Chapter 6"I will not take Maurice with me to Egypt, Belisarius. Absolutely not. So stop pestering me about it. And stop pestering me about Valentinian and Anastasius. I refuse to take them either."Belisarius stared at his wife for a moment, before blowing out his cheeks. He leaned back in his chair and glared at Antonina. "You do not understand the danger, woman! You need the best military adviser in the world. And the best bodyguards."Seeing the set and stubborn expression on his wife's face, and the way she clasped her hands firmly on the table between them, Belisarius cast a furious glare about the salon. His hot eyes scanned the mosaics which decorated the walls of their small palace within the imperial complex, without really seeing them. The gaze did, however, linger for a moment on a small statue perched on a corner stand."Damn cherub," he growled. "What's that naked little wretch smirking about?"Antonina tried to fight down a smile. Her struggle was unsuccessful, however, and the sight of her quirking lips only added to her husband's outrage.Belisarius grit his teeth and twisted in his chair, swiveling his head to the right. "Sit down, Maurice!" he commanded. "Damn you and your stiff ways! I promoted you, remember? You're a general yourself, now. A chiliarch, no less!" Belisarius made a curt motion with his hand, as if to sweep Maurice forward. "So sit down!"The commander of Belisarius' personal retinue of bucellarii shrugged, stepped forward, and pulled up a chair. As soon as he took his seat at the table, Belisarius leaned toward him and said:"Explain it to her, Maurice. She won't listen to me, because she thinks I'm just being a fretful husband. But she'll listen to you."Maurice shook his head. "No."Belisarius' eyes widened. "No?" His eyes bulged. "No?" His next words were not, entirely, coherent.Maurice grinned at Antonina."Never actually seen him gobble before. Have you?"Antonina matched his grin. "Oh, any number of times." The grin began a demure smirk. "Intimate circumstances, you understand?"Maurice nodded sagely. "Of course. Dancing naked on his chest, that sort of thing.""Not to mention the whip and the iced—""Enough!"roared Belisarius. He slammed his fist on the table.Antonina and Maurice peered at him with identical, quizzical expressions. Much like two owls might study a bellowing mouse."He usually does that much better, I seem to recall," mused Antonina."Much better," agreed Maurice. "The key is under-statement. The sense of steel under the soft voice."Belisarius began to roar again; but, seeing the widening grins, managed to bring himself under control."Why not?" he demanded, through clenched teeth.Maurice's grin faded. The grizzled veteran stroked his stiff, curly gray beard. "I won't do it," he replied, "because she's right and you're wrong. You are thinking like a fretful husband—instead of a general."He waved down Belisarius' protest. "She doesn't need me because she's not going to be fighting pitched battles on the open field against vastly superior forces. You are."Antonina nodded.Again, Belisarius began to protest; again, Maurice drove him down."Besides, she'll have Ashot. That stubby little Armenian may not have quite as much battlefield experience as I do, but he's not far short of the mark. You know that as well as I do. He's certainly got the experience to handle whatever Antonina will run up against in Alexandria.""But—""Oh—be quiet, young man," snapped Maurice. For just an instant, the chiliarch's stony face reverted to an expression he had not worn in years. Not since the days he had taken under his wing a precocious teenage officer, fresh from his father's little estate in Thrace, and taught him the trade of war."Have you already forgotten your own battle plan?"Belisarius sat back. Maurice snorted."Thought so. Since when do you subordinate strategy to tactics, young man? Alexandria's just a step on the road. Your whole strategy against the Malwa pivots on seapower. While you distract them in Persia, Antonina will lead a flanking attack against the enemy's logistics, in alliance—we hope—with the Kingdom of Axum. The Ethiopians, with their naval power, are critical to that plan. For that matter, the Axumite navy will be essential for providing support to the rebellion in Majarashtra which you did everything in your power to foment, while you were in India. They'll need cannons, gunpowder—everything you've talked about supplying them. That's why you've always insisted on building our armaments industry in Alexandria. So we can provide logistical support for the Ethiopians and the Indian rebellion."The chiliarch took a deep breath. "For all those reasons, Ashot is far better suited to serve as her adviser than I am. The man's a former seaman. What I know about boats—" He snapped his fingers. "Not to mention the Ethiopians," he rolled on. "Ashot's familiar with them—even speaks the language. I know exactly two words in Ge'ez. Beer, and the future subjunctive tense of the verb 'to copulate.' That'll be useful, coordinating an allied naval campaign and a transoceanic logistics route!"Belisarius slumped into his chair."All right," he said sourly. "But I still insist that she take Valentinian and Anastasius! They're the best fighters we've got. She'll need the protection they can—""For what?" demanded Maurice. He planted his thick hands on his knees and leaned forward. For a moment, he and Belisarius matched glares. Then Maurice's lips quirked. He cocked an eye at the little Egyptian woman sitting across the table."Are you planning to lead any cavalry charges, girl?"Antonina giggled."Furious boarding parties, storming across the decks of ships?"Giggle, giggle."Leading the troops scaling the walls of a town under siege?"Giggle, giggle, giggle."Cut and thrust? Hack and hew?"The giggles erupted into outright laughter."Actually," choked Antonina, "I was thinking more along the lines of guiding from the rear. You know. Ladylike."She leaned back, arching her neck haughtily, and began pointing with an imperious finger. "You there! That way. And you—over there. Move smartly, d'you hear?"Belisarius rubbed his face. "It's not that simple, Maurice—and you know it, even if Antonina doesn't."For a moment, the old crooked smile came back. A feeble travesty of it, rather."Aren't you the one who taught me the law of battle? 'Everything gets fucked up as soon as the enemy arrives. That's why—' ""—he's called the enemy," concluded Maurice. The veteran shook his head. "That's not the point, Belisarius. It may well happen, despite all our plans, that Antonina finds herself swept up in the fray. So be it. She'll still have hundreds of Thracian bucellarii protecting her, each and every one of whom—as you damn well know—will lay down his life for her, if need be. None of them may be quite as murderous as Valentinian or Anastasius, but they're still the best soldiers in the world. In my humble opinion. If they can't protect her, Valentinian and Anastasius won't make the difference."Whereas," he snarled, "the two of them might very well make the difference for you. Because unlike Antonina, you will be leading cavalry charges and hacking and hewing way more than any respectable general has any business doing."Glare."As you well know."Maurice stared at Belisarius in silence. The general slouched further down in his chair. Further. Further."Never actually seen him pout before," mused the chiliarch. Again, he cocked his eye at Antonina. "Have you?""Oh, certainly!" piped the little woman. "Any number of times. Intimate circumstances, of course. When I have a headache and refuse to smear olive oil all over his—""Enough," whined Belisarius.Antonina and Maurice peered at him with identical, quizzical expressions. Much like two mice might study a whimpering piece of cheese. Several hours later, Belisarius was in a more philosophical mood."I suppose it'll work out all right, in the end," he said, almost complacently.Antonina levered herself up on her elbow and smiled down at her husband."Feeling less anxiety-ridden, are we?"Belisarius stretched out his legs and clasped his hands behind his head."Now that I've had more time to think about it," he allowed graciously, "I've decided that perhaps Maurice was—""Liar!" laughed Antonina, slapping his arm. "You haven't been doing any thinking at all since we came to bed! Other than figuring out new and bizarre positions from which to stick your—""Don't be coarse, woman," grunted Belisarius. "Besides, I didn't hear you complaining. Rather the opposite, judging from the noises you were making.""You didn't hear me claim that I was enjoying the metaphysics of the enterprise, either."She sprawled flat on the bed, aping her husband's pose. Hands clasped behind her head, legs stretched out."I say," she pontificated, "now that I've had a bit of time to ponder the question—in between getting fucked silly—I have come to the conclusion that perhaps that uncouth Maurice fellow may have raised the odd valid point, here and there."Belisarius eyed his wife's naked body, glistening with sweat. Antonina smiled seraphically. She took a deep breath, swelling her heavy breasts, then languidly spread her legs."Ontologically speaking, of course," she continued, "the man's daft. But the past several hours of epistemological discourse have led me to the tentative conclusion that perhaps—"She spread her legs wider. Took another deep breath."—some of the fellow's more Socratic excogitations may have elucidated aspects of the purely phenomenological ramifications of—"Belisarius discarded all complacency. Antonina stopped talking then, though she was by no means silent.Some time later, she murmured, "Yes, all anxieties seem to be gone.""That's because my brains are gone," came her husband's sleepy reply. "Fucked right out of my head." In the morning, Photius made an entrance into his parents' sleeping chamber and perched himself upon their bed. Despite the many other changes in his life, the boy insisted on maintaining this precious daily ritual. A pox on imperial protocol and decorum.The gaggle of servants and bodyguards who now followed the young Emperor everywhere remained outside in the corridor. The servants thought the entire situation was grotesque—and quite demeaning to their august status as imperial valets and maids. But they maintained a discreet silence. The bodyguards were members of the general's Thracian bucellarii, led by a young cataphract named Julian. Julian had been assigned the task of serving as Photius' chief bodyguard for two reasons. First, he was married to Hypatia, the young woman who had been Photius' nanny for years. (And still was, though she now bore the resplendent title of "imperial governess.") Second, for all his youth and cheerful temperament, Julian was a very tough soldier. Julian and the men under his command had made quite clear upon assuming their new duties that they were not even remotely interested in listening to the complaints of menials. So, while Photius enjoyed his private moment with his parents, his bodyguards chatted amiably in the corridor outside and his servants nursed their injured pride.Photius' stay in his parents' bedroom was longer than usual. His stepfather was leaving that day, to begin his new campaign in Mesopotamia. Photius no longer felt the same dread of that prospective absence that he once had. The boy's confidence in Belisarius' ability to overcome all obstacles and perils was now positively sublime. But he would miss him, deeply. More deeply now, perhaps, than ever before.Eventually, however, he emerged. A new sense of duty had fallen on the boy's little shoulders, and he knew that his stepfather had many responsibilities of his own that day."All right," he sighed, after closing the door behind him. "Let's go. What's first?"Julian grinned down at him. "Your tutor in rhetoric insists—insists—that you must see him at once. Something to do with tropes, I believe. He says your slackness in mastering synecdoche has become a public scandal."Glumly, Photius began trudging down the corridor. "That's great," he muttered. "Just great." The boy craned his neck, looking up at Julian's homely, ruddy-hued face. "Do you have any idea how boring that man is?""Look at it this way, Emperor. Some day you'll be able to have him executed for high tedium."Photius scowled. "No I won't. I think he's already dead."Trudge, trudge."Life was a lot more fun, before they made me Emperor."Trudge, trudge.* * *Before mounting his horse, Belisarius gave Antonina a last, lingering embrace."How long, do you think?" she whispered.Her husband shrugged. "Impossible to tell, love. If things go as we've planned—and that's a big if—we won't see each other for a year and a half, thereabouts. You'll have to wait until July of next year for the monsoon to be blowing the way we need it."She grimaced. "What a way to meet."Belisarius smiled. "That's if things go as planned. If they don't—who knows? We may meet sooner."Staring up at him, Antonina found it impossible to match his smile. She knew the unspoken—and far more likely—corollary.If our plans fail, one or both of us will probably be dead. She buried her face into his shoulder. "Such a long time," she murmured. "You've only been back for a few months since your trip to India. And that lasted a year and a half."Belisarius stroked her long black hair. "I know. But it can't be helped.""Damn Theodora," hissed Antonina. "If it weren't for her obsession with keeping the gunpowder weapons under female control, I wouldn't have to—""That's nonsense!" snapped Belisarius. He took his wife by the shoulders and held her away from him. Then, with none of his usual whimsy, said:"Even if Theodora didn't have her foibles, I'd insist that you command the Theodoran Cohort. You're the best person for the job. It's that simple."Antonina stared back at him for a moment, before lowering her eyes. "So long," she whispered. "A year and a half." Suddenly, unexpectedly, she smiled. "But at least we'll be able to stay in touch. I almost forgot—a present came from John of Rhodes yesterday."She turned and summoned a servant standing nearby in the courtyard. The man advanced, bearing a package wrapped in heavy layers of wool.Antonina took the package from him and unfolded the cloth. Within, carefully nestled, were two identical objects.She held one of them out to her husband."Here they are. John's first telescopes. One for you and one for me."Grinning delightedly, Belisarius immediately began looking through the telescope. He became so entranced with the marvelous contrivance that he momentarily forgot everything else, until Antonina's little cough brought him back."Wonderful," he said, wrapping the telescope back into the woolen cloths. "With these, and the new semaphore stations, we'll be able to communicate within days."Antonina chuckled. "Once the stations are built, that is. And assuming John can produce enough of the telescopes.""They will and he will," said her husband confidently. He stroked her cheek. "Count on it, love. Within a few months, you'll get your first message from me."There was nothing more to be said. For a moment, husband and wife gazed at each other. Then, a last embrace; a last kiss. Belisarius mounted his horse and rode out of the courtyard, Maurice at his side. His two personal bodyguards, Anastasius and Valentinian, followed just behind.At the gate, Belisarius turned in his saddle and waved. Antonina did not wave back. She simply held up the telescope."I'll be waiting for your message!" she shouted. An hour later, Irene arrived, bearing her own cloth-wrapped gifts."Don't drop them!" she warned Antonina, as she passed the bundle over. "I stole them from Theodora's own wine cellar. Best vintage in the Roman Empire."Antonina staggered a bit, from the weight."Mother of God, how many bottles did you bring?"Irene propelled her little friend down the corridor. "As many as we need to get you through the day. Tradition, girl, tradition. The last time Belisarius went off on one of these quests, you and I got blind drunk. Well, you did. I was simply there to lend a comforting shoulder.""Lying wench!" squawked Antonina. "You passed out before I did.""A fable," stated Irene firmly. "I fell asleep, that's all."Antonina snorted. "Sure. On the floor, flat on your belly.""I've only got your word for that," came the dignified response. "Hearsay, pure hearsay."Once in the salon, Antonina lined up the bottles on a side table. "Like so many soldiers," she murmured admiringly.Irene seized the first bottle. "It'll be a massacre. Get the goblets." Two hours later, well into the carnage, Antonina hiccuped."'Nough o' this maudlinnininess!" Another hiccup. "Le'ss look t'the future! Be leaving soon, we will. For Egypt. 'S'my homeland, y'know?" Hiccup. "Land o' my birt. Birth."Studiously, she poured more wine into her goblet. "I'm still s'prised Theodora agreed t'let you go," she said. "Never thought she let her chief spy"—giggle—"spy-ess, should say, out of her zight. Sight."Irene's shrug was a marvel—a simple gesture turned into a profound, philosophical statement."What else c'ld she do? Somebody has to go to India. Somebody 'as to rish—re-ish—" Deep breath; concentration. "Re-es-ta-blish contact with Shakuntala."Irene levered herself up on the couch, assuming a proud and erect stance. The dignity of the moment, alas, was undermined by flatulence."How gross," she pronounced, as if she were discussing someone else's gaucherie. Then, breezed straight on to the matter at hand. Again, a pronouncement:"I am the obvious person for the job. My qualifications are immense. Legion, I dare say.""Ha!" barked Antonina. "You're a woman, that's it. Who else would Theodora trust for that kind of—of—of—" She groped for the words."Subtle statecraft," offered Irene. "Deft diplomacy."Antonina sneered. "I was thinking more along the lines of—of—""Sophisticated stratagems. Sagacious subterfuges.""—of—of—""Dirty rotten sneaky—"" 'At's it! 'At's it!"Both women dissolved into uproarious laughter. This went on for a bit. Quite a bit. A sober observer might have drawn unkind conclusions.Eventually, however, they settled down. Another bottle was immediately brought to the execution block. Half the bottle gone, Antonina peered at Irene solemnly."Hermogenes'll be staying wit' me, you know. In Egypt. After we part comp'ny and you head off t'India. You'll be having your own heartbreak then. But we prob'ly won' be able to commimmi—commiserate—properly. Then. Be too busy. Ressaponzabilities. So we better do it now."Irene sprawled back on her couch. "Too late. 'S'already done." She shook her head sadly. "Hermo-genes and I are hic—" Hiccup. "Are hic— Dammit! Hist—hicstory. Dammit! History." Antonina's eyes widened."What? But I heard—rumor flies—he asked you to marry him."Irene winced. "Yes, he did. I'd been dreading it for months. That was the death-knell, of course."Seeing her friend's puzzled frown, Irene laughed. Half-gaily; half-sadly."Sweet woman," she murmured. "You forget Hermogenes's not Belisarius." She spread her hands ruefully. Then, remembering too late that one hand held a full wine goblet, stared even more ruefully at the floor."Sorry about that," she muttered.Antonina shrugged. "We've got servants to clean it up. Lots of 'em.""Don't care about th'floor! Best wine in the Roman Empire." She tore her eyes from the gruesome sight. Tried to focus on Antonina."Something about Hermogenes not being Belisarius," prompted the little Egyptian. "But I don't see the point. You don't have a disreputable past to live down, like I did." Giggle. "Still do, actually. That's the thing about the past, you know? Since it's over it never goes away and you're always stuck with the damned thing." Her eyes almost crossed with deep thought. "Hey, that's philosophical. I bet even Plato never said it so well."Irene smiled. "It's not the past that's the problem. With me and Hermogenes. It's the future. Hermogenes—" She waved her hand again, but managed to restrain the gesture before adding further insult to the best vintage in the Roman Empire. "—Hergomenes," she continued. "He's a sweet man, no doubt about it. But—conventional, y'know? Outside of military tactics, anyway. He wants a proper Greek wife. Matron. Not—" She sighed, slumping back into the couch. "Not a spymaster who's out and about doing God knows what at any hour of the day and night."Irene stared sadly at her half-filled wine goblet. Then, drained away her sorrows.Antonina peered at her owlishly."You sure?" she asked. Irene lurched up and tottered over to the wine-bearing side-table. Another soldier fell to the fray."Oh, yes," she murmured. She turned and stared down at Antonina, maintaining a careful balance. "Do I really seem like the matron-type to you?"Antonina giggled; then, guffawed.Irene smiled. "No, not hardly." She shrugged fatalistically. "Fact is, I don't think I'll ever marry. I'm jus—I don' know. Too—I don' know. Something. Can't imagine a man who'd live wit' it."She staggered back to her couch and collapsed upon it.Antonina examined her. "Does that bother you?" she asked, very slowly and carefully.Irene stared at the far wall. "Yes," she replied softly. Sadly.But a moment later, with great vehemence, she shook her head." 'Nough o' this maudilinitity!" she cried, raising her goblet high. " 'Ere's to adaventureness!" Two hours later, Antonina gazed down at Irene in triumph. "Belly down, onna floor, jus' like I said."She lurched to her feet, holding the last wine bottle aloft like a battle standard. "Vittorous again!" she cried. Then, proving the point, collapsed on top of her friend. The servants who carried the two women into Antonina's bedroom a short time later neither clucked with scandal nor muttered with disrespect. Not with Julian and three other grinning bucellarii following close behind, ready to enforce Thracian protocol."Let 'em sleep it off together," commanded Julian.He turned to his comrades."Tradition."Thracian heads nodded solemnly. The next morning, after he entered the bedchamber, Photius was seized with dismay."Where's my mother?" he demanded.Irene's eyes popped open. Closed with instant pain."Where's my mother?" he cried.Irene stared at him through slitted eyelids."Who're you?" she croaked."I'm the Emperor of Rome!"Irene hissed. "Fool boy. Do you know how many Roman emperors have been assassinated?""Where's my mother?"Her eyelids crunched with agony. "Yell one more time and I'll add another emperor to the list."She dragged a pillow over her head. From beneath the silk-covered cushion her voice faintly emerged:"Go away. If you want your stupid mother—the drunken sot—go look for her somewhere else.""Where's my mother?""Find the nearest horse. Crazy woman'll be staring at it."After the boy charged out of the room, heading for the stables, Irene gingerly lifted the pillow. The blinding sight of sunrise filtering through the heavy drapes immediately sent her scurrying back for cover. Only her voice remained at large in the room."Stupid fucking tradition."Moan."Why can't that woman just commit suicide like any reasonable abandoned wife?"Moan.