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Chapter 30  THE EUPHRATES
Autumn, 531 a.d.
"Tell me again," said Belisarius.Standing next to the general on top of the giant pile of rocks which the Kushans had hauled out of the Nehar Malka, Maurice decided to misunderstand the question."Fifteen thousand cavalry they've got now," he gruffed. He pointed a stubby, thick finger at the cloud of dust rising out of the desert some ten miles to the southeast. "Five thousand of them, by my estimate, are Lakhmid Arabs. They're riding camels, the most, and—"Belisarius smiled crookedly."Tell me again, Maurice."The chiliarch puffed out his cheeks. Sighed. "This is not my province, general. I don't have any business mucking around in—""I'm not asking you to muck around," growled Belisarius. "And spare me the protestations of humble modesty. Just tell me what you think."Again, Maurice puffed out his cheeks. Then, exhaled noisily."What I think, general, is that the Emperor of Persia is offering the Roman Empire a dynastic marriage. Between Photius and the eldest daughter of his noblest sahrdaran."Maurice glanced down at Baresmanas. The father of the daughter in question was perched sixty feet away on a large boulder further down the man-made hill. Out of hearing range. Maurice continued:"He'd offer one of his own daughters in marriage—Khusrau made that clear enough—but he doesn't have any. So Baresmanas' daughter is the best alternative, other than choosing from one of his brothers' or half-brothers' various girls."Belisarius shook his head. "That's the last thing he'd do. Khusrau's trying to bridle that crowd of ambitious brothers. And, if I'm reading him right, trying to cement the most trustworthy layers of the nobility to his rule."The general scratched his chin, idly staring at the cloud of dust in the desert. His eyes were not really focussed on the sight, however. From experience, he knew that the Malwa army advancing on him would not be in position to attack until the following day. In the meantime—"Khusrau's canny," he said. "Part of our conversations in Babylon consisted of his questions regarding the Roman methods of organizing our Empire. I think he's planning—groping, is maybe a better way to put it—to break Persia from its inveterate—"He paused. The word "feudalism" would mean nothing to Maurice. It had meant nothing to Belisarius, either, until Aide explained it to him."—traditions," he concluded, waving his hand vaguely."Think he can do it?" asked Maurice. "Persians are set in their ways."Belisarius pondered the question. Aide had given him, once, a vision of the Persia which Khusrau Anushirvan had created, in the future which would have been if the "new gods" hadn't intervened in human history. The greatest Emperor of the Sassanid dynasty had tried to impose centralized, imperial authority over the unruly Aryan nobility, inspired by Rome's example, to some degree; guided by his own keen intelligence, for the rest.In many ways, Khusrau would succeed. He would break the military power of the great aristocracy. He would win the allegiance of the dehgans, transform them into the social base for a professional army paid and equipped by the Emperor, and place them under the authority of his own generals—spahbads, he would call them. Never again would ambitious sahrdarans or vurzurgans pose a threat to the throne.Khusrau would succeed elsewhere, too. His greatest reform—the one for which history would call him "Khusrau the Just"—would be his drastic overhaul of taxation. Khusrau would institute a system of taxation which was not only far less burdensome to the common folk but which also stabilized the imperial treasury.Yet—If there was one thing which Aide had shown Belisarius, it was that human history never moved in simple, clear channels. Khusrau's dynasty—the Sas-sanid dynasty—would vanish into history, as all dynasties did. But his tax system would remain. The Arab conquerors of Persia would be so impressed by it that they would use it as the model for the tax system of the great Moslem Caliphates.Belisarius' mind was now wandering very far from the moment. He knew of the Moslem Caliphates of the future that would have been. Aide had shown him. Just as Aide had shown him the fall of the Roman Empire, almost a thousand years in the future. The sack of Constantinople at the hands of the so-called Fourth Crusade. The final conquest of Byzantium, a quarter of a millennium later, by a new people called the Turks.Belisarius wondered, now, as he often had before, what he thought of all that Aide had shown him. He was a general in the service of the Roman Empire. Indeed, one of the greatest generals which Rome ever produced. He knew that for a simple fact. And knew, also, that he was the only general in the long history of that great Empire who fought for it while understanding, all along, that the Empire was doomed.He hoped to saved Rome, and the world, from the Malwa tyranny. But he would not save Rome itself. Rome would fall—someday, somehow. If not by the hand of Sultan Mehmet and his Janissaries, by the hand of someone else. All human creations fell, or collapsed, or simply decayed. Someday, somehow, somewhere.Mentally, Belisarius shrugged. His was not the task of creating a perfect human future. His was the task of making sure that people had a future they could create. Create badly, perhaps—but create. Not be forced into a mold created for them.Maurice was still waiting patiently for an answer. Belisarius smiled, and gave him the simple one."Yes, he can do it. He will do it."Maurice grunted. The grunt carried a great deal of satisfaction—which was odd, really, for a Roman soldier. But Maurice had met Khusrau Anushirvan, and, like many people, even that crusty veteran had come under the spell of the Persian Emperor's powerful personality."What do you think?" he now asked. "About the proposal for a dynastic marriage, I mean?"Belisarius smiled again. "I think it's a great idea. Theodora'll be twitchy about it, of course. But Justinian will seize on it with both hands."Maurice frowned. "Why?""Because Justinian always has his—'mind's eye,' let's call it—on the position of the dynasty. His dynasty, for all that Photius isn't his own son. And he knows that there'd be nothing that would cement the army's allegiance more than a dynastic marriage with a Persian Princess."Maurice tugged his beard thoughtfully. "True enough," he agreed. "Anything that would prevent another bloody brawl with those tough fucking deh-gans. Bad for your retirement prospects, that is."A thought came to him. His eyes widened, slightly. "Now that I think about it— When was the last time a Roman Emperor married a Persian noblewoman?"Belisarius chuckled. "It's never happened, Maurice. The Persians consider us Roman mongrels unfit for their blood.""That's what I thought," mused Maurice. "God, the army'll be tickled pink. They already think of Photius as one of their own, you know. If he marries a Persian sahrdaran's daughter—"The chiliarch broke off, eyeing the figure of Baresmanas below. "Does he know about it, d'you think? It's his daughter we're talking about, after all. Maybe he won't like the idea."Belisarius laughed, clapping the chiliarch on the shoulder."Unless I'm badly mistaken, Maurice, the whole thing was Baresmanas' idea in the first place."As if he had been cued, Baresmanas chose that moment to turn his head and look up at the two Roman officers standing on the very top of the rock-pile. For a moment, he and Belisarius stared at each other. Then, Baresmanas hopped off the rock—his shoulder might be half-crippled, but he was still quite spry for a middle-aged man—and began climbing toward them.As soon as he reached the hill-top, Baresmanas asked, "So—what do you think?"For a moment, the Roman general was startled. How could Baresmanas have overheard—?Then, realizing that the sahrdaran was talking about their military situation, Belisarius grimaced."We're not going to be able to surprise them with another flank attack, that's for sure."Baresmanas nodded. Neither he nor Belisarius had really thought that option would be available. Having been shattered at Anatha, the Malwa would not make the mistake of overconfidence again. The army approaching them from the southeast was much larger than the force they had faced at the hunting park. Still, the commander of those oncoming Malwa was keeping a massive guard on his flanks. Well out on his flanks, using his best troops for the job. On his left, in the desert, the Malwa commander was using Lakhmids on camelback. On his right, in the fertile terrain on the other side of the almost-dry Euphrates, he was using Kushan cavalry. Four thousand of them, according to Kurush's scouts, maintaining an excellent marching order, with a large contingent of skirmishers guarding their own flank.There would be no way to surprise the Malwa with any clever maneuver with concealed troops. Not this time."We will have to rely on your main plan, then," said Baresmanas. The sahrdaran heaved a sigh. "Casualties will be high."Belisarius tightened his lips. "Yes, they will. But I don't see any other option."Baresmanas turned his head, staring to the west. Across the river, he could see the huge camp where Ormazd's twenty thousand lancers and archers had taken position, after arriving the week before. Even at the distance, he could see Ormazd's own pavilion, towering over the much-less-elaborate tents of his soldiers."If he does not—""He will," said Belisarius confidently. His crooked smile came, in full force."You will have noticed, I'm sure, that Ormazd pitched his camp there—instead of further down the river."Baresmanas nodded, scowling. "The swine," he growled. "Upstream of the dam, where he pitched his camp, there is no way he can cross the Euphrates in time to give you help, should you need it. He should have taken position several miles further down, where the riverbed is almost empty."Belisarius shook his head."Not a chance, Baresmanas. His troops would take the brunt of the assault, then. Whereas now—""They are obviously out of the action," concluded the sahrdaran. "The Malwa will recognize that immed-iately, and concentrate most of their forces here. They will only need to keep a screen against the chance of Ormazd attacking their left."Belisarius chuckled, making clear his opinion on the likelihood of Ormazd ordering any massive sally. The Persian Emperor's half-brother, it was clear, intended to sit on his hands while the Romans and the Malwa army slugged it out on the other side of the Euphrates."How did he explain it?" demanded Baresmanas angrily.Belisarius shrugged. "In all truth, he didn't have much explaining to do. I didn't press him on the matter, Baresmanas. I want him where he is."Baresmanas' scowl deepened. Intellectually, the sahrdaran understood Belisarius' stratagem. Emotionally, however, the Aryan nobleman still choked at the idea of actually using another Aryan's expected treachery. A Sassanid, no less.Baresmanas eyed the Roman general. "I forget, sometimes, just how incredibly cold-blooded you can be," he muttered. "I cannot think of another man who would develop a battle plan based on his expectation that an ally would betray him. Take such a possibility into account, certainly—any sane commander does that, when fighting with foreign allies. But to plan on it— No, more! To actually engineer it, to maneuver for it!—"Baresmanas fell silent, shaking his head. Belisarius, for his part, said nothing. There was nothing to say, really. Despite the many ways in which he and Baresmanas were much alike, there were other ways in which they were as different as two men could be.For all his sophistication and scholarship, Bares-manas was still, at bottom, the same man who had spent his boyhood admiring Persian lancers and archers. Spent hours of that boyhood watching dehgans on the training fields of his father's vast estate, demonstrating their superb skill as mounted archers.Whereas Belisarius, for all his own sophistication and subtleties, was still—at bottom—the same man who had spent his boyhood admiring Thracian blacksmiths. Spent hours of that boyhood watching the blacksmiths on his father's modest estate, demonstrating their own more humble but—when all is said and done—much more powerful craft. Men die by the dehgan's steel. People live by the blacksmith's iron.Even as a boy, however, Belisarius had had a subtle mind. So, where other boys admired the strength of the blacksmith, and gasped with awe at the mighty strokes of hammer on anvil, Belisarius had seen the truth. A blacksmith was a strong man, of necessity. But a good blacksmith did everything he could to husband that strength. Time after time, watching, the boy Belisarius had seen how cunningly the blacksmith positioned the glowing metal, and with what a precise angle he wielded the hammer.So, he said nothing to Baresmanas. There was nothing to say.* * *A few minutes later, called down by one of his tribunes with a problem, Maurice left the artificial hilltop. Belisarius and Baresmanas remained there alone, studying the huge Malwa force advancing toward them.They did not speak, other than to exchange an occasional professional assessment of the enemy's disposition of its forces. On that subject, not surprisingly, they were always in agreement. If Baresmanas did not have his Roman ally's sheer military genius, he was still an experienced and competent general in his own right.Underlying that agreement, however, and for all their genuine friendship, two very different souls readied for the coming battle.The one, an Aryan sahrdaran—noblest man of the noblest line of the world's noblest race—sought strength and courage from that very nobility. Sought for it, found it, and awaited the battle with a calm certitude in his own valor and honor.The other, a Thracian born into the lower ranks of Rome's parvenu aristocracy, never even thought of nobility. Thought, not once, of honor or of valor. He simply waited for the oncoming enemy, patiently, like a blacksmith waits for iron to heat in the furnace.A craftsman at his trade. Nothing more.And nothing less.  Chapter 31 ALEXANDRIA
Autumn, 531 a.d.
"This is madness!" shouted one of the gym-nasiarchs. The portly notable was standing in the forefront of a small crowd packed into the audi-ence chamber. All of them were men, all of them were finely dressed, and most were as fat as he was.Alexandria's city council."Madness!" echoed another member of the council."Lunacy!" cried a third.Antonina was not certain which particular titles those men enjoyed. Gymnasiarchs also, perhaps, or possibly exegetai.She did not care. The specific titles were meaningless—hoary traditions from the early cen-turies of the Empire, when the city council actually exercised power. In modern Alexandria, membership in the council was purely a matter of social prestige. The real authority was in the hands of the Praetorian Prefect, the commander of the Army of Egypt, and—above all—the Patriarch.After disembarking her troops, Antonina had immediately seized a palace in the vicinity of the Great Harbor. She was not even sure whose palace it was. The owner had fled before she and her soldiers occupied the building, along with most of his servants.Each of the many monarchs who had ruled Egypt in the eight hundred and sixty-two years since the founding of Alexandria had built their own palaces. The city was dotted with the splendiferous things. Over the centuries, most of those royal palaces had become the private residences of the city's high Greek nobility.No sooner had she established her temporary headquarters than the entire city council appeared outside the palace, demanding the right to present their petitions and their grievances. She had invited them in—well over a hundred of the self-important folk—simply in order to gauge the attitude of Alexandria's upper crust.Within ten minutes after they surged into the audience chamber, they had made their sentiments clear. As follows:One. The Empire was ruled by a madwoman.Two. The mad Empress had sent another madwoman to spread the madness to Alexandria.Three. They, on the other hand, were not mad.Four. Nor would they tolerate madness.Five. Not that they themselves, of course, would think of raising their hands in violence against the Empress and her representive—perish the thought, perish the thought—even if they were nothing but a couple of deranged females. But—Six. The dreaded mob of Alexandria, always prone to erupt at the slightest provocation, was even now coming to a furious boil. Any moment now, madness would be unleashed in the streets. Which—Seven. Was the inevitable fate for madwomen.Eight. Who were, they reiterated, utterly mad. Insanity personified. Completely out of their wits. Bereft of all sense and reason. Raving—Antonina had had enough. "Arrest them," she said. Demurely. Ladylike. "The whole lot."A little flip of the hand. "Stow them in the hold of one of the grain ships, for now. We'll figure out what to do with them later."As Ashot and his cataphracts carried out her order, Antonina ignored the squawls of outrage issued by the city's notables as they were hog-tied and frog-marched out of the palace. She had other problems to deal with.Some of those problems were simple and straightforward.Representatives from the very large Jewish population of the city inquired as to their likely welfare. Antonina assured them that the Jews would be unmolested, both in their civil and religious affairs, so long as they accepted her authority. Five minutes later, the Jewish representatives were ushered out. On their way, Antonina heard one of them mutter to another, "Let the damned Christians fight it out, then. No business of ours."Good enough.Next problem:Representatives of the city's powerful guilds demanded to know what the Empire's attitude would be toward their ancient prerogatives.Complicated, but not difficult.Antonina assured them that neither she, nor Emperor Photius, nor the Empress Regent, had any desire to trample on the guilds' legitimate interests. Other than, in the case of the shipbuilding and metalworking guilds, providing them with a lot of work. Oh, yes, and work for the huge linenmakers guild also. Sails would be needed for all the new ships they'd be building. And no doubt there'd be some imperial money tossed at the glassworkers guild. The Empress Regent—as everyone knew—was exceedingly fond of fine glasswork.The papyrus-makers, of course, were sitting pretty. The influx of imperial officials would naturally increase the demand for paper. As for the jewelers, well, what with the enormous booty that'd soon be rolling in from the Malwa, writhing in defeat and humiliation, all of the soldiers—the many, many, many soldiers—who would be arriving to strengthen Egypt's garrison would naturally want to convert their bulky loot into items which were both portable and readily liquifiable, of which—O happy coincidence—fine jewelry took pride of place, especially the jewelry produced in Alexandria, which city was famed throughout the Empire—O happy coincidence—for the unexcelled craft of its gold- and silversmiths.Now, as to the matter of grain-shipping guilds, well, soldiers are strapping lads. Need to eat a lot. So—Two hours later, the representatives of the city's commercial and manufacturing guilds tottered out of the palace, reeling dizzily at the thought of their newfound wealth. Other problems, of course, were hard as nails. But those, at least, Antonina did not have to spend hour after hour sitting on a chair to deal with. Those problems could only be dealt with in the streets.Hermogenes stalked into the audience chamber just as the last guild representatives were leaving. He strode directly to Antonina's chair, leaned over, and whispered, "It's starting. Paul just finished a sermon at the Church of St. Michael, calling on the city's faithful to reject the Whore of Babylon.""Which one?" asked Antonina whimsically. "Me? Or Theodora?"Hermogenes shrugged. "From what our spies report, the Patriarch wasn't specific. The former Patriarch, I should say."Antonina shook her head. "He's still the Patriarch, Hermogenes. In fact, if not in name. Theodosius may have the title, but it means nothing until we can install him in the Church of St. Michael and keep him there."She cast a glance at the man in question. Theo-dosius was standing twenty feet away, conferring with two of the deacons who served as his ecclesiastical aides. Zeno, the commander of the Knights Hospitaler, was standing next to him, along with two of his own subordinates.Antonina was pleased to note that Theodosius seemed neither agitated nor apprehensive.I don't know about his theology, but the man's got good nerves. He'll need them. She looked back at Hermogenes. "What about Ambrose?"Hermogenes scowled. "The bastard's holed up at the army camp in Nicopolis. With all of his troops."Ashot and Euphronius arrived just in time to hear the last words."Only thing he can do, for the moment," said Ashot. "He's a general in the army, subject to the Empire's stringent rules governing mutiny. Whereas"—the Armenian cataphract sneered—"the Patriarch can give sermons, and claim afterward that he was just preaching to his flock. No fault of his if he was misunderstood when he denounced the Whore of Babylon. He was just cautioning men against sin. He certainly didn't intend for a huge mob to assault the Empress' representative. He is shocked and distressed to learn that the unfortunate woman was torn limb from limb."By this time, Theodosius and Zeno had joined the little circle around Antonina. "It's happened before," commented the Knights Hospitaler. "The prefect Petronius was stoned by the mob, during Augustus' reign. And one of the Ptolemies was dragged out into the streets and assassinated. Alexander II, I think it was."Antonina pursed her lips. "How long do you think Ambrose will sit on the sidelines, Ashot?"The commander of her Thracian bucellarii shrugged. "Depends on his troops, mostly. Ambrose only has three options." He held up his thumb. "One—accept his dismissal.""Not a chance," interjected Hermogenes. "I know the man. Sittas was being polite when he called him a stinking bastard. Ambitious, he is."Ashot nodded. "Rule out that option, then. That only leaves him two." He held up his other thumb. "Mutiny. But—"Hermogenes started shaking his head."—that'd be insane," continued Ashot. "Every one of his soldiers knows the penalty for mutiny in the Roman army. The risk isn't worth it unless—" He held up his forefinger alongside his thumb."Option two. Ambrose declares himself the new Emperor. His soldiers hail him, start a civil war, and hope to enjoy the bounty if they win."Hermogenes nodded vigorously. "He's right. A Patriarch can play games with street violence. A general can't. For him, it's all or nothing."Antonina looked back and forth between the two officers. "You still haven't told me how long I've got before he decides.""A day, at the very least," said Ashot immediately. "He's got to have the support of his soldiers. Most of them, anyway. That'll take time.""Speeches," amplified Hermogenes. "Perorations to the assembled troops. Negotiations with his top officers. Promises to make to everybody.""For sure he'll promise a huge annona if he takes the throne," added Ashot immediately. All the officers nodded, their faces grim. The annona was the pay bonus which Roman emperors traditionally granted their troops upon assuming the throne. During the chaotic civil wars three centuries earlier, when Rome often had two or three simultaneous emperors—few of whom survived more than a year or two—the claimants for the throne had bid for the loyalty of the armies by promising absurd bonuses."Pay increases," elaborated Hermogenes, "after he's been made Emperor. Better retirement pensions. Anything else he can think of.""He'll be talking nonstop for hours," concluded Ashot. "All through the day and halfway through the night."Antonina rose. "Right. The gist of it is that I've got a day to deal with the Patriarch's mob, without interference from the Army of Egypt."Ashot and Hermogenes nodded."Let's get to it, then. How big is that mob?"Ashot spread his hands. "Hard to know, exactly. Thousands from the crowd packing St. Michael's. Most will be his fanatic adherents, but there'll be a lot of orthodox sympathizers mixed in with them. Then—"He turned to Theodosius."How many hardcore Chalcedonian monks are there, residing in the city?"The Patriarch grimaced. "At least two thousand.""Five thousand," added Zeno, "if you include the ones living in monasteries within a day's march of Alexandria."Ashot turned back to Antonina. "Every last one of those monks will be in with the mob, stirring them up.""Leading the charge, more like," snarled Hermogenes.Ashot barked an angry little laugh. "And you can bet that the Hippodrome factions will join the fray. The Blues, for sure. They'll be interested in looting, for the most part. But they'll throw their weight in on Paul's side, if for no other reason than to get his blessing for their crimes.""They'll head for Delta quarter, right off," added Zeno.Antonina nodded thoughtfully. Alexandria was divided into five quarters, designated by the first five letters of the Greek alphabet. Delta quarter, for centuries, had been the city's Jewish area.She moved her eyes to Euphronius. Throughout the preceding discussion—as was usual in these command meetings—the commander of the Theodoran Cohort had said nothing. The young Syrian grenadier was too shy to do more than listen."How do you feel about Jews?" she asked him abruptly.Euphronius was startled by the question."Jews?" He frowned. "Never thought much about it, to be honest. Can't say I like them, but—"He fell silent, groping for words.Antonina was satisfied. Anti-Jewish sentiment was endemic throughout the Roman Empire, but only in Alexandria did it reach rabid proportions. That had been true for centuries. Syrians, on the other hand, had managed to co-exist with Jews without much in the way of trouble."I want you and the Cohort to march to the Jewish quarter. It'll be your job to defend it against the Hippodrome thugs. Take one of Hermogenes' infantry cohorts for support."It was Ashot and Hermogenes' turn to be start-led, now."What for, Antonina?" asked Hermogenes. "The Jews can take care of themselves. Won't be the first time they've fought it out with Blues and Greens."Antonina shook her head. "That's exactly what I'm afraid of. I intend to"—she clenched her fist—"suppress this street violence. The last thing I want is for it to spread.""I agree with Antonina," interjected Theodosius. "If the Jews get involved in street fighting, Paul will use that to further incite the mob.""Whereas," said Antonina, "if the mob is stopped before it can even start the pogrom—by the Empress' own Cohort—it'll send a very different signal."She straightened, back stiff. "I promised their representatives that Alexandria's Jews would be unmolested if they remained loyal to the Empire. I intend to keep that promise."She began moving toward the great set of double doors leading out of the audience chamber, issuing commands as she went."Hermogenes, detail one of your cohorts to back up the grenadiers in the Delta Quarter. Find one with officers who are familiar with Alexandria. The Syrians'll get lost in this city without guides.""Take Triphiodoros and his boys, Euphronius," said Hermogenes. "He's from Alexandria.""He's a damned good tribune, too," agreed the Syrian grenadier, nodding with approval.Antonina stopped abruptly. She turned to face the commander of the Theodoran Cohort. Her expression was stern, almost fierce."Good tribune or not, Euphronius—you're in charge. The infantry's there to back you up, nothing more."Euphronius started to make some protest, but Antonina drove over it."You've always been subordinate to someone else. Not today. Today, you're leading an independent command. You're ready for it—and so are the grenadiers. I expect you to shine."The young Syrian commander straightened. "We will, Antonina. We will not fail."Antonina turned to Ashot and Hermogenes."Get your troops ready. I want all of them in full armor. That includes the cataphracts' horses. Full armor—nothing less. Make sure of it. In this heat, a lot of the men will try to slide through with half-armor.""Full armor?" Ashot winced. "Be like an oven. Antonina, we're not dealing with Persian dehgans here, for the sake of Christ. Just a pack of scruffy—"Antonina shook her head firmly. "That's overkill, I know, against a street mob. But your troops won't be in the middle of the action, anyway, and I want them to look as intimidating as possible."Ashot's eyes widened. So did Hermogenes'."Not in the middle of it?" asked the Armenian cataphract.Antonina smiled. Then, turned to face Zeno."I believe it's time for the Knights Hospitaler to take center stage."Zeno nodded solemnly. "So do I, Antonina. And this is the perfect opportunity.""I'm not so sure about that," muttered Hermo-genes. He gave Zeno a half-apologetic, half-skeptical glance. "Meaning no offense, but your monks have only had a small amount of training. This is one hell of a messy situation to throw them into."Antonina started to intervene. But then, seeing the confident expression on Zeno's face, decided to let the Knight Hospitaler handle the matter."We have trained much more than you realize, Hermogenes," said Zeno. "Not"—he waved his hand—"with your kind of full armor and weapons in a field battle situation, of course. But we took advantage of the very long voyage here to train on board the grain ships. With quarterstaffs."Hermogenes stared at the Knights Hospitaler as if the man had just announced that he was armed with bread sticks. Ashot was positively goggling."Quarterstaffs?" choked the Armenian cataphract.Now, Antonina did intervene. "That was my husband's idea," she stated. "He said it was the perfect weapon for riot duty."Hearing the authority of Belisarius invoked, Ashot and Hermogenes reined in their disdain. A bit.Zeno spoke up again. "I do not think you fully understand the situation here, Hermogenes. Ashot." He cleared his throat. "I am Egyptian myself, you know. I wasn't born in Alexandria—I come from Naucratis, in the Delta—but I am familiar with the place. And its religious politics."He pointed through the open doors. "We must be very careful. We do not want to create martyrs. And—especially—we don't want to infuriate the great masses of orthodox Greeks who make up a third of Alexandria's populace."He nodded approvingly at Antonina. "You saw how well Antonina handled the guilds, earlier. But you musn't forget that almost all of those men are Greeks, and orthodox. They completely dominate the city's commerce and manufacture. They are the same men we will be relying on—tomorrow, and for years to come—to forge the Roman arsenal against the Malwa. For doctrinal reasons, most of those people are inclined to support Paul and his diehards. But they are also uneasy about their fanaticism, and their thuggery. Bad for business, if nothing else."Antonina pitched in. "It's essential that we drive a wedge between Paul's fanatics and the majority of the orthodox population. If we have a massacre, the city's Greeks will be driven into open opposition. And you know as well as I do—better than I do—how the cataphracts and the regular infantry will hammer into that mob if they're in the forefront."She stared at Ashot and Hermogenes. The two officers looked away."You know!" she snapped. "Those men are trained to do one thing, and one thing only. Slaughter people. Do you really want to unleash a volley of cataphract arrows against a crowd? This is not the Nika revolt, God damn it! There, we were dealing with Malwa kshatriya and thousands of professional thugs armed to the teeth. Here—"She blew out her breath. "Christ! Half of that crowd will be there more out of excitement and curiosity than anything else. Many of them will be women and children. You may be crazy, but I'm not. Theodora sent me here to stabilize imperial rule in Egypt. To stop a civil war, not start one."Ashot and Hermogenes were looking hangdog, now. But Antonina was relentless."That's the way it's going to be. I have complete confidence that the Knights Hospitaler can handle the situation. I simply want you there—in the background, but fully armed and armored—to add a little spice to the meal. Just to let the crowd know, after Paul's goons have been beaten into a pulp and routed, that it could have been one hell of a lot worse."She chuckled, very coldly. "You may sneer at quarterstaffs, but my husband doesn't. And I think, by the end of the day, you won't be sneering either."She straightened, assuming as tall a stance as she could. Which wasn't much, but quite enough."You have your orders. Follow them."Hermogenes and Ashot left then, very hastily. An unkind observer might have said they scurried. An instant later, Zeno followed. His pace, however, was slower. Very proud, that stride was.Euphronius, also, began to leave. But after taking three steps, he stopped. He fidgeted, then turned around."Yes?" asked Antonina.The Syrian cleared his throat. "My grenadiers are also not trained to do anything other than—uh, slaughter people. And grenades are even more indiscriminate than arrows. I don't understand how you expect me to—"Antonina laughed. "Euphronius! Relax!"She walked over, smiling, and placed a reassuring hand on his arm."First of all, you're not going to be dealing with a crowd. You're going to be dealing with gangs. There won't be any innocent onlookers in that mob, believe me. Hippodrome thugs, they'll be, looking to pillage the Jews. Robbers, rapists, murderers—nothing else."The smile vanished. Her next words were almost snarled."Kill as many of them as you can, Euphronius. The more, the better. And then have Triphiodoros and his infantry hang whatever prisoners you take. On the spot. No mercy. None. If you wind up draping the outskirts of the Delta Quarter with intestines, blood, brains, and corpses, you'll make me a very happy woman."Euphronius gave out a little sigh of relief. "Oh," he said. Then, with a sudden, savage grin:"We can do that. No problem."Now he, too, was hurrying out of the room. Antonina was left alone with Theodosius.For a moment, she and the new Patriarch stared at each other. Theodosius had said nothing, during the preceding discussion. But his anxiety ha

been obvious to Antonina. The anxiety was gone, now. But she was uncertain what emotion had replaced it. Theodosius was giving her a very odd look."Is something troubling you, Patriarch?""Not at all," replied Theodosius, shaking his head. "I was just—how can I explain?"He smiled, fluttering his hands. "I suppose you could say I was contemplating God's irony. It's an aspect of the Supreme Being which most theologians miss entirely, in my experience."Antonina frowned. "I'm afraid I don't—"Again, the fluttering hands. "When the fanatic Paul calls you the Whore of Babylon, he demonstrates his ignorance. His stupidity, actually. The essence of Christ is his mercy, Antonina. And who, in this chaos called Alexandria, could find that mercy—other than a woman who understands the difference between sin and evil?"Antonina was still frowning. Theodosius sighed."I am not explaining myself well. Let me just say that I am very glad that you are here, and not someone else. Someone full of their own self-righteousness. I will leave it at that."Her frown faded, replaced by a half-rueful little smile. "I suppose I've adopted my husband's crooked way of looking at things.""Crooked? Perhaps." The Patriarch turned to go. "But I would remind you, Antonina, that a grapevine is also crooked. Yet it bears the world's most treasured fruit." When she was finally alone, Antonina walked slowly back to her chair and took a seat. She would not be able to enjoy that rest for long, for she intended to take her place with the cataphracts backing the Knights Templar. Within minutes, she would have to don her own armor. And wear it, throughout the day, under the hammering sun of Egypt. She grimaced, thinking of the sweltering heat that armor would bring.But she needed that moment, alone. To remember the crooked mind—and the straight soul—of her absent husband."Be safe, love," she whispered. "Oh, please—be safe."  

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