Fire in the hole. Belisarius grinned. Leaned over."Fire in the hole!"Basil needed no translation. A moment later, the fuse was burning. As it hissed its furious way toward the last barrier across the Nehar Malka, Basil began capering like a child."I like that! I like that!" he cried. "Fire in the hole!" The cry was taken up by others. Within three minutes, the entire army was chanting the words. Even the Kushans, in their newly-learned and broken Greek."FIRE IN THE HOLE! FIRE IN THE HOLE!" The fuse reached its destination.There was fire in the hole. Chapter 27The demolition had been well-planned. So much was immediately obvious. Guided by Aide, Belisarius and Basil had emplaced the charges in the optimum locations to do the job.Across most of its width, the lower bank of the dam blew sidewise, clearing an instant path for the pent-up energy of the Euphrates. The great river, now released, literally burst into the new channel opened for it. Raging like a bull, the
torrent charged down the long-dry Nehar Malka, scouring it deeper and wider as it went.But Belisarius was unable to appreciate the sight. As so often happens in life, practice subverted theory. The charges had been perfectly placed, true. And then, doubled beyond Aide's instructions; and then, doubled again.Aide had complained, of course. Had warned, cautioned, chastened, chastised; been driven, in fact, into its own crystalline version of a gibbering fit.To no avail. With the simple logic of men whose familiarity with gunpowder was still primitive, Belisarius and Basil had both insisted that more was vastly preferable than enough. Better to make sure the job was done, after all, than to risk a feeble half-result through cringing niggardliness.Applied to the task of splitting a log with an axe, such logic simply results in unnecessary exertion. Applied to the task of demolishing a dam with gunpowder, however—I told you so, groused Aide, as Belisarius watched the top layers of the dam sailing into the sky. Hundreds upon hundreds of rocks and boulders—tons and tons of stony projectiles—soaring every which way.Not all of those missiles, of course, were heading for the tower where Belisarius stood. It just seemed that way.Baresmanas and Kurush scrambled down the ladder first. The Roman general was halfway down—Stupid humans. —when the first rocks began pelting into the tower. By the time he was three-fourths down—Protoplasmic idiots. —covered, now, with wood splinters—Glorified monkeys. —the tower collapsed completely.That probably saved his life, as well as those of Baresmanas and Kurush—and Basil, who had also instinctively sought shelter beneath the tower. The half-shattered platform hammered Belisarius and the other three men into the ground, battering them almost senseless. Thereafter, however, it acted as a sort of huge shield, sheltering them—in a manner of speaking—from the hail of rocks which would otherwise have turned two Roman officers and two Persian noblemen into so much undifferentiated pulp.At the time, Belisarius found little comfort in the fact. The platform lying on him did not deflect the blows, in the manner of a true shield, so much as it simply spread the shock across his entire body. He was not pulped, therefore. Amazingly, none of his bones were even broken. But he did undergo a version of being pounded into flatcake, except that flatcakes do not suffer the added indignity of being lectured throughout the experience.Crazy fucking Thracian. Whoever made you a general, anyway? It's amazing you even made it out of the womb, as stupid as you are. I'm surprised you didn't insist on finding your own way out. God forbid you should listen to your mother. Crazy fucking Thracian. Whoever— And so on, and so forth. It took his soldiers an hour to dig Belisarius and the others out, after the rocks stopped falling. The digging itself, actually, took only a few minutes. The delay was caused by the fact that his men had fled a full half mile away after the barrage started.His first, semiconscious, croaking words:"Did it work? I couldn't see."His ensuing croaks, after being assured of full success in the project:"Next time. Smaller charges.""Much smaller," croaked Basil."Crazy fucking Romans," croaked Baresmanas."Whoever put him in charge?" croaked Kurush. Others, also, failed to heed warnings. When Merena arrived at Ctesiphon to warn the governor of the oncoming tidal wave, the man responded with derision. Partly, that was due to his personality. Arrogant by nature, his recent naming to the post of shahrab of the Persian Empire's capital city had swelled his head even further. In the main, however, his attitude was determined by politics. The shahrab of Ctesiphon—Shiroe was his name—was allied with Ormazd's faction. The appearance before him of an officer of Emperor Khusrau's most ferociously-loyal follower, Baresmanas, seemed to him a perfect opportunity to score a political point. So, Shiroe responded to Merena's warning with jocular remarks on lunacy, embellished with denunciations of Romans and those Persians besotted with them, and concluding with a not-so-veiled thrust on the subject of miscegenation.Merena's men had to restrain him.After the unfortunate session, once Merena had calmed down enough to think clearly, he ordered his men to take informal and unofficial warnings to the boatmen plying their trade on the Tigris. As best they could, given their relatively small numbers, his soldiers tried to warn the city's fishermen and boat captains.Approximately half of the men they were able to speak to heeded their warnings. The other half—as well as all the men they were unable to reach in time—did not.When the tidal wave arrived, two days later, the destruction of property was immense. Few lives were lost, however. By the time the newly-released waters of the Euphrates reached Ctesiphon, they took the form of a sudden five-foot high surge in elevation rather than an actual wall of water. Most of the men caught in the river had time to scramble or swim to safety. But their boats, as well as a multitude of shore-lining structures, were pounded into splinters.Shiroe's prestige plummeted, and, with it, the allegiance of most of his military retainers. The huge mob of enraged and impoverished boatmen whom Merena and his soldiers led to the shahrab's palace poured over the few guards still willing to defend their lord. Shiroe was dragged out, weighted down with chains, and pitched into the newly-risen Tigris. In those changed and raging waters, he vanished without a trace.* * *In Babylon, on the other hand, everything went smoothly and according to plan. Khusrau had been preparing for this moment for weeks. The two days' warning which Maurice gave him were almost unnecessary.Belisarius had deliberately blown the dam in the late afternoon, calculating that the effects of the river's diversion would thereby strike Babylon the following morning. That would give Emperor Khus-rau a full day in which to take advantage of the new situation.His calculations, of course, were extremely crude—simply an estimate of the river's current divided into an estimate of the distance between the Nehar Malka and Babylon. In the event, Belisarius' guess was off by several hours. He had failed to make sufficient allowance for the fact that the current would ebb once the built-up pressure of the backwater dropped. So it was not until noon of the next day that the effects of his work made themselves felt.The difference was moot. The Persian Emperor's confidence in the Roman general was so great that he had decided to launch the attack at daybreak, whether or not the river level had dropped. It was a wise decision. As always, getting a major assault underway took more time than planned. Much more time, in this instance. The Persian troops, lacking the Roman expertise in engineering fieldcraft, required several hours to bring into position and ready the improvised pontoons which they would use to cross the Euphrates.By then, alerted by the slowly-unfolding work of Khusrau's engineers, the Malwa had realized that the Persians were planning a sally across the Euphrates. But the foreknowledge did them no good at all.Quite the contrary. Lord Jivita, the Malwa high commander, thought the Persian project was absurd."What is the point of this?" he demanded, watching the Persian preparations from his own command tower.None of the half-dozen officers standing there with him made any reply. The question was clearly rhetorical—as were most of Jivita's queries. The high commander's aides had long since learned that Jivita did not look kindly upon subordinates who provided their own answers to his questions.Jivita pointed to the Persian troops massing on the left bank of the river, just below the great western wall of Babylon."Madness," he decreed. "Even if they succeed in crossing, what is there for them to do? On the western side of the Euphrates?"He swept his arm. The gesture was simultaneously grandiose and dismissive."There is nothing on that side, except marshes and desert."He slapped his hands together."No matter! They will not cross in any event. I see the opportunity here for a great victory."He turned to one of his officers, the subordinate encharged with the Malwa's fleet of war galleys."Jayanaga! Send the entire flotilla forward! We will butcher the Persians as they try to cross!"With a fierce glower: "Make sure your galleys do not fire their rockets until the enemy's lead elements are almost across. I want to make sure we catch as many of them as possible on their pitiful pontoons. Do you understand?"Jayanaga nodded, and immediately left.Lord Jivita turned back to his examination of the enemy. Again, he clapped his hands with satisfaction."We will butcher them! Butcher them!" The Malwa flotilla—forty-two galleys, in all—was almost within rocket range of the pontoon bridge when the captain of the lead ship realized that something was wrong.His first assumption, however, was far off the mark. He turned to the oarmaster."Why have you slowed the tempo?" he demanded.The oarmaster immediately shook his head, pointing to the two men pounding on kettledrums."I didn't! Listen! They're beating the right tempo!"The captain's scowl deepened. Before the oarmaster had even finished speaking, the captain realized that he was right. Still—The ship was slowing.No! It was going backward! "Look!" cried one of the other officers, pointing to the near bank. "The river's dropping!""What? Impossible! Not that fast!"The captain leaned over the railing, studying the shore. Within seconds, his face paled."They've diverted the river upstream," he whispered. "It must be. Nothing else could—"He broke off, his attention drawn by the sound of hooves pounding on wooden planks. Lots of hooves. Upstream, he could see Persian cavalry racing across the pontoon bridge. Dozens—hundreds—thousands—of Persian lancers and armored archers were streaming over to the west bank of the Euphrates.Like his commander, Lord Jivita, the galley captain had been puzzled by the Persian sally. There had seemed no purpose for the enemy to cross the Euphrates, especially when the crossing itself would expose the Persians to withering rocket fire from the Malwa galleys. Who was there to fight, on that side of the river? The great mass of the Malwa army was concentrated on the east bank, south of Babylon's fortifications.Now he understood. The captain was a quick-thinking man."They knew about it ahead of time," he hissed. "They're going to burn the supply ships."He twisted, staring back at the huge mass of supply barges some half mile south. Already, he could see the unwieldy craft yawing out of control, driven by the rapidly ebbing waters of the river. Within a minute, he knew, they would start grounding. Helpless targets.Especially helpless when there would be no war galleys to protect them. His own flotilla would be grounded also—not as quickly, for they had a much shallower draft—unless—"Row toward the center of the river!" he roared. "Signal the other ships to do likewise!"Immediately, the drums began beating a new rhythm. The Malwa had no sophisticated signaling system for controlling their fleet. But the captain of the lead galley also served as the commodore of the flotilla. The message of the drums was simple:Do as I do. But it was already too late. The drums had barely begun beating when the flotilla commander saw the first of his warships ground. There was no dramatic splintering of wood—the bed of the Euphrates was mud, not rock—just the sudden halting of the galley's motion, a slight tilt as it adjusted to the angle of the riverbed.Nothing dramatic, nothing spectacular. But the result was still deadly.Helpless targets. The captain felt his own galley lurch, heard the slight hissing of mud and sand against the wooden hull. His craft jerked loose. Another hiss, another lurch. Jerked loose. Stopped.A quick-thinking man. He wasted no time trying to pry the vessel out. The muddy soil of the riverbed would hold the hull like glue. Instead, he turned his attention to preparing his defenses."Move the rocket troughs around!" he bellowed. "Set them to repel boarders!"His rocket handlers scurried to obey. One of them cried out, clutching his arm. An arrow was suddenly protruding from his elbow. The cry was cut short by another arrow penetrating his throat.The captain spun around. To his despair, he saw that the enemy charging down the west bank had drawn parallel to his craft. Already, the first Persian lancers were guiding their mounts into the riverbed. Their pace was slow, due to the thick mud and reeds, but the powerful Persian warhorses were still driving forward relentlessly. They would cover the distance quickly enough.There would be no time to bring the rockets to bear, he knew. And there was no chance—no chance—that his lightly armored sailors could withstand Persian dehgans in hand-to-hand combat.A quick-thinking man. He began to shout his surrender. But fell instantly silent, hearing the warcry of the oncoming Persians.Charax! Charax! Charax! He understood at once that there would be no surrender. No chance. He died eight seconds later, struck down by an arrow which tore through his heart. He made no attempt to evade the missile. There would have been no point. The enemy arrows were like a flock of geese. Instead, he simply stood there, silent, unmoving, presenting his chest to the enemy.When all was said and done, the quick-thinking man was kshatriya. He would die so.The Persians who saw were impressed. Hours later, they retrieved his body—the charred remnants of it—from the burned hulk of his galley. They carried the corpse back into Babylon, and gave it an honored resting place along with their own dead. Perched, in the Aryan way, atop a stone tower called a dakhma. There, exposed to carrion eaters, the unclean flesh would be stripped away, leaving the soul pure and intact. But that act of grace was yet to come. For now, the Persian cavalrymen thought only of slaughter and destruction. The dehgans and their archers rampaged down the west bank of the river for miles, destroying every ship within their reach. The huge Malwa army on the opposite shore could only watch in helpless fury.Malwa officers drove many of their soldiers into the riverbed in an attempt to rescue the stranded ships. But the mud and reeds impeded those troops at least as much as they had the Persian lancers on the west bank—and the Malwa were far more distant. By the time the soldiers struggling through the muck could reach them, the ships would be nothing but burning wreckage.The Persians were not able to destroy the entire fleet, of course. Many of the Malwa galleys and supply ships—whether through their own effort, or good luck, or both—wound up stranded on the east bank of the river. Those ships, protected by the nearby Malwa troops, were quite safe. They did not even suffer much damage from the grounding itself, due to the soft nature of the riverbed.But all of the ships which grounded within bow range of the Persians were doomed. Those close enough for the Persians to storm were burned by hand, after their crews were massacred. Those too far into the center of the river to be stormed were simply burned with fire-arrows. Those sailors who could swim survived. Those who could not, died.At sunset, the Persians broke off their sally and retreated back into Babylon. By the time the last dehgan trotted back across the pontoon bridge, almost a third of the Malwa fleet had been destroyed, along with most of the sailors who had manned those ships.* * *Those sailors were only the least of the casualties which the Malwa suffered, that day. An hour into the Persian sally, Lord Jivita ordered a mass assault against the walls of Babylon. The assault began almost immediately—his officers were terrified by his temper—and was carried on throughout the rest of the afternoon.It is possible that Lord Jivita ordered the assault because he thought the Persian sally had emptied Babylon of most of its defenders. Possible, but unlikely. The Malwa espionage service had kept Jivita well-informed of the enemy's strength throughout the siege. A simple count of the Persians across the river should have led the Malwa commander to the conclusion that Emperor Khusrau had kept the big majority of his troops behind the city's walls.No, Lord Jivita's action was almost certainly the product of nothing more sophisticated than blind fury. The petulant, squawling rage of a thwarted child. A very spoiled child.The price was paid by his troops. Khusrau had read his opponent's mentality quite accurately. The Emperor had expected just such a mindless attack, and had prepared his defenses accordingly. The Malwa soldiers crossing the no-man's land were ravaged by his catapults and his archers, stymied by the moats and walls, butchered at the walls themselves by heavily armored dehgans for whom they were no match in close-quarter combat. The casualties were horrendous, especially among the Kushans who spearheaded most of the assaults. By the end of day, when the attack was finally called off, six thousand Malwa soldiers lay dead or dying on the field of battle. Thirteen thousand had suffered injuries—from which, within a week, another five thousand would die.In all, in that one day, the Malwa suffered over twenty thousand casualties. Any other army in the world would have been broken by such losses. And even the Malwa army reeled.Lord Jivita himself did not reel. His fury grew and grew as the hours passed. By sundown, his despairing officers realized, Jivita was still determined to press the attack through the night.The abyss of total disaster yawned before them. They were pulled back from that pit by an old woman.* * *When Great Lady Holi clambered painfully up the ladder onto the command tower, silence immediately fell over the small crowd of top officers packed there. Even Lord Jivita broke off his bellowing.The Great Lady cast only a glance at Jivita."You are relieved," she announced. Her empty eyes moved to a figure standing next to Jivita."Lord Achyuta, you are now in command of the army."Jivita's eyes bulged. "You can't do that!" he screeched. "Only the Emperor has the authority—""Kill him," said Great Lady Holi.The two guards stationed on the platform stiffened. Hesitated, their eyes flashing back and forth between Holi and Jivita. He was their commander, after all. She was—officially—nothing but—Nothing—but. They had heard tales. All Malwa soldiers had heard tales.The Great Lady's eyes were now utterly barren. When she spoke again, her voice was inhuman. Empty of all life."KILL HIM."The guards had only heard tales. But the officers on that platform were all members of the Malwa dynastic clan. They knew the truth behind the tales.Lord Achyuta's sword was the first to slice into Jivita's belly, but only because he was standing the closest. Before Jivita slumped to the ground, five other swords had cut and sliced the life from his body.The two guards were still standing stiff and rigid. Great Lady Holi's vacant eyes fell upon them. If she hesitated at all, it was for less than a second."KILL THEM ALSO. THERE MUST BE NO TALES."Pudgy, middle-aged generals fell upon vigorous young soldiers. If the two guards had not been mentally paralyzed, they would undoubtedly have held their own against those unathletic officers. As it was, they were butchered within seconds.Great Lady Holi lowered herself into Jivita's chair. She ignored the three bodies and the pools of blood spreading across the platform."CALL OFF THIS INSANE ATTACK," she commanded."At once, Great Lady Holi!" cried Achyuta. He glanced at one of his subordinates. An instant later, the man was scrambling down the ladder.Reluctantly, Achyuta came to stand before the old woman. Reluctantly, for he knew that the aged figure hunched on that chair was only an old woman in form. Within that crone's body dwelt the spirit called Link. He feared that spirit as much as he was awed by it."DESCRIBE THE DAMAGE."Achyuta did not even try to calculate the casualty figures. Link, he knew, would be utterly indifferent. Instead, he went straight to the heart of the problem."Without the supply fleet, we cannot take Babylon."He glanced toward the Euphrates. The sunset was almost gone, but the river was still well-illuminated by the multitude of burning ships."Under the best of circumstances, we have been set back—"He hesitated, quailing, before summoning his courage. Link, he knew, would punish dishonesty faster than anything. In this, at least, the divine spirit was utterly unlike Jivita. Mindless rages were not Link's way. Simply—cold, cold, cold.He cleared his throat."Until next year," he concluded.A human would have cocked an eye, or—something. Link simply stared at Achyuta through those empty, old woman's eyes."SO LONG?"Again, he cleared his throat."Yes, Great Lady Holi. Until we can replace the destroyed ships, we will only have sufficient supplies to maintain the siege. There will be no chance of pressing home any attacks. And we have—"He waved his hand helplessly, gesturing toward the invisible barrenness of the region."—we have no way to build ships here. They will have to be built in India, and brought here during the monsoon next year."Great Lady Holi—Link—was silent. The old woman's eyes were still empty, but Achyuta could sense the lightning-quick calculations behind those orbs."YES. YOU ARE CORRECT. BUT THAT IS NOT THE WORST OF IT."The last sentence had something of the sense of a question about it. Achyuta nodded vigorously."No, Great Lady Holi, it isn't. There will be no point in bringing a new fleet of supply ships if the river—"Again, that helpless gesture. Great Lady Holi filled the silence."WE MUST RESTORE THE RIVER. THEY HAVE DAMMED IT UPSTREAM. AN EXPEDI-TION MUST BE SENT—AT ONCE—TO DESTROY THE DAM AND THE FORCE WHICH BUILT IT.""At once!" agreed Achyuta. "I will assemble the force tomorrow! I will lead it myself!"Great Lady Holi levered herself upright."NO, LORD ACHYUTA, YOU WILL NOT LEAD IT. YOU WILL REMAIN HERE, IN CHARGE OF THE SIEGE. APPOINT ONE OF YOUR SUBORDINATES TO COMMAND THE EXPEDITION."Achyuta did not even think to argue the matter. He nodded his head vigorously. Asked, in a tone which was almost fawning:"Which one, Great Lady Holi? Do you have a preference?"The divine spirit glanced around the platform, estimating the officers standing there rigidly. It was a quick, quick glance."IT DOES NOT MATTER. I WILL ACCOMPANY THE EXPEDITION PERSONALLY. WHOEVER IT IS WILL OBEY ME."Achyuta's eyes widened."You? You yourself? But—"He fell silent under the inhuman stare."I CAN TRUST NO ONE ELSE, ACHYUTA. THIS WAS BELISARIUS' WORK. HIS—AND THE ONE WHO GOES WITH HIM."She turned away."I KNOW MY ENEMY NOW. I WILL DESTROY IT MYSELF."Moments later, assisted by the hands of several officers, the figure of the old woman disappeared down the ladder. Achyuta was relieved to see her go. So relieved, in fact, that he did not wonder for more than an instant why Great Lady Holi had referred to the man Belisarius as "it."Personal peeve, he assumed. Not thinking that the divine spirit named Link was never motivated by such petty concerns.* * *The next morning, from his perch atop the hill which had once been the Tower of Babel, Emperor Khusrau watched the Malwa expeditionary force begin their march to Peroz-Shapur and the Nehar Malka.The sight was impressive. There were at least sixty thousand soldiers in that army across the Euphrates. At the moment, from what he could see, Khusrau thought the enemy force was infantry-heavy. But he had no doubt that they would be joined along the march by the mounted raiding parties which the Malwa had kept in the field, ravaging Mesopotamia. By the time that army reached its destination, he estimated, its numbers would have swelled by at least another ten thousand.Most of the Malwa army's supplies were being carried on camelback, but the expedition was also accompanied by small oared warships which were being laboriously portaged past Babylon. Those vessels would have a shallow enough draft to negotiate the Euphrates upstream. The water level of the river had dropped drastically, but it was still a respectable stream.He could see no siege guns. He would have been surprised to have done so. Weeks earlier, Belisarius had explained to him that heavy guns, even sectioned, require carts—or better, barges—for transport. Barges would be too heavy for the shrunken river, and, as for carts—how to haul them? Camels make poor draft animals, and horses could not manage a long and heavy-loaded march through the desert. There was no way to haul carts alongside the river itself, of course. The terrain directly adjoining the Euphrates was much too marshy—even more so now that the water level had dropped.No, he thought with satisfaction, it is just as Belisarius predicted. They will be restricted to rockets and grenades—weapons which they can carry on camelback.Without taking his eyes from the Malwa army, the Persian Emperor cocked his head toward the man standing at his side."You are certain, Maurice? It is still not too late. I can order a sally against that force."Maurice shook his head."That would be unwise, Your Majesty." With only the slightest trace of apology: "If you forgive me saying so."Maurice pointed to the south. Even at the distance, it was obvious that the main force of the enemy was mobilized and ready."They're hoping for that. They'll be prepared, today. They've erected their own pontoon bridges across the river. If you make another sally, they'll overwhelm you."Khusrau did not pursue the matter further. In truth, he agreed with Maurice. He had made the offer simply out of a sense of obligation. He owed much to the Romans, and he was a man who detested being in debt.Inwardly, he sighed. He would not be able to repay that debt for some time. If ever. Once again, circumstances forced him to allow his allies to fight for him. The great Malwa expeditionary force would have no Persians to contend with, other than Kurush's ten thousand men. And those troops would be needed to defend Peroz-Shapur, which the Malwa expedition would bypass on its way to the Nehar Malka. Kurush and his men would tie up at least their own number of enemy troops, true. But they would be unavailable to help in the defense of the dam itself.Once again, Belisarius would fight for him. Almost unaided.A sour thought came.Except, of course, for the aid of a traitor. Khusrau squared his shoulders. The foul deed needed to be done. He would not postpone it.He turned to one of his aides. "Send for Ormazd," he commanded.As the officer trotted away, Khusrau grimaced. Then, seeing the slight smile on Maurice's face, he grimaced even more."And this, Maurice? Are you also certain of this?"The Roman chiliarch shrugged. "If you want my personal opinion, Your Majesty—no. I am not certain. I suspect that Belisarius is being too clever for his own good." Scowl. "As usual." The scowl faded."But—I have thought so before. And, though I'd never admit it to his face, been proven wrong before." Again, he shrugged. "So—best to stick to his plan. Maybe he'll be right again."Khusrau nodded. For the next few minutes, as they waited for Ormazd to make his appearance, the Persian Emperor and the Roman officer stood together in silence.Maurice spent the time in a careful study of the enemy's expeditionary army. He would be leaving himself, the next day, to rejoin the Roman army awaiting the Malwa onslaught at the Nehar Malka. Belisarius would want a full and detailed description of his opponent's forces.Khusrau, on the other hand, spent the time in a careful study—of Maurice.Not of the man, so much as what he represented. It might be better to say, what the man Maurice told him of the general he followed. Told the Persian Emperor, not by any words he spoke, but by his very nature.Belisarius.Khusrau had spent many hours thinking about Belisarius, in the past weeks.Belisarius, the ally of the present.Belisarius, the possible enemy of the future.Khusrau was himself a great leader. He knew that already, despite his youth. Part of that greatness was due to his capacity to examine reality objectively, unswayed by self-esteem and personal grandiosity. No small feat, that, for an Emperor of Iran and non-Iran. And so Khusrau knew that one of the qualities of a great leader was his ability to gather around him other men of talent.He had never seen such a collection of capable men as Belisarius had cemented together in his army's leadership. He admired that team, envied Belisarius for it, and feared it at the same time.Crude men, true. Low born, almost to a man. Men like Maurice himself, for instance, whom Khusrau knew had been born a peasant.But the Persian Emperor was a great emperor, and so he was not blinded by his own class prejudices. Pure-blood empires had been brought down before, by lowborn men. The day could come, in the future, when the peasant-bred Maurice might stand again on that very hilltop. Not as an ally, but a conqueror. On that hill in Babylon; on the walls of Ctesiphon; on the horse-pastures of the heartland plateau.So, while they waited for Ormazd, and Maurice gave thought to the near future, the Emperor of Iran and non-Iran gave thought to the more distant future. By the time his treacherous half-brother finally made his appearance, Khusrau had decided on a course of action.He would outrage Aryan opinion. But he shrugged that problem off. With Ormazd removed, Khusrau did not fear the squawks of Aryan nobility. He trusted Belisarius to remove Ormazd for him, and he would entrust the future of his empire to an alliance with that same man.Ormazd's progress up the slope of the hill was stately—as much due to his horde of sycophants as to his own majestic pace. So Khusrau had time to lean over and whisper to Maurice, "Tonight. I wish to see you in my pavilion."Maurice nodded. When Ormazd was finally standing before the Emperor, Khusrau pointed to the Malwa expedition making its own slow way across the river."Tomorrow, brother, you will take your army and join the allied forces at the Nehar Malka. You will give Baresmanas and Belisarius all the assistance you can provide, in their coming battle against that enemy force."Ormazd scowled."I will not take orders from a Roman!" he snapped. "Nor from Baresmanas, for that matter. I am higher-born than—"Khusrau waved him down."Of course not, brother. But it is I, not they, who is commanding you in this. I leave it to your judgement how best to assist Belisarius, once you arrive. You will be in full command of your own troops. But you will assist them."His half-brother's scowl deepened. Khusrau's own expression grew fierce."You will obey your Emperor," he hissed.Ormazd said nothing. Put that way, there was nothing he couldsay unless he was prepared to rise in open rebellion that very moment. Which he most certainly wasn't—not in the middle of Khusrau's main army. Not after his own prestige had suffered such a battering during the past two months.After a moment, grudgingly, Ormazd nodded. He muttered a few phrases which, charitably, could be taken for words of obedience, and quickly made his exit. Later that night, when Maurice arrived at the Emperor's pavilion, he was ushered into Khusrau's private chamber. As he entered, Khusrau was sitting at a small table, occupied with writing a letter. The Emperor glanced up, smiled, and gestured toward a nearby cushion."Please sit, Maurice. I'm almost finished."After Maurice took his seat, a servant appeared through a curtain and presented him with a goblet of wine. Before Maurice could even take a sip, Khusrau rose from the table and embossed the letter with the seal ring which was one of the Persian Emperor's insignia of office. With no apparent signal being given, a man immediately appeared in the chamber and took the missive from the Emperor. A moment later, he was gone.Maurice, watching, was impressed but not surprised. Persia had always been famous for the efficiency of its royal postal system. The man who took the letter to its destination was known as a parvanak, and it was one of the most prestigious positions in the imperial Persian hierarchy. In contrast, the Roman equivalent—the agentes in rebus—were more in the way of spies than postal officials.Which might be good for imperial control, thought Maurice sourly, but it makes for piss-poor delivery of the mail. As soon as they were alone in the room, Khusrau took a seat on his own resplendent cushion."Tell me about the Emperor Photius," he commanded. "Belisarius' son."Maurice was puzzled by the question, but he let no sign of it show. "He's not really his son, Your Majesty. His stepson."Khusrau smiled. "His son, I think."Maurice stared at the Emperor for a moment, then nodded. It was a deep nod. Almost a bow, in fact."Yes, Your Majesty. His son.""Tell me about him."Maurice studied the Persian, still puzzled. Under-standing, Khusrau smiled again."Perhaps I should give my question more of a focus."He rose and strode over to one side of his chamber. Drawing aside the curtain, he called out a name. A moment later, moving with stiff and shy uncertainty, a young girl entered the chamber.Maurice estimated her age at thirteen, perhaps fourteen. The daughter of a high Persian nobleman, obviously. And very beautiful."This is Tahmina," said Khusrau. "She is the oldest daughter of Baresmanas, the noblest man of the noble Suren."With a gesture, Khusrau invited the girl to sit on a nearby cushion. Tahmina did so, quickly and with a surprising grace for one so young."My own children are very young," said Khusrau. Then, with a little laugh: "Besides, they are all boys."The Emperor turned and bestowed an odd look on Maurice. Maurice, at least, thought the look was odd. He was now utterly bewildered as to the Emperor's purpose."Baresmanas cherishes his daughter," said Khusrau sternly. Then, even more sternly: "As do I myself, for that matter. Baresmanas placed her in my care when he left for Constantinople with his wife. She is an absolutely delightful child, and I have enjoyed her company immensely. It has made me look forward to having daughters of my own, some day."The Emperor began pacing back and forth."She is of good temper, and intelligent. She is also, as you can see for yourself, very beautiful."He stopped abruptly. "So. Tell me about the Roman Emperor Photius."Maurice's eyes widened. His jaw almost dropped. "He's only eight years old," he choked.The gesture which Khusrau made in response to that statement could only have been made by an emperor: August dismissal of an utterly trivial matter. "He will age," pronounced the Emperor. "Soon enough, he will need a wife."Again, the stern look. "So. Tell me about the Emperor Photius. I do not ask for anything but your personal opinion of the boy himself, Maurice. You will say he is a child. And I will respond that the child is father to the man. Tell me about the man Photius."For just a moment, Khusrau's imperial manner faltered. "The girl is very dear to me, you see. I would not wish to see her abused."Maurice groped for words. Hesitated; vacillated; jittered back and forth in his mind. He was floundering in waters much too deep for him. Imperial waters, for the sake of Christ!Then, as his eyes roamed about, they happened to meet those of Tahmina. Shy eyes. Uncertain eyes.Fearful eyes.That, Maurice understood.He took a deep breath. When he spoke, his voice had more in it than usual of the Thracian accent of his peasant upbringing. "A good lad, he is, Your Majesty. A sweet-tempered boy. Not nasty-spirited in the least. Bright, too, I think. It's a bit early to tell yet, of course. Precocious lads—which he is—sometimes fritter it all away as they get too sure of themselves. But Photius—no, I think not." He stopped, bringing himself up short. "I really shouldn't say anything more," he announced. "It's not my place."Khusrau's eyes bore into him. "Damn all that!" he snapped. "I only want the answer to a simple question. Would you marry your daughter to him?"Maurice started to protest that he had no daughter—not that he knew of, at least—but the sight of Tahmina's eyes stilled the words.That, he understood. That, he could answer."Oh, yes," he whispered. "Oh, yes."