Destiny's shielderic Flint & David Drake



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Chapter 24Within an hour of their arrival at the Nehar Malka, Belisarius had settled on his plan. The next two hours he spent with Basil and—separately—the Kushans, making sure that the project was technically feasible.The rest of the day, that evening, and the entire day following, he spent with Baresmanas. Just the two of them, alone in a tent, discussing the real heart of the plan—which was not technical, but moral."You are asking a great deal of us, Belisarius.""We will do all of the work, and provide most of the material resources needed—"Baresmanas waved those issues aside."That's not the problem, and you know it perfectly well." He gave the Roman general a fish-eyed look."An Aryan, examining your plan, cannot help but notice that you propose to recreate the very conditions which enabled Emperor Julian to strike so deeply into Mesopotamia, two centuries ago."The little smile which followed took some of the sting out of the statement. Some.Belisarius shrugged. "Not exactly, Baresmanas. If my scheme works as I hope, the situation will revert back—"Again, Baresmanas waved his words aside. "Yes, yes—if it works as you hope. Not to mention the fact that a skeptical and untrusting Aryan cannot help but notice that you Romans will be in control of that part of the plan which would, as you put it, 'revert back' the situation. What if you decide otherwise?"Belisarius returned the hard stare calmly. "And are you a 'skeptical and untrusting Persian,' Baresmanas?"The sahrdaran looked away, tugging his beard thoughtfully."No," came the reply. "I am not, myself. But others will be, especially once they realize that no Aryan commander will have authority over the final implementation of the complete plan."Belisarius began to shrug, but stopped the gesture before it started. This matter could not be shrugged off. It had to be faced squarely."There is no other way, sahrdaran. In order for it to work, my plan requires complete security—especially the final part. You know as well as I do that Persian forces, by now, will have been penetrated by Malwa agents.""And yours haven't?" snapped Baresmanas."It is not likely. Not the troops who will be playing the key role, at least. Keep in mind that the Malwa spy network has been active in Persia longer than it was in Rome—and that we smashed the center of that network half a year ago."Baresmanas scowled. "That's another thing I don't like! Your scheme presupposes treachery on the part of Aryans!"Belisarius said nothing. He simply gave the sahrdaran his own fish-eyed look.After a moment, Baresmanas sighed. He even chuckled."I admit, I think your assessment is accurate. Much as I hate to admit it."Belisarius chuckled himself. "Don't be so downcast about it. Treachery is probably more of a Roman than an Aryan vice. It's not as if we didn't find our own highest circles riddled with traitors, after all. At least Emperor Khusrau still has his eyes, which is more than Justinian can say.""Very good eyes," grunted Baresmanas. The sahrdaran straightened in his chair."The matter must be put before the Emperor himself, Belisarius. Only he can make this decision. I cannot possibly make it in his stead.""I do not expect you to," came the immediate response. "I know full well that only Khusrau Anushirvan has that authority. But he will ask you what you think. And the question boils down to this: Can we trust this man Belisarius?"The two men in the tent stared at each other."I will give my oath, of course," added Belisarius.For the last time that day, Baresmanas waved the matter aside."An oath is only as good as the man who gives it. Your oath will not be necessary."Suddenly, Baresmanas laughed. "It occurs to me that Valentinian will be most gratified! His job just got much easier!"Belisarius' brows knit with puzzlement."But it's obvious! Khusrau will only agree if he decides that the man Belisarius can be trusted. He will certainly not put his trust in any Roman general."Still frowning. Again, the sahdaran laughed."So blind! It's so obvious! You will have to promise the Emperor that you will be alive—when the time comes to give the final order."Belisarius' eyes widened."Oh, yes," murmured Baresmanas. "Your days of leading cavalry charges are over, my friend. For quite some time.""I hadn't thought of that," admitted the general.Aide spoke in his mind:I did. Then, with great satisfaction:And Valentinian isn't the only one who will be most gratified. So will I. So will I. Very much.  Upon his return to Peroz-Shapur, Belisarius sent couriers into the city, summoning his top commanders to a conference. It took several hours for all of those men to be tracked down. Many—most—were found in the obvious locales. Dens of iniquity, so to speak. Two or three were nabbed in more reputable spots. And one—the last to be found—in a very odd sort of place. For a man of his type."Sorry I'm late," said Agathius, as he came into the command tent. Looking around, he winced a bit. He was the last one to enter."No matter, chiliarch," said Belisarius pleasantly. "I realize this meeting was called with no warning. Please—take a chair."As he waited for the commander of the Constantinople troopers to settle in, Belisarius found himself a bit puzzled by the man's behavior—and by those of his subordinates, for that matter. Agathius seemed distracted, as if his mind were elsewhere. That was quite unlike the man. Agathius was only twenty-eight years old, which was quite young for a soldier risen from the ranks to have become a hecatontarch, much less a chiliarch. Yet, despite the man's youth and his outward appearance as a muscular bruiser, Belisarius had found Agathius to be not only intelligent but possessed of an almost ferocious capacity for concentration.Odd, that air of distraction, mused Belisarius. And why are his subordinates giving him such peculiar sidelong glances? You'd almost think they were smirking. He pushed the matter out of his mind. To business.In the three hours which followed, Belisarius presented his commanders with two matters for their consideration.The first—which took up two of those hours—was an outline of the stratagem he was developing for using the Nehar Malka in their next campaign against the Malwa. Many aspects of his plans he left unspoken—partly, for security reasons, partly, because they were still half-formed. But he said enough to allow the commanders to join in a discussion of the allotment of Roman troops to the different tasks involved.Interestingly enough, he noted, Agathius' distraction seemed to vanish during that discussion. Indeed, the Greek chiliarch played a leading role in it."It's essential that Abbu remain behind," insisted Agathius, "—with most of his skirmishers—"The Constantinople man beat down the protests coming from other commanders."Quit whining!" he snapped. "The rest of us are just going on a march to Babylon, by way of Ctesiphon. Right in the heart of Persian territory, for the sake of God! We already crushed the only Malwa raiding force anybody knows of—so what do we need scouts for?"He jabbed a thumb at Basil, then nodded toward the Syrian infantry leaders."Whereas these boys are going to be left alone up here. With two thousand Kushans to keep an eye on, and the desert not ten miles away. They'll be sitting ducks, if the Lakhmids come on them unawares."Belisarius sat back, more than satisfied to let the Greek handle the problem.Having squelched that little protest, Agathius rolled over the next."And as for this crap about the Callinicum garrison"—here he glowered at his own Con-stantinople subordinates, who had been the most vocal in their protests—"I don't want to hear it! They did well enough—damn well, all things considered—in the fight at the villa. Sure, they're not up to the standards of the Syrian lads—not yet, anyway—but that's all the more reason not to leave them behind. The katyusha-men and the Syrians have got enough on their plate already, without having to train inexperienced men in the kind of heavy engineering work they'll be doing."Another glare. "So they're coming with us, just as the general proposed. And there'll be no grousing about it."The other Greeks in the tent—who had been doing most of the grousing about "Callinicum crybabies"—lowered their heads. It was all Belisarius could do to keep from grinning. He already knew that Agathius had the easy, relaxed confidence of his subordinates. Now, when needed, the man had shown that he could also break them to his will.So much met with Belisarius' silent approval. The next, with his admiration.Agathius' hard eyes left the Greeks, and settled on Celsus, the commander of the Callinicum garrison troops. Celsus was sitting, hunched, on a stool in a corner of the tent. He was a small man, rather elderly for a soldier, and diffident by nature. As usual during command conferences, he had been silent throughout the entire discussion. A silence which had grown purely abject as the qualities of his men had been subjected to the beratement of other, younger, more assertive, more confident—and certainly louder—officers.Agathius gave the man a little nod, lingering over the gesture just long enough to make his approval clear to everyone. Celsus nodded back, his eyes shining with thanks. For a moment, his skinny shoulders even lost their habitual stoop.As Agathius resumed his seat, Belisarius sent a quick thought to Aide.Absolutely marvelous! Did you see that, Aide?—and do you understand why it is so important? Hesitantly: I am not sure. I think— Hesitation faded. Yes. It is how humans—your kind of humans—facet each other. Strength grows from building other strength, not from trampling on weakness. Exactly. The officers in the tent were, once again, focussed on Belisarius. The general rose, preparing to speak on another subject. But, before he did so, he took the time for a private moment.I am so proud of you—grandchild. You are my old man.  In the next hour, Belisarius broached with his officers the delicate matter which he had discussed with Baresmanas."So," he concluded, "I'm not telling anyone what to do. But I repeat: this war is not going to be settled in one battle. Not even in one campaign. We're going to be locked against the Malwa for years, probably. Hopefully—eventually—we'll be fighting the Malwa on their own soil. But for now, and probably for quite some time, we'll be fighting here in Persia. Better that, when it comes down to it, than fighting on Roman territory."He took a little breath."I've said this before, many times, but I'll say it again. We have to stay on good terms with the Persians. If they start feeling that their Roman allies aren't much better than the Malwa, there'll be the risk that they'll try to back out of the way. Get out of Mesopotamia, retreat to the plateau, and let the Romans fight it out alone."He gave the gathered men a stern gaze."As I said, I'm not telling anyone what to do. But I ask you to try and set an example, at least, for your men. I don't care what any Roman soldier does in taverns and whorehouses, as long as there's no roughhousing. But if you or your men want to cast your net a little wider, so to speak—" he waited for the little chuckle to die down "—keep in mind that Persians have their own customs."He stopped speaking. Studied his officers, as they sat there staring at him.Silent themselves, as he had expected. Though he noted, carefully—and with considerable amusement—their differing reactions.The Syrian officers (as well as Celsus, the Calli-nicum commander) had little smiles on their faces. Long familiar with Persian customs—sharing many of those customs—the Syrians and Arabs obviously found the confusion elsewhere in the room quite entertaining.His own Thracian bucellarii were also smiling, just a bit—even the dour Maurice. Not with quite the same smirk as the Syrians, true. The Thracians were familiar with Persians, but it could hardly be said that they shared any particular empathy for the haughty Aryans. No, their amusement came from elsewhere. They were very familiar with Belisarius. And so they found it entertaining to see neophytes scrambling to catch up with their general's often odd way of looking at the world.The Illyrian officers were examining Belisarius as if he were one of the fabled two-headed creatures reputed to live somewhere south of Nubia. Illyrians were even more rustic than Thracians, and their experience with "other folks" was restricted almost entirely to barbarians. They understood those barbarians, true. Barbarian blood flowed in their own veins, come down to it. But the idea of catering to the so-called "customs" of—of—of—Belisarius looked away, to keep from laughing. His eyes settled on the Greeks.They were the key, he knew. The Roman Empire was a Greek Empire, in all but name. A Thracian-Egyptian dynasty might sit on the throne, Egypt might be the richest and most populous province, and Thracians and Syrians might play a disproportionate role in the leadership of the army, but it was the Greeks who were the Empire's heart and soul. Their language was the common language. Their nobility was the axis of the imperial elite. Their traders and merchants commanded the sinews of commerce.And their soldiers, and officers, were the core of Roman strength.Here, for the first time, Belisarius found a reaction he had not expected. Agathius' distraction was back, with a vengeance. For all that Belisarius could determine, the man seemed lost in another world. The attitude of his subordinates was equally puzzling. Belisarius had expected the Greeks to react much as the Illyrians. With more sophistication, of course—but, still, he had expected them to be staring at him as if he were at least half-crazed.Greeks—worry about what a bunch of sorry Persians think?Instead, they weren't looking at Belisarius at all. They were casting quick, veiled glances at their own commander, with their lips pressed tightly together. As if fighting—very hard—to keep from smirking themselves.Odd. Very odd.Belisarius left off his study of the Greeks and glanced at the rest of his subordinates. It was obvious that none of the officers in the tent were prepared to speak on this rather unusual subject. He had expected as much. So, after another minute's silence, he thanked them politely for attending the conference and gave them leave to depart.Which they did. Agathius led the way, at first, almost charging for the entrance. Then, stopping suddenly, he formed a broad-shouldered stumbling block for the officers who squeezed past him. The man seemed to dance back and forth on his feet, as if torn between two directions. At one point, he began to turn around, as if to re-enter the command tent. Stopped, turned back; turned back again; stopped. Danced back and forth.Except for Belisarius and Maurice, Agathius was the only one left in the tent. For just a moment, the Constantinople commander's eyes met those of the general. A strange look he had, in his face. Half-pleading; half—angry?No, decided Belisarius. It was not anger, so much as a deeply buried resentment.Of what? he wondered.Suddenly, Agathius was gone. Belisarius cocked an eye at Maurice."Do you know something I don't?"Maurice snorted."What do you want? I'm Thracian, for the love of God. Bad enough you want to tax my simple mind with outlandish Persian ways. Am I supposed to understand Greeks, too?" Two nights later, early in the evening, Agathius showed up at Belisarius' tent.After being invited within, the man stood rigidly before the general."I need to ask you a question, sir," he said. His voice seemed a bit harsh.Belisarius nodded. Agathius cleared his throat."Well. It's this way, sir. I know it's often done—well."Again, he cleared his throat. The harshness vanished, replaced by a sort of youthful uncertainty. Embarassment, perhaps.The words came out in a rush."I know it's often done that troop commanders—of chiliarch rank, I mean—after a successful campaign—or even sometimes a single battle, if it was a big victory—well—they get taken into the aristocracy. Official rank, I mean."His mouth clamped shut.Belisarius scratched his chin."Yes," he said, nodding. "It's happened. More than once. Myself, for instance. I was born into the clarissimate—as low as it gets in the nobility, outside of equestrians. After Justinian promoted me into his bodyguard, he— Never mind. It's a long story. Today, of course—since my stepson was acclaimed Emperor—I'm ranked at the very top of the senatorial illustres." He smiled crookedly. "A gloriosissimi I am now, no less."Agathius did not return the smile. Belisarius realized that he was treading on very sensitive soil. "And yourself, Agathius? I've never asked." A little, dismissive gesture. "I don't care about such things, mind you, in my officers. Only their ability. But tell me—what is your own class origin?"Agathius stared at the general."My father was a baker," he replied. His voice was very soft; but his tone, hard as a rock.Belisarius nodded, understanding.In the eastern Roman Empire, unlike the western, men had never been forced by law to remain in their father's trades. Still, the trades tended to be hereditary. All tradesmen were organized into guilds, and were considered freemen. Yet, while some of those trades carried genuine prestige—metalworkers, for instance—none of them were acceptable occupations for members of the nobility.And certainly not bakers, who were considered among the lowest of men, outside of those in outright slavery or servitude.So. Agathius, like many before him, had sought escape from his father's wretched status through the principal avenue in the Roman Empire which was, relatively speaking, democratic and open to talent: the army.Yet—Belisarius was still puzzled. He had encountered men—any number of them—who were obsessed with their official class ranking. But Agathius had never seemed to care, one way or another.The general thrust speculation aside. Whatever might be the man's motives or past state of mind, the question seemed to be of importance to him now."This matters to you?" he asked.Agathius nodded. "Yes, sir. It does. It didn't used to, but—" His lips tightened. "It does now," he finished, softly. Almost through clenched teeth.Belisarius abandoned his relaxed stance. He sat up straight in his chair."You understand that any rank I give you must be confirmed by the Emperor? And by the Senate, in the case of a senatorial rank?"Agathius nodded. Finally, his rigid countenance seemed to break, just a bit."I don't need to be in any senatorial class, sir. Just—something."Belisarius nodded."In that case, I see no problem." His crooked smile appeared. "Certainly not with the Emperor!"Agathius managed a little smile himself, now.Belisarius scratched his chin. "Let's keep it military, then, if the Senate doesn't matter to you. It is well within my authority to give you the rank of comes. How is that—Count Agathius?"Agathius bowed his head stiffly."Thank you, sir." Then, after a moment's hesitation, he asked, "How does that compare to a Persian dehgan?""Depends how you look at it. Formally speaking, a Roman count is actually a higher rank than a dehgan. Equivalent"—he wobbled his hand back and forth—"to one of the lower grades of their vurzurgan class, more or less."Belisarius shrugged."But that's the way we Romans look at it. Officially, the Persians will accept the equivalence. In practice—in private—?" Again, he shrugged."They view our habit of connecting rank in the nobility with official position rather dimly. Bloodlines are far more important, to their way of thinking."Suddenly, to the general's surprise, Agathius' stiffness disappeared. The burly officer actually grinned."Not a problem, that. Not with—"He fell silent. The grin faded. Agathius squared his shoulders."I thank you again, sir. It means much to me. But I would like to impose on you again, if I might.""Yes?""Would you do me the honor of joining me tomorrow afternoon? On a social occasion?"Belisarius' eyes widened, just a bit. To the best of his knowledge, Agathius' idea of a "social occasion" was a cheerful drinking session at a tavern. But he did not think—Agathius rushed on."Lord Baresmanas will escort you, sir. I've already spoken to him and he agreed. The occasion is taking place at the governor's palace in the city."By now, Belisarius was quite bewildered. What in the world did Baresmanas have to do with—?Enough, he told himself firmly. This is important to the man, whatever it is. "I will be there, Agathius."The Greek officer nodded again, thanked him again, and left.Odd. Very odd. Baresmanas arrived early in the afternoon of the next day. Kurush was with him, as were all of the top commanders of his household troops with the exception of Merena.None of the men wore armor, and only two were even carrying swords. Seeing the finery of their raiment, Belisarius congratulated himself for having decided to wear his own best clothing. Like the Persians, he was unarmored, carrying no weapon beyond a dagger.On the ride into the city, the general tried to pry information out of Baresmanas regarding the mysterious "social occasion." But the sahrdaran gave no response beyond an enigmatic little smile.When they arrived at the governor's palace, Belisarius took a moment to admire the structure. The outer walls were massive, due to the ancient Mesopotamian tradition of using rubble and gypsum mortar for heavy construction. The intrinsic crudity of the material was concealed by an outer layer of stucco painted in a variety of vivid designs. Most of the motifs, ironically, were borrowed from Graeco-Roman civilization—dentils, acanthus, leaf scrolls, even the Greek key. Still, the effect was quite distinct, as Persians had their own approach to color, in which brilliant black, red and yellow hues predominated.The edifice was forty yards wide and approximately twice that in length. A complex pattern of recesses and projected mouldings added to the intricacy of the palace's outer walls. The palace was three stories tall, judging from its height. But Belisarius was familiar enough with Persian architecture to realize that most of the palace's interior would be made up of very tall one-story rooms. Only in the rear portions of the palace, given over to the governor's private residence, would there actually be chambers on the upper stories.The front of the palace was dominated by a great aivan—the combined entrance hall/audience chamber which was unique to Persian architecture. In the case of this palace, the aivan was located on the narrower southern wall. Almost half of the wall's forty yards were taken up by a huge arch, which led into the barrel-vaulted aivan itself. The aivan was open to the elements, a feature which, in the Mesopotamian climate, was not only practical but pleasant. It was forty feet high, measuring from the marbled floor to the top of the arch, and its walls were decorated both with Roman-style mosaics as well as the traditional Mesopotamian stucco bas-reliefs.Belisarius had assumed that, whatever the nature of the social occasion, it would be held in the aivan itself. But, after dismounting and following Baresmanas within, he discovered that the aivan was almost empty. The only people present were Agathius and a small group of his subordinates—Cyril, as well as the other three tribunes of the Constantinople unit.The five Greek officers were standing in the much smaller arch at the rear of the aivan. Past that arch, Belisarius could see a short hallway—also barrel-vaulted—which opened into a room beyond. That room, from what little he could see of it, seemed to be packed with people.As they walked through the aivan, Belisarius leaned over to Baresmanas. "I thought—"Baresmanas shook his head. The enigmatic smile was still on his face, but it was no longer quite so little. "Ridiculous!" he proclaimed. "The aivan is for public gatherings. Given the nature of this event, the governor naturally saw fit to offer the use of his own quarters. His private audience chamber, that is to say."The sahrdaran gestured ahead. "As you can see, it is just beyond."Agathius stepped forward to meet them. His expres-sion was very stiff and formal, but Belisarius thought he detected a sense of relief in the man's eyes."Thank you for coming, sir," he said softly. He turned on his heel and led the way through the arched corridor.The room beyond was a large chamber, approx-imately sixty feet in width and length. The walls rose up thirty feet, decorated with frescoes depicting heroic deeds from the various epics of the Aryans. A great dome surmounted the chamber, rising another twenty feet or so.There were a multitude of people already present, all of them Persians. Belisarius recognized the district governor, standing against the north wall, surrounded by a little coterie of his high officials. The larger body of men—perhaps a dozen—who stood behind them were obviously scribes.In the western side of the chamber stood an even larger group of men. Mazda priests, Belisarius realized. He was interested to note, judging from their distinctive garb, that both branches of the Zoroastrian clergy were present. The Persians called their priests either mobads or herbads. When Belisarius first encountered that distinction, years earlier, he had thought it to be roughly parallel to the distinction which Christians made between priests and monks. Further acquaintance with Persian society had undermined that neat assumption. The differences between mobads and herbads were of a subtler nature, which he had never been able to pinpoint precisely—other than observing that mobads seemed to embody the juridical power of the clergy, where the herbads functioned more like teachers or "wise men."What was significant, however, was that both were represented. That was a bit unusual. There was considerable, if subdued, rivalry between the two branches of the clergy. As a rule, Belisarius had found, mobads and herbads avoided each other's company.Now he examined the final, and largest, group of Persians in the room. These men were clustered toward the eastern wall, and they seemed to be made up almost entirely of dehgans. Merena, the commander of Baresmanas' household troops, was standing in the midst of them. As he studied the dehgans, Belisarius suddenly realized that many of them bore a certain resemblance to each other.Baresmanas' whisper confirmed his guess."That's Merena's clan—those of them who were present in the city, at least."The sahrdaran's enigmatic smile was now almost a grin. He shook his head."You still don't understand? Odd, really, for a man who is normally so acutely perceptive. I would have thought—"A small commotion was taking place. The little mob of dehgans along the eastern wall was stepping aside, clearing a space for a small party advancing into the chamber through an archway in the eastern wall.Four women appeared—the first women Belisarius had seen since he entered the palace.Aide's voice—smug, smug:
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