Summer, 531 a.d."Get down, you idiot!"Antonina ducked behind the barricade. Just in time. There was a sharp, nasty-sounding, explosive crack. An instant later, an object went whizzing overhead somewhere in her vicinity.John's head popped up behind his own barricade. When Antonina gingerly looked up, she found the naval officer's blue eyes glaring at her fiercely."How many times do I have to tell you?" he demanded. "This stuff is dangerous!"The other observers of the test, five Roman officers, were beginning to rise from behind the heavy wooden barricades which surrounded, on three sides, the cannon which had been tested.The late, lamented cannon. Lying on its side, off the heavy wooden cradle, with one of the wrought iron bars which made up its barrel missing. Seeing that gaping, scorched split running down the entire length of the barrel, Antonina winced. The missing iron bar was the object which had whizzed past—and it could have easily taken off her head.John stumped out from behind his barricade."That's it! That's it!" he cried. He transferred his glare to the little cluster of Roman officers and pointed a imperious finger at Antonina. "This woman is henceforth banned for all time from the testing area!" he pronounced. "You are encharged with enforcing that order!"Hermogenes cleared his throat. "Can't do that, John. Antonina's in command, you know. Of you and me both. Direct imperial mandate. If you want to inform the Empress Theodora that you're over-riding her authority, you go right ahead and do it. Not me.""'Druther piss on a dragon, myself," muttered one of the other officers, the young Syrian named Euphronius who served as Antonina's chief executive officer for the Theodoran Cohort.The regular infantry officer standing next to him, who served Hermogenes in the same capacity, nodded sagely."So would I," agreed Callixtos. "A big, angry, wide-awake, hungry dragon—""—guarding its hoard," concluded another officer. This man, Ashot, was the commander of the Thracian bucellarii whom Belisarius had assigned to accompany his wife to Egypt.The last of the officers said nothing. His name was Menander, and he was new to his post. A hecatontarch, he was now—theoretically, the commander of a hundred men. A lad of twenty, who had never before commanded anyone. But Menander's title was a mere formality. His real position was that of Antonina's "special adviser."Menander was the third of the three cataphracts who had accompanied Belisarius in his expedition to India. The other two, Valentinian and Anastasius, had remained with the general as his personal bodyguards. Menander, who had little of their frightening expertise in slaughter, had been assigned a different task. Belisarius thought Menander had gained an excellent grasp of gunpowder weapons and tactics during the course of their adventures in India, and so he had presented him to his wife with praise so fulsome the fair-skinned youth turned beet-red.So, unsure of himself, Menander said nothing. But, quite sure of his loyalties, he squared his shoulders and stepped to Antonina's side.John, seeing the united opposition of the entire military command of the expedition, threw up his hands in despair."I'm not responsible then!" The blue-eyed glare focussed again on Antonina. "You are doomed, woman. Doomed, I say! Destined for an early grave!"John began stumping about, arms akimbo. "Dismembered," he predicted. "Disemboweled," he forecast. "Decapitated."With a serene air of augury: "Shredded into a bloody, corpuscular mass of mutilated and mangled flesh."Antonina, from long experience, waited until John had stumped about for a minute or so before she spoke."Exactly what happened, John?" she asked.As always, once his irascibility was properly exercised, the naval officer's quick mind moved back to the forefront.John gave the splintered cannon a cursory glance. "Same thing that usually happens with these damned wrought-iron cannons," he growled. "If there's any flaw at all in the welding, one of the staves will burst."He stepped over to the cannon and squatted next to it."Come here," he commanded. "I'll show you the problem."Antonina came around the barricade and stooped next to him. A moment later, the five officers were also gathered around.John pointed to one of the iron bars which ran down the length of the barrel. The barrel was made up of twelve such bars—eleven, now, on this ruptured one. The bars were an inch square in cross-section and about three feet long. The corners of each bar joined its mates on the inside of the barrel, forming a dodecagonal tube about three inches in diameter. On the outside diameter of the barrel, the gaps between the bars had been filled up with weld.John pointed to the broken welds which had once held the missing bar in place. "That's where they always rupture," he said. "And they do it about a third of the time."He scowled, more thoughtfully than angrily. "I wouldn't even mind if the things were predictable. Then I could just test each one of them, and discard the failures. Won't work. I've seen one of these things blow up after it had fired successfully at least twenty times."Hesitantly, Euphronius spoke up. "I notice you don't have the same hoops welded around the barrel that you have on the handcannons. Wouldn't that strengthen the barrel, if you added them?"Antonina watched John struggle with his temper. The struggle was very brief, however. When the naval officer spoke his voice was mild, and his tone simply that of patient explanation. It was one of the many things she liked about the Rhodian. For all of John's legendary irritability, Antonina had long ago realized that John was one of those rare hot-tempered people who is rude to superiors yet, as a rule, courteous to social inferiors."Yes, it would, Euphronius," he said. "But here's the problem. The handcannons are small, and reasonably light—even with the addition of a few reinforcing hoops. Furthermore, the powder charge isn't really all that big. But to accomplish the same purpose with these three-inchers, I'd have to surround the barrel with hoops down its entire length. That adds a lot of weight—"He hesitated, calculating."Right now, these things weigh about one hundred and fifty pounds. If you add the hoops—as I said, we'd have to run the hoops all the way down the length, not just occasional reinforcement like the handcannons—you'd wind up with a barrel weighing another fifty pounds or so. Say two hundred pounds—and that's just the weight of the barrel. Doesn't include the cradle.""That's not so bad," commented Ashot. "Especially if you use it on a warship.""Yes and no," replied John. "It's true that the weight wouldn't matter on a ship. The problem is with the integrity of the iron."He glanced at Antonina."One of the things Belisarius told me—and I've verified it with my own tests—is that these welded wrought-iron cannons have to be properly maintained. The damned things have to be cleaned in boiling water after each period of use, or else the powder residues build up and start corroding the metal." He grimaced. So did Ashot.Hermogenes, staring back and forth at the two men, frowned with puzzlement. "I don't see the problem," he said. "Sure, that'd be a real nuisance for a land army, having to boil water and wash out the cannons. Especially in the desert. But on a ship—"John's eyes bugged out. Before the naval officer could give vent to his outrage, Ashot intervened."Don't forget, John. He's never served at sea."John clenched his jaws. "Obviously not," he growled.Ashot, smiling, said to Hermogenes, "The one thing you do not want to do on a ship is build a big fire in order to boil a huge kettle of water. Believe me, Hermogenes, you don't. There's nothing in the world that'll burn like a ship. All that oil-soaked wood—pitch—rigging—""Damned ships are like so much kindling, just waiting to go up," concurred John. "Besides, what water would you use? Sea-water? That'd corrode the barrels even faster!"Antonina straightened. "That's it, then. We'll go with cast bronze guns for the warships. And the field artillery. We'll restrict the wrought-iron weapons for the infantry's handguns.""They'll still blow up, now and then," warned John.Euphronius smiled, with surprising good cheer. "Yes, John, they will. I've seen it happen—had it happen to me, once—and it's a bit scary. But my grenadiers can handle it. The one nice thing about these wrought-iron guns, when they do go, is that they blow sideways, not back. Startling as hell, but it's not really that dangerous.""Except to the man standing next to you," muttered Callixtos."Not really. Don't forget—the handcannons have those hoop reinforcements. So far, every time one of the guns has blown—which, by the way, doesn't happen all that often—the hoops have kept the staves from flying off like so many spears. What you get is ruptured pieces. Those can hurt you, sure—even kill you, maybe—but the odds aren't bad." Euphronius shrugged. "That's life. We're farmers and shepherds, Callixtos. Farming's dangerous too, believe it or not. Especially dealing with livestock. My cousin was crippled just last year, when—"He broke off, waving aside the incident. All who watched the Syrian peasant-turned-grenadier were struck by the calm fatalism of the gesture."We'll manage," he repeated. The cheerful smile returned. "Though I will emphasize the importance of keeping the guns clean, to my grenadiers. Even if that means having to haul a bunch of heavy kettles around."Now, chuckling:"The wives'll scream bloody murder, of course, since they'll wind up doing most of the hauling."John was still not satisfied. "Bronze is expensive," he complained. "Iron cannons are a lot cheaper."Antonina shook her head."We'll just have to live with the cost. I won't subject my soldiers and sailors to that kind of gamble. Let the treasury officials wail all they want."Grimly: "If they wail too much, I'll refer them to Theodora."Her usual good humor returned. "Besides, John, we can make the giant fortress cannons out of wrought iron. Once we get to Alexandria. It won't matter what they weigh, since they'll never be moved once they're erected to defend the city. And there'll be no problem keeping them clean. The garrison gunners won't have anything else to do anyway. Hopefully, the guns'll never be used."John scowled. "Are you sure about this?" he demanded.He was not talking about the cannons, now. He was raising—again—the argument he had been having with Antonina since she arrived at Rhodes. The very first instruction Antonina had given John, almost the minute she set foot on the island, was to organize the transfer of the armaments complex he had so painstakingly built up, in its entirety, to Alexandria.Antonina sighed."John, we've been over this a hundred times. Rhodes is just too isolated. The war with the Malwa will be won in the south. Egypt's the key. And besides—"She hesitated. Like most Rhodians of her acquaintance, John had a fierce attachment to his native island. But—"Face the truth, John. Rhodes isn't just isolated—it's too damn small."She waved her hand toward the cluster of workshops some fifty yards away from the testing range. The workshops, like the testing area, were perched on a small bluff overlooking the sea. Behind them rose a steep and rocky ridge."This is a war like no other ever fought. We need to build a gigantic arms complex to fight it. That means Alexandria, John, not this little island. Alexandria's the second largest city in the Empire, after Constantinople, and it has by far the greatest concentration of manufactories, artisans, and skilled craftsmen. There's nowhere else we can put together the materials—and, most importantly, the workforce—quickly enough.""Egypt's the richest agricultural province of the Empire, too," added Hermogenes. "So we won't have any problems keeping that workforce fed. Whereas here on Rhodes—"He left off, gesturing at the rugged terrain surrounding them. Rhodes was famous, throughout the Mediterranean world, for the skill of its seamen and the savvy of its merchants. Both of which talents had developed, over the centuries, to compensate for the island's hardscrabble agriculture.John stood up slowly. "All right," he sighed. Then, with a suspicious glance at Antonina:"You sure this isn't just an elaborate scheme to justify a triumphant return to your native city?"Antonina laughed. There was no humor in that sound. None at all. "When I left Alexandria, John, I swore I'd never set foot in that place again." For a moment, her beautiful face twisted into a harsh, cold mask. "Fuck Alexandria. All I remember is poverty, scraping, and—"She paused, shrugged. All of the men standing around knew her history. All of them except Euph-ronius had long known.The Syrian peasant had only learned that history three months earlier, when Antonina selected him as her executive officer and invited him and his wife to her villa for dinner. She had told them, then, over the wine after the meal. Watching carefully for their reaction. Euphronius had been shocked, a bit, but his admiration for Antonina had enabled him to overcome the moment.His wife Mary had not been shocked at all. She, too, admired Antonina. But, unlike her husband, she understood the choices facing girls born into poverty. Mary had chosen a different path than Antonina—for a moment, her hand had caressed her husband's, remembering the tenderness of a sixteen-year-old shepherd boy—but she did not condemn the alternative. She had thought about it herself, more than once, before deciding to marry Euphronius and accept the life of a peasant's wife.Antonina turned away. "Fuck Alexandria," she repeated. Chapter 10MESOPOTAMIA
Summer, 531 a.d.An hour into the march from Callinicum, Bares-manas passed on the bad news."It seems we may face a civil war, after all, on top of the Malwa invasion," he said grimly.The Persian nobleman stared out over the arid landscape of northern Mesopotamia. Other than the occasional oasis, the only relief from the bleak desolation was the Euphrates, half a mile east of the road the army was taking.Belisarius cocked an eyebrow toward the sahrdaran, but said nothing. After a moment, Baresmanas sighed."I had hoped it would not come to this. But Ormazd was always a fool. Khusrau's half-brother has a great deal of support among some of the sahrdaran families, especially the Varazes and the Andigans. A large part of the Karen are favorable to him, also. And he is quite popular among the imperial vur-zurgan. All of that has apparently gone to his head."Stupid!" he snorted. "The great mass of the dehgans have made clear that their loyalty is to Khusrau. Without them—" Baresmanas shrugged.Belisarius nodded thoughtfully, reviewing his knowledge of the power structure in Persia.Persian society was rigidly divided into classes, and class position usually translated directly into political power. The seven sahrdaran families provided the satraps of major provinces and, often enough, the royalty of subordinate kingdoms. Below the great sahrdaran houses came the class of "grandees," whom the Persians called vurzurgan. The vuzurgan ruled small provinces, and filled the higher ranks of the imperial officialdom.Finally, at the base of the Persian aristocracy, came the azadan—"men of noble birth." Most of these consisted of small landed gentry, that class which the Persians called the dehgans. It was the dehgans who provided the feared armored lancers which were the heart of the mighty Persian army.So—Khusrau's rival Ormazd, for all that he had gained the support of many high-ranked noblemen, had failed to win the allegiance of the men who provided Persia's rulers with their mailed fist.Belisarius smiled his crooked smile. "Even Aryan principles," he murmured, "have to take crude reality into account."Baresmanas matched the sly smile with one of his own, saying: "It's your fault, actually."Belisarius' eyes widened. "My fault? How in the world—""Ormazd's most powerful and influential supporter is Firuz. Who is a Karen, as you may know."Belisarius shook his head. "No, I did not know. We are speaking of the same Firuz who—""Yes, indeed. The same Firuz—the same illustrious champion—who led the Aryan army at Mindouos. Led it to its most ignominious defeat in well over a century—at your hands, my friend."Belisarius frowned. "I knew he had survived the battle. I even visited, while we held him captive, to pay my respects. He was quite rude, so my visit was very brief. But I did not know he was Karen, and I had no idea he held such sway in dynastic affairs."Baresmanas chuckled scornfully. "Oh, yes. He is quite the favorite of imperial grandees, and the Mazda priesthood thinks well of him also. That favoritism, in fact, is what led to him being given the command of the army at Nisibis. Despite his obvious"—all humor vanished—"military incompetence."Belisarius was distracted for a moment. A serpent slithering off the road had unsettled his mount. After calming the horse, he turned back to Baresmanas and said: "That would explain, I imagine, the hostility of the dehgans to his candidate Ormazd."The sahrdaran tightened his lips. "They have not forgotten that insane charge he led at Mindouos, which trapped us against your field fortifications." He shuddered. "What a hideous slaughter!"For a moment, the sahrdaran's face was drawn, almost haggard. Belisarius looked away, controlling his own grimace. It had been pure butchery in the center at Mindouos. Just as he had planned—trapping the Persian lancers against his infantry while he hammered them from the flank with his own heavy cavalry.He sighed. Over the past months, he had become quite fond of Baresmanas. Yet he knew he would do it all again, if the necessity arose.Something of his sentiments must have been clear to the Persian. Baresmanas leaned over and said, almost in a whisper:"Such is war, my friend. In this, if nothing else, we are much alike—neither of us gives any credence to myths of glory and martial grandeur.""As my chiliarch Maurice taught me," Belisarius replied harshly, "war is murder. Organized, systematic murder—nothing more and nothing less. It was the first thing he said to me on the day I assumed command as an officer. Seventeen, I was, at the time. But I had enough sense to ask my chief subordinate—he was a decarch, then—his opinion."Baresmanas twisted in his saddle, looking back at the long column which followed them."Where is Maurice, by the way? I did not see him when we set out this morning." He studied the column more closely. "For that matter, where are your two bodyguards?"Now, Belisarius did grimace. "There's been a problem. I asked Maurice to deal with it. I sent Valentinian and Anastasius with him, along with a regiment of my bucellarii."Baresmanas eyed him shrewdly. "Looting?"The general's grimace deepened. "Worse. In Callinicum last night, some of the Constantinople garrison got drunk in a tavern and raped the girl who was serving them. The tavernkeeper's own daughter, as it happened. When the tavernkeeper and his two sons tried to intervene, the soldiers murdered all three of them."Baresmanas shook his head. "It happens. Especially with troops—""Not in my army it doesn't." The general's jaws were tight. "Not more than once, anyway.""You have punished the culprits.""I had all eight of them beheaded."Baresmanas was silent for a moment. An experienced officer, he understood full well the implications. Armies, like empires, have their own internal divisions."You are expecting trouble from the Constantinople garrison troops," he stated. "They will resent the execution of their comrades by your Thracian retinue.""They can resent it all they want," snarled Belisarius. "Just so long as they've learned to fear my bucellarii."He twisted in his saddle, looking back."The reason Maurice and his men aren't at the front of the army this morning is because they're riding on the flanks of the Constantinople troops. Dragging eight bodies behind them on ropes. And a sack full of eight heads."He turned back, his face set in a cold glare. "We've got enough problems to deal with. If those garrison soldiers get the idea they can run wild in a Roman town, just imagine what they'd do once we reach Persian territory."Baresmanas pursed his lips. "That would be difficult. Especially with Ormazd stirring up trouble against what he's calling Khusrau's 'capitulation' to the Roman Empire."Belisarius chuckled. "The Malwa Empire is ravaging Persia and Ormazd is denouncing his half-brother for finding an ally?"The sahrdaran shrugged. "If it weren't that, it would be something else. The man's ambitions are unchecked. We had hoped he would accept his status, but—"Belisarius looked at him directly. "What exactly is the news that was brought by your courier?""It is not news, Belisarius, so much as an assessment. After the Malwa invaded, Ormazd formally acquiesced to Khusrau's assumption of the throne. In return, Khusrau named him satrap of northern Mesopotamia—the rich province we call Asuristan and you call by its ancient name of Assyria. Ormazd pledged to bring thirty thousand troops to the Emperor's aid at Babylon. We have learned that he has in fact gathered those troops, but is remaining encamped near the capital at Ctesiphon. At your ancient Greek city of Seleucia, in fact, just across the Tigris."The sahrdaran bestowed his own cold glare on the landscape. "Well positioned, in short, to seize our capital. And serving no use in the war against Malwa. We suspect the worst.""You think Ormazd is in collusion with the Malwa?"Baresmanas heaved a sigh."Who is to know? For myself, I do not believe so—not at the moment, at least. I think Ormazd is simply waiting on the side, ready to strike if Khusrau is driven out of Babylon." He rubbed his face wearily. "I must also tell you, Belisarius, that the courier brought instructions for me. Once we reach Peroz-Shapur, I will have to part company with your army. I am instructed by the Emperor to take Kurush and my soldiers—and the remainder of my household troops, who await me at Peroz-Shapur—to Ormazd's camp.""And do what?" asked Belisarius.Baresmanas shrugged. "Whatever I can. 'Encourage' Ormazd, you might say, to join the battle against the invaders."Belisarius eyed him for a moment. "How many household troops will there be at Peroz-Shapur?""Two thousand, possibly three."Belisarius looked over his shoulder, as if to gauge Baresmanas' forces. The seven hundred Persian cavalrymen who escorted the sahrdaran were barely visible further back in the long column."Less than four thousand men," he murmured. "That's not going to be much of an encouragement."Again, Baresmanas shrugged.Belisarius broke into a grin. "Such a diplomat! Do you mean to tell me that Emperor Khusrau made no suggestion that you might request a bit of help from his Roman allies?"Baresmanas glanced at him. "Well . . . The courier did mention, as a matter of fact, that the Emperor had idly mused that if the Roman commander were to be suddenly taken by a desire to see the ancient ruins of the glorious former capital of the Greek Seleucids—that he would have no objections." Baresmanas nodded. "None whatsoever."Belisarius scratched his chin. "Seleucia. Yes, yes. I feel a sudden hankering to see the place. Been a life-long dream, in fact."They rode on for a bit, in companionable silence, until Belisarius remarked: "Seleucia wasn't actually founded by Greeks, by the way. Macedonians."Baresmanas waved his hand. "Please, Belisarius! You can hardly expect a pureblood Aryan to understand these petty distinctions. As far as we are concerned, you mongrels from the west come in only two varieties. Bad Greeks and worse Greeks."