/ Language: English / Genre:antique

The Tide of Victory

Eric Flint


antiqueEricFlintThe Tide of VictoryengEricFlintcalibre 0.8.3410.3.2012882072ae-0445-4b32-a28d-b8f36b1e78481.0

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The Tide of Victory

Table of Contents

PROLOGUE

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

EPILOGUE

Cast of Characters

GLOSSARY

MAPS

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The Tide of Victory

AN EVIL

    The creators of the monster called Link once were human, but that was distant ages in their past. Now, from the far future, they have sent their creation back to shape the world of the 6th century AD into the form that will make their own foul existence possible.

   Taught and ruled by Link, the Malwa Empire has spread from the Indus Valley, across India and into Mesopotamia. Its inhuman master has chosen its instruments from the most brutal and degraded members of humanity, and they have served its monstrous ends well.  A GUIDE

    Those in the future who never were human have sent their own messenger to the past: Aide, a gleaming jewel who can warn but not lead; who can teach the construction of new weapons but cannot wield those weapons himself.

   Aide has come to Belisarius, the greatest general of the 6th century and perhaps any century. Between them they have forged an alliance of all the world against evil—and an army that can be the spear through evil’s heart.  A CRUSADE

    With lancers and breech-loading rifles, with steamships and with galleys, Belisarius is marching into the Malwa heartland. In a world aflame with treachery, assassination, and slaughter beyond anything save the battles of mythology, he and his companions know only one sure thing: if they fail, their whole world is doomed to living Hell—for all time!  A VICTORY!

    Politics, battle, and heroic adventure in a vivid alternate past! ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Eric Flint is a gifted new star of military and alternate history SF and now shows a masterful skill at fantasy adventure. His first novel for Baen, Mother of Demons, was picked by Science Fiction Chronicle as a best novel of the year. His alternate history novel, 1632, sold out its first printing almost immediately and received lavish critical praise. With David Drake he has collaborated on the acclaimed “Belisarius” series, of which The Tide of Victory is the fifth. His latest solo novel for Baen is the fantasy adventure The Philosophical Strangler. A longtime labor union activist with a degree (Phi Beta Kappa) in African history, he currently resides in northwest Indiana with his wife Lucille.

Vietnam veteran, former lawyer, former bus driver, and now famous author, David Drake tells a military story like no other. His readers recognize that he can take them where no one else can, with gut-wrenching description that puts them face-to-face with the enemy, and in the midst of the action right on the battlefield. Drake helped create the audience for mercenary military science fiction with his bestselling “Hammer’s Slammers” books. Drake graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Iowa, majoring in history (with honors) and Latin. His stint at Duke University Law School was interrupted for two years by the U.S. Army, where he served as an enlisted interrogator with the 11th Armored Cavalry in Vietnam and Cambodia. Drake has a wife, a son, and various pets.

Illustration by Gary Ruddell

Cover design by Carol Russo Design

Hardcover

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, July 2001

Distributed by Simon & Schuster

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020

Printed in the United States of America ISBN: 0-671-31996-5

Copyright © 2001 by Eric Flint & David Drake

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises

P.O. Box 1403

Riverdale, NY 10471

http://www.baen.com

Production by Windhaven Press

Auburn, NH

Electronic version by WebWrights

http://www.webwrights.com ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

As this series has progressed, a number of people have provided us with assistance in one manner or another. It's time to thank them:

Conrad Chu

Judith Lasker

Joe Nefflen

Pam "Pogo" Poggiani

Richard Roach

Mike Spehar

Ralph and Marilyn Tacoma

Detlef Zander

. . . and probably several others I've forgotten to mention, for which my apologies in advance.

I'd also like to take the opportunity to thank Janet Dailey for the many ways in which she's helped me out over the past year or so. I can't remember if that assistance involved my work on the Belisarius series, but it probably did—and even if it didn't, she's way overdue for my public appreciation anyway.

Eric Flint

January, 2001 To Dick and Dolores The Belisarius Series

An Oblique Approach

In the Heart of Darkness

Destiny's Shield

Fortune's Stroke

Tide of Victory

The Dance of Time (upcoming)

BAEN BOOKS by ERIC FLINT

Mother of Demons

1632

Rats, Bats, and Vats (with Dave Freer)

The Philosophical Strangler

Pyramid Scheme (upcoming)

BAEN BOOKS by DAVID DRAKE

RCN series

With the Lightnings

Lt. Leary, Commanding

Hammer's Slammers

The Tank Lords

Caught in the Crossfire

The Butcher's Bill

The Sharp End

Independent Novels and Collections

The Dragon Lord

Birds of Prey

Northworld Trilogy

Redliners

Starliner

All the Way to the Gallows

Foreign Legions (created by David Drake)

The General series

(With S.M. Stirling)

The Forge

The Chosen

The Reformer

The Undesired Princess and The Enchanted Bunny

(with L. Sprague de Camp)

Lest Darkness Fall and To Bring the Light

(with L. Sprague de Camp)

Enemy of My Enemy: Terra Nova

(with Ben Ohlander)

Armageddon

(edited with Billie Sue Mosiman)

Next

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Contents

PROLOGUE

Knowing what to expect, the two sisters had already disrobed by the time their new owner returned to his tent. The older sister's infant was asleep on the pallet. The sisters were a bit concerned that the ensuing activities would awaken him—the pallet was small and thin, oddly so for such an obviously wealthy man—but not much. The baby was accustomed to the noise, after all, having spent the first year of his life in a brothel crib.

Unless, of course, their new owner was given to bizarre tastes and habits . . .

That was the real source of the sisters' anxiety. For all its foulness, the brothel had at least been fairly predictable. Now, for the first time since their enslavement, they faced an entirely new situation. New—and unsettling. Their new owner had said nothing to them, other than commanding them into his tent after his caravan stopped for the night.

But, as they waited, they took solace in the fact that they were still together. Against all odds, they had managed to keep from being separated during the long years of their captivity. Apparently, it tickled their new owner's fancy to have sisters for his concubines. They would see to it that he was satisfied with the result. In that manner, they might preserve the remaining fragment of their family.

So it was, when their new owner pushed back the flap and entered the tent, that he found the sisters reclining nude on the pallet. The fact that they were holding hands was the only indication that any uneasiness lurked beneath their sensual poses.

Standing still and straight a few feet from the pallet, he studied them for a moment. The sisters found the scrutiny unsettling. They could detect nothing of lust in that gaze. For all the natural warmth of the man's dark brown eyes, there seemed to be little if any warmth in the eyes themselves. And not a trace of animal heat.

That was odd. Odder, even, than the austerity of the pallet and the tent's furnishings. Their new owner was obviously as healthy as he was rich. He was not especially tall, but his broad shoulders and lean hips were those of a physically active man. And there was something almost feline about the way he moved. Very poised, very balanced, very quick.

"Stand up," he commanded abruptly.

The sisters obeyed instantly. They were accustomed to inspection by prospective customers. As soon as they were on their feet, both of them assumed familiar poses. Languid, sensual, inviting. But they were still holding hands.

"Not like that," he said softly. "Just stand straight. And turn around slowly." His thin lips curved into a smile. "I'm afraid you'll have to stop holding hands for a bit."

Flushing slightly, the sisters obeyed.

"Slower," he commanded. "And lift up your arms so I can see your entire bodies."

This was not customary. The uneasiness of the sisters mounted. The last characteristic that slave prostitutes wanted to see in a new customer was different. But, of course, they obeyed.

In the long minutes which followed, the sisters found it increasingly difficult to keep the worry out of their faces. Their new owner seemed to be subjecting every inch of their bodies to a detailed and exhaustive scrutiny. As if he were trying to commit them to memory.

"Which of these scars are from your childhood?" he asked. His voice was soft and low-pitched. But the sisters took no comfort in that mild tone. This was a man, clearly enough, who had no need to raise his voice for the simple reason that command came easily to him. He would not be denied, whatever he wanted. Which, again, was not a characteristic which slave prostitutes treasured in their customers. Especially new and unknown ones.

They were so startled by the unexpected question that they did not respond immediately. Instead, they exchanged a quick and half-frightened glance.

Seeing the glance, their new owner's face broke into another smile. But this one was not thin at all, and seemed to have some actual humor in it.

"Be at ease. I have no intention of adding any new scars to the collection. It is simply information which I must have."

The smile disappeared and the question was asked again. This time, with firm command. "Which scars?"

Hesitantly, the younger sister lifted her left leg and pointed to a scar on her knee. "I got this one falling out of a tree. My father was furious with me."

Their owner nodded. "He would know of it, then? Good. Are there any other such? Did he beat you afterward? And, if so, are there any marks?"

The sisters looked at each other. Then, back at their owner.

"He never beat us," whispered the older. "Not once."

"Our mother did," added the younger sister. She was beginning to relax a bit. Enough that she managed a little chuckle. "Very often. But not very hard. I can't remember even being bruised."

The man shook his head. "What kind of silly way is that to raise children? Especially girls?" But the question was obviously rhetorical. The smile was back on his face, and for the first time the sisters detected the whimsical humor which seemed to reside somewhere inside the soul of their new owner.

He stepped up to the older sister and touched her cheek with his forefinger. "That is the worst scar. It almost disfigures your face. How did you get it?"

"From the brothel-keeper."

The man's eyes widened slightly. "Stupid," he mused. "Bad for business."

"He was very angry with me. I—" She shuddered, remembering. "The new customer had—unusual demands. I refused—"

"Ah." With a light finger, he traced the scar from the ear to the corner of her mouth.

"I think he forgot he was wearing that huge ring when he slapped me."

"Ah. Yes, I remember the ring. Probably the same one he was wearing when we conducted our transaction. A large ruby, set in silver?"

She nodded.

"Excellent," he said. "Easy for you to remember, then."

He turned to the younger sister. Placing one hand on her shoulder, he rotated her partway around. With the forefinger of his other hand, he traced the faint lines across her back.

"These are your worst. How?"

She explained. It was a similar story, except the individual involved had been the chief pimp instead of the brothel-keeper, and the instrument had been a whip rather than a ring.

"Ah. Yes, I believe I met him also. Rather short, squat. The little finger of his left hand is missing?"

The two sisters nodded. He returned the nods with a curt one of his own. "Excellent, also."

He stepped back a pace or two. "Can either of you write?"

The sisters were now utterly confused. This man was the weirdest customer they had ever encountered. But—

So far, at least, he did not seem dangerous. The younger sister spoke first. "Not very well."

"Our father taught us a bit," added the older sister. "But it's been a long time. Several years."

Both of the sisters, for the first time, found it almost impossible to maintain their poise. Memories of their father were flooding back. Their eyes were moist.

The man averted his gaze, for a moment. The sisters took advantage of the opportunity to quickly pinch the tears away. It would not do to offend their new owner.

They heard him snort softly. "Taught his daughters! Scandalous, what it is." Another soft snort. Again, the sisters thought to detect that strange whimsical humor. "But what else would you expect from—"

He broke off abruptly and looked back at them.

"In a few days, you will write a letter. As best you can." Seeing the uncertainty in their faces, he waved his hand idly. "I am not concerned if the handwriting is poor. All the better, in fact."

His eyes moved to the pallet, and then to the baby asleep to one side. "It will be crowded, with the four of us." Again, the thin smile. "But there's no help for it, I'm afraid. Appearances must be maintained."

Moving with that unsettling ease and speed, he glided past them and reclined on the pallet. He was lying on the opposite side from the infant. He patted the middle of the pallet with his hand.

"Come, girls. Sleep. It has been a long day, and tomorrow will be longer. And the days after, as well. We have a considerable distance to travel."

Quickly, the sisters did as they were told. After the confusion of the preceding minutes, they almost found comfort in this familiar process. Not quite.

The younger sister lay next to him. The gesture of protection for the older came automatically to her. The two of them had protected each other for years, as best they could. If she exhausted him, he might be satisfied. Her sister's infant would not be disturbed.

Their new owner was still fully clothed. She began to stroke his chest, her fingers working at the laces.

Her hand was immobilized by his own. The man's grip was gentle enough, but she could sense the iron muscles and sinews in his hand.

"No," he said softly. "That is all finished. Just sleep." He moved her hand away.

Uncertainly, she obeyed. She stared at his profile. He was not a handsome man, not in the least. His face was lean and tightly drawn. High cheekbones, a sharply curved nose, thin lips below a thin mustache, clean-shaven cheeks so taut they seemed more like leather than flesh. Except for the mustache, he reminded her more of a bird of prey than a man.

But she found herself relaxing, despite his fearsome appearance. His voice was soft, after all. And she had never been abused by a bird.

His eyes were closed. "Finished," he repeated. "There will be no more scars."

* * *

Two days later, at daybreak, he arose from the pallet with his usual energy. The sisters had become accustomed to his way of moving. They no longer even found it frightening.

"Enough time has elapsed," he announced. "I will be gone for a few days. Three, perhaps four."

His words brought instant fear. The younger sister's eyes moved immediately to the tent flap. The older sister, suckling her infant at her breast, did not look up. But her sudden indrawn breath was quite audible.

Their new owner shook his head. "Have no fear. The soldiers in my escort will not molest you. I have given them clear instructions."

He turned away and began to push back the flap of the tent. "They will obey those instructions. You can be quite certain of it."

Then, he was gone. The sisters stared at each other. After a few seconds, their tension eased. They still did not know their new owner's name, since he had not provided it. But they were coming to know him. Well enough, at least.

Yes. His instructions would be obeyed. Even by soldiers.

* * *

He returned at midmorning, three days later. When he entered the tent, he was carrying a leather sack in one hand and a roll of leather in the other. Once flattened on the floor of the tent, the leather roll measured perhaps eighteen inches square.

"Should be big enough to prevent a mess," he murmured. He jerked his head, motioning the sisters toward him, while he untied the sack.

When they were squatting next to him, their new owner spilled the sack's contents onto the piece of flat leather.

He had gauged correctly, and grunted his satisfaction. Even with the addition of the fluid pooled at the bottom of the sack, the two objects did not leak blood onto the floor.

Both hands had been severed at the wrist, as if by a razor. Or—

The sisters glanced at the dagger scabbarded to their owner's waist. They had seen him shave with it, every day. He shaved with the quick and sure motions with which he did everything—except honing the blade. That, he seemed to enjoy lingering over.

One hand was plump. The middle finger sported a large silver ring, with a great ruby set at its center. The other hand was thick and stubby. The little finger was missing.

He rose and moved to one of the chests against the side of the tent. Opening it, he withdrew a small piece of vellum and writing equipment.

"And now, the letter."

* * *

Long before the sisters had finished, they were sobbing fiercely. Their new owner did not chide them for it. Indeed, he seemed obscurely satisfied. As if the tears staining the words and causing the letters to run added something valuable to the message.

When they were done, he began to roll up the vellum. But the younger sister stopped him.

"Wait. There is something we can put in it." She hurried to the far side of the pallet and began plucking apart the threads along the seam. Her older sister opened her mouth, as if to protest. But whatever protest she might have made went unspoken. Indeed, by the time her sister had extracted the object hidden within the pallet, she was smiling. "Yes," she whispered. "Yes."

The younger sister came back to their owner and, shyly, extended her hand. Nestled in the palm was a bright golden coin.

"It's all we have," she said. "He won't recognize it, of course, because we got it after—" She fell silent, fighting back further tears. "But still—"

The man plucked the coin out of her hand and held it up for inspection. Within seconds, he was chuckling softly.

"Freshly minted Malwa imperial coin. I wonder—"

Smiling, he tucked the coin into the vellum and rolled it up. Then, quickly folding it further, he began tying it up with cord. As he worked, he spoke softly, as if to himself.

"I wonder . . . Ha! Probably not, of course. But wouldn't that be a delicious irony?"

The work done, he transferred the smile to the sisters. They had no difficulty, any longer, recognizing the humor in it. "I'm a man who appreciates such things, you know."

They nodded, smiling themselves.

His own smile faded. "I am not your friend, girls. Never think so. But, perhaps, I am not your enemy either."

He lifted the package and hefted it slightly. "We will discover which, one of these days."

The older sister sighed. "It's not finished, then?"

Their owner's smile returned, this time with more of bright cheer than whimsy. "Finished? I think not!"

He was actually laughing, now. For the first time since they had entered his possession.

"I think not! The game has just begun!"

* * *

In the days, weeks and months to come, that package—and the ones which went with it—would cause consternation, three times over. And glee, once.

* * *

The consternation came in ascending degrees. The least concerned were the soldiers who investigated the murder and mutilation of a brothel-keeper and his chief pimp.

"Who cares who did it?" yawned the officer in charge of the squad. "Plenty more where they came from."

He turned away from the bed where the brothel-keeper's body had been found. The linen was still soaked with blood from a throat slit to the bone. "Maybe a competitor. Or it could have been a pissed-off customer." It was apparent, from the bored tone of his voice, that he had no intention of pursuing the matter further.

The pimp who had succeeded to the brothel's uncertain ownership sighed. "No problem, then?" He fought very hard to keep satisfaction out of his own voice. He was quite innocent of the murders, as it happened, but as the obvious suspect . . .

"Not that I can see," stated the officer firmly. Just as firmly, he stared at the new brothel-keeper.

"On the house!" that worthy announced promptly. "You and all your men! For a full day!"

The officer grinned. "Case closed."

* * *

There was more consternation, a few days later, when the murderer reported to his master.

"You idiot," growled Narses. "Why in the name of God did you kill them? We don't need any attention being drawn. A simple slave purchase, all it was. Happens every day."

"So do brothel killings," came the retort. Ajatasutra shrugged. "Three reasons. First, I thought the hands would lend a nice touch to the package. Proof of good intentions, so to speak."

Narses snorted. "God help us. You're pretending to think." He displayed his inimitable sneer. "His daughters have been hopelessly polluted. What difference does it make—you're Indian yourself, you know how it works—that a couple of the polluters are dead? How many hundreds are still alive?"

"You might be surprised. Purity is one thing, the satisfaction of vengeance is another. Even we heathen Hindus are not immune to that. Even a philosopher like him will feel a twitch, as much harm as he knows that will do to his karma."

Ajatasutra leaned forward in his chair, stretching his arms and arching his back. He seemed to take as much pleasure in the supple movements as a cat. "Secondly, I've gotten out of practice." Half-growling: "Your methods are too damned subtle to keep an assassin's skills properly honed."

Again, Narses snorted. "Pimps."

Ajatasutra's lips twisted into a wry grin. "Best I could find." The grin faded. When it was completely gone, his still and expressionless face seemed more like that of a hawk on a limb than a man in a chair.

"And, finally. I felt like it."

Narses said nothing. He neither snorted nor sneered.

* * *

Weeks later, the package caused immense consternation. It struck the palace at Deogiri like a tornado, leaving a peshwa and his wife weeping tears of joy, an empress confused and uncertain, her advisers divided and torn.

"It's a trap!" insisted the imperial consort. Raghunath Rao sprang to his feet and practically pounced his way over to the open window in the imperial audience chamber. There, planting his hands on the wide ledge, he glared fiercely to the north. The broken hill country of Majarashtra stretched to the horizon. Beyond, invisible in the distance, lay the Narmada river and the Vindhya mountains. And, beyond that, the great Gangetic plain where the Malwa beast straddled the Indian subcontinent.

"A trap," he repeated.

Empress Shakuntala moved her uncertain gaze to the commander of her personal bodyguard. Former commander, rather. As of the previous day, Kungas was no longer her mahadandanayaka; no longer her bhatasvapati. Officially, the man once known as "great commandant" and "lord of army and cavalry" had no title at all in the empire of Andhra. He had been relieved of all responsibilities, since he and his own consort were soon to be founding their own empire.

Officially.

Kungas' shoulders made the little twitch which served him for a shrug. "Probably so." His gaze moved to the other woman in the room. Shakuntala's eyes followed.

Irene cleared her throat. "Actually, Your Majesty"—she gave an apologetic glance at the figure in the window—"I find myself in a rare moment of disagreement with Rao."

Rao barked a laugh. He turned back into the room. " `Rare moment!' Such a diplomat."

Irene smiled. "But disagree I must. This maneuver has to be Narses' work. A simple trap is not his style."

Everyone in the room eyed her skeptically. Irene's shrug was as expressive as her future husband's had been terse. "I'm sorry. I realize that must sound hopelessly vague. Even naive. But—"

Her own frown was simply one of concentration. "But I'm really quite sure that I'm right. I can detect Narses' mind at work here. He's up to something, be sure of it. Something—" Her hands groped a bit. "Something complex. Something convoluted."

She glanced at Kungas and Rao. Her frown was instantly replaced by a wicked smile. "The problem with these two, Your Majesty, is that they think like men. You know—crude. Simple."

Shakuntala's laugh filled the large chamber like a bell. She and Irene exchanged a grin. Rao scowled. Kungas' face, as usual, had no expression at all.

"You must remember, Empress," continued Irene, "that Narses is a eunuch. He thinks more like a woman than a man. Subtle, tricky. Shrewd."

Grin. Grin. Scowl. Nothing.

"Not a trap," she insisted. "Or, at least, not the obvious trap. What would he have to gain, beyond inflicting a minor wound on Belisarius?"

"And a major one on our peshwa," growled Rao. He jerked his head angrily at the door. "Dadaji should be here, to give us his wisdom in counsel. He is absent simply because he too overcome with—with—"

"Joy?" suggested Irene. "Relief?"

"For the moment. But what of later? If it is a trap, once it is sprung? When he realizes that his daughters are lost forever."

Kungas spoke. "That's foolish, Rao. And you know it. Dadaji would not be incapacitated for long. He would do the rites—just as he did months ago when the news of his son's death in battle came—and continue onward. More fiercely than ever, now that Malwa added a new wound to his soul."

Rao took a deep breath. He nodded abruptly, indicating his acceptance of Kungas' point. But, still, he was scowling. "I don't trust this thing!"

"Trust?" exclaimed Irene. "What has that got to do with it?" Her own laugh had none of the young empress' pealing quality. It was more like the caw of a crow.

"I don't trust Narses, Rao. What I trust is simply his craftsmanship."

She pointed a stiff finger at the opened parcel on the low table near the door. The shriveled hands and the message for the empress lay exposed. The shakily written message for Holkar, and the coin, were absent. Dadaji and his wife had those in their own chambers, clutching them as fiercely as they did each other. Adding their own tears of joy to the long-dried ones which had smeared the ink.

"He's up to something, I tell you!"

The empress ended the discussion, in her usual decisive manner. She clapped her hands, once. "Enough! It is not for us to decide, in any event. We are simply the conduit. If there is a trap, it is aimed at Belisarius. He must make the decision."

She pointed her own imperious finger at the parcel. "Take it with you tomorrow, Irene. Kungas. Take it with you on your journey to Persia, and put it into Belisarius' hands. Let him decide."

Mention of that journey, even more than the empress' command, ended the discussion. With not much less in the way of sorrow than Shakuntala, Rao gazed at the two people who would, within a day, be gone from their company. Probably forever. Two people who had done as much as any in the world to bring one empire back from the grave, where Malwa had thought Andhra safely planted. And now proposed to do the same yet again, in Malwa's very heartland.

"God be with you," he murmured. His usual wry smile emerged. "He is rumored to have good vision, you know. Even in the Hindu Kush, I am certain he will notice you."

* * *

The glee came as Irene and Kungas were walking through the halls of the palace, back toward their own chambers.

"I hope you're right," muttered Kungas.

Irene's eyes widened. "Are you kidding? Of course I'm right! He's up to something. And since—I know I've told you this—he's probably the only spymaster in the world as good as me, that means—"

She seized Kungas' muscular arm in both hands and began spinning her lover around her, whirling down the corridor like a top.

"Oh, Kungas! We're going to have so much fun!"

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Contents

Framed

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Contents

Chapter 1

CTESIPHON

Spring, 533 A.D.

Are you sure of this? asked Aide. The crystalline thought in Belisarius' mind shivered with uncertainty. They have protected you for so long.

Belisarius made the mental equivalent of a shrug. This coming campaign is different, Aide. I will be commanding—

He broke off for a moment, scanning the imperial audience chamber. The crooked smile that came so naturally to him made its reappearance. There was enough of royalty, nobility, officers and advisers crowded about to fill even that huge and splendiferous room. The costumes and uniforms worn by that mob were as varied as the mob itself. Roman, Persian, Ethiopian, Arab—only the Kushans were absent, for reasons of secrecy.

No one in the West has assembled such a gigantic force since the days of Xerxes and Darius and Alexander the Great. I will be leading well over a hundred thousand men into India, Aide. So there's no way I'll be at the forefront of any more cavalry charges.

The crystal being from the future flashed an image in Belisarius' mind. For just an instant, the Roman general saw a Homeric figure storming a rampart, sword in hand.

Aide's voice came sour, sour. Alexander the Great did.

Belisarius snorted. Alexander was a lunatic as well as a genius. Thought he was Achilles come back to life. I have no such pretensions, myself. And if I ever did—

He winced, remembering the way Rana Sanga, Rajputana's greatest king as well as champion, had hammered Belisarius into a bleeding pulp on a battlefield in the Zagros mountains. Would have killed him, in fact, if Valentinian hadn't come to his rescue.

You should not send Valentinian away! Especially not when you're sending Anastasius also!

Belisarius ignored Aide's last remark, for the moment. The raging argument between Sittas and Kurush which had filled the audience chamber for several minutes seemed to be coming to a head, and he thought it was about time that he intervened. It wouldn't do to allow two of his top commanders to come to actual blows, after all.

Loudly, he cleared his throat. Both Sittas and Kurush stopped bellowing, although they did not leave off their ferocious mutual glares.

"Kurush will command the left," pronounced Belisarius. Sittas made a choking sound and transferred his glare from his Persian equivalent to the top commander of the joint expedition. Beneath the indignation and outrage in his expression lurked something of the small boy—betrayed!—by his trusted older brother.

Belisarius shook his head. "Don't be stupid, Sittas. The left wing will be responsible for protecting the entire expedition against Malwa cavalry raids. Rajputs and Pathans, most like. The Aryans are far more experienced cavalrymen than Roman cataphracts in that kind of mountainous terrain."

The words did not seem to mollify Sittas at all. To the contrary—Belisarius' huge friend was giving him the enraged boar's glare that was one of Sittas' trademarks.

Belisarius found it hard not to smile. On one level, of course, he could hardly blame Sittas. The official justification which Belisarius had just given for allowing the Persian dehgans to take the prestigious position on the expedition's left flank was absurd. By the time Belisarius' huge army was nearing the Indus valley, the Malwa would certainly have detected the northern expedition of Kungas and his Kushans. Any Rajput or Pathan raiders available to the Malwa after their crushing defeat the previous year at Charax would be busy trying to protect the Hindu Kush. They certainly wouldn't be wasting their time in futile cavalry raids against Belisarius' army far to the south in Baluchistan.

But—

The Kushan expedition was still a secret, so Sittas—choking with indignation all the while—could not argue the point. He was forced, grudgingly and angrily, to cede the argument and resume his seat. Kurush did likewise. Fortunately, the young Persian general had enough tact to keep his face expressionless rather than indulge in open gloating.

Good enough, thought Belisarius. He would make it a point to discuss the matter with Sittas privately after the council meeting. In truth, he should have discussed it with him prior to the meeting. But in the press of his responsibilities, he simply hadn't thought of it. Belisarius had been away from the imperial court at Constantinople for so long that he'd forgotten the touchy pride of the capital city's elite cataphracts. He should have realized that Sittas would find a point of honor in the issue of whether the left flank was under the command of Persians or Romans.

Stupid, he thought sourly. Sittas should have the sense to understand that I must keep the Persians satisfied. And their pride is even touchier!

His eyes met those of Agathius. Belisarius' chief of staff was sitting at a large table across the room, with the campaign maps and logistics records spread out in front of him. Seeing the easy manner in which Agathius handled that mass of written material, no one would have guessed that he had been effectively illiterate until a year ago. Beneath Agathius' brawler's appearance, the chief of staff was as intelligent and capable as any man Belisarius had ever met.

There seemed to be a little twinkle in Agathius' eyes. Belisarius gave him the faint hint of a smile, as a man does when he is sharing a subtle unspoken secret with another.

Stupid noblemen . . .

Until the injuries which had crippled him at the Battle of the Nehar Malka, Agathius had been a cataphract himself—and a great one. But the lowborn baker's son had never approached war with any attitude beyond plebeian practicality.

Agathius now cleared his own throat. "If we can move on to the logistics . . ."

Belisarius nodded his assent. As Agathius began running through the state of the logistical preparations for the coming campaign, Belisarius let his thoughts go inward again.

It is too important an opportunity to pass up, Aide. If Irene is right—

She's guessing! Nobody knows what that cryptic message means!

Belisarius made the mental equivalent of a shrug. She's a very good guesser, you know. And I think she's right. The thing has all the earmarks of a Narses maneuver.

He's a traitor.

No, Aide. He was a traitor. Now he is in the service of another. And, unless I miss my own guess, I suspect that he is serving Damodara very faithfully indeed. Not—there came a momentary silent chuckle—that I think Damodara has any idea what his chief of espionage is doing.

Aide said nothing for a moment, though his uneasiness was still evident. Then: But why Valentinian and Anastasius? He complained. They aren't spies and intriguers. They—

—are the deadliest soldiers in my army, Belisarius completed the thought. And they both speak the language—well enough, at least—and they are both familiar with India. I don't think Narses wants spies, Aide. He has plenty of his own. I think—

You're guessing!

Belisarius sighed. Yes, I am. And I am also a good guesser. And can I finish my thought without interruptions?

He could sense the "jewel" sulking. But Aide kept his peace.

As I was saying, Belisarius continued, I suspect that what Narses needs are people who can get someone out of India in a very big hurry. Or protect them. And who better for that than Valentinian and Anastasius and Kujulo?

Aide was silent, but Belisarius could sense the unspoken disagreement.

Oh, stop sulking! Say what you were going to say.

The thoughts came in a rush. And that's another thing—those three are well known to the Malwa! They will be spotted!

By whom? The only ones who would recognize them are Chandragupta's imperial entourage—which there's no chance at all of encountering, as tightly sequestered as Skandagupta keeps himself—and—

The Rajputs! Rana Sanga fought Valentinian in single combat for hours! You think—

Belisarius drove over the protest. And Damodara's Rajputs—who, by all accounts, have been stationed in Bihar and Bengal since they returned to India. Half a continent away from where Valentinian and—

Things change, pouted Aide. You say that yourself, all the time.

Again, Belisarius made that mental shrug. Yes, they do—and probably will again. Judging from what Irene told us of the Maratha rebellion's progress, I imagine that Damodara and Rana Sanga will soon be ordered into the Great Country. Which—

He could sense Aide's growing surly pout, and had to fight down another smile. Which is also half a continent away.

Belisarius broke off the exchange. In his usual terse and efficient manner, Agathius was completing his logistics report. Belisarius braced himself for another round of bellowing and bickering.

Kurush was already on his feet. "What is this nonsense?" he roared. "Not more than four servants—even for Aryan nobility? Absurd! Impossible!"

Belisarius gave Sittas a quick, sharp glance. The Roman general's returning glare faded instantly into a look of suppressed glee and cunning.

Sittas shoved his great powerful form out of his chair. "Nonsense," he rumbled. "Any Roman cataphract can make do with two servants, easily. But if the noble sahrdaran thinks maintaining a lean baggage train is a problem, perhaps we could reconsider the assignment—"

Bellow, roar, rumble. Sound and fury.

Ah, the joy of command, thought Belisarius sourly.

You will keep Isaac and Priscus? Came Aide's timid, fearful thought.

Yes. No point in sending them into the Malwa maw. He began to add some jocular remark, but then, sensing the genuine anguish lurking in Aide's mind, he shifted immediately.

They are almost as good as Valentinian and Anastasius, Aide. I will be safe enough.

There came a crystalline equivalent of a sigh. Then: It is just— I love you dearly.

* * *

The roar and bellow of outraged and bickering dehgans and cataphracts continued to fill the chamber, as a gigantic army continued to take form and shape. But the commander of that army himself was oblivious to it all, for a time, as he communed with the strangest form and shape which had ever come into the world. And if others might have found something strange in the love and affection which passed between man and crystal, neither the man himself nor the crystal gave it a moment's thought.

They had been together for years now, since the monk and prophet Michael of Macedonia had brought Aide and his warning of a terrible future to Belisarius' door. Over the course of those years of battle and campaign, they had come to know each other as well as father and son, or brother and brother. What they thought—hoped—was the final campaign of the long war against Malwa was now upon them. They would survive, or not, as fate decreed. But they would go into that furnace united in heart and soul. And that, more than anything—so they thought, at least—was the surest guarantee of future triumph.

* * *

A sharp sound echoing in the audience chamber brought Belisarius' mind back to the present. A brisk handclap, he realized. Belisarius saw Khusrau Anushirvan rising from his throne perched at the opposite side of the chamber.

"Enough!" The Persian emperor clapped his hands again. Beneath the thick, square-cut beard, his youthful face was stern. "Enough, I say. At least for the moment. It is past noon, and we have an imperial wedding to attend."

He turned his head to Belisarius. The sternness of his expression seemed to ease a bit. "A wedding which, I'm sure the illustrious Roman general will agree, is more important than the details of marching order and logistics."

Belisarius nodded and rose to his own feet. "Indeed so, Emperor. Far more."

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Framed

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Chapter 2

When Tahmina's father brought her dowry down the central thoroughfare in Ctesiphon, the huge crowd of Persian onlookers began murmuring with excitement. Excitement—and deep approval. Even the street urchins knew that the dowry for an imperial wedding was the product of endless negotiations. The dowry which Baresmanas was bringing to the palace was so bizarre that it could only have resulted from the suggestion of the Romans themselves.

The approval of the crowd was profound. Many began chanting the name of the Roman emperor Photius, to whom Tahmina was about to be wed. Here and there, even a few haughty dehgan knights were seen to join in the plaudits.

They had been expecting a caravan, laden with treasure. Enough in the way of gold and silver and gems and jewelry and precious linens to bankrupt the Persian empire. A bitter price to pay for the security of a Roman alliance against the Malwa, but a price that could not be avoided. Not much more than a year before, the Malwa who had devastated Mesopotamia had only been driven off by the efforts and cunning of the Roman general Belisarius. Today, that same Belisarius would demand Persia's fortune in payment.

Instead—

Baresmanas of the Suren, the greatest of the seven great sahrdaran families who constituted Persia's highest nobility, was walking slowly down the thoroughfare. Dressed in his finest regalia, he was simply leading a horse.

Not any horse, of course. Even the street urchins realized that the magnificent black steed which pranced behind its master was the finest in all of Persia—a land which was renowned for its horses. But not even such a horse would bankrupt their empire.

The horse bore three things only.

The first was a saddle. No ceremonial saddle, this, glittering with gems and gold inlay. Instead, it was a heavy lancer's saddle, equipped with the new stirrups which the Romans had recently introduced into cavalry warfare. The finest such saddle imaginable, of course. No village dehgan could have afforded it. But, again, nothing to cause their emperor to raise the taxes.

The second was a bow, held in the small hand of the horse's rider. The finest that Persia's greatest bowyer could construct, of course. But, still, just a bow—to anyone but Persians.

The crowd's approval swelled and swelled, as the meaning of that horse and bow penetrated. Photius! Photius! By the time Baresmanas neared the great aivan in the center of the imperial palace where the wedding was to be held, the great throng was positively roaring. Precious few Persian emperors, in the long history of the land of the Aryans, had ever received such public acclaim.

A lowborn mongrel, the Roman emperor was said to be. So the crowd had heard. A bastard at birth, it was even whispered. But now, seeing the horse and the bow, they understood the truth.

Photius! Photius!

* * *

At the entrance to the aivan, Baresmanas assisted the third of the horse's burdens in her descent. The task was a bit difficult, not because his daughter Tahmina was a weakling, but simply because her wedding costume was heavy and cumbersome.

When she was securely planted on her feet, Baresmanas leaned over and whispered. "So. Who was right? I, or your mother?"

Tahmina's smile was faintly discernable through the veil. "I never doubted you, father. Even before I read the book you gave me."

Baresmanas started slightly. "Already? All of it? Herodotus?"

As Baresmanas handed the reins of the horse to one of his chief dehgans, Tahmina straightened. "All of it," she insisted. "My Greek has become almost perfect."

A moment's hesitation, before the girl's innate honesty surfaced. "Well . . . For reading, anyway. I think my accent's still pretty horrible."

Side by side, father and daughter walked slowly toward the aivan. The entrance to the aivan was lined with soldiers. Persian dehgans on the left, Roman cataphracts on the right.

"Then you understand," said Baresmanas. He did not have to gesture at the chanting crowd to make his meaning clear.

"Yes, father."

Baresmanas nodded solemnly. "Learn from this, daughter. Whatever prejudices you may still have about Romans, abandon them now. You will be their empress, before the day is done, and they are a great people worthy of you. Never doubt that for a moment. Greater than us, in many ways."

He studied the soldiers standing at their posts of honor alongside the aivan's entrance. To the Persians, he gave merely a glance. Baresmanas' dehgans were led by Merena, the most honorable of their number.

But it was the leader of the Roman contingent which was the focus of the sahrdaran's attention. An odd-looking soldier, in truth. Unable to even stand without the aid of crutches. The man's name was Agathius, and he had lost his legs at the battle of the Nehar Malka where Belisarius destroyed a Malwa army.

Agathius was a lowborn man, even by Roman standards. But he was counted a duke, now, by Persians and Romans alike. Merena's own daughter had become his spouse.

"A thousand years ago," Baresmanas said harshly, "a time that we ourselves have half-forgotten, daughter, but they have not. A thousand years ago, one of their finest historians explained to his people the Aryan way of raising a manchild."

"Teach him horsemanship, and archery," murmured Tahmina. "And teach him to despise all lies."

"That is the Emperor of Rome's pledge to you, daughter, and to all of the Aryans," said Baresmanas. "A boy not yet eleven years old. Do you understand?"

His daughter nodded. She turned her head slightly, studying the cheering crowd. Photius! Photius! "I am so astonished," she whispered.

Baresmanas chuckled. "Why? That a half-Greek, half-Egyptian bastard whoreson would understand us so well?"

She shook her head, rippling the veil.

"No, father. I am just surprised—"

Photius! Photius! They were entering the blessed coolness of the aivan, the huge open-air entrance hall so distinctive of Persian architecture. The soldiers began closing in behind them.

A whisper:

"It had never occurred to me before this moment. Not once. That I might be able to love my husband."

* * *

Inside the huge aivan, the Roman empress regent was scowling. Of course, there was nothing new about that. Theodora had been scowling since she arrived in Persia. For any number of reasons.

One. She hated to travel.

Two. She especially hated to travel in the desert.

Three. She didn't much like Persians. (A minor point, this. Theodora, as a rule, didn't much like anybody.)

Four. She had now been standing in her heavy official robes for well over an hour. Hadn't these stupid Persians ever heard of chairs? Idiots! Even the Aryan Emperor Khusrau was standing.

Five . . .

* * *

"I hate being proved wrong," she hissed.

"Shhh," hissed Antonina in return. "This is supposed to be a solemn occasion. And your scowl is showing, even through the veil."

"And that's another thing," grumbled Theodora. "How is a woman supposed to breathe with this monstrous thing covering her face? Especially in the heat of late afternoon?"

The veil rippled slightly as she turned her head. "At least they have enough sense to hold public ceremonies in this—this—what's it called, anyway?"

Belisarius, standing on Theodora's other side, leaned over and whispered. "It's known as an aivan. Clever, isn't it? Of course, it'd never work in our climate. Not in the winter, anyway."

For all its majestic size—the aivan was a hundred and forty feet long and eighty feet wide; at its highest, the arching vault was a hundred feet above the floor—the structure was open to the elements. The entrance through which Baresmanas and Tahmina were proceeding served as an enormous doorway. The style of architecture was unique to the Persians, and produced a chamber which was much cooler than either the outdoors or an enclosed room.

Theodora was now scowling at Belisarius. "Oh, all right. Go ahead and say it. You were right and I was wrong."

Belisarius said nothing. He knew better than to gloat at Theodora's expense. Not even the insects perched on the walls were that stupid.

His diplomacy did not seem to assuage the empress regent's temper. "I hate being wrong," she repeated sourly. "And I still would have preferred taking the treasure. I can see gold. Can even count it with my own fingers."

Belisarius decided that a response would not qualify, precisely, as "gloating." True, Theodora wasn't fond of disagreement, either. But the woman was more than shrewd enough to have learned—long since—to accept contrary advice without punishing the adviser. Listen to it, at least.

"We'd have wound up losing the treasure anyway, soon enough," he murmured. "Bankrupt Persia, and then what? The Persians go looking for treasure to replace it. The nearest of which is in Roman territory."

He paused, listening to the chants of the huge crowd outside the palace. Photius! Photius! Then: "Better this way."

Theodora made no reply, beyond the inevitable refrain. "I hate being proved wrong."

* * *

Photius was standing alone at the center of the aivan, as befitted his manly status. And that he was a man, no one could deny, even if he was only ten years old. He was getting married, wasn't he?

The Emperor of Rome was not pleased at that new found status. He had been perfectly content being a mere boy.

Well . . .

His eyes moved to the cluster of Roman scholars standing amidst the small mob of Persian priests packed against the far wall of the aivan. His tutors, those. Even at the distance, Photius thought their expressions could curdle milk. Greek philosophers, grammarians, rhetoricians and pedants did not appreciate being forced to mingle with Persian mobads and herbads. Bunch of heathen witch doctors. Traffickers in superstition and magic. Peddlers of—

The emperor's eyes moved away. The first trace of a smile came to his face since he'd awakened that morning. As an official "man," maybe he wouldn't have to put up with quite as much nattering from his tutors.

When his eyes fell on the small group of his bodyguards, the smile widened a bit. Then, seeing the vulgar grin on the face of Julian, the chief of his bodyguards, Photius found himself struggling not to grin himself.

He would have preferred it, of course, if his long-time nanny Hypatia could have been present also. Damn the implied questioning of his manly state!

Sigh. But the only women which the stiff Aryans would allow at such a public gathering were the bride and her immediate female relatives. Darkly, Photius suspected the Aryans would have dispensed with them also, if it weren't for the simple fact that—push come to shove—females were sadly necessary for the rite of marriage.

Now, catching the first hint of motion at the aivan entrance, Photius' eyes were drawn thither. His about-to-be-bride was finally entering.

Tahmina's mother, he knew, would not be coming. Her presence was customary at such events, but the woman claimed to have contracted some mysterious and incapacitating disease. Baresmanas had made fulsome apologies for her absence in advance, which the Roman delegation had accepted graciously. Even though not one of those Romans—nor, for that matter, any member of the Persian nobility—doubted for an instant the real nature of the disease. Incapacitating, yes; mysterious, no. Such is the nature of the ancient illness called bigotry.

Her daughter? Of the Suren, the purest blood of the Aryans short of the emperor himself! Married to—to—

The mongrel Roman whoreson bastard sighed. Great. Just great. My wife will hold her nose whenever I'm in the same room with her.

Tahmina was much nearer, now. Despite himself, Photius was fascinated to see her move. Even under the heavy Persian robes, he could sense the lithe and athletic figure. Tahmina was fifteen years old. Just old enough—quite unlike Photius himself—that she was beginning to bring her body under control. There was no gawkiness at all in that easy, gliding progress.

Maurice, his father's cataphract, had seen the girl before. Maurice had told him that she was extraordinarily beautiful. For a moment, Photius was cheered by the thought.

Only for a moment. Great. Just great. I'll have the most beautiful wife in the world. And she'll still be holding her nose whenever I'm around.

Then, finally, his eyes met those of his approaching bride. Between the heavy veil and the headdress, Tahmina's dark eyes and the bridge of her nose were all that Photius could see of her face.

The Emperor of Rome froze.

Tahmina's own eyes were fixed upon him. They never moved once, in the time it took for her to finally take her place next to him.

Beautiful eyes, of course. As clear and bright as moonshine, for all their darkness. Brown eyes, technically, but of such a deep hue they almost seemed black. So much, Photius had expected. But he had not expected the warmth he saw in them. Like embers, glowing.

And he certainly hadn't expected to hear the whisper, just as the ceremony finally began. In heavily accented but perfect Greek.

"Relax, husband. You will like me. I promise."

And he did relax, even if the ceremony itself was long, and tedious, and required him to follow a labyrinth of carefully rehearsed gestures and words. Photius, too, had read Herodotus. And so he knew the creed of the Aryans.

Teach them horsemanship, and archery.

And teach them to despise all lies.

* * *

Hours later, in the midst of the great festivities which were spilling all through the public areas of the palace—all through the entire city, in fact—Emperor Khusrau Anushirvan sidled up to Belisarius.

"That went supremely well, I thought."

Belisarius nodded. For once, his smile was not crooked at all. It was every bit as wide and open as the emperor's own.

"I thought so, too." They were still standing in the aivan. Through the great opening, the last colors of sunset could be seen. Belisarius glanced at the small door which led to the private quarters of the imperial entourage. Photius and Tahmina had been provided with a suite in those quarters, for their use until the imperial Roman delegation returned to Constantinople some days hence. The new husband and bride had just passed through that door, not more than ten minutes earlier.

Belisarius' smile now assumed its more familiar, crooked shape. "Of course, I'm not sure Photius is still of that opinion. He seemed cheerful enough earlier. But now—" The Roman general chuckled. "He looked for all the world like a man being led to his own execution."

Khusrau grinned. "Nonsense. I raised the girl, you know, as much as Baresmanas did. She is every bit as intelligent as she is comely. I assure you that your stepson will soon be at ease."

The Emperor of Iran and non-Iran paused. "Well . . . Not at ease, precisely."

Belisarius' eyes widened a bit. "He's only ten years old, Your Majesty."

Khusrau's face bore an expression of supreme smugness. "Romans. Such a primitive folk."

* * *

After his servants dressed him in his bedclothes, Photius nervously entered the sleeping chamber and found Tahmina already waiting for him. She was lazing on the bed, wearing her own nightgown. As soon as Photius entered, she smiled and patted the bed next to her. "Come, husband," she said softly.

"I'm only ten years old," Photius managed to choke out.

"Relax, I say," murmured his wife. She arose and led him gently to the bed. "Lie down."

Photius did as he was commanded. He could not imagine doing otherwise. For all of Tahmina's poise and demure demeanor—how does she manage that, wearing nothing but a silk gown?—her hands upon him were strong and firm. She was bigger than he was, true. But it was more the certainty of her intentions, and the sheer beauty of her person—Maurice had been right, been right, been right—that drove him to obey.

It seemed but an instant before she had him stretched out on the bed, herself alongside, and was gently caressing his little body. Slowly, Photius felt the rigidity leaving his muscles.

"I'm only ten years old," he repeated. This time, more by way of an apology than an expression of terror.

"Of course you are," murmured Tahmina. Gently, she kissed his forehead. "Relax, husband." She raised her head and smiled serenely down upon him, while her hands continued their caresses.

"You will age. Soon enough, be sure of it. And when the time comes, you will not be anxious at all. You will know everything. About me. About you. It will be so easy."

Photius thought she had the most beautiful voice he had ever heard. He felt like he was drowning in the darkness of her eyes.

The rest of the night, until they fell asleep, was a time of wonder for him. Wonder of the body, partly. Ten years old is not too young for everything, after all, and Tahmina was as sensuous as she was beautiful. Her caresses felt more wonderful than anything Photius could imagine.

But, mostly, it was wonder of the mind. He had never imagined it. Not once. That he might come to love his wife.

* * *

Within an hour after awakening the next morning, wonder turned to certainty. Ten years old was not, after all, too young for a man to understand that pleasures of the mind outweigh pleasures of the body.

His wife turned out to be a genius, too. Such, at least, was Photius' firm conviction. Who else would know so many ways to thwart officious tutors?

"And another thing," she explained, nestling his head into her shoulder. "When they start nattering about your grammar—"

For the first time, Photius assumed the proper mantle of husbandly authority.

"Hush, wife!" he commanded. He lifted his head, summoned his courage—Emperor of Rome!—and planted a kiss on his wife's cheek. After the evening and night, all those hours, it came almost easily to him.

Tahmina laughed. "See? Not long!"

* * *

Some time later, again, Tahmina was gazing down upon him serenely.

"You will have concubines," she said softly, "but I intend to see to it that you do not spend much time with them."

Photius cleared his throat. "Uh, actually, concubines are not permitted under Christian law." A bit guiltily: "Not supposed to be, anyway."

Tahmina's eyes grew very round. "Really? How odd!"

The beautiful eyes narrowed a bit. "I will be converting, of course, since a Christian empire must have a Christian empress." Narrowed further. "I foresee myself a devoted convert." Slits. "A religious fanatic, in fact."

Photius gurgled like a babe. "S'okay with me!"

"It better be," growled his wife. A moment later, she was giving him a foretaste of the punishment which awaited Christian sinners.

* * *

And so the servants found them. The servants, and Julian.

The prim and proper servants frowned, needless to say. Such unseemly conduct for royalty! But Julian, scarred veteran of many battlefields, was immensely pleased. A Persian empress tickling a Roman emperor, he thought, boded well for the future. Perhaps Belisarius was right, and the thousand year war was finally over.

That still left the Malwa, of course. But that thought brought nothing but a sneer to the cataphract's face. Anything was child's play, compared to Persian dehgans on the field of battle.

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Framed

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Chapter 3

That same morning, while Photius and Tahmina began laying the foundation for their marriage, another wedding took place. This wedding was private, not public. Indeed, not to put too fine a point on it, it was a state secret—unauthorized knowledge of which would earn the headsman's sword.

Another foundation was being laid with this wedding. A new empire was being forged, destined to rise up out of the ruins of Malwa. Or rather, destined to play a great part in Malwa's ruination.

The ceremony was Christian, as was the bride, and as simple a rite as that faith allowed. The bride herself had so stipulated, in defiance of all natural law—had insisted, in fact. She had claimed she wanted a brief and unembellished ceremony purely in the interests of security and secrecy. Given that the bride was acknowledged to be a supreme mistress in the arts of espionage and intrigue, the claim was accepted readily enough. Most people probably even believed it.

But Antonina, watching her best friend Irene kneeling at the altar, was a bit hard-pressed to restrain a smile. She knew the truth.

First thing that scheming woman's going to do, after she gets to Peshawar, is hold the biggest and most splendiferous Buddhist wedding in the history of the world. Last for a month, I bet.

Her eyes moved to the man kneeling next to Irene. Kungas was droning his way through the phrases required of a Christian groom with perfect ease and aplomb.

Any Christian objects, of course, she'll claim her husband made her do it.

Kungas was destined to be the new ruler of a new Kushan empire. The Kushans, in their great majority, adhered to the Buddhist faith. In secret, for the most part, since their Malwa overlords had decreed their grotesque Mahaveda version of Hinduism the established religion and forbade all others. But the secrecy, and the frequent martyrdoms which went with it, had simply welded the Kushans that much more closely to their creed.

Naturally, their new ruler would insist that his wife the empress espouse that faith herself. Naturally. He was a strong-willed man, everyone knew it.

Ha!

Belisarius glanced at down at her, and Antonina fiercely stifled her giggle.

Ha! It was her idea, the schemer! Never would have occurred to Kungas.

Kungas was the closest thing Antonina had ever met to a fabled atheist. Agnostic, for a certainty. He was prepared to accept—as a tentative hypothesis—the existence of a "soul." Tentatively, he was even willing to accept the logic that a "soul" required a "soul-maker." Grudgingly, he would allow that such a "soul-maker" of necessity possessed superhuman powers.

That he—or she—or it—was a god, however . . .

The God?

"Rampant speculation," Kungas called it. In private, of course, and in the company of close friends. Kungas was literate, now, in both Greek and Kushan. But he was no intellectual and never would be. "Rampant speculation" was his lover Irene's serene way of translating his grunted opinion. "Pure guesswork!" was the way Antonina had heard it.

But if Kungas was no intellectual, there was nothing at all wrong with his mind. That mind had been shaped since childhood in the cauldron of battle and destruction. And if, against all logic, the man who had emerged from that fiery furnace was in his own way a rather gentle man—using the term "gentle" very loosely—he had a mind as bright and hard as a diamond.

His people were Buddhists, whatever Kungas thought. So would he be, then. And his empress, too, now that she mentioned it to him.

Ha! Pity the poor Malwa!

* * *

In the brief reception which followed the wedding, the Emperor of Iran and non-Iran advanced to present his congratulations along with his wife. So did Theodora, the Empress Regent of Rome. So too did Eon, the negusa nagast of Ethiopia and Arabia, accompanied by his own wife Rukaiya. The man and woman destined to be the rulers of a realm which still existed only in the imagination were being given the official nod of recognition by three of the four most powerful empires in the world.

The most powerful empire, of course, was absent. Which was hardly surprising, since even if that empire had known of this wedding it would hardly have approved. The new realm would be torn from Malwa's own bleeding flank.

Belisarius and Antonina saw no need to join the crowd pressing around Kungas and Irene. Neither did Ousanas.

"Silly business," muttered Ethiopia's aqabe tsentsen—vizier, in effect, although the title actually translated as "keeper of the fly-whisks." The quaint and modest title was in keeping with Ethiopian political custom.

"Silly," he repeated. He glanced at Antonina. "Don't lie, woman. You know as well as I do that she'll be a Buddhist soon enough." He snorted. "And God knows what else. All those mountains are full of pagans. She'll be getting remarried every week, swearing eternal devotion to whatever prancing goat-god happens to be the local fancy."

Antonina maintained an aloof smile. "I think that's absolute nonsense. I can't believe you could be so cynical." She bestowed the serene expression upon Belisarius. He responded with his own smile, more crooked than ever, but said nothing.

Antonina's smile now went to the small group of soldiers standing just behind her husband. All three of the top Kushan commanders of Belisarius' army—former commanders, as of this moment—were gathered there. Vasudeva was in the center, flanked by Vima and Huvishka.

"Surely you don't agree with him," stated Antonina.

Vasudeva's smile, as always, was a thin and economic affair. "Wouldn't surprise me," he said. "Not a bad idea, in fact. Pagans are a silly superstitious lot, of course, but they're not the least bit inclined toward exclusivity." He stroked his wispy goatee. "Maybe."

"Et tu, Brute?" muttered Antonina.

Vasudeva's smile widened. "Antonina, be serious." He nodded toward the wedding couple and the small crowd gathered about them. "Have I not myself—me and my officers—been the subject of just such a premeditated marital display this very morning?"

Antonina was a bit disconcerted by the Kushan general's perspicacity. Belisarius had told her, but she was not very familiar with the man herself.

Shrewd indeed!

All three of the Kushan generals were now smiling. "And quite well done it was, too," murmured Vima approvingly. "What ambitious general, daydreaming of his own possible lineage, would risk bringing the wrath of such empires down on his head? Wouldn't do at all to overthrow the established dynasty, in the face of such universal approval."

Belisarius was studying the faces of the three men. For once, there was no smile at all on his face.

"It's been done, and often enough," he said softly. His gaze came to rest on Vasudeva. Vasudeva's smile was still in place.

"Not here," said the Kushan. He glanced at Kungas. "All of us have spent time with him, Belisarius, since he arrived. We are satisfied. He will make a good emperor." His two subordinates grunted their agreement. Vima added: "And where else could you find such a scheming empress?"

Vima studied Irene. "I suppose you could marry the widow, over the body of her dead husband. But—"

Huvishka shuddered. "Talk about sleeping with both eyes open!"

A little laugh swept the group. Belisarius nodded. In truth, he was not surprised at the easy way in which the Kushan generals had accepted Kungas as their new monarch-to-be. Belisarius had come to know all three Kushan soldiers well, in the past two years. They approached life with hard-headed practicality, and were not given in the least to idle fancies.

Still—

Kungas and Irene had brought fewer than three thousand Kushan soldiers with them from Majarashtra. There were over ten thousand serving under Vasudeva's command in Belisarius' army. Two thousand of those had been with Vasudeva when Belisarius defeated them at the battle of Anatha. The rest had come over after the Malwa disaster at Charax. When the Malwa commanders started their defeated army marching back to India, their Kushan troops had mutinied. The march would be a death march, and they knew it. And knew, as well, that Kushans would do a disproportionate share of the dying. The Ye-tai, not they, would receive what little extra rations could be smuggled off boats along the coast.

It was an awkward situation, thus. All of the Kushans serving under Belisarius had been released for service in their own cause. On the one hand, that gave Kungas a small but by no means laughable army. On the other, it meant Kungas and Irene would be marching across the Persian plateau in order to rebuild the shattered empire of the Kushans accompanied by an army most of whose soldiers owed them no allegiance at all. Everything would depend on the attitude of the officers those soldiers did know and trust. First and foremost, Vasudeva and Vima and Huvishka.

Just as Vasudeva had shrewdly surmised, the main purpose of the wedding which had just been held was to make the attitude of Rome and Persia and Ethiopia as clear as crystal. This man—and this woman—have our official seal of approval. So don't get any wild ideas.

"Good enough," murmured Belisarius. "Good enough."

* * *

Later that morning, Irene and Kungas went to the Roman emperor's chambers to receive his own official seal of approval. Which they got, needless to say, with considerably less reserve than from his elders and nominal subordinates. Irene was eventually forced to pry him loose.

Photius was struggling with unmanly tears. "I'll miss you," he whispered.

Irene chucked him under the chin. "So come and visit. And we'll do the same."

Photius managed a smile. "I'd like that! Theodora hates to travel, but I think it's exciting." He hesitated; a trace of apprehension came to his face, as he glanced quickly at the taller girl standing next to him.

Tahmina had his little arm firmly held in her hands. "Whatever my lord and husband desires," she crooned.

Irene grinned. "Well said! My own philosophy exactly."

Kungas grunted. Irene ignored the uncouth sound. A very stern expression came to her face, and now she was wagging her finger in front of Photius' nose.

"And remember! Every new book that comes out! I'll expect it sent to me immediately! Or there'll be war!"

Photius nodded. "Every one, as soon as it comes out. I'll get the very first copy and sent it to you right off, by fast courier." He stood straight. "I can do that, you know. I'm the Emperor of Rome."

"Quite so," crooned Tahmina.

* * *

That evening, in the suite of the imperial palace which had been set aside for the use of Kungas and Irene, a different ceremony took place. At sundown, Antonina bustled into the room. Behind her came a servant, carrying a large and heavy crate.

Antonina planted her hands on hips and gave the men sitting on the various divans scattered about the large salon a ferocious glare. The glare spared no one—not her husband, not his chief commanders Maurice and Sittas and Agathius, not Ousanas and Ezana, not Kungas nor his chief officers, not the Persian general Kurush. If they were male, they were dead meat.

"Out!" She hooked her thumb at the door. "All of you, at once! Take this military folderol somewhere else. This room is hereby dedicated to a solemn ritual."

Maurice was the first to rise. "Got to respect hallowed tradition," he agreed solemnly. "Let's go, gentlemen. We're pretty much done with everything except"—he sighed heavily—"the logistics. And Agathius and I can do that with Belisarius in his own chambers." He gave Antonina a grin. "It'll take us hours, of course, but so what? This one won't be coming back tonight."

As he moved toward the door: "Not on her own two feet, anyway."

Antonina growled. Maurice hastened his pace. Antonina's growl deepened. A small tigress, displeased. The rest of the men followed Maurice with considerable alacrity.

When they were gone, Antonina ordered the servant to place the crate on a nearby table. He did so, and then departed at once. With a regal gesture, Antonina swept the lid off the crate. More regally still, she withdrew the first bottle of wine.

"Soldiers," she sneered. "What do they know about massacre and mayhem?"

Irene was already bringing the goblets. "Nothing." She extended them both. "Start the slaughter."

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Framed

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Chapter 4

"I wish you'd stop doing this," grumbled Agathius. "It's embarrassing." The powerful hands draped on the arms of the wheelchair twitched, as if Agathius were about to seize the wheel rims and propel himself forward. Then he had to hastily snatch the maps and logistics records before they slid off his lap onto the tiled floor.

Seeing the motion, Maurice snorted. "Are you crazy?" The grizzled veteran, striding alongside the wheelchair, glanced back at the young general pushing it. "It's good for him, doing some honest work for a change instead of plotting and scheming."

Belisarius grinned. "Certainly is! Besides, Justinian insisted on a full and detailed report—from me personally. How can I do that without operating the gadget myself?"

Agathius grumbled inarticulately. The wheelchair and its accompanying companions swept into one of the vaulted and frescoed chambers of the imperial palace. A cluster of Persian officers and courtiers scrambled aside. By now, many days into the ongoing strategy sessions at Ctesiphon, they had all learned not to gawk in place. Belisarius did not maneuver a wheelchair with the same cunning with which he maneuvered armies in the field. Charge!

When they reached the stairs at the opposite side of the chamber, leading to the residential quarters above, Belisarius and Maurice positioned themselves on either side of the wheelchair. As Agathius continued his grumbling, Belisarius and Maurice seized the handles which Justinian had designed for the purpose and began hauling Agathius and his wheelchair up the stairs by main force, grunting with the effort. Even with his withered half-legs, Agathius was still a muscular and heavy burden.

Below, the knot of Persian notables watched the operation with slack jaws and open eyes. They had seen it done before, of course—many times—but still . . .

Unseemly! Servants' work! The top commander of the greatest army since Darius should not—

At the first landing, Belisarius and Maurice set the contraption down and took a few deep breaths. Agathius looked from one to the other, scowling fiercely. "I can climb stairs myself, you know. I do it at home all the time."

Belisarius managed a grin. "Justinian, remember? You think the Roman Empire's Grand Justiciar—not to mention Theodora's husband—is going to settle for a secondhand account?"

"He's way off in Adulis," protested Agathius. "And he's completely preoccupied with getting his beloved new steam-powered warships ready." But it was weak, weak.

Belisarius shrugged. "Yes—and he's blind, to boot. So what? You think he doesn't have spies?"

Maurice snorted sarcastically. "And besides, Agathius, you know how much Justinian loves designing his gadgets. So just shut up and resign yourself to the inevitable." Sourly: "At least you don't have to lift this blasted thing. With an overgrown, over-muscled ex-cataphract in it."

They'd rested enough. With a heave and a grunt, Belisarius and Maurice lifted Agathius and the wheelchair and staggered their way upward. When they reached the top of the stairs and were in the corridor leading to Agathius' private chambers, they set the wheelchair down.

"All . . . right," puffed Belisarius. "You're on your own again. Justinian wants to know how the hand grips work also."

"They work just fine," snapped Agathius. To prove the point, he set off down the corridor at a pace which had Belisarius and Maurice hurrying to catch up—puffing all the while. Agathius seemed to take a malicious glee in the sound.

At the entrance to his chambers, Agathius paused. He glanced up at Belisarius, wincing a bit and clearing his throat.

"Uh—"

"I'll speak to her," assured Belisarius. "I'm sure she'll listen to reason once—"

The door was suddenly jerked open. Agathius' young wife Sudaba was standing there, glaring.

"What is this insane business?" she demanded furiously. "I insist on accompanying my husband!" An instant later, she was planted in front of Belisarius, shaking her little fist under his nose. "Roman tyrant! Monstrous despot!"

Hastily, Maurice seized the wheelchair and maneuvered Agathius into the room, leaving Belisarius—Rome's magister militum per orientem, Great Commander of the Allied Army, honorary vurzurgan in the land of Aryans—to deal alone with Agathius' infuriated teenage wife.

"A command responsibility if I ever saw one," Maurice muttered.

Agathius nodded eagerly. "Just so!" Piously: "After all, it was his decision to keep the baggage train and camp followers to a minimum. It's not as if we insisted that the top officers had to set a personal example."

"Autocrat! Beast! Despoiler! I won't stand for it!"

"Must be nice," mused Maurice, "to have one of those meek and timid Persian girls for a wife."

But Agathius did not hear the remark. His two-year-old son had arrived, toddling proudly on his own feet, and had been swept up into his father's arms.

"Daddy go bye-bye?" the boy asked uncertainly.

"Yes," replied Agathius. "But I'll be back. I promise."

The boy gurgled happily as Agathius started tickling him. "Daddy beat the Malwa!" he proclaimed proudly.

"Beat 'em flat!" his father agreed. His eyes moved to the great open window, staring toward the east. The Zagros mountains were there; and then, the Persian plateau; and then—the Indus valley, where the final accounts would be settled.

"They'll give me my legs back," he growled. "The price of them, at least. Which I figure is Emperor Skandagupta's blood in the dust."

Maurice clucked. "Such an intemperate man you are, Agathius. I'd think a baker's son would settle for a mere satrap."

"Skandagupta, and nothing less," came the firm reply. "I'll see his empty eyes staring at the sky. I swear I will."

* * *

When Belisarius rejoined them, some time later, the Roman general's expression was a bit peculiar. Bemused, perhaps—like a stunned ox. Quite unlike his usual imperturbable self.

Agathius cleared his throat. "It's not as if I didn't give you fair warning."

Belisarius shook his head. The ox, trying to shake away the confusion.

"How in the name of God did she get me to agree?" he wondered. Then, sighing: "And now I'll have Antonina to deal with! She'll break my head when I tell her she's got another problem to handle on shipboard."

Maurice grinned. "I imagine Ousanas will have a few choice words, too. Sarcasm, you may recall, is not entirely foreign to his nature. And he is the military commander of the naval expedition. Will be, at least, once the Ethiopians finish putting their fleet together."

Belisarius winced. His eyes moved to the huge table at the center of the chamber. Agathius had already spread out the map and the logistics papers which he had brought with him to the conference. They seemed a mere outcrop in the mountain of maps, scrolls, codices and loose sheets of vellum which practically spilled from every side of the table.

"That's the whole business?" he asked.

Agathius nodded. "Yes—and it's just as much of a mess as it looks. Pure chaos!" He glowered at the gigantic pile. "Who was that philosopher who claimed everything originated from atoms? Have to ask Anastasius. Whoever it was, he was a simpleminded optimist, let me tell you. If he'd ever tried to organize the logistics for a combined land and sea campaign that involved a hundred and twenty thousand men—and that's just the soldiers!—he would've realized that everything turns into atoms also."

"Thank God," muttered Belisarius, eyeing the mess with pleasure. "Something simple and straightforward to deal with!"

* * *

In the event, Antonina was not furious. She dismissed the entire matter with an insouciant shrug, as she poured herself a new goblet of pomegranate-flavored water. Belisarius had introduced her to the Persian beverage, and Antonina found it a blessed relief from the ever-present wine of the Roman liquid diet. Especially when she was suffering from a hangover.

The goblet full, she took it in hand and leaned back into her divan. "Sudaba and I get along. It'll be a bit crowded, of course, with her sharing my cabin along with Koutina." For a moment, suspicion came into her eyes. "You didn't agree to letting her bring the boy?"

Belisarius straightened proudly. "There I held the line!"

Aide flashed an image into his mind. Hector on the walls of Troy. Belisarius found himself half-choking from amusement combined with chagrin.

Antonina eyed her husband quizzically. Belisarius waved a weak hand. "Nothing. Just Aide. He's being sarcastic and impertinent again."

"Blessed jewel!" exclaimed a voice. Sitting on another divan in his favored lotus position, Ousanas cast baleful eyes on Belisarius. "I shudder to think what would become of us," he growled, "without the Talisman of God to keep you sane."

Antonina sniffed. "My husband does not suffer from delusions of grandeur."

"Certainly not!" agreed Ousanas. "How could he, with a mysterious creature from the future always present in his mind? Ready—blessed jewel!—to puncture inflated notions at a moment's notice."

Ousanas took a sip from his own goblet. Good red wine, this—no silly child's drink for him. "Not that he has any reason for such grandiosity, of course, when you think about it. What has Belisarius actually accomplished, these past few years?"

The aqabe tsentsen of the kingdom of Axum—empire, now, since the Ethiopians had incorporated southern Arabia into their realm—waved his own hand. But there was nothing weak about that gesture. It combined the certainty of the sage with the authority of the despot.

"Not much," he answered his own question. "The odd Malwa army defeated here and there, entirely through the use of low-minded stratagems. The occasional rebellion incited within the Malwa empire itself." His sniff was more flamboyant than Antonina's, nostrils fleering in contempt. "A treasure stolen from Malwa and then given away to Maratha rebels—a foolish gesture, that!—and a princess smuggled out of captivity. Bah! There's hardly a village headman in my native land between the great lakes who could not claim as much."

Antonina grinned. As a rule, disrespect toward her husband was guaranteed to bring a hot response. But from Ousanas—

Axum's aqabe tsentsen was not Ethiopian himself. Ousanas had been born and bred in the heartland of Africa far to the south of the highlands. But he had spent years as the dawazz to Prince Eon, a post whose principal duty was to nip royal self-aggrandizement in the bud. Eon was now the negusa nagast of Axum, the "King of Kings," and Ousanas had become the most powerful official in his realm. But the former hunter and former slave still had his old habits.

And, besides, they were close friends. So close, in fact, that Ousanas was the most frequently cited "lover" of the huge male harem which Antonina was reputed to maintain. By now, of course—after Antonina had played a central role in crushing the Malwa-instigated Nika rebellion in Constantinople, reestablished imperial authority in Egypt and the Levant, and led the naval expedition which had rescued Belisarius and his army after their destruction of the Malwa logistics base at Charax—not even the scandal-mongering Greek aristocracy gave more than token respect to the slanders. The Malwa espionage service had long since realized that the rumors had been fostered by Antonina herself, in order to divert their attention from her key role in her husband's strategy.

So, knowing Ousanas, Antonina responded in kind. "Yes, surely. But what Bantu headman can claim to have put his stepson on the throne of the Roman Empire?"

Ousanas snorted. "Rome? Bah!" He leaned forward, gesticulating eagerly. "A realm of peddlers and peasants! No, no, Antonina—for true grandeur you must visit the great and mysterious empires in central Africa! The cities are paved with silver and jade, the palaces cut from pure crystals. The emperors—every one of them a former headman from my native region, you understand—are borne to the gold-inlaid toilets on elephants draped with—"

"And the elephants shit diamonds themselves," interrupted Ezana. The Axumite naval commander—he was a native-born Ethiopian—gave Ousanas a sour glance. "It's odd how these marvelous African empires of his keep moving further south as we Axumites extend our rule." Another sniff was added. "So far, though, all we seem to encounter are illiterate heathen savages scrabbling in the dirt."

Ousanas began some retort, but Ezana drove over it. "The Persian girl does not concern me, Belisarius. Not by herself. As young as she is, Sudaba is not a stranger to campaigns. She was with Agathius at the Nehar Malka, after all. Any Persian noblewoman who could manage on board one of those miserable river barges"—the inevitable Axumite pride in their naval expertise surfaced—"can surely manage aboard one of our craft."

That contented thought gave way to a scowl: "But if this starts a mudslide of women demanding to accompany their men—" Ezana swiveled his head and brought another occupant of the salon under his cold scrutiny. "My own half-sister, soon enough!"

Under that hard gaze, the pale face of young Menander turned pink with embarrassment. The Roman officer knew that Ezana was aware of his intimate relationship with Deborah, but he still found the casual manner in which Ethiopians handled such things unsettling. Menander was too close enough to the Thracian village of his upbringing not to be a bit edgy. In his village, the half-brother of a seduced sister would have blood in his eye. And no Thracian villager was half as skilled and experienced in mayhem and slaughter as Ezana!

"I've already spoken to her about it," he muttered. "She agreed to stay behind." Guiltily: "Well . . . in Charax, anyway."

"Marvelous," grunted Ezana. "Our precious naval base is about to become as populous as Bharakuccha. The women will be bad enough." His next words caused Menander to turn beet red. "The inevitable squalling brats which follow will practically carpet the city. Our stevedores will be tripping all over them trying to load our warships. Our soldiers will have to fight their way to the docks."

Belisarius sighed and spread his hands. "Yes, Ezana—I know. But I can't accomplish miracles. As it is, we'll still manage to keep the camp followers to a bare minimum." He tried to rally his pride. "In proportion, we'll have the smallest baggage train since Xenophon's march to the sea."

"Marvelous," grunted Ousanas. "Perhaps we should follow his lead then. Strand ourselves in the middle of the Malwa empire and try to fight our way out."

Menander recovered his aplomb. Young and sometimes bashful he might be, but no one had ever accused him of cowardice. "We already did that," he pointed out cheerfully. "Only a handful of us, of course, not Xenophon's fabled ten thousand. I much prefer the current prospect. Marching into Malwa, with over a hundred thousand!"

"You won't be in that number," retorted Ezana. "No, boy. You're for the cut and thrust of boarding parties."

"Me?" Menander's eyes widened in mock astonishment. "Nonsense. I'm the gunnery specialist. I am required to stay back while Axumite marines storm across the decks. My duties—"

The last occupant of the salon now spoke. "Bullshit, boy!" John of Rhodes rose from his divan and planted his arms akimbo. "The real gunnery specialist is Eusebius—who's too nearsighted to storm a latrine, anyway. And since I'm the commander of the gunship fleet, that leaves you as the top Roman officer in the armada to show these haughty black fellows"—he and the two Africans exchanged grins—"how to wield hand weapons properly in the close quarters of a desperate boarding operation."

"That's nonsense, also," said Antonina. She drained the rest of her goblet. "If all goes as planned, there won't be any boarding operations. Just the dazzling maneuvers of warships firing cannons at long range, destroying the Malwa with precision and style."

And that, of course, brought a storm of criticism and outrage.

Idiot! Have you learned nothing?

The First Law of Battle!

Every battle plan in history—

"—gets fucked up as soon as the enemy arrives," she finished. "Men. Such slobs. Everything always has to be messy and untidy." Serenely: "Fortunately, this expedition will have a woman's hand on the rudder."

Five pairs of male eyes, ranging in color from bright blue to deepest brown, joined in condemnation of such folly.

Antonina poured herself another goblet. "Trust me," she said, still with absolute serenity. "You'll see."

* * *

Belisarius' final meeting of the day took place late that night, in the back room of a small tavern to which he had come cloaked in secrecy.

"There's nothing more I can tell you," he concluded. "If we hear anything further, of course, I'll let you know. But since you'll be off as soon as Ezana can finish assembling his small fleet, I don't imagine there'll be anything else."

Anastasius grunted. "Not if you're right, and Narses is behind it all." He shrugged his massive shoulders. "Speaking for myself, I hope he is. Information's valuable, but I'd rather trust my life to Narses' fine and subtle hand."

Valentinian glared at him. Clearly enough, the weasel-thin cataphract did not share his giant companion's equanimity.

"Speak for yourself," he snarled. "I'd rather trust a scorpion than Narses." The glare shifted to Belisarius. "And don't repeat Irene's fancy phrases to me. Fine for her to talk about trusting Narses' so-called `craftsmanship.' She'll be on the other side of the Hindu Kush from the bastard, with thirteen thousand Kushan bodyguards."

The last occupant of the room spoke up. "Ah, but you forget. She'll be without me. And since I'll be coming with you, I think that fairly evens the odds."

Valentinian was now glaring at Kujulo. But, even for Valentinian, the glare was hard to maintain. After Belisarius' rescue of then-princess Shakuntala from her captivity at Venandakatra's palace in Gwalior, Valentinian had fought his way out of India with Kushans at his side—Kujulo among them. He had then spent two years fighting against Kushans and, after Vasudeva and his men took service with Belisarius, with them at his side. There were perhaps no soldiers in the world, beyond the general's own Thracian bucellarii to whom Valentinian belonged, that he respected and trusted more than he did Kushans. And, of them, more than Kujulo himself.

Still—

"I'm not complaining," he complained. He took his own quaff of wine, and then squinted bitterly at the Persian vintage as if all the sourness of the universe were contained therein. "If it can be done, we'll get the girls out. Although I still don't understand why Narses would go to all this trouble—not to mention huge risks for himself—just to get Dadaji's daughters back to their father."

Belisarius shrugged. "That part doesn't make sense to any of us, Valentinian. Irene no more than me. But—"

His crooked smile made its appearance. "That's all the more reason to investigate. There's got to be more involved."

"What do you think?" asked Anastasius.

Belisarius scratched his chin. "I have no idea." He glanced at Valentinian. "But I can't help remembering the last words Lord Damodara said to you, before he released you from captivity."

Valentinian scowled. "That silly business about you having a proper respect for grammar?"

Belisarius nodded. "Yes, that." His chin-scratching went into high gear. "I can't help but wondering if what we're seeing here isn't a master grammarian at work. Parsing a very long sentence, so to speak."

Valentinian threw up his hands with exasperation. "I still say it's silly!" He planted his hands firmly on the table and leaned forward.

"We'll do it, General. If it can be done at all. But I'm giving you fair warning—"

He pushed himself back and took a deep breath. "If we run into Rana Sanga, I'm surrendering right off! No way in hell am I going to fight that monster again!"

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Framed

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Chapter 5

BIHAR

Spring, 533 A.D.

The knuckles on Rana Sanga's right hand, gripping the tent pole, were as white as bone. For a moment, Lord Damodara wondered if the pole would snap. The thought was only half-whimsical. The Malwa commander had once seen the leader of his Rajput troops cut an armored man in half—Vertically. Sanga's sword had come down through the shoulder, split the sternum and the ribs, and only come to a halt when the sword broke against the baldric's buckle.

True, his opponent had been a lightly armored rebel, and as small as Bengalis usually were. Still—

"I'm glad I'm using bamboo to hold up my tent," he remarked casually.

Startled, Rana Sanga's eyes came to his master. Then, moved to his hand. Slowly, with an obvious effort, the tall Rajput king released his grip.

The hand became a fist and the fist slammed into his left palm. Damodara winced at the noise. That punch would have broken the hands of most men. Sanga didn't even seem to notice. There were times when Damodara wondered if the Rajput was entirely human. For all Sanga's courtesy and stiff honor, there was something about the Rajput king—something that went beyond his towering stature and tigerish frame—that made the Malwa general think of the asuras of the ancient chronicles and legends. Demons . . .

Lord Damodara shook the thought away, as he had so often before. The asuras had been evil creatures. However ferocious in combat, Rana Sanga could not be accused of the same. Not by any sane man, at least; and whatever else Damodara was, he was most certainly sane.

The Malwa general heaved a very faint, very controlled sigh. And that is perhaps all I am. Sane. He turned away from the sight of his silent, seething, enraged subordinate and studied the new maps which had been brought to the command tent. Damodara's keen mind found comfort in those maps. The lines drawn upon them were clean and precise. Quite unlike the human territory which they so glibly claimed to represent.

Honor. Morality. Those are for others. For me, there is only sanity.

"There is no leeway in the orders, Rana Sanga," he said harshly. "None whatsoever."

Sanga was now glaring at an idol perched on a small pedestal next to the tent's entrance. The very expensive ivory carving was a miniature statue of the four-armed, three-headed and three-eyed god called Virabhadra. In each of his hands, the god bore a bow, an arrow, a shield and a sword. The weapons were all made of pure gold. A necklace of sapphire skulls adorned his bare chest, and each cyclops eye was a ruby. The scarlet color of the gems seemed to reflect Sanga's rage with blithe indifference.

Virabhadra had once been a minor god, one of Siva's variations. But the Mahaveda cult which dominated the Malwa empire's new version of Hinduism had elevated him to much higher status. Damodara rather loathed the statue, himself, despite its value. But it helped to keep the ever-suspicious priests of Malwa from prying too closely into his affairs.

"I have already come under criticism for my methods of suppressing rebellion here in eastern India," he added softly. He gestured at one of the scrolls on his large desk. "I received that from Nanda Lal just two days ago. The emperor's spymaster is wondering why we have made such infrequent use of impalement."

Sanga tore his eyes away from the statue. "That idiot," he snarled, utterly oblivious to the fact that he was insulting one of the emperor's close kinsmen in front of another. For some reason—or, rather, a reason he chose not to examine closely—Damodara found that unthinking trust something of a small treasure in its own right.

Sanga began pacing back and forth in the command tent. His steps, as always, were as light and powerful as a tiger's. And his voice carried the rumbling undertones of the same predator of the forest.

"We have spilled a river of blood across this land," he growled. "Here, and in half of Bengal also. Stacked heads in small piles at the center of a hundred villages. And then burned the villages. And for what?"

He paused, for a moment, and glared at the closed flap of the tent as if he could see the ravaged countryside beyond. "To be sure, the rebellion is suppressed. But it will flare up again, soon enough, once we are gone. Does that—that—" Teeth clenched: "—spymaster really think that impaling a rebel instead of decapitating him will serve us for magic?"

Damodara shrugged. "In a word: yes. Nanda Lal has always been a firm believer in the value of terror. As much as Venandakatra, the truth be told, even if he does not take Venandakatra's personal pleasure in the doing."

Mention of Venandakatra's name, inevitably, stoked the Rajput's rage. But Damodara did not regret the doing of it. Rana Sanga, in the privacy of Damodara's tent, could afford to rage. Lord Damodara had no such luxury himself. There was no superior in front of whom he could pace like a tiger, snarling his fury at bestial cruelty. Damodara had no superiors, beyond Nanda Lal and the emperor himself. And the being from the future called Link which ruled them in turn. Nanda Lal and Emperor Skandagupta would—at best—immediately remove Damodara from command were he to express such sentiments to them. The thing would almost certainly do worse.

"My family is in Kausambi now, you know," he said softly. "All of them. I just got a letter from my wife yesterday. She is not pleased with the climate in the capital—it's particularly hard on my parents—but she says the emperor has provided them with a very fine mansion. Plenty of room, even with three children."

The quiet words seemed to drain Sanga's anger away, as quickly as water pouring out of a broken basin.

"So soon?" he murmured.

Damodara shrugged and spread his hands widely. The lithe gesture brought a peculiar little pleasure to him. After the past two years of arduous campaigning—first in Persia, and then in eastern India—the formerly rotund little Malwa general was almost as fit as any of his Rajput soldiers.

"Did you expect anything else, King of Rajputana?" Damodara chuckled harshly. "Of course the emperor insists on taking my family hostage, in all but name. Except for his Ye-tai bodyguard troops—arrogant bastards—everybody admits that we possess his empire's finest army."

"Small army," grunted Sanga.

Again, Damodara shrugged. "Only by Malwa standards. Anywhere else in the world, forty thousand men—half of them Rajputs, and all the rest adopting Rajput ways—would be considered a mighty host. And our numbers are growing."

He turned back to the table with its clean and simple maps. When he spoke again, his voice was as harsh as Sanga's. "But—yes, by Malwa standards, a small army. So let us put all else aside and concentrate on what we must do. Must—do."

He waited until Sanga was at his side. Then, tracing the line of the Ganges with a finger: "Venandakatra can squawk all he wants about immediate reinforcement in the Deccan. Nanda Lal, at least, understands logistics. We will have to follow the Ganges to the Jamuna; then, upstream to the Chambal."

The two men had spent years fighting and leading side by side. Sanga immediately grasped the logic. "Yes. Then—" His own long finger touched the map. "We make our portage here and come south into the Gulf of Khambat following the Mahi river."

Damodara nodded. "It's a roundabout way. But, in the end, we will approach Bharakuccha from the north, shielded from Rao's—ah, I believe the term Lord Venandakatra prefers is `brigands'—by the Vindhya mountains."

"Not much of a shield," murmured Sanga. "Not from Rao and his—" The Rajput's lips pursed, as if tasting a lemon. "Brigands."

"Enough, I think. Until we reach Bharakuccha and can get reliable local intelligence, I don't want to be blundering about in the Great Country. Not with the Panther roaming loose."

The two men stared at the map in silence for a bit longer. Then, heaving a sigh, Rana Sanga spoke almost in a whisper.

"I used to dream, sometimes—long ago, when I was still young and foolish—of meeting him again in single combat on the field of honor."

Damodara tried to salvage something out of the ruins. "And so you shall!"

Heavily, Sanga shook his head. "No, Lord. As you say, the orders carried no leeway. Once we cross the Narmada, we will be under Lord Venandakatra's command. Politically, at least, since he is the Goptri of the Deccan. You know as well as I do that he is not called the Vile One for no reason."

Again, the heavy sigh. "There will be no honor for us in the Great Country, Lord Damodara. Not a shred."

Damodara said nothing. There was nothing to say.

* * *

Shortly thereafter, Rana Sanga left the tent and returned to his own. There, for two hours, he paced back and forth in silence. His Rajput officers stayed well clear of the tent. Sanga spoke not a word, but black anger emanated from him like an asura in captive fury.

Even the guards standing outside the entrance moved as far away from it as possible. Their presence at the tent was a formality, in any event. Rana Sanga was universally—by friend and foe alike—considered the greatest living Rajput warrior as well as Rajputana's finest general. "Guarding" him was a bit on the order of setting cubs to guard a tiger.

Late in the afternoon, a Ye-tai appeared before the tent and requested permission to pass. Toramana, that was, an officer whom Damodara had recently promoted to the status of general. Of the thousands of Ye-tai soldiers in Damodara's army, Toramana was now ranked the highest.

The Rajput guards eyed him uncertainly.

They did so, in part, because Toramana was the kind of man who, armed and armored as he was, would cause any soldier to pause. Toramana was himself considered a mighty warrior, as well as a canny general. He was big, even for a Ye-tai, and not yet thirty years old. His taut and well-muscled body was evidence of the rigorous regimen he had maintained since boyhood—a boyhood which had itself been spent in the harsh environment of the Hindu Kush. His face, bony and angular in the Ye-tai way, was quite unreadable—which was not common in that breed of men.

For the most part, however, the Rajput guards hesitated because they knew the purpose of Toramana's visit. He had come to receive the answer to a question, a question which all the Rajputs in Damodara's army had been discussing and debating privately for days. And, for most, had settled on the same answer as the two guards standing in front of Rana Sanga's tent.

"It is not a good time, General Toramana," said one of the guards quietly. "Rana Sanga is in a rage. Best you return tomorrow, when the answer is more likely to be the one you desire."

The big Ye-tai officer studied the guard, for a moment. Then, shrugging: "If the answer is the one I desire, then I will have to deal with Rana Sanga for years to come. Do you think this is the last day Rajputana's greatest king will have cause for fury? Best I get the answer in his worst moment. That alone will be a promise greater than any words."

The guards returned his calm gaze by looking away. The truth of the statement could not, after all, be denied.

"Enter then, General," said one.

"Our wishes go with you," murmured the other.

Toramana nodded. "My thanks. Things will be as they will be." He pushed aside the tent flap and entered.

* * *

Hearing someone come into his pavilion, Sanga ceased his restless pacing and spun around. His hand did not fly to the sword belted at his waist, but his mouth opened, ready to hurl words of angry dismissal. Then, seeing who it was, he froze.

For a moment, the two big men stared at each other. The light shed by the lamps in the tent caused both of their faces to be highlighted, making them seem ever harder than usual. Warrior faces, as if cast in bronze. Sanga was taller than Toramana—the Rajput king was taller than almost anyone—and even broader in the shoulders. But the smaller Ye-tai did not seem in the least intimidated.

Which was one of the things Sanga liked about him, when all was said and done. That . . . and much else. It was odd, really. Sanga had never been fond of Ye-tai, as a rule. Rather the contrary.

"I forgot," he said quietly, his rage beginning to ebb. Sanga gestured at a nearby table. The simple piece of furniture was set very low, with cushions on either side resting on the carpets. "Please sit."

When they were seated, Sanga did not pause for more than a moment before speaking.

"First, a question of my own. Why did you protect Holkar's woman and child?" Before Toramana could answer, Sanga added: "And do not tell me it was because of any strategic acumen. You had no way of knowing, in the chaos of the final assault, that the man you had cut down was the son of Dadaji Holkar. We did not discover that until the following day."

Toramana began to speak, but Sanga pressed on over the words.

"Nor do I wish to hear that you intended to keep the woman for your own concubine. You have two already, both of them more attractive than that woman. And neither one of them came with child, though the Bengali has now borne one of your own. So—why? According to reports, you even had to threaten several of your own soldiers who sought to use the woman."

"It did not take much of a threat," said Toramana. He chuckled softly. "They were subdued with a scowl and a few words. It was more in the way of old habit on their part, than any real urgency. The army, after all, has plenty of camp followers. I think they were simply feeling an urge to break free of Rajput discipline. The men who overran the rebel camp were all Ye-tai, after all."

He shrugged. "The woman was wailing, clutching her man's dead body. The baby, cast aside, was wailing louder still. What man not ridden by a demon can feel lust in such circumstances? There were only two courses of action. Kill them both, or keep them safe from harm."

Silence. The two men matched gazes. The younger Ye-tai was the first to look away. "We do what we must, Rana Sanga. Such is the nature of the world. But there is no reason to do more. A man ends at the limit of his duty. The beast continues beyond. I am a man, not a beast."

The answer seemed to satisfy the Rajput. He planted his large hands on the table and rose to his feet in a single easy movement. Then, began pacing again. This time, however, the pacing was that of a man engrossed in thoughtful consideration, not one working off a rage.

"I have a half-sister named Indira," he said quietly. "You suggested a cousin, but if we are to do this it would be best to do it properly." Teeth flashed in his beard, as much of a snarl as a smile. "If nothing else, it will bring the full weight of Malwa down upon us—you more than me—and if a man is to take on a challenge he may as well do it in the spirit of legend. I find the thought of Malwa's outrage soothing, at the moment."

Toramana's eyes were wide open, now. His body was no longer relaxed in the least. Very stiff, he was. Clearly, he had not been expecting to hear this—not from Rana Sanga!

The Rajput's teeth flashed again, but there was more of real humor in the expression now. "Did you really believe all the tales? The ultimate Rajput?" Sanga snorted. "I have given much thought, over the years, to the relation of truth to illusion. It is a simple fact—deny it who will—that the Rajputs themselves are not so many generations removed from barbarism. And came, I am quite certain, from the same mountains that produced you."

He resumed his pacing, very slowly now. "Besides, Indira is a vigorous girl. Very prone to bending custom and tradition in her own right, much to the displeasure of my family. But I am fond of her, despite the difference in our ages. I was more of an uncle to her than a brother, in years past. I can think of no cousin who would be as suitable. Most of them would wail in horror at the very thought. Indira, on the other hand—"

He paused, then chuckled. "Knowing her, she is likely to find the thing a challenge and an adventure."

The pausing stopped abruptly. All traces of humor vanished. The Rajput king stood straight and tall. Without looking at Toramana, he murmured: "Very fond of her, I say. If I discovered she has been abused, I will challenge you and kill you. Do not doubt it for a moment. Neither the challenge nor the killing."

He swiveled his head and brought the Ye-tai under his stony gaze. Then, to his satisfaction, discovered that the young warrior was not bridling at the threat. For all Toramana's own great skill at war, he was more than intelligent enough, despite his relative youth, to understand that he was no match for Sanga.

"I am not abusive to women," said Toramana. Quietly, but perhaps a bit . . . not angrily, no, but sternly for all that.

"Yes, I know." Sanga's lips tightened, as if he were tasting something a bit sour. "I asked Lord Damodara to have Narses spy upon you." His eyes moved away. "My apologies. But I needed to know. Narses says that both your concubines seem in good health, and satisfied with their position. The Bengali even dotes on you, he says, now that you have produced a child."

"I will not disown the boy," said Toramana, the words coming curt and abrupt.

Sanga made a small, dismissive gesture with his hand. "That will not be required. Nor, for that matter, that you put aside the concubines. You are a warrior, after all, bringing your blood to that of a warrior race. Let the old women chatter as they will."

Suddenly, a grin appeared on Sanga's face. His earlier rage seemed to have vanished completely.

"Ha! Let the Malwa priests and spies scurry like insects. Let Nanda Lal squirm in his soul, for a change."

Moving with the speed and grace which was his trademark, Sanga resumed his seat at the table. Then, leaning over, he bestowed his grin on Toramana.

"Besides, Indira is very comely. And, as I said, a spirited girl. I do not think there is much danger that you will be overly distracted by concubines."

He gestured to a bowl containing fruit and pastries. "Let us eat, Toramana. I will have my servants bring tea, as well. After the campaign in the Deccan—or as soon as there seems to be an opportunity—it will be done. Perhaps in Rajputana, which would be my preference so long as I can attend. If not, I will send for Indira and you will be wed within the bosom of the army.

"Which," he continued, reaching for an apricot, "would perhaps be best in any event. The marriage, after all, was created in the army. Only that forge was hot enough to do such difficult work."

* * *

That night, long after Sanga had departed, Lord Damodara's spymaster entered the command tent. The Malwa commander, engrossed in his study of the maps, gave the old Roman eunuch no more than a glance. Then, using his head as a pointer, he nodded toward a small package resting on his nearby field cot.

"There," he said. "Make sure my wife receives it. Send it off tonight, if possible."

"You are not planning to visit her yourself?" asked Narses. "The army will be passing Kausambi on our way to the Deccan."

Damodara's headshake was curt and abrupt. "I cannot. Nanda Lal's instructions on that matter were as clear and precise as all the rest. I am not to leave the army under any circumstances."

"Ah." Narses nodded. "I understand."

The eunuch moved over to the cot and picked up the package. By the weight and feel of it, there was nothing inside the silk wrapping beyond a few message scrolls and some trinkets for Damodara's three children. Narses began to leave the tent. Then, at the flap, he paused as if an idle thought had come to him.

"I've obtained some more slaves for your wife's household," he said. "They came cheaply. Two whores a bit too well-used to turn a profit any longer. But the brothel-keeper said they were obedient creatures, and capable enough in the kitchen."

Damodara shrugged, as a bull might twitch off annoying and meaningless insects. His finger was busy tracing a route for his Pathan trackers through the Vindhyas, where they might serve to give advance warning of any Maratha ambush.

"As you command, my lord." A moment later the eunuch was gone. Damodara was only vaguely aware of his departure.

* * *

As soon as he entered his own tent, Narses gave Ajatasutra the "thumbs up" and extended the package. The assassin rose with his usual lazy grace and took it in hand.

"I still say that's an obscene gesture," he murmured. But he was through the tent flap before Narses could do more than begin his baleful glare.

Outside, Ajatasutra paced through the darkness enshrouding the army's camp with quick and sure feet. The flames of the various campfires provided little in the way of illumination, but that bothered him not in the least. Ajatasutra was quite fond of darkness, the truth be told.

The soldiers clustered about the campfire in one of the more distant groves never saw him coming until he was standing in their midst. Startled, the six men rose to their feet. All of them were experienced mercenaries. Two of them were Biharis, but the others were Ye-tai. In their cups, those four would have boasted that no man could catch them unawares.

They were not in their cups now, however. Ajatasutra had left clear instructions on that matter also. They stood still, awaiting their orders.

"Tonight," said Ajatasutra. "Immediately." He handed the package to one of the Bihari soldiers. "See to it—personally—that Lady Damodara receives this."

As the mercenaries hurriedly began making ready for departure, Ajatasutra stepped over to the small tent pitched nearby. He swept back the flap and peered inside.

The two sisters were wide awake, staring at him with apprehension. The light shed by a small oil lamp made their faces seem especially taut and hollow. The older sister was clutching the baby to her chest.

"No trouble?" he asked. The two girls shook their heads.

"Get ready," he said softly. "You're leaving tonight. For your new owner. The journey will be long, I'm afraid."

"Are you coming?" asked the younger.

Ajatasutra shook his head. "Can't. I have duties elsewhere." Then, seeing the sisters' apprehension turn to outright fear, Ajatasutra chuckled dryly. "Your new owner is reputed to be quite a nice lady."

His slight emphasis on the last word seemed to relieve their tension a bit. But only for a moment. Now, the sisters were staring past his figure, at the dimly seen shapes of the soldiers gearing up for travel.

Ajatasutra chuckled again. "There'll be no problem on the trip, other than days of heat and dust. I will leave clear instructions."

The stiffness in the sisters' posture eased. The older cleared her throat. "Will we see you again?"

Ajatasutra tossed his head in an abrupt, almost minute gesture. "Who knows? The world's a fickle place, and God is prone to whimsy."

He dropped the tent flap and turned away. In the minutes which followed, he simply stood in place at the center of the grove, watching the soldiers make their preparations. The Ye-tai were ready within minutes, their horses soon thereafter. What little delay occurred came from the two Bihari mercenaries and the small elephant in their care. Both men were experienced in the work. They would alternate as mahout and guard riding in the howdah.

But Ajatasutra's attention was not on the Biharis. He was not concerned about them. His careful study was given, first, to the howdah itself. Then, when he was satisfied that his instructions had been followed—the cloths serving as the howdah's curtains were cheap and utilitarian, but did an adequate job of shielding the occupants from external view—he turned his scrutiny upon the Ye-tai who would serve as the howdah's escort.

As was usually the case with Ye-tai, the semi-barbarians were big men. Big, and obviously fit. They were standing just a few feet away, their mounts not far behind them. If the heavy armor and weapons draped upon their muscular bodies caused them any discomfort, there was no sign of it.

Ajatasutra drifted toward them. At that moment, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the tent flap move aside. The sisters emerged and began walking slowly and timidly toward the elephant, the older one still clutching her infant. Ajatasutra had long since provided the sisters with more modest saris than the costumes they had worn as prostitutes. But, even in the poor lighting provided by the dying campfires, their young and lithesome figures were quite evident.

The eyes of the Ye-tai followed their progress, as did Ajatasutra's.

"Pretty little bitches, aren't they?" he mused. His voice, as usual, carried an undertone of whimsy and humor.

The Ye-tai in the center, the leader of the little group, grunted. "That they are. The older one's a bit off-putting, what with that scar on her face, but the young—"

His next grunt was not soft at all. More like an explosive breath—a man kicked by a mule. But the eruption ended almost as soon as it began. As the Ye-tai's head came down, Ajatasutra's dagger plunged into his eye. Halfway to the hilt, before a quick and practiced twist removed the blade before it could become jammed in the skull.

As the Ye-tai slumped to the ground, Ajatasutra stepped aside.

"Wrong answer," he said mildly. His eyes were on the three survivors.

For perhaps two seconds, the Ye-tai seemed frozen in place. The youngest and least experienced of them began moving his hand toward his sword, but one of his companions slapped the hand away.

"Uglier than sin, the both of them," the man rasped. "Rather fuck a crocodile, myself."

Ajatasutra's lips might have quirked a bit. It was difficult to tell, in the darkness. The same darkness, perhaps, explained the ghostly ease with which he now crowded the three mercenaries.

"I can find you anywhere in India," he murmured. "Anywhere in the world. Don't doubt it for a moment."

"A crocodile," husked the young Ye-tai.

Now, even in the darkness, Ajatasutra's smile was plain to see. "Splendid," he said agreeably. His hand—his left hand—dipped into his cloak and emerged holding a small pouch.

"A bonus," he explained. Then, nodding to the corpse: "For seeing to the quiet disposal of the body."

Feeling the weight of the pouch, the newly-promoted mercenary leader grinned. "Crocodile food. River's full of them."

"See to it." Ajatasutra gave a last glance at the elephant. The younger sister was already in the howdah and the older was handing up the baby. A moment later, the two mahouts were assisting her aboard the great creature.

The Ye-tai began to watch the procedure. Then, struck by a very recent memory, tore their eyes away and moved them back to their master.

But he was gone. Vanished into the night, like a demon from the ancient fables.

* * *

That very moment, in the far-distant Malwa capital of Kausambi, a demon from the fabled future came to its decision.

"NO CHOICE," it pronounced. "THE KUSHANS GROW MORE UNRELIABLE BY THE DAY. AND THE YE-TAI ARE NOT ENOUGH TO BOLSTER THE REGIME. WE MUST WELD THE RAJPUTS TO OUR SIDE."

The Emperor of Malwa made a last, feeble attempt to safeguard the exclusivity of his dynasty. "They are bound to us by solemn oaths as it is. You know how maniacally the Rajputs hold their honor. Surely—"

"THAT IS NOT ENOUGH. NOT WITH BELISARIUS COMING. THE PRESSURE WILL BECOME INTENSE. NOT EVEN RAJPUT HONOR CAN BE RELIED UPON TO WITHSTAND THOSE HAMMER BLOWS. THEY MUST ALSO BE WELDED BY TIES OF BLOOD. DYNASTIC TIES."

Skandagupta's corpulent little body began to swell like a toad. His mouth opened, ready to utter a final protest. But the sharp glance of Nanda Lal held him silent. That, and the frozen immobility of the four Khmer assassins standing against the nearby wall of the royal chamber. The assassins were all members of Link's special cult, as were the six enormous tulwar-bearing slaves kneeling against the opposite wall. The emperor had seen those knives and tulwars flash before, more than once. They would not hesitate for an instant to spill the life of Malwa's own ruler.

Ruler, in name only. The true power behind Malwa's throne resided in the body of the young woman who sat in the chair next to him. Lady Sati, she was called, one of Skandagupta's first cousins. But the name was as much of a shell as the body itself. Within that comely female form lurked the being called Link, the emissary and satrap of the new gods who were reshaping humanity into their own mold.

"IT WILL BE DONE," decreed the thing from the future. The slender hands draped loosely over the carved armrests made a slight gesture, as if to indicate the body within which Link dwelled. "THIS SHEATH IS PERFECTLY FUNCTIONAL. MUCH HEALTHIER THAN AVERAGE. IT WILL SERVE RANA SANGA AS WIFE AND MOTHER OF HIS CHILDREN. THE DYNASTY WILL THEN BE RAJPUT AS WELL AS MALWA. THE SWORDS AND LANCES OF RAJPUTANA WILL BE WELDED TO US WITH IRON BARS. TIES OF BLOOD."

Nanda Lal cleared his throat. "There is the matter of Sanga's existing wife. And his three existing children."

The thing inside Lady Sati swiveled her head. "A DETAIL. BY ALL ACCOUNTS, HIS WIFE IS PLAIN AND PLUMP." Again, the shapely hands made that little gesture. "THIS FORM IS BEAUTIFUL, AS MEN COUNT SUCH THINGS. AND, AS I SAID, PERFECTLY FUNCTIONAL. RAJPUTANA'S KING WILL HAVE NEW CHILDREN SOON ENOUGH. HE WILL BE RECONCILED TO THE LOSS."

The Malwa spymaster hesitated. This was dangerous ground. "Yes, of course. But my spies report that Sanga dotes on his family. He will still be upset—suspicious, even—if—"

"BY ROMAN HANDS. SEE TO IT, SPYMASTER. USE NARSES. HE WILL KNOW HOW TO MANAGE THE THING IN SUCH A WAY AS TO DIVERT SUSPICION ONTO THE ENEMY. SANGA WILL BLAME BELISARIUS FOR THE MURDER OF HIS FAMILY."

Very dangerous ground. But, whatever else he was, Nanda Lal was no coward. And, in his own cold way, as devoted to the Malwa purpose as any man alive.

"Narses cannot possibly be trusted," he growled. "He was a traitor to the Romans. He can betray us as well."

For the first time, the creature from the future seemed to hesitate. Watching, Skandagupta and Nanda Lal could only wonder at the exact thought processes which went on behind that cold, beautiful exterior. Lightning calculation, of course—that much was obvious from the years they had spent in Link's service. But not even the icy spymaster could imagine such an emptiness of all emotion. Try as he might.

"TRUE, NANDA LAL. BUT STILL NOT AN INSUPERABLE PROBLEM. BRING NARSES BEFORE ME. IN PERSON. I WILL DISCOVER THE TRUTH OF HIS LOYALTIES AND INTENTIONS."

"As you will, Lady Sati," stated Nanda Lal. He bowed his head obediently. An instant later, the Emperor of Malwa followed suit. The thing was settled, beyond any further discussion and dispute. And if neither man—especially Skandagupta—faced the prospect of a future half-Rajput dynasty with any pleasure, neither did they concern themselves over the possibility of Narses' treachery. Not with Link itself to ferret out the eunuch's soul. No man alive—no woman or child—could hide its true nature from that scrutiny. Not even their great enemy Belisarius had been able to accomplish that.

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Framed

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Chapter 6

MESOPOTAMIA

Spring, 533 A.D.

"What's the matter, large one? Are you sick?" asked Belisarius. "You haven't complained once since we left Ctesiphon."

Sittas smiled cheerfully. Planting his feet firmly in the stirrups, he raised himself off the saddle and heaved his huge body around to study the army following in their tracks.

"Complain?" he demanded. "Why should I complain? God in Heaven, would you look at the size of that thing!"

Belisarius copied Sittas' maneuver, albeit with considerably more ease and grace. The army following them seemed to cover the entire flood plain. To inexperienced eyes—such as those of the peasants who stared at it from the relative safety of their huts—it would have seemed like a swarm of locusts. And, for the peasants, just about as welcome. True, Emperor Khusrau had promised to pay for any damage done by the army in its passage. Mesopotamian peasants, from the experience of millennia, viewed imperial promises with a skepticism that would have shamed the most rigorous Greek philosopher.

Belisarius had no difficulty finding the underlying order in the seeming chaos.

Kurush's Persian dehgans, fifteen thousand strong, maintained their position on the prestigious left flank. They had done so since the moment the army's core passed through the gates of Ctesiphon and began collecting the units gathered outside the city. The gesture was a bit pointless, since there was no danger of a flank attack here in Mesopotamia. But the Persian aristocracy treasured its little points of honor.

Sittas' own units, the ten thousand heavy cataphracts from Constantinople and Anatolia, were assuming the equivalent position on the army's right wing. Whatever disgruntlement they might still be feeling at the implied slight was being exercised by their vigilance in keeping raiders from the desert at bay. Not that any Arab freebooter in his right mind would attack such an army, even if Belisarius didn't have his own Arab camel contingents riding on the flank of the cataphracts.

Belisarius smiled at the sight, but his study was soon concentrated on the army's center. The cataphracts and dehgans were familiar things. They had dominated warfare in the eastern Mediterranean for centuries. It was the units marching in the army's center which were new. Very new.

Sittas' own scrutiny had also reached the army's center. But, unlike Belisarius, his gaze was not one of pleasure and satisfaction.

"Silliest damned thing I've ever seen," he grumbled.

"Thank God," sighed Belisarius, apparently with great relief. "A complaint! I was beginning to wonder seriously about your health."

Sittas snorted. "I just hope you're right about this—this—what's his name?"

"Gustavus Adolphus." Belisarius turned back around and faced forward. He'd seen enough, and the position was awkward to maintain even with stirrups.

"Gustavus Adolphus," he repeated. "With an army more or less designed like this one, he defeated almost every opponent he ever faced. Most of whom had armies which, more or less, resembled the Malwa forces."

Sittas snorted again. " `More or less, more or less,' " he echoed in a sing-song. "That does not precisely fill me with confidence. And didn't he get himself killed in the end?"

Belisarius shrugged. "Leading one of his insanely reckless cavalry charges in his last battle—which his army won, by the way, even with their king dead on the field."

Belisarius smiled crookedly. For a moment, he was tempted to turn around in the saddle and look at his bodyguards. He was quite certain that the faces of Isaac and Priscus, that very moment, were filled with solemn satisfaction at hearing such antics on the part of commanding generals described as "insane."

But he resisted the impulse. For all that he enjoyed teasing Sittas for his inveterate conservatism—

Damned dinosaur, came Aide's sarcastic thought.

—Belisarius also needed to have Sittas' confidence. So:

"You've already agreed, Sittas—or do we have to go through this argument again—that armored cavalry can't face unbroken gun-wielding infantry in the field."

"I know I did. Doesn't mean I have to like it." He raised a thick hand, as a man forestalls an unwanted lecture. "And please don't jabber at me again about Morgarten and Laupen and Morat and all those other heathen-sounding places where your precious Swiss pikemen of the future stood their ground against cavalry. I'm sick of hearing about it."

Sittas' voice slipped into an imitation of Belisarius' baritone. " `As long as the gunmen are braced with solid infantry to protect them while they reload, they'll butcher any cavalry that comes against them.' Fine, fine, fine. I won't argue the point. Although I will point out"—here Sittas' tone grew considerably more enthusiastic—"that's only true as long as the infantry doesn't break and run. Which damn few infantry don't, when they see cataphracts thundering down on them."

Aide's voice came again. Stubborn as a mule. Best give him a stroke or two. Or he'll sulk for the rest of the day.

Belisarius had reached the same conclusion. His next words were spoken perhaps a bit hastily. "I'm certainly not arguing that cavalry isn't irreplaceable. Nothing like it for routing the enemy and completing their destruction—after their formations have been broken."

So did Belisarius pass the next hour or so, with Aide grousing in his mind and Sittas grumbling in his ear, extolling the virtues of cavalry under the right circumstances. By the time Maurice and Agathius arrived with a supply problem which needed Belisarius' immediate attention, Sittas seemed to be reasonably content.

Have to do it all over again tomorrow, concluded Aide sourly.

* * *

Sittas rode off less than a minute after Agathius began explaining the problem. The big Greek nobleman's enthusiasm for logistics paralleled his enthusiasm for infantry tactics.

How did he ever win any campaigns, anyway? demanded Aide.

Belisarius was about to reply. But Maurice, as if he'd somehow been privy to the private mental exchange, did it for him.

The Thracian cataphract, born a peasant, gazed after the departing aristocratic general. Perhaps oddly, his face was filled with nothing more than approval. "Still trying to make him happy? Waste of time, lad, until Sittas has had a battle or two under his belt. But at least we won't have to worry about him breaking under the lesson. Not Sittas. If there's a more belligerent and ferocious general in the world, I don't know who it is. Besides, who really knows the future anyway? Maybe Sittas will lead one of his beloved cavalry charges yet."

* * *

By midafternoon, Agathius' problem was well on the way to solution. Agathius had only brought the problem to Belisarius because the difficulty was purely social, rather than technical, and he felt the commanding general needed to take charge. Some of the Persian dehgans were becoming vociferously indignant. Their mules, laden with burdens which were far too heavy for them, were becoming indignant themselves. Mules, unlike horses, cannot be driven beyond a certain point. The Persian mules reached that point as soon as the sun reached the zenith, and had promptly gone on what a future world would have called a general strike. And done so, moreover, with a solidarity which would have won the unadulterated approval of the most doctrinaire anarcho-syndicalist.

Even Persian dehgans knew that beating mules was pointless. So, turning upon less redoubtable opponents, they were demanding that room be made for their necessities in the supply barges which were streaming down the Tigris. The Mesopotamian and Greek sailors who manned those craft—no fools, they—steadfastly ignored the shouted demands of the dehgans on the banks and kept their barges a safe distance from the shore. So—

"They've been hollering at me for two hours, now," grumbled Agathius. "I'm getting tired of it."

Dehgans! grumbled Aide. Only thing in the world that can make Greek noble cataphracts seem like sentient creatures.

Belisarius turned to one of his couriers. For a moment, he hesitated. In campaigns past, Belisarius had always used veteran professionals for his dispatch riders. But on this campaign, he had felt it necessary to use young Greek nobles. Partly, to mollify the sentiments of the Roman empire's aristocracy, which was slowly becoming reconciled to the Justinian dynasty. But, mostly, to mollify the Persian aristocracy, which would take umbrage at orders transmitted to them by a commoner.

This particular dispatch rider was named Calopodius. He was no older than seventeen, and came from one of the Roman empire's most notable families. Belisarius had, tentatively, formed a good opinion of the boy's wits and tact. Both of which would be needed here.

Calopodius immediately confirmed the assessment. The boy's face showed no expression at all beyond calm alertness. But his words carried a certain dry humor, under the aristocratic drawl.

"I received excellent marks from both my rhetorician and grammarian, sir."

Belisarius grinned. "Splendid! In that case, you should have no difficulty whatsoever telling Kurush to get down to the river immediately and put a stop to this nonsense."

Calopodius nodded solemnly. "I don't see any difficulty, sir. Be much like the time my mother sent me to instruct my father's sister to quit pestering the stable boys." A moment later, he was gone, spurring his horse into a canter.

"I wonder if Alexander the Great had to put up with this kind of crap," mused Maurice.

"Of course not!" derided Belisarius. "The man was Achilles reborn. Who's going to give Achilles an argument?"

But the retort failed of its purpose. Lowborn or not, Maurice and Agathius were every bit as familiar with the Greek epics as any senator.

"Agamemnon," they chorused in unison.

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Framed

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Chapter 7

Antonina viewed the gadget with some disfavor. Ousanas, with considerably more.

"Romans are madmen," he growled. "Lunatics, pure and simple." He swiveled his head, bringing Ezana under his gaze.

"You are the admiral, Ezana. A seaman, where I am a simple hunter. Explain to this supposedly nautical-minded Roman"—here a fierce glare at John of Rhodes—"the simple truths which even a simpleminded hunter can understand." He flipped his hand toward the gadget, peremptorily, the way a man dismisses an annoying servant. "Like trying to use a lioness for a hunting dog. More likely to bite the master than the prey."

Ezana, like Ousanas, was scowling. But the Ethiopian naval commander's scowl was simply one of thoughtfulness.

"Stick to hunting and statesmanship, aqabe tsentsen," he grumbled. "You're supreme at the first and not an outright embarrassment at the second." He studied the gadget for another few seconds. "Hunting lioness . . ." he murmured. "Not a bad comparison, actually."

Ezana's scowl was suddenly replaced by a cheerful grin. "Not bad! But tell me, Ousanas—what if the lioness were genuinely tame? Or, at least, not quite feral?"

Presented with this outrageous possibility—a tame lioness?—Ousanas practically gurgled with outrage. His usual insouciant wit seemed to have completely deserted him.

"Never seen the man in such a state," commented Antonina slyly. She cocked her head at her companion. "You, Menander?"

But Menander was not about to enter this fray. The expression on his face was that of a man invited to enter a den of lions and argue the fine points of dining etiquette with its denizens. Clearly enough, the young Roman naval officer intended to champion the only safe and logical course. Silence.

Antonina smiled. Sweetly, at Menander; jeeringly, at Ousanas.

"Tame lioness! Not bad!" she exclaimed.

John of Rhodes, the designer of the gadget in question, finally entered the fray himself. His preceding silence, while one of his beloved contraptions was subjected to ridicule, was quite unlike the man. John of Rhodes had once been Rome's most acclaimed naval officer. Forced out of the navy because of his inveterate womanizing—which, alas, included seducing wives of several of his superior officers and visiting senatorial delegates—John had been plucked out of premature retirement by Belisarius and Antonina and put to work designing the new weapons which Aide had brought from the future. Then, as he showed as much energy and ability in that work as he had in his former career, John had found himself once again elevated to high naval rank. Higher, in substance if not in form, than any rank he had previously held. Officially, he was still a captain; in reality, he was the admiral of the Roman Empire's new fleet of gunpowder-armed warships. Its smallest fleet, true, but the only one which was growing by leaps and bounds.

Throughout the course of his checkered career, however, two things about John of Rhodes had remained constant. He was still a womanizer, although—under Antonina's blood-curdling threats—he had managed to keep his attentions away from the wives of Roman officers and Persian notables. And he was perhaps the most dyspeptic man Antonina had ever encountered. His preceding silence, while Ousanas scowled and sneered, was the surest indication that even John of Rhodes was a bit leery of his new invention.

Finally, however, he rallied. "The thing is perfectly safe!" he bellowed. John began stumping about the deck of the warship, gesticulating madly. "I got the idea from Belisarius himself! And none other than Aide gave him the design!" Stump; stump. "For your information, O great hunter from Africa"—here, he and Ousanas matched magnificent sneers—"this device insured the supremacy of Rome at sea for centuries in—in—"

His right hand groped, trying to point to that unknown and unseen future which would have been, if the "new gods" of the future had not intervened in human history. The gesture was vague and uncertain. John had tried to seduce Irene Macrembolitissa on several occasions. The attempts had been quite futile, of course. Irene was not in the least susceptible to the charms of seducers. But, in her own lioness way, she had enjoyed toying with a would-be predator. So, on one occasion, she had fended off John's advances by a learned explanation of the logical complexities involved in changing the past by intervening from the future. Notions like the "river of time" had mingled freely with "paradox" and "conundrum." By the time she was done, John was exhausted, utterly confused, and resigned to a night of celibacy.

"—in that other history," he concluded lamely.

He rallied again, pointing with a stiff finger to the gadget. " `Greek fire' they'll call it! The scourge of Rome's enemies at sea."

Ousanas' thundering rejoinder was cut short by Ezana. "Why don't we try the thing out," he suggested mildly. "After all, what's the harm?"

The Ethiopian admiral's eyes scanned the Roman ship in whose bow the "gadget" was positioned. Christened the Theodora Victrix—whatever else he was, John of Rhodes was no fool—she was the latest warship to join the Roman fleet in the Erythrean Sea. And, though the ship had been built in Adulis by Ethiopian shipwrights, she was not an Axumite vessel. So—

"Worst that happens," Ezana concluded serenely, "is that the ship burns up."

John glared at him, but remained silent.

"That's it, then," decided Antonina. She headed for the gangway connecting the ship to the dock. She fluttered her hand toward Ousanas. "No doubt the aqabe tsentsen will wish to remain on board during the trial, scrutinizing every step of the operation with his keen hunter's eye."

Ousanas refrained from trampling Antonina in his hurry to get off the ship. But he only did so by the simple expedient of picking her up and carrying her off in his arms.

Ezana, oddly enough, decided to remain. Afterward, of course, he would claim he did so to maintain the reputation of Axum's seamen. Bold, valiant—fearless as lions. But, in truth, the Ethiopian naval officer was simply curious. And he was not enough of a hunter himself to understand the absurdity of a tame lioness.

* * *

In the end, the trial was a roaring success. Quite literally. Once the Theodora Victrix and her two accompanying ships were completely out of sight of land, the cargo vessel being towed by the Axumite galley on which Antonina and Ousanas were safely perched was cut loose. Wallowing in the gentle waves of the Persian Gulf, while John made his final approach, the hulk seemed like a witless calf at the mercy of a lioness.

As soon as the Theodora Victrix was within range, John ordered his chief gunner Eusebius to activate the Greek fire cannon. This took a bit of work, since the "cannon" was more in the nature of a primitive pump than anything else. The gadget was temperamental as well as dangerous. But, soon enough, a satisfying gush of roaring flames spouted from the barrel and fell upon the target vessel.

Within seconds, the cargo hulk was a raging inferno. John of Rhodes began capering about on the deck of the Victrix, making gleeful—and, from the distance, suspiciously obscene-looking—gestures at Ousanas on the observer ship. Within minutes, he was helping Eusebius and the other gunners to pour amphorae full of sand on those portions of the warship's bow which had been set aflame by the last dribbles of the Greek fire cannon.

* * *

"We'll call it a roaring success," Antonina pronounced. She pursed her lips, studying the frantic activities of the men on the Victrix's bow. Then, cocking her head at Menander, added: "But make sure that we put in another requisition for amphorae. And you'd better tell John to start experimenting with different kinds of sand."

Menander sighed. "Telling John" anything was akin to giving orders to a temperamental predator. Best done from a distance—best of all, by somebody else.

Ousanas snorted. "Tame lioness!"

* * *

But Menander's qualms proved unfounded. By the time the two ships arrived back at the docks in Charax, John of Rhodes was in splendid spirits. The minor mishap at the end, clearly enough, was beneath contempt. Indeed, he even pranced off the ship proclaiming himself the need to find slightly more suitable chemicals for extinguishing fires at sea than simple desert sand.

"Chalk, maybe," he opined cheerfully. Standing on the docks, arms akimbo, John surveyed the landscape surrounding Charax with great serenity. "Got to be some, out there. For that matter, sea salt might do the trick. Plenty of that. And who knows? Maybe dried camel dung. Plenty of that stuff!"

Antonina left the matter to him. She was already surrounded by a small horde of Roman officers and Persian officials, each of whom was clamoring for her attention on some other matter of pressing concern. Throughout, Antonina maintained her composure, and issued the necessary orders. By now, she was an accomplished general in her own right, and had long since learned one of the basic axioms of war. Amateurs study tactics; professionals study logistics.

* * *

By sundown, she was able to relax in the comfort of the small villa she had obtained in Charax's best quarter. More or less.

"Do we have to settle the question of the camel provender?" she demanded crossly, pausing in the act of pouring herself a goblet of wine. "Tonight?"

A sheepish expression came upon Menander's face. "Well . . . No, actually. It can wait. Not as if there's any shortage of Arabs eager and willing to provide it for us." Perched on a chair across from the divan where Antonina lounged, Menander scowled. "It's just— Damned hagglers! Always got to allow extra time dickering with Arabs."

The Thracian villager surfaced: "Bad as Greeks!"

Antonina smiled. Then, after savoring the first sip of wine and cocking an eye at Ezana and Ousanas—also lounging on nearby divans; no alert chair-perching for them—she murmured: "Don't you have another pressing engagement yourself tonight, Menander?"

The Roman officer flushed. His eyes were riveted on Antonina, as if by sheer force of will he would keep them from flitting to the fearsome figure of his paramour's half-brother.

Thankfully, Ezana was in a good mood. So he eased Menander over the hurdle.

"Best run, boy. Keep my eager sister waiting and she'll likely take up with some passing stray Arab." Smugly: "Who will not—given the way Deborah looks—waste any time at all in haggling."

Seeing the look of sudden alarm which now flitted across Menander's face, Antonina could not stop herself from giggling. "Go!" she choked, waving her hand. A moment later, Menander did as he was commanded.

When he was gone, Antonina looked at Ezana. "She wouldn't really, would she?"

Ezana shrugged. "Probably not. The silly girl's quite infatuated with the lad."

Antonina's head now swiveled to bring Ousanas under her gaze. The humor left her eyes entirely.

"Speaking of infatuation."

Glaring at Ousanas, in the scale of "waste of effort," ranked somewhere in the vicinity of the labors of Sisyphus. Ethiopia's aqabe tsentsen responded with the same grin with which the former slave dawazz had greeted similar scowls from Axumite royalty.

"I fail to see the problem," he said. "True, the girl was a virgin. But—"

He waved his own hand. Ousanas, like Belisarius' cataphract Anastasius, was a devotee of Greek philosophy. The gesture carried all the certainty of Plato pronouncing on a small problem of ontology. "That is by the nature of things a temporary state of affairs. Certainly with a girl as lively and pretty as Koutina. Who better than me to have assisted her through that necessary passage?"

Antonina maintained the glare, even in the face of that peerless grin.

"Besides, Antonina, you know perfectly well that having the secure loyalty of your personal maid is essential to the success of our enterprise. Koutina will be at the top of the list for every enterprising Malwa spy here in Charax. Of which there are probably several hundred by now, at least half of which are superb seducers—and just as good once they get the girl in bed as they were getting her there in the first place."

Again, Ousanas made that philosophical gesture. "So I view my activities as a necessary concomitant of my diplomatic duties. So to speak. Foiling the machinations of the wicked enemy with my own incomparable stroke of statecraft. So to speak."

Antonina hissed: "If she gets pregnant—"

Finally, the grin faded. For once, there was nothing of the brazen jester in Ousanas' expression. "I have already asked her to become my concubine, Antonina," he said softly. "Once the war is over. And she has agreed."

He did not add any further promise. There was no need. Of many things, people might wonder about the strange man named Ousanas. Of his honesty, no one had any doubt at all.

Certainly not Antonina. Indeed, she was quite taken aback by the aqabe tsentsen's statement. She had simply intended to obtain a promise from Ousanas to see to it that her maid was taken care of properly, once the dalliance was over. She had never expected—

"Concubine," in Axum's elite, was a prestigious position. The position of wife, of course, was reserved for diplomatic and political necessities. But an officially recognized concubine was assured a life of security and comfort—even wealth and power, in the case of the aqabe tsentsen's concubine.

Koutina was a peasant girl from the Fayum, born into the great mass of Egypt's poor. Her own children would now enter directly into the world of status, with not even the slight blemish which Roman society attached to such offspring.

Ousanas' grin made its triumphant reentry. "So? Are there any other concerns you wish to raise?"

Antonina cleared her throat. From long experience, she knew it was essential to rally in the face of Ousanas' grin.

"Yes!" she piped. Sternly: "We must see to the final preparations for the landing at Barbaricum. Belisarius, you know, insists on accompanying Valentinian and the others up to the very moment when they are set ashore in India. Even—so he told me in his last message—if he has to leave his army before they finish the march to Charax."

Ezana groaned. "Antonina, that's already the best-planned and best-prepared military expedition in the history of the world." Scowling: "The only uncertainty—you said so yourself, just this morning!—was the reliability of the Greek fire weapon. Which we just tested this very day!"

Rally. "There are still some minor logistical matters to be settled!" Antonina insisted.

Ezana groaned again. Ousanas clapped his hands.

"Ridiculous!" he stated. "Petty stuff which can be well enough handled by your host of underlings." The aqabe tsentsen drained his goblet and placed it on the small side table nearby.

"We have much more important matters to discuss. I got into an argument with Irene, just the day before she and Kungas set off on that harebrained expedition of theirs. Can you believe that the crazed woman has been studying these idiot Buddhist philosophers lately? Mark my words! Give it a year and she'll be babbling the same nonsense as that Raghunath Rao fellow. Maya, the so-called `veil of illusion.' All that rot!"

Ousanas leaned forward on his divan, hands planted firmly on knees. "Our duty is clear. We must arm ourselves in advance—re-arm ourselves, I should say—with the principles of Greek philosophy. I propose to begin with a survey of the dialectic, beginning with Socrates."

Antonina and Ezana stared at each other. Even the black Ethiopian's face seemed pale.

"Logistics," choked Ezana. "Critical to any successful military enterprise." Hastily he rose and began pacing about. "Can't afford to overlook even the slightest detail. The matter of the brass fittings for the stays is particularly critical. Can't ever have enough! And the metalsmiths here in Charax are already overworked."

He slammed hard fist into firm palm. "So! I propose the following—"

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Chapter 8

BARBARICUM

Spring, 533 A.D.

The first rocket was a flare, one of the newly designed ones with a small parachute. After it burst over the ramparts at Barbaricum, it drifted down slowly, lighting the area with an eerie glow. Within seconds, several other flares came to add their own demonic illumination.

"Open fire!" roared John of Rhodes.

Immediately, the small fleet of Roman warships under John's command began firing their cannons into the shipping anchored in the harbor. Under cover of night, John had sailed his flotilla into gunnery range without being spotted by the sentries on the walls of the city. The larger fleet of Ethiopian warships following in his wake began adding their own gunfire to the brew.

John's ships, pure sailing craft, would be limited to one pass at the Malwa shipping. The Axumite vessels, with their oared capability, would wind up doing most of the damage even though none of those galleys carried the same weight of cannon. Without the necessity of tacking back upwind in order to escape—not something John wanted to do once the huge siege cannons on Barbaricum's walls began firing—the Ethiopians would be able to take the time to launch the fireships.

For that reason, John was all the more determined to wreak as much havoc as he could in the short time available. In particular, he was determined to strike at the Malwa warships—which, unfortunately, were moored behind a screening row of merchant vessels. Now that the flares were burning brightly, he could see those war galleys moored against the piers.

"Closer!" he bellowed, leaving it to his sailing master to translate the command into nautical terms.

Standing on the deck at John's side, Eusebius winced. Through his thick spectacles—another of the many new inventions which Aide's counsel had brought into the Roman world—the gunnery officer could see the mouths of the siege cannons overlooking the harbor, illuminated by the cannon fire and the flares. Once they came into action, those guns would be firing stone balls weighing more than two hundred pounds. True, the siege cannons were as awkward to load and fire as they were gigantic, and the weapons were wildly inaccurate. Unlike smaller cannons, whose bores could be hand-worked into relative uniformity and for which marble or iron cannon balls could be polished to a close fit, the giant siege guns and their stone missiles were the essence of crudity. But if one of those balls did hit a ship . . .

Eusebius winced again.

"Closer, damn you!" bellowed John.

* * *

A few miles further south along the Indus delta, Belisarius had a dazzling view of the battle which was taking shape in Barbaricum's harbor. At the distance, of course, he couldn't see any of the details. Not even with his telescope. But the visual and auditory display was truly magnificent. Which, when all was said and done, was the whole point of the exercise. Whatever damage John and the Ethiopians succeeded in inflicting on the Malwa at Barbaricum, the true purpose of that bombardment was to divert attention from Belisarius' doings.

"All right, General," growled Valentinian. "You can stop smiling so damned crookedly. I admit that you were right and I was wrong." Sourly: "Again."

In the darkness, there was no way Valentinian could have spotted that smile on Belisarius' face, not even standing next to him. Still, the general removed the smile. He reflected, a bit ruefully, that Valentinian knew him more than well enough to know Belisarius' characteristics.

So did Aide, for that matter. Damned stupid crooked smile, came his own surly thought.

There was no moon that night. There was not even a starblaze. India's monsoon season had begun, and the sky was heavily overcast. Except for the distant glare of the flares and cannon fire, the nearby coast was shrouded in darkness.

In that same darkness, Valentinian and Anastasius and Kujulo began lowering themselves into the river barge which had pulled alongside their vessel. The barge had been towed all the way from Charax. It was one of the Indian vessels which had been captured after the Malwa invasion of Persia was defeated the year before. Belisarius had chosen it because it would be indistinguishable from the other barges plying their trade along the Indus river.

Lowering themselves slowly and carefully—falling into the sea laden with armor and weapons was the fastest way to drown that the human race had ever discovered—the three leaders of the expedition eventually found the security of the barge's deck. As their accompanying party of Kushan soldiers followed, Anastasius' voice came up out of the darkness.

"Any last instructions?" the giant Thracian cataphract asked.

"No. Just be careful."

That statement was met by the sound of muttering. Valentinian's last words, Belisarius was quite certain, consisted of pure profanity.

Don't blame him, said Aide. The thought was almost a mutter itself. Aide had reconciled himself to Belisarius losing his best bodyguards, but he was still not happy with the situation.

Belisarius made no reply to either voice. In truth, he was not feeling any of the usual surety which accompanied his decisions. This expedition—everything about it—was dictated by the logic of spycraft, not warcraft. That was not a realm of human endeavor in which the Roman general felt completely at ease. He was relying heavily on Irene's advice, coupled with his own estimate of an old eunuch. A traitor, to boot.

The lines holding the barge to the warship were cast off. Belisarius could hear the barge's oars begin to dip into the water, moving the craft toward the unseen mouth of one of the delta's outlets.

"I hope you know what you're doing, Narses," he whispered.

The uneasy thought of Narses' former treason brought a sudden whimsy to his mind. For a moment, he hesitated, gauging the noise. Then, satisfied that the roar of the distant battle would disguise any sound, he shouted a few words toward the receding barge.

"Anastasius! You're a philosopher! What do you think of the veil of illusion?"

Anastasius' rumbling voice came back out of the darkness. "You mean that Hindu business about `Maya'? Bunch of silly heathen rot. No, General—things are what they are. Sure, Plato says they're only a shadow of their own reality, but that's not the same—"

The rest was lost in gunroar and distance. But Belisarius' crooked smile was back.

"This'll work," he said confidently.

Mutter mutter mutter, was Aide's only comment.

* * *

"I think maybe we should—"

Eusebius fell silent. Even after his years of close association with John, Eusebius knew better than to prod the Rhodian. Right at the top of John's multitude of character traits, admirable or otherwise, stubbornness took pride of place.

But even John, it seemed, was satisfied at the destruction which his flotilla had inflicted on the Malwa vessels anchored in the harbor. His cannonade, combined with the guns of the Ethiopians, had pounded much of the shipping into mastless and unmaneuverable wrecks. True, he hadn't been able to strike very hard at the war galleys moored to the piers. The merchant vessels—just as the Malwa no doubt intended—had served as a protective screen.

The issue was moot. John had no doubt at all that every seaman on those merchant ships had long since abandoned their vessels and fled to the safety of the shore on whatever lifeboats had been available. There would be no one left to prevent—

"That's the first one," said Eusebius with satisfaction.

John looked to the north. The Axumites had lit the first of the fireships and were pushing it off. Within seconds, John could see the other three fireships burst into sudden flames.

He moved his cold eyes back to the harbor. "That's so much kindling, now," he grunted with satisfaction. With the prevailing winds as they were, the fireships would inexorably drift into the tangled mass of battered merchant shipping. Given the speed with which fire spread across wooden ships, all of the vessels in Barbaricum's harbor would be destroyed soon enough.

"Time to go," he stated. He turned and issued the orders to the sailing master.

No sooner was he done than a huge roar filled the harbor. The ramparts of the city were suddenly illuminated by their own cannon fire. The huge siege guns had finally gone into action.

Eusebius flinched, a little, under the sound. John grinned like a wolf.

"Relax, boy. A first salvo—fired in the darkness? They'll be lucky if they even manage to hit the ocean."

Realizing the truth of the Rhodian's words, Eusebius relaxed. His shoulders, tense from the past minutes of action, began to slump.

A moment later, not knowing how he got there, Eusebius was lying on the deck of the ship. The entire vessel was rolling, as if it had collided with something.

There are no reefs in this harbor, he thought dazedly. Every shipmaster we talked to swore as much.

The area of the ship where he had been standing was half-illuminated by the flames of the fireships drifting into Barbaricum's harbor. Eusebius could see that a section of the rail had vanished, along with a piece of the deck itself. In front of him, lying on the shattered wooden planks, was an object which Eusebius thought he recognized. By the time he crawled over and picked it up, the helmsman was shouting at him.

Still half-dazed, Eusebius realized the man was demanding instructions. The sailing master had apparently also vanished.

There was no need, really, for the steersman to be given orders. Their course was obvious enough, after all. Get the hell out of here. The steersman was simply seeking reassurance that leadership still existed.

Shakily, Eusebius rose to his feet and shouted something back at the steersman. Anything. He didn't even think of the words themselves. He simply imitated, as best he could, the assured authority with which John of Rhodes issued all his commands.

Apparently the tone was enough. Broken planks falling into the sea from the splintered deck and rail, the ship sailed out of Barbaricum's harbor. On what remained of that portion of the deck, Eusebius studied the object in his hands, as if it were a talisman.

* * *

An hour later, the barge on which Valentinian and his expedition was making its way up the Indus was part of a small fleet of river craft, all of them fleeing from the battle at Barbaricum.

"Worked like a charm," grunted Kujulo. The Kushan gazed at the small horde of vessels with satisfaction. The vessels were easy to spot, fortunately. All of them—just as was true of their own barge—had a lookout in the bow holding a lamp aloft. For all the urgency with which the river craft were making their escape from the holocaust in Barbaricum, the oarsmen were maintaining a slow and steady stroke. Except for the meager illumination thrown out by the lamps, the night was pitch dark. No merchant—and these were all merchant vessels—wanted to escape ruin in a besieged harbor only to find it by running his ship aground.

"Worked like a charm," Kujulo repeated. "Nobody will ever notice us in this mob. Just another batch of worthless traders scurrying for cover."

As usual, Valentinian looked on the dark side of things. "They'll turn into so many pirates in a heartbeat, they learn what cargo we're carrying."

Kujulo's grin was wolfish. "Two chests full of Red Sea coral? A small fortune, true enough. I tremble to think of our fate, should these brave river men discover the truth."

Anastasius snorted sarcastically. After a moment's glower, Valentinian's own grin appeared. Very weaselish, it was.

"Probably not the worst of our problems, is it?" he mused, fingering the hilt of his sword. But it was only a momentary lightening of his gloom. Soon enough, he was back to muttering.

"Oh, will you stop it?" demanded Anastasius crossly. "Things could be worse, you know."

"Sure they could," hissed Valentinian. "We could be floating down the Nile, bound hand and foot, fighting crocodiles with our teeth. We could be hanging upside down by our heels in the Pit, fending off archdevils with spit. We could—"

Mutter, mutter, mutter.

* * *

By the time Belisarius and his ship made the rendezvous with the Roman/Ethiopian fleet which had savaged Barbaricum, the sun was rising. So, as he climbed the rope ladder onto John of Rhodes' flagship, he got a good view of the damage done to it amidships. One of the huge stone cannon balls, clearly enough, had made a lucky hit in the darkness. Fortunately, the ship was still intact below the water line, and the masts had remained unscathed.

Eusebius met him at the railing.

"Where's John?" demanded Belisarius.

The nearsighted gunnery officer made a face. Silently, he led Belisarius over to a folded, blood-stained piece of canvas lying on the center of the deck. Then, squatting, he flipped back the canvas covering and exposed the object contained within.

Belisarius hissed. The canvas contained a human arm, which appeared to have been ripped off at the shoulder as if by a giant. Then, spotting the ring on the square, strong-fingered hand, he sighed.

Antonina had given John that ring, years ago, as part of the subterfuge by which she had convinced Malwa's spies that the Rhodian was one of her many lovers. Once the subterfuge had served its purpose, John had offered to return it. But he had immediately added his wish to keep the thing, with her permission. His "lucky ring," he called it, which had kept him intact through the many disastrous early experiments with gunpowder.

"May God have mercy on his soul," Belisarius murmured.

Next to him, a voice spoke. The bitterness in the tone went poorly with its youthful timber.

"Stupid," growled Menander. "Pure blind fucking bad luck. A first salvo, fired at night? They should have been lucky to even hit the damned ocean."

Belisarius straightened, and sighed again. "That's the way war works. It's worth reminding ourselves, now and again, so we don't get too enamored of our own cleverness. There's a lot of just pure luck in this trade."

The general planted a hand on Menander's shoulder. "When did you come aboard?" Menander, he knew, had been in command of one of the other ships in the flotilla.

"Just a few minutes ago. As soon as there was enough light to see what had happened, I—" The young officer fell silent, cursing under his breath.

Belisarius now squeezed the shoulder. "You realize that you've succeeded to the command of John's fleet?"

Menander nodded. There was no satisfaction at all in that gesture. But neither, Belisarius was pleased to see, was there any hesitation.

"So it is," stated the general. "That will include those two new steam-powered ships Justinian's building, once they get here from Adulis. You're more familiar with them than anyone except Justinian anyway, as much time as you've spent with the old emperor since he got to Adulis."

Menander smiled wryly. When Justinian had been Emperor of Rome, before his blinding by Malwa traitors had disqualified him under Roman law and custom, he had been an enthusiastic gadget-maker. Since he relinquished the throne in favor of his adopted son Photius, Justinian's hobby had become practically an obsession. Along with John of Rhodes, Justinian had become the chief new weapons designer for the Roman empire. And he loved nothing so much as the steam engines he had designed with Aide's advice and whose construction he had personally overseen. Even to the extent of accompanying the engines to the Ethiopian capital of Adulis and supervising their installation in ships specially designed for the purpose.

Throughout that work, Menander had been the officer assigned to work with Justinian. The experience had been . . . "Contradictory," was Menander's diplomatic way of putting it. On the one hand, he had been able to spend a lot of time with Deborah also. On the other hand . . .

He sighed. "I could usually manage an entire day in Justinian's company without losing my temper. Barely. John of Rhodes couldn't last ten minutes." He stared down at the severed arm. "Damn, I'll miss him. So will Justinian, don't think he won't."

Belisarius stooped and flipped the covering back over its grisly contents. "We'll send this to Constantinople. I'll include instructions—`recommendations,' I suppose I should say—to my son. Photius will see to it that John of Rhodes gets a solemn state funeral, by God. With all the pomp and splendor."

Even in the sorrow of the moment, that statement caused a little chuckle to emerge from the crowd of Roman officers standing nearby.

"I'd love to be there," murmured one of them. "Be worth it just to see the sour faces on all those senators John cuckolded."

Belisarius smiled, very crookedly. "John will answer to God for his failings." The smile vanished, and the next words rang like iron hammered on an anvil. "But there will be no man to say that he failed in his duty to the Empire. None."

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Framed

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Chapter 9

INDIA

Spring, 533 A.D.

"I've had enough," snarled Raghunath Rao. "Enough!"

He spent another few seconds glaring at the corpses impaled in the village square, before turning away and moving toward the horses. Some of the Maratha cavalrymen in Rao's company began removing the bodies from the stakes and preparing a funeral pyre.

Around them, scurrying to gather up their few possessions, the villagers made ready to join Rao's men in their march back to Deogiri. None would be foolish enough to remain behind, not after the Wind of the Great Country had scoured another Malwa garrison from the face of the earth. Malwa repercussions would be sure to follow. Lord Venandakatra, the Goptri of the Deccan, had long ago pronounced a simple policy. Any villagers found anywhere in the area where the Maratha rebellion struck a blow would pay the penalty. The Vile One's penalties began with impalement. "Ringleaders" would be taken to Bharakuccha for more severe measures.

Other soldiers in Rao's company had already finished executing the survivors of the little Malwa garrison they had overrun. Unlike the villagers who had been impaled—"rebels," by Malwa decree; and many of them were—Rao's men had satisfied themselves with quick decapitations. Some of the cavalrymen were piling the heads in a small mound at the center of the village. There would be no honorable funeral pyre for that carrion. Others were readying the horses for the march.

"Enough, Maloji," Rao murmured to his lieutenant. For all the softness of his tone, the sound of it was a panther's growl. "The time has come. Lord Venandakatra has outlived his welcome in this turn of the wheel."

Maloji eyed him skeptically. "The empress is already unhappy enough with you for participating in these raids. Do you seriously expect—"

"I am her husband!" barked Rao. But, a moment later, the stiffness in his face dissolved. Rao was too much the philosopher to place much credence in customary notions of a wife's proper place in the world. Any wife, much less his. Trying to browbeat the empress Shakuntala—wifely status be damned; age difference be damned—was as futile a project as he could imagine.

"I made her a promise," he said softly. "But once that promise is fulfilled, I am free. To that, she agreed. Soon, now."

Maloji was still skeptical. Or, perhaps, simply stoic. "It's a first pregnancy, old friend. There are often complications."

Finally, Rao's usual good humor came back. "With her? Be serious!" He gathered up the reins of his horse with one hand while making an imperious gesture with the other. "She will simply decree the thing: Child, be born—and don't give me any crap about it."

* * *

In her palace at Deogiri, Shakuntala was filled with quite a different sentiment. Staring down at her swollen belly, her face was full of apprehension.

"It will hurt, some," said Gautami. Dadaji Holkar's wife smiled reassuringly and placed a gentle hand on the empress' shoulder. "But even as small as you are, your hips are well-shaped. I really don't think—"

Shakuntala brushed the matter aside. "I'm not worried about that. It's these ugly stretch marks. Will they go away?"

Abruptly, with a heavy sigh, Shakuntala folded the robe back around herself. Gautami studied her carefully. She did not think the empress was really concerned about the matter of the stretch marks. If nothing else, Shakuntala was too supremely self-confident to worry much over such simple female vanities. And she certainly wasn't concerned about losing Rao's affections.

That left—

Shakuntala confirmed the suspicion. "Soon," she whispered, stroking her belly. "Soon the child will be born, and the dynasty assured. And Rao will demand his release. As I promised."

Gautami hesitated. Her husband was the peshwa of the empire of Andhra, reborn out of the ashes which Malwa had thought to leave it. As such, Gautami was privy to almost every imperial secret. But, still, she was the same woman who had been born and raised in a humble town in Majarashtra. She did not feel comfortable in these waters.

Shakuntala perhaps sensed her unease. The empress turned her head and smiled. "Nothing you can do, Gautami. Or say. I simply want your companionship, for the moment." She sighed again. "I will need it, I fear, in the future. There will be no keeping Rao. Not once the child is born."

Gautami said nothing. Her unease aside, there was nothing to say.

Once the dynasty was assured, the Panther of Majarashtra would slip his leash. As surely as the sun rises, or the moon sets. No more to be stopped than the tide. Or the wind.

Yet, while Gautami understood and sympathized with her empress' unhappiness, she did not share it herself. When all was said and done, Gautami was of humble birth. One of the great mass of the Maratha poor, who had suffered for so long—and so horribly—under the lash of the Vile One.

Her eyes moved to the great window in the north wall of the empress' bedchamber. As always, in the hot and dry climate of the Deccan, the window was open to the breeze. From high atop the hill which was the center of Andhra's new capital city of Deogiri—the permanent capital, so Shakuntala had already decreed; in this, as in her marriage, she had welded Andhra to the Marathas—Gautami could see the rocky stretches of the Great Country.

Beyond that, she could not see. But, in her mind's eye, Gautami could picture the great seaport of Bharakuccha. She had been there, twice. Once, as a young wife, visiting the fabled metropolis in the company of her educated husband. The second time, as a slave captured in Malwa's conquest of the Deccan. She could still remember those squalid slave pens; still remember the terrified faces of her young daughters as they were hauled off by the brothel-keeper who had purchased them.

And, too, she could remember the sight of the great palace which loomed above the slave pens. The same palace where, for three years now, Lord Venandakatra had made his residence and headquarters.

"Soon," she murmured.

* * *

Near the headwaters of the Chambal, Lord Venandakatra's lieutenant was haranguing Lord Damodara and Rana Sanga. Chandasena, his name was, and he was much impressed by his august status in the Malwa scheme of things.

It was a very short harangue. Though Chandasena was of noble Malwa brahmin stock—a Mahaveda priest, in fact—Lord Damodara was a member of the anvaya-prapta sachivya, as the Malwa called the hereditary caste who dominated their empire. Blood kin to Emperor Skandagupta himself.

Perhaps more to the point, Rana Sanga was Rajputana's greatest king.

Fortunately, Sanga was no more than moderately annoyed. So the backhanded cuff which sent Chandasena sprawling in the dirt did no worse than split his lip and leave him stunned and confused. When he recovered his wits sufficiently to understand human speech, Lord Damodara furthered his education.

"My army has marched to Mesopotamia and back again, and across half of India in the bargain, and defeated every foe which came against us. Including even Belisarius himself. And Lord Venandakatra—and you—presume to instruct me on the proper pace of a march?"

The short Malwa lord paused, staring at the hills about him with hands placed on hips. The hips, like the lord's belly, no longer retained the regal fat which had once adorned them. But his little hands were still as plump as ever.

"Venandakatra?" he mused softly. "Who has not marched out of his palace since Rao penned him in Bharakuccha? Whose concept of logistics is to whip his slaves when they fail to feed him appropriate viands for his delicate palate?"

Damodara brought his eyes down to the figure sprawled on the ground. Normally mild-mannered, Malwa's finest military commander was clearly fighting to restrain his temper.

"You?" he demanded. The hands on hips tightened. "Rana Sanga!" he barked. "Do me the favor of instructing this dog again on the subject of military travel."

"My pleasure, Lord." Rajputana's mightiest hand reached down, seized the Vile One's envoy by his finery, and hauled him to his feet as easily as he might pluck a fruit.

"In order to get from one place to another," Sanga said softly, "an army must get from one place to another. Much like"—a large finger poked the envoy's nose—"this face gets to the dirt of the road." And so saying, he illustrated the point with another cuff.

* * *

Sometime later, a less-assured envoy listened in silence as Lord Damodara gave him the reply to Lord Venandakatra.

"Tell the Vile—him—that I will arrive in the Deccan as soon as possible. Of which I will be the judge, not he. And tell him that the next insolent envoy he sends will be instructed with a sword, not a hand."

* * *

After Chandasena had made his precipitous departure, Rana Sanga sighed. "Venandakatra is the emperor's first cousin," he pointed out. And we will be under his authority once we enter the Deccan."

Lord Damodara did not seem notably abashed. "True, and true," he replied. Again, he surveyed the scene around him, with hands on hips. But his stance was relaxed, now, and his eyes were no longer on the hills.

His round face broke into a cheery smile. "Authority, Rana Sanga, is a much more elusive concept than people realize. On the one hand, there is consanguinity to royal blood and official post and status. On the other—"

A stubby forefinger pointed to the mass of soldiers streaming by. "On the other, there is the reality of twenty thousand Rajputs, and ten thousand Ye-tai and kshatriyas who have been welded to them through battles, sieges and victories. And, now, some ten thousand new Bihari and Bengali recruits who are quickly learning their place."

Sanga followed the finger. His experienced eye picked out at once what Damodara was indicating. In every other Malwa army but this one, the component forces formed separate detachments. The Ye-tai served as security battalions; the Malwa kshatriya as privileged artillery troops. Rajputs, of course, were elite cavalry. And the great mass of infantrymen enrolled in the army—peasants from one or another of the many subject nations of the Gangetic plain—formed huge but poorly-equipped and trained levies.

Not here. Damodara's army was a Rajput army, at its core, though the Rajputs no longer formed a majority of the troops. But the Ye-tai—whose courage was admired and respected, if not their semi-barbarous character—were intermingled with the Rajputs. As were the kshatriyas, and, increasingly—and quite to their surprise—the new Bengali and Bihari recruits.

"The veil of illusion," mused Sanga. "Philosophers speak of it."

"So they do," concurred Damodara. His air seemed one of detachment and serenity. "The best philosophers."

* * *

That night, in Lord Damodara's headquarters tent, philosophical detachment and serenity were entirely absent.

For all that he was an old man, and a eunuch, Narses was as courageous as any man alive. But now, reading again the summons from the Grand Palace, he had to fight to keep his hands from trembling.

"It arrived today?" he asked. For the second time, which was enough in itself to indicate how shaken he was.

Damodara nodded somberly. He made a vague gesture with his hand toward the entrance flap of the tent. "You would have passed by the courier on your way in. I told him to wait outside until I had spoken to you."

Narses' eyes flitted around the interior of the large tent. Clearly enough, Damodara had instructed everyone to wait outside. None of his officers were present, not even Rana Sanga. And there were no servants in the tent. That, in its own way, indicated just how uneasily Damodara himself was taking the news.

Narses brought himself under control, with the iron habit of a lifetime spent as an intriguer and spymaster. He gave Lord Damodara a quick, shrewd glance.

First things first. Reassure my employer.

"Of course," he said harshly, "I will report to Great Lady Sati that you have never given me permission to do anything other than my officially specified duties. Which is the plain and simple truth, as it happens."

Lord Damodara's tension seemed to ease a bit. "Of course," he murmured. He studied his spymaster carefully.

"You have met Great Lady Sati, I believe?"

Narses shook his head. "Not exactly. She was present, yes, when I had my one interview with Great Lady Holi. After my defection from Rome, and before Great Lady Holi departed for Mesopotamia. Where she met her death at Belisarius' hands."

He left unspoken the remainder: and was—replaced?by Great Lady Sati.

"But Lady Sati—she was not Great Lady, then—said nothing in the interview."

Damodara nodded and began pacing slowly back and forth. His hands were pressed together as if in prayer, which was the lord's habit when he was engaged in deep thought.

Abruptly, he stopped his pacing and turned to face Narses squarely.

"How much do you know, Roman?"

Narses understood the meaning. "Malwa is ruled by a hidden—something. A being, let us call it. I do not know its true name. Once, it inhabited the body of Great Lady Holi. Today, it resides in Great Lady Sati. Whatever it is, the being has supernatural powers. It is not of this earth. I believe, judging from what I have learned, that it claims to come from the future."

After a moment's hesitation, he added: "A divine being, Malwa believes it to be."

Damodara smiled thinly. "And you?"

Narses spread his hands. "What is divinity, Lord? For Hindus, the word deva refers to a divine creature. For Zoroastrians, it is the word assigned to demons. What, in the end, is really the difference—to the men who stand under its power?"

"What, indeed?" mused Damodara. He resumed his pacing. Again, his hands were pressed together. "Whatever the being may be, Narses—divine or not, from the future or not—have no doubt of one thing. It is truly superhuman."

He stopped and, again, turned to face the eunuch. "One thing in particular you must understand. A human being cannot lie to Li—the being—and keep the lie from being detected."

Narses' eyes did not widen in the least. The spymaster had already deduced as much, from his own investigations.

"It cannot be done," the Malwa lord reiterated forcefully. "Do not even imagine the possibility."

Narses reached up and stroked his jaw. "The truth only, you say?" Then, seeing Damodara's nod, he asked: "But tell me this, Lord. Can this being truly read a man's thoughts?"

Damodara hesitated. For a moment, he seemed about to resume his pacing, but instead he simply slumped a bit.

"I am not certain, Narses."

"Your estimate, then." The words were spoken in the tone of command. But the lord gave no sign of umbrage at this unwarranted change of relationship. At the moment, his own life hung by as slender a thread as the eunuch's.

Whatever his doubts and uncertainties, Damodara was an experienced as well as a brilliant military commander. Decisiveness came naturally to him, and that nature had been honed by his life.

"No," he said firmly. "In the end, I do not believe so. I think it is simply that the being is—is—" He groped for the words.

Narses' little exhalation of breath seemed filled with satisfaction. "A superhuman spymaster. Which can study the same things any spymaster learns to examine—posture, tone of voice, the look in the eyes—to gauge whether a man speaks true or false."

Damodara's head nod was more in the way of a jerk. "Yes. So I believe."

For the first time since he read the message summoning him to the Grand Palace, Narses smiled. It was a very, very thin smile. But a smile nonetheless.

"The truth only, then. That should be no problem."

Damodara studied him for a moment. But he could read nothing whatever in the old eunuch's face. Nothing in his eyes, his tone of voice, his posture. Nothing but—a lifetime of intrigue and subterfuge.

"Go, then," he commanded.

Narses bowed, but did not make to leave.

Damodara cocked his head. "There is something you wish, before you go?"

"Yes," murmured Narses. "The fastest courier in the army. I need to send new instructions to Ajatasutra."

"Certainly. I shall have him report to your tent immediately." He cleared his throat. "Where is Ajatasutra, by the way? I haven't noticed him about lately."

Narses stared at him coldly. Damodara broke into sudden, subdued laughter.

"Never mind! Sometimes, it's best not to know the truth."

Narses met the laughter with a chuckle. "So, I am told, say the very best philosophers."

* * *

Ajatasutra himself might not have agreed with that sentiment. But there was no question at all that he was being philosophical about his own situation.

He had not much choice, after all. His needs required that he stay at one of the worst and poorest hostels in Ajmer, the greatest city of Rajputana. And, so far as Ajatasutra was concerned—he who had lived in Constantinople as well as Kausambi—the best hostel in that hot and dusty city was barely fit for cattle.

He slew another insect on his pallet, with the same sure stroke with which he slew anything.

"I am not a Jain," he growled at the tiny corpse. His cold eyes surveyed the horde of other insects taking formation in his squalid little room. "So don't any of you think you'll get any tenderhearted philosophy from me."

If the insects were abashed by that grisly threat, they gave no sign of it. Another legion, having dressed its lines, advanced fearlessly to the fray.

* * *

"This won't be so bad," said the older sister. "The lady even says she'll give me a crib for the baby."

The younger sister surveyed their room in the great mansion where Lord Damodara's family resided in the capital. The room was small and unadorned, but it was spotlessly clean.

True, the kitchen-master was a foul-mouthed and ill-tempered man, as men who hold such thankless posts generally are. And his wife was even worse. But her own foul mouth and ill temper seemed focused, for the most part, on seeing to it that her husband did not take advantage of his position to molest the kitchen slaves.

In her humble manner, the sister had become quite a philosopher in her own right. "Are you kidding? This is great."

* * *

Below them, in the depths of the mansion's great cellar, others were also being philosophical.

"Start digging," commanded the mercenary leader. "You've got a long way to go."

The small group of Bihari miners did not even think to argue the matter. Indeed, they set to work with a will. An odd attitude, perhaps, in slaves. But they too had seen the way Ajatasutra gave instructions. And, like the two sisters whom they did not know, had reached an identical conclusion. The assassin was deadly, deadly. But, in his own way, a man who could be trusted. Do the work, he had told them, and you will be manumitted—and given gold besides.

There was no logic to it, of course. For whatever purpose they had been brought here, to dig a mysterious tunnel to an unknown destination, the purpose had been kept secret for a reason. The slaves knew, as well as any man, that the best way to keep a secret is to kill those who know it. But, somehow, they did not fear for their lives.

"Oddest damned assassin I've ever seen," muttered one of the mercenaries.

"For what he's paying us," said the leader, "he can sprout feathers like a chicken for all I care." Seeing that the tunnel work was well underway, he turned to face his two subordinates. His finger pointed stiffly at the casks of wine against one of the stone walls of the cellar.

"Do I have to repeat his instructions?"

The other Ye-tai shook their heads vigorously. Their eyes shied away from the wine.

"Good," he grunted. "Just do as we're told, that's it. And we'll walk away from this as rich men."

One of the mercenaries cleared his throat, and pointed his own finger up at the stone ceiling. "Won't anyone wonder? There'll be a bit of noise. And, after a while, we'll have to start hauling the dirt out."

Again, the captain shrugged. "He told me he left instructions up there also. We stay down here, and food and water will be brought to us. By the majordomo and a few others. They'll see to the disposal of the dirt."

"Shouldn't be hard," grunted one of the other mercenaries. His head jerked toward the far wall. "The Ganges is just the other side of the mansion. I saw as we arrived. Who's going to notice if that river gets a bit muddier?"

A little laugh greeted the remark. If the Ye-tai mercenaries retained much of their respect for Malwa's splendor, they had lost their awe for Malwa's power and destiny. All of them were veterans of the Persian campaign, and had seen—fortunately, from a distance—the hand of Belisarius at work.

None of them, in any event, had ever had much use for the fine points of Hindu ritual.

"Fuck the Ganges," muttered another. "Bunch of stupid peasants bathing in elephant piss. Best place I can think of for the dirt that's going to make us rich men."

And so, another philosopher.

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Chapter 10

THE PERSIAN GULF

Summer, 533 A.D.

"So how many, Dryopus?" asked Antonina. Wearily, she wiped her face with a cloth that was already damp with sweat. "For certain."

Her secretary hesitated. Other than being personally honest, Dryopus was typical of high officials in the Roman Empire's vast and elaborate hierarchy. For all his relative youth—he was still shy of forty—and his apparent physical vigor, he was the sort of man who personified the term: bureaucrat. His natural response to any direct question was: first, cover your ass; second, hedge; third, cover your ass again.

But Antonina didn't even have to glare at him. By now, months after arriving in Persia to take up his new duties, Dryopus had learned that "covering your ass" with Antonina meant giving her straight and direct answers. He was the fourth official who had served her in this post, and the only one who had not been shipped back to Constantinople within a week.

"I can't tell you, for certain. At least ninety ships. Probably be closer to a hundred, when all the dust settles."

Seeing the gathering frown on Antonina's face, Dryopus hurriedly added: "I'm only counting those in the true seagoing class, mind. There'll be plenty of river barges that can be pressed into coastline service."

Antonina rose from her desk and walked over to the window, shaking her head. "The river barges won't be any use, Dryopus. Not once the army's marched past the Persian Gulf ports. No way they could survive the monsoon, once they get out of sheltered waters. Not the heart of it, at least. By the tail end of the season, we could probably use them—but who really knows where Belisarius will be then?"

At the window, she planted her hands on the wide ledge and leaned her face into the breeze. The window in the villa which doubled as Antonina's headquarters faced to the south, overlooking Charax's great harbor. The slight breeze coming in from the sea helped alleviate the blistering summer heat of southern Mesopotamia.

But the respite was brief. Within seconds, she turned back to Dryopus.

"Who's the most obstreperous of the hold-outs?" she demanded.

"Those two brothers who own the Circe." This time, Dryopus' answer came with no hesitation at all. "Aco and Numenius."

As Antonina moved back to her desk, her frown returned in full force. "Egyptians, aren't they? Normally operate out of Myos Hormos?"

"Yes. That's one of the things they're squealing about. They claim they can't take on military provisions until they've unloaded their cargo in Myos Hormos, or they'll go bankrupt." Dryopus scowled. "They say they're carrying specialty items which are in exclusive demand in Egypt. Can't sell them here in Mesopotamia."

"Oh—that's nonsense!" Antonina plumped down in her chair and almost slapped the desk with her hands. "They're bringing cargo from Bharakuccha, right?" With a snarl: "That means spices and cosmetics. Mostly pepper. Stuff that'll sell just as well in Persia as anywhere."

Dryopus, sitting on his own chair across from her, spread his hands in a little gesture of agreement. "They're just making excuses to try to avoid being pressed into service as part of the supply fleet for the army. By all accounts, those two brothers are among the worst chiselers in the trade—which is saying something, given the standards of merchant seamen. There's even been accusations that they burned one of their own ships a few years ago, to collect the insurance on the cargo."

He shrugged. "I don't really understand why they're being so resistant. It's true that the profit margin they'll make from military shipping is lower. But, on the other hand, they're guaranteed steady work for at least a year—which they're certainly not in the regular India trade!—and the risk is minimal. Lower, really, than the risk in trading with India. In fact, the reason the Circe came into port later than any of the other ships from Bharakuccha—according to Aco and Numenius, at least—is that they were detained in the harbor for a month by Malwa officials trying to shake them down."

Antonina nodded. It was the custom of the day for trade between belligerent realms to continue unchecked during wartime. Roman merchant vessels, of course, were not allowed to sail directly into Bharakuccha's harbor—any more than the Persians allowed Malwa shipping into their own ports. But the ships themselves were usually not molested. They simply had to add the extra expense of unloading their cargo with lighters.

Still . . . It was a perilous enough business. Custom be damned, there were plenty of instances where greedy officials and military officers extorted merchant vessels from enemy nations. Sometimes, even, plundered them outright. The Malwa were especially notorious for the practice.

"Nonsense," repeated Antonina. "It's a lot safer. They'll be under the protection of Axumite warships the whole time. And nobody has ever accused the Ethiopians of illegally sequestering cargoes." A rueful little smile came to her face. "Of course, the Axumites don't need to, after all. They take an automatic cut of anything which passes through the Red Sea."

She straightened her back, having come to a decision.

"Enough! I've got to get this thing settled, so we can firm up our numbers. If we crack down on Aco and Numenius, that'll send a clear message to the other malingerers. I want a team of inspectors crawling all over the Circe by the end of the day, Dryopus. They're to inspect the cargo and report back. If it's nothing but the usual stuff, we unload that ship tomorrow—by force if necessary—and start stocking it with military supplies."

Dryopus jotted a quick note, nodding. "Done."

"What's next?"

Again, Dryopus hesitated. But the hesitation, this time, was not that of a bureaucrat. In his own distant manner, Dryopus had become something of a friend for Antonina over the past months of joint work, as well as simply a subordinate. The next item of business . . .

Antonina sighed. "John?"

Dryopus nodded. "Yes. We've got to make provisions for transporting his—what remains of his body—back to Constantinople."

A flicker of pain crossed Antonina's face, but only briefly. Belisarius had brought the news back over a week ago, and she had already finished most of her grieving.

"What are the alternatives?" she asked.

"Well . . . we could dispatch one of the smaller cargo vessels—"

"No. The war comes first."

Dryopus shrugged. "In that case, I'd suggest hiring one of the Arab caravans. We could use the barge traffic on the Euphrates, of course, but the Arabs have been complaining that they're not getting their fair share of the war trade."

Antonina nodded. "Yes. They'll take it as an honor, too. But make sure you hire one of the Beni Ghassan caravans. They've been Rome's allies for centuries. They'll be offended if the job is given to anyone else. Especially the Lakhmids."

Dryopus made a note. "Done."

"What's next?"

"There's the matter of the livestock provisions. Camels, specifically."

"Again?" groaned Antonina. She wiped her face with the cloth. Again. In that heat, of course, the cloth was already dry. Still . . .

She stared down at it, scowling. "I should go into business for myself," she said glumly. "Selling salt."

She fluttered the scrap of linen. "There's enough right here—" Then, seeing the look on Dryopus' face, she choked off the words.

"What?" she demanded, half-wailing. "We're running low on salt? Again?"

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Framed

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Chapter 11

Under the best of conditions, giant armies on the march throw up enormous clouds of dust. And these were not the best of conditions.

Belisarius was leading a hundred and twenty thousand men into India against the Malwa, along with as many horses, camels and mules. His army had now left the flood plains of Khuzistan province, and had entered the narrow strip of lowlands bordering the Persian Gulf.

Technically, they were marching through Pars province, the historic homeland of the ancient Achaemenid dynasty as well as the Sassanids. But this was not the Pars province that most people thought of, with its ancient cities of Persepolis and Shiraz and the irrigated regions around them.

Partly, Belisarius had chosen the southern route to avoid the inevitable destruction of farmland which a marching army produces, even if the army is under discipline. But, mostly, he had done so because of overriding logistical concerns. There was no way that an army that size could be provisioned by farmers along their route. Until they reached the Indus valley, Belisarius and his army would be entirely dependent on seaborne supplies. So, whatever other problems that route created, they would be forced to hug the coast of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.

A coast which, sad to say, was one of the bleakest coasts in the world: as arid as a desert, with little in the way of vegetation beyond an occasional palm grove.

* * *

Kurush reined in his horse next to Belisarius. The Roman general was sitting on his own mount atop a small rise, observing the army marching past. Sittas was alongside him; his bodyguards, Isaac and Priscus, were a few yards away.

"Did I mention the roses and nightingales of Shiraz?" asked Kurush. "And the marvelous vineyards?"

Sittas scowled. Belisarius simply smiled.

"Several times," he replied. "Each day of our march."

The Persian general grimaced. "Can't help it, I'm afraid." He reached up a hand and wiped dust from his face, leaving little streaks behind in the veil of sweat. Then, scowling himself: "Wouldn't be quite as bad if we weren't doing this in summertime."

Belisarius shrugged. "We've got no choice, Kurush. Without the monsoon blowing to the east this time of year, this whole expedition would be impossible."

The statement was about as pointless as Kurush's remark about roses and nightingales. The Persian general was just as familiar with the logistical facts of life as Belisarius.

"So I've heard you say," muttered Kurush sourly. "Several times, in fact—each day of our march."

Belisarius' lips quirked, but he made no response. He was busy studying the marching order, trying to determine if there was any possible improvement to be made.

"Forget it," said Sittas, as if he'd read Belisarius' mind. He waved a large and thick-fingered hand at the troops. "Sure you could tidy it up—theoretically. But it'd take you three days to do it, with the army standing still. And then within another three days it'd be a mess all over again."

Belisarius sighed. He had already reached the same conclusion. The army marching past him was far larger than any army he had ever led in the past. Than any Roman general had led in centuries, in fact. It had not taken Belisarius long to realize that, at a certain point, quantity doesn't transform into quality. The kind of tight and precise marching order he had always managed to maintain in the past was simply an impossibility here.

"Given, at least," he murmured, "that we're under such a tight time schedule."

Kurush and Sittas said nothing. Again, the statement was pointless. They, along with all the other top commanders of the allied army, had planned this expedition for months. They knew just as well as Belisarius that the march to the Indus valley had to be completed before the monsoon season ended in November. Or the army would die of thirst and starvation.

It might die anyway, even if they kept to the schedule. The Indus valley was fertile, true, but Belisarius was quite certain that Link would order a scorched earth campaign in the valley once the Romans and Persians arrived at Barbaricum and began their march upriver to the Malwa heartland.

That is what he would do, after all. The Malwa had no real chance of holding Barbaricum and the coast, once Belisarius arrived at the Indus delta. The shocking and unexpected destruction of their great army in Mesopotamia the year before had forced the Malwa to concentrate on fortifying their own homeland, and to shelve—at least for a time—any plans for conquest.

But fortifications strong enough to withstand the forces Belisarius was bringing to India simply could not be erected quickly, not even with the manpower available to the Malwa. So, according to Belisarius' spies, Link had done exactly what he would do: concentrate on fortifying the upper Indus valley, the region called the Punjab. So long as the Malwa controlled the Punjab, they controlled the entrances to the Ganges. Losing the lower valley would be painful, but not fatal.

All the more so because of the geography of the region. The Indus "valley" was really two valleys, which—at least from a military point of view—were shaped somewhat like an hourglass. The lower valley, the Sind, was broad at the coast and the Indus delta but narrowed as it extended north toward the city of Sukkur and the gorge beyond. Past the Sukkur gorge, the upper valley widened again. The name "Punjab" itself meant "land of five rivers." The upper valley was shaped much like a fan, with the Indus and its main tributaries forming the blades.

If Belisarius could break into the Punjab, where he would have room to maneuver again . . .

That would truly press the Malwa against the wall. So, just as Belisarius would have done, Link would fortify the Punjab and the Sukkur "bottleneck"—but leave the Sind to its own devices. The monster would station soldiers there, to be sure. But their main task was not to prevent Belisarius from taking the lower valley, but to delay him long enough to allow Link to transform the Punjab and Sukkur into an impregnable stronghold. Those Malwa forces would retreat slowly northward, burning and destroying everything in the valley as they went. "Scorched earth" tactics with a vengeance.

Conceivably, if the Malwa could wrest control of the sea from the Romans and the Ethiopians, they could even turn the Sind into a death trap. Do to Belisarius' great army the same thing he had done to them at Charax.

Belisarius knew that unless he could break Link's plans before they came to fruition, he was faced with years of fighting a brutal, slogging campaign which had more in the nature of siege warfare than battles in the open field. A war of attrition, not maneuver, which would charge Rome with a price in blood and treasure which it could probably not afford. He had bloodied Malwa badly, over the past two years, and the Maratha rebellion in the Deccan which he had helped set into motion was bleeding it further still. But the fact remained that the Malwa empire could still draw on greater resources than Rome and Persia and Ethiopia combined. A long war of attrition was far more likely to work in favor of the Malwa than Belisarius.

Link would certainly do its best to make it so. The cybernetic organism was just as familiar with human history as Aide. The Malwa empire was now on the defensive, and they would adopt the methods and tactics which would be used in a future world by the Dutch rebels against the Spanish.

And those tactics worked for almost a century, came Aide's voice. Until the Spanish finally gave up.

Belisarius made the mental equivalent of a shrug. True. But the Spanish were never able to outflank the Dutch defenses, because the Dutch backs were protected by the sea. Malwa is not. I know Link's plans. I also believe I can foil them, when the time comes. Don't ask me how, because I don't know yet. But war is a thing of chaos, not order, and I think my understanding of that is far superior to Link's. "Superhuman intelligence" be damned. War is not a chess game. It is, in the end, more a thing of the soul than the mind. And that thing has no soul. It will try to control the chaos, where I will revel in it.

Belisarius could sense the hesitation in Aide's mind. But the only thoughts which finally came were simply: I trust your judgement.

Belisarius chuckled. Hearing the soft sound, Sittas cocked an inquisitive eye at him.

"Aide was just expressing his confidence in my judgement," murmured Belisarius. "I wish I felt as much."

He expected to hear Sittas make one of his usual quips—at Belisarius' expense—but his large friend simply chuckled himself. "As it happens, I agree with the cute little fellow. I think your strategy for this campaign is damned near brilliant. Hell, not even `damned near,' when I think about it."

Belisarius scowled. "It's too complicated. Too intricate by half. Too much step one, step two, step three. Maurice hasn't stopped nattering at me about it for a single day. And I don't disagree with him, either. It's going to start coming apart at the seams, soon enough, and I'll be back to making strategic decisions on a saddle." The scowl faded, replaced by a slight, crooked smile. "Which, I admit, seems to be something I have a certain aptitude for. More than Link does, I'm willing to bet. Am betting."

Sittas lifted his great bulk up on the stirrups for a moment, his eyes scanning the huge army. "Where is the old grouch, anyway?"

After a moment, he eased back in the saddle. The task of spotting a single man in that great horde of soldiers and moving equipment, even a top officer with his banners and entourage, was essentially hopeless.

"Of course he's grumbling," grumbled Sittas. "What would life be for the morose old bastard, without the pleasure of grousing to fill it up? But the fact is—this time—he's just plain wrong."

Almost angrily, Sittas gestured at the arid landscape ahead of them. "That's what it's going to be like, Belisarius, from here on. I'm not even sure the Malwa will bother to contest the delta, when we finally arrive at Barbaricum. Just cede it and let us get well established. Then, when the monsoon shifts, watch us starve beneath the walls of their fortifications upstream. By the time we get there, you know they'll have stripped the delta clean."

"Easier said than done."

Sittas shrugged. "Sure, I know." He barked a little laugh. "Easy for historians to say: `they ravaged the countryside.' Never catch one of those languid fellows trying to destroy croplands. Hard work, that is—harder than growing stuff, that's for sure. Wouldn't wish it on a peasant."

Belisarius smiled. He doubted if Sittas had actually ever read any of those historians he was denouncing. But Belisarius knew that Sittas had once gotten embroiled in a loud argument with three historians at an imperial feast. In the end, Theodora had sent her personal guards to quell the large and outraged general.

Belisarius had read many of those historians, on the other hand. And while he felt none of Sittas' sputtering fury at the stupidities of over-educated and over-sheltered intellectuals, he understood it perfectly well. Aristocratic scribblers suffered from the inevitable habit of turning prosaic and complex reality into simple metaphors. Almost poetry, really, which they blithely assumed was an accurate representation of reality.

Destroy the countryside. Ravage the land.

As it happened, Belisarius had given those very orders himself over the years. Especially in his earliest years as an officer, campaigning against barbarians in the trans-Danube and Persians in the Mesopotamian borderlands. But both he and his men had understood the prose between the poetry, the unspoken qualifiers attached to the muscular verbs and nouns:

As best you can—in the time allowed. To the extent possible—given the number of men available. Whatever you can do—with military equipment instead of agricultural implements, and teams of mules instead of oxen.

He could remember hearing his men cursing bitterly, wrestling with the endless and exhausting work of trying to destroy the tough vines and wood of grape fields and olive groves. Or the backbreaking work of cutting and assembling grain in piles suitable for burning. Not to mention the well-nigh hopeless task of finding all the food caches hidden away, by peasants who were far more experienced than soldiers at hiding such things—and had a far greater incentive to do the job properly.

It could almost never be done really successfully. Time after time, throughout the future history which Aide had shown him, Belisarius recognized the same pattern. An army marching through a region, "devastating the land," and then—not a year later—everything was back again. Half of it, at least. "Mother Nature," especially when assisted by poor and industrious peasants, was far tougher than any army of soldiers.

In truth, the most successful method was the most ruthless. The method the Mongols would use in Central Asia: kill everyone. Don't just destroy the irrigation works and the infrastructure, but kill all the people living there as well. Eliminate the labor force which could rebuild what was destroyed.

Those were methods Belisarius would never use. Precious few armies in history ever had. But he had no doubt at all the Malwa would use them in the delta of the Indus. The last order Link would give, after its soldiery destroyed everything they could, was to kill all the peasants living there. The multitude of that poor and humble folk, whose calloused hands were so much better at rebuilding than the sinewy hands of soldiers ever were at destroying. And then heap their corpses atop their own ravaged land, so that their putrefaction could finish the work of destruction.

Malwa's own peasants. Who would not even be given the one mercy which peasants throughout time had usually been able to expect from their rulers, no matter how tyrannical: to be left alive, that they might be exploited further.

He found his own eyes searching the passing horde, looking for Maurice. A humble fellow himself, Maurice, in his own way. Born into the Thracian peasantry, and, despite his now exalted rank, not given to pretensions. The thought filled Belisarius with a strange, grim satisfaction. The first of the many blows he intended to rain on Malwa would be to send that man to rescue the enemy's own people.

He had thought Maurice would grumble at the order. Not because of its content, but because of the intricacy of the maneuvers involved. But, for once, the old veteran had not complained. Had not, even, ritually intoned his precious "First Law of Battle."

"Makes sense," he had grunted. "We'll need them for a labor force." The smile which followed had been almost seraphic. "War's a stupid, silly business, anyway. So why not turn it completely upside down?"

* * *

Oddly enough, Belisarius did spot Maurice in the horde. And did so in the oddest place.

"Look!" he barked, pointing an accusing finger. "He's finally going soft on us!"

Sittas' eyes followed Belisarius' finger. When he spotted Maurice himself, he burst into laughter. So did Kurush.

"He'll claim he had to work over some logistics with Agathius," chortled the Persian general. "You watch! Swear, he will, that only dire necessity forced him into it."

When Maurice finally came alongside the little rise where Belisarius and Sittas and Kurush were positioned, he glared up at them. Almost down at them, actually, perched as he was in the spacious comfort of Agathius' howdah atop a great war elephant.

"Had some logistical problems to sort out," he claimed loudly.

Agathius looked up from the papers he was studying and spotted Belisarius and the others. Then, heaving his crippled but still powerful body erect with a muscular arm on the edge of the open howdah, he grinned. "He's lying through his teeth," he shouted. "We've spent the whole morning playing with artillery positions, against these different sketches."

Even without being able to see into the howdah, Belisarius understood what Agathius was talking about. Among the many tasks he had set himself, in the months spent in Ctesiphon planning the Indus expedition, was overseeing the work of a dozen artists-become-draftsmen. Transcribing, onto parchment, Aide's descriptions of the fortifications of a future world. The designs of fortresses created in Renaissance Italy and Holland, as engineers and architects of the future grappled with the challenge of gunpowder artillery used in sieges.

Engineers and architects—and artists. Michelangelo, who would become famous to later generations as a painter and sculptor, had been famous in his own day as well; primarily, however, as one of Renaissance Italy's best military architects. He had been the city of Florence's Commissary General of Fortifications. He had lavished, over many months, as much care and attention on the critical hill of San Miniato as he would the Sistine Chapel, diverting the Mugnone and guiding the stream into a moat, as he would guide a brush; and bestowing San Miniato with as many intricate details—bastions and fascines—as he would a fresco depicting creation.

Then, having given Agathius the wherewithal to study the siege methods of the future, Belisarius had set him to work on designing, with the vast knowledge Agathius had gained from his long work as Belisarius' chief of logistics, the best methods to counter those fortresses.

Belisarius had no doubt at all that Link would distill the wisdom of Europe's best military architects in the first centuries of gunpowder warfare as it created Malwa's fortresses in the Indus valley. Of course, Belisarius would counter that with his own knowledge of history, given to him by Aide. Most of all, though, he would counter it with the keen brain of Agathius. As canny and meticulous a man as Belisarius had ever met in his life. And one whose own origins were as humble as Maurice's. Which, for Belisarius at least, added a certain zest to the whole affair.

"And how does that work go, then?" he demanded.

Agathius fluttered his hand vaguely. "Well enough. Given, at least, that Maurice picks holes in all my finest schemes. Pessimistic grouch, he is. `If anything can do wrong, it will.' The usual."

Maurice was still half glaring at Belisarius. "Hate riding in this thing, myself. Give me a horse any day."

Kurush and Sittas immediately responded to that disclaimer with a variety of scoffing jests. Belisarius smiled, but said nothing.

As it happened, he didn't really doubt Maurice's claim. But even Maurice, as conservative as he was, had bowed to the inevitable.

The Roman army, throughout the centuries, had never favored the war elephants which so many of their opponents had treasured. True, the monsters could be ferocious in battle. But they could often wreak as much havoc in their own army as in the enemy's. Still, Belisarius had brought a number of the great beasts with him on this expedition. He had no intention of actually using them in combat. But the elephants could bear officers in howdahs, after all, along with the maps and charts and documents needed for the huge army's staff. Why waste the mind of a man like Agathius by perching him on a saddle for weeks? When the same man, even though crippled, could spend those weeks of marching engaged in the same crucial work he had overseen for months?

So, Belisarius did not join in the badinage. After a few seconds, he blocked it out of his mind entirely and returned to his study of the army passing before him.

What a hodge-podge! he thought, half-ruefully and half-cheerfully. War elephants from ancient armies, plodding alongside men armed with our version of the Sharps rifle of the American Civil War. And look over there, Aide—a mitrailleuse in a chariot! I swear they found that relic in some Sumerian vault.

It'll work, came the serene thought in reply. You'll make it work.

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Chapter 12

AJMER

Summer, 533 A.D.

"Be careful," murmured Kujulo. "This city has changed."

Valentinian and Anastasius swept the streets of Ajmer with their eyes, shielded under lowered helmets. Neither of them had ever been in the largest city in Rajputana, so they had no basis for comparison.

"What's different?" asked Valentinian softly. He reached up his hand and scratched the back of his neck idly. The casual gesture exuded the weariness of a caravan guard finally reaching his destination after a long and arduous trek. Meanwhile, not casually at all, his eyes kept scouring the vicinity.

"This is not a Rajput city any longer," replied Kujulo. "Not really. Look there, for instance—down the street, to the left."

Without moving their heads, Valentinian and Anastasius looked in that direction. Valentinian couldn't really see much, since he was riding at the head of the caravan to Kujulo's right. But Anastasius, riding to the Kushan's left, had a clear view into the street in question—which was really more in the way of an alley.

"Mangy pack of dogs," he muttered. "But a big pack, too." A moment later, yawning, he added: "And you're right about that much. If any of those sorry bastards are Rajputs, I'd be astonished. I don't think I've ever seen a Rajput with as much filth all over him—not even after a battle—as any of that lot have on their feet alone."

The slowly moving caravan was now passing the mouth of the alley, and Valentinian was finally able to get a good look.

" `Dogs' is an insult to dogs. But—" He paused, until the alley was behind them. "They're hungry-looking, I give you that."

Anastasius and Valentinian now both looked to Kujulo. The "leadership structure" of their peculiar expedition was a fluid thing. Sometimes one, then another, of the three men in command had taken the lead over the weeks since they landed in the delta and made their slow way into Rajputana. Usually either Valentinian or Anastasius. But now that they had arrived at Ajmer, both of the Roman cataphracts were clearly willing to let Kujulo guide them.

This unfamiliar and exotic city was terra incognita to them. So too, of course, had been the Thar desert and the Aravalli mountains. But rough terrain, whatever its specific features, is much the same in many places—and both Anastasius and Valentinian were veterans of marches across such. Usually as part of an army, true, rather than a merchant caravan. But the experience had not been especially foreign. Neither, certainly, had been the two brief skirmishes with bandits.

Ajmer, however, was a different matter. Here, the "terrain" was not so much geographic as human. And neither of them knew anything about the customs and habits which characterized the city.

Kujulo immediately made clear that he was something of a novice, also. Or, it might be better to say, a man who returns to a place he had known years earlier, and finds it has been completely transformed.

"In the old days," he growled, "no gang like that would have dared lounge openly in the streets of Ajmer. Rajput women would have driven them off, sent them scampering back into their hovels."

"I'm pretty sure there's another pack in that alley up ahead," murmured Valentinian. "A more lively bunch, seems like. At least judging from the way their lookout ducked back into the alley when I spotted him."

The only sign of Kujulo's tension was a slight shift in the way he rode his saddle. The Kushan seemed slightly discomfited by the fact that he had no stirrups.

They all were, in truth. By now, of course, stirrups had become adopted by almost all Malwa cavalry units. But the devices were still rare in civilian use, and they had decided from the beginning that they couldn't afford to risk drawing attention to themselves. To all outward appearances, the two Roman cataphracts and the seventeen Kushans who accompanied them were nothing more than the guards and drivers of a merchant caravan. A relatively small one, at that.

"There's no order in this city any more," continued Kujulo. "All the Rajput soldiers, by now, must have been drawn into the Malwa army. Probably have a small unit of common soldiers policing the city, with maybe a handful of Ye-tai to stiffen them up. But their idea of `policing' will be either lounging in the barracks or—more likely—doing their own extortions."

There was a little stir in the alley still some distance away, coming up on their right. Three men were leaning out of it, studying the oncoming caravan like so many predators in ambush. Small and mangy predators, to be sure, but . . .

As Valentinian had rightly said, hungry-looking.

"Hell and damn," rumbled Anastasius. Moving slowly, casually, he loosened the mace belted to his thick waist. As he did so, moving his head with the same casual ease, he glanced back over his shoulder. "Hell and damn," he repeated. "That first bunch is peeking at us from behind."

Facing forward again, his basso rumble deepened. "It's an ambush, sure. In broad daylight on a busy street."

"Let's take it to 'em, then," said Valentinian. His narrow weasel face showed not a trace of emotion. His hand loosened his own weapon, the spatha he favored, and his left leg began to rise.

Kujulo eyed him sharply. Valentinian could dismount from a horse faster than any man he had ever seen. Just as he could do anything faster than any man he had ever seen. Within seconds, he knew, the lightly armored cataphract would be plunging his whipcord body into that alley up ahead.

Of the outcome, Kujulo had no doubt at all. Even had he been faced with real soldiers, Valentinian would transform that narrow alley into a creek of blood. Dealing with dacoits, the alley would erupt like a burst dam, spilling blood and limbs and heads and intestines everywhere.

"No," he hissed. "The city is full of spies."

Valentinian's leg froze. His shoulder twitched irritation. "So? A caravan defending itself."

They were not more than fifteen yards from the mouth of the alley. Kujulo hissed again. "No caravan defends itself the way you will. Or Anastasius." The grunt that followed combined grim humor with exasperation. "Or me, for that matter, or my Kushans."

Ten yards, now. "What else do you suggest?" snarled Valentinian softly. "Let them kill half of us, to show Malwa spies we are nothing but merchant sheep?"

His shoulders twitched irritation again. The leg began to rise. "Damn that. Let's take it to them."

Suddenly, a little chorus of shrieks erupted from the mouth of the alley. An instant later, spewing forth like so many pieces of a bad fig from a man's mouth, six dacoits burst into the street. Two were shrieking, one was staggering. The other three, silent, simply raced off.

Raced off away from the caravan, not toward it. Followed, within a second or two, by the shriekers. The last dacoit staggered another step or two, then sprawled on his face and lay still. Blood was beginning to stain his filthy clothing.

Kujulo raised his hand, as any caravan leader would when faced with similar circumstances. "Halt!"

The caravan stopped. All the Kushans further back drew their weapons, as did Kujulo and the Roman cataphracts. The street was suddenly empty of all life, except for the group of dacoits who had begun emerging from the alley behind. But they too, seeing the new circumstances, hastily scampered out of sight.

Kujulo studied the alley. He held his own sword a bit awkwardly. Not too demonstratively, just enough to make him seem like a caravan master instead of an experienced soldier. From the corner of his eye, he saw that Valentinian's grip was expert—just as, out of that same corner, he had seen the blinding speed with which the cataphract had drawn the blade.

"Can you just try not to seem like the perfect killer," he muttered sourly.

Valentinian ignored him. His dark eyes were riveted on the alley mouth.

Again, motion. A dacoit emerged, slowly, clutching his throat. His eyes were gaping wide and his face was pale. Blood was pouring through his fingers. He took two steps into the street before his knees collapsed and he toppled onto his face.

Another dacoit came, this one like a limp rag being slapped against the mudbrick wall of the nearest building which formed the alley's corner. The front of his clothing was a red blotch and his head was sagging. He was being held by the scruff of the neck by another man.

"Rob me, will you?" snarled the man who held him. A knife flashed into the dacoit's back, flashed again. Then, contemptuously, the man tossed the would-be robber's body onto that of his fellow.

Valentinian studied him carefully. The man was average in height, but very wide-shouldered. His hawk face was sharp and angry. He strode into the street, stooped like a raptor, and wiped the gore off his dagger on the clothing of his last victim.

Then, straightening and sheathing the weapon, he glared at Kujulo and the Romans.

"And you?" he demanded.

Kujulo sheathed his sword and raised his other hand in a placating gesture. "We are merchants, lord. No more."

The man's glare did not fade in the least. His clothing, though clean, was utilitarian and plain. "No lord, I!" he barked. Then, sneering: "But neither am I one to be troubled by dacoits. Nor any man."

Despite his belligerence, the man stepped aside and waved his hand.

"Pass by, pass by!"

Kujulo set the caravan back into motion. As they drew alongside the alley, the glaring man snorted contemptuously. "A caravan, is it? Hauling what—sheep dung?"

He shook his head sarcastically. "You'll be lucky if any stable will put up as sorry a lot as you. But I suppose the low-caste inn two streets up might do so." And with that, he was gone, vanishing back into the alley like a wraith. Neither Valentinian nor Kujulo could hear his footsteps.

"Well," mused Anastasius, "that's one way to arrange a meeting. I don't remember Antonina describing him as being quite so broad-shouldered, though. You, Valentinian?"

Valentinian seemed lost in thought. He said nothing for a few seconds. Then, softly: "I don't remember her saying he could move that quickly, either." The words seemed filled more with interest than concern. One raptor gauging another.

"Splendid," growled Kujulo. "You will remember that we didn't come all this way to fight a duel on a mountainside?"

Valentinian's narrow smile made an appearance. "No danger of that. I don't believe he's any more taken by dramatic public duels than I am."

The words did not seem to bring much reassurance. The sour expression was still on Kujulo's face when the caravan pulled up before the inn. Nor was his displeasure primarily caused by the obvious dilapidation of the establishment.

One raptor gauging another.

"Splendid," he growled.

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Chapter 13

MARV

Summer, 533 A.D.

"How are you feeling?" asked Kungas, smiling down at Irene. The expression was broader than the usual faint crack in the mask which normally did Kungas for a smile. Suspicious souls, in fact, might even take it for a . . .

"Stop grinning at me," grumbled Irene. Painfully, she levered herself up from the pallet where she had been resting. "I ache all over, that's how I'm feeling."

Now sitting up, she studied Kungas' face. Seeing that the smile showed no sign of vanishing—might even be widening, in fact!—she scowled ferociously.

"Feeling superior, are we? Enjoying the sight of the too-clever-by-half female puddled in exhaustion and fatigue? Undone by the frailty of her flesh?"

Still smiling, Kungas squatted next to her and stroked Irene's cheek. "Such a suspicious woman! Actually, no. All things considered, you are doing extremely well. The army thinks so, too."

He chuckled. "In fact, the bets are being settled right now. Most of the soldiers were wagering that you wouldn't make it as far as Damghan—much less all the way to Marv. And the ones who thought you might weren't willing to place much of a stake on it."

Irene cocked her head and listened to the gleeful sounds coming through the walls of the small tent. She had wondereda bit, not much; as preoccupied as she had been with her own misery—why so many people seemed full of good cheer. Kushans were addicted to gambling. Those were the sounds of a major bet being settled, at long odds and with a big payoff.

"So who's collecting, then?" she demanded crossly.

"The camp followers, who else? The women are getting rich."

That news lightened Irene's mood immensely. She had discovered, in the long and arduous weeks of their trek across all of Persia, that she got along very well with the Kushan women. Much to her surprise, in fact. She had assumed from the outset, without really thinking about it, that the mostly illiterate and tough women who had become the camp followers of the none-too-literate and very tough army of Kungas would have nothing in common with her.

In many ways, of course, they didn't. Irene was sophisticated and cosmopolitan in a way that those women never would be, any more than the soldiers to whom they were attached. But women in Kushan society enjoyed far greater freedom than Irene would have expected in a society forged in the mountains and deserts of central Asia.

Perhaps that was because of the practical needs of the Kushan dispersal after the Ye-tai conquest of their homeland, and the later policies of their Malwa overlords. But Irene liked to think it was the legacy of the Sarmatians who had once, in the days of Alexander, ruled the area that would eventually become the Kushan empire. The Scythians whom the Sarmatians displaced had kept women in a strictly subordinate position. But every Sarmatian girl, according to ancient accounts, was taught to ride a horse. And—so legend had it, at least—was expected to fight alongside the men, armed and armored, and was even forbidden to marry until she had slain an enemy in battle.

Perhaps that was all idle fancy. The Kushan women, for all their undoubted toughness, were not expected to fight except under extreme circumstances. But, for whatever reason, Irene had found that the Kushan women took a certain sly pleasure in her own ability to discomfit, time after time, the self-confident men who marched under Kungas' banner.

Even the banner itself was Irene's, after all. None of the Kushans, not even Kungas, had given much thought to a symbol. They had simply assumed they would, as was custom, use some sort of simple device—a colored strip of cloth, perhaps, wound about their helmets.

Irene, guided by her own intelligence and many hours spent in discussion with Belisarius and Aide, had decreed otherwise. And so, as the Kushan army made its trek across Asia, its progress was marked by the great fluttering banners which Irene had designed. She had stolen her designs from the ancient Sarmatians and the Mongols of what would have been the future: a bronze dragon's head with a wind sock trailing behind, and the horsetail banners below it. Very flashy and dramatic, it was.

"If you are able to move," said Kungas softly, "I could use your help. Things are coming to a head."

Irene winced. At the moment, moving was the last thing she wanted to do. Accustomed all her life to the soft existence of a wealthy Greek noblewoman, the grueling trek had taxed her severely. Her brain understood well enough that exercising her aching muscles was the best remedy for what ailed her. But her body practically shrieked in protest.

Still, she understood immediately the nature of Kungas' problem. And knew, as well, that she was the best person to solve it. Partly because of her skill at diplomacy. And partly—

She sniffed disdainfully. "And once again! Allow stubborn men to compromise because all of them can blame their soft-headedness on a feeble and fearful woman. There's no justice in the world, Kungas."

Her husband's smile had faded back into the familiar crack-in-the-casting. "True enough," he murmured. "But it's such an effective tactic."

"Help me up," she hissed. "And you'll probably have to carry me."

* * *

In the event, Irene managed the task on her own two feet. Mincing through the marketplace in Marv, she even had the energy to stop along the way and banter with the Kushan women who had set up their impromptu stalls everywhere. She ignored resolutely all of Kungas' little signs of impatience and unease. First, she needed the periodic rest. Second—and more important—the attitude of the women would influence the army. Having found that secret weapon, she intended to use it to maximum advantage.

Eventually, she and Kungas made their way into the small palace which had served the former commander of the Malwa garrison for his headquarters. It was an ancient edifice. The Kushans had built it originally, centuries earlier, as a regional palace. Before the Malwa came, it had served the same purpose for the Sassanids after they conquered the western half of the Kushan empire. The Persian conquerors had decreed the former Kushan land to be one of their shahrs—the equivalent of a royal provinceand, most significantly, had included it within the land of Iran proper.

Which was the source of the current controversy, of course. Now that Kungas had retaken Marv, with the help of Baresmanas and some two thousand Persian dehgans assigned by Emperor Khusrau to accompany the Kushan expedition (that far, and no farther), the question which had once been abstract was posed in the concrete.

Who was to be the new ruler of the region?

The Kushans, naturally enough, inclined to the opinion that Marv, originally theirs to begin with, should be theirs again. The more so since they had done the actual work of driving the Malwa garrison out of the walled city. The Persians had done nothing more than pursue and harry already broken troops trying to flee through the oasis which surrounded Marv.

The Persians, on the other hand . . .

As Irene passed through the entrance, she heaved a small sigh. Relief from the sun's heat, to some extent; mostly, exasperation at the typical haughtiness of Persians. Even Baresmanas was being stiff over the matter. Although Irene suspected that was due more to stiff instructions from Khusrau than his own sentiments.

Moving slowly and painfully, Kungas at her side ready to lend a hand if need be, Irene made her way through the narrow corridors of the palace. The walls of the palace were thick, due as much to the need for insulation from summer's heat and winter's cold as the crude nature of the original design. Narrow corridors made for a gloomy walk, and Irene took the time to steel herself for the coming fray. She let the darkness of the corridor feed her soul, swelling the stark message that she bore with her to the people who had adopted her as their queen.

By the time she and Kungas reached the chamber where the quarrel was raging, Macrembolitissa the spymaster had vanished. Queen Irene of the Kushans was the woman who made her entrance.

"Silence," she decreed. Then, gratefully easing herself into a chair immediately presented by one of the Kushan officers, she nodded at Baresmanas and the three Persian officers standing by him.

"I agree with you, Baresmanas, and will see it done. Now please leave. We Kushans must discuss this matter in private."

Baresmanas bowed and complied immediately. Within seconds, he and the other Persians had left the room. Immediately, the stunned silence into which Irene's pronouncement had cast the half dozen Kushans in the room—not Kungas; he was silent but not stunned in the least—began to erupt in a quickly-growing murmur of protest.

"Silence!" she decreed again. Then, after sweeping them with a cold gaze, she snorted sarcastically. "Boys! Stupid boys! Quarreling over toys and trinkets because you cannot see an adult horizon."

She leaned forward in the chair—not allowing any trace of the spike of pain that movement caused to show in her face—and pointed an imperious finger to the narrow window which looked to the northeast. "In that direction lies our destiny, not this miserable region of dust and heat."

Kungas smiled, very faintly. Knowing Irene's purpose, and supporting it, he still felt it necessary to maintain his own dignity. He was the king, after all, not she. He was what Romans would have called the man of the house, after all, not she.

"It is one of the most fertile oases in central Asia, wife. A fertility only made possible by our own irrigation works. Which we—not Persians nor Ye-tai nor Malwa—constructed long ago."

Irene shrugged. "True. And so what? The center of Kushan strength will lie, as it always did, in our control of the great mountains to the east. The Hindu Kush—that must be the heart of our new realm. That, and the Pamirs."

The last sentence brought a stillness to the room. The Pamirs were even harsher mountains than the Hindu Kush. No one had ever really tried to rule them, in anything but name.

Irene smiled. The expression was serene, self-confident; erasing all traces of her former sarcasm and derision.

"You are thinking too small," she said quietly. "Much too small. Thinking only of the immediate task of reconquering our ancient homeland, and holding it from the Malwa. But what of our future? What of the centuries which will come thereafter?"

Vasudeva, who had become the military commander of Kungas' army, began tugging gently at the point of his goatee. Now that his initial outrage was fading, the canny general was remembering the fundamental reason that all of the Kushans had greeted Kungas' marriage with enthusiasm.

The damned Greek woman was smart.

"Explain." Then, remembering protocol: "If you would be so kind, Your Majesty."

Irene grinned, and with that cheerful expression came a sudden relaxation spreading through the room. The hard-bitten Kushan soldiers, for all that Irene's ways often puzzled and bemused them, had also come to feel a genuine fondness for the woman as well as respect for her intelligence. Irene, grinning, was a thing they both liked and trusted. They too, when all was said and done, had a sense of humor.

"We are too small to hold Marv, Vasudeva. That is the simple truth. Today, yes—with the Persians forced into an alliance with us. If we drive the issue, Baresmanas will accede. But what of the time after Malwa has fallen, when the Persians will seek to lick their wounds by new triumphs, new additions to their realm?"

The Kushans stared at her. Then, slowly, one by one, they pulled up chairs and took their seats. It did not occur to any of them, at the time, to ask permission of their king and queen to do so. And, remembering the omission later, they would be pleased at the fact that neither of their monarchs—for this was a dual monarchy, in all but name—took the least umbrage at their casual informality.

It did not even occur to Irene to do so, actually. She was at heart a thinker, and had always enjoyed thoughtful conversation. Seated on a proper chair—not a damned saddle.

"Think, for once," she continued, after all were seated. "Think of the future, not the past. What we can control militarily—can hold against anyone, once we have built the needed fortifications—are the mountains. But those mountains cannot provide the wealth we need for a prosperous kingdom. That, in a nutshell, is the problem we face."

She paused. Quickly, all the Kushans nodded their heads. Once she was sure they were following her logic, she went on.

"Only two avenues are open to us, to overcome that quandary. The first is to seize fertile areas in the lowlands, such as Marv . . ." She waited, just a moment, before adding: "And the Punjab, which I know many of you are assuming we will."

Again, the Kushans began to stiffen. And, again, Irene's lips twisted into an expression of scorn.

"Spare me! I know Peshawar is in the Punjab—just at the edge of it, at least. And one of the holiest cities of the Buddhist faith." She pressed herself back into the chair, using her hands on the armrests as a brace. The motion brought some relief to the ache in her lower spine. "The Vale of Peshawar we can claim, easily enough. So long as we make no claims to the Punjab itself."

She hesitated, thinking. "I am fairly certain that we can claim Mardan and its plain as well, with the Buddhist holy sites at Takht-i-Bahi and Jamal Garhi. Unless I am badly mistaken, Belisarius will allow the Persians to take the Sind. Once Malwa has fallen, therefore, it will be the Rajputs and—I suspect, at least—the Persians who will be our principal competitors for the wealth of the Punjab. Let them have it—so long as we control Peshawar and Mardan."

"And the Kohat pass!" chimed in Kungas. Very energetically, the way a proper husband corrects a minor lapse on the part of his wife.

Irene nodded. Very demurely, the way a proper wife accepts her husband's correction. "And the pass." Then, with a sniff: "Let others squabble over the town of Kohat itself. A Pathan town! More grief than anything else."

Vima, another of the top officers of the Kushan army, now spoke up. "In essence, what you propose is that we take just enough of the Punjab to protect the Khyber pass. Base our claim to Peshawar and Mardan on religious grounds, but make clear that we will not contest the Punjab itself. While, at the same time, locking our grip on the Hindu Kush."

"Yes."

Vima shook his head. "From a military point of view, Your Majesty, the logic is impeccable. But that small portion of the Punjab cannot possibly provide enough food for our kingdom. Not unless we are prepared to live like semi-barbarians, which I for one am not. A civilized nation needs agricultural area, and lots of it." Semi-apologetically: "Such as the oasis of Marv would provide us."

Irene sniffed. "Have no fear, Vima! I can assure you that I am even less inclined than you to live like a semi-barbarian." She shuddered. "God, can you imagine it! Me? Spending half my life in a saddle?"

The Kushans all laughed. But Irene was pleased to see that the laughter contained not a trace of derision. She had made her way to Marv in a saddle, after all. Resolutely spurning each and every suggestion that she ride in a palanquin, or even one of the carts which the camp followers used.

A warrior nation, the more so when it was striking a lightning blow at their hated enemy, needed a warrior queen who would not delay them with her frailties. Her illustrious Roman pedigree had pleased the Kushans, for it brought a certain glamor and aura of legitimacy to their cause. But they did not need the reality of the weak flesh it came in. So, using her intelligence and iron will to stifle that flesh, Irene had submitted to the pain. And for all that they might jest about it, the Kushan soldiers understood and respected her for it.

Once the humor of the moment had settled in, Irene shook her head. "I said there were two alternatives, Vima. You have overlooked the other. A kingdom—a rich kingdom—can also base itself on trade. And, over time, the expansion which trade brings in its wake."

Again, she pointed to the northeast, in a gesture which was even more imperious. Then, regally, swept it slowly to the west—until half the northland had been encompassed by her finger.

"The north. From the Tien Shan mountains to the Aral Sea. We will not dispute the Punjab with the Rajputs, nor the oases and badlands of Khorasan with the Persians. Let them toil in the fields. Let them maintain the dikes and canals. We will control all the passes which connect the land of the Aryans to India, and both of them to distant China. We—with our military power rooted in the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs—will reap the benefits from those ancient trade routes. Which, with Malwa gone and ourselves to maintain order, will spring back like giant trees."

Kungas chimed in again. This time, not as a husband correcting his wife, but as a king allied with his queen. "Yes. And under our rule, all of Transoxiana will flourish anew. Bukhara, Samakhand, Tashkent—our cities, they will be, reborn from the ashes. And great metropolises they will become, to rival Constantinople or Ctesiphon or Kausambi."

All the Kushan generals, as was their custom, were now tugging the tips of their goatees. Vima and Huvishka were even fondling their topknots, the sure sign of a Kushan warrior lost deep in thought.

"Difficult," murmured Vasudeva. "Difficult." His goatee-tugging became vigorous. "Beyond Transoxiana lie the great steppes. Time after time, fierce tribes have come sweeping down from that vastness, burning and pillaging all in their wake. No one has ever managed to stymie them, for more than a century or two. We ourselves came from that place, and were in turn overrun by the Ye-tai after civilization made us soft. Why would it not happen again?"

Irene laughed. With delight, not sarcasm. As was true of any enthusiast trained in the dialectic of Socrates, nothing pleased her more than a well-posed question. Like a fat lamb it was, stretched bleating on the altar.

"Guns, Vasudeva! Guns! Those steppe nomads have never been numerous. You know as well as I that the accounts of `hordes' are preposterous. It was always their mounted mobility combined with archery which made them so formidable. But firearms are superior to bows, and no primitive nomads can make the things. Once civilization became armed with guns, the threat from the steppes vanished soon enough."

She leaned forward. This time, her enthusiasm was so great that she barely noticed the pain that movement caused her. "I spent many hours, with Belisarius, speaking with the Talisman of God. Let me now pass on to you what the Talisman told me of the future. Of a great nation that would someday have been called Russia, and how it conquered the steppes."

And so, until long after nightfall, Irene told her Kushans of the great realm they would create. The realm that she called by the odd name of Siberia. A realm which would be created slowly, not overnight. More by traders and explorers and missionaries than armies of conquest—though armies would also come, when needed, from the secure fastnesses of the great mountains which bred them. Slowly, but surely for all that.

Let the Kushans avoid entanglements with Indians and Persians, and there was no power to stymie their purpose in Siberia. The distant Chinese, as ever, were preoccupied with their own affairs. The other power that might contest the area, the nation that would have been called Russia in a different future, was still centuries from birth. Whether it would be born in this new future was not something which Irene could foresee. But, even if it were, it would remain forever on the far side of the Urals. Siberia, with all the great wealth in its vast expanse, would be Kushan.

And so, while the Kushans built the foundation of their own future, they would also shield the rest of civilization from the ravages of barbarism. Having no cause for quarrel over territory, the Romans and the Persians and the Indians would acquiesce in the Kushan control of the great trade routes through central Asia. Might even, when called upon, send money to defray the costs of holding back the barbarians.

In the end, the queen's soldiers were satisfied. The queen's plan appealed to their military caution in the present as much as to their political ambitions for the future. They were small and weak, still. By planting their roots in the protected mountains, not exposing them to the peril of the oases and the plains of the Indus, they would lay the basis for the great Buddhist empire which would eventually spread throughout half of Asia. To the north!

* * *

As they made their way back to their tent, Irene still mincing her steps, Kungas allowed the smile to spread across his face. In the darkness, illuminated only by the cookfires and the few lanterns in the market, there was no one to see that unusually open expression on the king's face.

"That went marvelously well. Tomorrow, of course, you will twist the screw on Baresmanas."

Irene grimaced. Not at the thought of the next day's negotiations, but simply because her back now seemed like a sea of fire. "He'll shriek with agony," she predicted. "But he'll still give me the guns."

* * *

As it happened, Baresmanas did not squeal with pain, because he put up no more than a token resistance.

"Please! Please! I can't bear the thought of spending so many hours locked in combat." For a moment, his patrician Aryan face took on a severity which the most rigid Roman paterfamilias would have envied. "Not for myself, of course! Perish the thought. But you are a frail woman, in much pain because of the rigors of the journey. So my chivalrous instincts seem to have overwhelmed me. The guns are yours, Irene. The cannons, at any rate. Khusrau insisted that I hang onto the hand-held firearms."

"I want half of them as well," snapped Irene. The pain was making her grouchy. "And three-fourths of the powder and bullets. Your damned dehgans can't use the things properly anyway—and you know it as well as I do!"

Baresmanas shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "I foresaw this. Even warned the emperor!" He sighed again, and shook his head ruefully. "Ah, well. We Aryans have always been noted for our chivalry. I am a pawn in your hands."

Irene eased herself back into her own chair, again using the pressure of her hands on the armrests to stifle the pain in her spine. Then, smiled cheerfully. "Oh, don't be so gloomy. Khusrau can hardly punish you very severely, after all. Not with your own daughter being the new Empress of Rome! That might start a new war."

* * *

Three days later, the entire Kushan army departed Marv, leaving Baresmanas and his Persians in sole possession of the fertile oasis. With them went all of the Kushan artisans whom Lord Damodara had resettled in Marv the year before, in the course of his own campaign in the Persian plateau. The Kushan artisans wanted no part of Aryan rule. The Persians were notorious for their haughty ways.

But, still more, they were fired with enthusiasm for the Kushan cause. Most of them, after all, had come from Begram in the first place. And that city—the largest Kushan city in the world, and the center of Kushan industry and craftsmanship—was where Kungas proposed to march next. March upon it—and take it.

* * *

So, as Irene minced her way toward her horse, the Kushan camp followers and the new artisan families which had joined them cheered her on her way. Even more loudly than the Kushan soldiers, who were themselves cheering.

Before she reached the horse, several Kushan soldiers trotted up bearing a palanquin. They urged her to avail herself of the device—even offered, against all custom, to bear it themselves instead of putting slaves to the purpose.

Irene simply shook her head and minced past them. Behind her back, she could hear the gleeful sounds of the wagers being settled.

"The next time I see Antonina," she muttered bitterly, under her breath, "I'm going to have some harsh words to say to her on the subject of staring at a horse."

* * *

Three hours into the march, a party of Kushan women trotted their horses up to ride alongside her. Five of them, there were, all quite young. The oldest was no more than twenty, the youngest perhaps fifteen.

Irene was surprised. Not by the sight of Kushan women on horseback, which was uncommon but by no means considered outlandish. But by the fact that all five of them had swords belted to their waists, had bows and quivers attached to their saddles, and held lances in their hands.

"We're your new bodyguard," announced the oldest proudly. "Don't let anyone tell you otherwise!"

"The king said it was suitable," said the youngest. Very stiffly, as if she expected contradiction and argument.

The oldest, apparently fearing the same, rushed further words to the fore. "We checked with the oldsters. Every one of us—every one!—has Sarmatian ancestors." A bit uncertainly: "Some ancestors, anyway. All Kushans do, after all."

Irene grinned. "Splendid! I couldn't have asked for a better bodyguard. I feel better already."

The queen's sarcastic wit had already become famous among her Kushan subjects. So, still uncertain, the young women stared at her anxiously.

Irene erased whatever trace of humor might have been on her face. "I'm quite serious," she said serenely. "I'm sure you'll do well enough, if I'm ever attacked. But what's even more important is that you'll guard me against the real enemy."

The oldest girl laughed. "Boredom! Men never know what to talk about, on a march. Except their stupid wagers."

At the mention of wagers, all the girls looked smug. Irene was quite certain that every one of them had just gained a significant increase in their wealth.

"Do any of you know how to read?" she asked.

Seeing the five girls shake their heads, Irene's sarcasm returned in full force.

"Typical! Well, there'll be none of that, my fine young ladies. If you expect to be my bodyguard, you'll damned well learn how to read! I can teach you from saddleback—you watch and see if I can't."

Serene calm returned. "That way we'll really have some fine conversations, in the weeks and months ahead. Not even women, when you get right down to it, are superhuman. Ha! I sometimes wonder what those stupid illiterate goddesses talked about, other than sewing and seduction."

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Framed

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Chapter 14

CHARAX

Summer, 533 A.D.

Antonina surveyed the large crowd piled into the reception chamber of Emperor Khusrau's palace. Whatever else changes, she thought ruefully, Persians will always insist on their pomp and ceremony.

The palace had once belonged to the imperial official in charge of overseeing Charax. After they seized the city, the Malwa had made the building their military headquarters. Then, once Belisarius had retaken the city, the palace had been returned to the Persians. But since Khusrau had decided to plant himself in Charax for the duration of the war, the building had assumed full imperial trappings. True, the Persians had not insisted on reconstructing the entire edifice. Not with the dynamic and practical Khusrau as their emperor. But they had patched up the war damage, repainted every surface, hauled every conceivable manner of statuary and decoration from the imperial capital of Ctesiphon. And, most of all—or so it seemed to Antonina, scanning the scene—packed it with every grandee in the far-flung Persian empire.

God, will you look at that crowd! Like sardines in an amphora.

She spotted Ousanas and a handful of Axumite officers in a nearby alcove off the main audience chamber. The Ethiopians had brought some of their beloved stools, and were ensconced upon them circling a small table piled high with goblets and wine jugs. The table was obviously Persian in design, and Antonina wondered idly how the Axumites had managed to obtain the thing. There was not a single table to be seen anywhere else in the jam-packed audience hall, or any of the other alcoves she could see.

Probably by threatening mayhem on the majordomo. She emitted a faint chuckle. Which also explains the relative population scarcity in that alcove. Even Persian grandees get nervous around testy Axumites.

The Axumites, like the Romans, were now allies of the Persian empire. But the Ethiopians had very little of the Roman patience with imperial protocol and the elaborate social finery which went with it. There had been any number of minor clashes between the Axumites and the Persians. None of those clashes had been violent, other than a handful of brawls in the dock area between sailors, but the Persian grandees generally avoided the company of Ethiopians except when it was absolutely necessary. An attitude which the Axumites reciprocated in full.

Ousanas spotted her and waved a hand, inviting her to join them. Antonina smiled, shook her head, and wiggled her fingers. Understanding the meaning of the gesture, Ousanas grinned at her and went back to his carousing.

Antonina sighed. "Somebody," she grumbled under her breath, "has to maintain diplomatic appearances."

Glumly, she eyed the mob between her and the emperor. Khusrau, perched on a throne atop a dais at the far end of the audience hall, was the only person sitting in the entire chamber. Antonina estimated that it would take her ten minutes to squeeze her way up to Khusrau's august presence in order to tender her official Roman diplomatic regards.

And twice that long to squeeze my way out, battling against the flow. I'll be mashed like a grape by the time it's over.

She had forgotten about her bodyguards.

"Allow us," murmured Matthew's voice, coming from behind her. Behind her, and well above her, for Matthew was practically a giant.

A moment later, Matthew and Leo were plowing a path for Antonina through the crowd. Following in their wake, she was almost amazed at the speed they were making. The more so, since the two bodyguards were actually being quite gentle in their methods. Neither Matthew nor Leo was carrying any weapons, for such were forbidden in the presence of the emperor. They didn't even use their hands, just the inexorable forward movement of their immense bodies. But the combination of their size, stolidity—and Leo's truly hideous-ugly features—worked like a charm. Within two minutes, Antonina had arrived at the foot of the emperor's throne.

Seeing her, Khusrau smiled and leaned over.

"You really don't have to do this," he murmured. "It's all a pure formality, since I'll be seeing you tomorrow at our usual planning session."

"Yes, I do," hissed Antonina in reply. "Or else half your grandees will be whispering in your ear by the end of the night, predicting imminent Roman treachery. And you and I would have to waste all our time tomorrow figuring out ways to counteract the rumors instead of planning the campaign."

Khusrau chuckled. "And as many of your own officials, I'll wager."

Antonina shook her head firmly. "Only a third of them. Romans aren't as touchy as Aryans, Emperor." She scowled. "Which, I admit, probably comes to the same fraction of active officials. Since about one-third of my officials are so corrupt they don't pay attention to anything except counting their bribes."

Khusrau laughed aloud, this time. Hearing the sound, practically everyone in the great chamber froze for an instant. A hush fell over the room. Hundreds of eyes were riveted on the sight of the emperor laughing at a jest made by the wife of Belisarius.

In some completely indefinable manner, a certain tension seemed to ease from the room. A moment later, everyone was back to their jabbering conversation.

"And another successful maneuver," said Khusrau quietly. "Begone, Antonina. It looks far more comfortable in that alcove with those disrespectful black savages. And if I know Ousanas, the wine's even better than what my servants are dispensing."

A vague look of longing came over the emperor's face, as if he felt a certain envy at the prospect. Khusrau was an energetic and active man, and Antonina had no doubt at all he would have much preferred to squat on a stool around a convivial table of Axumite officers himself than spend hours on a massive throne in an audience chamber.

But the moment was brief, and the emperor's expression resumed its normal air of serenity. Khusrau Anushirvan was the Emperor of Iran and non-Iran, after all. And, truth to tell, he much enjoyed that status, despite its occasional drawbacks.

Antonina nodded and turned away. Three minutes later, following easily in the path cleared for her by Matthew and Leo, she was perched on a stool at the table in the alcove. Reaching, with no little eagerness, for the goblet full of wine handed to her by Ousanas.

Alas. She had barely managed to sip from the goblet when she heard someone clearing his throat behind her. Another official of some kind, demanding some small decision from her.

She was in a shorter temper than usual. "Can't this wait—" she began to snarl, turning her head. Then, seeing that it was Dryopus standing behind her, she fell silent. One of the many things she liked about Dryopus was that he did not, unlike most Roman officials, insist on passing along to his superior every petty decision to be made.

Dryopus was frowning slightly. "My apologies for disturbing you, Antonina. But I am a little concerned by the situation with the Circe. More than a little, actually."

"Why? What did the inspectors report?"

"They haven't reported, Antonina. I've not seen or heard from them since we sent them off this morning to inspect the ship."

Antonina stiffened and set the goblet down on the table. "That was hours ago!"

The cheerful conviviality had left the faces of the Axumites also. "What is wrong, Antonina?" asked Ousanas.

Quickly, Antonina sketched the situation. The stubborn reluctance—odd, under the circumstances—of the brothers Aco and Numenius to allow their ship to be used for hauling military supplies; her decision to send inspectors this morning.

"Malwa," stated Ousanas firmly. "The Circe is loaded with gunpowder, and packed with Malwa soldiery. That's a fireship, aimed at the shipping in the harbor."

His quick conclusion summed up the worst of Antonina's fears. She rose abruptly and began heading toward the entrance to the palace. Behind her, she heard the scrape of stools as the Axumites followed suit.

"That ship has been kept out of the harbor itself, hasn't it?" she asked Dryopus, who was scurrying next to her.

"Oh, yes," he assured Antonina. "Until they've been inspected, no ship is allowed past the screen of galleys into the harbor. Those were your orders from the very beginning, and I've seen to it they've been scrupulously adhered to."

Ousanas had drawn alongside her and heard Dryopus' last words.

"Won't matter," he said curtly. "The Malwa are canny, and their spies are excellent. By now, those procedures of yours have become routine. The Malwa waited until enough time had elapsed for everyone to become lackadaisical."

"The procedures have been followed," insisted Dryopus stubbornly. "Not a single ship has ever entered the actual harbor without being inspected. Not one!"

Antonina felt compelled to defend her subordinate. "He's right, Ousanas. And while I have no doubt many ships have come in carrying contraband, that's not the same thing as sabotage. No inspector, no matter how corrupt, is crazy enough to accept a bribe from a Malwa ship loaded with soldiers and weapons."

Ousanas shook his head. "The problem is not with the inspectors. It's with the galleys. By now, those soldiers and sailors are so bored with guard duty they won't be paying attention to anything."

They had reached the palace's aivan, which was doubling for the evening as a weapons repository for the nobility enjoying Khusrau's hospitality. The Axumite weaponry was as distinctive as the Ethiopians themselves, so by the time Antonina and Ousanas came up the Persian soldiers guarding the weapons had sorted them from the rest.

Ousanas himself had brought nothing but his great spear. He waited impatiently while the other Axumite officers donned their armor and attached the baldrics holding their swords. That done, the officers took up their own spears and the entire party began hurrying through the aivan.

Antonina had brought no weapons of any kind herself, and was now regretting the loss. But when she murmured something to that effect, Ousanas smiled grimly.

"Not to worry," he said. "Your maidservant was smart and efficient even before she obtained me for a paramour."

At that moment, they passed through the entrance vault of the aivan and debouched onto the street beyond. Antonina immediately spotted Koutina, squatting among a small horde of servants waiting for their masters and mistresses to emerge from the imperial soiree.

Actually, Koutina was the only one of the servants who was not squatting. She was perched comfortably on a piece of luggage standing on end. The handcrafted leather-and-brass valise was something which Koutina was in the habit of carrying with her every time she and Antonina went anywhere beyond the immediate vicinity of the small mansion Antonina had appropriated for her activities. Weeks earlier, she had requested enough money from Antonina to pay for the rather expensive item. Which Antonina had given her readily enough, of course. She had long since come to have complete confidence in Koutina's ability to manage all of Antonina's household affairs.

Antonina had wondered about that valise. The thing was rather large, and heavy enough that Koutina had had straps attached to it by which she could hoist the thing onto her shoulders. But the one time Antonina had inquired, Koutina had simply smiled and said it contained the odd necessities which might be required by some unlikely eventuality.

Koutina had spotted them even more quickly than Antonina had spotted her, and was already hurrying toward them. Koutina had clearly realized something was wrong, judging by the frown on her face. And instead of hoisting the valise onto her shoulders, she was beginning to undo the buckles holding the valise shut.

A sudden suspicion came to Antonina. "Has that thing got—?"

Ousanas snorted. "A smart and efficient woman, I said." Scowling, he eyed the western horizon and, then, the harbor area to the south. "The sun has already set. And it will be dark tonight, with a new moon. The Malwa planned this well."

Antonina was still not quite as certain of the situation as Ousanas, but she was relieved to see the contents of the valise, once Koutina opened it up and set it before her. Inside the case was Antonina's gun and her cleaver, along with the cleaver's scabbard.

"I tried to figure out a way to carry your cuirass," said Koutina apologetically, "but the leather-maker said it would require something almost the size of a trunk. And be very heavy to carry."

"Tell me about it," grumbled Antonina, buckling on the scabbard. Then, more cheerfully: "It doesn't matter, Koutina. That damned cuirass is more of a hazard than a help at sea, anyway. Which is where I'm sure we're headed. I'm just glad you were foresighted enough to bring my weapons. Thank you for that."

Koutina reacted to the praise with a simultaneous smile and frown. Smiling: "You're welcome." Frowning: "You shouldn't be using them at all!" Koutina pointed an accusing finger at Matthew and Leo: "That's what they're here for!"

Matthew looked embarrassed. Leo might have scowled, but it was hard to tell. Leo always looked like he was scowling.

For a moment, Antonina considered summoning a palanquin. But she dismissed the idea immediately. It would take at least three palanquins to carry her bodyguards and the Axumites, along with herself. By the time they were assembled, they could have walked halfway to the harbor. The imperial palace was less than a mile from the docks.

The Axumites had already reached the same conclusion and were starting into a dogtrot. Antonina hurried to keep up with them. That pace was one which Ethiopian soldiers could keep up for hours. Antonina couldn't, but she was sure she could maintain it long enough to reach the harbor.

"I have no intention of mixing myself into the fray." The effort of trotting made the words came out very firmly indeed.

"You always say that," came Koutina's equally firm rejoinder. "And look what happens! At the battle with the Arabs! And you joined the assault on Lady Holi's ship!"

"Not ladylike," insisted Antonina. She was beginning to pant a little.

So was Koutina, but the maidservant wasn't about to let the issue slide. "Promises!" She gazed ahead at the darkness looming over the gulf beyond the harbor. "Are you sure we're going to have to go out on boats?" Gloomily: "I don't swim very well."

"You can stay on the docks."

"Where you go, I go. But are you sure?"

Antonina was about to reply that she wasn't really sure of anything. But, at that moment, the darkness over the waters of the gulf was suddenly streaked by flashes. A bit like horizontal lightning, perhaps.

"I'm sure," she said. "That's Malwa rocket fire. The attack has started."

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Chapter 15

They reached the docks just a few minutes later. By the time they got there, Roman officers had already organized at least eight galleys to set out into the harbor. The first of the galleys, in fact, was just beginning to cast off.

"Impressive," stated Ousanas. "The galleys guarding the harbor may have been caught napping, but the rest of your naval forces were alert."

One of the other Axumite officers laughed harshly. "It helps to have a battle erupt, to wake up dozing seamen." He studied the gulf beyond the harbor—what could be seen of it, in the darkness, which was not much—and pronounced: "The three galleys on guard have been badly hammered, I think. I haven't seen a rocket flare in over a minute, and that was only the one."

"Out of action now," agreed Ousanas. "Let's hope the survivors can row their ships ashore. But it doesn't matter." He pointed to the galleys getting ready to leave the docks. "They won't be caught by surprise. That Malwa ship will never make it into the harbor."

Antonina studied the galleys. Each one held upward of two hundred and fifty men, between the rowers and the marines. Like any war galley setting into battle, each ship was crammed with as many men as could possibly fit into it. And, except for the ram bracing at the bow, each galley was built like a cockleshell. With war galleys, almost everything was sacrificed for speed.

Then, her gaze moved further down the docks and came to rest on the Theodora Victrix. That ship, a small sailing vessel built primarily to use its fire cannon, used only a small crew. And it was very sturdily built, with a well-designed rocket shield over the bow. The principal "maneuver" of the Theodora Victrix in battle was simply to sail directly at the enemy, shrugging off missiles, until it got close enough to bathe them in a gout of hellfire.

The Victrix was also ready to cast off. Even though harbor defense was none of its normal duties, the officers and sailors of the ship had also responded to the emergency. Antonina could see Eusebius standing on the dock next to the ship, staring out to sea. The dock area was very well lit, even at night, and Antonina could recognize him easily.

"No," she said decisively. "We'll keep the galleys back, as a last defense, and use the Victrix."

She was already starting to hurry toward the Victrix, issuing orders as she went to the various naval officers on the docks. Fortunately, the commander of the harbor patrol came up to her at that moment, and she was able to delegate the task of holding back the galleys to him.

"And what about the cannons?" he asked. He pointed at the darkness which was all that could be seen of the gulf beyond the immediate harbor area. "I've had them holding their fire, because there's nothing to see and I was afraid they'd hit our own galleys."

Antonina glanced up at the fortifications above the harbor area. The snouts of a dozen huge cannons glimmered in the lantern-light.

"Keep them loaded and ready," she commanded. "When the time comes for them to start firing, I'll send up a signal rocket. Green flare."

"What'll they shoot at?" asked the commander.

Antonina grinned. "They won't have any trouble spotting the target. Trust me."

The commander nodded and left. Antonina's brief exchange with him had enabled Ousanas and the other Axumites to catch up with her. "Are you mad?" demanded Ousanas. "Why use the Victrix? The galleys can handle the matter. Quite easily, I can assure you." One of the other Ethiopians grunted his agreement.

Stubbornly, Antonina shook her head. "I don't doubt it, Ousanas. And then what?"

Seeing the look of incomprehension on his face, she sighed with exasperation. "Think, Ousanas." She jerked her head toward the still-unseen Malwa ship. "That ship—this is your own theory, man!—is packed with explosives. Enough to rupture the whole harbor. It's got to be crewed by Mahaveda. Fanatic priests. No one else could be trusted for such a suicidal mission."

Ousanas jerked a little, startled into a sudden understanding of her point. "Once the Mahaveda see they've no chance of reaching the harbor—"

"They'll wait until the galleys are surrounding them and blow the ship," Antonina finished, grimly. Again, she started hurrying toward the Victrix. "I doubt if even one of those galleys would stay afloat. Two thousand men—more than that!—would be spilled into the sea at least a mile from shore. Half of them would be dead before they hit the water. Of the rest, we'd lose half in the darkness before they could be rescued."

"At least half," muttered Ousanas, keeping pace with her. Sourly: "Why is it that Roman sailors refuse to learn how to swim? No Axumite soldier is allowed aboard a ship until he can prove—"

His comparison of the relative merits of Roman and Ethiopian sailors was broken off by Eusebius' shout of recognition.

"We're heading out!" Antonina shouted back. Under her breath: "Or whatever the proper damned nautical expression is."

"Don't sneer at proper nautical terms, woman," chuckled Ousanas. "They're all that's going to make this crazy scheme of yours work. Or hadn't you noticed that we'll be sailing before the wind?"

Guiltily, Antonina realized that she hadn't given any thought at all to the matter. She must have made a little start of surprise herself, because Ousanas immediately laughed.

"I thought not!"

They were almost at the Victrix. By now, Antonina was starting to pant with the exertion of their race from the palace. But she managed to gasp out: "Will we be able to do it?"

Ousanas grimaced. "The wind's right. And the current will be with us. So we'll be able to sail down on them quickly, while they're struggling to row up into the harbor. But once the contact's made—"

They were at the Victrix now. Antonina answered Eusebius' babbled questions by simply grabbing him and marching him ahead of her across the gangplank. By the time she and Ousanas were aboard, Eusebius was clear on his duties and was beginning to issue the needed commands.

Antonina hurried forward and entered the enclosed section of the bow. Inside the heavy and well-built rocket shield, the light cast by the lanterns on the docks and the few on the ship was blocked completely. She groped her way to the vision slits and stared into the distance. Everything in the gulf was pitch-black now. Belatedly, she realized she hadn't given any thought at all to the most basic problem: how will we spot the enemy?

Fortunately, Ousanas had thought about it. She heard him entering the shield a few seconds later. "I just checked with Eusebius, Antonina. The Victrix carries twenty rockets equipped with flares, for night operations. In addition to the usual signal rockets. We should be able to spot the Malwa ship once we get out of the harbor."

The Victrix was getting underway. Antonina could feel the motion of the ship, as well as hear the sounds of the sailors hurrying about their tasks. Eusebius' shrill voice periodically rose above everything else.

Some part of her was saddened to recognize John of Rhodes' training in the confidence with which Eusebius issued his commands. Antonina remembered the first time she met Eusebius, years before, at her estate in Daras. John had employed him to assist in the work of designing the new gunpowder weapons. For all his brilliance as an artificer, young Eusebius had been as shy and socially awkward a man as she had ever met in her life.

No longer. Eusebius would never have more than a portion of John's casual ease of command, true, but he had come very far from where he started. That was only one of the many legacies which John of Rhodes had left behind him, and Antonina took a moment again to grieve his loss.

Only a moment, however. There was a battle to be fought and won.

She turned away from the view-slit and began groping in the darkness. "Help me find the igniters, Ousanas, so we can light the lanterns. They should be in a cabinet around here somewh—never mind."

She'd found the cabinet, and quickly pried it open. Feeling her way, she found one of the ignition devices she was seeking. A few seconds later, the first of the lanterns located inside the shelter was lit, and she was finally able to see something.

The first thing she saw was Koutina, squeezed into the shelter alongside Matthew and Leo.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded.

Koutina smiled shyly, and held up the valise. "You didn't take your gun. Only the cleaver. So I thought I should bring it along. Just in case."

Antonina sighed, half with exasperation and half with affection. "You shouldn't be here at all. But it's too late to do anything about it now. So leave the valise here and get below decks." She looked to Matthew. "See to it, please."

Koutina started to squawk some kind of protest, but Matthew had her ushered out of the shelter before she could finish the first sentence.

The next thing Antonina saw, in the lantern-light, was Ousanas' big grin.

"And what are you doing here?" he demanded. "You've got no more business here than she does."

Antonina shook her head irritably. "I could ask the same of you, Ousanas! This is a Roman ship, not an Axumite one."

"I've gotten accustomed to watching out for you," he replied, as he finished lighting the rest of the lanterns. He placed the igniter back in the cabinet and shrugged.

"But I told my officers to stay back on the docks. There's no good reason to risk them on this expedition." He eyed the large, complicated-looking gadget which filled the center of the shelter. "What they know about using Greek fire cannons would fill the world's smallest book."

That comment drew Antonina's own eyes to the fire cannon. With the lanterns lit, the true nature of the "bow shelter" was apparent. She was reminded, forcefully, that the shelter could more accurately be called a "turret." An unmoving one, true. But a turret nonetheless.

For the first time since the crisis started, she felt a trace of hesitation and unease. In truth, although she understood the basic workings of the device, Antonina had no real idea how to operate it under combat conditions. Under any conditions, actually.

At that moment, Eusebius came into the bow shelter. The relaxed and casual glance he gave the fire cannon reassured Antonina. However awkward Eusebius might still be in social situations, he was as adept an artificer and mechanic as any in the world.

"You'll have to operate the cannon," she pronounced.

Eusebius' eyes widened. Who else? was the obvious thought behind that startled expression. Antonina found herself forcing down a giggle.

"Good," she pronounced. "That's settled. What do you want me and Ousanas to do?"

Eusebius looked back and forth from each to the other. "You, I mostly just want to stay out of the way, Antonina. Except for telling me what you want done." He eyed Ousanas' spear. "Him, I'd just as soon keep around. Never know. The Victrix isn't designed for boarding operations. But—you never know."

"We're not going to be doing any boarding, Eusebius. In fact, I want to stay as far away from that oncoming Malwa ship as possible. It's bound to be crammed with gunpowder and every incendiary device known to man."

Eusebius nodded. He'd obviously figured that much out himself. "You just want to torch it, and get as far away as possible before it blows. But the Malwa may have their own plans, and so I can't say I'm sorry to see Ousanas and that spear of his in the area. We only have a handful of marines to fend off any boarding attempt."

He came forward, edging his way around Antonina—the fire cannon in the center made the turret a cramped place—and peered through the viewing slit. "Can't see a damn thing. I've got the crew ready to start sending up flares. Probably ought to send up the first one very soon. We've got no idea how close that enemy ship has gotten by now."

"Go ahead and fire it off, then. But not the green one; that's my signal to the battery," said Antonina.

Eusebius worked his way past her again. Just as he reached the open space at the rear of the turret, leading to the deck beyond, a sudden thought came to Antonina.

"Eusebius! I'm puzzled by something. If we have flare rockets, why doesn't the battery guarding the harbor? I'd think they could handle bigger ones, in fact."

Again, Eusebius' eyes widened. If anything, he seemed more startled than before. "They could, actually. Much bigger ones. Big enough to reach several miles out to sea and light up the whole area enough for the battery to have a target even at night."

He cleared his throat. "As to why—? Well, the basic reason is that nobody ever thought of it." He ducked his head and scuttled out of the turret.

Ousanas chuckled. "War is too serious a business to leave in the hands of men, Antonina."

"My thoughts exactly!" She turned back to the viewing slit and peered into the darkness. "Mind you, they're handy to have around. When the crude muscular stuff actually happens."

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Chapter 16

A few minutes later, the first flare went off. Her face pressed against one of the viewing slits in the shield, Antonina scanned the dark sea looking for any sign of the approaching Malwa suicide ship.

She didn't have very long to spot anything. When the flare erupted, about three hundred feet above the sea, it cast a very satisfactory light over a large area. But the parachute failed to deploy, and the spent rocket plunged into the water after providing only a short moment of illumination.

"Damn the thing!" She turned her head and glared at Eusebius. "What went wrong?"

Eusebius didn't seem greatly perturbed. "What usually happens." He straightened up from his own viewing slit and shrugged. "Those flare rockets are pretty crude, Antonina. Not much more sophisticated, except for the venturi, than the simplest Malwa rockets. Well over half the time, the propellant fires too unevenly—or too hot, or both—and burns through the parachute rigging before the flare goes off."

"Why don't we fix the problem?" she grumbled.

"Not worth it. That'd make for very expensive rockets. The way it is, we can carry plenty of them." He turned his head and bellowed—shrilled, more precisely—an order for another flare to the seamen waiting at the rocket trough just behind the bow shield. They were obviously expecting the order, and the next flare went up seconds later.

"The trick," said Eusebius softly, as he pressed his eyes back to the slit, "is not to try to scan the whole area. I always assume the rocket is going to malfunction, so I always start by scanning the area just ahead. Then, for the next one, the area to my left. Then—"

He broke off. The second flare erupted—and, again, plunged almost immediately into the sea.

Antonina slapped the side of the shield in frustration. "Couldn't see anything!"

Eusebius was already shrilling another order. Then, turned back again to the viewslit. "Nothing in front of us or to the left. Now we'll see what it looks like to starboard."

Antonina held her breath. Then, erupted in more cursing. Louder, this time. The parachute for the third flare had deployed satisfactorily. But the flare itself failed to ignite, and the only light shed was the faint glow of a still-smoldering rocket fuselage as it drifted gently down to the waves.

"Another!" shrilled Eusebius.

But that flare became almost a moot point. Just before Eusebius issued the command, Antonina suddenly saw the enemy vessel. It was well illuminated by the back flash of a rocket volley sent their way by the Malwa. Clearly enough, the three rockets sent up by the Romans had provided the enemy with a target.

"Stupid," muttered Eusebius. "They're still three hundred yards off. They should have waited."

Antonina held her breath. But Eusebius' confidence proved justified. Five of the six rockets fired by the Malwa missed the Roman vessel by a good fifty-yard margin—one of them even exploding in midair almost as soon as it left the enemy ship. The Malwa too, clearly enough, were plagued with malfunctioning missiles.

The last missile caromed off the sea surface and skipped past the Victrix, missing the stern by not more than ten feet.

Antonina turned her head and saw Ousanas pressing himself into the entrance of the bow shield. There wasn't much room, with the three-man crew staffing the fire cannon. The Ethiopian aqabe tsentsen grinned at her.

"Getting hot now," he said. "Much cooler in here, behind these splendid shields."

Ironically, the fourth Roman flare went off perfectly. Looking back through her viewslit, Antonina could see that the Malwa ship was now perfectly illuminated.

"You should get back now also, Antonina," muttered Eusebius. His tone was half-apologetic, but firm for all that. "There's really nothing more for you to do. Everything's clear enough from here on. They're struggling against the wind and the current, and we're sailing right for them. Everything works for us now. They have to use oars, which means they can't fire too many more broadsides without losing way completely. And pretty soon we'll be coming at them bow-on anyway. I doubt they'll be able to fire more than two rockets at a time."

Reluctantly, Antonina backed away from the viewslit and began edging her way to the rear. Between the cramped space and her own voluptuous figure, getting past the two fire-cannon handlers on her side was a bit of a chore.

"Good thing you aren't wearing that obscene breastplate of yours," said Ousanas. "Or those men are crippled. Instead of enflamed with passion."

Antonina burst out laughing. The two cannon men tried to restrain their own laughter, but not with any great success. One of them shook his head ruefully, as he made a last minute adjustment to the complicated machinery of the flamethrower.

Some cool, calculating part of Antonina's mind recognized that their easy humor was a subtle indication of the respect and affection in which she was held by the soldiers and sailors under her command. Whatever resentment they might once have felt, being led by a woman—even if she was the wife of Belisarius—seemed to have vanished over the course of the two years since she had set sail from Constantinople.

And the same part of her mind, as she finally reached the rear of the shelter and squatted next to Ousanas, also finally understood something about her husband. She had often heard Maurice and Belisarius' bodyguards grumble at the general's stubborn insistence on exposing himself to danger. A characteristic which she, also, had always considered nothing more than childishness—even stupidity. But now, examining her own reluctance to leave the viewslit for the relative safety of the rear of the shield, she finally understood. Over the last two years, she too had internalized her own position of power and authority. And found the same profound distaste for ordering other people into danger if she was not prepared to share it herself.

Ousanas seemed to read her thoughts. "It's still stupid," he murmured. "Eusebius is perfectly correct—there's nothing further you can do now."

She stared up at him. Even squatting as they both were, the tall African hunter towered above her.

"You are a truly magnificent man, Ousanas of the lakes," she said softly. "I don't think I've ever told you that. If I weren't in love with Belisarius, I would set my sights on you."

He stared back at her. In another man, the dark eyes would have had a speculative gleam in them. Wondering if her words were a subtle invitation. But Antonina would not have spoken those words to another man. And so the eyes of Ousanas contained nothing but a soft glow of warmth and affection.

"I dare say you'd succeed, too," he chuckled. "You are quite magnificent yourself."

He shook his head, slightly. "But it probably wouldn't work, anyway. I fear with my new-found august status that my eventual marriage will be a thing of state. And I can't really see you as a concubine. A wife or a courtesan, but never a concubine."

"True," she nodded. For a moment, she paused, gauging the sounds of another oncoming Malwa volley. But her now-experienced ear recognized another miss, even before the sailor who had taken her place at the viewslit exclaimed: "Stupid bastards! They're still two hundred yards off. Waste of rockets."

"True," she repeated. Her curiosity was now aroused, and she found a welcome relief in it from the tension of simply waiting for battle to erupt. She cocked her head, smiling.

"But why wouldn't you select a high-placed Roman wife?" she asked. "Not me, of course, but someone else. It would seem a natural choice, given the new realities. I would think—certainly hope—that Axum intends to retain its alliance with Rome even after the Malwa are broken. And I'm quite sure Theodora would be delighted to round up three dozen senators' daughters for you to select from."

She spread her hands, palms up, as if weighing two things in the balance. "Granted that empires and kingdoms are fickle creatures, and not given much to sentiment. But I still can't see where the future holds any serious reason for conflict between Rome and Ethiopia. We'd gotten along well for two centuries, after all, even before the Malwa drove us into close alliance."

"I agree," said Ousanas. The abrupt forcefulness of the statement, Antonina suspected, was a reflection of Ousanas' own tension at being forced to remain idle while others prepared to fight. "But that's part of the reason why I won't. The truth is, Antonina, there's no real reason for closer ties between Rome and Axum. The same distance that keeps us from being enemies, also makes close friendship unnecessary."

Ousanas paused for a moment, staring at the fire cannon in front of him. Something in the deadly shape of the device seemed to concentrate his thoughts. His expression became sternly thoughtful.

"Eon and I have discussed this at length, many times now. And twice—I'm not sure you even know about this—I spent hours with Belisarius, questioning Aide through him."

Antonina hadn't known of those sessions, as it happened, but she wasn't particularly surprised. Ousanas was one of the few people in the world, beyond Belisarius himself, who had "communed" directly with Aide. And so he understood, in a way that almost no one else would, just how encyclopedic was the crystal's knowledge of human history—including the vast centuries and millennia that would have unfolded, had the "new gods" not brought Malwa into existence. Antonina realized that Ousanas, canny as always, would have taken advantage of that opportunity to provide himself with the knowledge he would need as the aqabe tsentsen of Axum.

Translated literally, the term meant "keeper of the fly whisks." But the position was the highest in the Axumite realm, second only to that of the negusa nagast himself. His responsibility, in essence, was to guide the Ethiopian King of Kings in shaping the destiny of his people.

"Africa is the future of Ethiopia, Antonina. Not Rome, or any other realm of the Mediterranean or Asia."

He spread his own hands, palms down, as if cupping the head of a child. "A vast continent, full of riches. Populated only—except for Ethiopia and the Mediterranean coast—with tribes of hunters and farmers. Many of whom, however, are also skilled ironworkers and miners. Organized and shaped by Ethiopian statecraft, there's a great empire there to be built."

Antonina's eyes widened. "I've never pictured you—or Eon—as conquerors. Neither of you seems to have the, ah, temperament—"

"Not bloodthirsty enough?" he demanded, grinning. Then, with a chuckle: "Statecraft, I said."

He shrugged. "I'm quite sure we will have our share of battles with barbarian tribes. But not all that many, truth to tell, and more in the nature of short wars and skirmishes than great campaigns of conquest and slaughter. Keep in mind, Antonina—I am Bantu myself—that Africa is not heavily populated. And there is no great Asian hinterland producing Huns and such to drive the other tribes forward. We expect most of the task to be one for missionaries and traders, not soldiers. Peaceful work, in the main."

He broke off. Another Malwa volley was coming—and would strike home or come close, judging from the sound.

"Two rockets!" shouted the sailor at the viewslit. "One of them—"

An instant later, the shield shook under the impact of a missile. Antonina was a bit startled. Unconsciously, she had been expecting the same deep booming sound which she remembered from her experience in the battle outside Charax's harbor the year before. But the Victrix's bow shield was no primitive, jury-rigged thing of leather stretched over poles. This warship was not a hastily converted galley. The Victrix had been designed from the keel up for this kind of battle, and the shield was a solid thing of timber clad with metal sheathing. It shrugged off the rocket as easily as a warrior's shield might shrug off a pebble thrown by a child.

"Ha!" shrilled Eusebius. "John was right! They need cannons—big ones, too, not piddly field guns—to break through this thing. And they don't have any!"

The sailor at the viewslit next to him shook his head. Antonina couldn't actually see the grin splitting his face, but she had no doubt it was there. "Not on this miserable priest-ship, anyway. Probably be a different story when we come up against the Malwa main fleet."

He turned his head toward Eusebius, showing his profile to Antonina. He was grinning. "But that's for a later day."

The sailor's grin faded. "Captain, I can handle this from here on. We're only a hundred yards off. Better see to the cannon. You're still the only one who can really use it very well."

Eusebius nodded. Watching, Antonina was struck by the little exchange. A different commander might have taken umbrage at such a semi-order coming from a subordinate. But although Eusebius had, more or less, become comfortable in his new role as a ship captain, he still had the basic habits and instincts of an artisan accustomed to working with others.

She didn't think John would have approved, really. But John was gone, and Antonina herself was not much concerned over the matter. She suspected that Eusebius' methods would probably work just as well.

And it was not her business, anyway. She forced her eyes away from Eusebius and looked at Ousanas. "Continue," she said. She spoke the word so forcefully that she was reminded, again, of her own tension.

"Not much else to say, Antonina. Axum has slowly been extending its rule to the south anyway, over the past two centuries. But heretofore the process was basically unplanned and uncoordinated. Most of our attention was focused on the Red Sea and southern Arabia. We will retain those, of course. But we will seek no further expansion in that direction. The Arab farmers and townsmen and merchants of Yemen and the Hijaz are content enough with our rule. But if we press further, we would simply embroil ourselves in endless conflicts with the bedouin of the interior—not to mention the certainty of an eventual clash with Persia. No point to any of it!"

He broke off. Another rocket volley. Both rockets, this time, struck the shield. And both were deflected just as easily and harmlessly.

"So after the war with Malwa," Ousanas resumed, "we will concentrate on the African interior—and do it properly. We will start by sending an expedition, led by myself, to incorporate the land between the great lakes which is my own homeland. That is the first step—along with seizing and settling the east African coast. At least as far south as the Pangani river. We will also seize the island of Zanzibar and build a fortress there. And we will found a new city on the coast, which will be destined to become a great seaport."

He smiled whimsically. "There are definite advantages, you understand, to Aide's knowledge of the future. Eon has even decreed that we will give that city the name it would have had, centuries from now. Mombasa."

He paused for a moment, his eyes becoming slightly unfocused. "The thing is, Eon and I are also thinking far into the future. We will not live to see it, of course—neither us nor our great-grandchildren—but we think our plans will eventually produce a very different Africa than the one which existed in the old future. In that future, Axum became isolated very soon by the Moslem conquests. And so, instead of being the conduit into Africa for that Mediterranean civilization of which we are becoming a part, Ethiopia retreated into the highlands. And there it remained, century after century, still more or less intact—but playing no further role in the history of the world or even Africa."

He cocked his head, gauging the sounds of the next Malwa volley. They were very close now, and both rockets missed entirely. Clearly enough, the priests manning the rocket troughs were getting rattled.

Eusebius and one of the sailors were now wrestling with the fire cannon's barrel, swiveling it to starboard. Unlike the rigid, single-piece construction of a normal cannon, the flamethrower was designed in such a way that the barrel could be positioned in any one of five locations, covering an arc of ninety degrees, without moving the main body of the device. One of the other sailors was removing the shield covering the rearmost firing slit on the starboard side. Eusebius, following Antonina's earlier terse instructions, intended to sail the Victrix right down the length of the Malwa galley, bathing it in hellfire as it passed. Hopefully, by the time the ship exploded, the Victrix would have sailed past far enough to avoid any catastrophic damage. Unless—

Again, Ousanas seemed to read Antonina's thoughts. "Let's hope one of those damned priests doesn't decide to blow the ship while we're alongside," he muttered. Then, a bit more brightly: "But probably not, since we're only one ship—and they'll have no way of knowing you are aboard."

"Or you," she retorted. "You are Axum's aqabe tsentsen. A Mahaveda might decide that was a satisfactory prize to take to hell with him."

Ousanas chuckled. "In the dark of night? Just another heathen black savage, that's all." He took Antonina's hand in his own and squeezed it. Then, gently, turned her wrist over and opened his palm. Her small hand, dusky-Egyptian though it was, was pale across the breadth of his own hand, black with African color.

"It means little to us, in our day," he mused, staring down at the contrast. "But a day will come—would have, at least—when that will not be so. A day when milk-white north Europeans, barbarians no longer but in some ways even more barbarous, will enslave Africans and claim that the difference in race is justification enough. A claim which they will be able to make because, for over a millennium, Africa remained isolated from world civilization."

He shook his head, smiling slightly. "Isolation is a bad thing, for a people as much as a person. So Eon and I, as best we can, will see to it that it never happens. Ethiopia's new destiny is to mother a different Africa. And I—"

His smile spread into a grin. "I am destined, I fear, to marry some half-savage creature who is even now squatting by the edge of one of the great lakes. But whose father can claim to be the `great chief' of the land." He sighed. "Hopefully, I will be able to convince the creature to learn how to read. Or, at least, not to use my books for kindling."

"Get ready!" shrilled Eusebius. One of the sailors began frenziedly working the lever which filled the fire cannon's chamber. From beyond the shield, Antonina could hear the indistinct shrieks of Mahaveda priests shouting their own orders. She thought—she hoped—to detect confusion in those sounds.

But, for the moment, she blocked all of that from her mind. She would give that moment to the man named Ousanas, for whom, over the years, she had come to feel a great loving friendship.

"You will do well," she whispered. "And I have no doubt the girl will find you just as magnificent as I do."

He grinned, gave her hand a last little squeeze, and rose to his feet. Then, reaching over and grasping the great spear which he had left propped securely against the wall of the shield, he turned toward the entrance facing aft.

"First, we must survive this battle. And I suspect the Malwa priests will be pouring over the side onto our decks." His lip curled. "Screaming refugees, pretending to be fierce boarders."

Antonina said nothing. She just basked, for a few seconds, in her enjoyment at watching Ousanas move. Antonina had always had a purely sensuous side, which reveled in the sight of handsome and athletic men. And, in the case of her husband, who was one himself, the feel of such a male body.

But no man, in her life, had ever displayed such pure masculine grace and power as Ousanas. Watching him move reminded her of nothing so much as the Greek legends of Achilles and Ajax. So, for those few seconds, Antonina was able to forget all her tension in the simple pleasure of admiration.

"Now!" shrilled Eusebius. The sailor pumping the lever ceased; another turned a valve; Eusebius himself—this was the most dangerous task—ignited the deathspew gouting from the barrel.

"Just as I said," Antonina murmured to herself, "they're so handy to have around when the crude stuff starts happening."

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Framed

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Chapter 17

The interior of the bow shield, despite its small apertures, was suddenly filled with the reflected light of the fire cannon's effects. Antonina realized, even before she heard Eusebius' shout of triumph, that the very first blast must have struck the target perfectly.

"Like painting with fire!" shrieked Eusebius gleefully. "Look at it burn!"

Before his last words were even spoken, the sound of screams came through the shield, piercing Antonina's ears.

Mahaveda priests who had been positioned at the bow, she realized. Suddenly turned into so many human torches.

For all the horror in the thought, Antonina felt not even a twinge of remorse. Truth be told, with a few exceptions such as Bishop Anthony Cassian—Patriarch Anthony, he was now—Antonina had never been fond of any kind of priest, even Christian ones. She had been denounced by such too many times, in her reprobate youth.

Mahaveda priests had all the vices of any clerics, and none of their virtues. Their cult was a bastard and barbaric offshoot of Hinduism, more savage than that of any pagan tribe, and with the added evil which the sophistication of civilized India provided.

Burn in hell, then. As far as Antonina was concerned, the Mahaveda priests were finding their just reward.

During the few seconds which had elapsed, Eusebius and his cannon crew had been working feverishly. The cannon's fire-chamber was refilled; the sailor pumping the lever ceased abruptly; the valve was reopened by his mate. In those few seconds, Antonina realized, the Victrix must have carried alongside the Circe's beam.

"Again!" cried Eusebius. Ignition.

Another flare filled the interior of the bow shield, brighter this time. Antonina knew in the instant that the hideous weapon had struck true yet again. More screaming filtered through the shield. Less distant.

She heard Ousanas mutter: "They'll be coming now. No choice." The aqabe tsentsen, still standing in the rear entrance of the shield, hefted his great spear.

Antonina's gaze was torn away from Eusebius and his men working at the cannon. For the first time, through the opening in the rear, she was able to see the destruction wreaked by the fire cannon. The Circe slid into view. The bow of the Greek merchant vessel seized by the Malwa was wreathed in flames. Even as she watched, a Mahaveda priest—she assumed it was a priest; hard to tell, from the way he was burning—stumbled on the railing and plunged into the sea.

"Again!" Ignition. Another flare. Most of the starboard side of the enemy vessel, Antonina realized, was now a raging inferno. More of the Circe slid into her view.

She hissed. Whether through deliberate effort or simply accident, the two ships were almost touching. Not more than five or six feet separated them—close enough to pose the danger of fire spreading.

A slight motion caught her eye. Antonina saw that Ousanas was shifting his stance. Clearly enough, the African was getting ready to fight.

For a moment, Antonina was puzzled. Granted, the deck of the Circe was level with that of the Victrix. Granted, also, the two ships were close enough for boarders to leap across. But—

What enemy could possibly hurl their bodies through that inferno?

The answer came almost as soon as the question.

Mahaveda priests.

Fanatics. This was a suicide mission in the first place.

Antonina scrambled to her knees and began opening the valise. Before she even managed to lay hands on her gun, she caught sight in the corner of her eye of the first priest leaping onto the Victrix.

The sight froze her, for an instant. The Mahaveda was like a demon—screaming and waving a sword—burning from head to foot. His garments were afire, and his face was already blackened and peeling away. She realized he must have been almost blind by now.

The priest managed to land on his feet. He stood for perhaps a second, before Ousanas leapt forward and decapitated him with a great sweep of his spear. The aqabe tsentsen was such a powerful man that he was quite capable of using that spear like a Goth barbarian would use a two-handed sword. The more so since the blade of the spear was a huge leaf, fully eighteen inches in length and as sharp as a razor.

Antonina started to rise, the gun in her hands, but Matthew shoved her back down with a hand on her shoulder.

"Stay here," he hissed. Then, as if realizing the pointlessness of that advice, the cataphract shook his head and added: "Just stay behind us, will you? Back us up if it's needed—but stay behind us."

That said, Matthew surged out of the bow shield. Leo had already charged onto the deck and was swinging his mace at another priest hurling himself through the flames. The heavy weapon, driven by Leo's great strength, swatted the priest back against the hull of the Circe. The Mahaveda seemed to stick there for a moment, before his body dropped into the small gap between the ships. Antonina could hear the simultaneous sound of a splash and a hiss. That priest's clothing had also been afire.

By the time Antonina got to her feet and came out of the bow shield, holding her double-barreled firearm, the battle on the deck was in full fury. What seemed like a horde of priests was pouring over the side, matched only by Ousanas and her two bodyguards.

Only . . .

Antonina almost burst into laughter. Only . . .

Three giants, great warriors one and all, matched against a tribe of troglodytes—all of whose experience at "combat" had been practiced in a torture chamber.

For a few seconds, she was mesmerized by the sight. Ousanas was in the middle, flanked by Leo and Matthew. His weapon flicked and stabbed like lightning, spearing one priest after another—half of them while still in midair. The aqabe tsentsen's skill was as great as his strength, too. Somehow he managed to land each strike without jamming the blade in bone or flesh. Most of the spear thrusts took the enemy in their throats, upending them into the sea while it spilled their lifeblood.

Matthew, with his spatha, and Leo, with his mace, made no attempt to match that precision. Nor had they any need to do so. Matthew's blade hacked bodies into pieces and Leo's warclub smashed them aside entirely.

Several of the Victrix's sailors were now rushing up, swords in hand, prepared to support the three men fending off the boarders. Antonina shouted—"Stay back! Stay back!"and fiercely waved them away. The sailors would be more of a hindrance than a help, she knew. In those close quarters, they would simply be an obstruction to the fighting room needed by Ousanas and Leo and Matthew.

The urgency of that task brought home to Antonina that she, also, was not thinking clearly. The three men fighting off the boarders did not need her help so much as they needed her to take charge of the situation.

Quickly, she scanned the scene. The Malwa ship was now engulfed in flames. Clearly enough, the few priests she could see frantically trying to quell the fires would not succeed. The Circe was doomed. No chance that the Malwa could reach the harbor and blow it up.

The danger which did remain was that the flames would reach the powderkegs which Antonina was certain filled every inch of the Malwa ship's hold. Unless the Victrix was well away by that time, she and everyone on her would join the Malwa in the ensuing destruction.

True, that would take some time. Most of the now-roaring inferno came from burning sails and rigging, not the Circe's hull. By the time the fire burned through enough of the hull to reach the powderkegs, the Victrix could be a mile off.

Unless some priest realizes . . .

A vivid image flashed through her mind of a Mahaveda fanatic in the hold, bringing a torch to the powder. Fanatics. And it was a suicide mission, anyway.

She turned her head. Eusebius was no longer working at the fire cannon, but was staring at her. His face was as pale as Antonina suspected her own to be.

"Get us out of here!" she shouted.

Eusebius' face seemed to pale still further. He spread his hands in a helpless gesture.

Antonina cursed herself silently. She had forgotten that, taking charge of the fire cannon, Eusebius was no longer in control of the ship.

She turned back, facing the stern, her eyes seeking the helmsman. By now, the stern had drawn even with that of the Circe. Ousanas and the two cataphracts had kept moving aft down the side of the Victrix, fighting off the boarders doing the same on their own as the two ships passed each other. She saw two last boarders jump from stern to stern at the same instant that she spotted the helmsman of the Victrix.

The two priests went for the helmsman, but Ousanas intercepted them. A sweep and a thrust, and both Mahaveda were down. One dying on the deck, the other in the sea.

Antonina took no comfort at all from the sight. The fact that the priests had tried to kill the helmsman, while ignoring the onrushing Ousanas, suggested that the Mahaveda had already come to the same conclusion she had. No hope of accomplishing their original mission remained. That left . . . simply taking as many enemies with them as possible.

She started shouting at the helmsman, but broke off before uttering more than a few words. Clearly enough, the man understood the danger as well as she did. Nor, for that matter, was there much he could do that he wasn't doing already. The Victrix had been running before the wind as it was. No point in changing directions now.

She stared at the receding enemy ship. The Circe was no longer anything but a floating bonfire. There was not a chance that any man on her deck would still be alive within a minute or two. Nor, she thought—hoped—was there much chance that any of them would be able to fight their way across the deck to the hatchways leading to the hold.

That still left the possibility that at least one priest had stayed in the hold throughout the short battle, ready to ignite the powder if necessary.

Possibility?

Antonina winced. She was absolutely certain that a priest had been stationed there. Several of them, in fact—each one charged to make sure his fellows would not flinch at the very end when the time came to commit suicide. That had been the Mahaveda plan all along, after all. The only thing that had changed was that Antonina's intervention had prevented the Circe from reaching the harbor before they did so.

Ousanas trotted up to her, his spear trailing blood across the deck. "Only thing we can hope for is that they're still confused down there." Clearly enough, he had reached the same conclusion she had.

"One of the few times I've ever been glad those Mahaveda bastards are such fanatics," he said, grimly. "They'll be reluctant to blow it, not having reached their target. So until they're certain . . ."

She stared at him. Then, in a half-whisper: "They're bound to know that by now."

Ousanas shook his head. "Don't be too sure of that, Antonina. I got a better look at the conditions on the Circe than you did." He glanced at Eusebius, who had emerged from the bow shield and was charging back to the stern. The glance was very approving.

"That devil cannon of his must have hit them like a flood of fury. A tidal wave of fire and destruction. As confusing as it was horrible. I doubt the Malwa command structure survived more than a few seconds."

Again, he shook his head. "So . . . who knows? The priests in the hold may have been isolated from the beginning. And still don't know what's happening—and have no way of getting on deck to find out for themselves. Even Mahaveda fanatics will hesitate to kill themselves, when they're not sure what they'd be accomplishing by doing so."

Eusebius was shouting shrill orders. Some of the Victrix's sailors started dousing the stern of the ship with water kept in barrels. Others began dousing the rigging. That should have been done before the battle even started, Antonina realized. But everything had happened too quickly.

It was getting harder to see anything. The Circe was now two hundred yards away, and the fierce light cast by the burning ship was no longer enough to do more than vaguely illuminate the deck of her own ship. But there was still enough light for her to see that several of the sailors, apparently at Eusebius' command, were standing ready with hatchets and axes to cut away the Victrix's rigging.

"What are they doing?" she demanded. "The last thing we want is to lose our own sails."

Ousanas did not share her opinion. Instead, he growled satisfaction. "Smart man, Eusebius. He's figured out already that most of the explosives on board the Circe will be incendiaries." For a moment, he studied the ever more distant enemy ship. "We're far enough away, by now, that we can probably survive the actual shock of the explosion. But we'll soon be engulfed in fire ourselves. If we can cut away the rigging fast enough—that's what'll burn the worst—we might be able to keep the Victrix afloat. Maybe."

Something of Antonina's confusion must have shown in her face. Ousanas chuckled.

"Strange, really. You're normally so intelligent. Think, Antonina."

He pointed back at the Circe. The Malwa ship was no more than a bonfire in the distance, now. "Their plan was to blow it up in the harbor, right? In order to do what?"

She was still confused. Ousanas chuckled again.

"Think, woman! The Malwa aren't crazy, after all. Insanely fanatic, yes, but that's not the same thing as actual lunacy. The harbor itself—even the buildings surrounding it—is built far too solidly to be destroyed by any amount of gunpowder which could be stowed on a single ship. Which means that their real target was not the harbor but the ships in it. And the best way to destroy shipping is with flame."

Finally understanding his point, she heaved a small sigh of relief. She had been imagining the Malwa ship as a giant powderkeg, which, when it exploded, would produce a large enough concussion to shatter everything within half a mile at least. But if most of the explosives were designed as incendiaries . . .

Matthew and Leo came up, looming above her in the darkness. Ousanas placed his hands on Antonina's shoulders, turned her around—gently, but she could no more have resisted him than she could have a titan—and propelled her back into the bow shield.

"So you," he murmured cheerfully, "will ride out the coming firestorm in the safest place available."

Once they were inside the shelter, with Matthew and Leo crowding behind, he added even more cheerfully: "Me, too. The thought of losing Africa's future because of a damned Malwa plot is unbearable, don't you think?"

Antonina put her gun back in the valise and closed it. Then, still kneeling, she looked up at the aqabe tsentsen. As she expected, Ousanas was grinning from ear to ear.

She started to make some quip in response. Then Ousanas' figure was backlit by what seemed to be the end of the universe. Armageddon's fire and fury.

Fortunately, Ousanas was quick-thinking enough to kneel next to her and shelter her in his arms before the shock wave arrived. Matthew was quick-witted enough to start to do the same.

Leo, alas, had never been accused of quick-wittedness of any kind, save his animal reflexes in battle. So the concussion caught him standing, and sent him sprawling atop Ousanas and Matthew, with Antonina at the bottom of the pile.

But perhaps it was just as well. Antonina was too busy trying not to suffocate under the weight of three enormous men to feel any of the terror caused by the firestorm which followed.

* * *

The next morning, at daybreak, Roman galleys found the Victrix. The vessel was still afloat, but drifting helplessly in the sea. It had proved necessary to cut away all the rigging before the fire was finally brought under control. Most of the sailors had suffered bad burns—which two of them might not survive—but were otherwise unharmed.

The ship itself . . .

"It'll take us weeks to refit her," complained Eusebius, as he watched his sailors attach the tow rope thrown from one of the galleys.

"You don't have `weeks,' " snarled Antonina. "Two weeks, the most."

Eusebius' eyes widened with surprise. "Two weeks? But our campaign's not supposed to start until—"

"Change of plans," snarled Antonina. She glared to the east. The direction of the Malwa enemy, of course. Also, the direction in which Belisarius' army was to be found, marching slowly toward the Indus.

"Assuming my husband listens to the voice of sweet wifely reason," she added. Still snarling.

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Framed

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Chapter 18

THE JAMUNA

Summer, 533 A.D.

Link awaited Narses on Great Lady Sati's luxury barge, moored just downstream from the fork of the Jamuna and Betwa rivers. The fact that the monster from the future had traveled to meet him made the already anxious eunuch more anxious still. Link rarely left the imperial capital of Kausambi. To the best of Narses' knowledge, it had never done so since it had become—resident, lodged, whatever grotesque term might be applied—within the body of the young woman who had once been Lady Sati.

As he was escorted up the ramp leading to the barge's interior by two of Link's special assassins, Narses forced himself to settle down. If he was to survive the coming hour, his nerves would have to be as cold as ice. Fortunately, a long lifetime of palace intrigue and maneuver had trained him in the methods of calmness.

So he paid little attention to his surroundings as the black-clad, silently pacing assassins guided him through the interior of the barge. A general impression of opulence, almost oppressive in its luxurious weight, was all that registered. His mind and soul were preoccupied entirely with settling themselves within his heart.

A small, scarred, stony heart that was. With room in it for a single thought and purpose, no other.

The truth only. Narses is what I care about. Nothing more.

He entered a large chamber within the barge, somewhere deep in its bowels. At the far end, on a slightly elevated platform, sat Great Lady Sati. She was resting on an ornately carved chair made entirely of ivory. Her slender, aristocratic hands were draped loosely over the armrests. The veil was drawn back from her face, exposing the cold beauty of the young flesh.

In front of her, kneeling, were four immense men. They were naked from the waist up, holding equally naked swords in their huge hands. Great tulwars, those were. Two other such men were standing in the corners of the chamber, behind Great Lady Sati. Like the two assassins—and two others who were positioned in the corners of the room behind Narses himself—the giants were of Khmer stock. Nothing of India's flesh resided in those men.

But Narses paid them almost no attention at all. As soon as he entered the room, his eyes were drawn to the man sitting on a slightly less majestic chair directly to Great Lady Sati's right. Nanda Lal, that was. One of Emperor Skandagupta's first cousins, and the chief spymaster of the Malwa Empire.

The sight of Nanda Lal caused Narses' already-frigid soul to freeze completely. The sensation of relief was almost overwhelming.

Familiar ground, then. So be it.

A small stool was placed in the center of the floor, atop the rich carpet, perhaps ten feet from the elevated platform. Just close enough to Great Lady Sati and Nanda Lal to enable easy conversation, but allowing the giant bodyguards the space needed to maintain a shield before Link's human sheath.

Narses did not wait for an invitation. He simply moved to the stool and took a seat. Then, hands placed on knees, waited in silence.

The silence went on for perhaps a minute, as Link and Nanda Lal scrutinized him. Then Great Lady Sati spoke.

"Are you loyal to Malwa, Narses?"

The eunuch found it interesting that Sati's voice had none of the eerie quality which his spies had reported to him, from indirect reports. It was simply the voice of a young woman. Pleasant, if chilly and aloof.

"No." He thought to elaborate and expand, but discarded the notion. The truth only! Elaboration—expansion even more so—always carried the risk of wandering into falsehood.

"Not at all?"

"Not in the least."

"Are you loyal only to yourself?"

"Of course." A trace of bitterness crept into his voice. "Why would it be otherwise?"

"We have treated you well," interjected Nanda Lal, a bit angrily. "Showered you with wealth and honors."

Narses shrugged. "You have made me the spymaster for your finest general, and sent me off into a life of hardship and danger. Traipsing across half of Asia—at my age!—with enemies on all sides. The wealth sits idle in small coffers, locked within the emperor's vaults, while I live in a tent."

Nanda Lal shifted his weight in the chair, clutching the arm rests. He was a heavy man, and muscular. The chair creaked slightly in protest.

"I'm sure you've managed to fill your own coffers with bribes and stolen treasure!" he snapped.

Narses rasped a harsh chuckle. "Of course. Quite a bit, too, if I say so myself."

Nanda Lal's dark face flushed with open anger at the sneering disrespect which lurked just beneath the eunuch's words. His heavy lips began to peel back from his teeth in a snarl. But before he could utter a word, Great Lady Sati spoke. And, this time, in the voice.

All thoughts of derision and banter fled from Narses, hearing that voice. It was sepulchral beyond any human grave or tomb. The words were still spoken with the tone produced by a young woman's throat and mouth; but the sound of them was somehow as vast and cavernous as eternity. This, Narses knew, was the true voice of the thing called Link.

"DESIST, NANDA LAL. YOUR ANGER IS POINTLESS AND STUPID."

Link's young-woman-shell kept its eyes on Narses, giving the Malwa spymaster not so much as a glance. The eyes, too, seemed as empty as a moonless, cloudcast night.

"YOUR SOLE LOYALTY IS TO YOURSELF, NARSES. YOUR HEART CANNOT BE WON BY ANY CAUSE, YOUR DEVOTION BY ANY HONOR OR SENTIMENT, YOUR MIND BY ANY TREASURE. YOU SEEK, NOW AS AT ALL TIMES, SIMPLY YOUR OWN ADVANTAGE."

There didn't seem to be anything to say in response. So Narses said nothing. Link studied him in silence for quite some time. Narses had never in his life felt so closely scrutinized.

"NO. I MISJUDGED. THERE IS SOMETHING MORE. SOMETHING YOU ARE HIDING."

Narses' hands did not so much as twitch, resting on his knees. He simply leaned forward slightly and replied:

"Yes. I enjoy the game itself. Perhaps even more, I sometimes think, than the advantage it brings me. I hide that from sight, because it gives me yet another advantage. People assume me to be driven by ambition. Which is true enough, of course. But ambition is ultimately nothing more than a tool itself."

Silence reigned, for a few seconds. Then:

"YES. YOU REVEL IN THAT SENSE OF SUPREMACY. AN EMPTY MAN—NO MAN AT ALL, BY HUMAN RECKONING—WHO FILLS HIMSELF WITH HIS ABILITY TO SURPASS ALL OTHERS."

Narses bowed his head slightly.

"WE CANNOT THEREFORE TRUST YOU IN THE LEAST. NO MORE THAN WE COULD A SWORD WHOSE HILT WAS SMEARED WITH GREASE."

"Even less," snorted Narses. "A sword has neither a brain nor a will. It will twist in your hand only from mishap or accident, or carelessness. I can be counted on to do it from my own volition."

"YES. TREASON WHICH REVELS IN TREASON. NOT BECAUSE IT IS TREASON BUT BECAUSE IT IS THE GREATEST GAMBIT IN THE ULTIMATE GAME."

Again, Narses made that little bow of the head. A master acknowledging another, and one perhaps greater than he.

"SO BE IT. YOU THINK YOURSELF IMPERVIOUS, BECAUSE NOTHING CAN THREATEN YOU EXCEPT PAIN AND DEATH. BUT I WILL HAVE A HOSTAGE, NARSES."

Nothing in Narses' face or body—he would have sworn it!—registered so much as a twitch. Though somewhere through his icy, barren soul ran a sudden hot spike of terror. Ajatasutra. My son!

"THERE IS SOMEONE CLOSE TO YOU, THEN? YOU ARE NOT QUITE SO DETACHED FROM HUMANKIND AS YOU PRETEND."

Narses tried to speak, but found the words frozen in his throat. He could think of no truth, nor lie, which could shield him against that inhuman perception.

Nanda Lal spoke again. "We will find out who it is," he said, through tight teeth. "Then—rest assured—"

"BE SILENT. I WILL NOT SAY IT AGAIN. DO NOT SPEAK WITHOUT MY PERMISSION."

Nanda Lal's dark face seemed to pale. He pressed his heavy body back into the chair.

As before, the eyes of the shell called Great Lady Sati had never left Narses' face, even while uttering that apparently deadly threat. She spoke again, her words moving directly from the threat to Nanda Lal to the promise to Narses.

"SUCH A HOSTAGE WOULD BE MEANINGLESS. NARSES WAS CLOSE TO EMPRESS THEODORA ALSO. YET HE BETRAYED HER SOON ENOUGH. NO. I WILL HAVE THE ONLY HOSTAGE WHICH MEANS ANYTHING TO THIS MAN."

Her left hand lifted from the armrest and made a slight gesture. Narses could sense one of the assassins behind him coming forward, though he could not actually hear any footsteps on the heavy carpet.

A hand seized his neck. Not harshly, not with the intent to manhandle, simply to hold him still. A moment later, sharp pain lanced in the back of his head. A blade of some kind, he realized, had penetrated his flesh and cut out a small portion. He could feel blood slowly trickling down his back.

The assassin retreated. Narses stared at Link.

"HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF A `CLONE,' NARSES? NO? IT IS A HUMAN BEING MADE ENTIRELY FROM ANOTHER. A PERFECT COPY. A MAN GROWN LIKE A BUD. YOU, A EUNUCH WHO CAN HAVE NO CHILDREN, CAN STILL SIRE YOURSELF. WITH NO WOMB OR WOMAN NEEDED FOR THE PURPOSE."

The thing's eyes left Narses for a moment, looking behind her.

"TAKE THE FLESH AND DEPOSIT IT IN THE ICE CHEST. THEN RETURN." The young-woman/empty-void eyes returned to Narses. "I WILL HAVE IT GROWN, NARSES. WHILE YOU GO ABOUT MY WORK, I WILL RAISE THE HOSTAGE YOU HAVE GIVEN ME. BETRAY MALWA, AND YOU WILL LOSE YOURSELF. YOU WILL BE, IN THE END, AS EMPTY AS YOU HAVE ALWAYS THOUGHT YOURSELF TO BE. CONSIDER THAT, EUNUCH OF ROME. I—ONLY I—CAN GIVE YOU ETERNITY."

Narses did not bow his head, this time, so much as lower it. A gesture not of respect so much as defeat.

"WE UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER, THEN. AND NOW, I HAVE A TASK FOR YOU."

The voice changed, in that instant, back to the voice of Great Lady Sati. And in that voice it remained, for the following minutes, as it explained to Narses the nature of his new assignment.

* * *

After Great Lady Sati finished, Narses immediately shook his head.

"It is a bad plan. Unworkable. Rana Sanga will not believe it for a moment."

Nanda Lal began to speak, then glanced apprehensively at Sati. She raised her hand in a stilling gesture. But the motion conveyed no threat. Simply an admonition to listen, before advancing an argument.

"Continue, Narses," she commanded.

"He has met Belisarius in person, Great Lady Sati. Indeed, he has spent many hours in his company. No matter what evidence I leave, he will not believe for an instant that the Roman general ordered the death of his family. Instead, his suspicion will rest upon the Malwa dynasty. And become confirmed, the moment you advance the proposal of marriage. Trust me in this, if nothing else. The plan—as conceived—is unworkable."

Silence. Then:

"You have an alternative, I see. What is it?"

Narses shrugged. "For your purpose, there is no need to make Sanga suspect Belisarius directly. Simply to arouse his anger and rage at the chaos which the war has brought. India is in turmoil now, nowhere more so than the western borderlands. Summon Rana Sanga's family to Kausambi, at the emperor's command. Hostages themselves, to assure Sanga's loyalty along with Damodara's. Send a small force from the emperor's Ye-tai bodyguard battalions to escort them. Perhaps a dozen men. Then, along the route—while they are still in Rajputana—"

"Yes!" exclaimed Nanda Lal. His earlier anger at Narses vanished, in the excitement of the scheme. "Yes. That will be perfect. The caravan is attacked by brigands."

"Better, I think." Narses cocked his head, thinking. "Kushan brigands. As the loyalty of the Kushans unravels, due as much as anything to Belisarius' cunning, many of them have turned to banditry. And Kushan deserters make ferocious bandits. Far more believable that they would attack such a caravan than any common dacoits. Not to mention succeed in the attack. The treasure looted, Sanga's wife hideously abused, herself and the children slain afterward. Their bodies left for carrion eaters, mingled with the butchered corpses of their Ye-tai guards."

Narses shrugged. It was a small, modest gesture. "I imagine I can probably even find one or two deserters from the Roman army to include in the bandit force. Just enough—there will be eyewitnesses to the attack, of course—to weight Sanga's anger even further."

"He will be angry at us as well," opined Nanda Lal, pursing his lips. "After all, had we not summoned his family out of the safety of his palace . . ."

"That is meaningless," stated Great Lady Sati. "Sanga's resentment we can tolerate. So long as his rage remains unfocused, it will channel itself into the war and his oath. When the time comes, he will accept the marriage."

The slim young-woman's hands made a small curling gesture, indicating the entire body to which they belonged. "He will feel no sentiment toward this sheath. But we do not need his sentiment. The sheath is well-shaped, and has been well trained. It will arouse his lust, when the time comes. And when the children arrive, soon enough thereafter, his sentiment will have another place to become attached. That is sufficient for the purpose."

Great Lady Sati stared at Narses for a moment. Then: "Do it, traitor. And remember my hostage."

Narses arose and bowed deeply from the waist. After straightening, he looked at Nanda Lal.

"The Ye-tai general Toramana, as I'm sure you know, is the commander of the troop which escorted me here. I saw to that. I suggest this would be a good time for you to interview him. There are . . . excellent possibilities there, I think."

Nanda Lal nodded. Narses' lips twisted into a bitter little smile.

"You'll have spies on me also, of course. So let's save some time. I need to pay a visit on Lady Damodara in any event, to give her a parcel from her husband. Beyond that—"

He transferred his eyes to Great Lady Sati. "It would be best, in any event, if I set up my headquarters in Lady Damodara's palace. In order to organize this maneuver, I will need to see any number of people. Better to have such folk coming in and out of her palace than any other. Even if Sanga stumbles across any knowledge of my doings, he will simply assume I was acting on behalf of Damodara himself. And he will never suspect Damodara of such a cruel deed."

Great Lady Sati did not even pause. "I agree. Do it."

Nanda Lal chuckled. "It hardly matters, Narses. I don't have to bother to have you followed. You think I don't have spies inside Lady Damodara's palace?"

Narses regarded him calmly. "I'm sure you do. I am also sure that within three days of my arrival, those spies will be expelled from the house. Those who are not dead."

Nanda Lal froze, his eyes widening. Narses snorted—very faintly—and bowed to Malwa's overlord.

"I'm sure you understand the logic, Great Lady Sati."

"It is obvious. There must be no suspicion. Your loyalty to Damodara must be unquestioned. Do not hesitate to kill all of Nanda Lal's spies, Narses. But do it shrewdly."

* * *

In the end, Narses did not kill all the spies. He saw no reason to kill the two cooks. Expulsion would serve as well, theft being the excuse—as it happened, a valid one. They were thieves.

He did not even bother to expel the two maids. He simply saw to it that their duties were restricted to the laundry, in a different wing of the palace than that where Lady Damodara and the children had their bedrooms. It was a large palace. There was no way the maids could find their way unobserved to the only other place in the palace which Narses needed to keep secret. The cellar deep below where a tunnel was being slowly extended.

He did have the two guards in Nanda Lal's employ assassinated, along with one of the majordomo's assistants. The guards simply had their throats slit while they slept, the night Ajatasutra arrived at the palace. The assistant, on the other hand, had been a retainer of Damodara's family since boyhood. So, before his own demise, Narses thought it was fitting to show the traitor the greatest of the secrets he had been trying—and failing—to ferret out for Nanda Lal. The secret he had never even suspected.

The assistant's body then vanished in the bowels of the earth, folded into a small niche which the Bihari miners dug in one side of the tunnel and then covered over. They did not even mind the additional work. Men of their class were not fond of majordomos and their assistants.

Although they did find a certain charm in the way the majordomo had pronounced many curses on his assistant's body as it was enfolded into its secret tomb. Quite inventive, those curses. And who would have thought such a stiff and proper old man would know so many?

* * *

If Lady Damodara noticed the disappearance of the guards and the assistant, or the reassignment of the maids, she gave no sign of it. Which, of course, was not surprising. The running of the household was entirely in the old majordomo's hands. Being also a man who had been a retainer of the family since boyhood—and one who was extraordinarily efficient—he was trusted to manage the household's affairs with little interference.

The daughters of Dadaji Holkar noticed, of course. They could hardly help notice, since they were assigned to replace the two maids—an assignment which they greeted with much trepidation.

"We don't know anything about how to take care of a great lady," protested the younger. "She'll have us beaten."

The majordomo shook his head. "Have no fear, child. The lady is not hot-tempered. A very kind lady, in fact. I have explained to her already that you are new to the task, and will need some time to learn your duties. She will be quite patient, I assure you."

Still hesitant, the girls looked at each other. Then the older spoke. "My infant will cry at night. The great lady will be disturbed in her sleep. She will be angry."

The old servant chuckled. "She has borne three children of her own. You think she has never heard such noises before?" He shook his head. "Be at ease, I tell you."

The girls were still hesitant. With most majordomos, they would not have dared to press the matter further. But this old man . . . he had been kind to them, oddly enough.

"Why?" asked the younger sister, almost in a whisper. "A great lady should have experienced maids, not . . . not kitchen drudges."

Kindly the old man might be, but the look he gave them now was not kind in the least. A hard gaze, it was. As if he were pondering the same question himself.

Whatever answer he might have given went unspoken. For a new voice echoed in the girls' little sleeping chamber.

"Because I say so."

The girls spun around. Behind them, standing in the doorway, was the man who had rescued them from the slave brothel so many months earlier.

They were so delighted to see him that they almost squealed with pleasure. The youngest even began to move toward him, as if she were almost bold enough to clasp him in an embrace.

The man shook his head, although he was smiling. The headshake turned into a small gesture aimed at the majordomo. Making neither argument nor protest, the august head servant immediately left the room.

After he was gone, the man bestowed upon the girls that calm, hooded gaze which they remembered so well.

"Ask no questions," he said softly. "Just do as you are told. And say nothing to anyone. Do you understand?"

Both girls nodded instantly.

"Good," he murmured. "And now I must leave. I simply wanted to make sure all is well with you. It is, I trust?"

Both girls nodded again. The man began to turn away. The older sister had enough boldness left in her to ask a last question.

"Will we ever see our father again?"

The man paused in the doorway, his head turned to one side. He was not quite looking at them.

"Who is to say? God is prone to whimsy."

A little sob seemed to come from the younger sister's throat; almost instantly squelched. The man's broad shoulders seemed to slump a bit.

"I will do my best, children. More than that . . ." Whatever slump might have been in the shoulders vanished. They stood as square and rigid as ever.

"God is prone to whimsy," he repeated, and was gone.

* * *

"This is an unholy mess," grumbled Ajatasutra. "By the time I get back to Ajmer, Valentinian and Anastasius and the Kushans will have been festering for weeks in that miserable inn. When they hear about this little curlicue to your schemes, they will erupt in fury."

"All the better," snapped Narses. "Imperial Ye-tai troops aren't chosen for their timid ways, you know. And I can't have a smaller escort than ten—a dozen would be better—or the whole affair will ring completely false."

"Make it a dozen," chuckled Ajatasutra harshly. "Imperial Ye-tai be damned. Against those two Romans? Not to mention Kujulo and that pack of cutthroats he brought with him."

The assassin ran fingers through his beard. Then, smiled grimly. "You know what would be perfect? Have the escort led by some high Malwa mucky-muck. Nothing less than a member of the dynastic clan itself, anvaya-prapta sachivya. Some distant cousin of the emperor's. A young snot, arrogant as the sunrise and as sure as a rooster. He'll fuck up the assignment—probably insist on having himself and all the Ye-tai at the head of the convoy, leaving Rana Sanga's wife and kids to trail behind in the dust. Easy to separate them out and—"

As he spoke, Narses' eyes had widened and widened. "Why didn't I think of that?" he choked. "Of course!"

He eyed Ajatasutra oddly. "This is a little scary. I'm not sure I like the idea of you outthinking me."

Ajatasutra shrugged. "Don't get carried away with enthusiasm. Nanda Lal will have a fit, when you raise the idea."

"Not worried about that," retorted Narses, waving a casual hand. "If he gives me any argument, I'll just go right over his head. Great Lady Sati and I have an understanding."

Now it was Ajatasutra's turn to give Narses an odd look.

"S'true," insisted the old eunuch. "A very fine lady, she is, and an extraordinarily capable schemer." He paused. "For an amateur."

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Contents

Framed

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Contents

Chapter 19

CHARAX

Summer, 533 A.D.

By the time Belisarius got back to Charax, racing there in a swift war galley as soon as he got the news of the Malwa sabotage attempt, Antonina had her arguments marshaled and ready. And not just her arguments, either—in the few days which had elapsed, she had been working like a fiend to organize the "change of plans."

By the time the argument between them was just starting to heat up—

It's too early, Antonina! The army isn't ready! Neither is the Ethiopian fleet!

Get them ready, then! We can't wait any longer here!

Idiot woman! We have no way of knowing if Kungas has created a diversion yet!

I'll create one, you dimwit! A way, way bigger one than something happening in far-off Bactria! With or without the Ethiopians!

And that's another thing! I don't want you taking those kinds of chances!

Chances? Chances!? What do you think I'm facing here? There's no way to stop Malwa plots here in Charax! The place is a menagerie! Chaos incarnate!

—the argument got cut short by royal intervention.

Two royal interventions, in fact.

* * *

The first, by Khusrau Anushirvan. The Emperor of Iran and non-Iran had known of Antonina's new plans, of course. He had excellent spies. And he knew of Belisarius' opposition within an hour after the argument between them erupted on the general's return to Charax.

But it took him those few days, waiting for Belisarius' return, to ponder his own course of action. For all Khusrau's youth and energy, he was already a canny monarch, one for whom statecraft and long-term thinking was second nature. So he, unlike Antonina herself, immediately saw all the possible implications of her new proposal. And, for a variety of reasons—not the least being the opposition he expected to arouse among his Roman allies—he needed to take some time to examine all aspects of the problem.

A few days, no more. By midafternoon of the same day that Belisarius returned in the morning and began his raging quarrel with Antonina, Khusrau intervened. Understanding the delicate nature of the business, he even restrained his normal "Persian Emperor reflexes" and came to the Roman headquarters accompanied by no advisers and only a handful of Immortals for a bodyguard.

When he was ushered into the chamber where the dispute was taking place, Belisarius and Antonina broke off immediately. Neither one of them was surprised to see Khusrau appear, although they hadn't thought he would show up this soon. For the moment, the argument was still largely an internal Roman affair.

Belisarius' face eased a bit. Antonina's jaws set more tightly still. Clearly enough, both of them expected Khusrau would be introducing yet another voice of masculine reason. Doing his best to aid Belisarius in calming down a somewhat hysterical female.

The emperor disabused both of them immediately. He saw no reason to dance around the issue. Nor, of course, was there any need to disguise the fact that he had spies in the Roman camp. That much was taken for granted—just as was the existence of Roman spies in Khusrau's own entourage.