Summer, 531 a.d.When he encountered the first units from the Army of Syria, just outside Callinicum, Belisarius heaved a small sigh of relief.Baresmanas, riding next to him at the head of the column, said nothing. But the very stillness of his face gave him away."Go ahead and laugh," grumbled Belisarius.Baresmanas did not take Belisarius up on the offer. Diplomatic tact was far too ingrained in his habits. He simply nodded his head, and murmured in return:"There are certain disadvantages to elite troops from the capital, accustomed to imperial style. It cannot be denied."The sahrdaran twisted in his saddle and looked back at the long column. The cavalrymen were riding along a road near the right bank of the Euphrates. The road was not paved, but it was quite wide and well-maintained. The road ran from Callinicum to the Cilician Gates, passing through the river towns of Barbalissus and Zeugma. It was the principal route bearing trade goods between the Roman Empire and Persia.Belisarius' own bucellarii rode at the head of the column—a thousand cataphracts, three abreast, maintaining good order. Behind them came the small contingent of artillery wagons and ambulances, along with the ten rocket-bearing chariots which the general had dubbed katyushas. These vehicles were also maintaining a good order.Then—Straggling and straying, drifting and disjointed, came the remaining twenty-five hundred heavy cavalry in Belisarius' little army.The majority of these—two thousand men—were from the Constantinople garrison. The remainder were from Germanicus' Army of Illyria. The Illyrians had maintained a semblance of good order for the first few hundred miles of their forced march. Unlike the troops from the capital, they had some recent experience on campaign. But even they, by the time the army passed through the Cilician Gates into the northern desert of Syria, had become as disorganized as the Greek cataphracts.Disorganized—and exceedingly disgruntled.The troops were much too far back for Baresmanas to hear their conversations, but he had no difficulty imagining them. He had been listening to their grousing for days, even weeks. The troops from Constantinople, in particular, had not been hesitant in making their sentiments known, each and every night, as they slumped about their campfires.Crazy fucking Thracian. How did this lunatic ever get to be a general, anyway? By the time we get there, a litter of kittens could whip us, we'll be so worn out. Crazy fucking Thracian. How did this lunatic ever get to be a general, anyway? "You have been pushing them rather hard," said Baresmanas.Belisarius snorted. "You think so?" He turned in his own saddle, scowling. "In point of fact, Bares-manas, the pace we've been maintaining since we left Constantinople is considerably less than my own troops are accustomed to. For my bucellarii, this has been a pleasant promenade."His scowl deepened. "Two months—to cover six hundred miles. Twenty miles a day, no better. For a large infantry army, that would be good. But for a small force of cavalrymen—on decent roads, most of the time—it's disgraceful."Now, Barasmanas did laugh. More of a dry chuckle, perhaps. He pointed to the small group, led by two officers, trotting toward them from the direction of Callinicum."I take it you think these Syrian lads will be a good influence."Belisarius examined the approaching Roman soldiers. "Not exactly. Those damned garritroopers are too full of themselves to take a bunch of scruffy border troops as an example. But I do believe I can use them to shame the bastards."The oncoming officers were now close enough to discern their individual features."If I'm not mistaken," commented Baresmanas, "the two in front are Bouzes and Coutzes. The same brothers whom we captured just a few days before the battle at Mindouos. While they were—ah—""Leading a reconnaisance in force," said Belisarius firmly."Ah. Is that what it was?"The sahrdaran's eyebrows lifted."At the time, I had the impression the headstrong fellows were charging about trying to capture a mysterious pay caravan which, oddly enough, was never found by anyone."Belisarius shook his head sadly. "Isn't it just terrible? The way vicious rumors get started?"Very firmly:"Reconnaissance in force."Less than a minute later, the oncoming Romans reached Belisarius. The general reined in his horse. Behind him, the long column came to a halt. A moment later, Maurice drew up alongside.Bouzes and Coutzes sat in their saddles stiff-backed and erect. Their young faces were reasonably expressionless, but it took no great perspicacity to deduce that they were more than a bit apprehensive. Their last encounter with Belisarius had been unfortunate, to say the least.But Belisarius had known that the brothers would be leading the troops from the Army of Syria, and he had already decided on his course of action. Whatever hotheaded folly the two had been guilty of in the past, both Sittas and Hermogenes had been favorably impressed by the brothers in the three years which had elapsed since the battle of Mindouos.So he greeted them with a wide smile and an outstretched hand, and made an elaborate show of introducing them to Baresmanas. He was a bit concerned, for a moment, that the brothers might behave rudely toward the sahrdaran. Bouzes and Coutzes, during the time he had worked with them leading up to the battle of Mindouos, had been quite vociferous regarding their dislike for Persians. But the brothers allayed that concern immediately.As soon as the introductions were made, Coutzes said to Baresmanas:"Your nephew Kurush has already arrived at Callinicum. Along with seven hundred of your cavalrymen. They've set up camp just next to our own.""We would have brought him with us to meet you," added Bouzes, "but the commander of the Roman garrison in Callinicum wouldn't allow it.""The stupid jackass is buried up to his ass in regulations," snapped Coutzes. "Said it was forbidden to allow Persian military personnel beyond the trading emporium."Belisarius laughed. Romans and Persians had been trading for as long as they had been fighting each other. In truth, trade was the basic relationship. For all that the two empires had clashed many times on the field of battle, peace was the more common state of affairs. And, during wartime or peacetime, the trade never stopped. Year after year, decade after decade, century after century, caravans had been passing along that very road.But—empires being empires—the trade was heavily regulated. (Officially. The border populations, Roman and Persian alike, were the world's most notorious smugglers.) For decades, Callinicum had been established as the official entrepot for Persians seeking to trade with Rome—just as Nisibis was, on the other side of the border, for Romans desiring to enter Persia."Leave it to a garrison commander," growled Maurice. "He does know we're at war with the Malwa, doesn't he? In alliance with Persia?"Bouzes nodded. Coutzes snarled:"He says that doesn't change regulations. Gave us quite a lecture, he did, on the unrelenting struggle against the mortal sin of smuggling."Now, Baresmanas laughed. "My nephew wouldn't know how to smuggle if his life depended on it! He's much too rich."Belisarius spurred his horse into motion. "Let's get to Callinicum. I'll have a word or two with this garrison commander.""Just one or two?" asked Coutzes. He seemed a bit aggrieved.Belisarius smiled. "Five, actually. You are relieved of command.""Oh."" 'Deadly with a blade, is Belisarius,' " murmured Maurice. They entered Callinicum two hours later, in mid-afternoon.The general's first order of business was to ensure that the last group of builders and artisans still with him were adequately housed. When he left Con-stantinople, Belisarius had brought no less than eight hundred such men with his army. Small groups of them had been dropped off, at appropriate intervals, to begin the construction of the semaphore stations which would soon become the Roman Empire's new communication network. Callinicum would be the final leg of the Constantinople-Mesopotamia branch of that web.That business done, Belisarius went off to speak his five words to the garrison commander.Five words, in the event, grew into several hundred. The garrison commander's replacement had to be relieved, himself. After the general took a few dozen words to inform the new commander that Belisarius would be taking half the town's garrison with him into Mesopotamia, the man sputtered at length on the imperative demands of the war against illicit trade.Belisarius spoke five more words.His replacement, in turn, had to be relieved. After Belisarius used perhaps two hundred words, more or less thinking aloud, to reach the decision that it made more sense to take the entire garrison except for a token force, the third commander in as many hours shrieked on the danger of brigand raids.Belisarius spoke five more words.In the end, command of the Roman forces in Callinicum fell on the shoulders of a grizzled, gap-toothed hecatontarch."Hundred men'll be dandy," that worthy informed the general. "Just enough to keep reasonable order in the town. Nothing else for them to do. Callinicum's a fortress, for the sake of Christ—the walls are forty feet high and as wide to match. The sorry-ass brigands in these parts'd die of nosebleed if they climbed that high."Cheerfully: "As for smuggling, fuck it. You couldn't stop it with the whole Roman army. Soon as the sun goes down, you throw a rock off these walls in any direction you'll bounce it off three smugglers before it hits the ground. At least one of them'll be a relative of mine."Very cheerfully: "Any given Tuesday, prob'ly be my wife."At
unset, Belisarius led his army out of Callinicum toward the military camp a few miles away where the forces from the Army of Syria were awaiting them. The freshly-conscripted soldiers from the town's garrison—seven hundred very unhappy infantrymen—were marched out between units of the general's bucellarii. The Thracians encouraged the new recruits with tales of glory in the past, booty in the future, and drawn bows in the present. Cataphractbows, with hundred-pound pulls and arrowheads you could shave with.Baresmanas, riding at the head of the column, was out of earshot of the Callinicum garrison. But he had no difficulty imagining their muttered conversation.Crazy fucking Thracian. How did this lunatic ever get to be a general, anyway? Chapter 8Kurush's pavilion was far smaller than the gigantic construct which the Emperor of Malwa had erected at the siege of Ranapur. But, thought Belisarius, it was possibly even more richly adorned and accoutered. And with much better taste.As he reclined on a pile of plump, silk-covered cushions placed at one end of a low table, Kurush himself placed a goblet of wine before him. Belisarius eyed the thing uneasily. It was not the wine which caused that trepidation. The general had no doubt that it was the finest vintage produced by Persia. No, it was the goblet itself. The drinking vessel was easily the most elaborate and expensive such object Belisarius had ever seen. For all the goblet's massive size, the design was thin and delicate, especially the flower-shaped stem—and, worst of all, made entirely of glass. Embedded throughout the bowl was gold leaf, highlighting the intricate facets cut in the form of overlapping, slightly concave disks. The finishing touch was the four medal-lions inset around the side of the bowl, standing out in high relief. About an inch in diameter, each carried a marvelous etching of a winged horse.Gold medallions, naturally. Except for the silver wings, and the tiny little garnet eyes.Belisarius glanced around the table. Bouzes, Coutzes and Maurice were all staring at their own identical goblets. The brothers with astonishment, Maurice with deep gloom."Afraid to touch the damned thing," he heard Maurice mutter.Fortunately, Baresmanas intervened."Have no fear, comrades," he said, smiling. "My nephew has two chests full of these things."He gestured gaily. "Besides, even if you should happen to drop one, it would hardly break on this floor."The four Romans eyed the carpet. In truth, the pile was so thick that the cushions on which they sat were entirely redundant.Kurush, taking his place at the other end of the table from Belisarius, frowned. Not with irritation, but simply from puzzlement. "Is there a problem?" he asked. His Greek, like that of most Persian noblemen, was accented but fluent.Baresmanas chuckled. "Not everyone, nephew, is accustomed to drinking wine out of a king's ransom."The young Persian stared at the goblet in his hand. "This thing?" He looked up at his uncle. "It is valuable?"All four of the Romans joined Baresmanas in the ensuing laughter. Their reaction was not diplomatic, perhaps, but they found it impossible to resist.Fortunately, Kurush proved to be the affable type. He seemed to possess little of the prickly hauteur of most Persian noblemen. After a moment, he even joined in the laughter himself."I'm afraid I don't pay any attention to these matters," he confessed. Shrugging: "My retainers take care of that." He made a sweeping gesture. "But—please, please! Drink up! You must all be dying of thirst, after that miserable desert."Kurush's words swept hesitation aside. All four Romans drank deeply from their goblets. And found, not to their surprise, that the vintage was marvelous.Belisarius took advantage of the distraction to give Kurush a careful study. He had already learned, from Baresmanas, that Kurush had been charged by Emperor Khusrau to be the Persians' principal military liaison with Belisarius and his Roman forces.The nobleman was in his mid-twenties, he estimated. The young officer was tall and slender, with a narrow face and rather delicate features.At first glance, he reminded Belisarius of certain hyper-cultured Athenian aesthetes whom the general had occasionally encountered. The sort of soulful young men who could not complete a sentence without two or three allusions to the classics, and whose view of the world was, to put it mildly, impractical.The likeness was emphasized by the way in which Kurush wore his clothing. The garments themselves were expensive and well-made. (As were those of Athenian aesthetes—all of whom were aristocrats, not shepherds.) But they seemed to have been tossed on with little care for precision of fit and none at all for color coordination.Closer examination, however, undermined the initial impression. Kurush's hands, though slim-fingered, were strong-looking. And Belisarius did not miss the significance of the worn indentation on Kurush's right thumb. Unlike Romans, who favored the three-fingered draw, Persians drew their bows with thumb-rings.Then, there was the way he moved. Kurush's stride, his gestures—even his facial expressions—all had a nervous quickness about them. Almost eager, like a spirited thoroughbred before a race. They bore no resemblance whatever to the affected languor of aesthetes.Finally, there were the eyes. Like most Medes—and most Athenian aesthetes, for that matter—Kurush's eyes were brown. But there was nothing vague and unfocussed in their gaze. Despite his youth, the Persian was already beginning to develop faint wrinkles around the sockets. Those wrinkles did not come from studying poetry in Athens by candlelight. They came from studying terrain under the scorching desert sun.Kurush's first words, after setting down his goblet, were to Maurice. "I understand that you were in command of the Roman forces on the hill, at Mindouos."Maurice nodded. Kurush shook his head."You must have laughed at us, trying to drive our horses up that demon-created slope."Maurice hesitated, gauging the Persian. Then, with a little shrug:"You'd have done better to dismount."Kurush smiled. Quite cheerfully. "So I discovered! My horse was shot out from under me right at the start. I cursed my bad luck, at the time. But I think it was all that saved my life. On foot, I could duck behind boulders. Not even your arrows could penetrate rock!"Again, he shook his head. "I'd been warned—" He nodded toward Baresmanas. "—by my uncle, in fact, that no one in the world uses more powerful bows than Roman cataphracts. I didn't shrug off his warning—not that voice of experience—but I still hadn't expected to see an arrow drive right through my mount's armor."Then, with a frown:"You've got a very slow rate of fire, though. Do you really think the trade-off is worth it?"Belisarius had to fight down a laugh. The young Persian's frown was not hostile. Not in the least. For all the world, it reminded the general of nothing so much as a young aesthete's frown, contemplating the relative merits of two styles of lyric poetry.Maurice shrugged. "I don't think the question can be answered in purely military terms. There's the matter of national temperament, too. You Persians have a flair for mounted archery that I don't think Romans could ever match. So why make the attempt? Better to concentrate on what we do well, rather than become second-rate Persian imitations."Kurush nodded. "Well said." The young officer sighed. "It's probably all a moot point, anyway. These infernal new Malwa devices have changed everything.""Have you seen them in action?" asked Belisarius.Kurush winced. "Oh, yes. Three times, in fact. I've been at all the pitched battles we fought against the invaders on the open field, until we finally decided to withdraw and take a defensive stance at Babylon.""Describe the invasion for me, if you would," requested Belisarius. He gestured politely toward Baresmanas. "Your uncle has given me an excellent overall picture, but he was not a direct eyewitness. I would appreciate more detail.""Certainly." Kurush drained his goblet and reached for one of the small amphorae on the table. He began speaking while in the process of pouring himself more wine."There were hundreds of ships in the Malwa invasion fleet. Gigantic vessels, many of them. I'm no seaman, but those of my staff with maritime experience tell me that their big sailing ships have a carrying capacity of at least a thousand tons.""More like two thousand," interjected Belisarius, "if they're the same ships I saw being built at Bharakuccha."Kurush eyed him with respectful surprise. "I did not realize you had experience with naval matters."Belisarius chuckled. "I don't. Or very little, at least. But one of my companions in Bharakuccha was Garmat, the chief adviser for the King of Axum. That was his estimate, after seeing the ships. I think that estimate can be trusted. In my experience, all high-ranking Ethiopians are most definitely naval experts.""That's my experience as well," commented Baresmanas. He grimaced. "Two thousand tons. I don't think any Persian ship has that big a carrying capacity.""Nor any of ours," added Bouzes. "Except for a handful of the grain ships which sail out of Egypt."Belasarius nodded toward Kurush. "Please continue.""The fleet arrived with no warning—well—" He scowled. "No warning which was heeded. A few merchants gave the alarm, but they were ignored by the imperial authorities." The scowl deepened. "Arrogant bastards."Belisarius was amused to see the stiff, diplomatically expressionless faces of Bouzes, Coutzes, and Maurice. It was the commonly held opinion of most Romans that all Persian officials were "arrogant bastards." Belisarius did not share that opinion—Baresmanas and Kurush were not the first Persian nobles he had found likeable, even charming—but there was no denying that the charge had some basis in fact. Roman officials also, of course, could often be accused of "arrogant bastardom." But there was nothing in the world quite like a Persian aristocrat—especially one who also occupied a post in the imperial hierarchy—when it came to sheer, unadulterated, icy haughtiness. Compared to such, Rajput nobility could almost be described as casual and warm-hearted. Even the Malwa dynastic clan, for all their unparalleled brutality and megalomania, did not—quite—exhibit that sense of unthinking superiority over all other men.Apparently, Roman tact was insufficient. Either that, or Kurush was more perceptive than Belisarius had realized. The young Persian glanced around the table at the distant, polite expressions of the Romans. Then, with a little smile, added, "But perhaps no more so than others of their ilk."He quaffed some wine. Then continued:"The fleet entered the confluence of the Tigris-Euphrates Rivers and landed a huge army. The ships carried horses and even a score of elephants, in addition to their terrible new weapons. Within two days, they overwhelmed the garrison at Charax."The scowl returned in full force. "The murderous swine massacred the garrison and enslaved the entire population. The womenfolk were treated horridly, especially by those stinking Ye-tai barbarians whom the Malwa seem to dote on. The nobility were singled out for particular persecution. The Malwa were not in the least interested in obtaining ransom. Instead, they slaughtered all the male azadan—even babies—and all noblewomen except those who were young and pretty. Such girls were taken by the Malwa officers as concubines."He ran his long fingers through his thick hair. The scowl faded a bit, pushed aside by an expression of scholarly thoughtfulness. "In all the centuries that we Persians and you Romans have fought each other, there have been many atrocities committed." He waved his hand. "By both sides, by both sides. Still—I cannot think of a single instance of such gross and unvarnished cruelty. Not one.""There is no such instance," stated Baresmanas firmly. "Nothing on such a scale, at least. And let us also note that, for all the savageries which both our people have been guilty of in our dealings with each other, there have also been many—many—instances of generosity and chivalry."He bestowed an appreciative look on Belisarius. "Your mercy at Mindouos being one of the most outstanding examples.""Well said!" exclaimed his nephew. Kurush drained his wine. When he set the goblet back on the table, his expression combined good cheer and ruefulness."I know," he chuckled. "For a time, there, I was quite certain my throat was going to be slit." He shuddered, slightly. "Three of your damned Isaurians had me down—talk about mean, tough bastards!—grinning like wolves. They sounded like wolves, too, quarreling over which one was going to get the first bite."He grinned at Maurice. "Then one of you Thracian lads rode up and reasoned with them. Partly with a drawn bow, and partly with talk of my money."Maurice grinned back. "And how much was your ransom?"Kurush snorted. "Enough to set those three Isaurians up for life! Would you believe, the damned barbarians demanded—"He broke off. "But I'm straying. That was three years ago. The Malwa are here today—and, as my learned uncle so cogently remarks, I think we will see no such instances of mercy and forbearance coming from the Malwa.""It is not their method," agreed Belisarius. "The Malwa aristocracy is already rich. They are not even slightly interested in ransom. And the troops, who might be, are completely subjugated to their rule."He drained his own cup. "The Malwa seek to conquer the world. Nothing less. And they intend to rule it with a hand of iron. Charax was only the first atrocity of the many they will commit in Persia—and Rome, later, if Persia falls. But it was by no means their first. By no means." The gen-eral's face grew bleak. "I was at Ranapur, when the Malwa broke the rebellion. Two hundred thousand people were still alive in that great city, when the Malwa finally breached the walls. Five days later, after unspeakable atrocities, there were not more than fifty survivors. A few young noblewomen tough enough to survive their ordeal, and then sold into slavery."For a moment, the pavilion was filled with a grim silence. Then Maurice muttered:"Continue, please."Kurush shook off the mood. "After the Malwa finished their conquest of Charax, the bulk of their army proceeded upriver, accompanied by over a hundred of their smaller ships. The remainder of the fleet waited in Charax, while the Malwa began expanding and strengthening the port. We assume that those ships will return to India for further provisions, once the monsoon changes." He glanced toward the entrance of the pavilion, as if to gauge the season. "We're in the beginning of June, now. Within a month, the winds will be right for them."Belisarius nodded. "Their fleet will sail for Bharakuccha in July. Then, after reprovisioning, they'll begin their return journey toward the end of October. Early November, at the latest.""What are their actual military forces?" asked Coutzes.Kurush spread his hands on the table and leaned back. "You'll find this hard to believe, but—""No, we won't," said Belisarius, quite forcefully, with a warning glance at Bouzes and Coutzes."—based on my own personal observation, I estimate the total number of their troops—not counting the large garrison they left in Charax—at two hundred thousand men."When the expected Roman reaction did not emerge, Kurush's eyes widened slightly.Maurice cleared his throat. "Break that down a bit, if you would."Kurush paused, thinking."I don't think they have more than forty thousand cavalry. The great mass of their troops are infantry, and most of them seem of mediocre quality. The Ye-tai, of course, are quite ferocious in combat. But the Malwa seem to use them principally as a stiffener for their common troops.""They're primarily security battalions," interjected Belisarius. "That's how I saw the Malwa using them, when I was in India. In battle, their main job is to make sure that the common soldiers obey their officers. They're utterly ruthless toward deserters or even stragglers."Kurush nodded. "Most of the infantry are simply armed with traditional weapons. Spears, swords, axes. And their armor is flimsy, for the most part. As I said, mediocre-quality troops." He shrugged. "But with those huge numbers, they simply overwhelm their opposition. After they've ravaged the opponent with their demon weapons.""Describe the weapons," said Belisarius.Kurush spread his hands apologetically. "I will do so as best I can, Belisarius. But keep in mind that I only saw the damned things at a distance, and I was never sure exactly what I was watching.""Let's do it the other way around, then. Let me tell you what I think the Malwa are using, and you can correct me based on your direct experience."The Persian nodded. Belisarius took a sip of his wine, thinking, and then said, "I think—I hope, actually—their weapons fall into three main categories. Siege cannons, rockets, and grenades." After describing these three types of gunpowder weapons, based on his observations in India, Belisarius continued, "The rockets will be used in much the same manner that we Romans have traditionally used field artillery in a battle. The disadvantage of the rockets is their extreme inaccuracy—"He hesitated for a moment, fighting temptation. His own rockets—the katyusha rockets—had proven to be fairly accurate, in tests. Not as accurate as catapults, but much less erratic than the Malwa rockets he had observed. Guided by Aide, Belisarius had had real venturi made for his rockets, using all the skills of Greek metalsmiths. He had even insisted on machining the bronze exhaust nozzles. But he hoped their accuracy would come as a surprise to the enemy. He had no reason to distrust Baresmanas and Kurush, or to suspect they were loose-mouthed. Still—He glided over the problem, for the moment."—but they compensate by their destructiveness and their relative ease of operation. You don't have to lug around a heavy onager or scorpion to fire a rocket. Just a trough and a simple firing device. Then, too, the things tend to panic the opponent's cavalry horses."Kurush nodded gloomily. "It's impossible to control horses under a rocket barrage."Again, Belisarius hesitated, torn between the need for secrecy and distaste at hiding secrets from his own allies. This time, distaste won the struggle."That's not actually true, Kurush." Seeing the look of surprise in the young sahrdaran's face, Belisarius smiled crookedly."I thought the same, once, when I first encountered rockets. My subsequent experience, however, taught me that horses can become accustomed to the sound and fury of gunpowder weapons. The secret is to expose them to the noise at an early age. A full-grown warhorse, as a rule, will usually remain skittish. But a horse trained as a foal will manage well enough."He gestured toward the open flap of the pavilion. "The horses which pull my katyushas, for instance, have been specially selected for their steadiness under fire. And most of my bucellarii have been equipped with mounts trained to stand up under gunpowder fire."The two Persians at the table were stroking their beards thoughtfully. To Belisarius, their thoughts were obvious. Awkwardly obvious.Great news. But we Persians have no gunpowder weapons with which to train our horses. How to steal them from the enemy? Or—better yet—convince the Romans to supply us with the infernal things? For a moment, Belisarius and Baresmanas stared at each other. Then, seeing the Roman general's faint nod, Baresmanas looked away.We will discuss the matter later was the meaning of the nod. That, and:I have my opinion, but— That was enough. An experienced diplomat, Baresmanas was well aware of the controversies which were undoubtedly raging among the Romans over this very delicate problem. An alliance with Persia was one thing. Arming the ancient Medean foe with gunpowder weapons was a different proposition altogether.There was no point in pressing the matter at the moment, so Baresmanas changed the subject."And the grenades?" He pointed to Kurush. "According to my nephew, the things are solely used in close order assaults.""He's quite right. That is their function. I never observed them used any other way in India."He decided to pass on a secret, now. The enemy almost certainly knew it anyway. Some of their spies must have escaped the slaughter at the Hippodrome where Belisarius and Antonina crushed the Malwa-engineered Nika rebellion. If nothing else, the bodies of the traitor Narses and his companion Ajatasutra had never been found. Both Belisarius and Theodora were certain that the former Grand Chamberlain, with his legendary wiliness, had managed to make his escape.So:"My wife—she commands our only force of grenadiers, the Theodoran Cohort—has introduced a more long-range capability to grenade warfare."He described, briefly, the sling and sling-staff methods of Antonina's grenadiers, before concluding: "—but, even so, we are still talking about bow-range, no more."Baresmanas and Kurush nodded understandingly. Slings were not a weapon which Persian nobility favored personally, but they were quite familiar with the ancient devices.Belisarius poured himself some more wine and, then, after glancing inquiringly about the table, refilled the goblets of Bouzes and Baresmanas as well.As he set the wine down, the general reflected upon the absence of servants in the pavilion. That simple fact told him a great deal about his host, all of which met his complete approval.Kurush seemed otherwordly and absent-minded, in some ways. More precisely, he seemed absent-minded in the way that very rich people often are—so accustomed to personal service that they treat it as a routine fact of life. But when it came to military matters, Kurush had obviously been able to discard his class attitudes. The battle-tested officer had not made the nobleman's mistake of forgetting that lowly menials have ears, and minds, and tongues. So he and his distinguished guests would pour their own wine, and serve each other as comrades.Belisarius, after taking a sip of that excellent vintage, continued:"You will probably not have experienced the siege cannons, as yet. The devices are huge, heavy, and ungainly. Useless in a field battle. But you will encounter then soon enough, at Babylon. The Malwa will surely bring them up to reduce the walls.""How powerful are they?" asked Baresmanas."Think of the largest catapult you've ever seen, and then multiply the force of the projectile by a factor of three. No, four or five." He shrugged. "The Malwa do not use the things particularly well, in my opinion. Based, at least, on my observations at Ranapur. But they hardly need to. Ranapur was a great city, with the tallest and thickest brick walls I've ever seen. By the time the siege cannons were done—which still took months, mind you—those great walls were so much rubble."Kurush grimaced. "The walls of Babylon are not brick, more's the pity. At least, not kiln-brick. The outer walls were, at one time, but the city's been deserted for centuries. Over the years, the peasants of the region have used that good brick to build their own huts. All that's left of the outer walls is the rubble core. The inner walls are still standing, but they're made entirely of sun-dried bricks. After all these centuries, the walls aren't much stronger than packed earth.""Thick walls, though, aren't they?" asked Maurice.Kurush nodded. "Oh, yes. Very thick! The outer walls are still over fifty yards wide, with a hundred yard moat in front of them. The inner walls are a double wall, with a military road in the middle. Counting that road—say, seven yards in width—the inner walls probably measure some twenty yards in thickness."Maurice's eyes widened. Coutzes whistled softly, shaking his head. "God in heaven," he muttered. "I had no idea the ancients could build on such a scale."Bouzes snorted. "Why not, brother? You've seen the pyramids in Egypt. I know you have. I was standing right next to you when you whistled softly, shook your head, and said: 'God in Heaven. I had no idea the ancients could build on such a scale.' "The room erupted in laughter. Even Coutzes, after a momentary glare at his brother, started chuckling ruefully.The moment of humor was brief, however. Soon enough, grim reality returned.Again, Belisarius was torn by warring impulses. The need for secrecy, on the one hand, especially with regard to Aide's existence; the need—certainly the personal desire—for frankness with his new allies, on the other.He decided to steer a tricky middle course."Actually," he said, clearing his throat, "I think the nature of Babylon's walls will work entirely to your—I should say, our—advantage. Cannon fire—delivered by gigantic siege cannon, at any rate—is too powerful to be resisted by hard walls, whether brick or even stone. You're actually much better off using thick, soft walls. Such walls simply absorb the cannon shot, rather than trying to deflect it."All the other men at the table, except Maurice, stared at Belisarius with wide-eyed surprise. Maurice simply tightened his lips and gazed down at his goblet.Maurice was the only one in the pavilion who knew Belisarius' secret. The general had finally divulged it to him, months earlier, after his return from India. Belisarius had always felt guilty, during the long months he had kept that secret from Maurice. So, when he finally did reveal Aide's existence, he compensated by sharing Aide's insights with Maurice to a greater extent than he ever had with anyone else, even Antonina.Yet, if he had initially done so from guilt, his reasons had changed soon enough. In truth, he had found Maurice to be his most useful confidant—when it came, at least, to Aide's military advice. Not to Belisarius' surprise, the phlegmatic and practical Thracian peasant-turned-cataphract had been more receptive to Aide's often-bizarre advice than anyone else."You saw this in India?" queried Kurush. "Such fortifications?"Maurice gave Belisarius a quick, warning glance. The chiliarch knew full well where Belisarius had seen "such fortifications." Not in India, but in visions. Visions which Aide had put in his mind, of the siege warfare of the future. Especially the theories and the practice of a great student of fortifications over a millennium in the future. A man named Vauban, who would live in a country which would be called France."Not directly, no, Kurush. But I did notice, toward the end of the siege of Ranapur, that the crumbled walls actually resisted the siege cannons better than they had while the brickwork was still intact."He mentally patted himself on the back. It was not entirely a lie, after all. He consoled himself with the thought that the rubbled walls of Ranapur had, in retrospect, resisted the cannon shot quite well. Even if he hadn't noticed at the time.Fortunately, the lie passed muster. Kurush and Baresmanas seemed so relieved by the information that they showed no inclination to press Belisarius on the point.The conversation now began to turn toward the Malwa's relative weakness in cavalry, especially heavy cavalry, and how the allied forces might best take advantage of it. But before the discussion had gotten very far, they were interrupted.A Persian officer bearing the insignia of an imperial courier entered the tent, somewhat apologetically, and approached the table. As he leaned over and whispered something to Baresmanas, Belisarius politely looked away and diverted the Romans' attention with an anecdote from the siege of Ranapur. The anecdote, involving his assessment of the relative merits of Rajput and Ye-tai cavalry, was interesting enough to capture the full attention of Bouzes and Coutzes and, to all appearances, Maurice. But he noted that Kurush was paying hardly any attention at all. The young sahrdaran's face was stiff. Whatever news was being whispered into Baresmanas' ear, Belisarius was certain, his nephew suspected its content. And was not happy in his suspicion.When the courier left, Baresmanas gave Belisarius a quick look which, subtly, conveyed both apology and request.Understanding, Belisarius rose and said: "It's late, and we're all tired. I think it would be best to continue this discussion later. We'll have plenty of opportunity to talk during our march south."The other Romans immediately followed his example. Within two minutes, they were mounting their horses outside the pavilion and riding toward the Roman encampment nearby."Something's up," said Coutzes."Politics," announced his brother. "Got to be."Belisarius was a bit startled. Abstractly, he knew Bouzes and Coutzes were not stupid. But the brothers had behaved with such thoroughgoing foolishness, during his previous encounter with them three years earlier, that he had not expected such quick perspicacity.He said nothing in reply, however. Not until he and Maurice parted company with the brothers at their tent, and began riding toward the Thracian part of the encampment."He's right, you know," commented Maurice.Belisarius nodded. "They've got a succession crisis. Khusrau's new to the throne and he's got lots of half-brothers. Ormazd, in particular, was not happy with the situation. Civil war probably would have broken out, if the Malwa hadn't invaded. Persians can sneer at us crude adoption-happy Romans all they want, but they've got their own sorry history of instability whenever the throne's up for grabs. Often enough in the past, when a Persian Emperor died, a civil war erupted. One claimant from the Sassanid dynasty fighting another. Three or four of them at once, sometimes."They rode on a little further in silence. Then, Maurice smiled and remarked:"I thought you did quite well, by the way. Lying through your teeth, I mean. The little touch about the crumbling brick walls of Ranapur was especially nice. Had such a ring of authenticity about it. Completely avoided the—uh, awkwardness—of explaining to a couple of Persian sahrdaran that your experience with fortifications in the new age of gunpowder comes from the advice of a fucking barbarian—a Gaul,no less—who won't even be born for twelve hundred years."Belisarius grimaced. Maurice plowed on cheerfully."You did let one thing slip, though. When you mentioned that you hoped the only weapons the Malwa had were siege guns, rockets and grenades."Belisarius winced. But Maurice seemed determined to till the entire field."Bad slip, that. Fortunately, the Persians didn't catch it. Or they might have asked: 'what particular weapons do you fear seeing?' "The chiliarch glanced at his general slyly. "Then what would you have said?"Belisarius stared ahead, stiff-faced, silent."Oh, yes," chuckled Maurice. "Difficult, that would have been."He mimicked Belisarius' distinctive baritone: "I hope we don't see mobile artillery. Or, even worse, handcannons. You know—the stuff we Romans have been trying to develop through our secret weapons project, guided by visions of the future from a magical jewel some of us call the Talisman of God. Not, mind you, with any instant success."They were at the tent which they shared. Belisarius dismounted. On the ground, he stared up at Maurice's grinning countenance. Then said, firmly, even severely, "I have the utmost confidence in John of Rhodes."Maurice shook his head. "That's because you've never worked with him."The chiliarch dismounted from his own horse, and followed Belisarius into the tent. "I have, on the other hand," he grumbled. "Quite the exciting experience, that is."