and as hard a life as he'd led, not even Kungas could butcher babies to punish octogenarians without shrieking somewhere in his iron-masked soul.
Finally, she could sense the mood breaking. The surest sign came when Kungas made his own jest.
"And who's the father, by the way?"
Irene's eyes narrowed. "Don't be stupid. As often as you mount me, when would I have the time to cuckold you? Even assuming I wasn't too exhausted, you insensate brute."
Kungas was still scowling. In his own way, he could teach stubbornness to clan chiefs.
"Not that," he said curtly, waving the notion aside with an economical little gesture. "I don't doubt my cock's the only one that gets into you. But it's just a conduit. Spiritually speaking. Who's the real father? Have we moved up to gods, yet? Will I discover as an old man that the children I thought mine were actually sired by Zeus and who knows how many randy members of the Hindu pantheon?"
"What a heathen notion!" Irene exclaimed. "You should be ashamed of yourself!"
"I'm not a Christian," he pointed out.
"You're not really a Buddhist, either, even if you insist on the trappings. So what? It's still a barbarous notion."
She drew herself up with as much dignity as she could manage. That was... hard, given that she was almost laughing.
"And it's all nonsense, anyway. Of course, you're the father. The ancestry gets interesting, though."
His first smile came, finally. "More interesting than Alexander the Great? Whom—to my immense surprise—you have explained was one of my forefathers. Odd, really, given that he passed through this area long before we Kushans got here."
"My scholars assure me it is true, nonetheless. But now, they tell me, it seems that in addition—"
"Please! Don't tell me I'm descended from Ashoka also!"
Irene had considered Ashoka, in fact, and quite seriously. But, in the end, she'd decided that claiming India's most famous and revered emperor as one of her husband's forefathers would probably cause too many political problems. India's ever-suspicious rulers would assume that meant the Kushans had designs on India also.
Which, they didn't. To meddle in India's affairs—even the Punjab, much less the great and populous Gangetic plain—would be pure folly. As long as she and Kungas controlled the Khyber Pass and the Hindu Kush, they could expand to the north without stirring up animosities with either the Indians or the Persians. Animosities, at least, that would be severe enough to lead to war. Soon enough, of course, Persians and Indians—and Romans and Chinese too, for that matter—would be complaining bitterly about Kushan control of the trade routes through central Asia.
But those quarrels could be negotiated. Irene was an excellent negotiator—even without the advantage of having a husband who could terrify Pathan clan chiefs.
"Nonsense," she said firmly. "You're no relation to Ashoka at all, so far as my scholars can determine. Just as well, really, since we have no ambitions toward India. However—what a happy coincidence, given the centrality of Buddhism to our plans—would you believe that—"
Kungas choked. Irene pressed on.
"It's true!" she insisted. "Not the Buddha himself, of course. After he became the Buddha, that is. He was quite the ascetic sage, you know. But before that—when he was still just plain Siddhartha Gautama and was married to Yashodhara. It turns out that their son Rahula—"
Kungas burst into laughter, and Irene knew that she'd saved his soul again. That was always her greatest fear, that a soul which had shelled itself in iron for so long would eventually become iron itself.
The mask, the world could afford. Even needed. But if the soul beneath the mask ever became iron, in fact, she dreaded the consequences. In the new universe they were helping to shape, the name "Kungas" would someday become a term like "Tamerlane" had been in another. A name that signified nothing but savagery.
No fear of that, so long as she could make Kungas laugh that way. No fear at all.
The Iron Triangle
As always, the sound of Luke's footsteps awakened Calopodius. This time, though, as he emerged from sleep, he sensed that other men were shuffling their feet in the background.
He was puzzled, a bit. Few visitors came to the bunker where he and Luke had set up their quarters. Calopodius suspected that was because men felt uncomfortable in the presence of a blind man, especially one as young as himself. It was certainly not due to lack of space. The general had provided him with a very roomy bunker, connected by a short tunnel to the great command bunker buried near the small city which had emerged over the past months toward the southern tip of the Iron Triangle. The Roman army called that city "the Anvil," taking the name from the Punjabi civilians who made up most of its inhabitants.
"Who's there, Luke?" he asked.
His aide-de-camp barked a laugh. "A bunch of boys seeking fame and glory, lad. The general sent them."
The shuffling feet came nearer. "Begging your pardon, sir, but we were wondering—as he says, the general sent us to talk to you—" The man, whoever he was, lapsed into an awkward silence.
Calopodius sat up on his pallet. "Speak up, then. And who are you?"
The man cleared his throat. "Name's Abelard, sir. Abelard of Antioch. I'm the hecatontarch in charge of the westernmost bastion at the fortress of—"
"You had hot fighting yesterday," interrupted Calopodius. "I heard about it. The general told me the Malwa probe was much fiercer than usual."
"Came at us like demons, sir," said another voice. Proudly: "But we bloodied 'em good."
Calopodius understood at once. The hecatontarch cleared his throat, but Calopodius spoke before the man was forced into embarrassment.
"I'll want to hear all the details!" he exclaimed. "Just give me a moment to get dressed and summon my scribe. We can do it all right here, at the table there. I'll make sure it goes into the next dispatch."
"Thank you, sir," said Abelard. His voice took on a slightly aggrieved tone. "T'isn't true, what Luke says. It's neither the fame nor the glory of it. It's just... your Dispatches get read to the Senate, sir. Each and every one, by the Emperor himself. And then the Emperor—by express command—has them printed and posted all over the Empire."
Calopodius was moving around, feeling for his clothing. "True enough," he said cheerfully. "Ever since the old Emperor set up the new printing press in the Great Palace, everybody—every village, anyway—can get a copy of something."
"It's our families, sir," said the other voice. "They'll see our names and know we're all right. Except for those who died in the fighting. But at least..."
Calopodius understood. "Their names will exist somewhere, on something other than a tombstone."
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Autumn, 533 A.D.
They had approached Elafonisos from the south, because Calopodius had thought Anna might enjoy the sight of the great ridge which overlooked the harbor, with its tower perched atop it like a hawk. And she had seemed to enjoy it well enough, although, as he was coming to recognize, she took most of her pleasure from the sea itself. As did he, for that matter.
She even smiled, once or twice.
The trip across to the island, however, was the high point of the expedition. Their overnight stay in the small tavern in the port had been... almost unpleasant. Anna had not objected to the dinginess of the provincial tavern, nor had she complained about the poor fare offered for their evening meal. But she had retreated into an even more distant silence—almost sullen and hostile—as soon as they set foot on land.
That night, as always since the night of their wedding, she performed her duties without resistance. But also with as much energy and enthusiasm as she might have given to reading a particularly dull piece of hagiography. Calopodius found it all quite frustrating, the more so since his wife's naked body was something which aroused him greatly. As he had suspected in the days before the marriage, his wife was quite lovely once she could be seen. And felt.
So he performed his own duty in a perfunctory manner. Afterward, in another time, he might have spent the occasion idly considering the qualities he would look for in a courtesan—now that he had a wife against whose tedium he could measure the problem. But he had already decided to join Belisarius' expedition to the Indus. So, before falling asleep, his thoughts were entirely given over to matters of martial glory. And, of course, the fears and uncertainties which any man his age would feel on the eve of plunging into the maelstrom of war.
* * *
When trouble finally arrived, it was Anna's husband who saved her. The knowledge only increased her fury.
Stupid, really, and some part of her mind understood it perfectly well. But she still couldn't stop hating him.
Stupid. The men on the barge who were clambering eagerly onto the small pier where her own little river craft was tied up were making no attempt to hide their leers. Eight of them there were, their half-clad bodies sweaty from the toil of working their clumsy vessel up the Euphrates.
A little desperately, Anna looked about. She saw nothing beyond the Euphrates itself; reed marshes on the other bank, and a desert on her own. There was not a town or a village in sight. She had stopped at this little pier simply because the two sailors she had hired to carry her down to Charax had insisted they needed to take on fresh water. There was a well here, which was the only reason for the pier's existence. After taking a taste of the muddy water of the Euphrates, Anna couldn't find herself in disagreement.
She wished, now, that she'd insisted on continuing. Not that her insistence would have probably done much good. The sailors had been civil enough, since she employed them at a small town in the headwaters of the Euphrates. But they were obviously not overawed by a nineteen-year-old girl, even if she did come from the famous family of the Melisseni.
She glanced appealingly at the sailors, still working the well. They avoided her gaze, acting as if they hadn't even noticed the men climbing out of the barge. Both sailors were rather elderly, and it was clear enough they had no intention of getting into a fracas with eight rivermen much younger than themselves—all of whom were carrying knives, to boot.
The men from the barge were close to her, and beginning to spread out. One of them was fingering the knife in a scabbard attached to his waist. All of them were smiling in a manner which even a sheltered young noblewoman understood was predatory.
Now in sheer desperation, her eyes moved to the only other men on the pier. Three soldiers, judging from their weapons and gear. They had already been on the pier when Anna's boat drew up, and their presence had almost been enough to cause the sailors to pass by entirely. A rather vicious-looking trio, they were. Two Isaurians and a third one whom Anna thought was probably an Arab. Isaurians were not much better than barbarians; Arabs might or might not be, depending on where they came from. Anna suspected this one was an outright bedouin.
The soldiers were lounging in the shade of a small pavilion they had erected. For a moment, as she had when she first caught sight of them, Anna found herself wondering how they had gotten there in the first place. They had no boat, nor any horses or camels—yet they possessed too much in the way of goods in sacks to have lugged them on their own shoulders. Not through this arid country, with their armor and weapons. She decided they had probably traveled with a caravan, and then parted company for some reason.
But this was no time for idle speculation. The rivermen were very close now. The soldiers returned Anna's beseeching eyes with nothing more than indifference. It was clear enough they had no more intention of intervening than her own sailors.
Still—they could, in a way that two elderly sailors couldn't.
Moving as quickly as she could in her elaborate clothing—and cursing herself silently, again, for having been so stupid as to make this insane journey without giving a thought to her apparel—Anna walked over to them. She could only hope they understood Greek. She knew no other language.
"I need help," she hissed.
The soldier in the center of the little group, one of the Isaurians, glanced at the eight rivermen and chuckled.
"I'd say so. You'll be lucky if they don't kill you after they rob and rape you."
His Greek was fluent, if heavily accented. As he proceeded to demonstrate further. "Stupid noblewoman. Brains like a chicken. Are you some kind of idiot, traveling alone down this part of Mesopotamia? The difference between a riverman here and a pirate—"
He turned his head and spit casually over the leg of the other Isaurian. His brother, judging from the close resemblance.
"I'll pay you," she said.
The two brothers exchanged glances. The one on the side, who seemed to be the younger one, shrugged. "We can use her boat to take us out of Mesopotamia. Beats walking, and the chance of another caravan... But nothing fancy," he muttered. "We're almost home."
His older brother grunted agreement and turned his head to look at the Arab. The Arab's shrug expressed the same tepid enthusiasm. "Nothing fancy," he echoed. "It's too hot."
The Isaurian in the middle lazed to his feet. He wasn't much taller than Anna, but his stocky and muscular build made him seem to loom over her.
"All right. Here's the way it is. You give us half your money and whatever other valuables you've got." He tapped the jeweled necklace around her throat. "The rivermen can take the rest of it. They'll settle for that, just to avoid a brawl."
She almost wailed. Not quite. "I can't. I need the money to get to—"
The soldier scowled. "Idiot! We'll keep them from taking your boat, we'll leave you enough—just enough—to get back to your family, and we'll escort you into Anatolia."
He glanced again at the rivermen. They were standing some few yards away, hesitant now. "You've no business here, girl," he growled quietly. "Just be thankful you'll get out of this with your life."
His brother had gotten to his feet also. He snorted sarcastically. "Not to mention keeping your precious hymen intact. That ought to be worth a lot, once you get back to your family."
The fury which had filled Anna for months boiled to the surface. "I don't have a hymen," she snarled. "My husband did for that, the bastard, before he went off to war."
Now the Arab was on his feet. Hearing her words, he laughed aloud. "God save us! An abandoned little wife, no less."
The rivermen were beginning to get surly, judging from the scowls which had replaced the previous leers. One of them barked something in a language which Anna didn't recognize. One of the Aramaic dialects, probably. The Isaurian who seemed to be the leader of the three soldiers gave them another glance and an idle little wave of his hand. The gesture more or less indicated: relax, relax—you'll get a cut.
That done, his eyes came back to Anna. "Idiot," he repeated. The word was spoken with no heat, just lazy derision. "Think you're the first woman got abandoned by a husband looking to make his fortune in war?"
"He already has a fortune," hissed Anna. "He went looking for fame. Found it too, damn him."
The Arab laughed again. "Fame, is it? Maybe in your circles! And what is the name of this paragon of martial virtue? Anthony the Illustrious Courier?"
The other three soldiers shared in the little laugh. For a moment, Anna was distracted by the oddity of such flowery phrases coming out of the mouth of a common soldier. She remembered, vaguely, that her husband had once told her of the poetic prowess of Arabs. But she had paid little attention, at the time, and the memory simply heightened her anger.
"He is famous," Anna insisted. A certain innate honesty forced her to add: "At least in Constantinople, after Belisarius' letter was read to the Senate. And his own dispatches."
The name Belisarius brought a sudden little stillness to the group of soldiers. The Isaurian leader's eyes narrowed.
"Belisarius? What's the general got to do with your husband?"
"And what's his name?" added the Arab.
Anna tightened her jaws. "Calopodius. Calopodius Saronites."
The stillness turned into frozen rigidity. All three soldiers' eyes were now almost slits.
The Isaurian leader drew a deep breath. "Are you trying to tell us that you are the wife of Calopodius the Blind?"
For a moment, a spike of anguish drove through the anger. She didn't really understand where it came from. Calopodius had always seemed blind to her, in his own way. But...
Her own deep breath was a shaky thing. "They say he is blind now, yes. Belisarius' letter to the Senate said so. He says it himself, in fact, in his letters. I—I guess it's true. I haven't seen him in many months. When he left..."
One of the rivermen began to say something, in a surly tone of voice. The gaze which the Isaurian now turned on him was nothing casual. It was a flat, flat gaze. As cold as a snake's and just as deadly. Even a girl as sheltered as Anna had been all her life understood the sheer physical menace in it. The rivermen all seemed to shuffle back a step or two.
He turned his eyes back to Anna. The same cold and flat gleam was in them. "If you are lying..."
"Why would I lie?" she demanded angrily. "And how do you expect me to prove it, anyway?"
Belatedly, a thought came to her. "Unless..." She glanced at the little sailing craft which had brought her here, still piled high with her belongings. "If you can read Greek, I have several of his letters to me."
The Arab sighed softly. "As you say, 'why would you lie?'" His dark eyes examined her face carefully. "God help us. You really don't even understand, do you?"
She shook her head, confused. "Understand what? Do you know him yourself?"
The Isaurian leader's sigh was a more heartfelt thing. "No, lass, we didn't. We were so rich, after Charax, that we left the general's service. We"—he gestured at his brother—"I'm Illus, by the way, and he's Cottomenes—had more than enough to buy us a big farm back home. And Abdul decided to go in with us."
"I'm sick of the desert," muttered the Arab. "Sick of camels, too. Never did like the damn beasts."
The Arab was of the same height as the two Isaurian brothers—about average—but much less stocky in his frame. Still, in his light half-armor and with a spatha scabbarded to his waist, he seemed no less deadly.
"Come to think of it," he added, almost idly, "I'm sick of thieves, too."
The violence which erupted shocked Anna more than anything in her life. She collapsed in a squat, gripping her knees with shaking hands, almost moaning with fear.
There had been no sign; nothing, at least, which she had seen. The Isaurian leader simply drew his spatha—so quick, so quick!—took three peculiar little half steps and cleaved the skull of one of the rivermen before the man even had time to do more than widen his eyes. A second or two later, the same spatha tore open another's throat. In the same amount of time, his brother and the Arab gutted two other rivermen.
She closed her eyes. The four surviving rivermen were desperately trying to reach their barge. From the sounds—clear enough, even to a young woman who had never seen a man killed before—they weren't going to make it. Not even close. The sounds, wetly horrid, were those of a pack of wolves in a sheep pen.
* * *
Some time later, she heard the Isaurian's voice. "Open your eyes, girl. It's over."
She opened her eyes. Catching sight of the pool of blood soaking into the planks of the pier, she averted her gaze. Her eyes fell on the two sailors, cowering behind the well. She almost giggled, the sight was so ridiculous.
The Isaurian must have followed her gaze, because he began chuckling himself. "Silly looking, aren't they? As if they could hide behind that little well."
He raised his voice. "Don't be stupid! If nothing else, we need you to sail the boat. Besides—" He gestured at the barge. "You'll want to loot it, if there's anything in that tub worth looting. We'll burn whatever's left."
He reached down a hand. Anna took it and came shakily to her feet.
Bodies everywhere. She started to close her eyes again.
"Get used to it, girl," the Isaurian said harshly. "You'll see plenty more of that where you're going. Especially if you make it to the island."
Her head felt muzzy. "Island? What island?"
"The island, idiot. 'The Iron Triangle,' they call it. Where your husband is, along with the general. Right in the mouth of the Malwa."
"I didn't know it was an island," she said softly. Again, honesty surfaced. "I'm not really even sure where it is, except somewhere in India."
The Arab had come up in time to hear her last words. He was wiping his blade clean with a piece of cloth. "God save us," he half-chuckled. "It's not really an island. Not exactly. But it'll do, seeing as how the general's facing about a hundred thousand Malwa."
He studied her for a moment, while he finished wiping the blood off the sword. Then, sighed again. "Let's hope you learn something, by the time we get to Charax. After that, you'll be on your own again. At least—"
He gave the Isaurian an odd little look. The Isaurian shrugged. "We were just telling ourselves yesterday how stupid we'd been, missing out on the loot of Malwa itself. What the hell, we may as well take her the whole way."
His brother was now there. "Hell, yes!" he boomed. He bestowed on Anna a very cheerful grin. "I assume you'll recommend us to the general? Not that we deserted or anything, but I'd really prefer a better assignment this time than being on the front lines. A bit dicey, that, when the general's running the show. Not that he isn't the shrewdest bastard in the world, mind you, but he does insist on fighting."
The other two soldiers seemed to share in the humor. Anna didn't really understand it, but for the first time since she'd heard the name of Calopodius—spoken by her father, when he announced to her an unwanted and unforeseen marriage—she didn't find it hateful.
Rather the opposite, in fact. She didn't know much about the military—nothing, really—but she suspected...
"I imagine my husband needs a bodyguard," she said hesitantly. "A bigger one than whatever he has," she added hastily. "And he's certainly rich enough to pay for it."
"Done," said the Isaurian leader instantly. "Done!"
* * *
Not long afterward, as their ship sailed down the river, Anna looked back. The barge was burning fiercely now. By the time the fire burned out, there would be nothing left but a hulk carrying what was left of a not-very-valuable cargo and eight charred skeletons.
The Isaurian leader—Illus—misunderstood her frown. "Don't worry about it, girl. In this part of Mesopotamia, no one will care what happened to the bastards."
She shook her head. "I'm not worrying about that. It's just—"
She fell silent. There was no way to explain, and one glance at Illus' face was enough to tell her that he'd never understand.
Calopodius hadn't, after all.
"So why the frown?"
She shrugged. "Never mind. I'm not used to violence, I guess."
That seemed to satisfy him, to Anna's relief. Under the circumstances, she could hardly explain to her rescuers how much she hated her husband. Much less why, since she didn't really understand it that well herself.
Still, she wondered. Something important had happened on that pier, something unforeseen, and she was not too consumed by her own anger not to understand that much. For the first time in her life, a husband had done something other than crush her like an insect.
She studied the surrounding countryside. So bleak and dangerous, compared to the luxurious surroundings in which she had spent her entire life. She found herself wondering what Calopodius had thought when he first saw it. Wondered what he had thought, and felt, the first time he saw blood spreading like a pool. Wondered if he had been terrified, when he first went into a battle.
Wondered what he thought now, and felt, with his face a mangled ruin.
Another odd pang of anguish came to her, then. Calopodius had been a handsome boy, even if she had taken no pleasure in the fact.
The Isaurian's voice came again, interrupting her musings. "Weird world, it is. What a woman will go through to find her husband."
She felt another flare of anger. But there was no way to explain; in truth, she could not have found the words herself. So all she said was: "Yes."
* * *
The next day, as they sailed back to the mainland, he informed Anna of his decision. And for the first time since he met the girl, she came to life. All distance and ennui vanished, replaced by a cold and spiteful fury which completely astonished him. She did not say much, but what she said was as venomous as a serpent's bite.
Why? he wondered. He would have thought, coming from a family whose fame derived from ancient exploits more than modern wealth, she would have been pleased.
He tried to discover the source of her anger. But after her initial spate of hostile words, Anna fell silent and refused to answer any of his questions. Soon enough, he gave up the attempt. It was not as if, after all, he had ever really expected any intimacy in his marriage. For that, if he survived the war, he would find a courtesan.
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The Iron Triangle, in the Punjab
Winter, 533 A.D.
"You can describe it better than that," rasped Justinian. The former Emperor of the Roman Empire was now its Grand Justiciar, since his blinding at the hands of traitors and Malwa agents had made him ineligible for the throne under Roman law. But he'd lost very little of his peremptory habits.
No reason he should, really. Although Belisarius' son Photius was officially the new Emperor, Justinian's wife Theodora was the Empress Regent and the real power in Constantinople. Still, it was exasperating for the premier general of the Roman empire to be addressed like an errant schoolboy. Tightening his jaws a bit, Belisarius brought the telescope back to his eye.
"At an estimate—best I can do, since they haven't finished it yet—the tower will be at least three hundred feet tall. From the looks of the—"
"Never mind, never mind," interrupted Justinian. "It doesn't really matter. With a tower that tall, they're obviously planning for general AM broadcasting."
The former emperor's badly-scarred eye sockets were riveted on the distant Malwa tower, as if he could still see. Or glare.
"In God's name, why?" he demanded. "For military purposes, directional broadcasting would make a lot more sense and require a lot less massive construction. That's what we're doing."
Justinian waved a hand toward the south, where the Roman army was erecting its own "antenna farm" almost at the very tip of the triangle of land formed by the junction of the Indus and Chenab rivers. The "Iron Triangle," as the Roman soldiers called it.
Only the tips of the antennas could be seen from the fortifications on the north side of the Iron Triangle. The Roman radios were designed to be directional, not broadcast, so there was no need for an enormous tower. The key for directional radio was mostly the length of the antennas, not their height.
Folding up the telescope, Belisarius shrugged. "Maybe for the same reason we're having Antonina and Ousanas build exactly such a tower in Axum. It'll give us general relaying capability we wouldn't have otherwise."
"That's nonsense," Justinian grumbled. "I could understand them building a tower like that in their capital city of Kausambi. But why build one here, on the front lines? We're not, after all."
Belisarius said nothing.
After an uncomfortable moment, Justinian chuckled harshly. "Fine, fine. Presumably they don't have quite our motivation. At least, I think it's safe to assume that monster from the future doesn't have a peevish wife like I do."
Belisarius smiled crookedly. Although they had never discussed it quite openly, both he and Justinian knew perfectly well—and knew each other knew—that one of the main reasons they'd tacitly agreed not to build a general AM tower in the Iron Triangle was so that the Empress Regent could not easily bombard them with instructions.
More easily bombard them, it might be better to say. As it was, just using the telegraph, Theodora averaged at least two messages a day to the Iron Triangle.
One of which, almost every day, was either a peremptory demand that Justinian stop playing soldier and get back to a position of safety far to the south in Barbaricum, or a pleading request for the same, or a threat of dire consequences if he didn't—or, often enough, all three rolled into one.
"Is there something we're overlooking?" Justinian demanded.
The question wasn't aimed at Belisarius so much as it was at the "jewel" that hung in a pouch suspended from the Roman general's muscular neck. Inside that pouch rested Aide, the crystalline being from the future who had come back into the human past to thwart—hopefully—the intervention of the so-called "new gods" of the future.
Aide's response came only into Belisarius' mind. No, the crystal being said, rather curtly. We're not overlooking anything. Tell that nasty old man to stop being so paranoid. And tell him to stop being so nasty, while you're at it.
Since Justinian couldn't see the expression, Belisarius grinned openly. Outside of himself, Justinian was the only human being who regularly communicated with Aide via direct contact with the jewel. Most people found direct contact with Aide rather unsettling. The jewel's means of communication typically involved a flood of images—many of them quite disturbing—not simply words which could be easily sanitized in the mind of the recipient.
Justinian probably found it unsettling also. Belisarius certainly did, often enough. But if the former emperor was "nasty" and "paranoid"—terms which Belisarius would allow were fair enough, even if "old" was a bit off the mark—he was also just about as tough-minded as any human being who'd ever lived. So he seemed to tolerate the problem well enough—and, on the other hand, got the benefit of the direct contact with Aide which had enabled Justinian, in a very short time, to become the Roman Empire's master artisan.
Or designer for artisans, it might be better to say. Blind as he was, it was difficult for Justinian to do the work himself.
Although Aide tolerated that extensive contact for the sake of their mutual project, he didn't like it at all. He didn't like Justinian.
And why should he, really? Most people didn't like Justinian.
His peeve apparently satisfied by the remarks, Aide added uncertainly: I don't really know why they're doing it. But I'm sure it's not some clever trick we're missing.
Belisarius gave Aide the mental equivalent of a nod. Then, said to Justinian: "Aide doesn't think so, although he doesn't know why they're doing it. What I think is that—"
"Oh, it's obvious enough," interrupted Justinian, as if he hasn't been the one to demand an answer in the first place. "Morale, that's all."
Again, he waved toward the south. "That mass of wires we've got struck all over down there is just something that annoys the soldiers. We've even had to position guards to keep the silly bastards from stumbling over them in the dark. Especially when they're drunk on the local beer. As many defeats as the Malwa have suffered these past few years, that monster Link has got to be worried about morale. A great big impressive-looking radio tower will help boost its soldiers' spirits, even if it isn't really that useful. Especially those soldiers. Ignorant and illiterate peasants, most of them."
Again, Belisarius grinned. "Ignorant and illiterate peasants" was a fair description of most of the Malwa army, true enough. On the other hand, it could be applied to most Roman soldiers also. Over time, the changes Aide had brought to the world would produce a rapid increase in the general level of literacy—was already doing so, in fact, among many of the Empire's youngsters. The ones living in big cities, at least. But, even five years after Aide's arrival, very little of that had penetrated the Roman soldiery. It was still true that, below the rank of hecatontarch, not more than one in ten of them could read and write. For that matter, a hefty percentage of the empire's officer corps was illiterate also, beyond—in most cases—being able to painfully write out their own name.
So be it. Wars were fought with the armies available. Whatever weaknesses and limitations the Roman army possessed, Belisarius knew it was far superior to that of the enemy. Man for man, certainly, on average. The Roman Empire, whatever its many flaws and failures, was still a society in which a determined and capable man could rise based on his own merits. The Malwa, on the other hand, with their rigid adherence to a caste system, had to rely primarily on the sheer mass of the army that northern India's teeming population could produce.
That had been, from the very beginning of the war, the basic equation Belisarius had had to deal with. Using quality against quantity, in such a way as to eventually defeat the Malwa without ever giving them the chance to use their immense strength against him in a way that was effective.
It had worked, so far—but it took time. Time, and patience.
* * *
Alas, patience was not a virtue often associated with Justinian. As he proved an hour later, once they entered the sunken bunker behind the front lines that served Belisarius for his headquarters.
"So how much longer are you going to dilly-dally?" he asked, after taking a chair.
Belisarius decided to try the tactic of misunderstanding. "About the submarine?" He harrumphed very sternly, almost majestically. "Forever, Justinian—so you can just forget about trying to cajole me—"
He didn't think the tactic would work. Sure enough:
"Stop playing the fool. I don't even disagree with you about the submarine—as you know perfectly well. I just think it'd be an interesting experiment, that's all. I'm talking about the offensive against the Malwa that you keep postponing and postponing. I'm beginning to think you've converted to that heathen Hindu way of looking at things. All time is cyclical and moves in great yugas, so why bother doing anything for the next billion years or so? Or is it that you think the way your soldiers are copulating with the local natives, you'll have a huge population of your own within a generation or two?"
The former emperor sneered. "Idiot. The population density here is already horrible. You'll be facing starvation soon enough, you watch."
Belisarius tried to keep from scowling, but... couldn't, quite. Given that the Romans controlled the Indus south of the Iron Triangle and their Persian allies were rapidly bringing agricultural production in the Sind back up to normal, he wasn't really worried about running out of food. Still, rations were tight, and...
He sighed, audibly. There wasn't much point trying to keep anything from Justinian, as smart as he was. "It's a problem, I admit. Not the food, just the endless headaches. I'm beginning to think—"
"Forget it! I'm the Grand Justiciar of the Roman Empire. There's no way I'll let you wheedle me into adjudicating the endless squabbles you're having with the damn natives here. Bunch of heathens, anyway."
"Actually, they're not," said Belisarius mildly. "A good portion of them, at least. You'd be surprised how many are converting to Christianity."
Justinian's eye sockets were too badly scarred for him to manage the feat of widening them with surprise. Perhaps thankfully, since they were horrible-enough looking as it was. Justinian, naturally, refused to cover them with anything.
Calopodius did the same, but in his case that was simply a young man's determination to accept adversity squarely. In Justinian's, it was the ingrained, arrogant habit of an emperor. What did he care if people flinched from his appearance? They'd done so often enough when he'd still been sighted. More often, probably. Justinian had never been famous for his forbearance.
"It's true," Belisarius insisted. "Converting in droves. By now, the priests tell me, at least a fourth of the Punjabis in the Triangle have adopted our faith."
Justinian's head swiveled toward the bunker's entry, as if he could look out at the terrain beyond. Out and up, actually, since the bunker was buried well beneath the soil.
"Why, do you think?"
"It might be better to say, why not?" Belisarius nodded toward the entrance. "Those are all peasants out there, Justinian. Low caste and non-Malwa. It's not as if the Malwa Empire's mahaveda brand of Hinduism ever gave them anything."
Justinian was almost scowling. He didn't like being puzzled. "Yes, yes, I can see that. But I'd still think they'd be afraid..."
His voice trailed off.
Belisarius chuckled harshly. "Be afraid of what? That the Malwa will slaughter them if they overrun the Triangle? They will anyway, just as an object lesson—and those Punjabi peasants know it perfectly well. So they're apparently deciding to adhere to Rome as closely as possible."
Still looking at the heavily timbered entrance to the bunker, Belisarius added: "It's going to be a bit of a political problem, in fact, assuming we win the war."
He didn't need to elaborate. Emperor he might no longer be, but Justinian still thought like one—and he'd been perhaps the most intelligent emperor in Rome's long history.
"Ha!" he barked. "Yes, I can see that. If a fourth have already converted, then by the time"—his scowl returned briefly—"you finally launch your long-delayed offensive and we hammer the Malwa bastards—"
"I'm glad you're so confident of the matter."
"Don't be stupid!" Justinian snapped impatiently. "Of course you will. And when you do—as I was saying before I was interrupted—probably two-thirds of them will be Christians. So what does that leave for Khusrau, except a headache? Don't forget that you did promise him the lower Punjab as Persian territory."
Belisarius shrugged. "I didn't 'promise' the Emperor of Iran anything. I admit, I did indicate I'd be favorable to the idea—mostly to keep him from getting too ambitious and wanting to gobble all of the Punjab. That would just lead to an endless three-way conflict between the Persians, the Kushans and the Rajputs."
"You'd get that anyway. You want my advice?"
Naturally, Justinian didn't wait for an answer before giving it. "Keep the Iron Triangle. Make it a Roman enclave. It'd be a good idea, anyway, because we could serve as a buffer between the Persians, the Kushans and the Rajputs—and now we could justify it on religious grounds."
He made an attempt to infuse the last phrase with some heartfelt piety. A very slight attempt—and even that failed.
Belisarius scratched his chin. "I'd been thinking about it," he admitted. "Kungas won't care."
"Care? He'd be delighted! I never would have thought those barbarous Kushans would be as smart as they are. But, they are that smart. At least, they're smart enough to listen to Irene Macrembolitissa, and she's that smart."
In point of fact, while Belisarius knew that the king of the Kushans listened carefully to the advice of his Greek wife, Kungas made his own decisions. He was quite smart enough on his own to figure out that getting his new Kushan kingdom embroiled in endless conflicts with Persians and Rajputs over who controlled the Punjab would just weaken him. A Roman buffer state planted in the middle of the Punjab would tend to keep conflicts down—or, at least, keep the Kushans out of it.
"Who cares what they think?" demanded Justinian. "All of this is a moot point, I remind you, until and unless you finally get your much-delayed offensive underway—at which time the Rajputs will be a beaten people, and beaten people take what they can get."
That was Justinian's old thinking at work. Shrewd enough, within its limits. But if nothing else, the years Belisarius had spent with Aide's immense knowledge of human history in his mind had made him highly skeptical of imperialism. He'd been able to scan enormous vistas of human experience, not only into the future of this planet but on a multitude of other planets as well. Out of that, when it came to the subject of empires, Belisarius had distilled two simple pieces of wisdom:
First, every empire that ever existed or would exist always thought it was the end-all and be-all.
Second, none of them were. Few of them lasted more than two hundred years, and even the ones that did never went more than a couple of centuries without a civil war or other major internal conflict. The human race just naturally seemed to do better if it avoided too much in the way of political self-aggrandizement. The notion that history could be "guided"—even by someone like Belisarius, with Aide to serve as his adviser—was pure nonsense. Better to just set up something workable, that contained as few conflicts as possible, and let human potential continued to unfold within it. If the underlying society was healthy, the political structure tended to sort itself out well enough to fit whatever the circumstances were.
In short, not to his surprise, Belisarius had come to conclude that the ambitions and schemes of his great enemy Link and the "new gods" who had created the monster were simply the same old imperial folly writ large. Belisarius didn't really know exactly what he believed in. But he knew what he didn't—and that was good enough.
"Agreed, then," he said abruptly. "We'll plan on keeping the Triangle. Who knows? Khusrau might even be smart enough to see that it's in his benefit, too."
"Might be," grunted Justinian skeptically. "I doubt it, though. Don't forget he's an emperor. Wearing the purple automatically makes a man stupider."
The scarred, savaged face grinned. "Take my word for it. I know."
* * *
Their conversation was interrupted by a particularly loud ripple in the never-ceasing exchange of barrages between the Romans and the Malwa. Some of the enemy shells even landed close enough to make the bunker tremble.
Not much. But enough to bring Justinian's scowl back.
"I'm getting tired of that. When in the name of all that's holy are you going to stop lolling about and start the offensive?"
Belisarius didn't bother to answer.
When the time is right, came Aide's voice. Then, a bit plaintively: Which is when, by the way? I'd like to know myself."
Et tu, Aide? The answer is that I don't know. When it feels right. Which it doesn't yet. Things have to keep brewing for a while, in the Hindu Kush—and most of all, in Majarashtra.
You don't have any way to get in touch with Rao by radio, Aide pointed out. Or Kungas, for that matter.
Teach your grandfather to suck eggs! I know I don't. What's worse still, is that even if I did have radio contact with India, I couldn't talk to the three men who matter the most.
There was silence for a moment, as Aide tried to follow Belisarius' train of thought. For all his immense intellect, Aide had little of the Roman general's intuitive sense of strategy.
Oh, he said finally. Narses the eunuch.
Yes. And Rana Sanga. And, most of all, Lord Damodara.
There was a moment's silence, again. Then Aide added, somewhat timidly: You probably better not mention to Justinian—certainly not Theodora!—that you're stalling the offensive because you're counting on a Roman traitor and the two best generals on the enemy side.
Teach your grandfather to suck eggs!
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Bharakuccha, on India's west coast
"It must be unnerving," Ajatasutra chuckled.
"What must be unnerving?" asked Narses irritably. "And why do you keep thinking such pointless chatter will help you win?"
The old eunuch moved his bishop, taking the assassin's knight. "Check. It distracts you more than it does me. That's partly why you lose, nine games out of ten. The other part is because I'm smarter than you."
Ajatasutra didn't even glance at the chess board. His thin smile was still directed at Narses. "It must be unnerving to have Rana Sanga watching you the way he does, whenever you're in sight. Reminds me of a tiger, trying to decide if you're prey."
Narses' lips tightened, slightly. "He doesn't know anything. He only suspects."
"Just as I said. Trying to decide whether you're prey."
That was enough to make Narses scowl, although he still didn't look up from the board. "Why? Until he's sure he knows the truth, he won't do anything. He'd be too afraid to. And once he does discover the truth, why would he..."
His voice trailed off. Even Narses couldn't help but wince a little.
Ajatasutra chuckled again. "I will say you love playing with danger, old man. I'd never gamble at the odds you do. Yes, there's the chance that the fiercest warrior of Rajputana—not to mention its greatest king—might forgive you once he finds out that his wife and children, whom he thought murdered by bandits, are alive and well. Then again—"
Ajatasutra cleared his throat. "He might be a bit peeved at the man who had them kidnapped in the first place and faked the murders."
Narses pointed to the chessboard. "Check, I said."
Smiling, Ajatasutra moved up a pawn to block the bishop. "Granted, you had them hidden in a safe place afterward. Even in a comfortable place. Granted, also, that the Malwa had ordered you to have them actually murdered, so looking at it from one angle you saved their lives. But, then again, that brings up the next problem. What will Lord Damodara—Malwa's best general and a blood relative of the Emperor—"
"Distant relative," Narses growled.
"Not distant at all," the assassin pointed out mildly, "if your scheme works. And stop trying to change the subject. What will Damodara think when he discovers you corralled his wife into the kidnapping? And thereby put his children in mortal danger?"
Narses took the pawn with the bishop. "Mate in four moves. I didn't corral the woman into providing Sanga's family with a hideaway. That was Lady Damodara's idea in the first place."
"So? When all the rocks are turned over and your machinations exposed to the light of day, the fact remains that Damodara and Rana Sanga will discover that you manipulated and cajoled their wives into the riskiest conspiracy imaginable—and, unfortunately for you, both men dote on those wives."
Casually, Ajatasutra reached out and toppled his king. "I concede. So when the wives bat their eyelashes at their husbands and look demure—like only Indian women can do!—and insist that they were pawns in your hands, which way you do you think the lightning will strike?"
Finally, Narses looked up. His eyes were half-slits; which, as wrinkled as his face was anyway, made the eunuch look more like a reptile than usual. "And why are you so amused? I remind you that—every step of the way—it was you who did the actual work."
"True. Another game?" The assassin began setting up the pieces again. "But I'm in prime physical condition, and I made sure I've got the fastest horse in Bharakuccha. You aren't, and you didn't. That mule you favor probably couldn't outrun an ox, much less Rajput cavalry."
"I like mules." The board now set up—Narses playing the white pieces, this time—the eunuch advanced his queen's pawn. "And I've got no intention of running anyway, no matter how the lightning strikes."
The assassin cocked his head. "No? Why not?"
Narses looked aside, staring at a blank wall in the chambers he shared with Ajatasutra. All the walls in the palace suite were blank, except for those in the assassin's bedroom. The old eunuch liked it that way. He claimed that useless decorations impeded careful thought.
"Hard to explain. Call it my debt to Theodora, if you will."
Ajatasutra's eyebrows lifted. Although his gaze never left the wall, Narses sensed his puzzlement. "I betrayed her, you know, for the sake of gaining an empire."
"Yes, I was there. And?"
"And so now that I'm doing it again—"
"You're not betraying her."
Narses waved his hand impatiently. "I'm not betraying my current employers, either. But I'm still gambling everything on the same game. The greatest game there is. The game of thrones."
The assassin waited. Sooner or later, the explanation would come. For all the eunuch's acerbic ways, Ajatasutra had become something of a son to him.
It took perhaps three minutes, during which time Narses' eyes never left the blank wall.
"You can't cheat forever," he said finally. "I'll win or I'll lose, but I won't run again. I owe that much to Theodora."
Ajatasutra looked at the same wall. There still wasn't anything there.
"I've been with you too long. That actually almost makes sense."
Narses smiled. "Don't forget to keep feeding your horse."
Kausambi, the Malwa capital
At the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers
Less than a week after his thirteenth birthday, Rajiv knew the worst despair and the two greatest epiphanies of his short life. One coming right after the other.
Gasping for breath, he lowered himself onto a stool in one of the cellars beneath Lady Damodara's palace. He could barely keep the wooden sword in his hand, his grip was so weak.
"I'll never match my father," he whispered, despairingly.
"Don't be an idiot," came the harsh voice of his trainer, the man he called the Mongoose. "Of course, you won't. A man as powerful as Rana Sanga doesn't come to a nation or tribe more than once a century."
"Listen to him, Rajiv," said his mother. She had watched this training session, as she had watched all of them, from her stool in a corner. With, as always, the stool surrounded by baskets into which she placed the prepared onions. Cutting onions relaxed the woman, for reasons no one else had ever been able to determine.
The epiphany came, then.
"You couldn't match him, either."
The narrow, weasel face of the Mongoose twisted with humor. "Of course I couldn't! Never thought to try—except, like a damn fool, at the very end."
Casually—not a trace of weakness in that grip—the Mongoose leaned his own imitation sword against a wall of the cellar. Then, with the same lean right hand, reached up and parted his coarse black hair. The scar beneath was quite visible. "Got that for trying."
Rajiv was as disturbed as he was exhilarated by his new-found wisdom. "I should stop..."
Almost angrily, his mother snapped: "Yes! Stop trying to imitate your father!" She pointed to the Mongoose with the short knife she used to cut onions. "Learn from him."
She went back to cutting onions. "You're not big enough. Never will be. Not so tall, not so strong. Maybe as fast, maybe not." The onion seemed to fly apart in her hand. "So what?"
Again, the knife, pointing like a finger. "Neither is he. But the Mongoose is still a legend."
The man so named chuckled. Harshly, as he did most things. "My name is Valentinian, and I'm just a soldier of Rome. I leave legends to those who believe in them. What I know, boy, is this. Learn from me instead of resisting me, and you'll soon enough gain your own fame. You're very good, actually. Especially for one so young."
Valentinian took the wooden sword back in his hand. "And now, you've rested enough. Back at it. And remember, this time—small strokes. Stop trying to fight as if you were a king of Rajputana. Fight like a miser hoarding his coins. Fight like me."
* * *
It was difficult. But Rajiv thought he made some progress, by the end of the session. He was finally beginning to understand—really understand—what made the Mongoose so dangerous. No wasted effort, no flamboyance, nothing beyond the bare minimum needed. But that—done perfectly.
The session finally over, the second epiphany came.
Rajiv stared at his mother. She was almost the opposite of his father. Where Rana Sanga was tall and mighty, she was short and plump. Where the father was still black-haired and handsome—had been, at least, until the Mongoose scarred his face in their famous duel—the mother was gray-haired and plain.
But he saw her. For the first time, really. As always, the baskets were now full—those to her right, of the prepared onions; those to her left, of the discarded peelings.
"This is how you cut onions."
"My boy too," she said calmly. "Yes. This is how I cut onions. And men are easier to cut than onions. If you don't think like a fool."
"Listen to your mother," said the Mongoose.
* * *
Later, in the evening, in the chamber they all used as a central salon, Valentinian complained with the same words. "Listen to your mother, you little brat!"
Baji gaped up at him cheerfully, in the manner of infants the world over. He said something more-or-less like: "Goo." Whatever the word meant, it was clearly not an indication that the infant intended to obey his mother's instructions to stop pestering the Roman soldier. In fact, Baji was tugging even more insistently on his sleeve.
"What does he want, anyway?" Valentinian demanded.
"Goo," Baji explained.
Dhruva laughed. "You spoil him, Valentinian! That's why he won't pay attention to me." She rose from her stool and came over to pluck her infant son out of Valentinian's lap.
Baji started wailing instantly.
"Spoil him, I say."
Perched on his own stool in the chamber, and looking much like a rhinoceros on the small item of furniture, Anastasius started laughing. The sound came out of his huge chest like so many rumbles.
Valentinian glared at his fellow Roman cataphract. "What's so damn funny?"
"Do you really need to ask?"
Lady Damodara came into the room. After taking in the scene, she smiled.
Valentinian transferred his glare to her. "You realize we're almost certainly doomed? All of us." He pointed a stiff finger at Baji, who was still wailing. "If we're lucky, they'll cut the brat's throat first."
"Valentinian!" Dhruva exclaimed. "You'll scare him!"
"No such luck," the Roman cataphract muttered. "Might shut him up. But the brat doesn't understand a word I'm saying."
He glared at Lady Damodara again. "Doomed," he repeated.
She shrugged. "There's a good chance, yes. But it's still a better chance than my husband would have had—and me and the children—if we'd done nothing. Either you Romans would have killed him because he wasn't a good enough general, or the Emperor of Malwa would have killed him because he was. This way there's at least a chance. A pretty good one, I think."
Valentinian wasn't mollified. "Narses and his damned schemes. If I survive this, remind me to cut his throat." As piously as he could, he added: "He's under a death sentence in Rome, you know. The rotten traitor. Just be doing my duty."
Anastasius had never quite stopped rumbling little laughs. Now, the rumbles picked up their pace. "Should have thought of that sooner!"
There was no answer to that, of course. So Valentinian went back to glaring at the infant.
"And besides," Lady Damodara said, still smiling, "this way we have some entertainment. Dhruva, let your child go."
As pleasantly as the words were said, Lady Damodara was one of the great noblewomen of the Malwa empire. More closely related to the Emperor, in fact, than her husband. So, whatever her misgivings, Dhruva obeyed.
Set back on the floor, Baji immediately began crawling toward Valentinian.
"Goo!" he said happily.
* * *
Still later, in the chamber they shared as a bedroom, Anastasius started rumbling again.
Not laughs, though. Worse. Philosophical musings.
"You know, Valentinian, if you'd stop being annoyed by these minor problems—"
"I kind of like the brat, actually," Valentinian admitted. He was lying on his bed, his hands clasped behind his head, staring at the ceiling.
"It'd be better to say you dote on the little creature," Anastasius chuckled. "But that's not even a minor problem. I was talking about the other things. You know—the danger of being discovered—hiding out the way we are here in their own capital city—swarmed by hordes of Ye-tai barbarians and other Malwa soldiers, flayed and impaled and God knows what else by mahamimamsa torturers. Those problems."
Valentinian lifted his head. "You call those minor problems?"
"Philosophically speaking, yes."
"I don't want to hear—"
"Oh, stop whining." Anastasius sat up on his bed across the chamber and spread his huge hands. "If you refuse to consider the ontology of the situation, at least consider the practical aspect."
"What in God's name are you talking about?"
"It's obvious. One of two things happens. We fall prey to a minor problem, in which case we're flayed and impaled and gutted and God knows what else—but, for sure, we're dead. Follow me so far?"
Valentinian lowered his head, grunting. "An idiot can follow you so far. What's the point?"
"Or we don't fall prey to a minor problem. In which case, we survive the war. And then what? That's the real problem—the major problem—because that's the one that takes real thinking and years to solve."
Valentinian grunted again. "We retire on a pension, what else? If the general's still alive, he'll give us a good bonus, too. Enough for each of us to set up on a farm somewhere in..."
Anastasius rumbled another laugh. "Not even you, Valentinian! Much less me, half-Greek like I am and given to higher thoughts. Do you really want to spend the rest of your life raising pigs?"
Silence came from the other bed.
"What's so fascinating about that ceiling, anyway?" One of the huge hands waved about the chamber. "Look at the rest of it. We're in the servant quarters—the old servant quarters, in the rear of the palace—and it's still fancier than the house of the richest peasant in Thrace."
"So why settle for a hut when we can retire to something like this?"
Anastasius watched Valentinian carefully, now. Saw how the eyes never left the ceiling, and the whipcord chest rose and fell with each breath.
"All right," Valentinian said finally. "All right. I've thought about it. But..."
"Why not? Who better than us? You know how these Hindus will look at it. The ones from a suitable class, anyway. The girls were rescued from a brothel. Nobody knows who the toddler's father is. Hopelessly polluted, both of them. The kid, too."
Valentinian scowled, at the last sentence.
More cheerfully still, seeing that scowl, Anastasius continued. "But we're just Thracian soldiers. What do we care about that crap? And—more to the point—who better for a father-in-law than the peshwa of Andhra?"
Valentinian's scowl only seemed to deepen. "What makes you think he'd be willing? The way they look at things, we're about as polluted as the girls."
"Exactly! That's what I meant, when I said you had to consider the ontological aspects of the matter. More to the point, consider this: who's going to insult the girls—or the kid—with him for a father and us for the husbands?"
Anastasius waited, serenely. It didn't take more than a minute or so before Valentinian's scowl faded away and, in its place, came the smile that had terrified so many men over the years. That lean, utterly murderous, weasel grin.
"Not too many. And they'll be dead. Right quick."
As easily and quickly as he could when he wanted to, Valentinian was sitting up straight. "All right. We'll do it."
Anastasius cocked his head a little. "Any problems with the philosophy of the matter?"
"What the hell does that—"
"The kid's a bastard and the girl's a former whore with a face scarred by a pimp. If any of that's a problem for you, I'll take her and you can have the other sister, Lata."
Valentinian hissed. "You stay the hell away from Dhruva."
"Guess not," said Anastasius placidly. "We have a deal. See how easy it is, when you apply philosophical reasoning?"
Back | Next
Back | Next
The Narmada river, in the northern Deccan
Lord Damodara reined in his horse and sat a little straighter in the saddle. Then, casually, swiveled his head back and forth as if he were working out the kinks in his neck. The gesture would seem natural enough, to anyone watching. They'd been riding along the Narmada river for hours, watching carefully for any sign of a Maratha ambush.
In fact, his neck was stiff, and the movement was pleasant. But the real reason Damodara did it was to make sure that no one else was within hearing range.
They weren't. Not even the twenty Rajputs serving as his immediate bodyguard, who were now halting their mounts also, and certainly not the thousand or so cavalrymen who followed them. More to the point, the three Mahaveda priests whom Nanda Lal had instructed to accompany Damodara today were at least a hundred yards back. When the patrol started, the priests had ridden just behind Damodara and Sanga. But the long ride—it was now early afternoon—had wearied them. They were not Rajput cavalrymen, accustomed to spending days in the saddle.
"Tell me, Rana Sanga," he said quietly.
The Rajput king sitting on a horse next to him frowned. "Tell you what, Lord? If you refer to the possibility of a Maratha ambush, there is none. I predicted as much before we even left Bharakuccha. Rao is playing a waiting game. As I would, in his position."
The Malwa general rubbed his neck. "I'm not talking about that, and you know it. I told you this morning that I knew perfectly well this patrol was a waste of time and effort. I ordered it—as you know perfectly well—to keep Nanda Lal from pestering me. Again."
Sanga smiled, thinly. "Nice to be away from him, isn't it?" He reached down and stroked his mount. As long as his arm was, that was an easy gesture. "I admit I prefer the company of horses to spymasters, myself."
Damodara would have chuckled, except the sight of that long and very powerful arm stroking a Rajput horse brought home certain realities. About Rajputs, and their horses—and the Malwa dynasty, and its spymasters.
"It is time, Sanga," he said, quietly but forcefully. "Tell me."
The Rajput kept stroking the horse, frowning again. "Lord, I don't..."
"You know what I'm talking about. I've raised it before, several times." Damodara sighed. "Perhaps a bit too subtly, I admit."
That brought a flicker of a smile to the Rajput's stern face. After a moment, Sanga sighed himself.
"You want to know why I have not seemed to be grieving much, these past months." The flickering smile came and went again. "And my references to philosophical consolations no longer satisfy you."
"Meaning no offense, king of Rajputana, but you are about as philosophically inclined as a tiger." Damodara snorted. "It might be better to say, have a tiger's philosophy. And you are not acting like a tiger. Certainly not an enraged one."
Sanga said nothing. Still stroking the horse, his eyes ranged across the Vindhya mountains that paralleled the river on its northern side. As if he were looking for any signs of ambush.
"Luckily," Damodara continued, "I don't think Nanda Lal suspects anything. He doesn't know you well enough. But I do—and I need to know. I... cannot wait, much longer. It is becoming too dangerous for me. I can sense it."
The Rajput king's face still had no expression beyond that thoughtful frown, but Damodara was quite certain he understood. Sanga kept as great a distance as possible from the inner workings of the Malwa empire, beyond its military affairs. But he was no fool; and, a king himself, knew the realities of political maneuver. He was also one of the very few people, outside of the Malwa dynasty, who had communed directly with Malwa's hidden master. Or mistress, if one took the outer shell for what it was.
"I do not think my family is dead," Sanga said finally, speaking very softly. "I am not certain, but..."
Damodara closed his eyes. "As I suspected."
He almost added: as I feared. But did not, because Rana Sanga had become as close to him as Damodara had ever let a man become, and he would not wish that terrible grief on the Rajput.
Even if, most likely, that absence of grief meant that Damodara would soon enough be grieving the loss of his own family.
"Narses," he murmured, almost hissing the word.
He opened his eyes. "Yes?"
Sanga nodded. "I am not certain, you understand. But... yes, Lord. I think Narses spirited them away. Then faked the evidence of the massacre."
Damodara scowled. "Faked some of the evidence, you mean. There were plenty of dead Ye-tai on the scene."
Sanga shrugged. "How else would Narses fake something? He is as dangerous as a cobra. A very old and wise cobra."
"So he is," agreed Damodara. "I've often thought that employing him was as perilous a business as using a cobra for a guard in my own chambers."
Again, he rubbed his neck. "On the other hand, I need such a guard. I think."
"Oh, yes. You do." Sanga left off his pointless scrutiny of the Vindhyas and twisted his head to the west, looking toward Bharakuccha. "You're far more likely to be ambushed back there, by Nanda Lal, than you are here by Raghunath Rao."
Since Damodara had long ago come to that same conclusion, he said nothing. No need to, really. There were no longer many secrets between he and Rana Sanga. They had campaigned together across central Asia and into Mesopotamia, winning every battle along the way, even against Belisarius. And had still lost the campaign, not through any fault of theirs but because Malwa had failed them.
In the upside-down world of the Malwa empire, his accomplishments placed him in greater peril than defeat would have done. Malwa feared excellent generals, in many ways, more than it did bad ones.
"We will return to Bharakuccha," Damodara announced. "This patrol is pointless, and I'd just as soon reach the city before nightfall."
Sanga nodded. He started to rein his horse around, but paused. "Lord. Remember. I swore an oath."
* * *
After Sanga was gone, Damodara stared sourly at the river. Rajputs and their damned sacred oaths.
But the thought came more from habit, than anything else. Damodara knew how to circumvent the oath that the Rajputs had given to the emperor of Malwa, swearing their eternal fealty. He'd figured it out long ago—and hadn't need any of Narses' hints to do so.
The thing was quite obvious, really, if a man was prepared to gamble everything on a single daring maneuver. The problem was that, military tactics aside, Damodara was by nature a cautious and conservative man.
That thought, too, after a moment, Damodara dismissed as simply old habit. True enough, the Roman eunuch was maneuvering Damodara, and doing so ruthlessly—and entirely for Narses' own purposes. The fact remained that he was probably wiser in doing so, than Damodara had been in hesitating. Could you curse a man who manipulated you in your own best interests?
Of course, you could—and Damodara did it again. Damn Narses!
But... Malwa remained. Malwa and its secret ruler. The greatest, the most powerful—and certainly the most venomous—cobra in the world. Next to which, even Narses was a small menace.
So, finally, on a dirt road next to the Narmada river, Malwa's greatest general made the decision that had been long years in the making.
* * *
Many things went into that decision.
First, that he knew himself to be caught in a trap, if he did nothing. If Malwa won the war, it was Damodara's assessment that he himself would be eliminated as too dangerously capable. Most likely, however—another assessment, and one that he was growing ever more sure about—the war would not be won. In which case, Damodara would join in the general destruction of the dynasty.
Second, his fears for his family. Either of those two outcomes—certainly the first—would result in their destruction also. In the event of a Roman victory, Damodara did not think that the victors would target his family. But that meant nothing. In the chaos of a collapsing Malwa empire, rebellions were sure to erupt all over India—and all of them would be murderous toward anyone associated with the Malwa dynasty. The odds that Damodara's wife and children would survive that carnage was almost nil.
Third, and finally—and in some ways, most of all—Damodara was sick and tired of Malwa's secret overlord. Looking back over the years of his life, he could see now that the superhuman intelligence from the future was...
An idiot. A beast and a monster, too. But most of all, just an arrogant, blithering, drooling idiot.
Damodara remembered the one conversation he'd had with Belisarius, and the Roman general's musings on the folly of seeking perfection. He'd thought, at the time, that he agreed with the Roman. Now, he was certain of it.
So, he came to his decision.
Damn all new gods and their schemes.
He might have added: Damn Malwa. But, given his future prospects—if he had any—that would be quite absurd. From this moment forward, Damodara and his family would only survive insofar as he was Malwa.
He spent the rest of the ride back to the city convincing himself of that notion. It was not easy. The inner core of Damodara which had kept him sane since he was a boy was laughing at himself all the way.
* * *
Once the patrol returned to Bharakuccha, just after sunset, Damodara went immediately to Narses' chambers. The Malwa general made no attempt to hide his movements. Nanda Lal would surely have spies watching him, but so what? Damodara regularly consulted with Narses, and always did so openly. To have begun creeping about would raise suspicions.
"Yes, Lord?" Narses asked, after politely ushering Damodara into the inner chamber where they always discussed their affairs. In that chamber—for a certainty—Nanda Lal's spies could overhear nothing. "Some wine? Food?"
The old eunuch indicated a nearby chair, the most luxurious in the chamber. "Please, be seated."
Damodara ignored him. He was carefully studying the third man in the room, the hawk-faced assassin named Ajatasutra who had been Narses' chief associate since the failure of the Nika revolt in Constantinople.
"Do I want to ask him to leave, Narses?" Damodara asked abruptly.
The question brought a sudden stillness to the room. Along with a tightness to Narses' expression, and—perhaps oddly—a little smile to the face of the assassin.
Damodara waited. And waited.
Finally, Narses replied. "No, Lord, I think not. Ajatasutra can answer all your questions. Better than I can, actually, because..."
"He's been there. Yes." Damodara's eyes had never left the assassin. "My next question. Do I need to ask him to leave?"
For the first time since he entered the room, he glanced at Narses. "Or would it be wiser for me to summon Rana Sanga? For my protection."
Seeing Narses' little wince, Damodara issued a curt little laugh. "Not looking forward to that, are you? I thought not." He turned his gaze back to the assassin. "Well, then. Perhaps three other Rajputs."
Ajatasutra's thin smile widened. "Unless one of them is Jaimal or Udai, I'd recommend four. Five would be wiser. However..."
Gracefully, Ajatasutra slid off his chair. Then, to the Malwa general's surprise, went down on one knee. From nowhere, a dagger appeared. Flipped easily and now held by the tip, Ajatasutra laid the blade across his extended left forearm, offering the weapon's hilt to Damodara.
"There is no need for Rajputs, Lord of Malwa." There was not a trace of humor in the assassin's tone of voice, and the smile was gone. "This blade is at your service. I have served Malwa faithfully since I was a boy. Never more so than now."
Damodara studied the man, for a moment. A quick decision was needed here.
He made it. Then, reached out and barely touched the dagger hilt with the tip of his fingers.
"Keep the weapon. And now, Ajatasutra, tell me of my family. And Rana Sanga's."
Narses was fidgeting a bit. Smiling as thinly as the assassin had done, Damodara murmured to him: "I shall stand, I think. But perhaps you should be seated. Have some food. Some wine. Now that the assassin's blade is sworn to me, it may be your last meal."
Ajatasutra barked a laugh. "Ha! Like cutting an old crocodile's neck. Take me an hour, afterward, to sharpen the edge properly."
Narses scowled at him. But he took a seat—and some wine. No food. Perhaps his appetite was missing.
* * *
By the time the assassin had finished his report, and answered all of Damodara's questions, the Malwa general was seated on the luxurious chair. Seated on it, his neck perched against the backrest, and staring at the ceiling.
"Guarded by the Mongoose, no less," he murmured. "The arms trainer for a Rajput prince, no less. Narses, were this a fable told to me by a story-teller, I should have him executed for incompetence."
Wisely, Narses said nothing.
Damodara rubbed his face with a hand. Once, both the hand and the face had been pudgy. Two years of campaigning had removed most of the general's fat. Along with much else.
"The moment I move, my family—Sanga's too, once they're discovered—are as good as dead. May I presume that among all these other incredibly intricate schemes, you have given some thought to that problem?"
There was little visible sign of it, but Damodara could sense Narses relaxing. As well he might. That last question made clear that he'd survive this night.
"Quite a bit more than 'some.' First—meaning no offense, Lord—it is not true that 'the moment you move' anything will happen. Kausambi is hundreds of miles and a mountain range away from here. Great Lady Sati and the main Malwa army are in the Punjab, still farther than that."
"Telegraph," Damodara stated. "And, now, the new radio."
"Seven of the nine telegraph operators in Bharakuccha are mine. In the event the eighth or ninth are on duty, I have men ready to cut the wires. I'd rather not, of course. That would itself be a signal that something is amiss. They wouldn't assume rebellion, simply Maratha marauders. But a patrol would be sent out to investigate."
Damodara waved his hand impatiently. "I have Rajputs to deal with patrols. But I, also, would rather not have the little problem."
Narses glanced at Ajatasutra.
"All I need is to know the day," the assassin said calmly. "Not even that. A three-day stretch will do. Nanda Lal will be suspicious regarding the unfortunate deaths, of course, but won't have time to do anything about it."
Damodara nodded. "I can manage the three days. That still leaves the radio."
Narses smiled. "The radio station is guarded by Ye-tai. A special detachment—chosen by Toramana and under his direct authority."
Damodara brought his gaze down from the ceiling. "Toramana..." he mused. "Despite his upcoming marriage to Rana Sanga's half-sister Indira, can we really trust him?"
"Trust him?" Narses shrugged. "No, of course not. Toramana's only real loyalty is to his own ambition. But we can trust that."
Damodara frowned. "Why are you so certain his ambition will lead him to us? Nanda Lal is just as aware of the implications of Toramana's marriage to a Rajput princess as we are. Yet he seems completely confident in Toramana's loyalty. Even to the point of insisting that I place Toramana in charge of the city's security, whenever I leave Bharakuccha."
"Lord..." Narses hesitated. "Forgive me, but you are still too much the Malwa."
"Meaning that you are still a bit infected—pardon me for the term—with that unthinking Malwa arrogance. Your dynasty has been in power too long, too easily, and with..."
The eunuch let the sentence trail off. For an instant, his eyes seemed to move, as if he had started to glance at Ajatasutra and stopped himself.
Damodara understood the significance of that little twitch of the eyes. Narses, other than Rana Sanga and Belisarius, was the only human being not a member of the Malwa dynastic family who had had direct contact with Link. The cybernetic organism who was the Malwa empire's secret overlord and provided the dynasty with its ultimate source of power.
And—yes, its ultimate source of arrogance.
Damodara pondered Narses' words, for a moment. Then, decided the eunuch was probably right. It would be fittingly ironic if a dynasty raised and kept in power by a superhuman intelligence should fall, in the end, because that same power made the dynasty itself stupid.
Not stupid, perhaps, so much as unseeing. Nanda Lal, for instance, was extremely intelligent. But he had been so powerful, and so feared, and for so long, that he had grown blind to the fact that there was other power—and that not all men feared him.
"What are Toramana's terms?" he asked abruptly. "And do not irritate me by pretending you haven't already discussed it with him. Your life is still hanging by a thread, Narses."
"Nothing complicated. A high position for himself, of course. Acceptance of his ties to the Rajputs through his upcoming marriage. Beyond that, while he does not expect the Ye-tai to continue to enjoy the same special privileges, he wants some guarantees that they will not be savaged."
Damodara cocked his head. "I shouldn't think he'd care about that, if he's solely driven by his own ambitions."
Narses looked uncomfortable, for a moment. "Lord, I doubt if there is any man who is solely driven by ambition." His lips grew twisted. "Not even me."
Ajatasutra spoke. "Toramana still has his clan ties, Lord. They wear lightly on him, true, but they exist. Beyond that..."
The assassin lifted his shoulders, in a movement too slight to be really considered a shrug. "If the Ye-tai are singled out for destruction, how long could a single Ye-tai general remain in favor? No matter what his formal post."
"True." Damodara thought about the problem, for a time. The chamber was silent while he did so.
"All right," he said finally. "It would be ridiculous to say that I'm happy with your plan. But... it seems as good as any. That leaves Rao, and his Marathas."
Now that the discussion had returned to the matter of war, a subject on which Damodara was an expert, the Malwa general sat up straight.
"Three things are needed. First, I need to extract the army from Bharakuccha. It's one thing for me to begin the rebellion—"
"Please, Lord!" Narses interrupted, raising his hand. "The restoration of the rightful emperor to his proper place." He waved the hand negligently. "I assure you that I have all the needed documentation—not here, of course—to satisfy any scholar on the matter."
Damodara stared at him. The eunuch's face was serene, sure, certain. To all appearances, Narses thought he was speaking nothing but the solemn truth.
The general barked a laugh. "So! Fine. As I was saying, it's one thing for me to begin the—ah—restoration with the army in the field. The men in their ranks, the officers at their head. Quite another to try to launch it here, with the men scattered all over the city in billets."
Narses nodded. So did Ajatasutra.
"Second—leading directly from that—I need to draw out Rao."
Narses grimaced. "Lord, even if you could get Rao out of Deogiri... the casualties... you really need your army intact—"
"Oh, be silent, you old schemer. Leave matters of war to me. I said 'draw him out.' I said nothing of fighting a battle. First, because I need that excuse to pull the entire army out of Bharakuccha. Second, because I will need to make a quick settlement with the Marathas. I can't start a new war without ending this one."
Hearing a little cough from Ajatasutra, Damodara looked at him.
The assassin waggled his hand. "A single combat. Rao against Rana Sanga. All of India has been waiting for years to see that match again."
Narses frowned. "Why in the name of—"
"Quiet, Narses." Damodara pondered the notion, for a moment.
"Yes... That might very well work." He eyed Ajatasutra intently. "With the right envoy, of course."
Despite the command, Narses could no longer restrain himself. "Why in the name of God would Rao be so stupid as to accept such an idiotic proposal as—"
The eunuch's jaws almost literally snapped shut. "Oh," he concluded.
Ajatasutra's thin smile came. "No one has ever suggested that Raghunath Rao was stupid. Which is precisely the point."
He gave Damodara a little nod. "I will take the message."
"Yes, Lord. Nothing may be said directly. Rao will do as he will."
Damodara nodded. "Good enough. If it doesn't work, so be it. Then, the third thing I need. We will have to secure Bharakuccha instantly, when the time comes. I can't afford a siege, either. Once the rebellion—ah, restoration—begins, I'll have to cross the Vindhyas and march on Kausambi immediately. If I can't reach and take the capital before Sati and whatever forces she brings arrives from the Punjab, there's no chance. Even for me, much less my family."
Narses frowned. "Lord, I am sure I can get your family out of Kausambi before Emperor Skandagupta—ah, the false emperor—realizes they're gone. Why take the risk of a hasty assault on the city? Kausambi's defenses are the greatest in the world."
"Do not teach me warfare, spymaster," Damodara stated flatly. "Do not. You think I should launch a rebellion—let's call things by their right name, shall we?—in one of the provinces. And then what? Years of civil war that shreds the empire, while the Romans and the Persians wait to pick up the pieces. Of which there won't be many."
Damodara rubbed his face. "No. I have never been able to forget Ranapur. There are times I wake up in the middle of the night, shaking. I will not visit twenty Ranapurs upon India."
"Enough!" Damodara rose to his feet. "Understand this, Narses. What a general can do, an emperor cannot. I will succeed or I will fail, but I will do so as an emperor. There will be no further discussion on the matter."
"Be quiet, old man," Ajatasutra murmured coldly. "I was at Ranapur also."
He rose to his feet and gave Damodara a very deep bow. "Lord of Malwa. Let us do the thing like an assassin, not a torturer."
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Charax, on the Persian Gulf
"I can't," said Dryopus firmly. Anna glared at him, but the Roman official in charge of the great port city of Charax was quite impervious to her anger. His next words were spoken in the patient tone of one addressing an unruly child.
"Lady Saronites, if I allowed you to continue on this—" He paused, obviously groping for a term less impolite than insane. "—headstrong project of yours, it'd be worth my career."
He picked up a letter lying on the great desk in his headquarters. "This is from your father, demanding that you be returned to Constantinople under guard."
"My father has no authority over me!"
"No, he doesn't." Dryopus shook his head. "But your husband Calopodius does. Without his authorization, I simply can't allow you to continue. I certainly can't detail a ship to take you to Barbaricum."
Anna clenched her jaws. Her eyes went to the nearby window. She couldn't see the harbor from here, but she could visualize it easily enough. The Roman soldiers who had all-but-formally arrested her when she and her small party arrived in the great port city of Charax on the Persian Gulf had marched her past it on their way to Dryopus' palace.
For a moment, wildly, she thought of appealing to the Persians who were now in official control of Charax. But the notion died as soon as it came. The Aryans were even more strict than Romans when it came to the independence of women. Besides—
Dryopus seemed to read her thoughts. "I should note that all shipping in Charax is under Roman military law. So there's no point in your trying to go around me. No ship captain will take your money, anyway. Not without a permit issued by my office."
He dropped her father's letter back onto the desk. "I'm sorry, but there's nothing else for it. If you wish to continue, you will have to get your husband's permission."
"He's all the way up the Indus," she said angrily. "And there's no telegraph communication between here and there."
Dryopus shrugged. "No, there isn't—and it'll be some time before the new radio system starts working. But there is a telegraph line between Barbaricum and the Iron Triangle. And by now the new line connecting Barbaricum and the harbor at Chabahari may be completed. You'll still have to wait until I can get a ship there—and another to bring back the answer. Which won't be quickly, now that the winter monsoon has started. I'll have to use a galley, whenever the first one leaves—and I'm not sending a galley just for this purpose."
Anna's mind raced through the problem. On their way down the Euphrates, Illus had explained to her the logic of travel between Mesopotamia and India. He'd had plenty of time to do so. The river voyage through Mesopotamia down to the port at Charax had taken much longer than Anna had expected, mainly because of the endless delays caused by Persian officials. She'd expected to be in Charax by late October. Instead, they were now halfway into December.
During the winter monsoon season, which began in November, it was impossible for sailing craft to make it to Barbaricum. Taking advantage of the relatively sheltered waters of the Gulf, on the other hand, they could make it as far as Chabahari—which was the reason the Roman forces in India had been working so hard to get a telegraph line connecting Chabahari and the Indus.
So if she could get as far as Chabahari... She'd still have to wait, but if Calopodius' permission came she wouldn't be wasting weeks here in Mesopotamia.
"Allow me to go as far as Chabahari then," she insisted.
Dryopus started to frown. Anna had to fight to keep from screaming in frustration.
"Put me under guard, if you will!"
Dryopus sighed, lowered his head, and ran his fingers through thinning hair. "He's not likely to agree, you know," he said softly.
"He's my husband, not yours," pointed out Anna. "You don't know how he thinks." She didn't see any reason to add: no more than I do.
His head still lowered, Dryopus chuckled. "True enough. With that young man, it's always hard to tell."
He raised his head and studied her carefully. "Are you that besotted with him? That you insist on going into the jaws of the greatest war in history?"
"He's my husband," she replied, not knowing what else to say.
Again, he chuckled. "You remind me of Antonina, a bit. Or Irene."
Anna was confused for a moment, until she realized he was referring to Belisarius' wife and the Roman Empire's former head of espionage, Irene Macrembolitissa. Famous women, now, the both of them. One of them had even become a queen herself.
"I don't know either one," she said quietly. Which was true enough, even though she'd read everything ever written by Macrembolitissa. "So I couldn't say."
Dryopus studied her a bit longer. Then his eyes moved to her bodyguards, who had been standing as far back in a corner as possible.
"Can I trust you?" he asked.
Illus' shoulders heaved a bit, as if he were suppressing a laugh. "No offense, sir—but if it's worth your career, just imagine the price we'd pay." His tone grew serious: "We'll see to it that she doesn't, ah, escape on her own."
Dryopus nodded and looked back at Anna. "All right, then. As far as Chabahari."
* * *
On their way to the inn where Anna had secured lodgings, Illus shook his head. "If Calopodius says 'no,' you realize you'll have wasted a lot of time and money."
"He's my husband," replied Anna firmly. Not knowing what else to say.
The Iron Triangle
After the general finished reading Anna's message, and the accompanying one from Dryopus, he invited Calopodius to sit down at the table in the command bunker.
"I knew you were married," said Belisarius, "but I know none of the personal details. So tell me."
Calopodius hesitated. He was deeply reluctant to involve the general in the petty minutiae of his own life. In the little silence that fell over them, within the bunker, Calopodius could hear the artillery barrages. As was true day and night, and had been for many weeks, the Malwa besiegers of the Iron Triangle were shelling the Roman fortifications—and the Roman gunners were responding with counter-battery fire. The fate of the world would be decided here in the Punjab, Calopodius thought, some time over the next year or so. That, and the whole future of the human race. It seemed absurd—grotesque, even—to waste the Roman commander's time...
"Tell me," repeated Belisarius. For all their softness, Calopodius could easily detect the tone of command in the words.
Still, he hesitated.
Belisarius chuckled. "Be at ease, young man. I can spare the time for this. In truth—" Calopodius could sense, if not see, the little gesture by which the general expressed a certain ironic weariness. "I would enjoy it, Calopodius. War is a means, not an end. It would do my soul good to talk about ends, for a change."
That was enough to break Calopodius' resistance.
"I really don't know her very well, sir. We'd only been married for a short time before I left to join your army. It was—"
He fumbled for the words. Belisarius provided them.
"A marriage of convenience. Your wife's from the Melisseni family."
Calopodius nodded. With his acute hearing, he could detect the slight sound of the general scratching his chin, as he was prone to do when thinking.
"An illustrious family," stated Belisarius. "One of the handful of senatorial families which can actually claim an ancient pedigree without paying scribes to fiddle with the historical records. But a family which has fallen on hard times financially."
"My father said they wouldn't even have a pot to piss in if their creditors ever really descended on them." Calopodius sighed. "Yes, General. An illustrious family, but now short of means. Whereas my family, as you know..."
"The Saronites. Immensely wealthy, but with a pedigree that needs a lot of fiddling."
Calopodius grinned. "Go back not more than three generations, and you're looking at nothing but commoners. Not in the official records, of course. My father can afford a lot of scribes."
"That explains your incredible education," mused Belisarius. "I had wondered, a bit. Not many young noblemen have your command of language and the arts."
Calopodius heard the scrape of a chair as the general stood up. Then, heard him begin to pace about. That was another of Belisarius' habits when he was deep in thought. Calopodius had heard him do it many times, over the past weeks. But he was a bit astonished that the general was giving the same attention to this problem as he would to a matter of strategy or tactics.
"Makes sense, though," continued Belisarius. "For all the surface glitter—and don't think the Persians don't make plenty of sarcastic remarks about it—the Roman aristocracy will overlook a low pedigree as long as the 'nobleman' is wealthy and well educated. Especially—as you are—in grammar and rhetoric."
"I can drop three Homeric and biblical allusions into any sentence," chuckled Calopodius.
"I've noticed!" laughed the general. "That official history you're writing of my campaigns would serve as a Homeric and biblical commentary as well." He paused a moment. "Yet I notice that you don't do it in your Dispatches to the Army."
"It'd be a waste," said Calopodius, shrugging. "Worse than that, really. I write those for the morale of the soldiers, most of whom would just find the allusions confusing. Besides, those are really your dispatches, not mine. And you don't talk that way, certainly not to your soldiers."
"They're not my dispatches, young man. They're yours. I approve them, true, but you write them. And when they're read aloud by my son to the Senate, Photius presents them as Calopodius' dispatches, not mine."
Calopodius was startled into silence.
"You didn't know? My son is eleven years old, and quite literate. And since he is the Emperor of Rome, even if Theodora still wields the actual power, he insists on reading them to the Senate. He's very fond of your dispatches. Told me in his most recent letter that they're the only things he reads which don't bore him to tears. His tutors, of course, don't approve."
Calopodius was still speechless. Again, Belisarius laughed. "You're quite famous, lad." Then, more softly, almost sadly: "I can't give you back your eyes, Calopodius. But I can give you the fame you wanted when you came to me. I promised you I would."
The sound of his pacing resumed. "In fact, unless I miss my guess, those Dispatches of yours will someday—centuries from now—be more highly regarded than your official history of the war." Calopodius heard a very faint noise, and guessed the general was stroking his chest, where the jewel from the future named Aide lay nestled in his pouch. "I have it on good authority that historians of the future will prefer straight narrative to flowery rhetoric. And—in my opinion, at least—you write straightforward narrative even better than you toss off classical allusions."
The chair scraped as the general resumed his seat. "But let's get back to the problem at hand. In essence, your marriage was arranged to lever your family into greater respectability, and to provide the Melisseni—discreetly, of course—a financial rescue. How did you handle the dowry, by the way?"
Calopodius shrugged. "I'm not certain. My family's so wealthy that a dowry's not important. For the sake of appearances, the Melisseni provided a large one. But I suspect my father loaned them the dowry—and then made arrangements to improve the Melisseni's economic situation by linking their own fortunes to those of our family." He cleared his throat. "All very discreetly, of course."
Belisarius chuckled dryly. "Very discreetly. And how did the Melisseni react to it all?"
Calopodius shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "Not well, as you'd expect. I met Anna for the first time three days after my father informed me of the prospective marriage. It was one of those carefully rehearsed 'casual visits.' She and her mother arrived at my family's villa near Nicodemia."
"Accompanied by a small army of servants and retainers, I've no doubt."
Calopodius smiled. "Not such a small army. A veritable host, it was." He cleared his throat. "They stayed for three days, that first time. It was very awkward for me. Anna's mother—her name's Athenais—barely even tried to disguise her contempt for me and my family. I think she was deeply bitter that their economic misfortunes were forcing them to seek a husband for their oldest daughter among less illustrious but much wealthier layers of the nobility."
"And Anna herself?"
"Who knows? During those three days, Anna said little. In the course of the various promenades which we took through the grounds of the Saronites estate—God, talk about chaperones!—she seemed distracted to the point of being almost rude. I couldn't really get much of a sense of her, General. She seemed distressed by something. Whether that was her pending marriage to me, or something else, I couldn't say."
"And you didn't much care. Be honest."
"True. I'd known for years that any marriage I entered would be purely one of convenience." He shrugged. "At least my bride-to-be was neither unmannerly not uncomely. In fact, from what I could determine at the time—which wasn't much, given the heavy scaramangium and headdress and the elaborate cosmetics under which Anna labored—she seemed quite attractive."
He shrugged again. "So be it. I was seventeen, General." For a moment, he hesitated, realizing how silly that sounded. He was only a year older than that now, after all, even if...
"You were a boy then; a man, now," filled in Belisarius. "The world looks very different after a year spent in the carnage. I know. But then—"
Calopodius heard the general's soft sigh. "Seventeen years old. With the war against Malwa looming ever larger in the life of the Roman Empire, the thoughts of a vigorous boy like yourself were fixed on feats of martial prowess, not domestic bliss."
"Yes. I'd already made up my mind. As soon as the wedding was done—well, and the marriage consummated—I'd be joining your army. I didn't even see any reason to wait to make sure that I'd provided an heir. I've got three younger brothers, after all, every one of them in good health."
Again, silence filled the bunker and Calopodius could hear the muffled sounds of the artillery exchange. "Do you think that's why she was so angry at me when I told her I was leaving? I didn't really think she'd care."
"Actually, no. I think..." Calopodius heard another faint noise, as if the general were picking up the letters lying on the table. "There's this to consider. A wife outraged by abandonment—or glad to see an unwanted husband's back—would hardly be taking these risks to find him again."
"Then why is she doing it?"
"I doubt if she knows. Which is really what this is all about, I suspect." He paused; then: "She's only a year older than you, I believe."
Calopodius nodded. The general continued. "Did you ever wonder what an eighteen-year-old girl wants from life? Assuming she's high-spirited, of course—but judging from the evidence, your Anna is certainly that. Timid girls, after all, don't race off on their own to find a husband in the middle of a war zone."
Calopodius said nothing. After a moment, Belisarius chuckled. "Never gave it a moment's thought, did you? Well, young man, I suggest the time has come to do so. And not just for your own sake."
The chair scraped again as the general rose. "When I said I knew nothing about the details of your marriage, I was fudging a bit. I didn't know anything about what you might call the 'inside' of the thing. But I knew quite a bit about the 'outside' of it. This marriage is important to the Empire, Calopodius."
The general clucked his tongue reprovingly. "There's more to winning a war than tactics on the battlefield, lad. You've also got to keep an eye—always—on what a future day will call the 'home front.' " Calopodius heard him resume his pacing. "You can't be that naïve. You must know that the Roman aristocracy is not very fond of the dynasty."
"My family is," protested Calopodius.
"Yes. Yours—and most of the newer rich families. That's because their wealth comes mainly from trade and commerce. The war—all the new technology Aide's given us—has been a blessing to you. But it looks very different from the standpoint of the old landed families. You know as well as I do—you must know—that it was those families which supported the Nika insurrection a few years ago. Fortunately, most of them had enough sense to do it at a distance."
Calopodius couldn't help wincing. And what he wasn't willing to say, the general was. Chuckling, oddly enough.
"The Melisseni came that close to being arrested, Calopodius. Arrested—the whole family—and all their property seized. If Anna's father Nicephorus had been even slightly less discreet... The truth? His head would have been on a spike on the wall of the Hippodrome, right next to that of John of Cappadocia's. The only thing that saved him was that he was discreet enough—barely—and the Melisseni are one of the half-dozen most illustrious families of the Empire."
"I didn't know they were that closely tied..."
Calopodius sensed Belisarius' shrug. "We were able to keep it quiet. And since then, the Melisseni seem to have retreated from any open opposition. But we were delighted—I'm speaking of Theodora and Justinian and myself, and Antonina for that matter—when we heard about your marriage. Being tied closely to the Saronites will inevitably pull the Melisseni into the orbit of the dynasty. Especially since—as canny as your father is—they'll start getting rich themselves from the new trade and manufacture."
"Don't tell them that!" barked Calopodius. "Such work is for plebeians."
"They'll change their tune, soon enough. And the Melisseni are very influential among the older layers of the aristocracy."
"I understand your point, General." Calopodius gestured toward the unseen table, and the letters atop it. "So what do you want me to do? Tell Anna to come to the Iron Triangle?"
Calopodius was startled by the sound of Belisarius' hand slapping the table. "Damn fool! It's time you put that splendid mind of yours to work on this, Calopodius. A marriage—if it's to work—needs grammar and rhetoric also."
"I don't understand," said Calopodius timidly.
"I know you don't. So will you follow my advice?"
Belisarius chuckled. "You're more confident than I am! But..." After a moment's pause: "Don't tell her to do anything, Calopodius. Send Dryopus a letter explaining that your wife has your permission to make her own decision. And send Anna a letter saying the same thing. I'd suggest..."
Another pause. Then: "Never mind. That's for you to decide."
In the silence that followed, the sound of artillery came to fill the bunker again. It seemed louder, perhaps. "And that's enough for the moment, young man. I'd better get in touch with Maurice. From the sound of things, I'd say the Malwa are getting ready for another probe."
* * *
Calopodius wrote the letters immediately thereafter, dictating them to his scribe. The letter to Dryopus took no time at all. Neither did the one to Anna, at first. But Calopodius, for reasons he could not determine, found it difficult to find the right words to conclude. Grammar and rhetoric seemed of no use at all.
In the end, moved by an impulse which confused him, he simply wrote:
Do as you will, Anna. For myself, I would like to see you again.
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The day after his meeting with Narses, Damodara went to the chambers occupied by Nanda Lal, in a different wing of the great palace. Politely, he waited outside for permission to enter. Politely, because Damodara was now officially the Goptri of the Deccan; and thus, in a certain sense, the entire palace might be said to be his personal property.
But there was no point in being rude. Soon enough, the chief spymaster of the Malwa empire emerged from his private chambers.
"Yes, Damodara?" he asked. Not bothering, as usual, to preface the curt remark with the general's honorifics.
Nanda Lal seemed to treasure such little snubs. It was the only sign of outright stupidity Damodara had ever seen him exhibit.
"I have decided to take the field against Rao and his rebels," Damodara announced. "Within a month, I think."
"At last! I am glad to hear it. But why move now, after...?"
He left the rest unstated. After you have resisted my advice to do so for so long?
"The army is ready, well enough. I see no reason to wait until we are well into garam season. As it is, we'll be campaigning through the heat anyway. But I'd like to end the business, if possible, before the southwest monsoon comes."
Above the lumpy, broken nose that Belisarius had given him, years ago, Nanda Lal's dark eyes were fixed on Damodara. The gaze was not quite suspicious, but very close.
"You still lack the heavy siege guns—that you have insisted for months are essential to reducing Deogiri."
Damodara shrugged again. "I don't intent to besiege Deogiri. It is my belief that Rao will come forth from the city to meet me on the field of battle. I sense that he has grown arrogant."
Nanda Lal turned his head, peering at Damodara from the side of his eyes. The suspicion had come to the surface now. "You 'sense'? Why? I have gotten no such indications from my spies."
Damodara decided it was time to put an end to courtesy. He returned the spymaster's sideways look with a flat, cold stare of his own. "Neither you nor your spies are warriors. I am. So it is my sense—not yours—which will guide me in this matter."
He looked away, as if indifferent. "And I am also the Goptri of the Deccan. Not you, and certainly not your spies. The decision is made, Nanda Lal." Casually, he added: "I presume you will wish to accompany the expedition."
Tightly, Nanda Lal replied: "You presume incorrectly. I shall remain here in Bharakuccha. And I will insist that you leave Toramana and his Ye-tais here with me." After a brief pause, in a slightly more conciliatory tone, he added, "To maintain the city's security."
Damodara's eyes continued to rove casually about the corridors of the palace, as if he were looking for security threats—and finding none.
"You may have half the Ye-tai force," he said at length, dismissively. "That's more than enough to maintain security. But I will you leave you Toramana in command, even though I could certainly use him myself."
* * *
That night, as soon as it was dark, Ajatasutra slipped out of the city. He had no great difficulty with the task, as many times as he'd done it. Would have had no difficulty at all, except that he was also smuggling out the fastest horse in Bharakuccha.
The horse was too good to risk breaking one its legs riding on rough Deccan roads with only a sliver of a crescent moon to see by. So, once far enough from the city, Ajatasutra made camp for the night.
It was a comfortable camp. As it should have been, since he'd long used the site for the purpose and had a cache already supplied.
He slept well, too. Woke very early, and was on his way south to Deogiri before the sun rose.
By mid-morning, he was in excellent spirits. There still remained the not-so-minor problem of avoiding a Maratha ambush, of course. But Ajatasutra was sanguine with regard to that matter, for the good and simple reason that he had no intention of attempting that difficult feat in the first place.
All he had to do was not get killed when the Maratha caught him by surprise. Which, they probably would. With the possible—no, probable—exception of Raghunath Rao, Ajatasutra thought he was the best assassin in India. But the skills of an assassin, though manifold, do not automatically include expertise at laying or avoiding ambushes in broken country like Majarashtra.
No matter. He thought it unlikely that the Marathas would kill a single man outright. It was much more likely they would try to capture him—a task which they would find supremely easy since he intended to put up no resistance at all.
Thereafter, the letter he carried should do the rest.
Well... It would certainly get him an audience with the Empress of Andhra and her consort. It was also possible, of course, that the audience would be followed by his execution.
Ajatasutra was not unduly concerned over that matter either, however. A man who manages to become the second best assassin in India is not, in the nature of things, given to fretfulness.
* * *
The ambush came later than he expected, a full three days after he left Bharakuccha and long after he'd penetrated into the highlands of the Great Country. On the other hand, it did indeed come as a complete surprise.
"That was very well done," he complimented his ambushers, seeing a dozen of them popping up around him. "I wouldn't have thought a lizard could have hidden in those rocks."
He complimented them again after four of them seized him and hauled him off the horse, albeit a bit more acerbically. The lads went about the task with excessive enthusiasm.
"No need for all that, I assure you!"
He's got a dagger, captain!
"Three, actually. There's another in my right boot and a small one tucked between my shoulder blades. If you'll permit to rise just a bit—no?—then you'll have to roll me over to get it."
He's got three daggers, captain! One of them's a throwing knife! He's an assassin!
A flurry of harsh questions followed.
"Well, yes, of course I'm an assassin. Who else would be idiotic enough to ride alone and openly through Maratha territory? But you may rest assured that I was not on my way to make an attempt on Rao's life. I have a letter for him. For the Empress, actually."
A flurry of harsher accusations followed.
"Oh, that's nonsense. If I wanted to assassinate the Empress, I'd hardly use a blade for the purpose. With Rao himself to guard her? No, no, poison's the thing. I've studied Shakuntala's habits, from many spy reports, and her great weakness is that she refuses to use a food-taster."
A flurry of still harsher proposals followed. They began with impalement and worked their way down from there.
Fortunately, by the time they got to the prospect of flaying the assassin alive, the captain of the Maratha squad had finally taken Ajatasutra's advice to look in his left boot.
"See? I told you I was carrying a letter for the Empress."
* * *
There came, then, the only awkward moment of the day.
None of them could read.
"And here I took the time and effort to provide a Marathi translation, along with the Hindi," sighed Ajatasutra. "I'm an idiot. Too much time spent in palaces. Ah... I don't suppose you'd just take my word for it?"
A very long flurry of very harsh ridicule followed. But, in the end, the Maratha hillmen agreed that they'd accept the letter as good coin—provided that Ajatasutra read it aloud to them so they could be sure it said what he claimed it did.
Capital city of the Kushan Kingdom
Kungas, also, found that the first Malwa assassination attempt came later than he'd expected.
He was not, however, caught by surprise. In fact, he wasn't caught at all.
Kungas was certainly not one of the best assassins in India. Not even close. He was, however, most likely the best assassin-catcher. For years, the Malwa had used him as a security specialist. After he broke from them to join Shakuntala's rebellion, she'd made him the commander of her imperial bodyguard.
"They're in that building," Kujulo murmured, pointing with his chin out of the window. He was too far away from the window to be seen from the outside, but he was also too experienced to run the risk that a large gesture like a pointing finger might be spotted. The human eye can detect motion easier than it can detect a still figure. "One of the two you predicted they'd use."
"It was fairly obvious," said Kungas. "They're the only two buildings fronting the square that have both a good angle for a shot and a good rear exit to make an escape from."
Next to him, also carefully standing back from the window so as not to be spotted, Vima chuckled softly. "It helps, of course, that we prepared the sites well. Like bait for rats."
Kungas nodded. The gesture, like Kujulo's chin-pointing, was minimal. Something that couldn't possibly be spotted even fifty feet away, much less across an entire city square.
Bait, indeed. The king of the Kushans—his queen, rather, acting on his instructions—had bought the two buildings outright. Then, placed her own agents in the position of "landlords," with clear and explicit instructions to rent any of the rooms to anyone, no questions asked—and make sure that their reputation for doing so became well known in Peshawar.
Inevitably, of course, that quickly made both buildings havens for prostitution and gambling. All the better, as far as Kungas was concerned. Within a week, all of the prostitutes were cheerfully supplementing their income as informers for the queen.
Irene had known the Malwa assassins were there within half an hour of their arrival.
Piss-poor assassins, in Kungas' opinion, when she told him. They'd started by annoying the whores with a brusque refusal of their services.
"All right," he said. "I see no reason to waste time."
"How do you want to do it?" asked Kujulo. "You don't want to use the charges, I assume."
In the unlikely event he might need it a last resort, Kungas had had all the rooms in the buildings that would be suitable for assassination attempts fitted with demolitions. Shaped charges, basically, that would spray the interior with shrapnel without—hopefully—collapsing the walls.
Still, with the ubiquitous mudbrick construction in Peshawar, Kungas saw no reason to take the risk. There was always the chance the building might collapse, killing dozens of people. Even if that didn't happen, the expense of repairing the damage would be considerable, and the work itself disruptive. Such an extreme measure might aggravate the residents of Peshawar.
Irene's spies had reported that Kungas was now very popular in the city, even among the non-Kushan inhabitants, and he saw no reason to undermine that happy state of affairs.
The new king's popularity was not surprising, of course. Kungas had maintained at least as much stability as the Malwa. More, really, since the Pathan hillmen had completely ceased their periodic harassment of the city-dwellers. He'd also lowered the taxes and levies, eliminated the most egregious of the Malwa regulations, and, most of all, abolished all of the harsh Malwa laws regarding religion. The enforced Malwa cult of mahaveda Hinduism had never sat well in the mountains. The moment Kungas issued his decrees, the region's underlying Buddhist faith had surged back to the surface.
No, there was no reason to risk undermining all that by blowing up parts of the city. Especially such visible parts, fronting on the main square.
"I've got my men ready," Kujulo added.
"What are they armed with? The assassins, I mean. Guns?"
"No. Bows. Probably be using poisoned arrowheads."
Kungas shook his head. "In that case, no. Keep your men ready, but let's try the Sarmatian girls."
Kujulo looked skeptical. Vima looked downright appalled.
"Kungas—ah, Sire—there isn't a one of them—"
"Enough," Kungas said. "I know they have no experience. Neither did you or I, once. How else do you get it?"
He shook his head again. "If the Malwa were armed with guns, it might be different. But bows will be awkward in the confines of those rooms. The girls will have a good chance. Some of them will die. But... That's what they wanted. To be real warriors. Dying comes with it."
The crack of a smile re-appeared. "Besides, it's only fair—since we're using one of them as the decoy."
* * *
A few minutes later, the business began. The Sarmatian girl posing as Irene came into the square on horseback, surrounded by her usual little entourage of female guards.
Watching from the same window, Kungas was amused. Irene often complained that the custom in the area of insisting that women had to be veiled in public was a damned nuisance, personally speaking—but a blessing, from the standpoint of duplicity.
Was that Irene down there? Who could say, really? Her face couldn't be seen, because of the veil. But the woman was the right height and build, had the same color and length of hair in that distinctive pony-tail, wore the proper regalia and the apparel, and had the accustomed escort.
Of course, it was the queen. Who else would it be?
Kungas knew that the assassins across the square wouldn't even be wondering about it. True, Irene was almost certainly not their target and the assassins would make no attempt here. They'd wait for Kungas to show himself. Still, the appearance of the queen in the square so soon after their arrival would be a good sign to them. They'd want to study her movements carefully. All their attention would be fixed on the figure moving within range of the bows in the windows.
He waited for the explosions that would signal the attack. For all that Kungas was prepared to see Irene's girl warriors suffer casualties, he'd seen no reason to make them excessive. He didn't want to risk destroying the walls with the implanted shaped charges, true—but there was no reason not to use the much smaller charges it would take to simply blow open the doors.
Blow them open—and spray splinters all through the room. That should be enough to give the inexperienced girls the edge they'd need.
* * *
A bigger edge than he'd expected, in the event. A moment later, the explosions came—and one of the Malwa assassins was blown right out the window. From the way he toppled to the ground twenty feet below, Kungas knew he was already unconscious. A big chunk of one of the doors must have hit him on the back of the head.
He landed like a sack of meal. From the distance, Kungas couldn't hear the impact, but it was obvious that he hadn't survived it. Most of the street square was dirt, but it was very hard-packed. Almost like stone.
"Ruptured neck, for sure," Vima grunted. "Probably half his brains spilling out, too."
Another assassin appeared in the same window. His back, to be precise. The man was obviously fighting someone.
A few seconds later, he too toppled out of the window. Still clutching the spear that had been driven into his chest, he made a landing that was no better.
Worse, probably. The assassin had the bad luck of landing on the flagstones in front of the building's entrance.
The shouts and screams and other sounds of fighting could be heard across the square for a bit longer. Perhaps ten seconds.
Kungas glanced down into the center of the square, to assure himself that the decoy was unharmed. He had no particular concern for the girl in question—in fact, he didn't even know who it was—but he didn't want to face Irene's recriminations if she'd been hurt.
Self-recriminations, really. But Irene was not exempt from the normal human tendency to shed blame on others as a way of handling guilt.
That left the question of how many of the Sarmatian squad that launched the attack had been killed or injured. But that was a different sort of matter. Getting killed in a fight with weapons in hand didn't cause the same gut-wrenching sensation as getting killed serving as a helpless decoy.
"Odd, really," Kungas murmured to himself. "But that's the way it is. Someday I'll have to ask Dadaji if he can explain the philosophy of it to me."
He turned and headed for the door. "Come. Let's find out."
* * *
It was better than he'd thought. Certainly better than he'd feared.
"See?" he demanded of Vima. "Only one girl dead. One badly injured, but she'll probably survive."
"She'll never walk right, again," Vima said sourly. "Might lose that leg completely, at least from the knee down."
Kujulo chuckled. "Will you listen to him? Bad as a doddering old Pathan clan chief!"
For a moment, he hunched his shoulders and twisted his face into a caricature of a prune-faced, disapproving, ancient clansman. Even Vima laughed.
"Not bad," Kujulo stated firmly, after straightening. "Against five assassins? Not bad."
* * *
Irene was upset, of course. The dead and injured girls were names and faces to her. People that she'd known, even known well.
But there were no recriminations. No self-recriminations, even. Her Sarmatian guards themselves were ecstatic at their success, despite the casualties.
It probably wasn't necessary, but Kungas put it into words anyway.
"Make Alexander the Great and the Buddha's son the forefathers of a dynasty—this is what comes with it, Irene."
"Yes, love, I know."
"They were all volunteers."
"Yes, love, I know. Now please shut up. And go away for a few hours."
Axum, in the Ethiopian highlands
Ousanas glowered at the construction crew working in the great field just on the outskirts of the city of Axum. Most of the field was covered with the stone ruins of ancient royal tombs.
"I ought to have the lot of them executed," he pronounced, "seeing as how I can't very well execute you. Under the circumstances."
Antonina smiled. "Approximately how much more of your Cassandra imitation will I be forced to endure?"
"Cassandra, is it? You watch, woman. Your folly—that of your husband's, rather—will surely cause the spiritual ruin of the great kingdom of Axum." He pointed an accusing finger at the radio tower. "For two centuries this ridiculous field given over to the grotesque monuments of ancient pagan kings has been left to decay. As it should. Now, thanks to you and your idiot husband, we'll be resurrecting that heathen taste in idolatry."
Antonina couldn't help but laugh. "It's a radio tower, Ousanas!"
The aqabe tsentsen of Ethiopia was not mollified. "A Trojan horse, what it is. You watch. Soon enough—in the dark, when my eagle eye is not watching—they'll start carving inscriptions on the damned thing."
Gloomily, his eyes ranged up and down the huge stone tower that was nearing completion. "Plenty of room for it, too."
Antonina glanced back at the Greek artisan who was over-seeing the project. "Tell me, Timothy. If I understand this right, once the tower is in operation anyone who tries to climb onto it in order—"
The artisan winced. "They'll be fried." Warily, he eyed the tall and very muscular figure of the man who was, in effect if not in theory, the current ruler of Ethiopia. "Ah, Your Excel—"
"See?" demanded Ousanas, transferring his glare to the hapless artisan. "It's already starting! I am not an 'excellency,' damnation, and certainly not yours. A humble keeper of the royal fly whisks, that's all I am."
Timothy sidled back a step. He was fluent in Ge'ez, the language of the Axumites, so he knew that the title aqabe tsentsen meant "the keeper of the fly whisks." He also knew that the modesty of the title was meaningless.
Antonina came to the rescue. "Oh, stop bullying the poor man. Timothy, please continue."
"Well... it's hard to explain without getting too technical. But the gist of it is that a big radio tower like this needs a big transmitter powered by"—here he pointed his finger at a huge stone building—"the steam engine in there. In turn, that—"
The next few sentences were full of mysterious terms like "interrupter" and "capacitor bank" that meant absolutely nothing to Antonina or Ousanas. But Timothy's concluding words seemed clear enough:
"—every time the transmitter key is depressed, you'd have something like two thousand watts of power shorting across your body. 'Fry' is about the right word for what'd happen, if you got onto the tower itself. But you'd never make it that far, anyway. Once you got past the perimeter fence you'd start coupling to the radials implanted around the base of the tower. Your body would start twitching uncontrollably and the closer you got, the worse it'd get. Your hair might even catch on fire."
Ousanas grimaced, but he was still not mollified. "Splendid. So now we will have to post guards to protect idolators from idolatry."
Antonina laughed again. "Even for you, Ousanas, this display is absurd! What's really bothering you? It's the fact that you still haven't figured out what I'm going to decree tomorrow regarding the succession. Isn't it?"
Ousanas didn't look at her, still glowering at the radio tower. After a moment, he growled, "It's not so much me, Antonina. It's Rukaiya. She's been pestering me for days, trying to get an answer. Even more, asking for my opinion on what she should do, in the event of this or that alternative. She has no more idea than I do—and you might consider the fact that whatever you decide, she will be the one most affected."
Antonia struggled—mightily—to keep her satisfaction from showing. She had, in fact, deliberately delayed making the announcement after telling everyone she'd reached a decision, in the specific hope that Rukaiya would turn to Ousanas for advice.
"I'd have thought she'd mostly pester Garmat," she said, as if idly.
Ousanas finally stopped glowering and managed a bit of a grin. "Well, she has, of course. But I have a better sense of humor than the old bandit. She needs that, right now."
So, she does. So, she does.
"Well!" Antonina said briskly. "It'll all be settled tomorrow, at the council session. In the meantime—"
She turned to Timothy. "Please continue the work. Ignore this grumbler. The sooner you can get that finished, the sooner I can talk to my husband again."
* * *
"And that's another thing!" Ousanas grumbled, as they headed toward the Ta'akha Maryam. "It's just a waste. You can't say anything either secret or personal—not with that sort of broadcast radio—and it won't work anyway, once the monsoon comes with its thunderstorms. So I've been told, at least."
Antonina glanced at the sun, now at its mid-day altitude, as if gauging the season. "We're still some months from the southwest monsoon, you know. Plenty of time."
Back | Next
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"You'd be putty in your father's hands," Theodora sneered.
"Which one? Belisarius or Justinian?"
"Either—no, both, since they're obviously conspiring with each other."
The dark eyes of the Empress Regent moved away from Photius and Tahmina to glare at a guard standing nearby. So far as Photius could determine, the poor man's only offense was that he happened to be in her line of sight.
Perhaps he also bore a vague resemblance to Belisarius. He was tall, at least, and had brown eyes.
Angrily, Theodora slapped the heavily-decorated armrest of her throne. "Bad enough that he's exposing my husband to danger! But he's also giving away half my empire!"
She shifted the glare back to Photius. "Excuse me. Your empire."
The correction was, quite obviously, a formality. The apology was not even that, given the tone in which she'd spoken the words.
"You hate to travel," Photius pointed out, reasonably. "And since you're actually running my empire"—here he bestowed a cherubic smile on his official adoptive mother—"you can't afford to leave the capital anyway."
"I detest that smile," Theodora hissed. "Insincere as a crocodile's. How did you get to be so devious, already? You're only eleven years old."
Photius was tempted to reply: from studying you, Mother. Wisely, he refrained.
If she were in a better mood, actually, Theodora would take it as a compliment. But, she wasn't. She was in as foul a mood as she ever got, short of summoning the executioners.
Photius and his wife Tahmina had once, giggling, develop their own method for categorizing Theodora's temper. First, they divided it into four seasons:
Placid. The most pleasant season, albeit usually brief.
Sour. A very long season. More or less the normal climate.
Sullen. Not as long as sour season. Not quite.
Fury. Fortunately, the shortest season of all. Very exciting while it lasted, though.
Then, they ranked each season in terms of its degree of intensity, from alpha to epsilon.
Photius gauged this one as a Sullen Epsilon.
Well... Not quite. Call it a Sullen Delta.
In short, caution was called for here. On the other hand, there was still some room for further prodding and pushing. Done gingerly.
"I like to travel myself," he piped cheerfully. "So I'm the logical one to send on a grand tour to visit our allies in the war. And it's not as if you really need me here."
He did not add: or want me here, either. That would be unwise. True, Theodora had all the maternal instincts of a brick. But she liked to pretend otherwise, for reasons Photius had never been able to fathom.
Tahmina said it was because, if she didn't, it would give rise to rumors that she'd been spawned by Satan. That might be true, although Photius was skeptical. After all, plenty of people already thought the Empress Regent had been sired by the devil.
Photius didn't, himself. Maybe one of Hell's underlings, but not Satan himself.
Theodora was back to glaring at the guard. No, a different one. His offense...
Hard to say. He resembled neither Belisarius nor Justinian. Except for being a man, which, in Theodora's current humor, was probably enough.
"Fine!" she snapped. "You can go. If nothing else, it'll keep Antonina from nattering at me every day once the radio starts working. By now, months since she left, she'll be wallowing in guilt and whining and whimpering about how much she misses her boy. God knows why. Devious little wretch."
She swiveled the dark-eyed glare onto Tahmina, sitting next to Photius. "You too. Or else once the cunning little bastard gets to Ethiopia he'll start nattering at me over the radio about how much he misses his wife. God knows why. It's not as if he's old enough yet to have a proper use for a wife."
Yet a third guard received the favor of her glare. "You can celebrate your sixteenth birthday in Axum. I'll send the gifts along with you."
Tahmina smiled sweetly and bowed her head. "Thank you, Mother."
"I'm not your mother. You don't fool me. You're as bad as he is. No child of mine would be so sneaky. Now go."
* * *
Once they reached the corridor outside Theodora's audience chamber, Photius whispered to Tahmina: "Sullen Delta. Close to Epsilon."
"Oh, don't be silly," his wife whispered back, smiling down at him. To Photius' disgruntlement, even though he'd grown a lot over the past year, Tahmina was still taller than he was. "That wasn't any worse than Sullen Gamma. She agreed, didn't she?"
* * *
The announcement was made publicly the next day. Photius wasn't surprised. It was usually hard to wheedle Theodora into anything. But the nice thing was that, if you could, she'd move quickly and decisively thereafter.
* * *
The Emperor of Rome will visit our allies in the war with Malwa. All the way to India itself! The Empress will accompany him, sharing the hardships of the journey.
All hail the valiant Photius!
All hail the virtuous Tahmina!
* * *
After reading the broadsheet, the captain of the Malwa assassination team tossed it onto the table in the apartments they'd rented. It was all he could do not to crumple it in disgust.
"Three months. Wasted."
His lieutenant, standing at the window, stared out over the Golden Horn. He didn't bother, as he had innumerable times since they'd arrived in Constantinople, shifting his gaze to study the imperial palace complex.
No point in that, now.
The three other members of the team were sitting at the table in the kitchen. The center of the table was taken up by one of the small bombards that Malwa assassination teams generally carried with them. The weapons were basically just simple, very big, one-round shotguns. Small enough that they could be hidden in trunks, even if that made carrying the luggage a back-breaking chore.
All three of them were glowering at it. The captain would insist that they bring the bombard with them, wherever they went. And, naturally, being the plebeians of the team, they'd be the ones who had to tote the wretched thing.
One of the three assassins spoke up. "Perhaps... if we stayed here... Theodora..."
The captain almost snarled at him. "Don't be stupid. Impossible, the precautions she takes. Not even Nanda Lal expects us to have a chance at her."
"She hasn't left the complex once, since we arrived," the lieutenant chimed in, turning away from the window. "Not once, in three months. Even Emperor Skandagupta travels more often than that."
He pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. A moment later, the captain did the same.
"We had a good chance with the boy," the lieutenant added. "High-spirited as he is. He and his wife both. Now..."
He looked at his superior. "Follow them?"
"Yes. Only thing we can do."
"Not one of us speaks Ge'ez, sir," pointed one of the assassins. "And none of us are black."
Gloomily, the captain shook his head. "Don't belabor the obvious. We'll have to move fast and reach Egypt before they do. Try and do it there, if we can. All of us can pass as Persians among Arabs—or the reverse, if we must."
"We may well have to," cautioned his lieutenant. "The security in Egypt is reportedly ferocious. Organized by Romans, too. It'll be easier in Persia—easier still, in Persian-occupied Sind. The Iranians insist on placing grandees in charge of security, and grandees tend to be sloppy about these things."
"True." The captain stared down at the broadsheet. Then, did crumple it.
The Iron Triangle
"They're not even going to try to run the mines, I don't think," Menander said. He lowered the telescope and offered it to Belisarius.
The general shook his head. "Your eyes are as good as mine. At that distance, for sure. What are you seeing?"
Before answering, Menander came down from the low platform he'd been standing on to observe the distant Malwa naval base. Then, stooped slightly so that his head would be well below the parapet. That brought his face on a level with the general's, since Belisarius was standing in a slight crouch also.
That was something of a new habit, but one that had become well-ingrained. Beginning a few weeks earlier, the Malwa had demonstrated that they, too, could produce rifles good enough for long-range sniping.
"Both ironclads just came out of the bunker. But they steamed north. They're headed away from us."
Belisarius closed his eyes, thinking. "You're probably right. I'd already pretty much come to the conclusion that the Malwa were assuming a defensive posture. From that standpoint, building the ironclads actually makes sense—where it would be a pure waste of resources to build them to attack us here in the Triangle. They'd never get through the mine fields."
Menander frowned, trying to follow the general's logic. "But I still don't see... oh."
"Yes. 'Oh.' You've gotten a better look at those ironclads than anyone—certainly a longer one. Could you defeat them—either one—with the Justinian? Or the Victrix?"
"The Victrix would just be suicide. They've got a couple of big guns in the bows. Eighteen-pounders, I think. They'd blow the Victrix to pieces long before it could get close enough to use the fire cannon."
He paused, for a moment. "As for the Justinian... Maybe. Against one of them, not both. It would depend on a lot of things, including plenty of luck. I'd do better in a night battle, I think."
Belisarius waited, patiently. Excellent young officers like Menander always started off their assessments too optimistically. He preferred to give them time for self-correction, rather than doing it himself.
With Menander, it only took half a minute. He was well-accustomed to Belisarius' habits, by now.
"All right, all right," he said, smiling slightly. "The truth? I might win—against one of them. But it would depend on some blind luck working in our favor. Even with luck, I'm not sure I could do it in the daytime."
Belisarius nodded, almost placidly. "That's how they designed them, Menander. Those ironclads weren't designed to break into the Triangle. They were designed to keep you from breaking out."
He stretched, while still being careful to keep his head out of sight of any snipers. "Look at this way. The Malwa now figure, with those ironclads finished and in service, that they've got the same control over the rivers north of the Triangle that we have of them to the south. That means they're in position to do to us the same thing we did to them last year—cut our supply lines if we attempt any major prolonged offensive. There's no way to supply that kind of massive campaign without using water transport. It just can't be done. Not, at least, with more than fifteen or—at most—twenty thousand men. By the standards of this war, that isn't a powerful enough force to win a pitched battle. Not here in the Punjab, anyway."
He glanced at the wall of the fortifications, as if he could see through it to the Malwa trenches beyond. "I estimate they've got upwards of a hundred thousand men out there. 'Out there' meaning in this immediate vicinity, facing us here in the Triangle. They've probably got another twenty thousand—maybe thirty—facing Kungas at the Khyber Pass, and thirty or forty thousand more held as a reserve in Multan."
"And we've got..."
"By now? Forty thousand in the Triangle itself, with another twenty thousand or so on their way here from the Empire, in a steady trickle. The Persians have about forty thousand troops actively engaged on this front. But most of them are still in the Sind, and even in the best of circumstances Khusrau would have to leave a third of them there to administer the province."
The young officer made a sour face. Belisarius smiled.
"He's an emperor, Menander. Emperors think like emperors, it's just the nature of the beast. And Khusrau has the additional problem that he's bound and determined to keep his new province of Sind under direct imperial control, rather than letting his noblemen run the show. But that means he has to use a lot of soldiers as administrators. Whether he likes it or not—much less whether we like it or not."
Menander's sour expression shaded into a simple scowl. "In short, we're outnumbered at least two-to-one, and that's not going to change."
"Not for the better, that's for sure. The only way it'll change will be for the worse. If the Malwa succeed in crushing Shakuntala's rebellion in the Deccan, that would free up Damodara and his army. Another forty thousand men, and, in terms of quality, undoubtedly the best army in the Malwa empire."
He let that sink in for a few seconds. Then: "It'd be worse than that, actually. The Maratha revolt inspired and triggered off smaller revolts and rebellions all over India. I estimate the Malwa are forced to keep one-half to two-thirds of their army in India proper, just to maintain control of the empire. The truth is this, Menander. So far, we've been able to fight a Malwa empire that could only use one hand against us, instead of two. And the weaker hand, at that, since Damodara's in the Deccan. If they break Shakuntala and Rao and the Marathas, all those smaller rebellions will start fading away quickly. Within a year, we'd be facing another hundred thousand men here in the Punjab—and Damodara could get his forty thousand here within two months. Three, at the outside."
The general shrugged. "Of course, by then we'd be so well-fortified here that I doubt very much if even a Malwa army twice this size could drive us out. But there's no way we could go on the offensive ourselves, either—certainly not with those ironclads controlling the rivers. They'll build a few more, I suspect. Enough to place two ironclads on the Indus and at least one on each of its four main tributaries."
"A war of attrition, in other words." Menander sucked his teeth. "That... stinks."
"Yes, it does. The casualties will become horrendous, once you let enough time pass—and the social and political strain on the kingdoms and empires involved will be just as bad. That's what that monster over there is counting on now, Menander. It thinks, with its iron control over the Malwa Empire, that it can outlast a coalition of allies."
Menander eyed the general. "And what do you think, sir?"
"I think that superhuman genius over there is just a grandiose version of a village idiot."
The young officer's eyes widened, a little. "Village idiot? That seems..."
"Too self-confident on my part?" Belisarius smiled. "You watch, young man. What you're seeing here is what Ousanas would call the fallacy of confusing the shadow for the true thing—the pale, sickly, real world version of the ideal type."
The general chuckled. "Let me put it this way. Emperors—or superhuman imitations thereof—think in terms like 'iron control,' as if it really meant something. But iron is a metal, not a people. Any good blacksmith can control iron. No emperor who ever lived can really control people. That's because iron, as refractory a substance as it may be, doesn't dispute the matter with the blacksmith."
He looked now, to the southeast. "So, we'll see. Link thinks it can win this waiting game. I think it's the village idiot."
The new capital of the reborn Andhra Empire
—the "Great Country"
"It's ridiculous," Shakuntala hissed. "Ridiculous!"
Even as young as she was, the black-eyed glare of the Empress of Andhra was hot enough to have sizzled lizards in the desert.
Alas, the assassin squatting before her in a comfortable lotus seemed completely unaffected. So, she turned to other means.
"Summon my executioners!" she snapped. "At once!"
The glare was now turned upon her husband, sitting on a throne next to hers. A slight movement of Rao's forefinger had been enough to stay the courtiers before one of them could do her bidding.
"A moment," he said softly. He turned to face her glare, his expression every bit as calm and composed as the assassin's.
"You are, of course, the ruler of Andhra. And I, merely your consort. But since this matter touches upon my personal honor, I am afraid you will have to defer to my wishes. Either that, or use the executioners on me."
Shakuntala tried to maintain the glare. Hard, that, in the face of her worst fear since reading the letter brought by the assassin.
After five seconds or so, inevitably, she broke. "Rao—please. This is insane. The crudest ruse, on the part of the Malwa."
Rao transferred the calm gaze to the figure squatting on the carpet in the center of the audience chamber. For a moment, India's two best assassins contemplated each other.
"Oh, I think not," Rao murmured, even more softly. "Whatever else, not that."
He rose abruptly to his feet. "Take him to one of the guest chambers. Give him food, drink, whatever he wishes within reason."
Normally, Rao was punctilious about maintaining imperial protocol. Husband or not, wiser and older head or not, Rao was officially the consort and Shakuntala the reigning monarch. But, on occasion, when he felt it necessary, he would exert the informal authority that made him—in reality, if not in theory—the co-ruler of Andhra.
Shakuntala did not attempt to argue the matter. She was bracing herself for the much more substantial issue they would be arguing over as soon as they were in private.
"Clear the room," she commanded. "Dadaji, you stay."
Her eyes quickly scanned the room. Her trusted peshwa was a given. Who else?
The two top military commanders, of course. "Shahji, Kondev, you also."
She was tempted to omit Maloji, on the grounds that he was not one of the generals of the army. Formally speaking, at least. But... he was Rao's closest friend, in addition to being the commander of the Maratha irregulars.
Passing him over would be unwise. Besides, who was to say? Sometimes, Maloji was the voice of caution. He was, in some ways, even more Maratha than Rao—and the Marathas, as a people, were not given to excessive flamboyance on matters of so-called "honor." Quite unlike those mindless Rajputs.
That was enough, she thought. Rao would not be able to claim she had unbalanced the private council in her favor.
But, to her surprise, he added a name. "I should like Bindusara to remain behind also."
Shakuntala was surprised—and much pleased. She'd considered the Hindu religious leader herself, but had passed him over because she'd thought Rao would resent her bringing spiritual pressure to bear. The sadhu was not a pacifist after the manner of the Jains, but neither was he given to much patience for silly kshatriya notions regarding "honor."
It took a minute or so for the room to clear. As they waited, Shakuntala leaned over and whispered: "I wouldn't have thought you'd want Bindusara."
Rao smiled thinly. "You are the treasure of my soul. But you are also sometimes still very young. You are over your head here, girl. I wanted the sadhu because he is also a philosopher."
Shakuntala hissed, like an angry snake. She had a disquieting feeling, though, that she sounded like an angry young snake.
Certainly, the sound didn't seem to have any effect on Rao's smile. "You never pay enough attention to those lessons. Still! After all my pleading." The smile widened, considerably. The last courtier was passing through the door and there was no one left to see but the inner council.
"Philosophy has form as well as substance, girl. No one can be as good at it as Bindusara unless he is also a master of logic."
* * *
Shakuntala began the debate. Her arguments took not much time, since they were simplicity itself.
We have been winning the war by patience. Why should we accept this challenge to a clash of great armies on the open field, where we would be over-matched?
Because one old man challenges another to a duel? Because both of the fools still think they're young?
* * *
When it came his turn, Rao's smile was back in place. Very wide, now, that smile.
"Not so old as all that, I think," he protested mildly. "Neither me nor Rana Sanga. Still, my beloved wife has penetrated to the heart of thing. It is ridiculous for two men, now well past the age of forty—"
"Almost fifty!" Shakuntala snapped.
"—and, perhaps more to the point, both of them now very experienced commanders of armies, not young warriors seeking fame and glory, to suddenly be gripped by a desire to fight a personal duel."
To Shakuntala's dismay, the faces of the three generals had that horrid look on them. That half-dreamy, half-stern expression that men got when their brains oozed out of their skulls and they started babbling like boys again.
"Be a match of legend," murmured Kondev.
The Empress almost screamed from sheer frustration. The day-long single combat that Rao and Rana Sanga had fought once, long ago, was famous all across India. Every mindless warrior in India would drool over the notion of a rematch.
"You were twenty years old, then!"
Rao nodded. "Indeed, we were. But you are not asking the right question, Shakuntala. Have you—ever once—heard me so much as mention any desire for another duel with Sanga? Even in my sleep."
"No," she said, tight-jawed.
"I think not. I can assure you—everyone here—that the thought has not once crossed my mind for at least... oh, fifteen years. More likely, twenty."
He leaned forward a bit, gripping the armrests of the throne in his powerful, out-sized hands. "So why does anyone think that Rana Sanga would think of it, either? Have I aged, and he, not? True, he is a Rajput. But, even for Rajputs, there is a difference between a husband and a father of children and a man still twenty and unattached. A difference not simply in the number of lines on their faces, but in how they think."
Shahji cleared his throat. "He has lost his family, Rao. Perhaps that has driven him to fury."
"But has he lost them?" Rao looked to Dadaji Holkar. Not to his surprise, the empire's peshwa still had one of the letters brought by the Malwa assassin held in his hand. Almost clutched, in fact.
"What do you make of it, Dadaji?"
Holkar's face bore an odd expression. An unlikely combination of deep worry and even deeper exultation. "Oh, it's from my daughters. There are little signs—a couple of things mentioned no one else could have known—"
"Torture," suggested Kondev.
"—that make me certain of it." He glanced at Kondev and shook his head. "Torture seems unlikely. For one thing, although the handwriting is poor—my daughters' education was limited, of course, in the short time I had before they were taken from me—it is not shaky at all. I recognized it quite easily. I can even tell you which portion was written by Dhruva, and which by Lata, from that alone. Could I do so, were the hands holding the pen trembling with pain and fear as well as inexperience? Besides..."
He looked at the door through which the courtiers had left—and, a bit earlier, an assassin. "I do not think that man is a torturer."
"Neither do I," said Rao firmly. "And I believe, at my advanced age"—here, a sly little smile at Shakuntala—"I can tell the difference."
Shakuntala scowled, but said nothing. Rao gestured at Holkar. "Continue, please."
"The letter tells me nothing, naturally, of the girls' location. But it does depict, in far more detail than I would have expected, the comfort of their lives now. And there are so many references to the mysterious 'ladies' to whom they have—this is blindingly obvious—grown very attached."
"You conclude from this?"
Dadaji studied the letter in his hand, for a moment. "I conclude from this that someone—not my daughters, someone else—is sending me a message here. Us, rather, a message."
Rao leaned back in his throne. "So I think, also. You will all remember the message sent to us last year from Dadaji's daughters, with the coin?"
Several heads nodded, Shakuntala's among them.
"And how Irene Macrembolitissa convinced us it was not a trap, but the first step in a complex maneuver by Narses?"
All heads nodded.
Rao pointed to the letter. "I think that is the second step. Inviting us to take a third—or, rather, allow someone else to do so."
That statement was met by frowns of puzzlement on most faces. But, from the corner of her eye, Shakuntala saw Bindusara nodding.
She could sense that she was losing the argument. For a moment, she had to struggle desperately not to collapse into sheer girlish pleading—which would end, inevitably, with her blurting out before the council news she had not yet even given to Rao. Of the new child that was coming.
Suddenly, Rao's large hand reached over and gave her little one a squeeze. "Oh, be still, girl. I can assure you that I have no intention whatsoever of fighting Rana Sanga again."
His smile was simply cheerful now. "Ever again, in fact. And that is precisely why I will accept the challenge."
In the few seconds those two sentences required, Shakuntala swung from despair to elation and back. "You don't need to do this!"
"Of course, I don't. But Rana Sanga does."
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"What, no elephants?" Antonina asked sarcastically.
Ousanas shook his head. "They won't fit in the corridors, not even in the Ta'akha Maryam. We tried. Too bad, though. It would have made a nice flourish. Instead—"
He gestured before them, down the long hallway leading to the throne room. "—we must walk."
Antonina tried to picture war elephants inside the Ta'akha Maryam, her mind boggling a little. Even if the huge beasts could have been inserted into the halls...
She looked down the long rows of guards and officials, flanking both sides. "They'd have crushed everybody," she muttered.
"Oh, not the soldiers. Most of them would have scampered aside in time, and the ones who didn't had no business being sarwen anyway. In fact, Ezana thought it would be a useful test."
Ezana was the senior commander of the three royal regiments. Antonina thought he was probably cold-blooded enough to have said that. There was something downright scary about Ezana. Fortunately, he was not hot-tempered, nor impulsive. Even more fortunately, his devotion to the dynasty was unquestioned by anyone, including Antonina.
Ezana had been one of Eon's two bodyguards while he'd still been a prince. That was a very prestigious position for the soldiers who made up Ethiopia's regiments—the "sarwen," as they called themselves. When Eon had assumed the throne, Ezana had become the commander of the royal regiments—and the other bodyguard, Wahsi, had been appointed the military commander of the Ethiopian naval expedition that Antonina had used to rescue Belisarius and his army from the siege of Charax.
Wahsi had died in battle in the course of that expedition. Eon's son, the new Axumite King of Kings, had been named after him.
So, Antonina had no doubt at all of Ezana's loyalty to the infant negusa nagast, sired by the prince he'd guarded and named after his best friend. Still, he was... scary.
"The slaughter among the officials, of course, would have been immense," Ousanas continued cheerfully. "seeing how half of them are as fat as elephants, and eight out of ten have brains that move more ponderously. But it was my assessment that the loss of one-third would be a blessing for the kingdom. Ezana was hoping that half would be crushed."
Antonina thought the aqabe tsentsen was joking, but she wasn't sure. There were ways in which Ousanas was even scarier than Ezana. But since they were nearing the entrance to the throne room, she decided she'd simply pretend she hadn't heard.
One-third of Ethiopia's officials, slain in a few minutes! Half, according to Ezana!
Bloodthirsty African maniacs. Antonina would have been quite satisfied with a simple, unostentatious Roman decimation.
* * *
"All be silent!"
As if his booming commander's voice wasn't enough, Ezana slammed the iron-capped ferrule of his spear onto the stone floor. "Be silent!"
The throne room had become perfectly quiet even before the ferrule hit the floor. Leaving aside the fact that no one in their right mind was going to disobey Ezana under these circumstances, the crowd packed into the huge chamber was waiting to hear Antonina's decrees. Eagerly, in some cases; anxiously, in others; fearfully, in some. But not one person there was indifferent, or inclined to keep chattering.
Actually, there hadn't been much chatter anyway. Antonina had noticed the unusual quiet the moment she entered the room. Ethiopians had informal habits, when it came to royalty, certainly compared to Roman or Persian custom. As a rule, even during an official session, the royal audience chamber had a constant little hubbub of conversation in the background. Nothing boisterous or intrusive, to be sure. But neither Ethiopian soldier-seamen nor Arab merchants saw any reason not to conduct quiet business in the back of the chamber while the negusa nagast and his officials made their various judgments and rulings around the throne.
Not today. The chamber had been subdued when Antonina entered, and now it was utterly silent.
Well... not quite. Softly and contentedly, the baby ruler of the kingdom was suckling his mother's breast, as she sat on the throne.
That was being done on Antonina's instructions. Normally, for such a session, Rukaiya would have used a wet nurse just as readily as any Roman empress. But Antonina had thought the sight of the baby feeding would help remind everyone of the cold and hard facts that surrounded that softest of realities.
On one side, the cold and hard facts that this was the son of Eon the Great and his successor—and this was the woman he had chosen to be his queen. On the other, the colder and harder facts that the successor was a babe, and the queen a teenager. The same cold and hard facts that had existed when Alexander the Great died—and, within a few short years, had led to civil war, the eventual division of the empire between the Diadochi, and the murder of Alexander's widow and child.
Ezana waited until Antonina had climbed the steps that led up to the royal dais. The steps were wide, but shallow. Wide enough to give the guards positioned just behind the throne time to intercept any would-be assassin. Shallow enough, that the ruler was not so elevated above his subjects that a normal conversation couldn't be held with those seeking an audience.
There was a chair waiting for her there, to the right of the queen's. A throne, really, though not as large or elaborate as the one in which Rukaiya sat with the infant negusa nagast. But Antonina had already decided she'd make her decrees while standing. She'd learned that trick from watching her friend Theodora rule Rome.
Sit, when you're judging and negotiating—but always stand, when you're really laying down the law.
As soon as Antonina had reached her position and given him a little nod—she'd already told Ezana she wouldn't be using the chair for this—the regimental commander's voice boomed out again.
"As decreed by Eon the Great on his deathbed, the Roman woman Antonina will rule on the measures to be taken to ensure the royal succession. Eon gave her complete authority for the task. I was there, I heard, I bear witness. Her decrees are final. Her decrees are absolute. They will not be questioned."
That was... not entirely true. No decrees laid down by anyone other than God could cover all the details and complexities. Antonina knew full well that, starting on the morrow, she'd be sitting in that chair and dickering over the fine points. Still, for the moment—
In case anyone had any lingering doubts, Ezana slammed the spear butt on the stones again. "Not by anyone!"
Before she began, she glanced around the room. All the principals were there. Ousanas was standing on the lowest step of the dais, to her right, as was customary for the aqabe tsentsen. Ezana occupied the equivalent position to the left, as befit the commander of the royal regiments. Just to his left, on the stone floor, were the rest of the commanders of the regiments stationed in Axum.
Directly front of the dais were assembled the kingdom's officials, with old Garmat at the center. Officially, he was the viceroy of the Axum-controlled portions of Arabia. In reality, he also served as one of the ruler's closest advisers. Garmat had served Eon's father Kaleb in the same posts that Ousanas had later served Eon himself—first, as the dawazz for the prince; then, as the aqabe tsentsen for the king. The half-Arab one-time bandit was cunning and shrewd, and much respected by everyone in the kingdom.
Spread out to either side of the officials, and ranging beyond throughout the throne room, was the elite of the realm. The majority were Ethiopians, but perhaps a third were Arabs. All of the latter were either tribal or clan chiefs, or experienced and wealthy merchants and traders—or, more often than not, both together.
There was one Arab standing next to Garmat, in the small group of officials at the center. That was Rukaiya's father, who was one of the wealthiest of the Quraysh merchants in Mecca—and had been appointed by Eon himself as the viceroy for Arabia's west coast. The Hijaz, as it was called, the area north of Yemen that was dominated by the Quraysh tribe.
"You all understand the problem we face," Antonina began. She saw no reason to bore everyone with a recitation of the obvious. Everyone there had had months to consider the situation, and by now everyone understand it perfectly well.
"The future for Axum is splendid, provided the kingdom can pass through the next twenty years without strife and turmoil. To do so, in my judgment, the throne needs an additional bulwark."
Since Axumites were expert sailors as well as stone masons, she added another image. "An outrigger, if you will, to keep the craft from overturning in heavy seas."
She had to fight down a smile, seeing Ousanas and Garmat wince slightly. Both men were fond of poetry—Garmat more than Ousanas—and she knew she'd be hearing wisecracks later concerning her pedestrian use of simile and metaphor.
Ezana's expression, on the other hand, was simply intent. And it was ultimately Ezana who mattered here. Not simply because he commanded the spears of the regiment, but because he—unlike Ousanas and Garmat, each outsiders in their different ways—was Ethiopian through and through. If Ezana accepted her ruling, with no hesitations or doubts, she was confident the rest would follow.
"So, I have decided to create a new post for the kingdom. The name of this official will be the angabo."
She paused, knowing that the little murmur which swept the room was both inevitable and worked to her advantage.
The term "angabo" was well known to those people, especially the Ethiopians. The kingdom of Axum had several legends concerning its origins. The predominant one, contained in the Book of Aksum, held that the founder of the city of Axum was Aksumawi, son of Ethiopis and grandson of the Noah of the Bible. A related legend had it that the kings of Axum were descendants of Solomon and Makeda, the queen of Sheba. Those were the officially favored legends, of course, since they gave the now-Christian kingdom an impeccably Biblical lineage for their rulers.
But Axum had only converted to Christianity two centuries earlier, and there still existed a third and older legend. This legend had no formal sanction, but it was well-respected by the populace—and neither the kings of Ethiopia nor its Christian bishops had ever made any attempt to suppress it. Axumites were not much given to doctrinal asperity, certainly by the standards of Rome's contentious bishops and patriarchs. All the more so since the legend, however pagan it might be, was hardly derisive toward the monarchy.
According to that older legend, Ethiopia had once been ruled by a great and evil serpent named Arwe or Waynaba. Once a year, the serpent-king demanded the tribute of a young girl. This continued until a stranger named Angabo arrived, slew the serpent, saved the girl, and was then elected king by the people. His descendant, it was said, was the Makeda who was the queen of Sheba of the Solomon story—although still another version of the legend claimed Makeda was the girl he rescued.
Antonina glanced down at Garmat. The old adviser was managing to keep a straight face—which must have been hard, since he was the one person with whom Antonina had discussed her plans. And he, unlike her, was standing where he could see Ousanas directly.
Such a pity, really. By now, the quick mind of Ousanas would have realized where she was going with this—and Antonina would have paid a princely sum to have been able to watch the expression on his face.
She tried, surreptitiously, out of the corner of her eye. But, alas, the aqabe tsentsen was just that little bit too far to the side to see his face as anything other than a dark blur.
"The angabo will command all the regiments of Axum except the three royal regiments. Those will, as now, remain under the authority of the senior commander. Ezana, as he is today."
The regimental commanders wouldn't much like that provision. Traditionally, they'd been equals who met as a council, with no superior other than the negusa nagast himself. But Antonina didn't expect any serious problems from that quarter. Ethiopia had now grown from a kingdom to an empire, and the sarwen were hard-headed enough to recognize that their old egalitarian traditions would have to adapt, at least to a degree. Over half of the regiments were now in India, after all—so how could the council of commanders meet in the first place?
In essence, Antonina had just recreated the old Roman division between the regular army and the Praetorian Guard. That hadn't worked out too well for Rome, in the long run. But Antonina didn't think Axum would face the same problem that the Roman Empire had faced, of being so huge and far-flung that the Praetorian Guard wound up being the tail in the capital that wagged the dog in the far-off provinces.
Even with the expansion into the African continent to the south that Eon and Ousanas had planned, Axum would still remain a relatively compact realm. The three royal regiments would not have the ability of the Praetorian Guard to over-ride the army, seeing as how most of the regular regiments under the control of the angabo would be stationed no farther away than southern and western Arabia—just across the Red Sea. They'd be even closer once the capital was moved from Axum to the great Red Sea port of Adulis, as was planned also.
And, in any event, the long run was the long run. Antonina had no illusions that she could manipulate political and military developments over a span of centuries. She simply wanted to buy Axum twenty years of internal peace—and leave it reasonably secure at the end.
"The position of the angabo will be a hereditary one," she continued, "unlike the positions of the aqabe tsentsen, or the viceroys, or the commanders of the sarwen. Second only to the negusa nagast, the angabo will be accounted the highest nobleman of the realm."
She waited for a moment, letting the crowd digest that decree. The Ethiopian nobility wouldn't much like that provision, of course—but, on the other hand, it would please the sarwen commanders. Often enough, of course, the commanders were noblemen—but that was not the root source of either their identity or their authority within the regiments.
"The descendants of the angabo, however, may not under any circumstances assume the throne of the kingdom. They may marry into the ruling dynasty, but the children of that union will inherit the position of the angabo, not the negusa nagast. They will be, forever, the highest noblemen of Axum—but they will also be, forever, barred from the throne itself."
That was the key. She'd considered the Antonine tradition of adoption as an alternative, but both she and Garmat had decided it would be too risky. Unlike Romans, neither the Ethiopians nor the Arabs had ever used the custom of political adoption in that manner. It would be too foreign to them. This, however, was something everyone could understand. She'd essentially created a Caesar alongside an Augustus—but then divided the two into separate lineages. Instead of, as the Romans had done, making the Caesar the designated successor to the Augustus.
Eventually, some day, one or another angabo might manage to distort the structure enough to overthrow a dynasty. But... not for at least a century, she judged. Garmat thought it would be at least that long before anyone even seriously tried.
"They'll like this set-up, once they get used it," he'd told her confidently, the day before. "Ethiopians and Arabs alike. Watch and see if I'm not right. It's almost a dual monarchy, with a senior and a junior dynasty, which means that if you can't wheedle one, maybe you can wheedle what you need out of the other. Good enough—when the alternative is the risk of a failed rebellion."
Then, grinning: "Especially after they contemplate the first and founding angabo."
Antonina paused again. By now, many sets of eyes were swiveling toward a particular person in the room. The first pair had been those belonging to Rukaiya's father.
She was not surprised, on either count. Many of the people in that room were extremely shrewd—none more so than Rukaiya's father, leaving aside Garmat himself.
Best of all, to her, was the sense she got that he was immensely relieved. A very slight sense, since the man had superb control over his public face, but it was still definitely there. He'd be the one person in the room who would consider this as a father, not simply as a magnate of the kingdom—and he doted on Rukaiya.
"To make certain that the position of the angabo and his descendants is established surely and certainly for all to see, the first angabo will marry Rukaiya, widow of Eon the Great and the regent of the kingdom. Their children will thus be the half-brothers and sisters of the negusa nagast, Wahsi."
She turned her head enough to look at Rukaiya. The girl was staring up at her, blank-faced. The young queen was still waiting, still keeping her expression under tight control. She'd known for some time that she would most likely have to re-marry—and soon—as little as she looked forward to the prospect.
Now, obviously, she simply wanted... the name.
She dreaded hearing it, of course. Rukaiya was a very capable, energetic and free-spirited girl. She'd been raised by a lenient and supportive father and married to a young prince, a bibliophile himself, who'd enjoyed her intellect and encouraged her learning. Now, she faced the prospect of marriage to...
Whoever it was, not someone likely to be much like her father or her former husband.
Antonina had to struggle to keep her own face expressionless. Silly girl! Did you really think I'd condemn you to such a living death? Nonsense.
It was time to end it.
"The rest is obvious. The first angabo, like the Angabo of legend, must be a complete outsider. Neither Ethiopian nor Arab, and with no existing ties to any clan or tribe in the kingdom. Yet he must also be a famous warrior and a wise counselor. One whom all know can and has hunted and slain evil serpent-kings—as this one, in my presence once, helped my husband trap and slay the serpent-queen of Malwa. Who was the greatest, and most evil, creature in the world."
Finally, she turned to look at him squarely.
"Ousanas, the first angabo."
Ousanas would have figured it out as quickly as Rukaiya's father. By now, he had his expression completely under control.
Too bad. It was probably the only chance Antonina would ever get to make the man's jaw drop.
Noisily, Garmat cleared his throat. "Does Ousanas accept the post?"
The famous grin came, then. "What does 'accept' have to do with it?" He nodded toward Ezana, standing stone-faced on the other side of the dais. "I heard what he said, even if some others were deaf. The words were 'final' and 'absolute'—and I distinctly remember 'without question.' That said..."
For a moment, while Ousanas' grin faded away, he and Ezana stared at each other. It was not quite a contest of wills. Not quite.
Ousanas turned to the queen, sitting on the throne. "That said," he continued quietly, "I would not force this on Rukaiya. She has been very dear to me also, if not the same way she was to Eon."
The moment Antonina had spoken the name, she'd seen Rukaiya lower her head, as if she were solely concerned with her feeding infant. That was as good a way as any to bring herself under composure, of course.
Now, she looked up. Quickly, before lowering her head again to concentrate on Wahsi.
There might have been a hint of tears in her eyes. But all she said was: "I have no objection, Ousanas."
"It is done!" Ezana boomed. More forcefully than ever, the spearbutt slammed the stones. "It is done—and the royal regiments stand ready to enforce the decrees. As before. As always. As ever."
He glanced at Antonina. Seeing her little nod, he boomed: "All clear the chamber! There will be no further audience until the morrow."
* * *
At a small sign from Antonina, Garmat remained behind. No one would think that amiss. The old adviser's special relationship to the throne was well-established and accepted. In any event, most people in the room would already have realized that he would soon be the new aqabe tsentsen, to replace Ousanas.
She would have liked to have Rukaiya's father remain. Under the circumstances, however, that might give rise to certain resentments.
Ezana stayed, also. He'd begun to leave, but even before Antonina could signal him to stay, Ousanas ordered him to do so.
Ordered him, outright. The first time he'd ever done so, in the many years the two men had known each other and worked closely together training and nurturing and protecting a young prince named Eon.
To Antonina's relief, Ezana had not seemed to bridle at all. In fact, he seemed a bit relieved himself.
In the short time that it took to clear the chamber, Antonina studied Ousanas. The man had seemed majestic to her for several years. Never more so than now.
By God, this will work.
* * *
Once the room was empty except for the five key people—six, counting the infant—Ousanas smiled ruefully.
"I will admit—again—that you are a genius, Antonina. This will work, I think. But..."
He looked at Rukaiya. She, back at him. There was sadness in both faces.
"I am not ready for this. Not yet. Neither is she."
There were definitely tears in Rukaiya's eyes, now. She shook her head. "No, I am not. I have... no objection, as I said. Sooner or later, I would have had to marry again, and I can think of no one I'd prefer. But Eon is still too close."
Ezana cleared his throat. "Yes. Of course. But I think he would be pleased, Rukaiya. And I knew him as well as any man."
She smiled, slightly. "Oh, yes. His ghost will be pleased—but not yet."
"It doesn't matter," Antonina said firmly. "We need to hold the wedding soon, but there is no reason you need to consummate the marriage immediately. In fact—"
Garmat picked up the cue, seamlessly. "It would be a bad idea," he said firmly. "We will need children from this union—many children, to be blunt, to give Wahsi a host of half-brothers and sisters to help him rule, since he will have no full ones. But we don't need them right now. No one will even start thinking about opposition for at least two years."
"More likely five—or ten," Ezana grunted. The smile that followed was a very cold sort of thing. "I can guarantee that much."
Garmat nodded. "Actually, the danger would be for you to have a child too soon. Enough time must elapse for it to have been impossible for Eon to have been the father. Impossible. That means waiting at least a year after his death last summer."
The relief on the faces of both Rukaiya and Ousanas was almost comical.
"Of course," Ousanas said. "Stupid of me not to have seen it instantly. Or else—three generations from now—some over-ambitious and small-brained great-grandson of mine might start claiming he was actually the great-grandson of Eon."
Smiling very gently now, he stepped forward and placed his hand on the baby's head. "In my safe-keeping, also."
He straightened. "We should do more, I think. Make it impossible the other way, also. And do so in a way that is publicly obvious, even to bedouin."
Clearly enough, his brain was back to working as well as always.
"Yes," she said firmly. This was something that Antonina and Garmat had already decided upon. "There is no need for me to remain here, and I would very much like to see my husband again. Ousanas should go with me to India, leading whatever military force Axum can add to the war."
She gave a quick glance at Ezana. "Except the three royal regiments, of course."
"We'll leave two regiments in Arabia also," said Garmat. "That will be enough. The Arabs will have no problem with Antonina's decrees on the succession."
"That will be enough," Ezana agreed. "The kingdom will be stable, and Ousanas can squeeze whatever advantage he can get for Axum from our deepened participation in the war. By the time he gets back, at least a year will have elapsed from Eon's death."
"Rukaiya?" Antonina asked.
"Yes. I agree." She also, smiled gently. "And I will be ready, by then, for another husband."
"Done!" Ezana boomed. He did, however—just barely—manage to restrain himself from slamming the ferrule on the stones.
Ousanas scowled. "And, now—for the details! We'll have at least a week to squabble—more likely, two—before a suitable wedding can be organized. The first thing I want clearly established is that the royal regiments—not the otherwise-soon-to-be-impoverished mendicant family of the downtrodden angabo—has to pay for all the damage done to the floors by heavy-handed commanders."
"Ridiculous!" boomed Ezana. "The maintenance of the palace should clearly be paid for out of the angabo's coffers."
The spearbutt slammed the floor.
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Chabahari, in the Straits of Hormuz
Chabahari seemed like a nightmare to Anna. When she first arrived in the town—city, now—she was mainly struck by the chaos in the place. Not so long ago, Chabahari had been a sleepy fishing village. Since the great Roman-Persian expedition led by Belisarius to invade the Malwa homeland through the Indus valley had begun, Chabahari had been transformed almost overnight into a great military staging depot. The original fishing village was now buried somewhere within a sprawling and disorganized mass of tents, pavilions, jury-rigged shacks—and, of course, the beginnings of the inevitable grandiose palaces which Persians insisted on putting anywhere that their grandees resided.
Her first day was spent entirely in a search for the authorities in charge of the town. She had promised Dryopus she would report to those authorities as soon as she arrived.
But the search was futile. She found the official headquarters easily enough—one of the half-built palaces being erected by the Persians. But the interior of the edifice was nothing but confusion, a mass of workmen swarming all over, being overseen by a handful of harassed-looking supervisors. Not an official was to be found anywhere, neither Persian nor Roman.
"Try the docks," suggested the one foreman who spoke Greek and was prepared to give her a few minutes of his time. "The noble sirs complain about the noise here, and the smell everywhere else."
The smell was atrocious. Except in the immediate vicinity of the docks—which had their own none-too-savory aroma—the entire city seemed to be immersed in a miasma made up of the combined stench of excrement, urine, sweat, food—half of it seemingly rotten—and, perhaps most of all, blood and corrupting flesh. In addition to being a staging area for the invasion, Chabahari was also a depot where badly injured soldiers were being evacuated back to their homelands.
Those of them who survive this horrid place, Anna thought angrily, as she stalked out of the "headquarters." Illus and Cottomenes trailed behind her. Once she passed through the aivan onto the street beyond—insofar as the term "street" could be used at all for a simple space between buildings and shacks, teeming with people—she spent a moment or so looking south toward the docks.
"What's the point?" asked Illus, echoing her thoughts. "We didn't find anyone there when we disembarked." He cast a glance at the small mound of Anna's luggage piled up next to the building. The wharf boys whom Anna had hired to carry her belongings were lounging nearby, under Abdul's watchful eye.
"Besides," Illus continued, "it'll be almost impossible to keep your stuff from being stolen, in that madhouse down there."
Anna sighed. She looked down at her long dress, grimacing ruefully. The lowest few inches of the once-fine fabric, already ill-used by her journey from Constantinople, was now completely ruined. And the rest of it was well on its way—as much from her own sweat as anything else. The elaborate garments of a Greek noblewoman, designed for salons in the Roman Empire's capital, were torture in this climate.
A glimpse of passing color caught her eye. For a moment, she studied the figure of a young woman moving down the street. Some sort of Indian girl, apparently. Since the war had erupted into the Indian subcontinent, the inevitable human turbulence had thrown people of different lands into the new cauldrons of such cities as Chabahari. Mixing them up like grain caught in a thresher. Anna had noticed several Indians even in Charax.
Mainly, she just envied the woman's clothing, which was infinitely better suited for the climate than her own. By her senatorial family standards, of course, it was shockingly immodest. But she spent a few seconds just imagining what her bare midriff would feel like, if it didn't feel like a mass of spongy, sweaty flesh.
Illus chuckled. "You'd peel like a grape, girl. With your fair skin?"
Anna had long since stopped taking offense at her "servant's" familiarity with her. That, too, would have outraged her family. But Anna herself took an odd little comfort in it. Much to her surprise, she had discovered over the weeks of travel that she was at ease in the company of Illus and his companions.
"Damn you, too," she muttered, not without some humor of her own. "I'd toughen up soon enough. And I wouldn't mind shedding some skin, anyway. What I've got right now feels like it's gangrenous."
It was Illus' turn to grimace. "Don't even think it, girl. Until you've seen real gangrene..."
A stray waft of breeze from the northwest illustrated his point. That was the direction of the great military "hospital" which the Roman army had set up on the outskirts of the city. The smell almost made Anna gag.
The gag brought up a reflex of anger, and, with it, a sudden decision.
"Let's go there," she said.
"Why?" demanded Illus.
Anna shrugged. "Maybe there'll be an official there. If nothing else, I need to find where the telegraph office is located."
Illus' face made his disagreement clear enough. Still—for all that she allowed familiarity, Anna had also established over the past weeks that she was his master.
"Let's go," she repeated firmly. "If nothing else, that's probably the only part of this city where we'd find some empty lodgings."
"True enough," said Illus, sighing. "They'll be dying like flies, over there." He hesitated, then began to speak. But Anna cut him off before he got out more than three words.
"I'm not insane, damn you. If there's an epidemic, we'll leave. But I doubt it. Not in this climate, this time of year. At least... not if they've been following the sanitary regulations."
Illus' face creased in a puzzled frown. "What's that got to do with anything? What regulations?"
Anna snorted and began to walk off to the northwest. "Don't you read anything besides those damned Dispatches?"
Cottomenes spoke up. "No one does," he said. Cheerfully, as usual. "No soldier, anyway. Your husband's got a way with words, he does. Have you ever tried to read official regulations?"
Those words, too, brought a reflex of anger. But, as she forced her way through the mob toward the military hospital, Anna found herself thinking about them. And eventually came to realize two things.
One. Although she was a voracious reader, she hadn't ever read any official regulations. Not those of the army, at any rate. But she suspected they were every bit as turgid as the regulations which officials in Constantinople spun out like spiders spinning webs.
Two. Calopodius did have a way with words. On their way down the Euphrates—and then again, as they sailed from Charax to Chabahari—the latest Dispatches and the newest chapters from his History of Belisarius and the War had been available constantly. Belisarius, Anna had noted, seemed to be as adamant about strewing printing presses behind his army's passage as he was about arms depots.
The chapters of the History had been merely perused on occasion by her soldier companions. Anna could appreciate the literary skill involved, but the constant allusions in those pages were meaningless to Illus and his brother, much less the illiterate Abdul. Yet they pored over each and every Dispatch, often enough in the company of a dozen other soldiers. One of them reading it aloud, while the others listened with rapt attention.
As always, her husband's fame caused some part of Anna to seethe with fury. But, this time, she also thought about it. And if, at the end, her thoughts caused her anger to swell, it was a much cleaner kind of anger. One which did not coil in her stomach like a worm, but simply filled her with determination.
The hospital was even worse than she'd imagined. But she did, not surprisingly, find an unused tent in which she and her companions could make their quarters. And she did discover the location of the telegraph office—which, as it happened, was situated right next to the sprawling grounds of the "hospital."
The second discovery, however, did her little good. The official in charge, once she awakened him from his afternoon nap, yawned and explained that the telegraph line from Barbaricum to Chabahari was still at least a month away from completion.
"That'll mean a few weeks here," muttered Illus. "It'll take at least that long for couriers to bring your husband's reply."
Instead of the pure rage those words would have brought to her once, the Isaurian's sour remark simply caused Anna's angry determination to harden into something like iron.
"Good," she pronounced. "We'll put the time to good use."
"How?" he demanded.
"Give me tonight to figure it out."
* * *
It didn't take her all night. Just four hours. The first hour she spent sitting in her screened-off portion of the tent, with her knees hugged closely to her chest, listening to the moans and shrieks of the maimed and dying soldiers who surrounded it. The remaining three, studying the books she had brought with her—especially her favorite, Irene Macrembolitissa's Commentaries on the Talisman of God, which had been published just a few months before Anna's precipitous decision to leave Constantinople in search of her husband.
Irene Macrembolitissa was Anna's private idol. Not that the sheltered daughter of the Melisseni had ever thought to emulate the woman's adventurous life, except intellectually. The admiration had simply been an emotional thing, the heroine-worship of a frustrated girl for a woman who had done so many things she could only dream about. But now, carefully studying those pages in which Macrembolitissa explained certain features of natural philosophy as given to mankind through Belisarius by the Talisman of God, she came to understand the hard practical core which lay beneath the great woman's flowery prose and ease with classical and biblical allusions. And, with that understanding, came a hardening of her own soul.
Fate, against her will and her wishes, had condemned her to be a wife. So be it. She would begin with that practical core; with concrete truth, not abstraction. She would steel the bitterness of a wife into the driving will of the wife. The wife of Calopodius the Blind, Calopodius of the Saronites.
The next morning, very early, she presented her proposition.
"Do any of you have a problem with working in trade?"
The three soldiers stared at her, stared at each other, broke into soft laughter.
"We're not senators, girl," chuckled Illus.
Anna nodded. "Fine. You'll have to work on speculation, though. I'll need the money I have left to pay the others."
Anna smiled grimly. "I think you call it 'the muscle.'"
Cottomenes frowned. "I thought we were 'the muscle.' "
"Not any more," said Anna. "You're promoted. All three of you are now officers in the hospital service."
"What 'hospital service'?"
Anna realized she hadn't considered the name of the thing. For a moment, the old anger flared. But she suppressed it easily enough. This was no time for pettiness, after all.
"We'll call it Calopodius' Wife's Service. How's that?"
The three soldiers shook their heads. Clearly enough, they had no understanding of what she was talking about.
"You'll see," she predicted.
It didn't take them long. Illus' glare was enough to cow the official "commander" of the hospital, who was as sorry-looking a specimen of "officer" as Anna could imagine. And if the man might have wondered at the oddness of such glorious ranks being borne by such as Illus and his two companions—Abdul looked as far removed from a tribune as could be imagined—he was wise enough to keep his doubts to himself.
The dozen or so soldiers whom Anna recruited into the Service in the next hour—"the muscle"—had no trouble at all believing that Illus and Cottomenes and Abdul were, respectively, the chiliarch and two tribunes of a new army "service" they'd never heard of. First, because they were all veterans of the war and could recognize others—and knew, as well, that Belisarius promoted with no regard for personal origin. Second—more importantly—because they were wounded soldiers cast adrift in a chaotic "military hospital" in the middle of nowhere. Anna—Illus, actually, following her directions—selected only those soldiers whose wounds were healing well. Men who could move around and exert themselves. Still, even for such men, the prospect of regular pay meant a much increased chance at survival.
Anna wondered, a bit, whether walking-wounded "muscle" would serve the purpose. But her reservations were settled within the next hour after four of the new "muscle," at Illus' command, beat the first surgeon into a bloody pulp when the man responded to Anna's command to start boiling his instruments with a sneer and a derogatory remark about meddling women.
By the end of the first day, eight other surgeons were sporting cuts and bruises. But, at least when it came to the medical staff, there were no longer any doubts—none at all, in point of fact—as to whether this bizarre new "Calopodius' Wife's Service" had any actual authority.
Two of the surgeons complained to the hospital's commandant, but that worthy chose to remain inside his headquarters' tent. That night, Illus and three of his new "muscle" beat the two complaining surgeons into a still bloodier pulp, and all complaints to the commandant ceased thereafter.
Complaints from the medical staff, at least. A body of perhaps twenty soldiers complained to the hospital commandant the next day, hobbling to the HQ as best they could. But, again, the commandant chose to remain inside; and, again, Illus—this time using his entire corps of "muscle," which had now swollen to thirty men—thrashed the complainers senseless afterward.
Thereafter, whatever they might have muttered under their breath, none of the soldiers in the hospital protested openly when they were instructed to dig real latrines, away from the tents—and use them. Nor did they complain when they were ordered to help completely immobilized soldiers use them as well.
* * *
By the end of the fifth day, Anna was confident that her authority in the hospital was well enough established. She spent a goodly portion of those days daydreaming about the pleasures of wearing more suitable apparel, as she made her slow way through the ranks of wounded men in the swarm of tents. But she knew full well that the sweat which seemed to saturate her was one of the prices she would have to pay. Lady Saronites, wife of Calopodius the Blind, daughter of the illustrious family of the Melisseni, was a figure of power and majesty and authority—and had the noble gowns to prove it, even if they were soiled and frayed. Young Anna, all of nineteen years old, wearing a sari, would have had none at all.
By the sixth day, as she had feared, what was left of the money she had brought with her from Constantinople was almost gone. So, gathering her now-filthy robes in two small but determined hands, she marched her way back into the city of Chabahari. By now, at least, she had learned the name of the city's commander.
It took her half the day to find the man, in the taberna where he was reputed to spend most of his time. By the time she did, as she had been told, he was already half-drunk.
"Garrison troops," muttered Illus as they entered the tent which served the city's officers for their entertainment. The tent was filthy, as well as crowded with officers and their whores.
Anna found the commandant of the garrison in a corner, with a young half-naked girl perched on his lap. After taking half the day to find the man, it only took her a few minutes to reason with him and obtain the money she needed to keep the Service in operation.
Most of those few minutes were spent explaining, in considerable detail, exactly what she needed. Most of that, in specifying tools and artifacts—more shovels to dig more latrines; pots for boiling water; more fabric for making more tents, because the ones they had were too crowded. And so forth.
She spent a bit of time, at the end, specifying the sums of money she would need.
"Twenty solidi—a day." She nodded at an elderly wounded soldier whom she had brought with her along with Illus. "That's Zeno. He's literate. He's the Service's accountant in Chabahari. You can make all the arrangements through him."
The garrison's commandant then spent a minute explaining to Anna, also in considerable detail—mostly anatomical—what she could do with the tools, artifacts and money she needed.
Illus' face was very strained, by the end. Half with fury, half with apprehension—this man was no petty officer to be pounded with fists. But Anna herself sat through the garrison commander's tirade quite calmly. When he was done, she did not need more than a few seconds to reason with him further and bring him to see the error of his position.
"My husband is Calopodius the Blind. I will tell him what you have said to me, and he will place the words in his next Dispatch. You will be a lucky man if all that happens to you is that General Belisarius has you executed."
She left the tent without waiting to hear his response. By the time she reached the tent's entrance, the garrison commander's face was much whiter than the tent fabric and he was gasping for breath.
The next morning, a chest containing a hundred solidi was brought to the hospital and placed in Zeno's care. The day after that, the first of the tools and artifacts began arriving.
Four weeks later, when Calopodius' note finally arrived, the mortality rate in the hospital was less than half what it had been when Anna arrived. She was almost sorry to leave.
In truth, she might not have left at all, except by then she was confident that Zeno was quite capable of managing the entire service as well as its finances.
"Don't steal anything," she warned him, as she prepared to leave.
Zeno's face quirked with a rueful smile. "I wouldn't dare risk the Wife's anger."
She laughed, then; and found herself wondering through all the days of their slow oar-driven travel to Barbaricum why those words had brought her no anger at all.
And, each night, she took out Calopodius' letter and wondered at it also. Anna had lived with anger and bitterness for so long—"so long," at least, to a nineteen-year-old girl—that she was confused by its absence. She was even more confused by the little glow of warmth which the last words in the letter gave her, each time she read them.
"You're a strange woman," Illus told her, as the great battlements and cannons of Barbaricum loomed on the horizon.
There was no way to explain. "Yes," was all she said.
* * *
The first thing she did upon arriving at Barbaricum was march into the telegraph office. If the officers in command thought there was anything peculiar about a young Greek noblewoman dressed in the finest and filthiest garments they had ever seen, they kept it to themselves. Perhaps rumors of "the Wife" had preceded her.
"Send a telegram immediately," she commanded. "To my husband, Calopodius the Blind."
They hastened to comply. The message was brief:
Address medical care and sanitation in next dispatch STOP Firmly STOP
The Iron Triangle
When Calopodius received the telegram—and he received it immediately, because his post was in the Iron Triangle's command and communication center—the first words he said as soon as the telegraph operator finished reading it to him were:
"God, I'm an idiot!"
Belisarius had heard the telegram also. In fact, all the officers in the command center had heard, because they had been waiting with an ear cocked. By now, the peculiar journey of Calopodius' wife was a source of feverish gossip in the ranks of the entire army fighting off the Malwa siege in the Punjab. What the hell is that girl doing, anyway? being only the most polite of the speculations.
The general sighed and rolled his eyes. Then, closed them. It was obvious to everyone that he was reviewing all of Calopodius' now-famous Dispatches in his mind.
"We're both idiots," he muttered. "We've maintained proper medical and sanitation procedures here, sure enough. But..."
His words trailed off. His second-in-command, Maurice, filled in the rest.
"She must have passed through half the invasion staging posts along the way. Garrison troops, garrison officers—with the local butchers as the so-called 'surgeons.' God help us, I don't even want to think..."
"I'll write it immediately," said Calopodius.
Belisarius nodded. "Do so. And I'll give you some choice words to include." He cocked his head at Maurice, smiling crookedly. "What do you think? Should we resurrect crucifixion as a punishment?"
Maurice shook his head. "Don't be so damned flamboyant. Make the punishment fit the crime. Surgeons who do not boil their instruments will be boiled alive. Officers who do not see to it that proper latrines are maintained will be buried alive in them. That sort of thing."
Calopodius was already seated at the desk where he dictated his Dispatches and the chapters of the History. So was his scribe, pen in hand.
"I'll add a few nice little flourishes," his young voice said confidently. "This strikes me as a good place for grammar and rhetoric."
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The Thar Desert
Near the Iron Triangle
Three days later, at sunrise, Belisarius and a small escort rode into the Thar Desert. "The Great Indian Desert," as it was also sometimes called.
They didn't go far. No farther than they'd been able to travel in the three days since they'd left the Triangle. Partly, that because Belisarius' bodyguards were by now pestering him almost constantly regarding his security. They hadn't been happy at all when he'd informed them he planned to leave the Triangle on a week-long scouting expedition of his own. The bodyguards had the not-unreasonable attitude that scouting expeditions should be done by scouts, not commanders-in-chief.
Belisarius didn't disagree with them, as a matter of general principle. Nor was this expedition one of the periodically calculated risks he took, proving to his men that he was willing to share their dangers and hardships. It was, in fact, purely and simply a scouting expedition—and not one in which he expected to encounter any enemies.
Why would he, after all? The Thar was enemy enough, to any human. With the exception of some small nomadic tribes, no one ventured into it willingly. There was no logical reason for the Malwa to be sending patrols into its interior. In any event, Belisarius had been careful to enter the desert much farther south than the most advanced Malwa contingents.
Aide wasn't any happier at the situation than the bodyguards.
This is purely stupid. Why are you bothering, anyway? You already crossed the Thar, once before, when you were fleeing India. And don't try to deny it! I was there, remember?
Belisarius ignored him, for a moment. His eyes continued to range the landscape, absorbing it as best he could.
True, he had crossed this desert once—albeit a considerable distance to the south. Still, what he could see here was not really any different from what he'd seen years earlier. The Thar desert, like most deserts, is much of a sameness.
Yes, I remember—but my memories were those of the man who crossed this desert then. One man, alone, on a camel rather than a horse, and with plenty of water and supplies. I needed to see it again, to really bring back all the memories.
I could have done that for you, Aide pointed out peevishly. One of the crystal's seemingly-magical powers was an ability to bring back any of Belisarius' memories—while Aide had been with him, at least—as vividly as if they'd just happened.
Belisarius shook his head slightly. It's still not the same. I need to feel the heat again, on my own skin. Gauge it, just as I gauge the dryness and the barrenness.
He gave Abbu, riding just behind him to his left, a little jerk of the head to summon him forward.
"What do you think?" he asked the leader of his Arab scouts.
Abbu's grizzle-bearded countenance glared at the desert. "It is nothing, next to the Empty Quarter!"
Bedouin honor having been satisfied, he shrugged. "Still, it is a real desert. No oases, even, from what I've been told."
He's right, Aide chimed in. There aren't any. The desert isn't as bad as it will become a millennia and a half from now, when the first real records were maintained. The Thar is a fairly recent desert. Still, as the old bandit says, it is indeed a real desert. And no artesian wells, either.
Belisarius mused on the problem, for a minute or so.
Could we dig our own wells, then?
I could find the spots for you. Very likely ones, at least. The records are good, and the aquifers would not have changed much. But there are no guarantees, and... In a desert this bad, if even one of my estimates proves wrong, it could be disastrous.
Belisarius was considerably more sanguine than Aide, on that score. He had found many times that Aide's superhuman intellect, while it often floundered with matters involving human emotions, rarely failed when it came to a straightforward task of deduction based on a mass of empirical data.
Still, he saw no reason to take unnecessary chances.
"Abbu, if I send you and some of your men through this desert—a dozen or two, whatever you wish—along with a chart indicating the likely spots to dig wells, could you find them?"
Abbu's expression was sour. "I don't read charts easily," he grumbled. "Detest the newfangled things."
Belisarius suppressed a smile. What Abbu said was true enough—the part about detesting the things, at any rate—but the scout leader was perfectly capable of reading them well enough. Even if he weren't, he had several young Arabs who could read and interpret maps and charts as easily as any Greek. What was really involved here was more the natural dislike of an old bedouin at the prospect of digging a number of wells in a desert.
You'd be an idiot to trust him to do it properly, anyway. If you want good wells made—ones that you can depend on, weeks or months later—you'd do better to use Greeks.
Teaching your grandfather to suck eggs again? I just want Abbu to find the spots. I'll send some of my bucellarii with him to do the work. Thracians will be even better than Greeks.
After he explained the plan to Abbu, the scout leader was mollified. "Easy, then," he announced. "Take us three weeks."
Abbu squinted at the desert. "Maybe a month. The Thar is three hundred miles across, you say?"
Not really, Aide chimed in. Not today, before the worst of the desiccation has happened. Say, two hundred miles of real desert, with a fifty-mile fringe. We're still in the fringe here, really.
"Figure two hundred miles of real desert, Abbu, with another fifty on either side like this terrain."
The old Arab ran fingers through his beard. "And you want us to use horses. Not camels?"
"Then, as I say, three, maybe four weeks. Coming back will be quick, with the wells already dug."
Abbu cocked his head a little, looking at Belisarius through narrowed eyes.
"What rashness are you contemplating, general?"
Belisarius pointed with his chin toward the east. "When the time comes—if the time comes—I may want to lead an expedition across that desert. To Ajmer."
"Ajmer?" The Arab chief's eyes almost literally bulged. "You are mad! Ajmer is the main city of the Rajputs. It would take you ten thousand men—maybe fifteen—to seize the city. Then, you would be lucky to hold it against the counter-attack."
He stretched out his hand and flipped it, simultaneously indicating the desert with the gesture and dismissing everything else. "You cannot—can not, general, not even you—get more than a thousand men across that desert. Not even with wells dug. Not even in this fine rabi season—and we'll soon be in the heat of garam. With camels, maybe two thousand. But with horses? A thousand at most!"
"I wasn't actually planning to take a thousand," Belisarius said mildly. "I think five hundred of my bucellarii will suffice. With an additional two hundred of your scouts, as outriders."
Fiercely, Abbu shook his head. "Not a chance, general. Not with only five hundred of your best Thracians. Not even with splendid Arab scouts. We would not get within sight of Ajmer before we were overrun. Not all the Rajputs are in the Deccan with Damodara, you know. Many are not."
Belisarius nodded placidly. "A great many, according to my spies. I'm counting on that, in fact. I need at least fifteen thousand Rajputs to be in or around Ajmer when we arrive. Twenty would be better."
Abbu rolled his eyes. "What lunacy is this? You are expecting the Rajputs to become changed men? Lambs, where once they were lions?"
Belisarius chuckled. "Oh, not that, certainly. I'd have no use for Rajput lambs. But... yes, Abbu. If I do this—which I may well not, since right now it's only a possibility—then I expect the Rajputs to have changed."
He reined his horse around. "More than that, I will not say. This is all speculation, in any event. Let's get back to the Triangle."
* * *
When they returned to the Triangle, Belisarius gave three orders.
The first summoned Ashot from the Sukkur Gorge. He was no longer needed there, in command of the Roman forces, now that the Persians had established firm control over the area.
"I'll want him in charge of the bucellarii, of course," he told Maurice, "since you'll have to remain behind."
The bucellarii were Belisarius' picked force of Thracian cataphracts, armored heavy cavalrymen. A private army, in essence, that he'd maintained for years. A large one, too, numbering by now seven thousand men. He could afford it, since the immense loot from the past years of successful campaigns—first, against the Persians; and then, in alliance with them against the Malwa—had made Belisarius the richest person in the Roman Empire except for Justinian and Theodora.
Maurice had been the leader of those bucellarii since they were first formed, over ten years earlier. But, today, he was essentially the second-in-command of the entire Roman army in the Punjab.
Maurice grunted. "Ashot'll do fine. I still say it's a crazy idea."
"It may never happen, anyway," Belisarius pointed out. "It's something of a long shot, depending on several factors over which we have no control at all."
Maurice scowled. "So what? 'Long shot' and 'no control' are the two phrases that best describe this war to begin with."
Rightly said! chimed in Aide.
Belisarius gave the crystal the mental equivalent of a very cross-eyed look. If I recall correctly, you were the one who started the war in the first place.
Oh, nonsense! I just pointed out the inevitable.
* * *
The second order, which he issued immediately thereafter, summoned Agathius from Mesopotamia.
"We don't need him there either, any more," he explain to Maurice.
"No, we don't. Although I hate to think of what chaos those damn Persians will create in our logistics without Agathius to crack the whip over them. Still..."
The chiliarch ran fingers through his grizzled beard. "We could use him here, better. If you go haring off on this preposterous mad dash of yours, I'll have to command the troops here. Bloody fighting, that'll be, all across the front."
"Bloodier than anything you've ever seen," Belisarius agreed. "Or I've ever seen—or anyone's ever seen. The two greatest armies ever assembled in history hammering at each other across not more than twenty miles of front. And the Malwa will hammer, Maurice. You can be sure that Link will give that order before the monster departs. Whatever else, it will want this Roman army kept in its cage, and not able to come after it."
Maurice's grunted chuckle even had a bit of real humor. Not much, of course. "But no fancy maneuvers required. Nothing that really needs the crooked brain of Belisarius. Just stout, simple-minded Maurice of Thrace, like the centurion of the Bible. Saying to one, come, and he cometh. Saying to another, go, and he goeth."
Belisarius smiled, but said nothing.
Maurice grunted again, seeing the smile. "Well, I can do that, certainly. And I agree that it would help a lot to have Agathius here. He can manage everything else while I command on the front lines."
* * *
The third order he gave to Ashot, a few days later, as soon as he arrived.
More in the way of a set of orders, actually. Which of them Ashot chose to follow would depend on... this and that.
"Marvelous," said Ashot, after Belisarius finished. The stubby Armenian cataphract exchanged a familiar look with Maurice. The one that translated more-or-less as: what sins did we commit to be given such a young lunatic for a commander?
But he verbalized none of it. Even the exchange of looks was more in the way of a familiar habit than anything really heartfelt. It was not as if he and Maurice weren't accustomed to the experience, by now.
"I don't much doubt Kungas will agree," he said. "So I should be back within a month."
Belisarius cocked an eyebrow. "That soon?"
"There are advantages to working as closely as I have with Persians, general. I know at least two dehgans in Sukkur who are familiar with the terrain I'll have to pass through to reach Kungas. They'll guide me, readily enough."
"All right. How many men do you want?"
"Not more than thirty. We shouldn't encounter any Malwa, the route I'll be taking. Thirty will be enough to scare off any bandits. Any more would just slow us down."
* * *
Ashot and his little troop left the next morning. Thereafter, Belisarius went back to the routine of the siege.
"I hate sieges," he commented to Calopodius. "But I will say they don't require much in the way of thought, once everything's settled down."
"Meaning no offense, general, but if you think you hate sieges, I invite you to try writing a history about one. Grammar and rhetoric can only do so much."
* * *
Antonina stared down at the message in her hand. She was trying to remember if, at any time in her life, she'd ever felt such conflicting emotions.
"That is the oddest expression I can ever remember seeing on your face," Ousanas mused. "Although it does remind me, a bit, of the expression I once saw on the face of a young Greek nobleman in Alexandria."
Stalling for time while she tried to sort out her feelings, Antonina muttered: "When did you ever know any Greek noblemen in Alexandria?"
Glancing up, she saw Ousanas was smiling. That serene little smile that was always a little disconcerting on his face.
"I have led a varied life, you know. I wasn't always shackled to this wretched little African backwater in the mountains. On that occasion—there were several—the youth fancied himself a philosopher. I showed him otherwise."
Lounging on a nearby chair in Antonina's salon, Ezana grunted. He'd taken no offense, of course, at Ousanas' wisecrack about Axum. Partly, because he was used to it; partly, because he knew from experience that the only way to deal with Ousanas' wisecracks was to ignore them.
"And that is what caused a peculiar expression on his face?" he asked skeptically. "I would have thought one of your devastating logical ripostes—for which the world has seen no equal since Socrates—would have simply left him aghast at his ignorance."
Ezana was no slouch himself, when it came to wisecracks—or turning a properly florid phrase, for that matter. Ousanas flashed a quick grin in recognition, and then shrugged.
"Alas, no. My rebuttal went so far over his head that the callow stripling had no idea at all that I'd disemboweled him, intellectually speaking. No, the peculiar expression came not five minutes later, when a courier arrived bearing the news that the lad's father had died in Constantinople. And that he had inherited one of the largest fortunes in the empire."
He pointed a finger at Antonina's face. "That expression."
She didn't know whether to laugh or scowl. In the end, she managed to do both.
"It's a letter from Theodora. Sent by telegraph to Alexandria, relayed to Myos Hormos, and then brought by a dispatch vessel the rest of the way." She held it up. "My son—his wife Tahmina, too—is coming on a tour of our allies. Starting here in Axum, of course. He'll go with us to India."
"Ah." Ousanas nodded. "All is explained. Your delight at the unexpected prospect of seeing your son again, much sooner than you expected. Your chagrin at having to delay your much-anticipated reunion with your husband. The maternal instinct of a proper Egyptian woman clashing with the salacious habits of a Greek harlot."
He and Ezana exchanged stern glances.
"You should wait for your son," Ezana pronounced. "Even if you are a Greek harlot."
Antonina gave them the benefit of her sweetest smile. "I would remind both of you that Greek women are also the world's best and most experienced poisoners. And you do not use food-tasters in Ethiopia."
"She has a point," Ousanas averred.
Ezana grunted again. "She should still wait for her son. Even if she is—"
"Of course I'm going to wait for my son, you—you—fucking idiots!"
* * *
The next day, though, it was her turn to start needling Ousanas.
"What? If it's that hard for you, why don't you leave now? There's no reason you have to wait here until Photius arrives. You can surely find some way to pass the time in Barbaricum—or Chabahari, most like—as accustomed as you are to the humdrum life in this African backwater."
Ousanas scowled at her. For one of the rare times since she'd met him, years earlier, the Bantu once-hunter had no easy quip to make in response.
"Damnation, Antonina, it is difficult. It never was, before, because..."
"Yes, I know. The mind—even yours, o great philosopher—makes different categories for different things. It's convenient, that way, and avoids problems."
Ousanas ran fingers over his scalp. "Yes," he said curtly. "Even mine. And now..."
His eyes started to drift toward the window they were standing near. Then, he looked away.
Antonina leaned over and glanced down into the courtyard below, one of several in the Ta'akha Maryam. Rukaiya was still there, sitting on a bench and holding her baby.
"She is very beautiful," Antonina said softly.
Ousanas was still looking aside. "Beauty I could ignore, readily enough. I am no peasant boy." For an instant, the familiar smile gleamed. "No longer, at least. I can remember a time when the mere sight of her would have paralyzed me."
He shrugged, uncomfortably. "Much harder to ignore the wit and the intelligence, coupled to the beauty. The damn girl is even well educated, for her age. Give her ten years..."
Antonina eyed him. "I did choose her for a king's wife, you know. And not just any king, but Eon. And I chose very well, I think."
"Yes, you did. Eon was besotted with her. I never had any trouble understanding why—but it never affected me then, either."
"The wedding will be tomorrow, Ousanas. Leave the next day, if you will."
"I can't, Antonina. First, because it would look odd, since everyone now knows that you are waiting for Photius. People would assume it was because I was displeased with the girl, instead of... ah, the exact opposite."
He brought his eyes back to look at her. "The bigger problem, however, is Koutina. Which we must now discuss. Before I do anything else, I must resolve that issue. People are already jabbering about it."
Antonina winced. As pleased as she was, overall, with her settlement of the Axumite succession problem, it was not a perfect world and her solution had shared in that imperfection. Most of the problems she could ignore, at least personally, since they mainly involved the grievances and disgruntlements of people she thought were too full of themselves anyway.
"I don't know what to do about her," she admitted sadly.
The girl had been the most faithful and capable servant Antonina had ever had. And she'd now repaid her by separating her from Ousanas, with whom she'd developed a relationship that went considerably beyond a casual sexual liaison.
"Neither do I," said Ousanas. His tone was, if anything, still sadder. "She's always known, of course, that as the aqabe tsentsen I'd eventually have to make a marriage of state. But—"
He shrugged again. "The position of concubine was acceptable to her."
"It's not possible, now. You know that."
"Yes. Of course." After a moment's hesitation, Ousanas stepped to the window and looked down.
"She approached me about it two days ago, you know," he murmured.
"Yes. She told me she understood my existing attachment to Koutina and would have no objection if I kept her as a concubine." He smiled, turned away from the window, and held up a stiff finger. "'Only one, though!' she said. 'Koutina is different. Any others and I will have you poisoned.' Not the concubine—you!'"
Antonina chuckled. "That... is very much like Rukaiya."
Which, it was, although Antonina was skeptical that Rukaiya would actually be able to handle the situation that easily. Granted, the girl was Arab and thus no stranger to the institution of concubinage. Even her recent conversion to Christianity would not have made much difference, if any. Concubinage might be frowned upon by the church, but it was common enough practice among wealthy Christians also—including plenty of bishops.
Still, she'd been a queen for some time now—and Eon's queen, to boot. There had never been any hint of interest in concubines on Eon's part. Of course, with a wife like Rukaiya, that was hardly surprising. Not only was she quite possibly the most beautiful woman in the Axumite empire, she had wit and brains and a charming personality to go with it.
But it didn't matter, anyway. "Ousanas—"
"Yes, yes, I know." He waved his hand. "Absolutely impossible, given the nature of my new position as the angabo. The situation will be tricky enough as it is, making sure that the children Rukaiya will bear me have the proper relationship with Wahsi. Throw into that delicate balance yet another batch of children with Koutina..."
He shook his head. "It would be madness. She's not barren, either."
Koutina's one pregnancy had ended in a miscarriage. That was not particularly unusual, of course. Most likely, Koutina's next pregnancy would produce a child.
Suddenly, Ousanas shook his head again, but this time with rueful amusement. "Ha! It's probably a good thing Rukaiya is so comely and enjoyable to be around. I'm afraid there'll be no more sexual adventures on the part of the mighty Ousanas. As aqabe tsentsen, I could do most anything in that regard and only produce chuckles. As angabo, I will have to be like the Caesar's wife you Romans brag about—even if, mind you, I can't see where you've often lived up to it."
Antonina grinned. "Theodora does. Which, given her history, may seem ironic to some people. On the other hand, the one advantage to being an ex-whore—take it from me—is that you're not subject to the notion some women have that the man in some other woman's bed is much more interesting than the one in your own." She stuck out her tongue. "Bleah."
"I can imagine. However..."
"Yes, I know. We are no closer to a solution. And the problem is as bad as it could be, because Koutina is not only losing you, she's losing me. I can't very well keep her on as my servant when you will be accompanying me on the same trip with..."
Her voice trailed off. Looking suddenly at Ousanas, she saw that his eyes had that slightly-unfocussed look she suspected were in her own.
"Photius would have to agree, of course," Ousanas mused. "Tahmina, rather."
Antonina tried to poke at the idea, to find any weak spots. "It still leaves the problem that Koutina will be with us. People might think—"
"Pah!" Ousanas' sneer, when he threw himself into it, could be as magnificent as his grin. "What 'people'? The only 'people'—person—who matters here is Rukaiya. And she will believe me—she'll certainly believe you—when we explain it to her. For the rest..."
He shrugged. "Who cares what gossip circulates, as long as Rukaiya doesn't pay attention to it? Gossip is easy to deal with. Ignore it unless it gets too obtrusive, at which point you inform Ezana that Loudmouths Alpha, Beta and Gamma have become a nuisance. Shortly thereafter, Loudmouths Alpha, Beta and Gamma will either cease being a nuisance or will cease altogether."
The grin came. "Such a handy fellow to have around, even if he lacks the proper appreciation of my philosophical talents."
The more Antonina considered the idea, the more she liked it. "Yes. Eventually, the trip is over. So long as there are no Ousanas bastards inconveniently lounging about"—here she gave him a pointed look—"there's no problem. Koutina goes to Constantinople as one of Tahmina's maidservants, and..."
Her face cleared. "She'll do quite well. You've already started her education. If she continues it—she's very pretty, and very capable—she'll eventually wind up in a good marriage. A senatorial family is not out of the question, if she has Tahmina's favor. Which, I have no doubt she will."
For a moment, she and Ousanas regarded each other with that special satisfaction that belongs to conspirators having reached a particularly pleasing conspiracy.
Then, Ousanas frowned. "I remind you. Photius will have to agree."
Antonina's expression became—she hoped, anyway—suitably outraged. "Of course, he will! He's my son, you idiot!"
* * *
When Photius arrived, two weeks later, he didn't actually have an opinion, one way or the other.
"Whatever you want, Mother," in the resigned but dutiful tones of an eleven-year-old.
Antonina's older daughter-in-law, on the other hand, proved far more perceptive.
"What a marvelous idea, Mother! And do you think she'd be willing to carry around a cuirass for me, too?" The sixteen-year-old gave her husband a very credible eyelash-batting. "I think I'd look good in a cuirass, Photius, don't you?"
Photius choked. "Not in bed!" he protested. "I'd break my hands, trying to give you backrubs."
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Barbaricum, on the Indian coast
Anna and her companions spent their first night in India crowded into the corner of a tavern packed full with Roman soldiers and all the other typical denizens of a great port city—longshoremen, sailors, petty merchants and their womenfolk, pimps and prostitutes, gamblers, and the usual sprinkling of thieves and other criminals.
Like almost all the buildings in Barbaricum, the tavern was a mudbrick edifice which had been badly burned in the great fires which swept the city during the Roman conquest. The arson had not been committed by Belisarius' men, but by the fanatic Mahaveda priests who led the Malwa defenders. Despite the still-obvious reminders of that destruction, the tavern was in use for the simple reason that, unlike so many buildings in the city, the walls were still standing and there was even a functional roof.
When they first entered, Anna and her party had been assessed by the mob of people packed in the tavern. The assessment had not been as quick as the one which that experienced crowd would have normally made. Anna and her party were... odd.
The hesitation worked entirely to her advantage, however. The tough-looking Isaurian brothers and Abdul were enough to give would-be cutpurses pause, and in the little space and time cleared for them, the magical rumor had time to begin and spread throughout the tavern. Watching it spread—so obvious, from the curious stares and glances sent her way—Anna was simultaneously appalled, amused, angry, and thankful.
It's her. Calopodius the Blind's wife. Got to be.
"Who started this damned rumor, anyway?" she asked peevishly, after Illus cleared a reasonably clean spot for her in a corner and she was finally able to sit down. She leaned against the shelter of the walls with relief. She was well-nigh exhausted.
Abdul grunted with amusement. The Arab was frequently amused, Anna noted with exasperation. But it was an old and well-worn exasperation, by now, almost pleasant in its predictability.
Cottomenes, whose amusement at life's quirks was not much less than Abdul's, chuckled his own agreement. "You're hot news, Lady Saronites. Everybody on the docks was talking about it, too. And the soldiers outside the telegraph office." Cottomenes, unlike his older brother, never allowed himself the familiarity of calling her "girl." In all other respects, however, he showed her a lack of fawning respect that would have outraged her family.
After the dockboys whom Anna had hired finished stacking her luggage next to her, they crowded themselves against a wall nearby, ignoring the glares directed their way by the tavern's usual habitués. Clearly enough, having found this source of incredible largesse, the dockboys had no intention of relinquishing it.
Anna shook her head. The vehement motion finished the last work of disarranging her long dark hair. The elaborate coiffure under which she had departed Constantinople, so many weeks before, was now entirely a thing of the past. Her hair was every bit as tangled and filthy as her clothing. She wondered if she would ever feel clean again.
"Why?" she whispered.
Squatting next to her, Illus studied her for a moment. His eyes were knowing, as if the weeks of close companionship and travel had finally enabled a half-barbarian mercenary soldier to understand the weird torments of a young noblewoman's soul.
Which, indeed, perhaps they had.
"You're different, girl. What you do is different. You have no idea how important that can be, to a man who does nothing, day after day, but toil under a sun. Or to a woman who does nothing, day after day, but wash clothes and carry water."
She stared up at him. Seeing the warmth lurking somewhere deep in Illus' eyes, in that hard tight face, Anna was stunned to realize how great a place the man had carved for himself in her heart. Friendship was a stranger to Anna of the Melisseni.
"And what is an angel, in the end," said the Isaurian softly, "but something different?"
Anna stared down at her grimy garments, noting all the little tears and frays in the fabric.
The epiphany finally came to her, then. And she wondered, in the hour or so that she spent leaning against the walls of the noisy tavern before she finally drifted into sleep, whether Calopodius had also known such an epiphany. Not on the day he chose to leave her behind, all her dreams crushed, in order to gain his own; but on the day he first awoke, a blind man, and realized that sight is its own curse.
And for the first time since she'd heard Calopodius' name, she no longer regretted the life which had been denied to her. No longer thought with bitterness of the years she would never spend in the shelter of the cloister, allowing her mind to range through the world's accumulated wisdom like a hawk finally soaring free.
When she awoke the next morning, the first thought which came to her was that she finally understood her own faith—and never had before, not truly. There was some regret in the thought, of course. Understanding, for all except God, is also limitation. But with that limitation came clarity and sharpness, so different from the froth and fuzz of a girl's fancies and dreams.
In the gray light of an alien land's morning, filtering into a tavern more noisome than any she would ever have imagined, Anna studied her soiled and ragged clothing. Seeing, this time, not filth and ruin but simply the carpet of her life opening up before her. A life she had thought closeted forever.
"Practicality first," she announced firmly. "It is not a sin."
The words woke up Illus. He gazed at her through slitted, puzzled eyes.
"Get up," she commanded. "We need uniforms."
A few minutes later, leading the way out the door with her three-soldier escort and five dock urchins toting her luggage, Anna issued the first of that day's rulings and commandments.
"It'll be expensive, but my husband will pay for it. He's rich."
"He's not here," grunted Illus.
"His name is. He's also famous. Find me a banker."
It took a bit of time before she was able to make the concept of "banker" clear to Illus. Or, more precisely, differentiate it from the concepts of "pawnbroker," "usurer" and "loan shark." But, eventually, he agreed to seek out and capture this mythological creature—with as much confidence as he would have announced plans to trap a griffin or a minotaur.
"Never mind," grumbled Anna, seeing the nervous little way in which Illus was fingering his sword. "I'll do it myself. Where's the army headquarters in this city? They'll know what a 'banker' is, be sure of it."
That task was within Illus' scheme of things. And since Barbaricum was in the actual theater of Belisarius' operations, the officers in command of the garrison were several cuts of competence above those at Chabahari. By midmorning, Anna had been steered to the largest of the many new moneylenders who had fixed themselves upon Belisarius' army.
An Indian himself, ironically enough, named Pulinda. Anna wondered, as she negotiated the terms, what secrets—and what dreams, realized or stultified—lay behind the life of the small and elderly man sitting across from her. How had a man from the teeming Ganges valley eventually found himself, awash with wealth obtained in whatever mysterious manner, a paymaster to the alien army which was hammering at the gates of his own homeland?
Did he regret the life which had brought him to this place? Savor it?
Most likely both, she concluded. And was then amused, when she realized how astonished Pulinda would have been had he realized that the woman with whom he was quarreling over terms was actually awash in good feeling toward him.
Perhaps, in some unknown way, he sensed that warmth. In any event, the negotiations came to an end sooner than Anna had expected. They certainly left her with better terms than she had expected.
Or, perhaps, it was simply that magic name of Calopodius again, clearing the waters before her. Pulinda's last words to her were: "Mention me to your husband, if you would."
By midafternoon, she had tracked down the tailor reputed to be the best in Barbaricum. By sundown, she had completed her business with him. Most of that time had been spent keeping the dockboys from fidgeting as the tailor measured them.
"You also!" Anna commanded, slapping the most obstreperous urchin on top of his head. "In the Service, cleanliness is essential."
The next day, however, when they donned their new uniforms, the dockboys were almost beside themselves with joy. The plain and utilitarian garments were, by a great margin, the finest clothing they had ever possessed.
The Isaurian brothers and Abdul were not quite as demonstrative. Not quite.
"We look like princes," gurgled Cottomenes happily.
"And so you are," pronounced Anna. "The highest officers of the Wife's Service. A rank which will someday"—she spoke with a confidence far beyond her years—"be envied by princes the world over."
The Iron Triangle
"Relax, Calopodius," said Menander cheerfully, giving the blind young officer a friendly pat on the shoulder. "I'll see to it she arrives safely."
"She's already left Barbaricum," muttered Calopodius. "Damnation, why didn't she wait?"
Despite his agitation, Calopodius couldn't help smiling when he heard the little round of laughter which echoed around him. As usual, whenever the subject of Calopodius' wife arose, every officer and orderly in the command bunker had listened. In her own way, Anna was becoming as famous as anyone in the great Roman army fighting its way into India.
Most husbands, to say the least, do not like to discover that their wives are the subject of endless army gossip. But since, in this case, the cause of the gossip was not the usual sexual peccadilloes, Calopodius was not certain how he felt about it. Some part of him, ingrained with custom, still felt a certain dull outrage. But, for the most part—perhaps oddly—his main reaction was one of quiet pride.
"I suppose that's a ridiculous question," he admitted ruefully. "She hasn't waited for anything else."
When Menander spoke again, the tone in his voice was much less jovial. As if he, too, shared in the concern which—much to his surprise—Calopodius had found engulfing him since he learned of Anna's journey. Strange, really, that he should care so much about the well-being of a wife who was little but a vague image to him.
But... Even before his blinding, the world of literature had often seemed as real to Calopodius as any other. Since he lost his sight, all the more so—despite the fact that he could no longer read or write himself, but depended on others to do it for him.
Anna Melisseni, the distant girl he had married and had known for a short time in Constantinople, meant practically nothing to him. But the Wife of Calopodius the Blind, the unknown woman who had been advancing toward him for weeks now, she was a different thing altogether. Still mysterious, but not a stranger. How could she be, any longer?
Had he not, after all, written about her often enough in his own Dispatches? In the third person, of course, as he always spoke of himself in his writings. No subjective mood was ever inserted into his Dispatches, any more than into the chapters of his massive History of the War. But, detached or not, whenever he received news of Anna he included at least a few sentences detailing for the army her latest adventures. Just as he did for those officers and men who had distinguished themselves. And he was no longer surprised to discover that most of the army found a young wife's exploits more interesting than their own.
"Difference," however, was no shield against life's misfortunes—misfortunes which are multiplied several times over in the middle of a war zone. So, within seconds, Calopodius was back to fretting.
"Why didn't she wait, damn it all?"
Again, Menander clapped his shoulder. "I'm leaving with the Victrix this afternoon, Calopodius. Steaming with the riverflow, I'll be in Sukkur long before Anna gets there coming upstream in an oared river craft. So I'll be her escort on the last leg of her journey, coming into the Punjab."
"The Sind's not that safe," grumbled Calopodius, still fretting. The Sind was the lower half of the Indus river valley, and while it had now been cleared of Malwa troops and was under the jurisdiction of Rome's Persian allies, the province was still greatly unsettled. "Dacoits everywhere."
"Dacoits aren't going to attack a military convoy," interrupted Belisarius. "I'll make sure she gets a Persian escort of some kind as far as Sukkur."
One of the telegraphs in the command center began to chatter. When the message was read aloud, a short time later, even Calopodius began to relax.
"Guess not," he mumbled—more than a little abashed. "With that escort."
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The Lower Indus
Spring, 534 A.D.
"I don't believe this," mumbled Illus—more than a little abashed. He glanced down at his uniform. For all the finery of the fabric and the cut, the garment seemed utterly drab matched against the glittering costumes which seemed to fill the wharf against which their river barge was just now being tied.
Standing next to him, Anna said nothing. Her face was stiff, showing none of the uneasiness she felt herself. Her own costume was even more severe and plainly cut than those of her officers, even if the fabric itself was expensive. And she found herself wishing desperately that her cosmetics had survived the journey from Constantinople. For a woman of her class, being seen with a face unadorned by anything except nature was well-nigh unthinkable. In any company, much less...
The tying-up was finished and the gangplank laid. Anna was able to guess at the identity of the first man to stride across it.
She was not even surprised. Anna had read everything ever written by Irene Macrembolitissa—several times over—including the last book the woman wrote just before she left for the Hindu Kush on her great expedition of conquest. The Deeds of Khusrau, she thought, described the man quite well. The Emperor of Persia was not particularly large, but so full of life and energy that he seemed like a giant as he strode toward her across the gangplank.
What am I doing here? she wondered. I never planned on such as this!
"So! You are the one!" were the first words he boomed. "To live in such days, when legends walk among us!"
In the confused time which followed, as Anna was introduced to a not-so-little mob of Persian officers and officials—most of them obviously struggling not to frown with disapproval at such a disreputable woman—she pondered on those words.
They seemed meaningless to her. Khusrau Anushirvan—"Khusrau of the Immortal Soul"—was a legend, not she.
So why had he said that?
By the end of that evening, after spending hours sitting stiffly in a chair while Iran's royalty and nobility wined and dined her, she had mustered enough courage to lean over to the emperor—sitting next to her!—and whisper the question into his ear.
Khusrau's response astonished her even more. He grinned broadly, white teeth gleaming in a square-cut Persian beard. Then, he leaned over and whispered in return:
"I am an expert on legends, wife of Calopodius. Truth be told, I often think the art of kingship is mainly knowing how to make the things."
He glanced slyly at his assembled nobility, who had not stopped frowning at Anna throughout the royal feast—but always, she noticed, under lowered brows.
"But keep it a secret," he whispered. "It wouldn't do for my noble sahrdaran and vurzurgan to discover that their emperor is really a common manufacturer. I don't need another rebellion this year."
She managed to choke down a laugh, fortunately. The effort, however, caused her hand to shake just enough to spill some wine onto her long dress.
"No matter," whispered the emperor. "Don't even try to remove the stain. By next week, it'll be the blood of a dying man brought back to life by the touch of your hand. Ask anyone."
She tightened her lips to keep from smiling. It was nonsense, of course, but there was no denying the emperor was a charming man.
But, royal decree or no, it was still nonsense. Bloodstains aplenty there had been on the garments she'd brought from Constantinople, true enough. Blood and pus and urine and excrement and every manner of fluid produced by human suffering. She'd gained them in Chabahari, and again at Barbaricum. Nor did she doubt there would be bloodstains on this garment also, soon enough, to match the wine stain she had just put there.
Indeed, she had designed the uniforms of the Wife's Service with that in mind. That was why the fabric had been dyed a purple so dark it was almost black.
But it was still nonsense. Her touch had no more magic power than anyone's. Her knowledge—or rather, the knowledge which she had obtained by reading everything Macrembolitissa or anyone else had ever written transmitting the Talisman of God's wisdom—now, that was powerful. But it had nothing to do with her, except insofar as she was another vessel of those truths.
Something of her skepticism must have shown, despite her effort to remain impassive-faced. She was only nineteen, after all, and hardly an experienced diplomat.
Khusrau's lips quirked. "You'll see."
The next day she resumed her journey up the river toward Sukkur. The emperor himself, due to the pressing business of completing his incorporation of the Sind into the swelling empire of Iran, apologized for not being able to accompany her personally. But he detailed no fewer than four Persian war galleys to serve as her escort.
"No fear of dacoits," said Illus, with great satisfaction. "Or deserters turned robbers."
His satisfaction turned a bit sour at Anna's response.
"Good. We'll be able to stop at every hospital along the way then. No matter how small."
And stop they did. Only briefly, in the Roman ones. By now, to Anna's satisfaction, Belisarius' blood-curdling threats had resulted in a marked improvement in medical procedures and sanitary practices.
But most of the small military hospitals along the way were Persian. The "hospitals" were nothing more than tents pitched along the riverbank—mere staging posts for disabled Persian soldiers being evacuated back to their homeland. The conditions within them had Anna seething, with a fury that was all the greater because neither she nor either of the Isaurian officers could speak a word of the Iranian language. Abdul could make himself understood, but his pidgin was quite inadequate to the task of convincing skeptical—even hostile—Persian officials that Anna's opinion was anything more than female twaddle.
Anna spent another futile hour trying to convince the officers in command of her escort to send a message to Khusrau himself. Clearly enough, however, none of them were prepared to annoy the emperor at the behest of a Roman woman who was probably half-insane to begin with.
Fortunately, at the town of Dadu, there was a telegraph station. Anna marched into it and fired off a message to her husband.
Why Talisman medical precepts not translated into Persian STOP Instruct Emperor Iran discipline his idiots STOP
"Do it," said Belisarius, after Calopodius read him the message.
The general paused. "Well, the first part, anyway. The Persian translation. I'll have to figure out a somewhat more diplomatic way to pass the rest of it on to Khusrau."
Maurice snorted. "How about hitting him on the head with a club? That'd be somewhat more diplomatic."
By the time the convoy reached Sukkur, it was moving very slowly.
There were no military hospitals along the final stretch of the river, because wounded soldiers were kept either in Sukkur itself or had already passed through the evacuation routes. The slow pace was now due entirely to the native population.
By whatever mysterious means, word of the Wife's passage had spread up and down the Indus. The convoy was constantly approached by small river boats bearing sick and injured villagers, begging for what was apparently being called "the healing touch."
Anna tried to reason, to argue, to convince. But it was hopeless. The language barrier was well-nigh impassible. Even the officers of her Persian escort could do no more than roughly translate the phrase "healing touch."
In the end, not being able to bear the looks of anguish on their faces, Anna laid her hands on every villager brought alongside her barge for the purpose. Muttering curses under her breath all the while—curses which were all the more bitter since she was quite certain the villagers of the Sind took them for powerful incantations.
At Sukkur, she was met by Menander and the entire crew of the Victrix. Beaming from ear to ear.
The grins faded soon enough. After waiting impatiently for the introductions to be completed, Anna's next words were: "Where's the telegraph station?"
Urgent stop Must translate Talisman precepts into native tongues also STOP
Menander fidgeted while she waited for the reply.
"I've got a critical military cargo to haul to the island," he muttered. "Calopodius may not even send an answer."
"He's my husband," came her curt response. "Of course he'll answer me."
* * *
Sure enough, the answer came very soon.
Cannot STOP Is no written native language STOP Not even alphabet STOP
After reading it, Anna snorted. "We'll see about that."
You supposedly expert grammar and rhetoric STOP Invent one STOP
"You'd best get started on it," mused Belisarius. The general's head turned to the south. "She'll be coming soon."
"Like a tidal bore," added Maurice.
* * *
That night, he dreamed of islands again.
* * *
First, of Rhodes, where he spent an idle day on his journey to join Belisarius' army while his ship took on supplies.
Some of that time he spent visiting the place where, years before, John of Rhodes had constructed an armaments center. Calopodius' own skills and interests were not inclined in a mechanical direction, but he was still curious enough to want to see the mysterious facility.
But, in truth, there was no longer much there of interest. Just a handful of buildings, vacant now except for livestock. So, after wandering about for a bit, he spent the rest of the day perched on a headland staring at the sea.
It was a peaceful, calm, and solitary day. The last one he would enjoy in his life, thus far.
Then, his dreams took him to the island in the Strait of Hormuz where Belisarius was having a naval base constructed. The general had sent Calopodius over from the mainland where the army was marching its way toward the Indus, in order to help resolve one of the many minor disputes which had erupted between the Romans and Persians who were constructing the facility. Among the members of the small corps of noble couriers who served Belisarius for liaison with the Persians, Calopodius had displayed a great deal of tact as well as verbal aptitude.
It was something of a private joke between him and the general. "I need you to take care of another obstreperous aunt," was the way Belisarius put it.
The task of mediating between the quarrelsome Romans and Persians had been stressful. But Calopodius had enjoyed the boat ride well enough; and, in the end, he had managed to translate Belisarius' blunt words into language flowery enough to slide the command through—like a knife between unguarded ribs.
Toward the end, his dreams slid into a flashing nightmare image of Bukkur Island. A log, painted to look like a field gun, sent flying by a lucky cannon ball fired by one of the Malwa gunships whose bombardment accompanied that last frenzied assault. The Romans drove off that attack also, in the end. But not before a mortar shell had ripped Calopodius' eyes out of his head.
The last sight he would ever have in his life was of that log, whirling through the air and crushing the skull of a Roman soldier standing in its way. What made the thing a nightmare was that Calopodius could not remember the soldier's name, if he had ever known it. So it all seemed very incomplete, in a way that was too horrible for Calopodius to be able to express clearly to anyone, even himself. Grammar and rhetoric simply collapsed under the coarse reality, just as fragile human bone and brain had collapsed under hurtling wood.
The sound of his aide-de-camp clumping about in the bunker awoke him. The warm little courtesy banished the nightmare, and Calopodius returned to life with a smile.
"How does the place look?" he asked.
"It's hardly fit for a Melisseni girl. But I imagine it'll do for your wife."
"Yes." Calopodius heard Luke lay something on the small table next to the cot. From the slight rustle, he understood that it was another stack of telegrams. Private ones, addressed to him, not army business.
"Any from Anna?"
"No. Just more bills."
Calopodius laughed. "Well, whatever else, she still spends money like a Melisseni. Before she's done, that banker will be the richest man in India."
Luke said nothing in response. After a moment, Calopodius' humor faded away, replaced by simple wonder.
"Soon, now. I wonder what she'll be like?"
Back | Next
Back | Next
Lady Damodara's palace
"We should go back," whispered Rajiv's little sister. Nervously, the girl's eyes ranged about the dark cellar. "It's scary down here."
Truth be told, Rajiv found the place fairly creepy himself. The little chamber was one of many they'd found in this long-unused portion of the palace's underground cellars. Rajiv found the maze-like complexity of the cellars fascinating. He could not for the life of him figure out any rhyme or reason to the ancient architectural design, if there had ever been one at all. But that same labyrinthine character of the little grottoes also made them...
Well. A little scary.
But no thirteen-year-old boy will admit as much to his seven-year-old sister. Not even a peasant boy, much less the son of Rajputana's most famous king.
"You go back if you want to," he said, lifting the oil lamp to get a better look at the archway ahead of them. He could see part of another small cellar beyond. "I want to see all of it."
"I'll get lost on my own," Mirabai whined. "And there's only one lamp."
For a moment, Rajiv hesitated. He could, after all, use his sister's fear and the lack of a second lamp as a legitimate justification for going back. No reflection on his courage.
He might have, too, except that his sister's next words irritated him.
"There are ghosts down here," she whispered. "I can hear them talking."
"Oh, don't be silly!" He took a step toward the archway.
"I can hear them," she said. Quietly, but insistently.
Rajiv started to make a sarcastic rejoinder, when he heard something. He froze, half-cocking his head to bring an ear to bear.
She was right! Rajiv could hear voices himself. No words, as such, just murmuring.
"There's more than one of them, too," his sister hissed.
Again, she was right. Rajiv could distinguish at least two separate voices. From their tone, they seemed to be having an argument of some sort.
Would ghosts argue? he wondered.
That half-frightened, half-puzzled question steadied his nerves. With the steadiness, came a more acute sense of what he was hearing.
"Those aren't ghosts," he whispered. "Those are people. Live people."
Mirabai's face was tight with fear. "What would people be doing down here?"
That was... a very good question. And the only answer that came to Rajiv was a bad one.
He thrust the lamp at his sister. "Here. Take it and go back. Then get the Mongoose and Anastasius down here, as quickly as you can. Mother too. And you'd better tell Lady Damodara."
The girl squinted at the lamp, fearfully. "I'll get lost! I don't know the way."
"Just follow the same route I took us on," Rajiv hissed. "Any time I didn't know which way to go, when there was a choice, I turned to the left. So on your way back, you turn to the right."
He reminded himself forcefully that his sister was only seven years old. In a much more kindly tone, he added: "You can do it, Mirabai. You have to do it. I think we're dealing with treachery here."
Mirabai's eyes widened and moved to the dark, open archway. "What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," he whispered. "Something."
He half-forced her to take the lamp. "Now go!"
After his sister scampered off, Rajiv crept toward the archway. He had to move from memory alone. With the light of the lamp gone, it was pitch dark in these deep cellars.
After groping his way through the arch, he moved slowly across the cellar. Very faintly, he could see what looked like another archway on the opposite side. There was a dim light beyond that seemed to flicker, a bit. That meant that someone on the other side—probably at least one cellar further away, maybe more—had an oil lamp.
His foot encountered an obstacle and he tripped, sprawling across the stone floor. Fortunately, the endless hours of training under the harsh regimen of the Mongoose had Rajiv's reflexes honed to a fine edge. He cushioned his fall with his hands, keeping the noise to a minimum.
His feet were still lying on something. Something... not stone. Not really hard at all.
Even before he got to his knees and reached back, to feel, he was certain he knew what he'd tripped over.
Yes. It was a body.
Fingering gingerly, probing, it didn't take Rajiv long to determine who the man was. Small, wiry, clad only in a loincloth. It had to be one of the Bihari slave miners that Lady Damodara was using to dig an escape route from the palace, if it was someday needed. They worked under the supervision of half a dozen Ye-tai mercenary soldiers. Ajatasutra had bought the slaves and hired the mercenaries.
Now that he was close, he could smell the stink. The man had voided himself in dying. The body was noticeably cool, too. Although the blood didn't feel crusted, it was dry by now. And while Rajiv could smell the feces, the odor wasn't that strong any longer. He hadn't noticed it at all when he entered the room, and he had a good sense of smell. Rajiv guessed that the murder had taken place recently, but not all that recently. Two or three hours earlier.
He didn't think it could have happened earlier than that, though. The body wasn't stiff yet. Some years before—he'd been about eight, as he recalled—Rajiv had questioned his father's lieutenant Jaimal on the subject, in that simultaneously horrified, fascinated and almost gleeful way that young boys will do. Jaimal had told him that, as a rule, a body stiffened three hours after death and then grew limp again after a day and a half. But Rajiv remembered Jaimal also telling him that the rule was only a rough one. The times could vary, especially depending on the temperature. In these cool cellars, it might all have happened faster.
It was possible there'd simply been a quarrel amongst the slaves. But where would a slave have gotten the blade to cut a throat so neatly? The only tools they had were picks and shovels.
So it was probably treachery—and on the part of the Ye-tai. Some of them, at least.
Rajiv had to find out. He hadn't really followed the progress of the tunnel-digging, since it was none of his affair and he was usually pre-occupied with his training. The only reason he'd had today free to do some exploring was that the Mongoose was now spending more time in the company of Dhruva and her infant.
If the tunnel was almost finished—possibly even was finished...
This could be bad. Very bad.
Rajiv moved into the next cellar, slowly and carefully.
* * *
It seemed to Mirabai that it took her forever to get out of the cellars. Looking back on it later, she realized it had really taken very little time at all. The lamp had been bright enough to enable her to walk quickly, if not run—and her brother's instructions had worked perfectly.
The most surprising thing about it all was that she got more scared when it was over. She'd never in her life seen that look on her mother's face. Her mother never seemed to worry about anything.
* * *
"Get Kandhik," Valentinian hissed to Anastasius. "Break all his bones if you have to."
* * *
Anastasius didn't have to break any of Ye-tai mercenary leader's bones. As huge and powerful as he was, a simple twisting of the arm did the trick.
* * *
Kandhik massaged his arm. "I don't know anything," he insisted. The Ye-tai was scowling ferociously, but he wasn't scowling directly at Anastasius—and he was doing everything in his power not to look at Valentinian at all.
The Mongoose was a frightening man under any circumstances. Under these circumstances, with that weasel smile on his face and a sword in his hand, he was terrifying. Kandhik was neither cowardly nor timid, but he knew perfectly well that either of the Roman cataphracts could kill him without working up a sweat.
Anastasius might need to take a deep breath. Valentinian wouldn't.
"Don't know anything," he insisted.
Sanga's wife and Lata came into the chamber. So did Lady Damodara.
"Three of the Ye-tai are missing," the girl said. "The other two are asleep in their chamber."
Although Ye-tai were sometimes called "White Huns," they were definitely Asiatic in their ancestry. Their only similarity to Europeans was that their features were somewhat bonier than those of most steppe-dwellers. Their complexion was certainly not pale—but, at that moment, Kandhik's face was almost ashen.
"Don't know anything," he repeated, this time pleading the words.
"He's telling the truth," Valentinian said abruptly. He touched the tip of the sword to Kandhik's throat. "Stay here and watch over the women. Do everything right and nothing wrong, and you'll live to see the end of this day. If my mood doesn't get worse."
With that, he turned and left the room. Anastasius lumbered after him.
Dhruva came in with the baby. She and her sister stared at each other, their eyes wide with fright.
Not as wide as Mirabai's, however. "What should we do, Mother?"
Sanga's wife looked around, rubbing her hands up and down her hips. The familiar gesture calmed Mirabai, a bit.
"May as well go to the kitchen and wait," she said. "I've got some onions to cut. Some leeks, too."
"I agree," said Lady Damodara.
* * *
After several minutes of listening from the darkness of the adjoining cellar, Rajiv understood exactly what was happening. The three Ye-tai in the next cellar were, in fact, planning to betray their employers. Apparently—it was not clear what threats or promises they'd made to do it—they'd gotten two of the Biharis to dig a side tunnel for them. It must have taken weeks to do the work, while keeping it a secret from everyone else.
And, now, it was done. But one of the Ye-tai was having second thoughts.
"—never dealt with anvaya-prapta sachivya. I have! And I'm telling you that unless we have a guarantee of some—"
"Shut up!" snarled one of the others. "I'm sick of hearing you brag about the times you hobnobbed with the Malwa. What 'guarantees'?"
The quarrel went back over familiar ground. Rajiv himself was inclined to agree with the doubter. He'd no more trust the Malwa royal clan than he would a scorpion. But he paid little attention to the rest of it.
Whether or not the doubting Ye-tai was worried about the reaction of the anvaya-prapta sachivya, it was clear enough he was weakening. He didn't really have any choice, after all, now that the deed was effectively done. Soon enough, he'd give up his objections and the three Ye-tai would be gone.
Then... within a day, Lady Damodara's palace would be swarmed by Emperor Skandagupta's troops. And the secret escape tunnel wouldn't be of any use, because the Ye-tai traitors would have told the Malwa where the tunnel exited. They'd have as many soldiers positioned in the stable as they would at the palace. And it wouldn't take them long to torture the stable-keeper—his family, more likely—into showing them where it was.
It was up to Rajiv, then. One thirteen-year-old boy, unarmed, against three Ye-tai mercenaries. Who were...
He peeked around the corner again.
Definitely armed. Each of them with a sword.
But Rajiv didn't give their weapons more than a glance. He'd already peeked around that corner before, twice, and studied them well enough. This time he was examining the body of the second Bihari miner, whom the mercenaries had cast into a corner of the cellar after cutting his throat also.
Not the body, actually. Rajiv was studying the miner's tools, which the Ye-tai had tossed on top of his corpse.
A pick and a shovel. A short-handled spade, really. Both of the tools were rather small, not so much because most of the Biharis were small but simply because there wasn't much room in the tunnels they dug.
That was good, Rajiv decided. Small tools—at least for someone his size—would make better weapons than large ones would have.
Until he met the Mongoose, Rajiv would never have considered the possibility that tools might make weapons. He'd been raised a Rajput prince, after all. But the Mongoose had hammered that out of him, like many other things. He'd even insisted on teaching Rajiv to fight with big kitchen ladles.
Rajiv's mother had been mightily amused. Rajiv himself had been mortified—until, by the fourth time the Mongoose knocked him down, he'd stopped sneering at ladles.
He decided he'd start with the pick. It was a clumsier thing than the spade, and he'd probably lose it in the first encounter anyway.
There was no point in dawdling. Rajiv gave a last quick glance at the three oil lamps perched on a ledge. No way to knock them off, he decided. Not spaced out the way there were.
Besides, he didn't think fighting in the dark would be to his advantage anyway. That would be a clumsy business, and if there was one thing the Mongoose had driven home to him, it was that "clumsy" and "too damn much sweat" always went together.
"Fight like a miser," he whispered to himself. Then, came out of his crouch and sprang into the cellar.
He said nothing; issued no war cry; gave no speech. The Mongoose had slapped that out of him also. Just went for the pick, with destruction in his heart.
* * *
Still many cellars away, Valentinian and Anastasius heard the fight start.
Nothing from Rajiv. Just the sound of several angry and startled men, their shouts echoing through the labyrinth.
* * *
Rajiv went to meet the first Ye-tai. That surprised him, as he'd thought it would.
When you're outmatched, get in quick. They won't expect that, the fucks.
The Ye-tai's sword came up. Rajiv raised the pick as if to match blows. The mercenary grinned savagely, seeing him do so. He outweighed Rajiv by at least fifty pounds.
At the last instant, Rajiv reversed his grip, ducked under the sword, and drove the handle of the pick into the man's groin.
Go for the shithead's dick and balls. Turn him into a squealing bitch.
The Ye-tai didn't squeal. As hard as Rajiv had driven in the end of the shaft, he didn't do anything except stare ahead, his mouth agape. He'd dropped his sword and was clutching his groin, half-stooped.
His eyes were wide as saucers, too, which was handy.
Rajiv rose from his crouch, reversed his grip again, and drove one of the pick's narrow blades into an eye. The blunt iron sank three inches into the Ye-tai's skull.
As he'd expected, he'd lost the pick. But it had all happened fast enough that he had time to dive for the spade, grab it, and come up rolling in a far corner.
He wasn't thinking at all, really, just acting. Hours and hours and hours of the Mongoose's training, that was.
You don't have time to think in a fight. If you have to think, you're a dead man.
The slumping corpse of the first Ye-tai got in the way of the second. Rajiv had planned for that, when he chose the corner to roll into.
The third came at him, again with his sword high.
That's just stupid, some part of Rajiv's mind recorded. Dimly, there was another, wall-offed part that remembered he had once thought that way of using a sword very warrior-like. Dramatic-looking. Heroic.
But that was before hours and hours and hours of the Mongoose. A lifetime ago, it seemed now—and even a thirteen-year life is a fair span of time.
Rajiv evaded the sword strike. No flair to it, just—got out of the way.
Not much. Just enough. Miserly in everything.
A short, quick, hard jab of the spade into the side of the Ye-tai's knee was enough to throw off his backhand stroke. Rajiv evaded that one easily. He didn't try to parry the blow. The wood and iron of his spade would be no match for a steel sword.
Another quick hard jab to the same knee was enough to bring the Ye-tai down.
As he did so, Rajiv swiveled, causing the crumpling Ye-tai to impede the other.
Fuck 'em up, when you're fighting a crowd. Make 'em fall over each other.
The third Ye-tai didn't fall. But he stumbled into the kneeling body of his comrade hard enough that he had to steady himself with one hand. His other hand, holding the sword, swung out wide in an instinctive reach for balance.
Rajiv drove the edge of the spade into the wrist of the sword arm. The hand popped open. The sword fell. Blood oozed from the laceration on the wrist. It was a bad laceration, even if Rajiv hadn't managed to sever anything critical.
Go for the extremities. Always go for extremities. Hands, feet, toes, fingers. They're your closest target and the hardest for the asshole to defend.
The Ye-tai gaped at him, more in surprise than anything else.
But Rajiv ignored him, for the moment.
Don't linger, you idiot. Cut a man just enough, then cut another. Then come back and cut the first one again, if you need to. Like your mother cuts onions. Practical. Fuck all that other crap.
The second Ye-tai was squealing, in a hissing sort of way. Rajiv knew that knee injuries were excruciating. The Mongoose had told him so—and then, twice, banged up his knee in training sessions to prove it.
The Ye-tai's head was unguarded, with both his hands clutching the ruined knee. So Rajiv drove the spade at his temple.
He made his first mistake, then. The target was so tempting—so glorious, as it were—that he threw everything into the blow. He'd take off that head!
The extra time it took to position his whole body for that mighty blow was enough for the Ye-tai to bring up his hand to protect the head.
Stupid! Rajiv snarled silently at himself.
It probably didn't make any difference, of course. If the edge of the spade wasn't as sharp as a true weapon, it wasn't all that dull; and if iron wasn't steel, it was still much harder than human flesh. The strike cut off one of the man's fingers and maimed the whole hand—and still delivered a powerful blow to the skull. Moaning, the Ye-tai collapsed to the floor, half-unconscious.
Still, Rajiv was glad the Mongoose hadn't seen.
"Stupid," he heard a voice mutter.
Startled, he glanced aside. The Mongoose was there, in the entrance to the chamber. He had his sword in his hand, but it was down alongside his leg. Behind him, Rajiv could see the huge figure of Anastasius looming.
The Mongoose leaned against the stone entrance, tapping the tip of the sword against his boot. Then, nodded his head toward the last Ye-tai against the far wall.
"Finish him, boy. And don't fuck up again."
Rajiv looked at the Ye-tai. The man was paying him no attention at all. He was staring at the Mongoose, obviously frightened out of his wits.
The spade had served well enough, but there was now a sword available. The one the second Ye-tai had dropped after Rajiv smashed his knee.
No reason to waste the spade, of course. Certainly not with the Mongoose watching. Rajiv had been trained—for hours and hours and hours—to throw most anything. Even ladles. The Mongoose was a firm believer in the value of weapons used at a distance.
Rajiv would never be the Mongoose's equal with a throwing knife, of course. He was not sure even the heroes and asuras of the legends could throw a knife that well.
But he was awfully good, by now. The spade, hurled like a spear, struck the Ye-tai in the groin.
"Good!" the Mongoose grunted.
With the sword in his hand, Rajiv approached the Ye-tai. By now, of course, the man had noticed him. Half-crouched, snarling, clutching himself with his left hand while he tried to grab his dropped sword with the still-bleeding right hand.
Rajiv sliced open his scalp with a quick, flicking strike of the sword.