Destiny's shielderic Flint & David Drake



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Chapter 22 THE EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN
Summer, 531 a.d.
"Be careful!" hissed Antonina."I am being careful," growled Irene. "It's the stupid boat that's being careless!"Hesitantly, gingerly, the spymaster stuck out her foot again, groping for the rail of the little skiff bobbing alongside Antonina's flagship. The sea was not particularly rough, but Irene's experience with climbing down a large ship into a smaller one was exactly nil.Her foot touched the rail, pressed down, skidded aside. Frantically, she clutched the rope ladder. A stream of vulgar curses ensued. Coarse phrases; unrefined terms. Aimed at the world in general and boats in particular.Above, Ousanas grinned down."Witness, everyone! A miracle! There is a book which Irene has never read, after all! I refer, of course, to On the Transfer of Personnel From Craft to Craft At Sea, by the famous author Profanites of Dispepsia."A stream of really vulgar curses ensued. Utterly obscene phrases; incredibly gross terms. Aimed exclusively at one particular African.The African in question grinned even wider."May I lend you a hand?" he asked pleasantly.Irene glared up at him furiously. "Yes!" she snarled. "Get me into this stupid fucking boat!""No problem, noble Greek lady," said Ousanas cheerfully. The dawazz leapt onto the rail of Anton-ina's flagship, gauged the matter for perhaps a micro-second, and sprang directly down into the boat below. He landed lightly on his feet, easily finding his balance. Then, turned to face Irene. The spymaster was swinging against the hull of the larger ship above him. Her face was pale; the knuckles of her hands, clutching the rope ladder, were white as snow."Jump," he said.Irene's eyes widened. She stared down at him, as if ogling a dangerous lunatic."Jump," repeated Ousanas. "I will catch you.""You are completely insane!" she shrieked.Ousanas glanced up at the flagship above. Antonina and Eon were both leaning over the rail. Antonina's face was filled with deep concern. Eon's, with a struggle to contain his laughter."Eon!" shouted Ousanas. "Cut the ladder!""Good idea!" boomed Eon. The Prince drew his blade from its baldric. It was a typical Axumite sword, other than being more finely made than most. Which is to say, it was short, square-tipped, and very heavy—more like a huge cleaver than a Roman spatha.Irene's terrified eyes stared up at the thing. The sword would obviously cut through the thin ropes of the ladder like an axe.Eon, muscled like a Hercules, raised the blade high."Oooo!" she screamed. And then, convulsively, let go of the ladder.She fell no more than four feet. Ousanas caught her easily, easily; then, neatly, set up her upright on the deck of the skiff. An instant later, she collapsed onto a pile of cordage coiled in the bilge."You are a foul creature," she hissed, "from a foul land." Gasp, gasp. "Now I know where Homer got the inspiration for the Cyclops."Ousanas clucked his tongue. "So cruel," he complained. "So vicious!"From above came Antonina's voice."All you all right, Irene?"The spymaster took a deep shuddering breath. Then, suddenly, burst into a smile."I'm quite fine, actually. The first mission is accomplished!"She transferred the smile onto Ousanas."I apologize for my insulting and intemperate remark."Ousanas winced, awaiting the inevitable.Hiss. "I did not mean to slander the memory of an honorable monster of legend." Above, Antonina and Eon turned to face each other."You are certain, Antonina?" asked the Prince. "You have your own difficult task ahead of you. My sarwen would be of help. I have the authority to use them any way I wish. As I told you, my father's offer is for a full alliance."Antonina shook her head."No, Eon. The negusa nagast's offer we accept, certainly. Theodora gave me the authority to seek out that alliance myself, in fact. But if I can't establish my authority in Egypt with the Roman troops at my disposal, another four hundred Axumite soldiers won't make the difference."She cast a quick glance toward the Ethiopian warship. The craft was rolling gently in the waves just a hundred yards away. The rail was lined with soldiers of the Dakuen sarwe. There were, she estimated, about fifty of them. The rest of Eon's troops were waiting for him at the small port of Pelusium, at the far eastern end of the Nile Delta."Besides," she added, "the presence of Axumite sarwen would create political problems. I want to quell the ultra-Chalcedonian fanatics in Egypt without alienating the majority of orthodox Greeks. You know they'll look on Ethiopians as allies of the Monophysites. Foreign heretics, used by the empire against them."Thoughtfully, Eon nodded. Antonina laid a friendly hand on his arm."So, I must decline your offer. Though I do thank you for it. Please pass those thanks on to your father.""I will.""Pass on to him also Rome's agreement to the proposed alliance. When she gets to Axum, Irene can negotiate the details with the negusa nagast. She is fully authorized to do so, and you may tell your father that she carries Empress Theodora's complete confidence. Providing an escort for her is the best use of your sarwen, at the moment."She broke into her own smile."And I'm happier this way. I hate sending Irene into that maelstrom in India. But at least I'll have the comfort of knowing she has you, and Ousanas, and four hundred Dakuen to protect her."Her shoulders shuddered, just slightly. "For that matter, I'll be happier knowing she doesn't have to face Red Sea pirates without—""Pirates," growled Eon. He barked a laugh.Behind him stood three officers of the Dakuen sarwe. Leaders of the Prince's own royal regiment, they considered themselves—quite rightly—as elite soldiers. And seamen, for that matter. They matched the Prince's growl with their own glares, Eon's barking laugh with their own sneers of derision."Pirates," they murmured. So might a pride of lions, if they could, mutter the word, hyenas. Or, for that matter, elands. Impalas. Meat.Antonina grinned. She gave the Prince a warm embrace. He returned it, somewhat gingerly, in the way that a courteous and well-bred young royal returns the embrace of a respected, admired—and very voluptuous—older woman."Be off," she whispered. "Take care of Irene for me, and for Theodora. And take care of yourself."A moment later, Eon and his officers made their own easy and effortless descent into the skiff. Once they were aboard, the line was cast off and the boat began pulling away. The officers did their own rowing. In the Axumite tradition, they had all risen from the ranks. They were accustomed to the task, and did it with familiar expertise. Quickly, the skiff pulled toward the waiting Ethiopian warship.Antonina and Irene stared at each other, for a time, during that short voyage. Close friends—best friends—they had become, during the past three years of joint work and struggle against the Malwa menace. Each of them, now, was taking her own route into the maw of the beast. In all likelihood, they would never see each other again.Antonina fought back her tears."God, I'll miss you," she whispered. "So much."Thirty yards away, she saw Irene turn her head aside. She did not miss the slight sheen in those distant eyes. Irene, she knew, was fighting back her own tears.Antonina tore her gaze from the figure of her friend and stared at Eon. The Prince was sitting in the stern-sheet of the skiff. Antonina could see his head slowly turning, as he scanned the surface of the waves.Already, she realized, Eon was fulfilling his promise to protect Irene from any danger.Then, seeing the arrogant ferocity lurking in Eon's huge shoulders, she could not help smiling. She found great comfort in those shoulders.Sharks, of course, do not have shoulders. But if t

ey did, so might a great shark confront the monsters of the sea.Tuna. Squid. Devil-rays.Meat.  By the time the skiff bearing Irene reached its destination, other skiffs were making their own way to the Axumite warship from other Roman craft, bearing their own cargoes.Three of those skiffs carried barrels of gunpowder. Two hauled cannons—brass three-pounders, one in each skiff. And two more carried the small band of Syrian grenadiers, and their wives and children, who had volunteered to accompany Irene to India. Trainers, if all went well, for whatever forces the Empress Shakuntala might have succeeded in gathering around her. Trainers, and their gear, for the future gunpowder-armed rebellion of south India.Antonina's little hands gripped the rail. Her husband Belisarius, while he was in India, had done everything in his power to help create that rebellion. He was not a man to forget or abandon those he had sent in harm's way.Not my husband, she thought, proudly, possessively.She did not know the future. But Antonina would not have been surprised to learn that in humanity's future—any of those possible futures—the name of Belisarius would always be remembered for two things, if nothing else.Military brilliance.Loyalty. She cast a last glance at the small and distant figure of her friend Irene and turned away from the rail. Then, walked—marched, rather—to the bow of her own ship and stared across the waters of the Mediterranean.Stared to the southwest, now. Toward Alexandria.She gripped the rail again, and even more tightly.Silently, she made her vows. If Irene reached India safely, she would not be stranded. If Belisarius' determination to support the Andhra rebellion was thwarted, it would not be because Antonina failed her share of that task.She would take Alexandria, and Egypt, and reestablish the Empire's rule. She would harness the skills and resources of that great province and turn it into the armory of Rome's war against Malwa.That armory, among other things, would be used to support Shakuntala and her rebels. Many of those guns would go south. Guns, cannons, rockets, gunpowder—and the men and women needed to use them and train others in their use.South, to Axum. Then, across the Erythrean Sea to Majarashtra. Somehow, someway, those weapons would find their way into the hands of the young Empress whom Belisarius had freed from captivity.She clutched the rail, glaring at the still-unseen people who would resist her will. The same people—the same type of people, at least—who had sneered at her all her life.Had a shark, in that moment, caught sight of the small woman at the prow of the Roman warship, it would have recognized her. It would not have recognized the body, of course—Antonina's shapely form did not evenly remotely resemble that of a fish—nor would its primitive brain have understood her intellect.But it would have known. Oh, yes. Its own instincts would have recognized a kindred spirit.Hungry. Want meat.   Chapter 23 MESOPOTAMIA
Summer, 531 a.d.
At Peroz-Shapur, Belisarius ordered the first real break in the march since they had left Constantinople, three months earlier. The army would rest in Peroz-Shapur for seven days, he announced. All the soldiers were given leave to enjoy the pleasures of the city, save only those assigned—by all units, on a rotating basis—to serve as a military police force.After announcing this happy news, before the assembled ranks of the army, Belisarius departed for his tent as quickly as possible. (Ten minutes, in the event, which was the time the troops spent cheering his name.) He left it to Maurice to make the savage, bloodcurdling and grisly warnings regarding the fate of any miscreant who transgressed the proper bounds of Persian hospitality.The army was not taken aback by Maurice's slavering. His sadistic little monologue was even cheered. Though not, admittedly, for ten minutes. The grinning soldiers had no doubt that the threats would be made good. It was simply that the warnings were quite superfluous.Those soldiers were in a very good mood. As well they should be.First, there was the prospect of a week with no marching.Second, there was the prospect of spending that week in a large and well-populated city. The Persians had already arranged billeting. Beds—well, pallets at least.Finally—O rapturous joy!—there was the delightful prospect of spending those days in a large and well-populated city when every single man in the army had money to burn.More money that most of them had ever seen in their lives, in fact. Between the Persian Emperor's involuntary largesse—there might have been three ounces of gold left in the villa when the army departed; probably not—and the considerable booty of the destroyed Malwa army, Belisarius' little army was as flush as any army in history.They knew it—and the Persians in Peroz-Shapur knew it too. The Roman soldiers would have been popular, anyway, even if they had been penniless. Belisarius and his men had just scored the only great defeat for the Malwa since they began their invasion of Persia. And while Kurush and his seven hundred lancers received their fair share of the glory, most of it went to the arms of Rome.The citizens of Peroz-Shapur had just been relieved of any immediate prospect of a siege, and the men who had eliminated that threat were also in position—literally overnight—to produce a massive infusion of cash into the city's coffers.Hail the conquering heroes! As the Romans marched into Peroz-Shapur, the streets were lined with cheering Persians. Many of those were simply there to applaud. Others—merchants, tavern-keepers, prostitutes, jewelers—had additional motives. Simple, uncomplicated motives, which suited the simple and uncomplicated Roman troops to perfection.So, as he retired to his tent, Belisarius was not concerned that there would be any unfortunate incidents during the army's stay in Peroz-Shapur. Which was good, because the general needed some time for himself, free of distraction.He wanted to think. And examine a possibility. Baresmanas visited him in his tent, in midafternoon of the third day."Why are you not staying in the city?" he asked, after being invited within. The sahrdaran glanced around at the austere living quarters which Belisarius always maintained on campaign. Other than an amphora of wine, and the cooling breeze which blew in through the opened flaps, the general's tent showed no signs of a man enjoying a well-deserved rest.Belisarius looked up from the pallet where he was sitting, half-reclined against a cushion propped next to the chest which contained his personal goods. Smiling, he closed the book in his hand and gestured toward the chair at his little writing desk. The chair and the desk were the only items of furniture in the tent."Have a seat, Baresmanas. You looked exhausted."The Persian nobleman, half-collapsing on the chair, heaved a sigh."I am exhausted. The city is a madhouse! People are carousing at every hour of the day and night!""Shamelessly and with wild abandon, I should imagine." The general grinned. "You can't get any sleep. You can't hear yourself think. To your astonishment, you find yourself remembering your tent with fond memories."Baresmanas chuckled. "You anticipated this, I see.""I have no experience with Persian troops enjoying a celebration. Perhaps they're a subdued lot—""Ha!""No?" Belisarius grinned. "But I do know what Roman soldiers are like. They'd drive the demons of the Pit to mad distraction, just from the noise alone."The general cocked his head. "There have been no serious problems, I trust?"Baresmanas shook his head."No, no. A slew of complaints from indignant matrons, of course, outraged at the conduct of their wanton daughters. But even they seem more concerned with the unfortunate consequences nine months from now than with the impropriety of the moment. We Aryans frown on bastardy, you know."Belisarius smiled. "Every folk I know frowns on bastardy—and then, somehow, manages to cope with it."He scratched his chin. "A donation from the army, do you think? Discreet sort of thing, left in the proper hands after we depart. City notables, perhaps?"Baresmanas considered the question."Better the priesthood, I think." Then, shrugging:"The problem may not be a major one, in any event. The matrons are more confused than angry. It seems any number of marriage proposals have been advanced—within a day of the army's arrival, in some cases!—and they don't know how to deal with them. As you may be aware, our customs in that respect are more involved than yours."As it happened, Belisarius was quite familiar with Persian marital traditions. Unlike the simple mono-gamy of Roman Christians, Persians recognized several different forms of marriage. The fundamental type—what they called patixsayih—corresponded quite closely to the Christian marriage, except that polygamy was permissible. But other marriages were also given legal status in Persia, including one which was "for a definite period only."Belisarius smiled. He was quite certain that his Syrian troops, with their long acquaintance with Medes, had passed on this happy knowledge to the other soldiers.His smile, after a moment, faded to a more thoughtful expression."It occurs to me, Baresmanas—"The sarhdaran interrupted. His own face bore a pensive little smile."Roman troops will be campaigning in Mesopotamia for quite some time. Years, possibly. Peroz-Shapur, because of its location, will be a central base—the central base, in all likelihood—for that military presence. Soldiers are men, not beasts. They will suffer from loneliness, many of them—a want in the heart, as much as a lust in the body."Belisarius was struck again, as he had been many times before, by the uncanny similarity between the workings of his mind and that of the man sitting across from him in the tent. He was reminded of the odd friendship which had developed between him and Rana Sanga, while he had been in India. There, also, differences in birth and breeding had been no barrier—even though Sanga was his sworn enemy.For a moment, he wondered how the Rajput King was faring in his campaign in Bactria.All too well, I suspect, came the rueful thought. Yet I cannot help wishing the man good fortune—in his life, at least, if not his purpose. He brought his thoughts back to the matter at hand."I think we can make a suitable arrangement, Baresmanas. Talk to your priesthood, would you? If they are willing to be cooperative, I will encourage my soldiers to approach their romantic liaisons with a more—ah, what shall I call it . . . ?"The sahrdaran grinned."Long-term approach," he suggested. "Or, for those who are incorrigibly low-minded, guaranteed recreation."Baresmanas stroked his beard. The gesture positively exuded satisfaction. A well-groomed man by temperament, he had taken advantage of the stay in Peroz-Shapur to have the beard properly trimmed and shaped. But some of his pleasure, obviously, stemmed from the prospective solution of a problem. A minor problem, now—but small tensions, uncorrected, have a way of festering."Yes, yes," he mused. "I foresee no problems from the Mazda priests. Even less from the matrons! It is in every Persian's interest to avoid the shame of illegitimacy, after all. The absence of a legal father is a small thing to explain—especially if there is a subsidy for the child."He eyed the general, a bit skeptically.Understanding the look, Belisarius shrugged."The subsidy is not a problem. The army is rich. Well over half of that booty is in my personal possession. Much of it is my personal share. The rest is in my trust as a fund for the disabled, along with widows and orphans. Between the two, there's plenty to go around.""And your soldiers?""I can't promise you that all of them will act responsibly, Baresmanas. I do not share the commonly-held opinion that soldiers have the morals of street cats, mind you. But I'm hardly about to hold them up as models of rectitude, either. Many of my troops won't care in the slightest what bastards they leave behind them—even leaving aside the ones who like to boast about it. But I will spread the word. If my commanders support me—which they will—"He paused for an instant, savoring the words.Which they will. Oh, yes, I have my army now. "—then the soldiers will begin to develop their own customs. Armies tend to be conservative. If taking a Persian wife while on campaign in Mesopotamia—a wife of convenience, perhaps, but a wife nonetheless—becomes ingrained in their habits, they'll frown on their less reputable comrades. Bad thing, being frowned on by your mates."He gave Baresmanas his own skeptical eye."You understand, of course, that many of those soldiers will already have a wife back home. And that any Persian wife will not be recognized under Roman law?"Baresmanas laughed. "Please, Belisarius!" He waved his hand in a grand gesture of dismissal. "What do we pure-blood Aryans care about the superstitious rituals of foreign barbarians, practiced in their far-off and distant lands?"A thought came from Aide."Thou hast committed fornication!" "But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is not patixsayih." It's from a future poet. A bit hesitantly: It's appropriate, though, isn't it? Belisarius was astonished. He had never seen Aide exhibit such a subtle grasp of the intricacies of human relationships.The "jewel" exuded quiet pride. Belisarius began to send a congratulatory thought, when his attention was drawn away by Baresmanas' next words:"What are you reading?"Belisarius glanced down at the book in his lap. For a moment he was confused, caught between his interrupted dialogue with Aide and Baresmanas' idle query. But his attention, almost immediately, focussed on the question. To Baresmanas, the matter had been simply one of polite curiosity. To Belisarius, it was not."As a matter of fact, I was meaning to speak to you about it." He held up the volume. "It's by a Roman historian named Ammianus Marcellinus. This volume contains books XX through XXV of his Rerum Gestarum.""I am not familiar with the man. One of the ancients? A contemporary of Livy or Polybius?"Belisarius shook his head. "Much more recent than that. Ammianus was a soldier, actually. He accompanied Emperor Julian on his expedition into Persia, two centuries ago." He tapped the book on his lap. "This volume contains his memoirs of the episode.""Ah." The sahrdaran's face exhibited an odd combination of emotions—shame, satisfaction."The thing began badly for us, true," he murmured. "Most of the towns we just marched through—Anatha, for instance—were destroyed by Julian. So was Peroz-Shapur, now that I think about it. Burnt to a shell. In the end, however—"Satisfaction reigned supreme. Belisarius chuckled."In the end, that damned fool Julian burned his boats in one of those histrionic gestures you'll never see me doing."He snorted. A professional deriding the flamboyant excesses of an—admittedly talented—amateur."The man won practically every battle he fought, and every siege he undertook. And then—God save us from theatrical commanders!—stranded his army without a supply line. Marched them to surrender from starvation, after losing his own life."He shook his head. "Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Yes, it ended well for you Persians. You got Nisibis and five other provinces in ransom, for allowing the Romans to march out of Mesopotamia."The satisfaction on Baresmanas' face ebbed."Not so well as all that, my friend. The towns were still destroyed, and the countryside ravaged." He rubbed his scarred shoulder, pensively. "In the end, it was just another of the endless wars which Aryans and Greeks seem obsessed with fighting. How many times has Nisibis changed hands, over the centuries? You have sacked Ctesiphon, and we, Antioch. Is either Empire the better for it?"Belisarius shook his head. "No, Baresmanas. I, for one, would like to see an end to the thing." A crooked smile. "Mind you, I suppose I could be accused of unworthy motives. Ending a millennium-long conflict with a victory at Mindouos, I mean."Still rubbing his shoulder, Baresmanas smiled."I will allow you that personal triumph, Belisarius. Quite cheerfully. I hope never to meet Romans on a field of battle again."Belisarius laughed. "I, too! You Persians are just too damned tough."He eyed the sahrdaran slyly. "That was Justinian's main argument for accepting your proposals, you know. He said that making a hundred years' peace would cement the Roman army's allegiance to the dynasty. Anything to avoid another clash with those damned Persian dehgans!"Baresmanas, for all his scholarly nature, was too much of a dehgan himself not to be pleased. But he did not linger over the gratification. He pointed at the book."Why are you reading it, then?"Belisarius scratched his chin."I brought it with me—borrowed it from a bibliophile friend named Irene—just on speculation. I thought it might contain some useful material. As it happens, I think it does. Quite useful, in fact."He gave Baresmanas an amused look."Have you had enough rest and relaxation in Peroz-Shapur? Does the thought of two days' travel in the countryside appeal to you? It'll be scorching hot, of course. On the other hand, there will be certain subtle pleasures. You know, things like quiet, solitude, serenity—""Enough!" laughed Baresmanas. "Anything to get away from this insane revelry! The bleakest desert in the world sounds like paradise to me, at the moment.""It won't be all that bad, actually. I just want to retrace our route. Go back up the river to the old canal we passed by on our way here."Baresmanas frowned. "The Nehar Malka? The Royal Canal?"Belisarius nodded. The sahrdaran's puzzlement deepened."Whatever for? That canal's as dry as a bone. It hasn't been used since—" He stopped. Belisarius completed the thought:"Since you Persians blocked it off, two centuries ago. After the Roman Emperor Julian used it to float his ships from the Euphrates to the Tigris, in order to besiege Ctesiphon."Baresmanas blew out his cheeks. "Yes, yes. That little episode—not so little, actually. Julian failed to take Ctesiphon, but it was a close thing. Anyway, after that we decided the irrigation and trading value of the canal was not worth the risk of providing Romans with a perfect logistics route to attack our capital."He cocked his head quizzically. "But still—I ask again? Why are you interested in a canal which is empty of water?""That's precisely the reason I am interested in it, Baresmanas."He held up his hand, forestalling further questions."Please! At the moment, I am simply engaged in idle speculation brought on by reading an old book. Before I say anything else, I need to look at the thing. I was not able to examine it closely on our way into Peroz-Shapur."Baresmanas rose. "As you will. When do you wish to depart?""Tomorrow morning, as early as possible." A little frown appeared on his brow. "I hate to drag any of my troops away from their celebration, but we'll need an escort. Some of my bucellarii will just have to—""No, Belisarius! Leave the lads to their pleasures. My household troops have been awaiting me here for almost a month. We can take our escort from among their ranks. I insist!"* * *To Belisarius' surprise, the expedition which set out the next morning turned out to be quite a major affair. A full two thousand of Baresmanas' household troops showed up outside his tent, at the crack of dawn. Even if he hadn't already been awake, the sound of those horses would have tumbled him from his pallet. Half-expecting a surprise cavalry raid, the general emerged from his tent with sword in hand.After dismounting, Baresmanas grinned at the Roman general's wide-eyed stare."It seems I am not the only one who seeks a bit of peace and quiet," he remarked. "Almost all of my household troops clamored to join the expedition, once the word got out. But I didn't think we needed six thousand men.""Six thousand?" asked Belisarius.The sahrdaran's cheerful grin widened."Amazing, isn't it? I was expecting three thousand, at the most. It seems the news of our great victory at the battle of Anatha has caused dehgans to spring up from the very soil, desperately seeking to share in the glory. Truth is, I think it was the faint hope that we might encounter another party of Malwa raiders that inspired this great outpouring of enthusiasm for our little expedition."One of the general's servants approached, leading his horse. As he took the reins, Belisarius remarked:"They are not all troops from your household, then?"The sahrdaran gave his shoulders a little inscouciant shake."Who is to say? The majority are from my province of Garamig. The rest? Who knows? Most of them, I suspect, are from Ormazd's own province of Arbayistan."Belisarius nodded, and mounted his horse. As they began to ride off, he mulled over Baresmanas' last words.For all their similarities, there were some important differences in the way the Roman and Persian Empires were organized. One of those differences—a key difference—was in their military structure. The Roman army was a professional army supplemented by mercenary auxiliaries, usually (though not always) drawn from barbarian tribes. The Persian army, on the other hand, was a much more complicated phenomenon.Feudalism is always complicated, came Aide's interjection. Most convoluted system you—we humans have ever come up with. And we're a convoluted folk. Especially you protoplasmic types. "So it is," murmured Belisarius. He did not inquire as to the meaning of "protoplasmic." He suspected he didn't want to know.Each nobleman of sahrdaran and vurzurgan rank maintained a private army, made up of soldiers from their province or district. Some of those—the "household troops"—were financially supported by their lord. The rest were dehgans, whose obligation to provide military service was a more nebulous affair.The dehgans were village and small town knights, essentially. The lowest rank in the aristocracy, but still part of what Aryans called the azadan. Though they were officially under the command of the higher nobility, the dehgans were economically independent and not, as a class, given to subservience. When it came to rallying the support of "his" dehgans, a high lord's prestige counted for more than formal obligation.For their part, each dehgan maintained a small body of retainers who would accompany him on campaign. Not more than a handful, usually. Well-respected men of their village or town—prosperous farmers and blacksmiths, in the main—who had not only the strength, fitness and skill to serve as armored archers but could afford the horse and gear as well.The Persian Emperor himself, beyond his own household troops, directly commanded nothing but his personal bodyguard—a regiment of men who still bore the ancient title of the Immortals. For the rest, the Shahanshah depended on the support of the great nobility. Who, in turn, depended on the support of the dehgans.In theory, it was all very neatly pyramidal. In practice—Aide summed it up nicely: Victory has a multitude of fathers. Defeat is an orphan. Or, in this case: victory has a multitude of would-be sons. Belisarius smiled.And defeat is childless. He twisted in his saddle, passing the smile onto Baresmanas."You think Ormazd's joints are aching, then?"The sahrdaran chuckled."I suspect that Ormazd, right now, is feeling very much like a victim of arthritis. Each morning, when he wakes up, he finds his army has shrunk a bit more. While faithless dehgans disappear, seeking fame and fortune in more likely quarters."Belisarius studied the huge "escort" which surrounded them. The Persians were marching in good order, although, to a Roman general's eye, the formation seemed a bit odd. After a moment, he realized that the peculiar "lumpiness" was due to the formation's social order. Rather than marching in Roman ranks and files, the Persians tended to cluster in small groups. Retainers accompanying their dehgans, he realized. Where the basic unit of the Roman army was a squad, that of the Persian force was a village band. Men who had grown up together, and known each other all their lives.After a minute or so, Belisarius found himself deep in a rumination over the most effective way to combine Roman and Persian forces, given each people's habits and characteristics. He shook off the thoughts, for now. He had something more immediate to attend to."We need to make a stop at the prisoners' camp," he announced.Baresmanas raised a questioning eyebrow, but made no protest. He simply called out a name.Immediately, one of the Persians riding nearby trotted his horse over to the sahrdaran and the Roman general. As soon as he arrived, Baresmanas made a little sweeping gesture with his hand."I would like to introduce the commander of my household troops, General Belisarius. Merena is his name, from a fine azadan family affiliated to the Suren."Belisarius nodded politely. The Persian commander returned the nod, very stiffly. Examining him, Belisarius was not sure if the stiffness was inherent in the man himself, or was due to the specific circumstances.A bit of both, he decided. As a rule, in his experience, Persians tended toward a certain athletic slenderness. Merena, on the other hand, was a large man, almost as heavyset as Belisarius' friend Sittas. But where Sittas handled his weight and girth with a certain sprawling ease, Merena seemed to prefer a far more immobile method. For all the man's obvious horsemanship, he sat his saddle almost like a statue.Baresmanas passed on the command to visit the prisoners' camp on the way north. Merena nodded—again, very stiffly—and trotted away to give the orders."Not the most informal sort of fellow," remarked Belisarius.Baresmanas' lips twisted."Normally, he is not so rigid and proper. But I think he is unsure of how to manage the current situation. This is not, actually, the first time you and he were introduced. In a manner of speaking."Belisarius pursed his lips."He, too, was at Mindouos." It was a statement more than a question."Oh, yes. Right by my side, during Firuz' mad charge. He tried to come to my aid, after a lance spilled me from my horse. But he was disabled himself, by a plumbata right through the thigh."Belasarius winced. The plumbata was the weapon which modern Roman infantrymen used in place of the pilum, the javelin favored in the earlier days of the Empire. The plumbata was a much shorter weapon—more like a dart than a throwing spear. But what it lost in range it gained in penetrating power, due to the heavy lead weight fitted to the shaft below the spearpoint. At close range, hurled with the underarm motion of an expert, it could penetrate even the armor of cataphracts or dehgans. The wounds it produced were notoriously brutal."Pinned him right to the saddle," continued Baresmanas. "Then, when his horse was hamstrung and gutted, the beast rolled over on top of him. Almost took off his leg. Would have, I'm sure, if he were a smaller man. He still walks with a terrible limp."The general's wince turned into a grimace. Seeing the expression, Baresmanas shrugged."He does not bear you any ill-will, Belisarius. Ill-will over that battle, of course, he has in plenty—but all of it is directed toward Firuz. Still, he does not exactly count you among his bosom companions.""I imagine not!" The general hesitated, for a moment. Then, deciding that politeness was overridden by necessity:"I must know, however—please do not take offense—if he will be able to serve properly. Being forced in such close—""Have no fear on that score," interrupted Bares-manas. "Whatever his attitude may be toward you, there is not the slightest doubt of his feelings for me, and my family."Belisarius' face must have exhibited a certain skepticism, for the sahrdaran immediately added:"It is not simply a matter of duty and tradition. Merena's family is noted—even famed—for its military accomplishments. But they are not rich. He would still be in captivity had I not paid his ransom out of my own funds."Belisarius nodded. He and Baresmanas rode together in silence, for a minute. Then the sahrdaran remarked, almost idly:"I have noted that you yourself are quite generous to your bucellarii. I was told that you dispense a full half of your battle-gained treasure to them, in fact. Most munificent, indeed."Belisarius smiled crookedly. "That's quite true. My retainers are sworn to my service anyway, of course. But I'm a practical man. Men are not tools, mind you. Still, a blacksmith takes good care of the implements of his trade. Keeps them clean, sharp—and well-oiled."Silence fell upon them again, as they neared the pri-soners' camp. A very companionable silence, between two men who understood each other quite well. It was Belisarius' first visit to the camp, since the army had reached Peroz-Shapur. He was pleased to see that his bucellarii had carried out his instructions to the letter.Merena was riding alongside Baresmanas as they entered. His eyebrows lifted."This is a prisoners' camp?" he asked.To all outward appearances, the place looked like any other Roman field encampment. The tents—the multitude of tents; no crowding men like hogs in a pen here—were arranged in neat rows and files. Latrines had been dug to the proper depth and at the proper distance from the tents themselves. The campfires were large and well-supplied, both with fuel and with cooking implements.By the time they arrived, all two thousand Kushans were standing in the open ground between the tents. They had heard the horses coming, naturally. And while the sound of those hooves hadn't been those of an attacking force, still—Why two thousand cavalrymen?Seeing the alert and ready stance of those unarmed men, Merena grunted his approval."Good, good! Staunch fellows. Be a massacre, of course, but at least they wouldn't die from back wounds."At the entrance to the camp, they were greeted by a small contingent of Roman soldiers. A mixed unit, this, made up of men from all the forces under Belisarius' command, serving their assigned rotation in the duty of guarding the prisoners. The very unwanted duty, needless to say, while their comrades were cavorting in Peroz-Shapur. But Belisarius could detect no signs of resentment or bitterness. The men knew that the rotation would be faithfully followed. In a day or so, they too would be enjoying the fleshpots while others took their appointed turn.Fairly apportioned, in Belisarius' army—the duties as well as the rewards. Of that, his men were by now quite satisfied.To the general's surprise—and sheer delight—the commander of that detachment proved to be Basil, the man who led his contingent of katyusha rocket chariots. Before leaving on the expedition, Belisarius had toyed with the idea of summoning Basil to go along. But he had dropped the notion, assuming that the man would be well-nigh impossible to find in the saturnalia at Peroz-Shapur.Yet here he was. One of the two men—three or four, perhaps—that he most wanted to accompany him."You'll be going with me, Basil," he announced. "We're taking a little surveying party to that old canal we passed on our way in."He glanced over his shoulder at the huge mass of Persian cavalrymen waiting outside the camp."Well, not all that little. But I need your expertise. You've had more practical experience handling gunpowder than I have."Basil did not seem sulky at the news, even though it would mean that the hecatontarch would have to forego his own turn at the pleasures of Peroz-Shapur.Belisarius was not surprised. He had personally selected Basil for his new post, after going over every possibility with Maurice at great length. Both of them had settled on Basil. Partly, for the man's apparent comfort around gunpowder—which was not typical of most of the Thracian cataphracts. Even more, however, for his reliability."Yes, sir. When do we leave?""Within minutes, I hope. As soon as I can collect a Kushan or two. Where's Vasu—never mind. I see him."The commander of the Kushans was trotting toward them, accompanied by a handful of his top subordinates. Once he reached the general, Vasudeva gazed up at the man on horseback. There was no expression on his face at all."Is there a problem, General?"Belisarius smiled cordially, shaking his head."Not in the least, Vasudeva. I am simply on my way to investigate a nearby ruin. Less than a day's ride away, as it happens. I came here because I would like one or two Kushans to come along."No expression."Me, I assume."Still, no expression.Belisarius, on the other hand, grinned from ear to ear."Of course not, Vasudeva! That would look terrible, I think—taking the prisoners' commander off on a mysterious trip. From which—judging from all too many sad histories—he might never return. No, no. What I want is the Kushan soldier—or soldiers, if there's more than one—who is most familiar with—"He groped for the word. There was no equivalent in Kushan, so far as he knew, for the Roman term "engineering."He settled on an awkward makeshift."Field architecture. Watermoving works. Ah—"Vasudeva nodded. "You want an expert in siegecraft.""Yes! Well put."For the first time, Vasudeva's mask slipped a bit. A hint of bitterness came into his face."For that, general, you could pick almost any Kushan at random. We are all experts. The Malwa are fond of using us for siegework. Up until the victory, of course. Then we are allowed to bind our wounds, while the Ye-tai and the kshatriyas enjoy the plunder."The mask returned. "However—" Vasudeva turned his head, looking toward one of the men by his side."Vima, you go. You're probably the best."The Kushan named Vima nodded. He began to move toward one of the saddled but riderless horses which Belisarius had brought with him into the camp. Then, apparently struck by a thought, he paused."A question, General Belisarius. You said 'water-moving works.' Is this—whatever we are going to see—is it connected with irrigation?"Belisarius nodded. Vima glanced at the three extra horses."Two more all right?" he asked. Again, Belisarius nodded.Vima scanned the large crowd of Kushans who, by now, were gathered about."Kadphises!" he called out. "You come. And where's Huvishka?"A man shouldered his way to the front."Here," he announced.Vima gestured. "You also."Once Belisarius and his party emerged from the prisoners' camp and began heading up the road north from Peroz-Shapur, Vima issued a little sigh."Nice to ride a horse again," he commented. Then, eyeing Belisarius:"I don't suppose this is an omen of things to come?"Belisarius shook his head, a bit apologetically."No, Vima. If we find what I hope to find, I'm afraid you Kushans are in for a long stint of very hard labor in one of the hottest places in the world."Vima grunted. So did the two Kushans riding beside him."Could be worse," mused the one called Huvishka."Much worse," agreed Kadphises.Vima grunted. Curious, Belisarius inquired:"You are not displeased at the prospect?"All three Kushans grunted in unison. The sound, oddly, was one of amusement."We Kushans tend to approach things from the bottom up, general," remarked Vima. "A long stint—of whatever kind of labor—sounds distinctly better than many alternative prospects."Kadphises grunted. Huvishka interpreted:"Being executed, for instance, can be viewed as a very short stint of very easy labor. Bow your head, that's about it—chop!—it's over. Executioner's the only one working up a sweat."When Belisarius interpreted the exchange, Bares-manas immediately broke into laughter.Merena did not. He simply grunted himself."Good, good. Staunch fellows, as I said." 
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