Destiny's shielderic Flint & David Drake

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David Drake
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.

Copyright © 1999 by Eric Flint & David Drake

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

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471

ISBN: 0-671-57872-3

Cover art by Keith Parkinson
Interior maps by Randy Asplund

First paperback printing, June 2000

Library of Congress Catalog Number 99-22046

Distributed by Simon & Schuster

1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020

Production by Windhaven Press, Auburn, NH

Printed in the United States of America
to DonaldCOSMIC IRONYBelisarius sensed a new presence and immediately understood its meaning. He saw a point of light in the void. A point, nothing more, which seemed infinitely distant. But he knew, even in the seeing, that the distance was one of time not space.Time opened and the future came.The point of light erupted, surged forward. A moment later, floating before Belisarius, was one of the Great Ones. The general understood, now, that he would never see them fully. Too much of their structure lay in mysterious forces which would never be seen by earthly eyes.A new voice came to him, like Aide's, in a way, but different. FORCE FIELDS, ENERGY MATRICES. THERE IS LITTLE IN US LEFT OF OUR EARTHLY ORIGINS, AND NO FLESH AT ALL.He saw into the being, now. Saw the glittering network of crystals which formed the Great One's—heart? Soul? And there came a sense of mirth; vast, yet whimsical.And the general knew, then—finally—that these almost inconceivable beings were truly his own folk. He had but to look in a mirror, to see the crooked smile that would, someday, become that universe-encompassing irony—and that delight in irony. . . .BOOKS IN THIS SERIESAn Oblique Approach
In the Heart of Darkness
Destiny's Shield
Fortune's Stroke

Hammer's SlammersThe 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
Mark II: The Military Dimension
All the Way to the Gallows
The General Series: (with S.M. Stirling)
The Forge
The Hammer
The Anvil
The Steel
The Sword
The Chosen
The Reformer

The Undesired Princess and The Enchanted Bunny
(with L. Sprague de Camp)
Lest Darkness Fall and To Bring the Light
(with L. Sprague de Camp)

Enemy of My Enemy:
Terra Nova
(with Ben Ohlander)

(edited with Billie Sue Mosiman)
BAEN BOOKS by ERIC FLINTMother of Demons
Prologue    It was the Emperor's first public appearance since he had been acclaimed the new sovereign of Rome, and he was nervous. The ambassador from Persia was about to be presented to his court."He's going to be mean to me, Mommy," predicted the Emperor."Hush," whispered the Empress Regent. "And don't call me 'Mommy.' It's undignified."The Emperor stared up at the tall imposing figure of his new mother, seated on her own throne next to him. Meeting her cold black eyes, he hastily looked away.His new mother made him nervous, too. Even though his old mother said his new mother was a good friend, the Emperor wasn't fooled. The Empress Regent Theodora was not a nice lady.The Empress Regent leaned over and whispered into his ear:"Why do you think he'll be mean to you?"The Emperor frowned."Well—because Daddy gave the Persians such a fierce whipping." Then, remembering: "My old daddy, I mean."The Emperor glanced guiltily at the figure of his new father, standing not far away to his right. Then, meeting the sightless gaze of those empty sockets, he looked away. Very hastily. Not even his real mother tried to claim that Justinian was a "nice man."Theodora, again, hissing:"And don't call the Empire's strategos 'daddy.' It's not dignified, even if he is your stepfather."The Emperor hunched down on his throne, thoroughly miserable.It's too confusing. Nobody should have this many mommies and daddies. He began to turn his head, hoping to catch a reassuring glimpse of his real parents. He knew they would be standing nearby, among the other high notables of the Roman court. But the Empress
Regent hissed him still."Stop fidgeting! It's not regal."The Emperor made himself sit motionless. He grew more and more nervous, watching the stately advance of the Persian ambassador down the long aisle leading to the throne.The Persian ambassador, he saw, was staring at him. Everybody was staring at him. The throne room was packed with Roman officials, every one of whom had their eyes fixed on the Emperor. Most of them, he thought, were not very nice—judging, at least, from sarcastic remarks he had heard his parents make.
All four of his parents. The scurrilous nature of officialdom was one of the few subjects they did not quarrel about.The ambassador was now much closer. He was rather tall, and slender of build. His complexion was perhaps a bit darker than that of most Greeks. His face was lean-jawed and aquiline, dominated by a large nose. His beard was cut in the short square style favored by Persians.The ambassador was wearing the costume of a Persian nobleman. His gray hair was capped by the traditional gold-embroidered headdress, which Persians called a citaris. His tunic, though much like a Roman one, had sleeves which reached all the way down to the wrists. His trousers also reached far down, almost covering the red leather of his boots.Seeing the bright color of the ambassador's boot-tips, the Emperor felt a momentary pang. His old father—his real father—had a pair of boots just like those. "Parthian boots," they were called. His father favored them, as did many of his Thracian cataphracts.The ambassador was now close enough that the Emperor could make out his eyes. Brown eyes, just like his father's. (His old father; his new father had no eyes.)But the Emperor could detect none of the warmth which was always in his old father's eyes. The Persian's eyes seemed cold to him. The Emperor lifted his gaze. High above, the huge mosaic figures on the walls of the throne room stared down upon him. They were saints, he knew. Very holy folk. But their eyes, too, seemed cold. Darkly, the Emperor suspected they probably hadn't been very nice either. The severe expressions on their faces reminded him of his tutors. Sour old men, whose only pleasure in life was finding fault with their charge.He felt as if he were being buried alive."I'm hot," he complained."Of course you're hot," whispered Theodora. "You're wearing imperial robes on a warm day in April. What do you expect?"Unkindly:"Get used to it." Then:"Now, act properly. The ambassador is here."Twenty feet away, the Persian ambassador's retinue came to a halt. The ambassador stepped forward two paces and prostrated himself on the thick, luxurious rug which had been placed for that purpose on the tiled floor of the throne room.That rug, the Emperor knew, was only brought out from its special storage place for the use of envoys representing the Persian King of Kings, the Shahanshah. It was the best rug the Roman Empire owned, he had heard.Persia was the traditional great rival of the Roman Empire. It wouldn't do to offend its representatives. No, it wouldn't do at all.The Persian ambassador was rising. Now, he was stepping forward. The ambassador extended his hand, holding the scroll which proclaimed his status to the Roman court. The motion brought a slight wince to the face of the ambassador, and the Roman Emperor's fear multiplied. The wince, he knew, was caused by the great wound which the ambassador had received to his shoulder three years before.The Emperor's real father had given him that wound, at a famous place called Mindouos.He's going to be mean to me. "I bring greetings to the Basileus of Rome from my master Khusrau Anushirvan, King of Kings of Iran and non-Iran."The ambassador spoke loudly, so everyone in the huge throne room could hear. His voice was very deep, as deep as anyone's the Emperor had ever heard except church singers."My name is Baresmanas," continued the ambassador. "Baresmanas, of the Suren."The Emperor heard a whispering rustle sweep the throne room. He understood the meaning of that rustle, and felt a moment's pride in his understanding. For weeks, now, his tutors had drilled him mercilessly in the history and traditions of Persia. The Emperor had not forgotten his lessons.Officially, the Suren were one of the sahrdaran, the seven greatest noble families of Persia. Unofficially, they were the greatest. Rustam, the legendary hero of the Aryans—their equivalent of Hercules—was purported to have been of that family. And the Persian general who shattered Crassus' Roman army at Carrhae had been a Suren.Sending a Suren ambassador, the Emperor knew, was the Shahanshah's way of indicating his respect for Rome. But the knowledge did not allay his fear.He's going to be mean to me. The stern, haughty, aristocratic face of the Persian ambassador broke into a sudden smile. White teeth flashed in a rich, well-groomed beard."It is a great pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty," said the ambassador. Baresmanas bowed toward Theodora. "And your mother, the Regent Theodora."The Emperor reached out his hand to take the scroll. After unrolling the parchment, he saw with relief that the document was written in Greek. The Emperor could read, now, though still with no great facility. And this document was full of long-winded words that he didn't recognize at all. He began studying it intently until he heard a slight cough.Out of the corner of his eye, the Emperor saw the Empress Regent nodding graciously. Remembering his instructions, the Emperor hastily rolled up the parchment and followed her example. Then, seeing the hint of a frown on Theodora's brow, he belatedly remembered the rest of her coaching."We welcome the representative of our brother," he piped, "the Basileus of Pers—"The Emperor froze with fear at his blunder.By long-standing protocol, the Emperor of Rome always called the Emperor of Persia the "Basileus" rather than the "King of Kings." By using the same title as his own, the Roman Emperor thereby indicated the special status of the Persian monarch. No other ruler was ever granted that title by Romans, except, on occasion, the negusa nagast of Ethiopia.But Persians never called themselves Persians. That term was a Greek bastardization of the Persian province of Fars, the homeland of the old Achaemenid dynasty. Persians called their land Iran—land of the Aryans. They were immensely snooty on the matter, too, especially the distinction between Aryans and all lesser breeds. Many non-Aryan nations were ruled by the Shahanshah, but they were not considered part of the land of the Aryans itself. Those were simply "non-Iran."The Emperor's paralysis was broken by the slight, encouraging smile on the ambassador's face."—the Basileus of Iran and non-Iran," he quickly corrected himself.The ambassador's smile widened. A very friendly gleam came into his brown eyes. For a moment—a blessed moment—the Roman Emperor was reminded of his father. His old father.He glanced at the mutilated face of his new father, the former Emperor Justinian. That sightless face was fixed upon him, as if Justinian still had eyes to see. That sightless, harsh, bitter face.It's not fair, whimpered the Emperor in his mind. I want my old father back. My real father. The ambassador was backing away. The Emperor of Rome began to sigh with relief, until, catching a hint of Theodora's disapproval, he stiffened with imperial dignity.Maybe he won't be mean to me, after all. The ambassador was fifteen feet off, now. He still seemed to be smiling.It's not fair. The Sassanids are from Fars, too, so why can't we call them Persians? Now, he did sigh, slightly. He felt the Empress Regent's disapproval, but ignored it.It's too much to remember all at once. Another sigh. The Empress Consort hissed. Again, he ignored her reproof.I'm the Emperor. I can do what I want. That was patently false, and he knew it.It's not fair. I'm only eight years old. The ambassador was thirty feet away, now. Out of hearing range. Theodora leaned over.The Emperor braced himself for her reproach.Nasty lady. I want my old mother back. But all she said was:"That was very well done, Photius. Your mother will be proud of you." Then, with a slight smile: "Your real mother." "I'm proud of you, Photius," said Antonina. "You did very well." She leaned over the throne's armrest and kissed him on the cheek.Her son flushed, partly from pleasure and partly from guilt. He didn't think being kissed in public by his mother fit the imperial image he was supposed to project. But, when his eyes quickly scanned the throne room, he saw that few people were watching. After the Empress Regent had left, to hold a private meeting with the Persian ambassador and his father (both of his fathers), the reception had dissolved into a far more relaxed affair. Most of the crowd were busy eating, drinking and chattering. They were ignoring, for all practical purposes, the august personage of the Emperor. No-one standing anywhere near to him, of course, committed the gross indiscretion of actually turning their back on the throne's small occupant. But neither was anyone anxious to ingratiate themselves to the new Emperor. Everyone knew that the real power was in the hands of Theodora.Photius was not disgruntled by the crowd's indifference to him. To the contrary, he was immensely relieved. For the first time since the reception began, he felt he could relax. He even pondered, tentatively, the thought of reaching up and scratching behind his ear.Then, squaring his shoulders, he did so. Scratched furiously, in fact.I'm the Emperor of Rome. I can do what I want. "Stop scratching behind your ear!" hissed his mother. "You're the Emperor of Rome! It's undignified."The Emperor sighed, but obeyed.It's not fair. I never asked them to make me Emperor.   Chapter 1 CONSTANTINOPLE
Spring, 531 a.d.
As soon as Antonina put Photius to bed, she hastened to the imperial audience chamber. By the time she arrived, the Persian ambassador was reaching the conclusion of what had apparently been a lengthy speech.Taking her seat next to Belisarius, Antonina scanned the room quickly. Except for the guards standing against the walls, the huge chamber was almost empty. The usual mob of advisers who sat in on Theodora's audiences was absent. The only Romans present to hear the Persian ambassador were Theodora, Justinian, and Belisarius.Baresmanas himself was the only Persian present. Antonina knew that the extremely limited participation had been at the request of the Persians. That fact alone made clear the seriousness with which they took this meeting. She focussed her attention on the ambassador's final remarks."And so," said Baresmanas sternly, "I must caution you once again. Do not think that Roman meddling in the current internal situation in Persia will go unchallenged. Your spies may have told you that our realm verges on civil war. I, for one, do not believe that is true. But even if it is—all Aryans will unite against Roman intrusion. Do not doubt that for a moment."The ambassador's stern expression relaxed, replaced by a semi-apologetic smile which was, under the circumstances, quite warm. Antonina was struck by Baresmanas' change in demeanor. She suspected that the friendly face which now confronted the Roman Empress and her top advisers was much closer to the man himself than the stiff mask which had delivered the previous words."Of course, it is quite possible that all of my teeth-baring is unnecessary. I do not mean to be rude. Rome is known for its wisdom as well as its martial prowess, after all. It is quite possible—likely, I should say—that the thought of intervening in Persia has never once crossed your mind."Antonina was impressed. Baresmanas had managed to deliver the last sentence with a straight face. The statement, of course, was preposterous. For the last five hundred years, no Roman emperor had spent more than three consecutive days without at least thinking about attacking Persia. The reverse, needless to say, was equally true.She leaned over and whispered into Belisarius' ear:"What's this about?"His reply also came in a whisper:"The usual, whenever the Persians have to find a new emperor. Khusrau's been the leading candidate ever since Kavad died—he's been officially proclaimed, actually—but his half-brother Ormazd is apparently not reconciled to the situation. Baresmanas was sent here by Khusrau to warn us not to muck around in the mess."Antonina made a little grimace."As if we would," she muttered.Belisarius smiled crookedly. "Now, love, let's not be quite so self-righteous. It has happened, you know. Emperor Carus took advantage of the civil war between Bahram II and Hormizd to invade Persia. Even captured their capital of Ctesiphon.""That was over two hundred years ago," she protested softly."So? Persians have long memories. So do we, for that matter. Carus' invasion was retribution for Ardashir's attack on us during our civil war after Alexander Severus was murdered."Antonina shrugged. "The situation's different. We've got the Malwa to worry about, now."Belisarius started to make some response, but fell silent. The great double doors to the audience chamber were opening. A moment later, a worn-looking Persian officer was being ushered in by Irene Macrembolitissa, the chief of the Roman Empire's spy network."Speaking of which—" he muttered.Antonina started. "You think—?"He shrugged. "We'll know soon enough. But we've been expecting the Malwa to invade Mesopotamia, sooner or later. From the look of that Persian officer, I suspect 'sooner' has arrived."The Persian officer had reached Baresmanas. The ambassador was standing some fifteen feet away from Theodora. Although a chair had been provided for him, Baresmanas apparently felt that his stern message would carry more weight if delivered standing.The ambassador stooped slightly to hear what the officer had to say. The newly arrived Persian whispered urgently into his ear.Antonina could see an unmistakable look of surprise and apprehension come to the ambassador's face. But Baresmanas was an experienced diplomat. Within seconds, the ambassador had regained his composure. By the time the Persian officer finished imparting whatever report he had brought with him, Baresmanas' expression was impassive and opaque.When the officer finished, Baresmanas nodded and whispered a few words of his own. Immediately, the man bowed to the Roman Empress and hastily backed out of the room.Antonina glanced over at Irene. The spymaster, after ushering the officer into the audience chamber, had discreetly taken position against the wall next to the door.Antonina's gaze met Irene's. To all outward appearance, the spymaster's own face seemed void of expression. But Antonina knew Irene very well, and could not miss her friend's suppressed excitement.Behind Baresmanas' back, Irene gave Antonina a quick little gesture. Thumbs up.Antonina sighed. "You're right," she whispered to her husband. "Irene's like a shark smelling blood.""The woman does love a challenge," murmured Belisarius. "I think she'd rather be tortured in the Pit for eternity than go for a week without excitement." A chuckle. "Provided, of course, that Satan let her keep her books."Baresmanas cleared his throat, and addressed Theodora once again."Your Majesty, I have just received some important news. With your permission, I would like to leave now. I must discuss these matters with my own entourage."Theodora nodded graciously. Then:"Would you like to schedule another meeting?"Baresmanas' nod was abrupt, almost curt."Yes. Tomorrow, if possible.""Certainly," replied Theodora.Antonina ignored the rest of the interchange between the Empress and Baresmanas. Diplomatic formalities did not interest her.What did interest her was Irene."What do you think?" she whispered to Belisarius. "Is she going to be the first person in history to actually explode?"Belisarius shook his head. He whispered in return:"Nonsense. Spontaneous human eruption's impossible. Says so in the most scholarly volumes. Irene knows that perfectly well. She owns every one of those tomes, after all.""I don't know," mused Antonina, keeping a covert eye on her friend against the wall. "She's starting to tremble, now. Shiver, quiver and quake. Vibrating like a harp string.""Not possible," repeated Belisarius. "Precluded by all the best philosophers."Baresmanas was finally ushered out of the room.Irene exploded."It's on! It's on! It's on! It's on! It's on!"Bouncing like a ball. Spinning like a top."The Malwa invaded Mesopotamia! Attacked Persia!"Quiver, shiver; quake and shake."My spies got their hands on the message! Khusrau's instructed Baresmanas to seek Roman help!"Vibrating like a harp string; beating like a drum."See?" demanded Antonina.  Chapter 2Three nights later, the imperial audience chamber was again the scene of a meeting. After concluding an initial round of discussions with Baresmanas, Theodora had summoned her top advisers and officials.Theodora had a multitude of advisers, but the ten people in that room constituted the majority of what both she and Belisarius thought of as the "inner circle." Membership in that circle depended not on formal post or official position—although post and position generally accompanied them. Membership in the inner circle depended on two far more important things:First, the personal trust of Belisarius and what passed for "personal trust" from the perennially suspicious Theodora.Second, knowledge of the great secret. Knowledge of the messenger from the future, the crystalline quasi-jewel which called itself Aide, who had attached itself to Belisarius and warned the Roman Empire's greatest general that his world had become the battleground for powerful and mysterious forces of the far distant future.Theodora herself occupied a place in her circle of advisers, sitting below a great mosaic depicting Saint Peter. The seating arrangement was odd, for an imperial conference—the more so in that Theodora was not sitting on a throne, but a simple chair. ("Simple," at least, by imperial standards.) Traditionally, when Roman sovereigns discussed affairs of state with their advisers, the advisers stood on their feet while the monarchs lounged in massive thrones.But—"Of course we should accept the Persian proposal," came a harsh voice.The Empress cocked her head and examined the speaker. He returned her gaze, with his scarred and empty eye-sockets.Justinian was the cause of that peculiar seating arrangement. By custom, the former Emperor could no longer sit by her side. Officially, he was nothing now but one of her advisers. But Theodora had not been able to bear the thought of humiliating her husband further, and so she had gladly accepted Belisarius' suggestion that she solve the problem in the simplest way possible. Henceforth, when she met with her advisers, Theodora would sit with them in a circle."Explain, Justinian," said Anthony Cassian. The newly-elevated Patriarch of Constantinople leaned forward in his chair, clasping his pudgy hands."Yes, do," added Germanicus forcefully. The commander of the Army of Illyria was scowling.Germanicus nodded to Theodora. "With all due respect, Your Majesty, I do not view any alliance with Persia favorably. Damn the Medes, anyway! They've always been our enemy. Persia and the Malwa Empire can claw each other to pieces, as far as I'm concerned."A murmur of protest began to rise from several of the people sitting in the room."Yes, yes," snapped Germanicus, "I know that Malwa is our ultimate enemy." He glanced at Belisarius' chest, where the "jewel" from the future lay nestled in a pouch under the general's tunic. "But I don't see why—"Justinian's harsh voice interrupted. "Damn the Persians. And the Malwa! It's the dynasty I'm thinking about." Justinian's bony hands clenched the arms of his chair. "Don't fool yourselves," he snarled. "Do you really think the aristocracy is happy with the situation? Do you really?" He cawed a harsh, humorless laugh. "This very night—I guarantee it—half the Greek nobility is plotting our overthrow.""Let them plot all they want," said Sittas, shrugging. The heavyset general smiled cheerfully."I'm a Greek nobleman, myself, mind you. So I'm not about to dispute Justinian's words. If anything, he's being charitable. By my own estimate, two-thirds of the Greek aristocracy is plotting our overthrow. This very night, just as he says."Sittas yawned. "So are the rats in my cellar, I imagine. I'm more concerned about the rats."Chrysopolis shook his head vigorously. "You are much too complacent, Sittas," he argued. "I myself share Justinian's concerns."Chrysopolis had replaced the executed traitor John of Cappadocia as the empire's praetorian prefect. He was the one other member of the inner circle, who, like Germanicus, was not personally well-known to Belisarius. But the general himself had proposed his inclusion. Among the highest Roman officials who survived the purge after the failed coup d'etat which had been suppressed by Belisarius and Antonina a few months before, Chrysopolis had a reputation for ability and—a far rarer characteristic among those circles—scrupulous honesty."Do you really think this alliance would have that good an effect?" he asked."Of course," stated Justinian. He held up a thumb. "First. The Army will be ecstatic. Persia's the enemy they fear, not Malwa. Anything that prevents another war with Persia will meet their approval. Even after Belisarius' great victory at Mindouos, the Army still has no desire to match Persian lancers on the field of battle.""The Malwa will be worse," pointed out Antonina. "Their numbers are much larger, and they have the new gunpowder weapons."Justinian shrugged. "So? Roman soldiers have no experience with the Malwa, so they're not worried about them. Over time, that will probably change. But it's the present I'm concerned with. And, right now, I can think of no better way to cement the Army's allegiance to the dynasty than for Photius to forge a Hundred Years' Peace with Persia."Justinian held up his forefinger alongside his thumb. "Two. It'll please the populace at large, especially in the borderlands." His head turned, the sightless sockets fixing on Anthony Cassian. "The peasants of the region are already delighted with Cassian's succession to the Patriarchate. They're Monophysite heretics, the lot of them, and they know Cassian will rein in the persecution.""I have no formal authority over Patriarch Ephraim of Antioch," demurred Anthony. "The border regions fall under his jurisdiction.""The hell with Ephraim," hissed Justinian. "If the dynasty's hold on the throne stabilizes, we'll crush that bastard soon enough. I know it, you know it, Ephraim knows it—and so do the peasants of the borderlands."Belisarius saw that Germanicus was still scowling. The Illyrian general, quite obviously, was unmoved by Justinian and Chrysopolis' concerns. Belisarius decided it was time to intervene."We can live with Persia, Germanicus," he stated. "We have, after all, for a millennium. We cannot live with Malwa. The Malwa seek to rule the world. Their invasion of Persia is simply the first step toward their intended conquest of Rome. I say we fight them now, on Persian soil, with Persia's lancers as our allies. Or else we will fight them later, on Roman soil, with the Persian lancers shackled into the ranks of Malwa's gigantic army alongside their Rajput and Kushan vassals."Germanicus eyed him skeptically. Belisarius repressed a sigh. He was aggravated by the man's stubbornness, but he could not in good conscience condemn him for it. The commander of the Army of Illyria had only been made privy to the great secret a month before. Germanicus, like Chrysopolis, had no longstanding personal relationship with Belisarius. But he was a close kinsman of Justinian and an excellent general in his own right. Theodora had urged his inclusion in the inner circle—this was the one subject where she never issued commands to Belisarius—and Belisarius had agreed.Abstractly, he knew, the Illyrian general accepted the truth of Aide's nature, and the crystal's warning of the future. But, like most generals, Germanicus was conservative by temperament. Persia, not India, was the traditional rival of the Roman Empire.No, he could not condemn Germanicus for his prejudiced blindness. He simply returned the man's glare with a serene, confident gaze.After a moment, Germanicus stopped glaring."Are you so certain, Belisarius?" he asked. The Illyrian general's tone was not hostile, simply—serious. Like most Roman soldiers he had the deepest respect for Belisarius.Belisarius nodded his head firmly. "Trust me in this, Germanicus. If Malwa is not checked, the day will come when the Roman Empire will vanish as if it had never existed."After a moment, Germanicus sighed. "Very well, then. I will defer to your judgement. I'm not happy about it, but—" He sat up, squaring his shoulders. "Enough. I withdraw my objections."Theodora saw that all of her advisers had reached the same conclusion."So be it," she announced. "We'll tell the Persian ambassador that we accept the offer of alliance. In principle, at least. Let's move on to the specifics of their proposal."She turned to Irene Macrembolitissa. Officially, Irene was the most junior member of the high bureaucracy, having been elevated only recently to the post of sacellarius, the "keeper of the privy purse." Her actual power was immense. She was Theodora's spymaster and the chief of the Empire's unofficial secret police, the agentes in rebus. She had also become one of Theodora's few—very, very few—genuine friends."Begin by summarizing the situation with the invasion, if you would."Irene leaned forward, brushing back her thick brown hair. "The Malwa attack on Persia began two months ago," she said. "As Belisarius had predicted, they began with a massive sea-borne invasion of the Tigris-Euphrates delta. Within two days, they captured the great port at Charax and have been turning it into the entrepot for their invasion of Mesopotamia.""Aren't they attacking in the north as well?" asked Hermogenes.Irene nodded. "Yes. They have a large army pressing into Persia's eastern provinces. That army, however, seems to be only lightly equipped with gunpowder weapons. For the most part, they're made up of traditional forces—Malwa infantry backed by Ye-tai security battalions, with a very large force of Rajput cavalrymen.""Second-raters, then," stated Germanicus.Belisarius shook his head."Not at all. The Rajput cavalry are excellent, and they're under the command of Rana Sanga. I know him from my trip to India. Know him rather well, in fact. He's as good a general as you'll find anywhere. And while I don't personally know the top Malwa commander of the northern expedition, Lord Damodara, I do know that Rana Sanga respected him deeply."Germanicus frowned. "Why—?"Belisarius chuckled. "There's a method to the Malwa madness. The Rajputs are the heart of Damodara's army, and the Malwa don't trust their Rajput vassals. So they put their best general in charge of the toughest campaign, gave him little in the way of gunpowder weapons, and placed almost all the Rajput cavalry at his disposal. Damodara will have no choice. He'll have to rely on Rana Sanga and the Rajputs for his shock troops, slugging it out for months against Persian cavalry in some of the worst terrain you can imagine. The Malwa are killing two birds with one stone. The Persians can't ignore the threat, so they have to divert much of their army from the main campaign in Mesopotamia. And, at the same time, the Malwa will be—"Germanicus nodded. "Bleeding the Rajputs white.""Exactly."Sittas grunted. "That means the northern expedition isn't something we need to worry about. Not for some time, at least. That'll be up to the Persians to deal with."He eyed Irene. "How big is the Malwa army in Mesopotamia?"She hesitated, knowing that her next words would be met with disbelief. "At least two hundred thousand men. Probably more.""That's nonsense!" exclaimed Germanicus.Belisarius overrode him. "It is not nonsense. Believe it, Germanicus. The Malwa Empire is the one power in the world which can field that big an army. And keep it supplied, so long as they hold Charax. When I was in Bharakuccha, India's great western seaport, I saw with my own eyes the huge fleet of supply ships they were constructing."Germanicus' face was pale. "Two hundred thousand," he whispered."At least," emphasized Belisarius. "And they'll have the bulk of their gunpowder units, too. About their only weakness will be in cavalry."Irene shook her head. "Not even that, Belisarius. Not light cavalry, at least. I just got word yesterday that the Lakhmite dynasty has transferred its allegiance from Persia to the Malwa. That gives the Malwa a large force of Arab cavalry—and a camel force that can operate in the desert regions on the right bank of the Euphrates. Which, by the way, seems to be the river which the Malwa are using as their invasion route.""Slow going," commented Hermogenes. "The Euphrates meanders all over the flood plain. The Tigris would be quicker."Belisarius shrugged. "The Malwa aren't relying on speed and maneuver. They've got a sledgehammer moving up the Euphrates. Once they reach Peroz-Shapur, they can cross over to the Tigris. They'll have the Persian capital at Ctesiphon surrounded.""What's the Persian response?" asked Germanicus."From what Baresmanas told me," responded Irene, "it seems that Emperor Khusrau intends to make a stand at Babylon.""Babylon?" exclaimed Cassian. "There is no Babylon! That city's been deserted for centuries!" He shook his head. "It's in ruins."Irene smiled. "The city, yes. But the walls of Babylon are still standing. And, by all accounts, those walls are almost as mighty as they were in the days of Hammurabi and Assurbanipal.""What are the Persians asking of us?" queried Antonina.Irene glanced at Chrysopolis. The praetorian prefect had handled that part of the initial discussions with Baresmanas."They want an alliance with Rome, and as many troops as we can send to help Khusrau at Babylon." He nodded to Sittas. "The Persians do not expect us to help them against the Malwa thrust into their eastern provinces. But they are—well, desperate—to get our help in Mesopotamia.""How many troops do they want us to send?" asked Justinian.Chrysopolis took a deep breath. "They're asking for forty thousand. The entire Army of Syria, and the remaining twenty thousand from Anatolia and our European units."The room exploded."That's insane!" cried Sittas. "That's half the Roman army!""It'd strip the Danube naked," snarled Germanicus. "Every barbarian tribe in the Balkans would be pouring across within a month!" He turned to Belisarius. "You can't be seriously considering this proposal!"Belisarius shook his head. "No, I'm not, Germanicus. Although I would if I thought we could do it." Again, Belisarius shrugged. "But, the simple fact is that we can't. We have to maintain a strong force on the Danube, as you said. And, unfortunately, we have to keep Sittas' army in and around Constantinople. As we all know, the dynasty's hold is still shaky. Most of the nobility would back another coup, if they thought it would succeed."Germanicus tugged on his beard. "At the moment, in other words, we have nothing to send Persia except the existing armies in Syria and Egypt.""Not even that," said Theodora. "We've got a crisis in Egypt, too."She looked to her spymaster. "Tell them.""As you all know," said Irene, "the former Patriarch of Alexandria, Timothy IV, was murdered during the Nika insurrection—at the same time as Anthony's predecessor Epiphanios. The culprits were never found, but I'm quite sure it was the work of Malwa assassins.""Aided and abetted by ultra-orthodox forces in the Church," said Justinian forcefully.Irene nodded. "After three months of wrangling, the Greek nobility in Alexandria imposed a new Patriarch. An ultra-orthodox monk by the name of Paul. The very next day he reinstated the persecution. Alexandria's been in turmoil ever since. Riots and street fights almost daily, mostly between ultra-orthodox and ultra-Monophysite monks. We just got the news yesterday.""What the hell is the Army of Egypt doing?" demanded Germanicus."They've sided with the new Patriarch," replied Irene. "According to my reports, in fact, the army's commander was Paul's chief advocate.""That's General Ambrose, isn't it?" asked Hermogenes.Irene nodded. Sittas growled:"I know that bastard. He's not worth a damn on the battlefield. A politician down to his toenails. Ambitious as Satan."The praetorian prefect sighed. "So much for the Army of Egypt. We won't be able to send them to Persia.""It's worse than that, Chrysopolis," stated Belisarius. "We're going to have to send a military force to Egypt to set the situation straight.""You think we should intervene?""I most certainly do. Egypt is the largest and richest province of the Empire. In the long run, we're relying on Egypt to be the bastion for our naval campaign in the Erythrean Sea. The last thing we can afford is to have its population riddled with disaffection and rebellion."Theodora added her voice. "I am in complete agreement with Belisarius on this matter." She nodded toward Cassian. "At Anthony's recommendation, I'm sending a deacon named Theodosius to replace Paul as Alexandria's Patriarch. He's a moderate Monophysite. A member of the Severan school like Timothy."Chrysopolis frowned. "How are you going to enforce the appointment?"For the first time since the meeting started, Theodora grinned. But there was not a trace of humor in the expression. "With a combination of the old and the new. You know of the religious order which Michael of Macedonia has founded? He's offered to send several thousand of them to Egypt, to counter the existing monastic orders.""That's fine against other monks in the streets, armed with cudgels," grunted Hermogenes. "But the Army of Egypt—""Will be dealt with by the Theodoran Cohort," stated Belisarius.The announcement brought dead silence to the room. All eyes turned to Antonina.The little Egyptian woman shrugged. "I'm all we've got, I'm afraid.""Not quite," said Belisarius. He looked at Hermogenes. "I think we can spare one of your legions, to give Antonina's grenadiers an infantry bulwark. And I'm going to give her five hundred of my cataphracts for a cavalry force."Hermogenes nodded. Frowning, Germanicus looked back and forth between Belisarius and Antonina."I would have thought you'd want to use the grenadiers in Persia," he commented.Before Belisarius could reply, Theodora spoke up. "Absolutely not. Other than Belisarius' small unit of rocketeers, Antonina's cohort is our only military force equipped with gunpowder weapons. They've never been in a real battle. I'm not going to risk them in Persia. Not this early in the war."Germanicus' frown deepened. "Then who—?""Me," said Belisarius. "Me, and whatever troops we can scrape up." He scratched his chin. "I think we can spare five or six thousand men from the Army of Syria, along with my own bucellarii.""I can give you two thousand cataphracts," interjected Sittas. He glanced at Germanicus.The Illyrian army commander winced. "I can probably spare five hundred. No more than that, I'm afraid. There's bound to be trouble with the northern barbarians within the next year. The Malwa will be spreading their gold with a lavish hand."Hermogenes finished counting on his fingers and looked up."That doesn't give you much of an army, Belisarius. You've got, what—a thousand cataphracts, after you give five hundred to Antonina?"Belisarius nodded.Hermogenes blew out his cheeks. "Plus two thousand from Sittas and five hundred from Germanicus. That's three and a half thousand heavy cavalry. The Army of Syria can probably give you three or four thousand infantry and a couple of thousand cavalry. But the cavalry will be light horse archers, not cataphract lancers.""Ten thousand men, at the most," concluded Germanicus. "As he says, that's not much of an army."Belisarius shrugged. "It's what we've got.""I'm not happy at the idea of Belisarius personally leading this army," stated Chrysopolis. "He's the Empire's strategos. He should really stay here in the capital.""Nonsense!" barked Justinian. For the first time since the meeting began, he too broke into a grin. And, like that of his wife's, the expression was utterly humorless."You want an alliance with Persia, don't you?" he demanded. "They won't be happy at our counter-offer of ten thousand men. But Belisarius' reputation will make up the difference." Now, a bit of humor crept into that ravaged face. "Stop frowning, Chrysopolis. I can see your sour face as if I still had eyes."He leaned forward, gripping the armrests of his chair. His head scanned the entire circle of advisers. For just a fleeting moment, everyone would have sworn Justinian could actually see them."I made that man a general," said the former emperor. "It's one of the few decisions I made that I've never regretted."He leaned back in his seat. "The Persians will be delighted. Believe it." 
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