ere the Malwa had abandoned their dead. It was not hard to spot the corpses—hundreds, thousands of them—even hidden in the reeds. The vultures covered the area like flies."Jesus," he whispered. "Forgive us our sins."Belisarius turned his eyes to follow Maurice's gaze. No expression came to his face. He might have been a simple village blacksmith, studying the precision of his work.When he spoke, his voice was harsh. "A man told me once that war is murder. Organized, systematic murder—nothing more, and nothing less. It was the first thing that man said to me, on the day I assumed command as an officer. Seventeen years old, I was. Green as the springtime.""You were never as green as the springtime," murmured Maurice. "Day you were born, you were already thinking crooked thoughts." He sighed. "I remember, lad. It was true, then, and it's true now. But I don't have to like it."Belisarius nodded. Nothing further was said. A few minutes later, he and Maurice turned their horses and rode down to the bank of the Nehar Malka, ready to join the army in its crossing.The job was not finished, not yet. Neither of them knew when it might be. But they knew when a day's work was done.Done well. They could take satisfaction in that, at least, if not in the doing.Craftsmen at their trade. EpilogueA throng and its thoughts From her position on the dais against the east wall, Antonina surveyed the scene with satisfaction. The great audience chamber of the Prefectural Palace was literally packed with people. Servants carrying platters of food and drink were forced to wriggle their way through the throng like so many eels. The noise produced by the multitude of conversations was almost deafening."Very gratifying," pronounced Patriarch Theodosius, seated on a chair next to her."Isn't it?" Antonina beamed upon the mob below them. "I think the entire Greek aristocracy of Alexandria showed up tonight. As well as most of the nobility from all the major Delta towns. Even some from the valley. The Fayum, at least, and Antin-oopolis."A slight frown came."Actually, I'm a bit puzzled. Hadn't really expected such a massive turnout. I thought for sure that a good half of the nobility would boycott the affair."Theodosius' eyes widened. "Boycott? A public celebration in honor of the Emperor's ninth birthday? God forbid!" The Patriarch smiled slyly. "Actually, Antonina, I am not surprised. Left to their own devices, I'm quite sure that half of Egypt's Greek noblemen would never have come. But their wives and daughters gave them no choice."He nodded toward the middle of the great room, where the crowd was thickest. At the very center of that incredible population density, a cup of wine in one hand, stood a handsome young Roman officer."Egypt's most eligible bachelor," stated the Patriarch. "The merarch of the Army of Egypt. Newly elected to the Senate—and already quite rich on his own account, due to his share of the spoils from Mindouos."Antonina stared at Hermogenes. A bit of sadness came to her, for a brief moment, thinking about Irene. The host of women who surrounded Hermogenes were all younger than Irene, and—with perhaps one or two exceptions—considerably prettier."Put all their brains together," she muttered, "and they could maybe match Irene. When she's passed out drunk. Maybe.""What was that, Antonina?" asked Theodosius.Antonina shook her head."Never mind, Patriarch. I was just thinking about a dear friend." Sigh. "Who will never, I fear, find a husband.""Too pious?" asked Theodosius.Antonina bit off a laugh. "No, no. Just too—much."She rose from her seat. "I will take my leave, now. The event is clearly a roaring success. I think we can safely conclude that Alexandria and Egypt have been returned to the imperial fold. But I'm tired, and I don't think that crowd will object to my absence."Theodosius suppressed his own humor, now, until after Antonina had walked out. Then he did laugh, seeing the mob below heave a great collective sigh of relief.The Patriarch was quite certain he could read their minds, at that moment.Thank God! She's gone! No real woman has tits that big. Satan's spawn, that's what she is. The Whore From Hell. Ba'alzebub's Bitch. But they kept those thoughts to themselves. Oh, yes. Discreet, they were. Reserved."Very proper folk," said Theodosius approvingly, turning to the man seated to his right. "Very polite. Very noble. Don't you think so, Ashot?"A charitable interpretation, from a man of God.Less charitable was an Armenian cataphract's response."Scared shitless, that's what they are." A king and his fears "You are not thinking of marrying that woman?" demanded the negusa negast of Axum. The sovereign of Ethiopia leaned forward on his royal stool, his thick hands planted firmly on powerful knees, his massive jaw clamped shut. He frowned ferociously upon his youngest son.Prince Eon bolted erect on his own stool. His jaw sagged. Dropped. Plummeted like a stone.Standing behind him, Ousanas burst into laughter."Excellent idea, King of Kings!" cried the dawazz. "Certain to shrink overconfident fool boy's head into a walnut!"Eon finally caught his breath. Enough, at least, to choke out, "Marry—Irene?"He goggled at his father. The father glowered back."You seem much taken by this woman," accused the negusa nagast.Eon's eyes roamed about the royal chamber, as if seeking rhyme or reason lurking somewhere in the stone recesses of heavy Axumite architecture."I like her, yes," he said. "Very much. I think she is incredibly capable and intelligent. And very witty. She often makes me laugh. A wonderful ally in our struggle. Even—" His eyes almost crossed, contemplating absurdity. "—yes, even attractive. In her way. But—but—marry her?"He fell silent. Again, his jaw sagged.Satisfied, the negusa nagast leaned back in his stool. He fixed Ousanas with a stern gaze."Good thing for you, dawazz. Any other answer and I would have you beaten."Ousanas looked smug. "Can't. Dawazz not subject to royal authority. Only answers to Dakuen sarwe."The King of Kings snorted. "So? You think the regiment would hesitate? Just last night, the demon woman took half their monthly stipend, answering all their riddles. This morning, she took the rest. When they couldn't answer any of hers, even after she gave them all night to think it over." The negusa nagast glared. "Dawazz be a bloody pulp, Prince give any other answer. Be sure of it."The negusa nagast smacked his heavy thigh. "I am satisfied. The Prince is foolish as a rooster, true. Headstrong like a bull. Who else would get me in a war with Malwa? But at least you have kept him sane, dawazz. Sane enough. Delusions of grandeur can be tolerated, in a King, so long as they are merely political. Never delusions in a wife!"His heavy shoulders twitched, as if a sudden shiver had run down his spine."God save us from that fate! Never marry a woman smarter than you. Too dangerous, especially for a King. That woman! Smarter than Satan."He turned his head, looking through the entryway to the room beyond. His library, that was."Best collection of books south of Alexandria," he noted proudly. "I have instructed my slaves to make a precise count. They will count them again, before I allow that woman to leave for India."Eon cleared his throat. "We must leave soon, father."The negusa nagast nodded his head. The gesture was slow, but certain. As solid as the head which made it."Yes. You must. Important to follow up on Garmat's successful mission, and quickly. Give all support to Empress Shakuntala and her cause. Give Malwa no time to think."Again, the little shiver in the shoulders."Essential to get that woman on the other side of an ocean." An empress and her marriage "The time has come, Shakuntala," stated Holkar firmly. The peshwa leaned forward and lifted a scroll lying on the carpet before his cushion."This was brought by courier ship this morning. From Tamraparni."Dadaji unrolled the scroll, scanning it in the quick manner with which a man reads over a document he had already committed to memory. An odd little smile came to his face."Out of illusion, truth," he murmured.He rolled the scroll back up and handed it to his Empress. Shakuntala stared at the harmless object as if it were a cobra."What is it?" she demanded.Dadaji's smile faded. "It is a letter from the King of Tamraparni. Offering us an alliance—a partial alliance, I should say—against Malwa." He shrugged. "The offer is couched in caveats and riddled with qualifications. But, at the very least, he makes a firm promise of naval and logistical support. Possibly some troops."He paused, taking a deep breath. Shakuntala eyed him suspiciously."And what else?""The offer—this is not said in so many words, but the meaning is obvious—is conditional upon your marriage to one of his sons." A wry smile. "His youngest son, needless to say. The King of Tamraparni is willing to risk something, to keep the Malwa at bay. But only so much. Not the heir."He stopped, studying the young woman who was Andhra's Empress. Shakuntala was sitting very erect, her back as stiff as a board. Her face, if possible, was even stiffer.Holkar tapped the scroll with a finger. "The King makes allusion to the false way in which we bandied his name about, in Muziris. But he does not complain, not formally. It is quite clear that your seizure of Suppara has changed the situation drastically. You are no longer an 'Empress-in-exile.' You have reestablished yourself on Andhra soil. With a port, here, and one of Majarashtra's largest cities—Deogiri—under the control of your forces. That gives you something far beyond formal legitimacy, which you already had. It gives you power."He chuckled dryly. "Not much, not much, but some. Enough, at least, that the ruler of Tamraparni is willing to use you to keep Malwa as distant from his island as possible."He paused. Shakuntala's face was still expressionless.Dadaji suppressed a sigh."Empress, we must consider this offer very seriously. A dynastic marriage with one of south India's most powerful kingdoms would greatly strengthen your position. It might well make the difference between Andhra's survival and its downfall."Still expressionless.Now, Holkar did sigh. "Girl," he said softly, "I know that this matter pains you. But you have a duty, and an obligation, to your people."The peshwa rose and strode to an open window, overlooking the harbor. From below, the sounds of celebration wafted into the palace. The governor's palace, once. The Malwa official languished in prison, now. Shakuntala had taken the building for her own.Watching the festive scene below, Holkar smiled. Suppara was still celebrating, two weeks after its liberation from the Malwa heel. Dadaji knew his countrymen well. The Marathas would have celebrated even if the city were in ruins. As it was, they could also celebrate an almost bloodless victory. Once the cannons which Kungas had seized opened fire, the Malwa warships had been turned into wrecks within an hour. By the time Shakuntala and her cavalrymen disembarked on the docks, the Malwa garrison had fled the city.Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate.Malwa is gone. Andhra has returned.The Empress herself is here.Shakuntala! Shakuntala! Shakuntala! Holkar pointed down to the city. "If you fall, girl, those people will fall with you. You brought them to their feet. You cannot betray that trust."Behind him, Shakuntala's face finally broke. Just a bit. Just a flash of pain, a slight lowering of the head. A slow, shuddering breath.But it was all very quick. Within seconds, she had raised her head. "You are correct, Dadaji. Draft a letter to the King of Tamraparni, telling him that I accept—"A new voice cut in."I think this is quite premature."Startled, Holkar turned from the window. "Premature? Why, Kungas?"The Kushan was seated on his own cushion, to Shakuntala's right. He had said nothing, thus far, in this meeting of Shakuntala's closest advisers."Because," he rasped, "I do not think we should jump at the first offer." He spread his hand. "There will be others. The Cholas, for a certainty, now that Shakuntala has shown she is a force to be reckoned with. And I think their offer will have fewer caveats and qualifications."He flipped his hand dismissively, almost contemptuously. "Tamraparni is an island. The Cholas share the mainland with the Malwa beast. They have less room to quibble. Their offer will be more substantial."Holkar restrained his temper. "If they offer! I do not share your boundless optimism, Kungas. True, the Malwa press them close. But that is just as likely—more likely, in my opinion—to make them hesitate before offering the Malwa any provocation. Kerala also shares the mainland with Malwa, and we all know how that fact led Shakuntala's own grandfather to betray—""I agree with Kungas," interrupted Shakuntala forcefully. "We should wait. Not accept this first offer. We should wait. Longer."Holkar blew out his cheeks. He knew that tone in Shakuntala's voice. Knew it to perfection.No point in further argument, not now. So, he desisted; even did so graciously. Although he could not help casting an angry glare at Kungas.No point in that either, of course. As well glare at an iron mask.* * *"What are you playing at?" Holkar demanded, after he and Kungas left the Empress' chamber. "You know how critical this question is! You and I have spoken on the matter before—many times."Kungas stopped abruptly. Dadaji did likewise. The two men stood in the corridor for a moment, staring at each other. The peshwa, angry. The Bhatasvapati—amused, perhaps."Not quite, Dadaji," came the mild response. "You have spoken to me on this matter, that is true. Many times. But all I ever said was that I agreed that Shakuntala's marriage—whenever and however it comes—will be a decisive moment for our struggle."Holkar frowned. "Yes. And so?"Kungas twitched his shoulders. It might have been called a shrug."So—that does not mean I agree that she should marry the youngest son of the King of Tamraparni. I think she can do better."Holkar, scowling: "With whom? Chola? If, of course, the Cholas even—""Who is to say, who is to say?" interrupted Kungas. Again, that little vestige of a shrug. The Bhatasvapati took his friend by the arm. "You should have more confidence in the Empress, Dadaji. When the time comes, she will know what to do. I am sure of it."Silence followed, as the two men resumed their progress down the corridor. On the part of Kungas, it was an inscrutable sort of silence. On the part of Holkar, an irritable one.Had the peshwa known the thoughts of the Bhatasvapati, at that moment, he would have been considerably more than irritated.Dig in your heels, girl, dig in your heels. Stall. Make excuses. Dither. I will help, I will help. When the question of marriage is finally posed, you will know what to do. Then, you will know. The Bhatasvapati shook his head, slightly, thinking of the strange blindness in the people around him.So obvious! A general and his officer Within a minute of his arrival in Agathius' room, Belisarius knew that the crippled officer was preoccupied with something. The cataphract was plucking at the sheets of his bed, as if distracted. The motion seemed to make his wife nervous. Or perhaps it was just that the young girl was fussing over her injured husband, the way she kept fluffing his pillows and stroking his hair.Belisarius decided that he should come to the point. He began pulling a scroll from his tunic.At that moment, however, Agathius turned to his wife and said, "Would you leave us for a moment, Sudaba? I have something I must discuss privately with the general."Sudaba nodded. Then, after a last fluff of the pillows and a quick smile at Belisarius, scurried from the room. Belisarius was struck by the way Agathius watched her as she went. Odd, really. He seemed like a man trying to burn an image into his memory.Once the Persian girl was gone, Agathius took a deep breath and looked to the general."I need your advice," he said abruptly. "I will have to divorce Sudaba, now, and I want to make sure—if it can be done—that the divorce does not cause problems for you. With your alliance with the Persians, I mean."He spoke the sentences quickly, but clearly, in the way a determined man announces a decision which he does not like but must carry out.Belisarius' jaw dropped. It was the last thing he had been expecting to hear."Divorce Sudaba?" His eyes wandered about, for an instant, as if searching for rhyme and reason hidden away in a corner of the room."But—why?"Agathius' face grew pinched. With a sudden, quick flip of his muscular wrist, the cataphract twitched aside the blankets covering his body. From the hips and above, that body was still as broad-shouldered and thick-chested as ever. A bit wasted, perhaps, from his long weeks of bed-ridden recovery, but not much.His legs, however—even that part of his legs which still remained—were pitiful remnants of the powerful limbs which had once gripped a warhorse in the fury of a battlefield."Look at me," he said. Not with anger so much as resignation.Belisarius frowned. Scratched his chin. "It does not seem to me that Sudaba cares, Agathius. Judging from what I can see, I think she is not put off—""Not that," growled Agathius. The man's usual good humor made a brief re-entry. "Far as that goes, I think she's happier than ever," he chuckled. "I'm here all the time now, where she can get her hands on me. And there's nothing wrong with my—"He broke off, sighing. "The problem's not with her, general. Or with me, for that matter. It's—it's—" He waved a hand, weakly. "It's the way things are, that's all. She's a Persian noblewoman. I'm a fucking baker's son with a battlefield rank in the military nobility."Agathius glanced around the luxurious chamber, for a moment, as if assessing its value."I've still got plenty of booty left, from Anatha—a damn little fortune, by my old standards. But it's really not going to last more than a year or two. Not the way I have to live, if I'm to meet her expectations—and, even more, the expectations of her family."I've got to face facts, general. I'm a legless cataphract—which is the most ridiculous thing in the world—whose only other skill is baking bread. There's no way I can—"He gaped, then, seeing his general burst into riotous laughter.Gaped. That was the last reaction he had been expecting.With a fierce struggle, Belisarius forced his laughter down. "Oh, God, I am sorry," he said weakly, wiping his eyes. "I feel so guilty, now. I wanted the pleasure of telling you myself. I had to come to Peroz-Shapur anyway, to refit the army, and so I thought I'd bring the news personally instead of just sending it by courier."Agathius' face was a study in confusion. "News? What news?"Belisarius was grinning now. And there was not a trace of crookedness in that expression, not a trace.He hauled out the scroll. "As soon as it was clear that we'd driven the Malwa back to Charax, I sent—well, 'recommendations' is hardly the word. Emperor or no, he's still my kid. I gave Photius firm and clear instructions, and, I'm pleased to say, the marvelous boy followed them to perfection."He handed over the scroll. "Here you are. The official document will arrive by courier, some weeks from now. This is a copy sent over the semaphore line. Doesn't matter. It's as good as gold."Gingerly, Agathius took the scroll. In an instant, Belisarius' quick mind understood the expression on the man's face."You can't read," he stated.Agathius shook his head. "No, sir. Not really. I can sign my name well enough, as long as I've got some time. But—"He fell silent. Not from embarassment so much as frustration.The embarassment, in that moment, was entirely Belisarius'. The general should have remembered that a man of Agathius' background was almost certain to be illiterate.The general waved his hand, as if brushing aside insects."Well, that'll have to change. Right off. I'll send word to Patriarch Anthony to send one of his best monks to be your tutor. Two of them, now that I think about it. Sudaba's probably not literate, either. Not a dehgan's daughter."Grinning:"Can't have that. Not in the wife of a Roman Senator, recently enrolled in the ranks of the Empire's illustres. By unanimous acclaim, mind you. I also got a private message from Sittas. He tells me the Emperor's nomination was extremely—ah, firm. Sittas himself took the occasion to appear before the Senate in full armor. In recognition—or so he told those fine aristocratic fellows—of the valor of the Greek cataphracts at Anatha and the Nehar Malka."Grinning:"The Emperor also saw fit to give the new Senator a grant of royal land, in keeping with his exalted status. An estate you've got now, Agathius, in Pontus. Quite a substantial one. Annual income's in the vicinity of three hundred solidi. Tax-exempt, of course. As an imperial grant, it's res privata."Grinning, grinning:"Oh, yes. There's real soldier business, too, in addition to all the Senatorial fooferaw. You've been promoted. You're the new Dux of Osrhoene. That post carries an excellent salary, by the way. Another four hundred solidi. In addition to the troops stationed in that province, you have complete authority over all Roman military units serving in Persian Mesopotamia which are not directly under my command. You report only to me, in my capacity as magister militum per orientem."Grinning, grinning, grinning:"As you can see, I've picked up a few new titles of my own. As Dux of Osrhoene, your official headquarters will be located at the provincial capital of Edessa. But I'd really prefer it if you based yourself here, in Peroz-Shapur. I've already discussed the matter with Baresmanas and Kurush, and they have no objection whatsoever. Quite the contrary, actually. They're even hinting that Khusrau will insist on presenting you with a palace. I think they would feel a lot more secure in Rome's allegiance if the commander of the Roman forces was planted right in their own territory. Along with his Persian wife and—"Grinning, grinning, grinning, grinning:"—soon enough, I've no doubt, a slew of children."The grin finally faded, replaced by something which was almost a frown. "God in Heaven, Aga-thius! Did you really think I'd let one of the finest officers I've ever had go back to baking bread? On account of his legs?"Agathius was speechless.Belisarius rose, smiling crookedly."You're speechless, I see. Well, that's good enough for today. But make sure you've got your wits about you by tomorrow—Duke. I'll be coming by, first thing in the morning. We've got a new campaign to plan, against Malwa. You won't be riding any horses in that campaign—you'll be staying right here in Peroz-Shapur—but I'll be relying on you to organize the whole Roman effort to back me up.""I won't fail you," whispered Agathius."No," agreed Belisarius. "I don't imagine you will."He turned away. "And now, I'll go tell your wife she can come back in. Best thing for you, I think."He left, then, murmuring a little verse. "Think where man's glory most begins and ends And say my glory was I had such friends."