Destiny's shielderic Flint & David Drake



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Not a nice man, at all. The facets flashed and spun into a new configuration. Like a kaleidoscope, the colors of Aide's emotion shifted. Sour distaste was replaced by a kind of wry humor.Of course, the Duke of Wellington was not a nice man, either.  In the room, Justinian remained in his chair. He spent some time pondering the general's last words, but not much. He was far more interested in contemplating a different vision. Somewhere, in the midst of the horror which the jewel had shown him, Justinian had caught a glimpse of something which gave him hope.A statue, he had seen. Carved by a sculptor of the figure, to depict justice.The figure had been blind."In the future," murmured the former emperor, "when men wish to praise the quality of justice, they will say that justice is blind."The man who had once been perhaps the most capable emperor in the long history of the Roman Empire—and certainly its most intelligent—rubbed his empty eye-sockets. For the first time since his mutilation, the gesture was not simply one of despair and bitterness.Justinian the Great. So, more than anything, had he wanted to be known for posterity.Perhaps . . .Theodora, at Belisarius' urging, had created a position specifically tailored for Justinian. He was now the empire's Grand Justiciar. For the first time in centuries, the law of Rome would be codified, interpreted and enforced by the best man for the task. Whatever had been his faults as an Emperor, there was no one who doubted that Justinian's was the finest legal mind in the empire.Perhaps . . .There had been Solomon and Solon, after all, and Hammurabi before them.So why not add the name Justinian to that list?It was a shorter list, now that he thought about, than the list of great emperors. Much shorter.  Chapter 5 MUZIRIS
Spring, 531 a.d.
"Any minute now," whispered the assassin at the window. "I can see the first contingents of her cavalrymen coming around the corner."The leader of the Malwa assassination team came to the window. The lookout stepped aside. Carefully, using only one fingertip, the leader drew the curtain aside a couple of inches. He peered down onto the street below."Yes," he murmured. He turned and made a gesturing motion with his right hand. The other two assassins in the room came forward, carrying the bombard between them. They moved slowly and laboriously. The bombard was two feet long and measured eight inches across. It was made of wrought iron bars, square in cross section and an inch thick. The bars were welded together to form a rough barrel about six inches in diameter, which was then further strengthened with four iron hoops. A thick plate was welded to the back of the bars. The bombard was bolted down to a wooden base—teak, reinforced with brass strips—measuring three feet by two feet. The two men strained under the effort of carrying the device.Part of their careful progress, however, was due to the obstacles in their way. The room was littered with the squalid debris of a poor family's cramped apartment.As they came forward, they maneuvered around the bodies of the family who had once lived there. A man, his wife, her mother, and their four children. After killing the family, the assassins had piled the corpses in a corner. But the room was so small that the seven bodies still took up a full quarter of the floor space. Most of the floor was covered with blood, dried now, but still sticky. A swarm of flies covered the corpses and the bloodstains.One of the assassins wrinkled his nose."They're already starting to stink," he muttered. "Damn southwest India and its fucking tropical climate—and we're in the hot season. We should have kept them alive until—""Shut up," hissed the leader. "What were we going to do? Guard them for almost a full day? The baby would have begun squawling, anyway."His subordinate lapsed into sullen silence. A few seconds later, he and his companion levered the bombard onto the hastily-improvised firing platform which the assassination squad had erected that morning. It was a rickety contraption—simply a mounded up pile of the pallets and two wicker chairs which had been the murdered family's only furniture. But it would suffice. The bombard was not a full-size cannon. It would fire only one round, a sack full of drop shot. The recoil would send the bombard hurtling into the far wall, out of action.That would be good enough. When she passed through the street below the window of the apartment, the Empress-in-exile of Andhra would be not more than twenty yards distant. There was nowhere for her to escape, either, even if the alarm was given at the last moment. The narrow street was hemmed in, on both sides, by mud-brick tenement buildings identical to the one in which the assassins lay waiting. At that point blank range, the cannister would sweep a large swath of the street clean of life."Here she comes," whispered the lookout. He was peering through a second window, now. Like his leader, he had drawn the curtain aside no more than an inch or two."Are you certain it is she?" demanded the leader. The lookout had been assigned to the squad because he was one of the few Malwa assassins who had personally seen the rebel Empress after her capture at the siege of Amaravati. The girl had aged, of course, since then. But not so much that the lookout wouldn't recognize her."It must be Shakuntala," he replied. "I can't see her face, because she's wearing a veil. But she's small—dark-skinned—wearing imperial regalia. Who else would it be?"The leader scowled. He would have preferred a more positive identification, but—He hissed an unspoken command to the other two assassins in the room. The command was unnecessary. They were already loading the gunpowder and the cannister round into the bombard. The leader scampered back and sighted along its length. He could only estimate the angle, since the curtain hanging in the window obscured his view of the street below. But the estimate would be good enough. It was not a weapon of finesse and pinpoint accuracy.The leader made a last inspection of the cannon. He could not restrain a grimace. The blast and the recoil, confined in that small room, was almost certain to cause some injuries to the assassins themselves. Hopefully, those injuries would not disable any of them—not enough, at least, to prevent them making their escape in the chaos and confusion after Shakuntala and her immediate entourage were slaughtered."I wish they'd perfected those new impact fuses they've been working on," muttered one of the assassins. "Then we could have used a real cannon at long range. This misbegotten—""Why not wish she didn't have thousands of Maratha cavalrymen to protect her, while you're at it?" snarled the leader. "And those fucking Kushan cutthroats? Then we could have just slid a knife into her ribs instead of—""She's fifty yards away," hissed the lookout. "The first cavalry escorts are already passing below."He plastered himself against the wall, crouching down as far as he could while still being able to peek through the window. The expression on his face, beneath the professional calm, was grim. He was almost certain to be scorched by the exhaust from the cannon blast. And there was also the possibility that a weak weld could result in the cannon blowing up when it was fired."Forty yards."One of the two bombard handlers retreated to a far corner, curling into a ball. The other drew out a lighting device and ignited the slow match. After handing it to the squad leader, he hurried to join his comrade in the corner. The leader crouched next to the bombard's firehole, ready to set off the charge."Thirty-five yards," announced the lookout by the window. "Get ready."The men in the room took a deep breath. They had already decided to fire the bombard when the Empress was twenty-five yards distant. They knew that Shakuntala's horse would travel less than five yards in the time it took for the slow match to ignite the charge. If all went as planned, the sack full of lead pellets would turn the ruler-in-exile of conquered Andhra into so much mincemeat.The leader held up the slow match. Brought it close to the firehole."Thirty yards."The door behind them erupted like a volcano. The first man coming through the door cut the squad leader aside before the assassin had time to do more than flinch. It was a brutal sword strike—not fatal, simply enough to hurl the man away from the cannon. Quick, quick. The assassin screeched with pain. His right arm dangled loose, half-severed at the elbow. The slow match fell harmlessly to the floor, hissing in a patch of blood.The lookout at the window had time to recognize the man who killed him, before that same sword went into his heart. As agile and skilled as he was, the assassin had no more chance of evading that expert thrust than a tethered goat.In the few seconds that it took him to die, the assassin tried to remember his killer's name. He knew the name, but it would not come. He knew only that he had been slain by the commander of Shakuntala's Kushan bodyguard. The man whom he and his squad simply called Iron-face.One of the assassins huddled in the corner died soon thereafter, hacked into pieces by the three Kushan soldiers who piled into the room after their commander. The commander himself took care of the last Malwa. This one he did not kill outright. He wanted him for questioning. The Kushan lopped off the man's right hand as it came up holding a blade, then struck him senseless with a blow of the sword's pommel on the forehead.The Kushan commander scanned the room. By now, with another five Kushans crowding in, the room was packed like a meat tin. Three of them had subdued the assassin whose arm the commander had half-severed upon bursting through the door."That's enough," he commanded. "See to the Empress.""No need, Kungas," murmured one of his men. The Kushan soldier had pushed back the curtains in one of the windows. "She's on her way here already.""Damn the girl!" growled Kungas. "I told her to stay back."The Kushan commander strode to the window and glared out onto the street below. The Empress—the supposed "Empress" at the head of the column—was sitting on her horse. The girl was beginning to shake, now. A trembling hand came up and removed the veil. She wiped her face, smearing off some of the dye which had darkened her skin.But Kungas was looking elsewhere, farther back along the column of cavalry escort. At the figure of another small girl, urging her horse forward. Unlike the "Empress," this girl was wearing simple and unadorned clothing: nothing more than a colorfully dyed tunic over pantaloons, the garments of a typical camp-follower—a soldier's common-law wife, perhaps. She, also, was dark-skinned. But her skin-tone was natural, and there was not the slightest trace of trembling in her hands."You're going to catch an earful," said the Kushan standing next to Kungas. "She looks angrier than a tigress guarding her cubs." He added cheerfully: "Of course, she's a small tigress. For what it's worth."Kungas grunted. For a moment, something that might have been a sigh almost escaped his lips. But only for the briefest instant. Thereafter, the mask closed down.On the street below, the true Empress halted her horse long enough to see to the well-being of her double. Then she dismounted and charged into the entrance of the tenement building.She was lost from Kungas' sight, but he could hear her stamping up the narrow wooden stairs leading to the rooms on the upper floor. He could also hear her voice."How can such a small girl have such a loud voice?" wondered the other Kushan. "And how can slippers make such a stamping clatter?""Shut up, Kanishka," growled Kungas. Kanishka smiled seraphically.The Empress' voice, coming from below:"Never again, Kungas! Do you hear me? Never again!"She burst into the room. Her eyes immediately fixed on those of Kungas. Black, hot eyes."Never again! Jijabai might have been killed!"Kungas' iron face never wavered. Nor did his harsh voice. "So might you, Empress. And you are irreplaceable."Shakuntala glared at him for a few seconds. Then, recognizing the futility of trying to browbeat the commander of her bodyguard, she glared around the room. When she saw the bodies of the family, she recoiled."Malwa beasts," she hissed."It's how we spotted them," said Kungas. "Our spies saw that this building seemed lifeless, everyone hiding in their rooms. Then they smelled the bodies."He glanced at the bombard. Three of his men were already disarming the weapon. "But we only discovered them just in time. It was a well-laid ambush. Their only mistake was killing the family too soon.""The baby would have squawled all night," com-mented Kanishka.Kungas shrugged. "So? It would hardly be the only shrieking infant in a slum."Shakuntala grimaced. Kungas, in his way, was the hardest man she had ever met.She tore her eyes away from the pitiable sight of the dead family and stared at the assassins. "How many did you keep alive?""Two," replied Kanishka. "Better than we hoped.""They'll talk," said Kungas. "Not easily—not Malwa assassins. But they'll talk.""They won't know much," said Shakuntala."Enough. I was right. You will see."The Empress stared at Kungas. After a moment, she looked away. "That it would come to this. My own grandfather.""What did you expect?" came a voice from the door.Shakuntala turned. Dadaji Holkar was standing in the doorway. Her imperial adviser's eyes scanned the room, coming to rest on the piled-up bodies of the dead family."Malwa," he said softly. The word was not condemning, nor accusatory. It was simply a term of explanation. Self-evident. His eyes returned to Shakuntala. "What did you expect, girl?" he repeated. "You threaten his kingdom with Malwa's gaze, and Malwa's fury. You organize a private army in his largest seaport. You disrupt his streets with riot and tumult.""I did not! It was Malwa provocateurs who stirred up the Keralan mob against the refugees from Andhra!"Holkar stroked his beard, smiling. "True. But it was your Maratha cavalrymen who sabred the mob and spit them on their lances.""As well they should!" came her hot reply. "Many of those refugees were Maratha themselves!"Holkar chuckled. "I am not arguing the merits of the thing, girl. I am simply pointing out that you have become a major—embarrassment—to the King of Kerala. That old man is no doting village grandfather, Shakuntala. He is as cold-blooded as any ruler needs to be. With the Malwa Empire now at war with Persia, he thinks he is safe from their ambitions—as long as he can avoid drawing their attention. The last thing he wants is his granddaughter forging a rebellion in the Deccan from a base in his own kingdom."Holkar stepped into the room, avoiding the bodies which littered the floor. When he came up to the Empress, he placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. He was the only member of her entourage who ever took that liberty. He was the only one who dared."He is my grandfather," whispered Shakuntala. Her voice throbbed with pain. "I can remember sitting on his knee, when I was a little girl." She stared out the window, blinking away tears. "I did not really expect him to help me. But I still didn't think—""He may not have given the orders, Your Majesty," said Kungas. "Probably didn't, in fact." The Kushan commander gestured at the dead assassins. "These are Malwa, not Keralan."Shakuntala's black eyes grew hard."So what? You predicted it yourself, Kungas. A Malwa assassination attempt, with the tacit approval of the Keralan authorities." She turned away, shaking her shoulders angrily. "The viceroy would not have done this on his own. He would not dare.""Why not? He can deny everything." Again, Kungas gestured to the dead assassins. "Malwa, not Keralan."Shakuntala stalked toward the door."He would not dare," she repeated. At the door, she cast a final glance at the dead family. "This was my grandfather's work," she hissed. "I will not forget."A moment later, she was gone. The stamping sounds of her slippered feet going down the stairs came through the door. Dadaji Holkar and Kungas exchanged a glance. The adviser's expression was rueful. That of Kungas' was sympathetic, insofar as a mask of iron can be said to have an expression.Kanishka had finished tying a tourniquet around the maimed arm of the Malwa assassin leader. He stooped and hauled the man to his feet. The Malwa began to moan. Kanishka silenced him with a savage blow."Glad I'm not her imperial adviser," he muttered. "Be like advising a tigress to eat rice." He draped the unconscious assassin over his shoulder and made for the door.Then he said cheerfully, "A small tigress, true. For all the good that'll do her grandpa."Within a minute, the Kushans had cleared the bodies from the small apartment—including, at Kungas' command, the bodies of the dead family. They would find a priest to give them the rites. The two dead Malwa assassins would be tossed into a dung-heap. After their interrogation, the two still alive would follow them.Kungas and Holkar were left alone in the room."That was very close," commented Holkar. The statement was not a criticism, simply an observation."There will be another," replied the Kushan commander. "And another after that. It's obvious that the Keralan authorities will turn a blind eye to Malwa spies and assassins coming after her. We must get the Empress to a place of safety, Dadaji—and soon. After today, she will no longer let me use Jijabai as her double."Kungas' shoulders twitched. Coming from another man, the gesture would have been called a shrug. "I can only protect her for so long, here in Muziris."Holkar broke into a little smile. "How about Deogiri?" he asked. Then, laughed outright, seeing Kungas' face. For once—just for an instant—there had been an expression on that iron mask. Kungas' eyes had actually widened. In another man, the gesture would have been called a goggle."Deogiri?" he choked. "Are you mad? The place is a Malwa stronghold! It's the largest city in Majarasthra, except for Bharakuccha. The Malwa have a garrison of—"He broke off. The iron face was back. "You know something," he stated.Dadaji nodded. "We just got word this morning, from a courier sent by Rao. Rao believes he can seize Deogiri. He has apparently managed to infiltrate thousands of his fighters into the city. The garrison is big, but—so he says, and he is a man who knows—sloppy and unprepared."Kungas paced to the window. Stared out, as if he were gauging the Maratha cavalrymen in the street below.Which, as a matter of fact, he was."Over three thousand of them, we've got now," he mused, "with more coming in every day as the word spreads.""You've got more Kushans, too," pointed out Holkar."Six hundred," agreed Kungas. "Most of them are my own kinfolk, who deserted the Malwa once they heard the news of my change of allegiance. But a good third of them are from other clans. Odd, that."From behind, unobserved by Kungas' sharp eyes, Holkar studied the stocky figure standing at the window. His face softened.He had come to love Kungas, as he had few other men in his life.Belisarius, of course, who had freed him from slavery and breathed new life into his soul. His son, still laboring in captivity somewhere in India along with the rest of Holkar's shattered family. Rao, the national hero of the Maratha people, whom he had idolized all his life. A brother, killed long ago, in battle against the Malwa. A few others.But Kungas occupied a special place on that short list. He and Holkar were comrades-in-arms, united in a purpose and welded to a young Empress' destiny. Close friends, they had become—two men who would otherwise have been like total strangers, each to the other.Dadaji Holkar, the former slave; low-caste by birth, and a scribe and scholar by profession. A man whose approach to the world was intrinsically philosophical, but whose soft and kindly soul had a rod of iron at its center.Kungas, the former Malwa mercenary; a Kushan vassal by birth, a soldier by trade. A man whose view of the world was as pragmatic as a tiger's, and whose hard soul was much like his iron-masked face.The one was now an imperial adviser—no, more. Shakuntala had named Holkar the peshwa of Andhra-in-exile, the premier of a people laboring in Malwa chains. The other, Kungas, was her chief bodyguard as well as one of her central military leaders.The girl's own soul was like a lodestone for such men. Others had been drawn by that magnet in the months since she set herself up in exile at Muziris. Men like Shahji and Kondev, cavalry commanders—and those who followed them, Maratha horsemen burning to strike a blow at the Malwa.Most were Maratha, of course, like Holkar himself. But not all. By no means. Men had come from all over the subcontinent, as soon as they heard that India's most ancient dynasty still lived, and roared defiance at the Malwa behemoth. Fighters, in the main—or simply men who wanted to be—from many Malwa subject nations. There were Bengali peasants in her small little army taking shape in the refugee camps at Muziris; not many, but a few. And Biharis, and Orissans, and Gujaratis.Nor were all of them warriors. Hindu priests had come, too. Sadhus like Bindusara, who would hurl their own defiance at the Mahaveda abomination to their faith. And Buddhist monks, and Jains, seeking refuge in the shelter which the Satavahana dynasty had always given their own creeds.In the few months since she had arrived in Muziris, Shakuntala's court-in-exile had become something of a small splendor. Modest, measured by formal standards; luminous, measured by its quality.But of all those men who had come, Holkar treasured one sort above all others.Malwa power rested on four pillars:First and foremost, their monopoly of gunpowder and their Ye-tai barbarians.Holkar intended to steal the first, or get it from the Romans. The other—death to the Ye-tai.Then, there were the two other pillars—the soldiers who formed the Malwa army's true elite: the Rajputs and the Kushans.No Rajputs had come. Holkar would have been astonished if they had. The Rajputs had sworn allegiance to the Malwa empire, and they were a people who held their honor sacred.Still, he had hopes. Perhaps someday—what man can know?But the Kushans—ah, that was a different matter. A steadfast folk, the Kushans. But they had none of Rajputana's exaggerated concept of honor and loyalty. The Kushans had been a great people themselves, in their day, conquerors and rulers of Central Asia and Northern India. But that day was long gone. Persia had conquered half their empire, and the other half had been overrun by the Ye-tai. For centuries, now, the Kushans had been mere vassals under the thumb of others, valued for their military skills, but otherwise treated with disdain. Their loyalty to Malwa, Dadaji had often thought, was much like Kungas' face. To the outer world, iron; but still a mask, when all was said and done.Kungas' voice interrupted his little reverie."Odd," he repeated. He turned away from the window. "We started with only thirty. The men in my immediate command. I expected I would draw some of my own kinfolk, since I am high-ranked in the clan. But the others—"Holkar shook his head. "I do not think it strange at all, my friend."He reached out his hand and tapped his finger on Kungas' chest. It was like tapping a cuirass. "The Buddha's teachings still lurk there, somewhere inside your skeptical soul."Kungas' lips quirked, just a bit. "I doubt that, Dadaji. What good did the Buddha do us, when the Ye-tai ravaged Peshawar? Where was he, when Malwa fit us with the yoke?""Still there," repeated the peshwa. "You disbelieve? Think more about those Kushans who have come, from other clans. What brought them here, Kungas?"The Kushan looked away. Holkar drove on. "I will tell you, skeptic. Memory brought them here. The memory of Peshawar—and Begram, and Dalverzin and Khalchayan, and all the other great cities of the Kushan realm. The memory of Emperor Vima, and his gigantic irrigation works, which turned the desert green. The memory of Kanishka the Great, who spread Buddhism through half of Asia."Kungas shook his head. "Ah! Gone, all gone. It is the nature of things. They come, they go."Dadaji took Kungas by the arm, and began leading him out of the blood-soaked, fly-infested room. "Yes, they do. And then they come back. Or, at least, their children, inspired by ancient memory."Irritably, Kungas twitched off Holkar's hand. They were in the narrow corridor now, heading for the rickety stairs leading to the street below."Enough of this foolishness," he commanded. "I am a man who lives in the present, and as much of the future as I can hope to see—which is not much. Tell me more of Rao's plan for Deogiri. If he takes the city, he cannot hold it alone for more than a year. Not even Deogiri is that great a fortress—not against the siege cannons which Venandakatra will bring to bear. He will need reinforcement. And then, we will need—somehow!—to maintain a supply route. How? And we will need to get cannons of our own. How? From the Romans?"He stopped, from one step to the next, and gave Holkar a sharp glance. "Ha! They have their own problems to deal with. Belisarius will be marching into Persia, soon. You know that as well as I do. That will help, of course—help greatly. The Malwa will not be able to release forces from their Persian campaign—not with Belisarius at their front—but Venandakatra still has a powerful army of his own, in the Deccan."He strode on, almost stamping down the stairs. Over his shoulder:"So—tell me, philosopher! How will we get the cannons?"Dadaji did not reply until both men were out on the street. He took a deep breath, cleansing the stench of death out of his nostrils. Then said, still smiling:"Some of them, we will steal from the Malwa. As for the rest—Belisarius will provide."Kungas' brow lowered, slightly. On another man, that would have been a fierce scowl. "He is thousands of miles away, Dadaji!"Holkar's smile was positively serene, now. For an instant, Kungas was reminded of a statue of the Buddha. "He will provide, skeptic. Trust me in this. Belisarius set this rebellion of ours in motion in the first place. He has not forgotten us. Be sure of it."Kungas made his little version of a shrug, and strode off behind the diminishing figure of his Empress. Holkar remained behind, staring after him."Trust me in this, my friend," he whispered. "Of five things in this world I am certain. Malwa will fall. My Empress will restore Andhra. Peshawar will rise again. Belisarius will not fail us. And I—"His eyes teared. He could not speak the words.I will find my wife and children. Wherever the Malwa beasts have scattered them, I will find them.   
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