Destiny's shielderic Flint & David Drake

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A captor and his captives Two hours later, Belisarius was enjoying a cup of wine with Vasudeva in the barracks where the Kushan captives were quartered. A very small cup of wine."The Persians are back to their stingy habits," groused Vasudeva. The Kushan commander cast a sour look around the dingy room. He, along with fifteen of his top officers, were crammed into a space that would have comfortably fit six."Crowded, crowded," he grumbled. "One man uses another for a pillow, and yet another for a bed. Men wail in terror, entering the latrines. Leaving, they blubber like babes."Glumly:"Nothing to wager on, except whether we will eat the rats or they, us. Every Kushan is betting on the rats. Ten-to-one odds. No takers."Philosophically:"Of course, our misery will be brief. Plague will strike us down soon enough. Though some are offering odds on scurvy."Belisarius smiled. "Get to the point, Vasudeva."The Kushan commander tugged his goatee. "It's difficult, difficult," he muttered. "There are the proprieties to consider. People think we Kushans are an uncouth folk, but they are quite mistaken. Naturally, we have no truck with that silly Rajput business of finding a point of honor in the way you trim your beard, or peel a fruit. Still—" He sighed. "We are slaves. War captives taken in fair battle. Bound to respect our position, so long as we are not belittled."From lowered eyelids, he gave Belisarius a keen scrutiny. "You understand, perhaps?"The Roman general nodded. "Most certainly. As you say, the proprieties must be observed. For instance—" He drained his cup, then, grimaced. "Nasty stuff! I've gotten spoiled on that good Roman campaign wine, I suppose."He wiped his lips, and continued, "For instance, if I were to bring you along on my next campaign as a slave labor force, the situation would be impossible. War captives used for labor must be closely guarded. Everyone knows that."All the Kushans in the room nodded solemnly."Unthinkable to do otherwise," agreed Vasudeva. "Foolish for the captor, insulting to the captive.""Yes. But since I will be undertaking a campaign of rapid maneuvers—feints, forced marches, counter-marches, that sort of thing—it would be impossible to detail any troops to waste their time overseeing a lot of surly, disgruntled slaves. Who would slow us down enormously, in any event, since they'd have to march on foot. Can't have slaves riding horses! Ridiculous. They could escape.""Most improper," intoned Vasudeva. "Grotesque."Belisarius scratched his chin. "It's difficult, difficult."He raised his hand."A moment, please, while I consider the problem."He lowered his head, as if in deep contemplation. Sent a thought inward.Aide? Piece of cake. * * *When Belisarius raised his head, a familiar expression had returned to his face. Seeing that crooked smile, the Kushans grinned.He gave Vasudeva—and then, the other Kushan officers—a keen scrutiny of his own."You have heard, perhaps, that I have some small ability to see the future."Vasudeva snorted. "You are a witch! Everyone knows that. Not even thumb-sucking Persians will take our wagers on that subject. And we offered very excellent odds. Twelve to one."Belisarius chuckled."Slavery is an interesting condition, Vasudeva. It takes many forms. Different in the past than in the present. And different still, in the future. Many forms."He leaned forward. Sixteen Kushans did likewise."Let me tell you about some slaves of the future."Leaned forward. Leaned forward."They will be called—Mamelukes."   A message and a promise When Antonina opened the door, Koutina hurried into her bedroom."I was hoping you'd still be awake," said the maid, "even though you left the birthday celebration so early."Her young face was eager, almost avid. She held out a sheet of papyrus."It's a message! A message! For you! They say it came by the semaphore network—all the way from Mesopotamia!"As she passed the paper over, Koutina added, "I think it's from your husband. I'm not sure. I can't read."Uncertainly:"Though it seems awfully short."Antonina studied the message. Koutina was quite right, she saw. It was a very short message.Just long enough. Her heart soared.Next year, love. Next year. "Yes," she whispered. "I will be there. I promise."   An emperor and his people The morning after his birthday party, Emperor Photius made his way to the servant quarters of his palace.Trudge, trudge, trudge.Some of the nine-year-old boy's gloom came from simple weariness. The birthday party had been a tense, unhappy, and exhausting affair. What with the huge crowd, and the presentation of the Senators, and the ever-critical eye and tongue of the Empress Regent, Photius had enjoyed himself about as much as a sheep enjoys its shearing. Or a lamb, its slaughter.Mostly, though, his black and dispirited thoughts came from The News.Theodora had told him last night, just before the party began. Much as Photius imagined a farmer tells his piglet, "How marvelous! Aren't you just the fattest little thing?"Reaching his destination, Photius knocked on the door. That was the only door which the Emperor of Rome ever knocked upon. All others were opened on his command.The door to the modest apartment in the palace's servant quarters swung open. A young woman stood in the doorway. She was quite a pretty woman, despite the scars on her face."Oh, look! It's Photius!"She smiled and stepped aside."Come in, boy, come in."As he stepped through the door, Photius felt his melancholy begin to lift. Entering the living quarters of Hypatia and her husband Julian always cheered him up. It was the only place in the world where Photius still felt like himself. Hypatia had been his nanny since he was a toddler. And, though Julian had only become his chief bodyguard recently, Photius had known him for years. Julian had been one of Belisarius' bucellarii.Julian himself now appeared, emerging into the small salon from the kitchen. He held a cup of wine in one hand.Grinning cheerfully. The same cheerful grin the man had worn the first time Photius met him, at the estate in Daras. Photius had been six years old, watching wide-eyed from his bed while a burly cataphract climbed through his window and padded over to the door leading to Hypatia's quarters. Cheerfully urging the boy to keep quiet. Which Photius had, that night and all the nights which followed."Welcome, Emperor!" boomed Julian."Don't call me that," grumbled Photius.Julian's grin widened."Feeling grouchy, are we? What's the matter? Did your tutors criticize your rhetoric? Or did the Empress Regent find some fault with your posture?""Worse," moaned Photius. "Terrible.""Well, lad, why don't you come into the inner sanctum and tell us all about it?" Julian placed a large hand on the boy's shoulder and guided him into the kitchen. Hypatia followed on their footsteps.The room—the largest in the apartment, by a goodly measure—was crowded, as usual. Two of Julian's fellow cataphracts were lounging about the huge wooden table in the middle of the kitchen. Wine cups in hand, as usual. Their wives and mothers busied about preparing the midday meal, while a small horde of children scampered in and out of the room, shrieking in play.As usual."Hail, Photius! Rex Imperator!" cried out one of the cataphracts, lifting his cup. Marcus, that was.The other, Anthony by name, matched the gesture. And the words, though he slurred them badly.Julian plunked himself down at the table and said, "Ignore them, lad. They're already drunk. As usual, on their day off.""'S'our right," muttered Anthony. "A whole day wit'out 'avin' to listen t'a fuckin' tutor natterin' a' th'puir boy.""Photius has to listen to them nattering seven days a week," said Hypatia. Primly: "Don't see him blind drunk two hours after sunrise.""'Course not!" snorted Anthony. "'E's only eight years—no, by God! Nine years old, 'e is! Birt'day's yesserday!"He lurched to his feet. "Hail Photius! Emperor of Rome!""Don't call me that!" shrilled the boy. "I'm sick of it!""Bein' called Emp'ror?" queried Marcus, bleary-eyed."No," groused Photius. "I'm sick of being Emperor!" He let out a half-wail. "I never asked them to!" And then a full wail. "They made me do it!"The three cataphracts peered at the boy owlishly."Dissagruntled he is," opined Marcus."Downhearted'n downcast," agreed Anthony.Julian bestowed a sage look upon his comrades. "Photius says he has terrible news to report."It came out in a rush:"They're going to make me marry somebody!" shrilled Photius. "Next year!" Very owlish peers."A'ready?" queried Marcus. "Seems a bit—ah—ah—""Early," concluded Anthony. His eyes crossed with deep thought. "Ten years old, 'e be then. Still too early for'is pecker to—""Don't be vulgar!" scolded his wife, turning from the stove.Anthony shrugged. "Speakin' fact, tha's all."Hypatia sat down on the bench next to Photius. "Who are you supposed to marry?" she asked."Somebody named Tahmina," he replied sourly. "She's Persian. A Princess of some kind. I think she's the daughter of Baresmanas, the Persian ambassador who was here last spring.""The Suren?" hissed Julian. His easy, sprawling posture vanished. He sat bolt upright. An instant later, Anthony and Marcus did the same.The three cataphracts exchanged stares with each other. Then, suddenly, erupted into a frenzy of table-thumping, wine-spilling exhilaration."He did it! He did it!" bellowed Julian, lunging to his feet."Here's to the general!" hallooed Anthony, raising his wine cup and downing it in one quaff. The fact that he had already spilled its contents did not seem to faze him in the least.Marcus simply slumped, exhaling deeply. His wife came over and enfolded him in her plump arms, pressing his head against her breasts.All the women in the kitchen were standing around the table, now. They did not match the sheer exuberance of the cataphracts, but it was obvious that their own pleasure in the news was, if anything, greater."Why is everybody so happy about it?" whined Photius. "I think it's terrible! I don't want to get married! I'm only nine years old!"His plaintive wail brought silence to the room. Everyone was staring at Photius.Gently, Hypatia turned the boy to face her. "Do you understand what this means?" she asked. "For me? For us?"Uncertainly, Photius shook his head.Hypatia took Photius' hands in her own. "What it means, Emperor, is—""Don't call me that!""Be quiet, Photius. Listen to me." She took a deep breath. "What it means, Emperor, is that your father has ended the long war with Persia. No Persian—not a Suren, for sure—has ever married a Roman Emperor. That peace will last our lifetimes, Photius. And more, probably."She turned her head, looking at Julian. "What it means, Emperor, is that my husband will not die somewhere, on a Persian lance. Our children will not grow up fatherless."She looked around the room. "What it means, Emperor, is that Anthony's mother over there will not have to bury her own son before she dies. And Marcus' wife and children will enjoy a comfortable retirement, instead of grinding poverty on a cripple's dole."When she turned back to face Photius, her eyes were leaking tears. "Do you understand?"Staring up at her scarred face, Photius remembered a night when that face had been covered with blood instead of tears. A horrible, terrifying night, when a boy barely four years old had hidden in a closet while Hypatia's pimp savaged her with a knife for refusing a customer.He had been helpless, utterly helpless. Had only been able to cower, listening to her shrieks. Powerless, to stop the torment of the woman who had raised him while his mother was gone. Powerless.He lifted his little shoulders, then. Squared them.He was powerless no longer. He was the Emperor of Rome.True, the pimp Constans was beyond his reach. Years ago, when Maurice and Anastasius and Valentinian had come to bring Photius and Hypatia to the estate in Daras, they had paid a little visit on Constans. Two years later, after he married Hypatia, Julian and several of his cataphract friends had tendered their own regards to the crippled ex-pimp.Constans was beyond his reach or any man's, now. But much else was not.Powerless no longer. He had never, quite, thought of it that way. Had never, quite, realized what that meant. To other people. His people."Okay," he said. "I'll do it."A new round of celebration erupted, in which, this time, Photius participated cheerfully. He even drank three cups of wine with his cataphracts, and got a bit drunk himself.And why should he not? He was the Emperor of Rome, after all.Their Emperor.   A farewell and a parting thought Baresmanas and Agathius saw him off at the gates of Peroz-Shapur. As his army marched past, Belisarius and his two companions spoke briefly on the prospects for his coming campaign.Briefly—and more out of habit than anything else. It was a subject they had already discussed at great length.The time came when friends made their farewells, knowing it might be for the last time. Agathius was gruff and hearty. Baresmanas was flowery and profusive.Belisarius was simply cheerful."Enough," he said. "We'll meet again—be sure of it! I don't intend to lose, you know."Quick, final handclasps, and the general trotted away to join his army.Damn right, spoke Aide. Then—Belisarius broke into laughter."What was that last?" he asked. "Sounded like 'those sorry bastards are fucked.' Terrible language! But, maybe not. Maybe you just said—"Mutter, mutter, mutter.
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