Destiny's shielderic Flint & David Drake



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I figured it out yesterday. The woman in front was middle-aged. The three walking behind her were quite young. Her daughters, obviously.Belisarius felt his jaw sag.What a dummy. The girl in the center, the oldest, was perhaps sixteen years of age.It's the first signs of senility, that's what it is. She was dressed in an elaborate costume. Her sisters, flanking her, wore clothing which was generically similar but not quite as ostentatious.Don't worry, grandpa. Her face was covered with a veil, except for her eyes. Dark brown eyes, they were. Gleaming with excitement. Beautiful eyes. Belisarius had no doubt that the rest of the girl was just as beautiful.I'll take care of you. Belisarius was not able to follow most of the ritual—the long ritual—which followed. Just the obvious highlights. Partly, because he was caught off-guard. Partly, because it was the ceremony of a foreign religion. Mostly, though, because Aide kept interrupting his train of thought.The lighting of the sacred fire—You'll have to stick with porridge from now on. The presentation by the chief scribe of the intricate property rights and obligations which were a central feature of patixsayih marriages—Can't risk you eating meat. Cut yourself, for sure, forgetting which end of the dagger to use. The stiff presentations, by Agathius and Merena, of their respective noble rankings—We'll get rid of your horse, of course. The learned counsel of the herbads, added to the judgement of the mobads, weighed by the district governor and his assembled advisers—Find you a donkey to ride. —who agreed, after lengthy consultation, that the marriage maintained the necessary purity of the Aryan nobility.A small donkey. So you won't get hurt, all the times you'll fall off.  After the ceremony was over, during the feast which followed, Merena approached Belisarius."I have a question," he asked. Stiff as ever.Politely, Belisarius inclined his head in invitation."Was Agathius at Mindouos? I did not wish to ask him, before. And now that he is my son-in-law, I cannot.""No, Merena. He wasn't."The dehgan grunted. "Good, good." Merena rubbed his thigh. "That would have been—difficult," he murmured. Then, moved away, limping very badly. Walking out of the palace, Belisarius glanced at Baresmanas. The smile was still there. Not enigmatic, however. Simply smug."And how did you find out about it?" growled the general."I didn't 'find out about it,' my friend. I am the one who—ah, what is that word you Romans are so fond of? Yes, yes—I engineered the whole thing."Belisarius' eyes widened. Baresmanas chuckled."Oh, yes. I am the one who introduced the gallant young officer to Merena and his family—after conspiring with his wife to make sure that Sudaba would be present, looking her very—

eautiful! beautiful!best. I am the one—""Stop bragging," grumbled Belisarius. "I will fully admit that it was a masterstroke, insofar as the problem we discussed—""You think I did it because of that?" The sahrdaran snorted. "I had a much more immediate problem to solve, my friend. As I told you, Merena is a famous warrior and an absolute paragon of Aryan propriety. He is also, by dehgan standards, poor. So—the man had a daughter of marriageable age and no respectable dowry to give her. Think of the shame! The disgrace! No suitable Persian nobleman would accept a bride with no dowry."Belisarius smiled crookedly."Whereas a vigorous, ambitious young Roman officer risen from the ranks—and newly rich from the booty of Anatha—would be far more concerned with increasing his status than his wealth.""Precisely."Belisarius shook his head sadly. "I am a lamb among wolves. An innocent babe surrounded by schemers."Don't worry, old man. I'll take care of you. Oh—be careful! There's a step coming up!   Chapter 25 BABYLON
Autumn, 531 a.d.
Khusrau Anushirvan sprang lightly onto the low wall which surmounted the highest level of Esagila, the ancient ruin which had once been the great temple of the god Marduk. From that vantage point, the Emperor of Persia could gaze south at the huge Malwa army encamped before Babylon.An instant later, Belisarius joined him. The general took a moment to make sure his footing was good. The wall—almost a battlement—was at least a yard wide, but there was nothing to stop someone who overbalanced from plunging to their death on the stone rubble sixty feet below.Khusrau smiled."Does altitude bother you?" he asked. The question was polite, not scornful.The Roman general shook his head. "Not par-ticularly. Still, I wouldn't want to dance up here.""Lucky man! I myself am petrified by heights. Anything above the level of horseback."Belisarius glanced at the Persian Emperor. In truth, Khusrau's face seemed a bit pinched, as if he were controlling himself by sheer force of will.He was impressed, again, by the Emperor's self-discipline. Since his arrival in Babylon three days before, Belisarius had been struck by the way Khusrau kept his obviously exuberant and dynamic personality under a tight rein. That same self-control was being manifested now, in the Persian ruler's ability to remain standing on a perch which would have sent most men to their knees seeking safety.For ten minutes or so, the two men said nothing. They simply stood side by side, studying the battle being waged below them.Belisarius' attention was immediately drawn by the roar of siege guns. A cloud of gunsmoke, well over a mile distant, indicated the presence of a battery of the huge cannons. After the wind blew the cloud away, he could spot the actual guns themselves. Eight of them, sheltered behind a berm. He recognized the pattern from his previous experience at the siege of Ranapur. His eyes ranged north and south, quickly spotting two more batteries. Another roar, another cloud of gunsmoke, and one of those batteries was also hidden from view.Belisarius shifted his gaze to the walls of the besieged city. His eyes widened.The defenses of Babylon were gigantic. The outer ring was so massive that it was impossible, almost, to think of it as anything other than a low ridge. The fortifications were not particularly tall—perhaps twenty feet, no more—but they spanned perhaps forty yards in thickness.Studying it more closely, Belisarius saw that the outer defenses were actually a triple wall—or, at least, had been so once. The inner wall, some twenty feet wide, was constructed of sun-dried mud brick. Squat towers spaced at regular intervals projected another twenty feet above the wall itself, topped with sheltered platforms for Persian soldiers manning scorpions and other artillery engines. A rubble-strewn space fifty feet wide separated this inner wall from the middle wall. The middle wall was a bit thicker than the inner wall, with no towers. Unlike the inner wall, this wall was made of harder and more durable oven-baked brick.That same type of brick was used in the third, outermost wall. No space separated this outermost wall from the midwall. The third wall, originally ten feet in thickness, served both as a bulwark for the midwall as well as the escarpment for the huge moat beyond it.There was not much left of that third wall, however. Over the centuries, peasants had plucked away the good bricks for their own use. Today, the moat which lapped at the crumbled edge of the wall seemed more like a natural river than a man-made artifact. The size of the moat, of course, was partly responsible for producing that impression—Belisarius estimated that it was at least a hundred yards wide.Belisarius watched a cannonball slam into the outer wall. A little avalanche of broken bricks slid into the moat, leaving a ripple in their wake. Other than that, the siege gun seemed to have made no impact whatsoever."At that rate," he mused, "they'll fill the moat with rubble and cannonballs before they ever finish breaking down the wall."Khusrau snorted."We were terrified—myself also, I will admit it—when they first began firing with those incredible machines. 'Siege guns,' as you call them. But after a few days—then weeks, and now months—we have little fear of them. It's ironic, actually. Most of my advisers urged me to make a stand at Ctesiphon, taking advantage of its tall, stone walls. But I think if I had done so—""You would have been defeated by now," concluded Belisarius. "I have seen these guns in use before, and I have seen the walls of Ctesiphon. Those walls would have been brought down within two months."He pointed to Babylon's outer fortifications. "Whereas this wall—this wide, soft, low wall—is actually more of a berm. Exactly the best kind of defenses against siege guns."Both men watched as another cannonball struck the wall—the inner wall, this time. The cannonball buried itself in the crumbly mudbrick, without so much as shaking the tower thirty yards away from the impact."The wall just got stronger, I think," chuckled Khusrau."How many assaults have they mounted?" asked Belisarius."Seven. The last one was a month ago. No—almost six weeks now."The Persian Emperor turned and pointed to his right, toward the Euphrates."That one they attempted with barges, loaded with soldiers. It was a massacre. As you can see, the western walls of the city are still standing, almost as they were built by Nebuchadrezzar a thousand years ago. Stonework. Very tall. We poured burning naphtha on them, and sank many of the barges with catapults."He elevated his finger, still pointing to the west."If they could position their siege guns to the west, they could probably break down those stone walls. But I ordered the dikes and levees broken."Belisarius gazed toward the river. It was now late in the afternoon, and the sun's rays were reflected off a vast spread of water. Khusrau, following a Mesopotamian military tradition which went back to the ancient Sumerians, had ordered the flooding of the low ground. Unchecked by manmade obstructions, the Euphrates had turned the entire area west of Babylon into a swamp. Impossible terrain even for an infantry assault, much less the positioning of artillery.The area east of Babylon had been protected in the same manner. The ancient city was almost an island now, surrounded by water and marshes to the west, east and northeast. The Malwa army held the southern ground. Persian forces still retained control of the narrow causeway which led from the Ishtar Gate on Babylon's northwest side to the northern regions of Mesopotamia. Even after all these months, the Malwa had not been able to surround and isolate the besieged city.Khusrau looked back to the south."The first six assaults were made here. The Malwa suffered great losses in all of them, with no success at all except, temporarily, during the third assault. In that attack, some of their troops—those excellent ones with the strange hair style—""Kushans.""Yes. About a thousand of them got past the outer fortifications, in three different places. But—"He shrugged. Belisarius, gazing down, could not help wincing."Must have been a slaughter.""Yes," agreed Khusrau. The Emperor pointed at the inner fortifications, which consisted of a second ring of walls positioned about two hundred yards inside the outer ring."That is a double wall. The outer wall is twenty feet thick; the inner, fifteen. These fortifications were also built by Nebuchadrezzar. Very clever, he was—or his engineers and architects, at least. You can see that the two walls are separated by a space of twenty feet. The area between is a built-up road, perfect for military traffic. Then, beyond the outer wall, is a low berm. You can't see it from here. But you can see the moat which butts up against that berm. It's fifty yards wide."Belisarius shook his head. "A pure killing ground. If the enemy manages to cross the first moat and fight their way over the outer defenses, they find themselves trapped in the open—with another moat to cross, and still more fortifications to be scaled.""That, too, was slaughter. I had the road packed with dehgans and their retainers. It is quite solid and wide enough for horsemen. They were able to fire their bows from the saddle, sheltered by the outer wall, and rush to whatever spot looked most in danger. I don't think we lost more than two hundred men. And that's about how many of the Kushans finally made it back across the outer fortifications alive."He began to add something else, but his attention was distracted by the sight of a rocket arching up from the Malwa lines. Khusrau and Belisarius followed the rocket's erratic trajectory, until it plunged harmlessly into the open area between Babylon's two rings of defenses."The rockets actually have been more of a problem," commented the Emperor. "They do almost no damage to the walls, and many of them miss the city entirely. But those which do fly straight have a longer range than the siege guns, and they have caused casualties. It is the unpredictability of the cursed things which bothers my soldiers the most."Belisarius nodded, but said nothing in reply. He was now preoccupied with studying the enemy's field fortifications.That study was brief. He had seen their equivalent at Ranapur and, again, was not overly impressed. A Roman army, this many months into a siege, would have constructed much better and more solid field-works.Now his eyes were drawn to a further distance, and toward the river. Several miles away, he could see the crude piers which the Malwa had constructed on the left bank of the Euphrates. Crudely made, but very capacious. He estimated that there were at least forty ships tied up to those docks, each of which had a capacity of several hundred tons. Another half dozen or so could be seen coming up the river, their oar banks flashing in the sun as they fought their way against the sluggish current.Remembering Ranapur, he scanned the river more closely. As he expected, the Malwa were providing security for their supply fleet with a small armada of swift war galleys."It's incredible, isn't it?" asked Khusrau. "Not even the ancient legends speak of a logistics effort on this scale."He fell silent, tight-lipped.Belisarius eyed the Emperor covertly. Khusrau's face was expressionless, but the general realized that the man's fear of heights was taking a toll on him."I've seen enough," he announced. He made a little motion, as if to depart.Still, no expression crossed Khusrau's face."You are certain?" he asked.Belisarius nodded. Now—possibly—a little look of relief came to the Emperor. Quickly, he turned away and leapt down to the temple roof four feet below.Belisarius copied that leap, although he landed more heavily than the Persian.Partly that was because Belisarius was a much bigger man. Khusrau was young and athletic, but his was the build of a gymnast—on the short side, and wiry. Mostly, however, Belisarius' thudding arrival on the roof was due to the half-armor he was wearing. The Emperor, in contrast, was clothed in nothing but the simple tunic and trousers of a Persian nobleman taking his ease.As he landed, the general staggered slightly. Khusrau steadied him with a helping hand."It must be dreadful," he remarked with a smile, "to have to wear that stuff all the time."Belisarius grimaced. "Especially in this heat! But—there it is. Can't have a general prancing around a siege, while all of the soldiers are sweating rivers."Khusrau shook his head in sympathy. "Wouldn't do at all," he agreed. His smile became an outright grin."Whereas an Emperor—"Belisarius laughed. "I heard all about it, even before we arrived, from your admiring troops. How the fearless Khusrau Anushirvan faces the Malwa with a bared breast."The Emperor glanced down at his tunic. A simple tunic, in its design. But, of course, not the garment of a simple man."Hardly that," he murmured. He fingered the sleeve."It's cotton, you know, not linen. Very valuable. Almost as valuable as silk—"He broke off. Belisarius chuckled."More valuable, now. Cotton only comes from India. There won't be more of it for some time."The two men stared at each other.Enemies, once. Khusrau had not been at Mindouos, three years earlier. He had been in the capital at Ctesiphon, like all his brothers and half-brothers, plotting to seize the throne after the death of the ailing Emperor Kavad. But it had been his father's army which Belisarius shattered there.Allies, now."Better this way," murmured the Emperor. He took Belisarius by the arm and began leading him toward the small ziggurat at the center of the roof. There was an entrance there, leading to the stairs which descended into Esagila's immense interior."Much better," agreed Belisarius.Much better, chimed in Aide. The greatest Persian Emperor in a millennium makes for a bad enemy. Idly, Belisarius wondered how things might have turned out, had the Malwa never been raised to power by the creature called Link. The thing—half-human, half-computer—which Aide called a cyborg. A cybernetic organism, sent back in time by the "new gods" of the future.Aide answered. In that future, you will also defeat the Persians. At a battle near Daras, not far from Mindouos. And then? And then, ten years later, Khusrau will sack Antioch. They were at the entrance to the ziggurat. Khusrau led the way into the interior. It was much cooler. Belisarius heaved a little sigh of relief.Much better this way.  Khusrau leaned back in his chair and spread his arms in a gesture which encompassed their entire surroundings."I forget, Belisarius—you are a Christian. This must be a marvel for you!"A little crease of puzzlement came to the general's brow. He paused from raising his wine goblet.Khusrau laughed."Don't tell me you don't know! You're sitting right on top of the Tower of Babel!"Belisarius' eyes widened. He stared down between his feet. Then, gazed all around him.He and Khusrau were sitting under a canopy which had been erected at the summit of a large hill right in the middle of what had once been Babylon. The Persian Emperor's great pavilion was located not far to the north, just over the crest of the hill. The two men were alone, except for a handful of servants standing ten yards off.The hill was the highest point in Babylon, and provided a magnificent view of the entire city. But there was not much left of that city, now, other than its outer fortifications.Esagila, Marduk's temple, was still largely intact. That huge structure was just to their south. To the west, separated from the foot of the hill by a tall stone wall, the Euphrates carved its way through the soft soil of Mesopotamia. To the north, Belisarius could see the ruins of the ancient royal palaces. Next to them—still standing, almost intact—was the famous Ishtar Gate.Other than that—The huge eastern portion of Babylon—almost three-quarters of its entire area—was now farmland, dotted here and there with orchards and livestock pens. And the hill which they sat upon had been the site of a thriving village. On their way up its slopes, they had passed the huts where peasants had succeeded, centuries later, to the former thrones of ancient monarchs.The peasants were gone from the village, now. The huts had been sequestered for their use by Khusrau's bodyguard. But the farmland was still in use. Belisarius could see men and women at work in those fields, surrounded by Babylon's walls. He noted, with some interest, that none of those people even bothered to look up at the sound of the Malwa cannons. The siege had gone on for months now, and they had grown accustomed to it.His attention came back to the hill itself. Perhaps half a mile in circumference, several hundred feet high—it was the most elevated spot in Babylon, which was why Khusrau had chosen to pitch his pavilion here—it seemed, to all outward appearances, a hill like many others.Except—"It's quite regular, now that I think about it," he mused. "The circumference is almost a perfect circle.""Not quite," demurred Khusrau. The Emperor leaned forward and pointed quickly to the southwestern and southeastern portions of the hill base."If you study it very closely, you can still find traces of the original four corners. The same is true on the northeast and northwest side." Here he gestured with his head, flicking it back over his shoulders in either direction. "I had my architects examine the hill at great length. They even dug a tunnel deep into it from the north. Thirty yards in, they began encountering the baked brick walls of what seems to have been a gigantic ziggurat."He leaned back, exuding satisfaction. "It's the Tower of Babel of ancient legend. I'm quite sure of it. Crumbling slowly, century after century. Covered with wind-blown soil, century after century. Until it is as you see today. This is not uncommon, by the way. There are many hills like this in Mesopotamia, which are all that's left of ancient ruins."Belisarius eyed the Emperor with respect. "That must have been a lot of work."Khusrau laughed."Not for me!"The gaiety vanished. "I was curious, true. But I also needed projects to keep my men occupied. Once it became clear that the Malwa could not break the walls without long effort, and that we would not face starvation, tedium became our worst enemy. You know from experience, I'm sure, how dangerous it can be to have a garrison fretting away their time in idleness."Belisarius nodded."Besides, I was making plans for the future. We are digging out great tunnels and rooms inside this hill. For food storage, and, I hope, ammunition. The food will not spoil quickly—the interior of the hill is much cooler than it is outside. And even if the Malwa eventually breach the outer fortifications, and can move their guns close enough to bombard Babylon's interior, a direct hit on the hill would pose no danger to gunpowder stored deep within its depths."The Persian Emperor fell silent here, fixing Belisarius with his intense, intelligent eyes.The Roman general met that gaze squarely. The moment had come, and it could be postponed no further."I have already argued in favor of giving gunpowder weapons to the Aryans, Emperor Khusrau. I have gone further, in fact. I have argued that we should give Persians the secret of their manufacture. But—""The Empress does not agree," finished Khusrau.Belisarius fluttered his right hand, indicating that the matter was not quite so simple. "Yes—and no. She agrees that it would aid the war against Malwa. Aid it immensely, in fact. But she fears the repercussions in the future."Khusrau nodded, calmly. The Emperor of Persia had no difficulty understanding the quandary which faced Rome's ruler. Someday, hopefully, Malwa would be gone. Rome and Persia, on the other hand—those two great Empires had clashed for centuries.Aide's voice spoke. Belisarius could sense the agitation of the facets.Stupid woman! She is so unreasonable about this! The general had to physically restrain himself from making an actual calming gesture. Fortunately, from long experience, he had learned to keep his interchanges with Aide unnoticeable to the people around him. Still, it was distracting, and—This is not the time for that, Aide! The facets subsided, grudgingly. Belisarius brought his attention back to the Emperor. Khusrau was speaking."I understand her suspicions," he mused. "And, unfortunately, there is nothing I can say or do that would alleviate them. We can swear to a Hundred Years' Peace—we can swear to a Thousand Years' Peace, for that matter. But Rome and Persia will still be there, long after Theodora and I are gone. Who is to know if that peace would be kept? Or if Persian and Roman armies would not clash again, on the field of battle, armed this time with cannons and rockets?"Aide could not control his frustration.So what? The problem is now—with Malwa! If that problem is not solved, Rome and Persia won't be there a century from now to be worrying about this. And besides— Be quiet! commanded Belisarius. It was one of the few times he had ever been abrupt with Aide. The facets immediately skittered in retreat.Belisarius could sense the hurt feelings emanating from Aide. He was not concerned. They weren't hurt much. Aide reminded him, in that moment, of a child obeying an adult's command. Sulking, pouting; thinking dark thoughts about cosmic injustice.But he needed to concentrate on the problem before him. And he already knew Aide's opinion. During the days at Constantinople when this very question had been thrashed out by Theodora and her advisers, Aide had practically overwhelmed him with visions drawn from the human future.A thousand visions, it had seemed. The ones he remembered best had been the portraits of the British Raj's conquest of India. "Conquest" was not, even, the right term. The establishment of British rule would be a long and complex process which, in the end, would not primarily be decided by military factors. True, the British would have guns. But so, soon enough, would the Indian rajahs who opposed them. Yet those Indian monarchs would never match the superior political, social and economic organization of the British.For the same reason, Aide had argued, giving the secret of gunpowder to Persia posed no long term threat to Rome. It was not weapons technology, by itself, which ever determined the balance of power between empires and nations. It was the entirety of the societies themselves.Rome was a cosmopolitan empire, rich in traders, merchants and manufacturers. And, for all the elaborate pomp of its official aristocracy, it was a society open to talent. To a degree, at least.Persia was none of those things. The Empire of the Aryans was a thoroughly feudal society. It had nothing like the population of Rome, and was positively dwarfed in terms of industry and manufacture. The military equality which Persia had been able to maintain vis-a-vis its western rival was entirely due to the ferocious skill of its heavy cavalry.Introduce gunpowder into that mix, and the result would be the exact opposite of Theodora's worst fears. Within half a century, Aide had predicted, Persia would be no match for Rome at all.Belisarius had agreed with Aide, then, and had argued that very case. Along with the more pressing point that the defeat of Malwa overrode all other concerns.But Theodora—He shook his head. "She is a suspicious woman, I'm afraid."Khusrau chuckled. "Nonsense, Belisarius. All emperors are suspicious. Trust me on this point. I speak from experience. Even your own brothers—"He bit off the sentence. "We will discuss that problem later. For now, I must officially request that the Roman Empire provide us with a gunpowder capability."The Emperor gestured to the south. "As you can see, we have been able to hold them off so far with traditional weapons. But I must do more, Belisarius." He clenched his fist. "I must break this siege."He sighed. "We made one attempt at a sally, early on. It was a foolish gesture. I cursed myself for it, then, and damn myself for it to this day. Our soldiers were butchered. As soon as they came within range, the Malwa fired on us with those great siege guns. Loaded, this time, not with great stone balls but a multitude of pebbles and pieces of iron.""Cannister," said Belisarius."They stood no chance at all. The slaughter was horrible, even in the short time before I ordered the retreat."He wiped his face, in a gesture combining sorrow with self-reproach. But Khusrau was not deflected from his purpose."I must break the siege—within a year, no more. And for that I need my own cannons. The Malwa siegeworks are not as strong as the walls of Babylon, of course, but they are still strong enough to repel a sally. Only cannons in the hands of my own troops could shatter them enough for a successful counter-attack."Belisarius frowned."Why are you so certain that you must break the siege—within a year?"He turned a bit in his chair, staring to the south."I do not think the Malwa will break into Babylon. Not unless they bring twice the force to bear. And as powerful as they are, the Malwa are not that powerful."His eyes now scanned the flooded lowlands to the west. "It's true that you will begin suffering from disease, soon enough, especially with the marshes. But disease usually strikes the besieger worse than the besieged."He turned back, glancing to the east—to the enormous spread of agricultural land within the walls of Babylon—before adding, "They will have to starve you out. And I think that would take many years. Even if you can't grow everything you need right here in Babylon, you can import the rest. The city is not surrounded, after all. We marched in from the north with no opposition. I'm quite sure you can bring barges down the river."Khusrau waved his hand."I'm not worried about Babylon, general. I will hold Babylon, of that I have no doubt. But what good will that do me if I lose the rest of Persia?"Again, he sighed. "They have me penned here, along with most of my army. While they send out raiding parties to ravage Mesopotamia—"He broke off, for a moment, barking a laugh."One less, now—thanks to you! But, still, there are others, destroying everything they can. And what is worse—" He half-rose from his throne, stretching his arm and pointing to the northeast. "They have that damned army marching into eastern Persia. Defeating every force I send against them!"Belisarius cocked his eyebrow. Khusrau fell back in his throne, nodding bitterly."Oh, yes. They win every battle we fight."For a moment, he scowled. The expression was more one of puzzlement than anger."Odd, really. I can't say I've been very impressed by the quality of the Malwa army. Not here in Mesopotamia, that's for sure. Immense numbers and gunpowder are what make them powerful. It's certainly not the skill of their commanders. But in the east, where they have little in the way of gunpowder weapons, their forces fight supremely well.""I'm not surprised, Emperor. Those forces are mainly Rajput, under the command of Rana Sanga. I know him personally. The Rajputs are among the world's finest cavalry—Rana Sanga is certainly among the world's finest generals. And the Malwa who is in overall command of that army, Lord Damodara, is also said to be their best.""Said? By whom?"Belisarius smiled crookedly."By Rana Sanga, as it happens.""Ah." The Persian Emperor gripped the armrests tightly. He took a deep breath."That explains much. It also illustrates my quandary. I can hold the Malwa here at Babylon, but only at the expense of giving up my freedom to maneuver. If I retreat from Babylon, there is nowhere else I can make a stand to prevent the Malwa from seizing all of Mesopotamia. But if I stay—""The Malwa will gut everything around you. And, eventually, take Fars and the entire plateau from the east."Khusrau nodded. Then, noticing that the goblet which Belisarius was toying with in his hands was empty, began to gesture toward the servants standing a few yards away. But Belisarius waved down the offer."No more, please." He set the goblet down firmly on the small table next to his chair."I will send instructions to Rome, ordering that cannons be brought to Babylon. Along with a large supply of gunpowder. That much is in my authority. I will also—" here he blew out his cheeks "—strongly urge the Empress to give me permission to train your soldiers in their use."Khusrau stroked his beard."Do you think she will agree?""Possibly. She will insist, of course, that the cannons and gunpowder remain under the control of Roman troops. Still, they will be here. And then—"Khusrau's lips curled into a faint smile. "Under the control of Roman troops," he murmured. "Yes, yes. That has a nice—ah, secure—sound to it."For a moment, a Persian Emperor and a Roman general stared at each other, in silent conspiracy.Belisarius broke the silence with a little laugh. "She is not naive, Emperor. Far from it! She will understand the inevitable results, once lonely young Roman troops—" He broke off, gazing into the distance. "It's amazing," he mused, "how many beautiful women you Aryans seem to produce."Khusrau grinned. "We are a comely folk. It cannot be denied." The grin faded. "But you think the Empress Regent will still agree?"Belisarius nodded. "It will be enough, I think, if Theodora can tell her suspicions that she didn't actually give the secrets outright. At least the damned Persians had to sweat for them.""In a manner of speaking," chuckled Khusrau. He planted his hands on his knees and rose to his feet. As always, the movement was quick and energetic."Speaking of beautiful Persian girls," he said, "I have ordered a reception tonight in my pavilion. In honor of Merena's daughter, now married to one of your top commanders. She accompanied him here, I understand."Belisarius rose, nodding. "Yes, she did. She insisted on it, apparently, much to Agathius' surprise."The Persian Emperor began leading the way toward the pavilion. He cocked his head."Was he angry? Did he really believe all those tales about obedient Persian wives?"Belisarius laughed. "Actually, he was quite pleased. He's very taken by the girl, I think. It was not simply a marriage of ambition."Khusrau smiled. "Good. That bodes well for the future. Most auspicious, that wedding—I would like to see more of them.""So would I," agreed Belisarius.As they walked slowly toward the pavilion, Khusrau's smile turned a bit sly. "That's part of the reason, of course—well, actually, it is the reason—that I commanded this little reception. Once my haughty nobles see the favor which their Emperor bestows on such marriages, they'll find a daughter or two to marry off to some promising Roman officer. Oh, be sure of it—be sure of it! We Aryans like to talk about the purity of our bloodlines, but we are by no means immune to ambition ourselves."He paused for a moment, struck by the sunset. Belisarius joined him in that admiration."It is a beautiful world, in truth, for all the evil in it. Let us never lose sight of that, Belisarius, however dark the future may seem."The Emperor shook his head, glancing at the pavilion. "Speaking of dark futures—and a near one, at that—my brother Ormazd will be at the reception." He scowled fiercely. "I will have to be polite to him, of course. In the end, he did not—quite!—disobey me."Belisarius snorted. "It was amazing, actually, how quickly he made his decision. Once Baresmanas and I showed up at his camp outside Ctesiphon, with almost twenty thousand troops and the aura of our victory at Anatha. He did not even dawdle, during the march here.""I should think not," snarled the Emperor. "He had a lot of face-saving to do."The Roman general's smile faded. Belisarius turned to face Khusrau, his gaze intent. He said nothing. There was no need to explain—not with this emperor.Khusrau sighed."Yes, Belisarius. I agree. You have my permission to implement your plan."Belisarius hesitated. "Do you understand—did Baresmanas explain it to you fully? At the end—"Khusrau made a short, chopping gesture with his hand. "Yes, I understand. I will have to trust you.""I will give you my oath, if you so desire."The Emperor laughed, now, quite cheerfully. "Nonsense! I don't want your oath. I want—those two bodyguards of yours? That is their permanent duty?"Belisarius nodded.Khusrau took the general by the arm and resumed their progress toward the pavilion. His stride was no longer the leisurely amble of a man enjoying the sunset. It was the determined pace of a decisive man, who had made up his mind."Good," he announced. "They will be at the reception, then. I will want to meet with them privately."Belisarius' eyes widened."Privately? With Valentinian and Anastasius? Whatever for?""I want their oath. To keep you safe and alive, at all costs."He eyed the general. "Even if that means binding you with ropes and hitting you over the head, to keep you from any more of the cavalry charges for which you have become quite famous. Among my dehgans, no less!"The Emperor shook his head. "Any general who can impress dehgans with his heroism and disregard for personal safety needs close supervision. Strict supervision."They were almost at the pavilion, now."That Anastasius fellow? Is he the gigantic one?"Belisarius nodded. Khusrau stopped at the pavilion's entrance, eyeing the general up and down, much like a man estimating livestock."Yes, yes," he murmured. "He should have no difficulty. Even if it comes to shackling you."He turned and strode within. And called over his shoulder:"I will have his oath on it!" Anastasius kept a straight face. Valentinian didn't even try."—in the name of God and his son Jesus Christ," they concluded simultaneously.The solemnity of the occasion was undermined, of course, by the fact that Valentinian was grinning from ear to ear. But Khusrau did not seem dissatisfied with the result, judging from his own smiling face."Excellent," he pronounced.Anastasius and Valentinian took that as their cue. A moment later, bowing respectfully, they backed through the silk curtains which separated Khusrau's private quarters from the main area of the imperial pavilion.A little frown came to the Emperor's brow. He cocked his head toward Belisarius. "What did he say? The smaller one—he muttered something on the way out."Belisarius smiled. "I think he said: 'God bless wise emperors.' But, perhaps I misunderstood. Perhaps he said—""Nonsense!" exclaimed Khusrau. "I'm quite sure that's what he said."He took Belisarius by the arm and began leading him out. "Excellent fellow! Marvelous, marvelous! Even if he does look like a vicious weasel."Belisarius kept his own counsel. Aide did not.
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