Destiny's shielderic Flint & David Drake



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Chapter 34Antonina rose before dawn the next morning, at an hour which normally found her fast asleep. But she was determined to drive through her reestablishment of imperial control without allowing the opposition a moment to regain their equilibrium.Her servants bustled about, preparing her breakfast and clothing. When the time came to don her armor, Antonina was amused by the way her maid ogled the cuirass."The thing's obscene, I'll admit," she chuckled.She walked over and examined the cuirass lying on an upholstered bench against the far wall of her sleeping chamber. Jutting into the air."Especially since my reputation must have grown in the telling, by the time the armorer got around to shaping his mold."Firmly: "My tits are not that big."The maid eyed her hesitantly, unsure of how to respond. The girl was new to Antonina's service. Antonina's regular maid had become ill at sea, and this girl had been hastily rounded up by her head servant Dubazes from the staff of the palace's former occupant.There had been few of that staff left, when they arrived. Upon the arrival of Antonina's fleet, and the destruction of the naval forces which tried to block her way into the Great Harbor, the former owner had fled Alexandria. He was a Greek nobleman with close ties to Paul and Ambrose's faction, and had apparently decided that discretion was the better part of valor. He would wait out the storm at his estate in far-off Oxyrhynchos.Antonina thought about that nobleman, as her maid helped her into the armor. Not about him so much—she didn't even know the man's name—but about what he represented. He was not alone in his actions. A very large part of Alexandria's Greek nobility had done likewise.By the time she was buckling on the scabbard which held her cleaver, a task for which the maid was no use at all, she had made her decision. Two decisions, actually. Possibly three.First, there would be no repercussions against the nobles who had stepped aside and remained neutral in the battle. Not even those who had fled outright. She was simply trying to establish firm imperial control over the city. Many—most—of the orthodox Greek nobility, especially in Alexandria, would remain hostile to the dynasty no matter what she did. So long as that hostility remain muted—a thing of whispers in the salons, rather than riots in the streets—she would ignore it.Second—a lesser decision flowing from the first—she would instruct Dubazes to make sure the palace was in pristine condition when she left to take up her new residence at the Prefect's palace. The new Prefect had been officially installed the previous evening. There had been no opposition. His predecessor, along with the deposed Patriarch Paul, had fled to the military quarter at Nicopolis to take refuge with Ambrose and his Army of Egypt.She snorted quietly. When the nobleman, whoever he was, eventually crept back into his palace, he would be surprised to discover it had not been ransacked and vandalized. The discovery would not dispose him any more favorably to the imperial authority, of course. But the calm certitude behind that little act of self-discipline might help strengthen his resolve to keep his head down.Good enough.Finally, a small thing, but—She turned to her maid, and examined the girl. Under that scrutiny, the maid lowered her head timidly.Egyptian. Not twenty years of age. From the Fayum, I'm willing to bet. Her Greek is good, but that accent is unmistakable. "What is your name?" she asked."Koutina," said the maid."You are Monophysite?"Koutina raised her eyes, startled. Antonina did not miss the fear hidden there.She waved her hand reassuringly. "It means nothing to me, Koutina. I simply—" Want to know your loyal-ties. An Egyptian Monophysite from the Fayum. Yes. She switched from Greek to the girl's native tongue. Antonina's own Coptic was still fluent, even if her long residence in Constantinople had given it a bit of an accent."I'll be leaving here today, Koutina. My regular maid will not recover from her illness soon. In fact, I will be sending her back to Constantinople to be with her family. So I will need a new maid. Would you like the job?"Koutina was still staring at her uncertainly. The question about her religious loyalties had obviously unsettled the girl. Paul's persecution had been savage."I would prefer a Monophysite, Koutina." She smiled, patting the heavy cuirass. "I'm not wearing this grotesque thing for protection from heretics, you know."Koutina began to return the smile. "You are very famous," she said softly. "I was frightened when you came." Her eyes flitted to the blade buckled to Antonina's waist. "We all heard about the Cleaver, even here in Alexandria.""It has never been used against any but traitors.""I know," said Koutina, nodding. "Still—"Suddenly, all hesitation fled. "I would be delighted." She was beaming now. "It would be so exciting! You are going to fight the Malwa, everyone says so. Can I come there too?"It was Antonina's turn to be startled. She had only intended to keep the girl in her service during her stay in Alexandria. But now, seeing the eagerness in Koutina's face, she began to reconsider. The young Egyptian was obviously not worried about the risks involved. Boredom, not danger, was the girl's lifelong enemy.It was an enemy which Antonina herself well remembered, from her own girlhood. The grinding, relentless, tedious labor of a woman born into Egypt's poor masses. Koutina had probably left the Fayum seeking a better life in Alexandria—only to find that she had exchanged the toil of a peasant for the drudgery of a domestic servant.She could not refuse that eager face. True, the girl might find her death, in Antonina's company. But she would not be—bored. And besides, I need servants whose loyalty I can absolutely trust. Dubazes is not enough. I am certain the Malwa have infiltrated spies into my expedition. I must be certain they don't penetrate my own household. Koutina, from the Fayum. Yes. I know that breed. The Malwa will have nothing to offer her except money, and I— She laughed. Belisarius had not turned over all of the fortune he garnered in India to finance Shakuntala's rebellion. Nor had he given more than half of his war booty to his cataphracts.And I am richer than any Malwa spymaster. She grinned. "Done, Koutina. I will pay you well, too. Much better than your former employer."Koutina's expression was an odd mixture of emotions. Pleasure at the thought of a sudden increases in wages; anger at the thought of her former employer. The man had been a cheapskate, obviously. And had combined that miserliness, Antonina was quite certain, with frequent solicitations. Koutina was pretty as well as young.Smiling: "And I won't be rattling your door latch, either, late at night, trying to get into your room.""That bastard!" hissed Koutina.It was time to go. Time to crush a military rebellion. But Antonina had long since learned to savor all her victories—small ones, as well as large. So she took the moment to exchange a warm look with her new servant. Binding loyalty with her eyes, far more than her purse.The maid broke the moment."You must go, you must go!" Koutina began bustling Antonina out of the room, fussing over the scabbard which held the cleaver. "Ambrose must be brought to heel!"Out into the corridor, bustling her mistress along. Fussing, now, with the straps that held the cuirass. "He probably won't fight you, anyway. His soldiers will be blinded by the sun, shining off your brass boobs. You must be a giantess, they're so huge! They'll be terrified and run away!"The stern-faced officers who awaited her in the entryway to the palace were startled, then. Startled—and mightily heartened. Appearing before them was the leader of their grim and perilous mission—a woman, and small at that—howling with laughter. As gay a laughter as they had ever heard. At any time, much less on the morning of a battle.They took courage from the thought. Stern faces grew sterner still.And Antonina kept laughing, and laughing, all the way out to her horse waiting in the courtyard. She wasn't sure what amused her most—the thought of her brass breasts, which made her laugh, or the way her laughter so obviously boosted the morale of her men.Either way, either way. Doesn't matter. Out of small victories come great ones.  As her army marched through the streets of Alexandria, heading toward the suburb of Nicopolis where the Roman garrison had been stationed since the early days of imperial rule, Antonina took the opportunity to assess the city's mood. The streets were lined with people, watching the procession. Most of them were Egyptians and poor Greeks. Both were cheering—the Egyptians with loud enthusiasm, the Greeks with more restraint.Word had already spread through the city that Theodosius had been installed as the new Patriarch. That news had been greeted by the Egyptian Mono-physites with wild acclaim. Theodosius was one of their own. True, he was an adherent of the Severan school, whose moderate and compromising attitude toward the official Church was out of step with the more dogmatic tradition of Egyptian Monophysitism. But the Egyptian residents of Alexandria did not look on these things the same way as the fanatic Mono-physite monks of the desert. They had had enough of street brawls, and persecution. Doctrinal fine points be damned. The Empress Theodora was one of them, and she had placed another in the Church of St. Michael.Good enough—more than good enough!—to declare a holiday.The Greek residents who watched Antonina pass—and cheered her on—took less pleasure in the news. Many of Alexandria's Greek population, of course, had adopted Monophysitism themselves. All of the religious leaders of that dogma were Greek, in fact, even if they found their popular base in the Coptic masses of Egypt. But most Greeks, even poor ones, had remained true to orthodoxy.Still, they were not nobles. Tailors, bakers, linen-makers, glassblowers, sailors, papyrus workers—almost all the Mediterranean world's paper was made in Alexandria—shopkeepers, merchants, domestic servants, fishermen, grain handlers: the list was well nigh endless. Some were prosperous, some merely scraped by; but none were rich. And all of them, even here in Alexandria, had come to accept the general opinion of the Roman Empire's great masses with regard to the imperial power.That opinion had crystallized, in Constantinople itself, with the defeat of the Nika insurrection. From there, carried by the sailors and merchants who weaved Roman society into a single cloth, the opinion had spread to every corner of the Empire. From the Danube to Elephantine, from Cyrene to Tre-bizond, the great millions of Rome's citizens had heard, discussed, quarreled, decided.The dynasty which ruled the Empire was their dynasty.It never occurred to them, of course, to think of the dynasty as a "people's dynasty." Emperors were emperors; common folk were common folk. The one ruled the other. Law of nature.But they did think of it as theirs. Not because the dynasty came from their own ranks—which it did, and they knew it, and took pleasure in the knowing—so much as they were satisfied that the dynasty understood them; and based its power on their support; and kept at least one eye open on behalf of their needs and interests.Common folk were common folk, emperors were emperors, and never the twain shall meet. That still leaves the difference between a good emperor and a bad one—a difference which common folk measure with a very different stick than nobility.The taxes had been lowered, and made more equitable. The haughtiest nobles and the most corrupt bureaucrats had been humbled, always a popular thing, among those over whom the elite lords it—even executed. Wildly popular, that. Stability had been restored, and with it the conditions which those people needed to feed their families.And, finally, there was Belisarius.As she marched through the streets, Antonina was struck by how often her husband's name made up the cheer coming from the throats of the Greek residents. The Egyptians, too, chanted his name. But they were as likely to call out her own or the Empress Theodora's.Among the Greeks, one name only:Belisarius! Belisarius! Belisarius! She took no personal umbrage in that chant. If nothing else, it was obvious that the cheer was the Greeks' way of approving her, as well. She was Belisarius' wife, and if the Greek upper crust had often sneered at the general for marrying such a disreputable woman, it was clear as day that the Greek commoners lining the streets of Alexandria were not sneering at him in the least.The Greeks had found their own way to support the dynasty, she realized. Belisarius might be a Thracian himself, and might have married an Egyptian, and put his half-Egyptian, half-who-knows-what bastard stepson on the throne, but he was still a Greek. In the way which mattered most to that proudest of Rome's many proud nations.Whipped the Persians, didn't he? Just like he'll whip these Malwa dogs. Whoever they are. Hermogenes leaned over to her, whispering: "The word of Anatha's already spread."Antonina nodded. She had just gotten the word herself, the day before. The semaphore network was still half-finished, but enough of

t had been completed to bring the news to Antioch—and from there, by a swift keles courier ship, to Alexandria.There had been nothing personal, addressed to her, in the report. But she had recognized her husband's turn of phrase in the wording of it. And had seen his shrewd mind at work, in the way he emphasized the decisive role of Greek cataphracts in winning the great victory over Malwa.That word, too, had obviously spread. She could read it in the way Greek shopkeepers grinned, as they cheered her army onward, and the way Greek sailors hoisted their drinking cups in salute to the passing soldiers.Thank you, husband. Your great victory has given me a multitude of small ones.  The fortress at Nicopolis where the Army of Egypt lay waiting was one of the Roman Empire's mightiest. Not surprising. The garrison was critical to the Empire's rule. Egyptian grain fed the Roman world—Constantinople depended upon it almost entirely—and the grain was shipped through Alex-andria's port. Since Augustus, every Roman Emperor had seen to it that Egypt was secure. For centuries, now, the fort at Nicopolis had been strengthened, expanded, modified, built up, and strengthened yet again."We'll never take it by storm," stated Ashot. "Not with the forces we've got. Even grenades'd be like pebbles, against those walls."He looked up at the battlements, where a mass of soldiers could be seen standing guard."Be pure suicide for sappers, trying to set charges."Ashot, along with Antonina and Hermogenes and the other top officers of the expedition, was observing the fortress from three hundred yards away. Their vantage point was another of the great intersections which dotted Alexandria itself. Very similar to the one at the city's center, if not quite as large, down to the tetrastylon.Originally, the fortress had been built outside the city's limits. But Alexandria had spread, over the centuries. Today, the city's population numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The fortress had long since been engulfed within the suburb called Nico-polis.It was a bit jarring, actually, the way that massive stone structure—so obviously built for war—rose up out of a sea of small shops and mudbrick apartment buildings. Comical, almost. In the way that a majestic lion might seem comical, if it were surrounded by chittering mice.Except there were no chittering mice that day. The shops were boarded up, the apartments vacant. Nicopolis' populace had fled, the moment news came that Antonina was advancing against Ambrose. All morning, a stream of people had poured out of the suburb, bearing what valuables they owned in carts or haversacks.Antonina turned to Hermogenes. "Do you agree?"Hermogenes nodded instantly. "Ashot's right. I know that fortress. I was stationed in it for a few months, shortly after I joined the army. You can't believe how thick those stone walls are until you see them."He twisted in his saddle and looked back at Menander."Could you take it with siege guns? You're the only one of us who's observed them in action."Seeing himself the focus of attention, the shy young cataphract tensed. But there was no faltering or hesitation in his reply."Yes, I could, if we had them. But John told me just yesterday that he doesn't expect to produce any for months. Even then, it'd take weeks to reduce those walls."Very shyly, now: "I don't know as Antonina can afford to wait that long.""Absolutely not," she said firmly. "The longer this drags on, the more likely it is that revolt will start brewing in other parts of Alexandria. The rest of Egypt, for that matter. Paul has plenty of supporters in every one of the province's Greek towns, all the way up to Ombos and Syene, just below the First Cataract. Antinoopolis and Oxyrhynchos are hotbeds of disloyalty. Not to mention—"She fell silent. The top officers surrounding her knew the strategic plan which she and Belisarius had worked out, months earlier, to carry the fight to Malwa's exposed southern flank. But the more junior officers didn't. Antonina had no reason to doubt their loyalty, but there was still the risk of loose talk being picked up by Malwa spies.So she bit her tongue and finished the thought only in her mind:Not to mention that I don't have weeks—months!—to waste in Alexandria. I've got to get to the Red Sea, and join forces with the Axumites. By early spring of next year, at the latest. And the next one, full of anguish: Or my husband, if he's not already, will be a dead man. But nothing of that anguish showed, in her face. Simply calm resolution."No, gentlemen, we've got to win this little civil war quickly."Ashot tugged his beard and growled. "I'm telling you, it'll be pure slaughter if we try to storm that place."Antonina waved him down. "Relax, Ashot. I'm not crazy. I have no intention of wasting lives in a frontal attack. But I don't think it's necessary."Hermogenes, too, was tugging his beard."A siege'll take months. A year, probably, unless we get siege guns. That fortress has enough provisions to last that long, easily. And they've got two wells inside the walls."Antonina shook her head. "I wasn't thinking of a siege, either."Seeing the confusion in the faces around her, Antonina had to restrain a sigh.Generals."You're approaching the situation upside down," she stated. "This is not really a military problem. It's political."To Ashot: "Weren't you the one who was telling me, just yesterday, that the reason Ambrose couldn't intervene while we were suppressing the mob was because he needed the day to win over his troops?"The commander of her Thracian bucellarii nodded.She grinned. "Well, he's had a day. Just how solid do you think he's made himself? With his troops?"Frowning.Generals. She pointed at the fortress. "How long have those men—the soldiers, I mean—been stationed here? Hermogenes?"The young merarch shrugged."Years. Most of the garrison—the troops, anyway—spend their entire term of service in Egypt. Even units that get called out for a campaign elsewhere are always rotated back here.""That's what I thought. Now—another question. Where do those men live? Not in the fortress, I'm sure. Years of service, you said. That means wives, children, families. Outside businesses, probably. Half of those soldiers—at least half—will have married into local families. They'll have invested their pay in their father-in-laws' shops. Bought interests in grain-shipping.""The whole bit," grumbled Ashot. "Yeah, you're right. Fucking garritroopers. Always takes weeks to shake 'em down on a campaign. Spend the first month, solid, wailing about their declining property values back home."The light of understanding came, finally, to her officers.Or so, at least, she thought."You're right, Antonina!" cried Hermogenes excitedly. "That'll work!"He cast eager eyes about, scanning the immediate environment of the fortress. "Most of 'em probably live right here, right in Nicopolis. We'll start by burning everything to the ground. Then—""Find their wives and daughters," chipped in his executive officer, Callixtos. "Track 'em down wherever they are and—""Won't need to," countered Ashot. "Any women'll do. At this distance, the garrison won't be able to make out faces anyway. Just women being stripped naked in the street with us waving our dicks around and threatening to—"Antonina erupted. "Stupid generals!"Startled, her horse twitched. Antonina drew back on the reins savagely. Wisely, the horse froze."Cretins! Idiots! Morons—absolute morons—the whole lot! You want me to end a small civil war by starting a big one? What the fuck is wrong with you?"They shrank from her hot eyes. Antonina turned in her saddle and transferred the glare back to Menander."You! Maybe you're not too old to have lost all your wits! Maybe. How would you handle it?"For a moment, Menander was too stunned to speak. Then, clearing his throat, he said, "Well. Well. Actually, while you were talking I was thinking about how the general—Belisarius, I mean—handled the situation with the Kushans. The second situation with the Kushans, I mean—not the first one where he tricked Venandakatra out of using them as guards—but the other one, where he—well, they were guarding us but didn't know the Empress—Shakuntala, I mean, not Theodora—was hidden in—well."He stopped, floundering. Drew a deep, shaky breath."What I mean is, I was struck by it at the time. How the general used honey instead of vinegar."Antonina sighed. Relaxed, a bit."You're promoted," she growled. "Tribune Men-ander, you are."The eyes which she now turned on her assembled officers were no longer hot.Oh, but they were very, very cold."Here—is—what—you—will—do. You will find the wives and daughters—and the sons and fathers and mothers and brothers and for that matter the second cousins twice-removed—of those soldiers forted up in that place."Deep breath. Icy cold eyes."More precisely, you and your cataphracts will escort the Knights Hospitaler while they do the actual finding. You and your soldiers will stand there looking as sweet and polite as altar boys—or I'll have your guts for breakfastwhile the Knights Hospitaler convince the soldiers' families that a potentially disastrous situation for their husbands and fathers and sons and brothers—and for that matter third cousins three times removed—would be resolved if the families would come back to their homes and reopen the shops. And—most important—would cook some meals.""Cook meals?" choked Hermogenes.A wintry smile."Yes. Meals. Big meals, like the ones I remember from my days here. Spicy meals. The kind of meals you can smell a mile away."She gazed at the fortress, still smiling."Let the soldiers smell those meals, while they're chewing on their garrison biscuits. Let them think about their warm beds—with their wives in them—while they sleep on the battlements in full armor. Let them think about their little shops and their father-in-laws' promises that they'll inherit the business, while Ambrose gives speeches.""They'll never agree to it," squeaked Ashot. "Their wives and daughters, I mean. And their families."He squared his shoulders, faced Antonina bravely. "They won't come back. Not with us here. Hell, I wouldn't, come down to it."An arctic smile. "That I can believe. Which is why you won't be here. Not you, not your cataphracts. Not Hermogenes, nor his infantry regulars. I'll be here, as a guarantee. Their own hostage, if they want to think of it that way.""What?" demanded Hermogenes. "Alone?" Suddenly, Antonina's usual warm smile returned. "Alone? Of course not! What a silly idea. My grenadiers will stay here with me. Along with their wives, and their children."All the officers now stared at Euphronius. The young Syrian met that gaze with his own squared shoulders. And then, with a grin."Great idea. Nobody'll worry about us raping anybody." A shudder. "God, my wife'd kill me!"Ashot turned back to Antonina. The short, muscular Armenian was practically gobbling."What if Ambrose sallies?" he demanded. "Do you think your grenadiers—alone—can stand up to him?"Antonina never wavered. "As a matter of fact—yes. Here, at least."She pointed down the thoroughfare to the fortress. "We're not on an open field of battle, Ashot. There's only two ways Ambrose can come at me. He can send his men through all the little crooked side streets—and I will absolutely match my grenadiers against him in that terrain—"All the officers were shaking their heads. No cataphract in his right mind would even think of driving armored horses through that rabbit warren."—or, he can come at me with a massed lance charge down that boulevard. Which is what he'll do, if he does anything. Down that beautiful boulevard—which is just wide enough to tempt a horseman, but not wide enough to maneuver."She bestowed a very benign, approving smile upon the boulevard in question."And yes, on that terrain, my grenadiers will turn him into sausage."She drew herself up in the saddle, sitting as tall as she could. Which was not much, of course."Do as I say."Her officers hastened to obey, then, with no further protest.Possibly, that was due to the iron command in her voice.But possibly—just possibly—it was because when she drew herself up in the saddle the blazing sun of Egypt reflected off her cuirass at such an angle as to momentarily blind her generals. And make a short woman seem like a giantess. By noon of the next day, the first families began trickling back into Nicopolis. Antonina was there to greet them, from the pavilion she had set up in the very middle of the boulevard.The first arrivals approached her timidly. But, finding that the legendary Antonina—she of the Cleaver—was, in person, a most charming and sweet-tempered lady, they soon began to relax.By nightfall, hundreds had returned, and were slowly beginning to mingle with the grenadiers. All of the Syrians could speak Greek now, even if many of them still spoke it badly. So they were able to communicate with the soldiers' families. Coptic was the native language of most of those folk, but, as was universally the case in Alexandria, they were fluent in Greek as well.By morning of the day after, the soldiers' families were quite at ease with the grenadiers. True, the men were a bit scary, what with their bizarre and much-rumored new weapons. But their wives were a familiar thing, even if they were foreign Syrians, as were their children. And it is difficult—impossible, really—to be petrified by a man who is playing with his child, or being nagged by his wife.By the end of that second day, half of Nicopolis' residents had returned. Antonina's presence and assurances, combined with worry over their businesses and properties, proved irresistable.On the morning of the following day, Antonina called for a feast. At her own expense, foodstuffs were purchased from all over the city. The great thoroughfare—not three hundred yards from the fortress—was turned into an impromptu, gigantic, daylong picnic.As the picnic progressed, some of the wives of the garrison soldiers began to approach the fortress. Calling up to their husbands.The first negotiations began, in a matter of speaking. Soldiers on the battlements began lowering baskets tied to ropes. Foodstuffs went up, to relieve the tedium of garrison biscuits. With those delicious parcels went wifely words, shouted from below. Scolding words, in some cases. Pleading words, in others. Downright salacious promises, in not a few.Watching from her pavilion, Antonina counted every basket as a cannonball struck. Every wifely word, as a sapper's mine laid.She leaned back easily in her couch, surrounded by the small horde of Nicopolis' housewives who had adopted her as their new patron saint, and savored the moment.Great victories out of small ones. Generals. Ha!  On the fifth day of the "siege," the first real trouble began. As one of the wives approached the fortress—this had now become a daily occurrence, almost a ritual—a small crowd of officers forced their way through the mob of soldiers standing on the battlements.Threats were exchanged between officers and men. Then, one of the officers angrily grabbed a soldier's bow and took it upon himself to fire an arrow at the wife standing on the street below.The arrow missed its mark, badly. The startled, squawking, outraged housewife was actually in much greater danger of being struck by the next missile hurled from the walls.The officer himself, half-dead before he even hit the ground, fifty feet below.The shaken housewife squawled, now, as she was spattered by his blood. Shrieked, then, covering her head and racing from the scene, as six more officers were sent on the same fatal plunge.The rest of the day, and into the night, the crowd standing outside the fortress could hear the sounds of brawling and fighting coming from within. Antonina herself, even from the pavilion's distance, could hear it clearly.By now, Antonina had relented enough to allow Ashot and Hermogenes to return to Nicopolis. Some of Hermogenes' soldiers had been allowed in, as well—just enough to provide her grenadiers with an infantry bulwark in the event of a battle. But she still kept the cataphracts well out of sight.She stood in the entry of her pavilion next to her two officers, gauging the sounds."It's not a full battle, yet," opined Hermogenes."Not even close," agreed Ashot. "What you're hearing is about a hundred little brawls and set-tos. Ambrose is losing it completely."Hermogenes glanced sideways at Antonina. "He'll sally tomorrow. Bet on it."Ashot nodded. "He's got to. He can't let Antonina sit out here, rotting his army out from under him.""How many will he still have, do you think?" she asked.Ashot shrugged. "His cataphracts. The most of them, anyway. Those aren't Egyptians. They're a Greek unit, from Paphlagonia. Been here less than a year. They won't have much in the way of local ties, and all of their officers—down to the tribunes—were handpicked by Ambrose."He tugged his beard. "Six hundred men, let's say. Beyond that—"Tug, tug. His eyes widened. "Mary, Mother of God. I think that's it."Eagerly, now: "I could bring up the Thracian bucellarii. Those fat-ass garritrooper shits'd never have a chance! We'd—""No." The gaze which she bestowed on Ashot was not icy, not in the least. The past few days, if nothing else, had restored her good temper. But it was still just as unyielding."My grenadiers I said it would be. My grenadiers it is."Ashot sighed, but did not argue the point. Anton-ina was wearing her armor at all times, now, except when she slept. True, the sun was down. But the many candles in her pavilion still shined off her cuirass, making her seem—Jesus, he thought, how can any woman have tits that big? * * *As the night wore on, the sounds of fighting within the fortress waned. Then, at daybreak, a sudden outburst erupted. Rapidly escalated to the sounds of a pitched battle.Antonina had prepared the grenadiers the night before. By the time the battle within the fortress was in full swing, Antonina was already out on the street, in armor, on horseback. Ashot and Hermogenes sat their horses alongside her.Ahead of them, drawn up and ready for battle, stood the Theodoran Cohort.Three hundred of them were now armed with John of Rhodes' new handcannons. The handcannons had barrels made of welded wrought-iron staves, hooped with iron bands, mounted on wooden shoulder stocks. The barrels were about eighteen inches long, with a bore measuring approximately one inch in diameter.The guns were loaded from reed cartridges with a measured charge in one end of the tube and a fiber wad and lead ball in the other. A hardwood ramrod recessed into the front of the stock was used to ram the charges down the barrel. The handcannons had no trigger. The charges were ignited by a slow match—tow soaked in saltpeter—held in a pivoting clamp attached to the stock.As handheld firearms go, they were about as primitive as could be imagined. John of Rhodes had wanted to wait until he had developed a better weapon, but Belisarius had insisted on rushing these first guns into production. From experience, he had known that John would take forever to produce a gun he was finally satisfied with. The Malwa would not give them that time. These would do, for the moment.Primitive, the guns were. Their accuracy was laughable—and many a bucellarii did laugh, during the practice sessions in Rhodes, watching the Syrian gunners miss targets at a range that any self-respecting Thracian cataphract could have hit with an arrow blind drunk. But it was noticeable that none of the scoffing cataphracts offered to serve as a target. Not after watching the effects of a heavy lead bullet which did happen to strike a target. Those balls could drive an inch into solid pine—and with far greater striking power than any arrow.The formation into which the Cohort was drawn up was designed to take advantage of the hand-cannons. Half of the gunners were arrayed at the Cohort's front, in six lines stretching across the entire width of the boulevard, twenty-five men to a line. Squads of Hermogenes' infantry were interspersed between each line of gunners, ready to use their long pikes to hold off any cavalry who made it through the gunfire.The other hundred and fifty gunners were lining the rooftops for fifty yards down both sides of the boulevard, ready to pour their own fire onto the street below. The rest of the Cohort, armed with grenades, stood in back of the gunners, their slings and bombs in hand.The sounds of the fighting within the fortress seemed to be reaching a crescendo. For a moment, the gates of the fortress began to open. Then, accompanied by the steel clangor of swords on shields, swung partially shut."Christ," muttered Ashot. "Now that poor bastard Ambrose has to fight his way out of the fortress. What a mess that's got to be in there!"Suddenly, the gates of the fortress opened wide. Seconds later, the first of Ambrose's cataphracts began spilling out into the street.It was immediately obvious that the enemy cata-phracts were totally disorganized and leaderless."That's not a sally!" exclaimed Hermogenes. "They're just trying to get out of the fortress.""Fuck 'em," hissed Antonina. "Euphronius!" The Cohort commander waved, without even bothering to look back. The nearest cataphracts were not much more than two hundred yards away. Well within range for his best slingers."Sling-staffs!" he bellowed. "Volley!"Twenty grenadiers standing in the rear wound up, swirled in the peculiarly graceful way of slingers, sent the missiles on their way.His best grenadiers, those twenty, with the most proficient fuse-cutting wives. Only three of the grenades fell short. None fell wide. Only two burst too late; none, too soon.The crowd of cataphracts jostling their way out of the fortress—perhaps four hundred, by now—were ripped by fifteen grenades bursting in their midst. Then, a moment or so later, by the belated explosions of the two whose fuses had been cut overlong.The casualties among the cataphracts themselves were fairly light, in truth. Their heavy armor—designed to fend off dehgan lances and axes—was almost impervious to the light shrapnel of grenades. And while that armor provided little protection against concussion, a man had to be very close to a grenade blast in order to be killed by the pure force of the explosion itself.But their horses—The armor worn by the cavalry mounts was even heavier. But it was concentrated entirely on their heads, chests, and withers. The grenades—especially the ones which exploded near the ground—shattered their legs and spilled their intestines. And, most of all, threw even the unwounded beasts into a frenzied terror.Ambrose's cataphracts had been nothing but a mob, anyway. Now, they were simply a mob desperately trying to get out of the line of fire. More cataphracts piled out of the gates, adding to the confusion. Another volley sailed their way. More horses were butchered.Another volley of grenades landed in their midst.Ambrose's loyalists dissolved completely, then. There was no thought of anything but personal safety. Breaking up into small groups—or simply as individuals—the cataphracts raced their horses down the streets of Nicopolis.Going where? Who knows? Just—somewhere else.Anywhere else.Anywhere common soldiers weren't rising in mutiny.Anywhere grenades didn't rupture their bodies.Anywhere the hot sun of Egypt didn't blind them, glancing off the great brass tits of a giantess.Anywhere else. Antonina captured the would-be Emperor two days later. In a manner of speaking.After negotiating safe passage, a small group of Ambrose's subordinates rode up to the Prefectural Palace where Antonina now made her headquarters, accompanied by perhaps a dozen cataphracts.And a corpse, wrapped in a linen shroud.Ambrose, it was. The former commander of the Army of Egypt had been stabbed in the back. Several times.He made us do it. Loyal Romans, we are. Honest. He made us do it. And we'll never do it again, neither. Nevernevernevernever. We promise.  Antonina let it pass. She even welcomed the "loyal officers" back into the ranks of the Army of Egypt. Reduced in rank, naturally. But even that punishment, she sweetened. Partly, with an explanation that room needed to made for the new officers whom the new commander had brought with him. Mostly, with a peroration on the subject of the future riches of Roman soldiers, from Malwa booty.The officers made no complaint. They were glad enough not to be hanged.The only grumbling at her lenient treatment of Ambrose's cataphracts, ironically enough, came from the other soldiers in his army. They were disgruntled that the same louts they had battled in the fortress—the stinking bums who had threatened their wives, even shot arrows at one of them—were let off so lightly.But they didn't do more than grumble—and rather quietly, at that. Their own position, after all, was a bit precarious.Best to let bygones be bygones. All things considered. Someone, of course, had to pay the bill. Ambrose himself being dead—which didn't stop Antonina from hanging his corpse, and leaving it to sway in the wind from the fortress' battlements—the bill was presented to Paul and the former Prefect.Both men had been found, after the cataphracts fled, huddling in one of the fortress' chambers. Paul, still defiant; the Prefect, blubbering for mercy.Antonina hanged the Prefect immediately. His body swayed in the wind at the great intersection at the center of the city, suspended from one of the tetra-stylon pillars.Paul—"No martyrs," she pronounced, waving down the bloodthirsty chorus coming from all her advisers except Theodosius. "An executed prefect is just a dead politician. Nobody gives a damn except his cronies, and they won't grieve for more than a day. A religious leader, on the other hand—"She straightened in the chair which, for all intents and purposes, served as her throne in the audience chamber of the Prefectural Palace. Officially, of course, authority was in the hands of the new Prefect. In the real world—He was standing in the crowd before her. One among many.Her officers almost winced, seeing that erect, chest-swelling motion. But there was no blinding flash, this time. Antonina had stopped wearing her cuirass. Just the firm posture of a small woman. Voluptuous, true. But no giantess.Not that the sight of that familiar, very female form led them to think they could oppose her will. Giantess or no, brass tits or no, on that matter the question was settled.Seated on her "throne," Antonina decreed."No martyrs." Theodosius sighed with relief. Seeing the little movement, Antonina turned her gaze onto him."What do you recommend, Patriarch?" she asked, smiling now. "A long stay on the island of Palmaria, perhaps? Tending goats. For the next fifteen or twenty years.""Excellent idea!" exclaimed Theodosius. Piously: "It's good for the soul, that sort of simple manual labor. Everyone knows it. It's a constant theme in the best sermons."Off to Palmaria, then, Paul went. The very same day. Antonina saw him off personally. Stood on the dock until his ship was under sail.He was still defiant, Paul was. Cursed her for a whore and a harlot all the way to the dock, all the way out to his transport, and from the very stern of the ship which took him to his exile.Antonina, throughout, simply responded with a sweet smile. Until his ship was halfway to the horizon.Then, and only then, did the smile fade. Replaced by a frown."I feel kind of guilty about this," she admitted.Standing next to her, Ashot was startled."About Paul? I think that bastard's lucky—""Not him," she snorted. "I was thinking about the poor goats."  
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