Chapter 21THE MALABAR COAST
Summer, 531 a.d.The refugee camps in Muziris swarmed like anthills. Families gathered up their few belongings and awaited the voyage to the island of Tamraparni. Maratha cavalrymen and Kushan soldiers readied their gear. The great fleet of ships assembling in the harbor cleared their holds. Keralan officials presented chests full of gold and silver, to fund the migration. An empress and her advisers schemed.And old friends arrived.In midafternoon of a sunny day—a rarity, that, in southwest India during the monsoon season—five Axumite warships entered the harbor at Muziris.They were not hailed by Keralan guard vessels. There was no pretense, any longer, that the port of Muziris was under anyone's control but Shakuntala's. The Ethiopian vessels were met by a warship "requi-sitioned" from Kerala but manned by Maratha sailors.Once their identity was established, the Ethiopians were immediately escorted into the presence of the Empress. There were four hundred of the Axumite soldiers, along with four other men. Shakuntala, forewarned, greeted them with a full imperial ceremony before the great mansion she had taken for her palace.The three Ethiopians who led that march were deeply impressed by what they saw—as were the four men walking with them who were not African. The seven men at the front were familiar with India, and with Shakuntala's situation. They had been expecting something patchwork and ragged. A rebel empress—a hunted young girl—hiding in a precarious refuge, with nothing but the handful of Kushan soldiers who had spirited her out of the Malwa empire.Instead—The street down which they were escorted, by hundreds of Maratha cavalrymen, was lined with thousands of cheering people. Most were refugees, from Andhra and other Malwa-conquered lands of India. But there were many dark-skinned Keralans among that crowd, as well. Her own grandfather might have disowned her, and Malwa provocateurs might have stirred up much animosity toward the refugees who had poured into the kingdom, but many of her mother's people had not forgotten that Shakuntala was a daughter of Kerala herself. So they too cheered, and loudly, at this further evidence that the Empress-in-exile of Andhra was a force to be reckoned with. Allies—from far off Africa! And such splendid-looking soldiers!Which, indeed, they were. The sarwen rose to the occasion, abandoning their usual Axumite informality. In stiff lines they marched, their great spears held high, ostrich-plume headdresses bobbing proudly.As they approached the Empress' palace, kettledrums began beating. At the steps leading up to the palace doors, the march halted. The doors swung wide, and dozens—then hundreds—of Kushan soldiers trotted out and took positions on the palace steps. The last Kushans to emerge were Shakuntala's personal bodyguard, the small band of men who had been with her since she inherited her throne. Since the very day, in fact. For these were the men who had taken her out of her father's palace in Amaravati, on the day her family was slaughtered, as a Malwa captive. And then, months later, had spit in Malwa's face and taken her to freedom.Finally, Shakuntala herself emerged, with Dadaji Holkar at her side. Four imperial ladies-in-waiting came behind them.She stepped—say better, pranced—down the stairs to greet her visitors.For all the pomp and splendor, the dignity of the occasion was threadbare. Genuine joy has a way of undermining formality.Among the Ethiopians who stood before the palace were four Kushans—the squad, led by Kujulo, who had assisted Prince Eon in his escape from India the year before. As soon as Shakuntala's bodyguard spotted their long-lost brethren, their discipline frayed considerably. They did not break formation, of course. But the grins on their faces went poorly with the solemnity of the occasion.It hardly mattered, since their own Empress was grinning just as widely. Partly, at the sight of Kujulo and his men. Mostly, at the familiar faces of the three Ethiopians at the front.Garmat, Ezana and Wahsi. Three of that small band of men who had rescued her from Malwa captivity.Seeing an absent face, her grin faded.Garmat shook his head."No, Shakuntala, he did not come with us. The negusa nagast sent Eon on a different mission. But the Prince asked me to convey his greetings and his best wishes."Shakuntala nodded. "We will speak of it later. For the moment, let me thank you for returning my Kushan bodyguards."Smiling, she turned and beckoned one of her ladies-in-waiting forward."And I have no doubt you will want to take Tarabai back with you. As I promised Eon."The Maratha woman stepped forward. Although she was trying to maintain her composure, Tarabai's expression was a jumbled combination of happiness and anxiety. Happiness, at the prospect of being reunited with her Prince. Anxiety, that he might have lost interest in her after their long separation. During the course of Prince Eon's adventures in India the year before, he and Tarabai had become almost inseparable. Before they went their separate ways in escaping the Malwa, Eon had asked her to become his concubine, and she had accepted. But—that was then, and princes are notoriously fickle and short of memory.Garmat immediately allayed her anxiety."Eon may not be in Axum upon your arrival, Tarabai. He is occupied elsewhere, at the moment. But he hopes you have not changed your mind."The old half-Arab smiled."Actually, he does more than hope. He is already adding a wing to his palace. Your quarters, when you arrive—as well as those of your children, when they arrive. As I'm sure they will, soon enough."Tarabai blushed. Beamed.That business done, Garmat's gaze returned to the Empress. His smile faded. "So much is pleasure, Your Majesty. Now, for the rest—"He straightened. Then, in a loud voice:"I bring you an official offer of alliance from the negusa nagast of Axum. A full alliance against the Malwa."A buzz of whispered conversation filled the air at this announcement."We heard, upon our arrival, that you plan to transport your people to the island of Ceylon. Let me make clear that, if you desire, you and your people may seek refuge in Ethiopia instead."Shakuntala would have sworn that her expression never changed. But she had forgotten Garmat's uncanny shrewdness."Ah," he murmured. His voice was soft, and pitched low. So low that only she and Dadaji could now hear him. "I had wondered. Exile to a distant land did not really seem in your nature. So. I have five ships, Your Majesty. On board those ships came half of the Dakuen sarwe—four hundred soldiers, under the command of Ezana and Wahsi. One of those ships must convey Tarabai and myself back to Ethiopia. The rest—including all of the sarwen—are at your disposal."Shakuntala nodded. She, too, spoke softly. "Warships, I believe?"Garmat's smile returned. "Axumite warships, Empress." He coughed modestly. "Rather superior, don't you know, to those Malwa tubs? And I dare say our sarwen could handle three times their number of Malwa's so-called marines.""Yes, I know," she replied. "As it happens, I can use them. The ships and the sarwen both. Have you heard the news of Deogiri?"Garmat nodded. His smile widened.She leaned forward."As it happens—" Three days later, in a pouring rain, the fleet left Muziris. The Matisachiva Ganapati and the city's viceroy stood watching from the docks. All day they remained there, sheltered from the downpour under a small pavilion, until they were certain that every single one of the cursed "Empress-in-exile's" followers had quit Keralan soil.Not until the last ship disappeared into the rain did they summon their howdah."Thank the gods," muttered the viceroy.Ganapati's expression was sour."For what?" he demanded. "The damage may already have been done. A courier arrived this morning from Vanji. The Malwa have been issuing the most pointed and severe threats. They are demanding that the King arrest Shakuntala and return her to captivity."The viceroy shook his head."They can hardly expect the King to do that. She is his granddaughter, after all.""Probably not," agreed Ganapati. He shrugged. "Hopefully, they will be satisfied with the fact that we have expelled her—and her followers—from Keralan soil. I will immediately dispatch a courier with the news."The elephant bearing their howdah loomed up in the rain. Hurriedly, the two Keralan officials scrambled aboard the great beast. Despite their haste, they were soaked through by the time they reached the shelter of the howdah.Ganapati's expression was still sour."Cursed monsoon," he muttered.A sudden, freakish gust blew aside a curtain and drenched his companion."Cursed monsoon!" cried the viceroy. "Blessed monsoon," stated Kungas cheerfully. The commander of Shakuntala's bodyguard leaned over the rail of the ship and admired the view. He did not seem in the slightest aggrieved by the fact that he was soaking wet. Or that there was no view to be admired.Neither did the man standing next to him."Blessed monsoon," agreed Dadaji Holkar. "No-one will be able to see which direction we take. Let's just hope that the rain keeps up.""This time of year?" demanded Kungas, chuckling. "Be serious, Dadaji! Look!"He pointed eastward. Their ship was not more than two miles from the shore, but the coast of Malabar was completely invisible."Can't see a thing," he pronounced. "It'll be that way nine days out of ten, for at least another month. More than long enough for us to reach Suppara, even with this slow fleet."Dadaji began to stroke his beard, but quickly left off the familiar gesture. It was a bit too much like wringing a sponge."True," he murmured. "And there is this additional advantage, as well—the refugees won't know where we're going either. Most of them will continue to think we're heading for Tamraparni until the very day we sail into Suppara."Kungas cast him a sidelong glance."Might be a bit of trouble, then."Dadaji shook his head."I don't think so. I had many spies in the camps, and they all reported that the great majority of the refugees are devoted to the Empress. I believe they will accept her decision. Besides, she intends to offer those who don't want to return to Majarashtra the alternative of Tamraparni. Whichever so choose, she will provide them with the necessary ships to make the voyage. After we've seized Suppara, of course."A thin smile cracked Kungas' face."Not much of an alternative, that. The King of Tamraparni is not going to be pleased when he hears how Shakuntala used his name in vain. His own son in marriage, no less!"Holkar made no reply. For a few minutes, the two men simply stared out at nothing. Nothing but beautiful, blinding, concealing, sheets of rain.Eventually, Kungas cleared his throat."Speaking of marriage," he stated.Holkar grimaced. "She refuses to even discuss it," he said softly. "Believe me, my friend, I have tried to broach the subject on many occasions. Each time, she says the question is premature."Kungas twitched his shoulders. "That's not the point. For her to marry anyone now would be premature. She has nothing to offer, at the moment, in exchange for an alliance with real forces. But after we take Suppara—after we demonstrate to India, and all the world, that Andhra intends to hold southern Majarashtra—then the question of a dynastic marriage will pose itself. She must start thinking about it, Dadaji. Or else she will be paralyzed when the time comes."The Empress' adviser sighed. "You know the problem, my friend."Kungas stared out to sea. Nodded once, twice. "She is in love with Rao."Holkar blew out his cheeks. "Please," he growled. "It is the infatuation of a young girl with a man she knew only as a child. She has not seen him—hardly at all—in two years.""She has seen him for a few hours only, during that time," agreed Kungas. His voice rumbled like stones: "After he gutted the Vile One's palace in order to rescue her. Quite a reunion, that must have been."Holkar said nothing. Kungas turned his head away, as if something had caught his eye.In truth, he simply didn't want Holkar to see his face. Not even Kungas, at that moment, could keep from smiling.Excellent. The thought was full of satisfaction. Excellent—"child"! Poor Holkar. Even he—even he—is blind on this point. For a moment, as he had many times before, Kungas found himself bemused by that peculiarly Indian obsession with purity and pollution. Even his friend Dadaji could not entirely escape its clutches.So blind, these Indians. When the truth is so obvious. He turned away from the rail."Enough rain," he announced. "I'm going below. The action's going to start soon, anyway. I have to get ready, in case I'm needed."As he walked across the deck toward the hatch, Kungas' face was invisible to anyone. Now, finally, he allowed his grin to emerge.Stay stubborn, Shakuntala. Dig in your heels, girl, refuse to discuss it. When the question of marriage is finally posed, you will know what to do. Then, you will know. He shook his head, slightly.So obvious! An hour later, the fleet changed its course. The change was slow—erratic, confused, haphazard. Part of that fumbling was due to the simple fact that the troop commanders on every ship had a different estimate of the right moment to give the command. The only time-keeping devices available to them were hour-glasses and sundials. Sundials were useless in the pouring monsoon. Hourglasses, under these circumstances, just as much so. It would have been impossible to provide each commander with an identical hourglass, much less have them turned over simultaneously.So, each commander simply gave the order when he thought the time was right.Most of the confusion, however, was due to the fact that the crews and captains of the merchant ships were bitterly opposed to the change of course. They had been hired to transport the Empress and her people to Tamraparni. They were not, to put it mildly, pleased to hear that the destination had been changed—especially when they discovered the new one.Suppara? Are you mad? The Malwa hold Suppara! But the captains of the ships were not the commanders. The commanders were a very different breed altogether. Kushans and Maratha cavalrymen, in the main, who cheerfully accepted the berating abuse of the Keralan ship captains.For about one minute. Then the steel was drawn.Thereafter, Keralan captains and seamen scurried about their new-found task. Grumbling, to be sure. But they had no illusions that they could overpower the squads of soldiers placed on each ship. Not those soldiers.One crew tried. Led by a particularly belligerent captain, the Keralan seamen dug out their own weapons and launched a mutiny. They outnumbered the soldiers two-to-one, after all. Perhaps they thought their numbers would make the difference.They were sadly mistaken. Within two minutes, the four surviving seamen were huddled in the bow, nursing their wounds and casting fearful glances at the Kushan soldiers standing guard over them. Not one of those Kushans had even been scratched in the "melee."Then, to add to their misery, they saw the prow of a ship looming out of the downpour. Within seconds, the ship had drawn alongside. The Keralan seamen recognized the craft. One of those swift, fearsome Ethiopian warships.An Axumite officer leaned over the rail."Is problem?" he called out. "We hear noise of—of—" He faltered, having reached the limit of his skill with Hindi.The Kushan commander glared."Yes, there's a problem!" he grated, pointing an accusing finger at the four captives. The Keralan seamen hunched lower."There's only four of the bastards left. Not enough to run the ship."Another Ethiopian came to the rail. The Kushan commander immediately recognized him—Ezana, one of the Axumite soldiers' top leaders.Ezana gave the situation a quick scrutiny. He was familiar with Kushans, and knew that they were not a sea-going folk. No hope they could run the ship themselves.He turned his head and barked out a quick string of names. Within a minute, six Ethiopian soldiers were standing next to him. While they were mustering, Ezana took the opportunity to close with the merchant vessel. It was the work of but seconds for the Ethiopians to tie up alongside.Lightly, Ezana sprang across onto the Keralan ship. He strode toward the bow where the Kushan commander was waiting, along with his men and the captives.Once there, Ezana made a little gesture at the six Axumites who were making their own way across."These men will stay with you for the duration of the trip," he explained, speaking in heavily accented but quite good Hindi. "Along with the four surviving mutineers, that should be enough."He gave the ship a quick examination. Judging from his expression, he was not pleased with what he saw."Indian tub," he sneered. "Can run a good Axumite trader with six men. Five—even four—in an emergency."He transferred the sarcastic expression onto the four Keralan survivors. The seamen hunched lower still, dropping their heads. Doing everything in their power to fade out of sight.No use. Ezana squatted down next to them."Look at me," he commanded. Reluctantly, they raised their heads.Ezana grinned."Don't look so unhappy, lads. Consider your good fortune! My men hate running crappy ships like this. I'd have my own mutiny if I pitched you overboard and appointed four replacements."Hearing this happy news, the expression on the faces of the Keralans brightened.A bit, no more—and that little bit immediately vanished under Ezana's ensuing scowl."But they don't hate it as much as they hate mutineers," he rumbled. "I'd be on my best behavior from now on, if I were you."Four Keralan heads bobbed frantic agreement.Ezana's scowl deepened. "You're seamen. So I assume you're familiar with the Ethiopian treatment for mutineers?"Four Keralan heads bobbed horrified agreement."Good," he grunted.He rose and turned to the Kushan commander."You won't have any more trouble," he pronounced. As he made his way back to the rail, the Kushan accompanied him."What is the Ethiopian way with mutineers?" he asked.Ezana climbed onto the rail. Just before making his leap, he bestowed a cheerful grin onto the Kushan commander."It involves fishing."He sprang across. Turned and called back."We're partial to shark meat!" Two days later, Ezana came aboard the Empress' flagship. A council had been called for all the central leaders of the expedition. He, along with Wahsi and Garmat, were to be the Ethiopian representatives at the meeting.Garmat was already aboard, waiting for him. As the two men fought their way across the deck in the face of a rain so heavy it seemed almost like a waterfall, Ezana grumbled. "This has got to be the worst climate in the world."Garmat smiled. "Oh, I don't know. At least it's not hot. The temperature's rather pleasant, actually. Whereas the Empty Quarter—"Ezana shook his head firmly. "No contest. At least you can breathe, in Arabia."He cast a fierce glower at the heavy sky. "How much does it rain here, anyway?"They were at the small shed which provided an entryway into the large cabin amidship. Both men made an effort to wring out their clothes—mere kilts, fortunately—before entering.Garmat frowned in thought. "I'm not sure, actually. I think I heard somewhere that southwest India during the monsoon season gets—"He gave a figure in the Ethiopian way of measuring such things. Ezana's eyes widened. The figure was the equivalent of thirteen feet of water in five months."Mother of God!"Garmat nodded toward the east, toward the invisible coast of India."Cheer up. If all goes well, soon enough we'll be crossing the mountains into Majarashtra. It's dry, I hear, on that side of the Western Ghats.""Can't be soon enough," grumbled Ezana. He led the way into the cabin.The cabin which served as Shakuntala's "imperial quarters" was a bit grotesque, to Ezana's eyes. He was an Ethiopian, brought up in the Axumite traditions of royal regalia. Those traditions leaned toward a style of ornamentation which was massive, but austere. And always practical. When traveling by sea, an Ethiopian royal—even the negusa nagast himself—would enjoy nothing more than a simple cabin decorated with, at most, a lion skin or ostrich feathers.The Indian tradition was otherwise. Massive also, at times—Ezana had seen, and been impressed by, the size of the Malwa Emperor's palaces and pavilions. But not austere. Not practical.Never seen so many gewgaws in my life, he thought sourly.His eye fell on a ivory carving perched atop a slender table by the entrance. The carving, incredibly ornate and intricate, depicted a half-naked couple entwined in a passionate embrace. Ezana almost winced. It was not the eroticism of the carving which offended him—Axumites were not prudes—but the simple absurdity of the thing.On a warship?First storm, that thing's so much ballast.Garmat pushed him forward into the cabin."We're diplomats," he whispered. "Be polite." Shakuntala was perched on a pile of cushions against the far wall of the cabin. Dadaji Holkar sat to her left, in the position of her chief adviser. Next to him sat the religious leader, Bindusara.Shakuntala's military commanders were clustered to her right. Kungas was there, along with his two chief Kushan subordinates, Kanishka and Kujulo. The Maratha cavalry leaders Shahji and Kondev were accompanied by three of their own top aides.Wahsi, also, was there. He had arrived earlier. He was perched on a little wooden stool. Two other stools rested nearby. The Empress had provided them, knowing the Ethiopian preference in seating. All of the Indians were squatting on cushions, in the lotus position.Once Garmat and Ezana took their seats, Shakuntala spoke."The first stage of our strategy has been a resounding success. We have broken free from Kerala and eluded the Malwa. It is well-nigh certain that our enemy believes we are headed for exile in Tamraparni."She paused, scanning the room for any sign of dissent or disagreement. Seeing none, she continued."I believe we can assume that our arrival at Suppara will come as a complete surprise for the enemy. That being so, it is now possible for us to concentrate our attention on the more distant future. We will surprise the Malwa at Suppara, and we will take the city. The question is—then what?"Kondev stirred. Shakuntala turned toward him, cocking her head inquiringly. The gesture was an invitation to speak.For a moment, the Maratha officer hesitated. He was a relatively new member of the Empress' inner circle. Accustomed to Indian traditions—he had been a top officer of Shakuntala's father, whose haughty imperial manner had been legendary—he was still nonplussed by her relaxed and easy manner with her advisers.Recognizing his uncertainty, Shakuntala promp-ted him."Please, Kondev. Speak up, if you have some doubt."The cavalry officer tugged at his beard nervously. "I do not have doubts, Your Majesty. Not precisely. But I thought our course of action after seizing Suppara was simply to march on to Deogiri. Join our forces with Rao's." He ducked his head in a quick, apologetic manner. "Perhaps I misunderstood.""You did not misunderstand, Kondev," replied Shakuntala. "That was our plan. But the unexpected arrival of the Axumites, and their offer of an alliance, has led me to reconsider. Or, at least, to think in more ambitious terms."She turned toward the Ethiopians."If we held Suppara—permanently, I mean—could your navy hold off the Malwa fleet?"The three Ethiopians exchanged quick glances. Wahsi was the first to speak."No, Empress," he said firmly. "If the Malwa did not possess their gunpowder weapons, it might be possible. Their navy is much larger than ours, in men and ships, but ours is better. Besides, most of their fleet is tied up in the Persian invasion."He shrugged."The fact is, however, that they do possess the demon weapons. That nullifies our advantage of superior skill. We cannot close with them to board. Their rockets are erratic, at long range, but they are fearsome weapons against a nearby enemy."Shakuntala nodded. She did not seem particularly chagrined, or surprised, by Wahsi's reply. "You could not break a Malwa blockade of Suppara, then?"Wahsi shook his head. Shakuntala leaned forward."Tell me this, Wahsi. If wewere able to hold Suppara—keep the Malwa from recapturing the city—could you run the blockade?"All three Axumites burst into laughter."Be like stealing chickens from a cripple!" chuckled Ezana."A very strong cripple," qualified Garmat. "Have to be a bit careful. Still—"Wahsi had stopped laughing."Yes, Empress," he stated firmly. "We could run the blockade. Penetrate it like water through a fish net, in fact. Not one or two ships, now and then. We could run a Malwa blockade almost at our pleasure."He made a little gesture of qualification."You understand, I am speaking of a blockade of the entire coast. If they amass enough ships, the Malwa could close off Suppara itself. But I assume there must be other nearby places where we could land a vessel and offload cargo.""A multitude of them!" exclaimed Bindusara. All eyes turned toward the sadhu."I am familiar with the Malabar coast," he explained. "With the entire western coast of India, in fact, from Kerala to the Kathiawar."Bindusara turned his head eastward, as if studying the nearby shore through the walls of the cabin."The Western Ghats run parallel to the coast, from the southernmost tip of India all the way north to the Narmada River. They form the western boundary of the Deccan." He fluttered his hands. "The Ghats are not tall mountains. Nothing like the Himalayas! Their average height is less than a thousand yards. Even the greatest of them, Anai Mudi in Kerala, is not three thousand yards high. But they are quite rugged. The combination of their ruggedness and low altitude means that the western shore of India boasts a huge number of small rivers, instead of a few mighty ones like the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, as does the east coast.""Smugglers' terrain," grunted Ezana.Bindusara smiled. " 'Terrain'? Say better—smugglers' paradise. Don't forget the climate, Ezana. India's west coast is the wettest part of our land. Each one of those rivers enters the sea through forests of teak and palms. There are any number of hidden and secluded coves in which a cargo could be unloaded. And the local population would be quite happy to assist in the process. Poor farmers and fishermen they are, mostly, with a great need for extra money and no love for the Malwa."Shakuntala, seeing Wahsi nod, stated:"You could do it, then?""Without question, Empress." The Ethiopian officer ran fingers through his mass of thick, kinky hair, eyeing Shakuntala all the while."You want to break the siege of Deogiri by controlling all of southern Majarashtra," he speculated. "Using Suppara as your logistics base."The Empress nodded. "Exactly. I wouldn't think of trying it if the enemy's main army wasn't tied up in Persia. But with only Venandakatra to face, I think it can be done—provided we get access to gunpowder weapons.""There are cannons in Suppara," said the Maratha officer Shahji. "If we take the city, we will take them also.""Not enough," grunted Kungas. "Not by themselves."He looked at Holkar. "You have spies in Suppara. If I'm not mistaken, those cannons are fixed siege guns."Holkar nodded. "They're huge bombards. Three of them, positioned to defend the city against seaborne attack." He grimaced. "I suppose they could be moved, but—""Forget it," interrupted Kungas. "We can use those cannons to defend Suppara against the Malwa fleet, but they'll be no use to us in a land war against Venandakatra's army. For that, we need help from the Romans. By now, I'm quite sure Belisarius has developed a Roman capacity to produce gunpowder weapons. If we can establish contact with him, the Ethiopians could smuggle the weapons to us. And keep us supplied with gunpowder."Everyone in the cabin exchanged glances."We need to send a mission to Rome, then," said Bindusara."Not to Rome," demurred Dadaji. "To Belisarius. To the Roman government, we are simply bizarre outlanders. Only Belisarius knows us well."The peshwa straightened his posture."I will go," he announced. "Our delegation must be led by someone who is both highly placed in the Empress' government and personally known to Belisarius. I am the obvious choice.""Nonsense!" exclaimed Shakuntala. "The idea is utterly mad. You are my peshwa, Dadaji. I need you to remain here."Holkar frowned. "But I am the only one who—"He broke off, casting a startled glance at Kungas.The Kushan commander huffed. Coming from someone else, the noise would have been interpreted as humor. Coming from Kungas, it was hard to tell."He is the commander of your bodyguard!" protested Dadaji.Shakuntala waved her hand. "He is not needed in that capacity, anymore. Kanishka is more than capable of taking his place. Actually, his talents are being wasted there."Everyone in the room was staring at Kungas. The expression on the faces of most of the Indians was a mixture of skepticism and hesitation.Shahji cleared his throat."If you will forgive me, Your Majesty, it seems to me that sending Kungas might be a bad idea. He is not of noble blood—neither brahmin nor kshatriya—and I fear the Roman general Belisarius might be offended if your ambassador were of such a low—"The rest of the sentence was lost, buried beneath an eruption of laughter. Coming from the Ethiopians, mainly, but the Empress herself was participating and even Kungas emitted a chuckle or two.Dadaji simply smiled. Then said, shaking his head, "You do not understand, Shahji. Romans in general—and Belisarius in particular—do not look at these things the way we Indians do. They are punctilious about the forms of nobility, but, as to its real content—" He shrugged. "So long as Kungas is the official envoy of the Empress, and carries with him a sufficiently resounding title, the Romans will be quite satisfied. Certainly Belisarius will.""Excellent point, Dadaji," stated Shakuntala. She bestowed an imperial nod upon Kungas."I hereby appoint you my ambassador to Rome, and give you the titles of Mahadandanayaka and Bhatasvapati." Kungas' incipient smile surfaced. Barely." 'Great commandant' and 'lord of army and cavalry,' " he murmured. "My, how I've risen in the world!"Catching a glimpse of Garmat's face, Shakuntala turned toward him. The Ethiopian adviser's gaiety had quite vanished, replaced by a frown."You disagree," she stated. There was no accusation in the words, simply a question.The old half-Arab stroked his beard."Yes, Empress, I do." He made a dismissive gesture with his hand. "Not, of course, for the reasons advanced earlier. Kungas would be quite acceptable as an ambassador, from the Roman point of view. More than acceptable, as far as Belisarius is concerned. The general trusts and admires the man, deeply. I know—he told me so himself."The Indian officers in the cabin moved their eyes to Kungas. As ever, the Kushan commander's face was impassive, like a mask. But they were reminded, again, that the unprepossessing Kushan—whom they tended, unconsciously, to regard as a lowborn half-barbarian—enjoyed a reputation among the greatest folk of their world which was far beyond their own."What is the problem, then?" asked Shakuntala.Garmat pursed his lips. "The problem, Empress, is three-fold."He held up a thumb."First. You will be sending off your—one of your—most capable military commanders on the very eve of a decisive battle. Suppara can be taken, I believe, despite its guns. But doing so, as we've discussed before, will depend on the Kushans seizing the cannons by a surprise assault. Until they do so, you cannot think to land in Suppara itself with your Maratha cavalry. The ships would be destroyed before they reached the docks."He pointed at Kungas. "If I were you, that is the man I would want leading that attack. No other."Shakuntala was shaking her head. Garmat held up a hand, forestalling her words. "No, Empress. You cannot wait until after the battle to send Kungas away. There is no time to lose, if you want to get Roman help. I myself must leave this expedition tomorrow, to report back to the negusa nagast. Your ambassador—whoever it is—should accompany me on that ship."Shakuntala bowed her head, thinking. As always, the young Empress was quick to decide."I agree. We are pressed for time."She raised her eyes. "The other reasons?"Garmat held up a finger alongside his thumb."Second. I think Kungas' mission would be futile. How will he find Belisarius? In that chaos in Persia?"The Ethiopian chuckled dryly. "It would be hard enough to find anyone, much less Belisarius. The general told me once that he considered the chaos of war to be his best friend. There is always an advantage to be found, he told me, if you seize it in a willing embrace. Do you understand what that means?"Shakuntala's Maratha officers were frowning, as was the Empress herself. All of them, it was clear, found the notion of treasuring war's confusion bizarre.But Kungas, understanding, nodded his head."Belisarius will be riding the whirlwind," he said. "He will do everything in his power to create chaos, and then take advantage of it."The Kushan rubbed the topknot on his head. "He not only could be anywhere, he will be doing everything he can to make it seem as if he were one place while he is going somewhere else." He grunted, partly with admiration, partly with chagrin. "The intention, of course, is to confuse the enemy. But it will have the same effect on allies trying to find him."The top-knot rubbing grew vigorous. "It will be difficult. Difficult.""It will be impossible," countered Garmat. "And, finally, quite unnecessary."He waited for those last words to register, before raising another finger."My third reason, Empress, is simple. There is no need to send Kungas as an ambassador to Rome, for the simple reason that I am quite sure Rome—and Belisarius—are sending an ambassador to you. That ambassador, I am certain, will be bringing what you need."Everyone stared at Garmat. The surprise was obvious on all faces—except those of the other Ethiopians."You know something," stated Holkar."Nothing specific," said Ezana. "Only—"Garmat cleared his throat."The Kingdom of Axum has maintained a small but quite effective espionage service in the Roman Empire. For well over a century, now." He made a small, half-apologetic grimace. "There has been no trouble between us and Rome, mind you. Ever since the Roman Emperor Diocletian set Elephantine as the southern limit of Roman territory in Africa, the border has been quite tranquil. Still—"He shrugged."Rome is a great empire, ours is much smaller. It always behooves a less powerful kingdom to keep an eye on its more powerful neighbor. Regardless of their current intentions or attitudes. You never know. Things might change."The Indians in the room all nodded. Common sense, that. And they had their own memories of the long and turbulent history of India."Most of our attention, naturally, is given to their province of Egypt. There, we have the advantage that most of the population is Monophysite. Our own creed is very similar, and many of the Egyptian Monophysites look upon us as their religious brethren. Any number of Monophysite religious leaders have taken refuge in Ethiopia, over the years, when-ever the orthodox persecution became—"He broke off, seeing the incomprehension in the faces of the Indians. Only Dadaji Holkar, he realized, understood anything of what he was saying.Garmat had to restrain himself from muttering "Damned arrogant Indians!" "Never mind," he sighed. For all that he genuinely liked and admired many Indians, Garmat was struck again by their peculiar insularity. Even the most broad-minded Indians—with a few exceptions like Holkar—tended to look on the whole vast world beyond their own culture as an undifferentiated mass of semi-barbarians. The divisions within Christianity were quite beyond their ken—or interest."The point is this," he drove on. "We discovered some time ago that the Roman Empress is sending a military and political expedition to Egypt. The official purpose of that expedition is to quell an incipient rebellion and reestablish tight imperial control over their richest province. But who did they send to command this force? Belisarius' own wife, Antonina."He shrugged. "We are speculating, of course. But, knowing Belisarius, I think the speculation is quite sound. Antonina's expedition is real enough on its own terms, of course—the Romans do need to keep a firm hand on Egypt. But we are quite sure that there is another purpose hidden within that public objective. We think Belisarius is sending his own wife in order to open a second front against the Malwa. It would be astonishing to us if that strategy did not include providing support for Andhra."He gave Shakuntala and Holkar a quick, knowing glance. The young Empress and her peshwa, understanding, nodded in reply. In order to maintain her prestige, Shakuntala had never publicly explained where she obtained the large fortune which served as her imperial war chest. Her Maratha officers, who rallied to her after her escape from Malwa, had never even thought to ask. Empresses are rich. Everyone knows that. It's a law of nature.In reality, the hunted young girl had been given that treasure by Belisarius himself, on the eve of her escape. The vast treasure with which Emperor Skandagupta had tried to bribe Belisarius into treason, the Roman general had turned over to Shakuntala in order to finance a rebellion in Malwa's rear."Would that man have forgotten you?" asked Garmat quietly. "Would that man not have continued to develop his plans?"Shakuntala's eyes widened, slightly."You're right," she whispered. "He is sending someone to us. Belisarius has thought of it already."Her shoulders slumped, just a bit. From relief, it was obvious. It suddenly dawned on everyone how hard a decision it had been for her, to send Kungas away."You will stay, Kungas," she announced. "You will stay here, with me."The Kushan commander nodded. Then, with a sly little smile, murmured, "How quickly fortune passes."Shakuntala frowned, fiercely."Nonsense! I did not remove your titles—except that of ambassador to Rome. You are still Maha-dandanayaka. Still, my Bhatasvapati."Her eyes softened, gazing on the man who had once been her captor, and always her protector."As you have been since Amaravati," she whispered. "When you saved me from the Ye-tai beasts." Later, as they filed out of the cabin, the Maratha commander Shahji remarked to Garmat:"I wonder who the Romans are sending to us? A general of renown, no doubt."Fighting down a smile, Garmat made no reply. He glanced at Ezana and Wahsi, and saw that his two Ethiopian compatriots were fighting the same battle.Shahji moved on."Poor fellow," murmured Wahsi."What a shock, when he discovers," agreed Ezana.Now, Garmat found himself fighting down an outright laugh. Ezana and Wahsi had accompanied him, three years earlier, in his mission to Rome. They knew the realities of the Roman court. They knew the Empress Theodora's foibles.But he said nothing. Not until after the three Ethiopians had clambered into their small skiff and begun the trip back to their own ship. Only then did he burst into laughter. Ezana and Wahsi joined him in that gaiety."It's bound to be a woman!" choked out Ezana."Theodora wouldn't trust anyone else," gasped Wahsi. "Shahji'll die of horror!"Garmat shook his head. "That's not fair, actually. He's Maratha, don't forget. They recognize the legitimacy of female rulers. They even have a tradition of women leading armies. Still—"He fell silent. He was not sure, of course—it was pure speculation. But he thought he could guess who Theodora and Belisarius would send.Not Antonina. Garmat was quite sure that Belisarius had bigger plans for her. Of the Empress Theodora's inner circle of advisers—female advisers—that left only—Ezana completed the thought aloud."They may have those traditions, Garmat," he chuckled. "But not even the Maratha have a tradition of sarcastic, quick-tongued, rapier-witted women who've read more books than they even knew existed.""Poor Shahji," concluded Wahsi. "He's such a stiff and proper sort. I foresee chagrin in his future. Great discomfiture."