Destiny's shielderic Flint & David Drake

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Chapter 11Two days later, the long-simmering discontent of the Constantinople troops came to a boil. After the midday break, when the order was given to resume the march, the garrison soldiers remained squatting by their campfires, refusing to mount up.Their action had obviously been coordinated in advance. Several of his Thracian bucellarii, including Maurice, reported to Belisarius that the garrison troopers' sub-officers had been seen circulating through the route camp during the break. The top officers of the Constantinople soldiers, the chiliarch and the tribunes, were apparently not involved directly. But they were just as apparently making no effort to restore discipline to their troops."It's an organized mutiny," concluded Maurice angrily. "This is not just some spontaneous outburst."Belisarius made a calming gesture with his hand. For a moment, he stared at the Euphrates, as if seeking inspiration from its placidly moving waters. As usual, whenever possible, the army had taken its mid-day break at a place where the road ran next to the river.He wiped his face with a cloth. The heat was oppressive, even in the shade provided by the canopy which his men had erected for him at the break. The shelter was not a tent—simply a canvas stretched across six poles. Enough to provide some relief from the sun, while not blocking the slight breeze."Let's not use that term," the general stated firmly. He met Maurice's glare with a calm gaze. " 'Mutiny' isn't just a curse word, Maurice. It's also a legal definition. If I call this a mutiny, I am required by imperial edict to deal with it in specific ways. Ways which, at the moment, I am not convinced are necessary. Or wise."Belisarius scanned the faces of the other men crowded into the shelter of the lean-to. All of the top commanders of the army were there, except for the officers in charge of the Constantinople troops. Their absence made their own shaky allegiance quite clear.Baresmanas and Kurush were also standing there. Belisarius decided to deal with that problem first."I would appreciate it, Kurush, if you would resume the march with your own troops. Move as slowly as you can, without obviously dawdling, so that we Romans can catch up to you as soon as this problem is settled. But, for the moment, I think it would be best if—"Kurush nodded. "There's no need to explain, Belisarius. You don't need Aryan soldiers mixed into this brew. We'd just become another source of tension."He turned away, moving with his usual nervous energy, and began giving quick orders to his subordinates. Baresmanas followed, after giving Belisarius a supportive smile.With none but Romans now present, the atmosphere eased a bit. Or, it might be better to say, Roman inhibitions relaxed."Call it what you want," snarled Coutzes. "I think you ought to give those fucking garrison commanders the same treatment you gave those eight fucking—""I think we ought to hear what the general thinks," interjected Bouzes. He laid a restraining hand on his brother's arm. "He is noted for his cunning, you know. Or have you forgotten?"Coutzes made a sour face, but fell silent. Bouzes grinned at Belisarius. "Perhaps we might announce the suddenly-discovered presence of a Malwa pay caravan?" he suggested cheerfully. "Send the garritroopers off on a 'reconnaissance-in-force'?"All the officers standing around erupted in laughter, except Belisarius. But even he, in the humor of the moment, could not help returning Bouzes' grin.In the few days since Bouzes and Coutzes had joined his forces, Belisarius had come to share Sittas and Hermogenes' assessment of the two brothers. Neither one, it was true—especially Coutzes—had entirely shed their youthful tendencies toward hot-headedness. But those tendencies, in the three years since Mindouos, had clearly been tempered by experience.Belisarius' grin faded, but a smile remained. Yes, he had already decided that he approved of the Thracian brothers. Not all men have the temperament to learn from experience. Belisarius himself did, and he prized that ability in others.Humor, he thought, was the key—especially the ability to laugh at oneself. When he heard Bouzes and Coutzes, in Callinicum, invite Maurice to join them in a "reconnaissance-in-force" to the nearest tavern, he knew the brothers would work out just fine.He shook off the humor. His problem remained, and it was not comical in the least. "I want to settle this without bloodshed," he announced. "And I don't think it's needed, anyway. Maurice, I'm not quibbling with you over legal definitions. I simply think that you're misreading the situation."Maurice tugged his beard. "Maybe," he said, grudgingly. "But—"Again, Belisarius held up a hand. Maurice shrugged, slightly, and fell silent.The general now turned toward Timasius, the commander of the five hundred Illyrian cavalrymen given to him by Germanicus."Your men are the key to the situation," he announced. "Key, at least, to the way I handle it. Where do they stand?"Timasius frowned. "Stand? Exactly how do you mean that, general?"Timasius' thick accent—like most Illyrians from Dacia, his native language was Latin rather than Greek—always made him seem a bit dull-witted. At first, Belisarius had dismissed the impression, until further acquaintance with the man had led him to the conclusion that Timasius was, in fact, a bit on the dim side. He seemed a competent enough officer, true, when dealing with routine matters. But—Belisarius decided he had no time to be anything other than blunt and direct."What I mean, Timasius, is that you Illyrians have also been complaining loudly since we began the march two months ago." He waved down the officer's gathering sputter of protest. "I am not accusing you of anything! I am simply stating a fact."Timasius lapsed into mulish, resentful silence. Belisarius tightened his jaws, prepared to drive the matter through. But it proved unnecessary. Timasius' chief subordinate, a hecatontarch by the name of Liberius, spoke up."It's not the same, general. It's true, our men have been grousing a lot—but that's just due to the unaccustomed exertions of this forced march."The man scowled. On his heavy-set, low-browed face, the expression made him seem like an absolute dullard. But his ensuing words contradicted the impression."You've got to distinguish between that and what's eating the Constantinople men. They're a lot of pampered garrison troops. True, they're not nobility, except the officers—not that unit—but they've picked up the attitude. They're used to lording it over everybody, friend and foe alike." The scowl deepened. The man's brow disappeared almost completely. "Especially over their own, the snotty bastards. That girl in Callinicum wasn't the first tavern maid they've been free with, you can be sure of that. Probably been quite a few in Constantinople itself given that same treatment—and had it hushed up afterward, by the capital's authorities."A little growl from several of the other officers under the canopy indicated their concurrence."Illyrian soldiers aren't exactly famous for their gentle manners, either," commented Belisarius mildly.Liberius winced. In point of fact, Illyrian troops had the reputation of being the most atrocity-prone of any Roman army, other than outright mercenaries."It's still not the same," he stated—forcefully, but not sullenly. Belisarius was impressed by the man's dispassionate composure.Liberius gestured toward Bouzes and Coutzes, and the other officers from the Syrian army. "These lads are used to dealing with Persians. Civilized, the Medes are. Sure, when war breaks out both sides have been known to act badly. But, even then, it's a matter between empires. And in between the wars—which is most of the time—the borderlands are quiet and peaceful."Several of the Syrian officers nodded. Liberius continued: "What you don't get is what we have in Illyricum—constant, unending skirmishes with a lot of barbarian savages. Border villages ravaged by some band of Goths or Avars who are just engaging in casual plunder. Their own kings—if you can call them that—don't even know about it, most of the time." He shrugged. "So we repay the favor on the nearest barbarian village."The scowl returned in full force. "That is not the same thing as raping a girl in your own town—and then murdering half her family in the bargain!"Again, the growl of agreement swept the room. Louder, this time. Much louder.Belisarius glanced at Timasius. Liberius' slow-thinking commander had finally caught up with his subordinate's thoughts. He too, now, was nodding vehemently.Belisarius was satisfied. For the moment, at least. But he made a note to speak to the Illyrian commanders in the near future. To remind them that they would soon be operating in Persia, and that the treatment which Illyrians were accustomed to handing out to barbarians in the trans-Danube would not be tolerated in Mesopotamia.He moved out of the shade, toward his horse. "All right, then."His officers made to follow. Belisarius waved them back. "No," he announced. "I'll handle this myself.""What?" demanded Coutzes. "You're not taking anyone with you?"Belisarius smiled crookedly, holding up two fingers."Two." He pointed toward Valentinian and Anas-tasius, who had been waiting just outside the canopy throughout the conference. As soon as they saw his gesture, the two cataphracts began mounting their horses.Once he was on his own horse, Belisarius smiled down at his officers—all of whom, except Maurice, were staring at him as if he were insane."Two should be enough," he announced placidly, and spurred his horse into motion.As the three men began riding off, Valentinian muttered something under his breath."What did he say?" wondered Bouzes. "I didn't catch it."Maurice smiled, thinly. "I think he said 'piss on crazy strategoi.' "He turned back toward the shade of the shelter. "But maybe not. Be terribly disrespectful of the high command! Maybe he just said 'wish on daisies, attaboy.' Encouraging his horse, you know. Poor beast's probably as sick of this desert as we are

"* * *As they headed down the road, Belisarius waved Valentinian and Anastasius forward. Once the two men were riding on either side, he said:"Don't touch your weapons unless the muti—ah, dispirited troops—take up theirs."He gave both men a hard glance. Anastasius' heavy face held no expression. Valentinian scowled, but made no open protest.A thin smile came to the general's face. "Mainly, what I want you to do after we arrive at the Greeks' camp is to disagree with me."Anastasius' eyes widened. "Disagree, sir?"Belisarius nodded. "Yes. Disagree. Not too openly, mind. I am your commanding officer, after all. But I want you to make clear, in no uncertain terms, that you think I'm an idiot."Anastasius frowned. Valentinian muttered."What was that last, Valentinian?" queried Belisarius. "I'm not sure I caught it."Silence. Anastasius rumbled: "He said: 'That won't be hard.' ""That's what I thought he said," mused Belisarius. He grinned. "Well! You won't have any difficulty with the assignment, then. It'll come naturally to you."Valentinian muttered again, at some length. Anastasius, not waiting for a cue, interpreted. "He said—I'm summarizing—that clever fellows usually wind up outsmarting themselves. Words to that effect."Belisarius frowned. "That's all? It seemed to me he muttered quite a few more words than that. Entire sentences, even."Anastasius shook his head sadly. "Most of the other words were just useless adjectives. Very redundant." The giant bestowed a reproving glance on his comrade. "He's given to profanity."They were nearing the encampment of the Con-stantinople garrison troops. Belisarius spurred his horse into a trot. After Valentinian and Anastasius dropped back to their usual position as his bodyguards, Belisarius cocked his head and said:"Remember. Disagree. Disapprove. If I say something reasonable, scowl. Pleasant, snarl. Calm and soothing—spit on the ground."Mutter, mutter, mutter.Belisarius repressed his smile. He did not ask for a translation. He was quite sure the words had been pure profanity.They began encountering the first outposts of the Constantinople garrison. Within a minute, trotting forward, they passed several hundred soldiers, huddled in small groups at the outer perimeter of the route camp. As Belisarius had expected, a large number of the troops were holding back from the body of men milling around in the center. These would be the faint-hearts and the fence-sitters—or the "semi-loyalists," if you preferred.He made it a point to bestow a very cordial smile upon all those men. Even a verbal greeting, here and there. Valentinian and Anastasius immediately responded with their own glowers, which Valentinian accompanied by a nonstop muttering. The garrison troops responded to the general's smile, in the main, with expressions of uncertainty. But Belisarius noted that a number of them managed their own smiles in return. Timid smiles; sickly smiles—but smiles nonetheless.I knew it, he thought, with considerable self-satisfaction.Aide's voice came into his mind. Knew what? And what is going on? I am confused. Belisarius hesitated, before responding. To his—"its," technically, but the general had long since come to think of Aide as "he"—consciousness, insubordination and rebellion were bizarre conceptions. Aide had been produced by a race of intelligent crystals in the far distant future and sent back in time, to save them from enslavement (and possibly outright destruction) by those they called the "new gods." The intelligence of those crystals was utterly inhuman, in many ways. One of those ways was their lack of individuality. Each crystal, though distinct, was a part of their collective mentality—just as each crystal, in its turn, was the composite being created by the ever-moving facets which generated that strange intelligence. To those crystals, and to Aide, the type of internal discord and dispute which humans took for granted was almost unfathomable.We are having what we call a "mutiny," Aide. Or a "rebellion." From long experience, Belisarius had learned how to project his own visions into the consciousness of Aide. He had found that such visions often served as a better means of communication than words.He did so now, summoning up images of various mutinies and rebellions of the past, culminating with the revolt of Spartacus and its gruesome finale.He could sense the facets flashing around the visions, trying to absorb their essence.While they did so, and Aide ruminated, Belisarius and his bodyguards reached the center of the camp. At least four hundred soldiers from the Constantinople garrison were clustered there, most of them in small groups centered around the older soldiers.Belisarius was not surprised. The men, he gauged, were leaning heavily on the judgements and opinions of their squad leaders and immediate superiors. This was an army led by pentarchs, decarchs, and hecatontarchs, now, not officers.Good. I can deal with those veterans. They'll be sullen and angry, but they'll also be thinking about their pensions. Unlike the officers, they don't have rich estates to retire to. Silence fell over the mob. Belisarius slowly rode his horse into the very center of the crowd. After drawing up his mount, he scanned the soldiers staring up at him with a long, calm gaze.A thought came from Aide.This is stupid. Your plan is ridiculous. The facets had reached their conclusion, firmly and surely, from their assessment of the general's vision. Especially the last vision, the suppression of the Spartacus rebellion.Preposterous. Absurd. Irrational. You cannot possibly crucify all these men. There is not that much wood in the area. Belisarius struggled mightily with sudden laughter. He managed, barely, to transform the hilarity into good cheer.So it was, to their astonishment, that the mutinous soldiers of the Constantinople garrison witnessed their commanding general, whom they assumed had come to thunder threats and condemnation, bestow upon them a smile of sheer goodwill.They barely noticed the savage snarls on the faces of his two companions. Only two or three even took umbrage at Valentinian's loud expectoration.An officer scurried forward, after pushing his way through the first line of the crowd standing around the general. Four other officers followed.Belisarius recognized them immediately. The officer in front was Sunicas, the chiliarch who commanded the Constantinople troops. The men following him were the tribunes who served as his chief subordinates. He knew only one of them by name—Boraides.When the five men drew up alongside his horse, Belisarius simply looked down upon them, cocking an eyebrow, but saying nothing."We have a problem here, general," stated Sunicas. "As you can see, the men—""We certainly do!" boomed Belisarius. His voice was startlingly loud, enough so that an instant silence fell over the entire mob of soldiers. The general was so soft-spoken, as a rule, that men tended to forget that his powerful baritone had been trained to pierce the din of battles.Belisarius, again, scanned the immediate circle of soldiers. This time, however, there was nothing benign in that gaze. His scrutiny was intent and purposeful.He pointed to one of the soldiers in the inner ring. A hecantontarch, young for his rank. The man was bigger than average, and very burly. He was also quite a handsome man, in a large-nosed and strong-featured way. But beneath the outward appearance of a muscular bruiser, Belisarius did not miss the intelligence in the man's brown eyes. Nor the steadiness of his gaze. "What is your name?" he asked."Agathius." The hecatontarch's expression was grim and tightly-held, and his answer had been given in a curt growl which bordered on disrespect. But the general was much more impressed by the man's instant willingness to identify himself.Belisarius waved his hand in a casual little gesture which encompassed the entire encampment. "You are in command of these men." The statement was firm, but matter-of-fact. Much like a man might announce that the sun rises in the east.Agathius frowned."You are in command of these men," repeated Belisarius. "Now. Today."Agathius' frown deepened. For a moment, he began to look toward the men at his side. But then—to Belisarius' delight—he squared his broad shoulders and lifted his head. The frown vanished, replaced by a look of stony determination. "You may say so, yes.""What do you say?" came the general's immediate response.Agathius hesitated, for the briefest instant. Then, shrugging: "Yes."Belisarius waited, staring at him. After a moment, grudgingly, Agathius added: "General. Sir."Belisarius waited, staring at him. Agathius stared back. A little look of surprise flitted across his face, then. The young hecatontarch blew out his cheeks and stood very erect. "I am in command here, sir. Today. Now."Belisarius nodded. "Tomorrow, also," he said. Very pleasantly, as if announcing good weather. "And, I hope, for many days to come."From the corner of his eye, Belisarius caught a glimpse of Anastasius' bug-eyed glare of disapproval. He heard Valentinian mutter something. The words were too soft to understand, but the sullen tone was not.The general shifted his gaze to the chiliarch and the tribunes standing by his stirrup. The calm, mild expression on his face vanished—replaced by pitiless condemnation."You are relieved of command, Sunicas. Your tribunes also. I want you on the road to Constantinople within the hour. You may take your personal gear with you. And your servants, of course. Nothing else."Sunicas goggled. The tribune Boraides exclaimed: "You can't do that! On what grounds?"Belisarius heard Valentinian immediately growl: "Quite right!" Then: loud muttering, in which the words "outrageous" and "unjust" figured prominently. Anastasius, for his part, simply glowered at the newly-promoted mutineer Agathius. But, oh, such a wondrous glower it was! Worthy of a Titan!The hecatontarch's returning glare was a more modest affair. Merely Herculean. The sub-officers of the Constantinople troops in the circle began closing ranks with Agathius. In seconds, three other hecatontarchs and perhaps a dozen decarchs were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, matching hard stares with the Thracian cataphracts.Belisarius immediately sided with the Greek soldiers.Twisting sharply in his saddle, he bestowed his own very respectable glower on Valentinian and Anastasius."I'll stand for no insubordination!" he snapped. "Do you understand?" He almost added "from knaves and varlets," but decided that would be a bit overmuch.Valentinian and Anastasius lowered their heads submissively. But not too submissively, Belisarius was pleased to see. Their stance exuded that of the chastened but still stubborn underlings, resentful of their commander's grotesque violation of military norms and protocol.Belisarius whipped his harsh gaze back to Boraides."On what grounds?" he demanded. "On what grounds?" The general's own glower now ascended into the mythic heights. Worthy of Theseus, perhaps, confronting the minotaur. "On the grounds of gross incompetence!" he roared.Again, he swept his hand in a circle. The gesture, this time, was neither little nor casual. He stood erect in his stirrups, moving his arm as if to command the tides. "The first duty of any commander is to command," he bellowed. "You have obviously failed in that duty. These men are not under your command. You have admitted as much yourself." He sat back in the saddle. "Therefore I have replaced you with a man who is capable of command." He pointed to Agathius. "Him. He is the new chiliarch of this unit."Now looking at Agathius, Belisarius gestured toward Sunicas and the tribunes. "See to it, Agathius. I want these—these fellows—on the road. Within the hour."Agathius stared at the general. Belisarius met his gaze with calm assurance. After a few seconds, the new chiliarch cocked his head toward one of the men standing next to him, without taking his eyes from Belisarius, and murmured:"Take care of it, Cyril. You heard the general. Within the hour."Cyril, a scarred veteran perhaps ten years older than Agathius, gave his newly-promoted superior a sly little grin. "As you wish, sir!" he boomed.Cyril strode toward Sunicas and the tribunes. His grin widened, widened. Became rather evil, in fact. "You've got your orders. Move."The former commanding officers ogled him. Cyril made a little gesture. Four decarchs closed ranks with him, fingering their swords.Anastasius' eyes bugged out. His expression verged on apoplexy.Valentinian muttered. The words "outrageous" and "unjust" were, again, distinct. Belisarius thought he also heard the phrase "oh, heavens, what shall we do?" But, maybe not.He glared at Anastasius and Valentinian. The cataphracts avoided his gaze, but, still, held their stubborn pose. Several more sub-officers from the garrison troops sidled forward. Two of them went to assist Cyril and his decarchs—who were now, almost physically, driving the former commanders off—but most of them edged toward Belisarius. Prepared, it was clear, to defend the general against his own bodyguards. If necessary."Well, that's that," announced Belisarius.He began climbing down from his horse. A pentarch hastened forward to assist him.Once on the ground, Belisarius strode over to Agathius and said: "It's a miserably hot day. Would you have some wine, by any chance?"This time, Agathius did not hesitate for more than a second. "Yes, sir. We do. May we offer you some?""I would be delighted. And let us take the opportunity to become acquainted. I should like to be introduced to your subordinates, also. You'll need to appoint new tribunes, of course." He shrugged. "I leave it to your judgement to select them. You know your men better than I do."Agathius eyed him wonderingly, but said nothing. He led the way to a canvas shelter nearby. Most of the sub-officers in the circle followed, in a little mob. Only a handful remained behind, faithfully at their new post, keeping a vigilant eye on the general's sullen and untrustworthy bodyguards.Within seconds, amphorae began appearing and wine was poured. Within two minutes, Belisarius was squatting in the shelter of the canopy, with no fewer than three dozen of the Constantinople troopers' chief sub-officers forming an audience. The men were very tightly packed, trying to crowd their way into the shade.For all the world, the impromptu gathering had the flavor of a mid-afternoon chat."All right," said Belisarius pleasantly, after finishing his cup. "I'll tell you what I want. Then you'll tell me what you want. Then we'll see if we can reach a settlement."He scanned the small crowd briefly, before settling his gaze on Agathius."I want an end to the slackness of your marching order. The men can grouse and grumble all they want, but I want them to do it in formation. Some reasonable approximation of it, at least." He held out his cup. A decarch refilled it."I realize that you're unaccustomed to the conditions, here in the desert—and that it's been a long time since you've had to undertake a forced march like this. But enough's enough. You're not weaklings, for the sake of Christ. You've had two months to get into shape! The truth is, I don't think the march is that hard on you, anymore. You've just gotten into the habit of resentfulness."He stopped to sip at his wine, gazing at Agath-ius. The new chiliarch took a deep breath. For a moment, his eyes wandered, staring out at the harsh-lit desert.One of the sub-officers behind him started to say something—a protest, by the tone—but Agathius waved him down. "Shut up, Paul," he growled. "Tell the truth, I'm sick of it myself."His eyes returned to Belisarius. He nodded. "All right, general. I'll see to it. What else?""I want you to accept some detachments from the Army of Syria. Light cavalry." A crooked smile. "Call them advisers. Part of the problem is that you've no experience in the desert, and you've been too arrogant to listen to anyone."He pointed to the canvas stretched over his head. "You didn't figure this out, for instance, until a week ago. Till then you set up regular tents, every night, and sweltered without a breeze."Agathius grimaced. Belisarius plowed on."There's been a hundred little things like that. Your cocksure capital city attitude has done nothing but make your life harder, and caused resentment in the other units. I want it to stop. I'll have the Syrian units send you some light auxiliaries. They'll be Arabs, the most of them—know the desert better than anyone. If you treat them properly, they'll be a big help to you."Agathius rubbed the back of his neck. "Agreed. What else?"Belisarius shrugged. "What I expect from all my other units. Henceforth, Agathius, you will attend the command conferences. Bring your tribunes. A few hecatontarchs, if you want. But don't bring many—I like my conferences to be small enough that we can have a real discussion and get some work done. I'm not given to speeches."Agathius eyed him skeptically."And what else?""Nothing." Belisarius drained the cup, held it out. Again, it was refilled."Your turn," he said mildly.Agathius twitched his shoulders irritably."Ah—!" he exclaimed. He was silent, for a moment, frowning. Then:"It's like this, general. The real problem isn't the march, and it isn't the desert. As you said, we've gotten used to it by now. It's—" He gestured vaguely. "It's the way we got hauled out of the barracks, without a day's notice, and sent off on this damned expedition. Off to Mesopotamia, for the sake of Christ, while—"He lapsed into a bitter silence. One of the decarchs behind him piped up."While all the fucking noble units got to stay behind, cozy in the capital. Living like lords."Belisarius lifted his head, laughing. "Well, of course!" he exclaimed. "The last thing I wanted on this expedition was a bunch of aristocrats."He shook his head ruefully. "God, think of it! Every cataphract in those units can't move without twelve servants and his own personal baggage train. I'd be lucky to make five miles a day."He bestowed a very approving smile on the soldiers squatting around him."I told Sittas I wanted his best fighting unit. Had quite a set-to with him, I did. Naturally, he tried to fob off his most useless parade ground troops on me, but I wouldn't have it. 'Fighters,' I said. Fighters, Sittas. I've got no use for anything else."The Greeks' chests swelled a bit. Their heads lifted.Belisarius drained his cup. Held it out for another refill."Stop worrying about those lordly troops, lounging in their barracks in Constantinople. Within a year, you'll have enough booty to sneer at them. Not to mention a glorious name and the gratitude of Rome."The soldiers' gaze became eager. "Booty, sir?" asked one. "Do you think so? We'd heard—"He fell silent. Another spoke: "We'd heard you frown on booty, sir."Belisarius' eyes widened. "From whom did you hear that? Not the Syrian soldiers! Each one of those lads came away from Mindouos with more treasure than they knew what to do with. And you certainly didn't hear it from my Thracian cataphracts!"The Greeks exchanged glances with each other. Suddenly, Cyril laughed."We heard it from the other garrison units. In Constantinople. They said Belisarius was a delicate sort, who wouldn't let his men enjoy the gleanings of a campaign."Belisarius' good humor vanished. "That's not booty. That's looting. And they're damn well right about that!"He brought a full Homeric scowl to bear."I won't tolerate looting and indiscipline. I never have, and I never will. Have no doubt about that, any of you. The penalty for looting in my army is fifty lashes. And I'll execute a man who murders and rapes. On the second offense, in the same unit, the officer in command'll be strapped to the whipping post himself. Or hung."He drained his cup. Held it out. Immediately drained the refill. Held it out again. The soldiers eyed the cup, then him. To all appearances, the general seemed not in the slightest affected by the wine he had drunk."Make no mistake about it," he said. Softly, but very firmly. "If you can't abide by those rules—"He tossed his head dismissively. "—then follow those five bums back to your cozy barracks in Constantinople."He drained the cup. Held it out. As it was being refilled, he remarked casually: "The reason those noble fellows in Constantinople are confused on this point is because those fine aristocratic champions don't know what a campaign looks like in the first place. When's the last time they went to war?"A chuckle swept through the little crowd."A campaign, men, is when you set out to thrash the enemy senseless and do it. Once that job's done—we call it winning the war—booty's no problem at all. But we're not talking about 'gleanings' here."Scornfully: " 'Gleanings' means stealing silver plate from a peasant's hut. His only silver plate, if he has one in the first place. Or his chickens. Booty means the wealth of empires, disgorged to their con-querors."He lifted his cup, waved it in the general direction of the east."There's no empire in the world richer than the Malwa. And they travel in style, too, let me tell you. When I was at Ranapur, the Malwa Emperor erected a pavilion damned near as big as the Great Palace. And you wouldn't believe what he filled it with! His throne alone—his 'traveling chair,' he called it—was made of solid—"Belisarius continued in this happy vein for another ten minutes. Half that time he spent regaling his audience with tales of Malwa treasure, spoken in a tone of awe and wonder. The other half, with tales of Malwa fecklessness and cowardice, in tones of scorn and derision.None of it was, quite, outright lies. None of it was, quite, cold sober truth.By the time he finished, he had emptied another amphora of wine. His audience had emptied their fair share, also.He glanced up at the sun. Yawned."Ah, hell. It's too late to start a proper march now, anyway."He rose to his feet."Give me a minute, boys, to give the order. Then we can get down to some serious drinking."The soldiers ogled him. The general was not only standing erect, with perfect ease, he wasn't even swaying. Belisarius strode toward Valentinian and Anastasius. His two cataphracts had remained on their horses, sweating rivers in the hot sun. Glaring resentfully at the Constantinople troops.In a loud voice, he called out to them: "Pass the word to Maurice! We'll take a break for the rest of the day. Resume the march tomorrow morning."He began to turn away, waving his hand in a gesture of dismissal. Then, as if taken by a sudden happy thought, added: "And tell my servants to bring some wine! Plenty of it—enough for all of us. Good vintage, too—d'ye hear? I'll have no swill for these men!" By the time the servants appeared, leading a small mule train carrying many large amphorae, the encampment of the Constantinople troops had turned into a cheerful celebration. The audience surrounding the general had grown much, much larger. Dozens of common soldiers—hundreds, counting those milling on the edges—had crowded around the sub-officers in the inner circle.When the sun fell, Belisarius ordered the canopy dismantled, so that all of his soldiers could hear him better. That done, he continued his tales.Tales of Malwa treasure and Malwa military incompetence, of course. But, woven among those tunes, were other melodies as well. He spoke of the huge numbers of the Malwa, which could only be thwarted by disciplined and spirited troops. Of the valor of their Persian allies, and the imperative necessity of not offending them with misconduct. Of his own nature as a general—good-hearted but, when necessary, firm. But most of all, as the evening progressed, he spoke of Rome. Rome, and its thousand years of glory. Rome, often defeated in battle—rarely in war. Rome, savage when it needed to be—but, in the end, an empire of laws. Whose very emperor—and here his troops suddenly remembered, with not a little awe, that the genial man sharing their cups was the Emperor's own father—only ruled with the consent of the governed. Especially the consent of those valiant men whose blood and courage had forged Rome and kept it safe through the centuries.The very men who shared his wine.He drained his last cup. "I believe I've had enough," he announced. He rose to his feet—slowly, carefully, but without staggering—and eyed his horse. "Fuck it," he muttered. "Too far to ride."He turned toward Agathius. "With your permission, chiliarch, I'd like to make my bed here tonight."Agathius' eyes widened. He rose himself, rather shakily, and stared about. He seemed both startled and a bit embarassed. "We don't have much in the way of—"Belisarius casually waved his hand."A blanket'll do. Often enough I've used my saddle for a pillow, on campaign."Two decarchs hastily scrambled about, digging up the best blanket they could find.As they saw to that task, Belisarius straightened and said, very loudly:"If there is any request that you have, make it now. It will be granted, if it is within my power to do so."There was a moment's hesitation. Then, a heca-tontarch cleared his throat and said: "It's about the men you've—your Thracians have been dragging alongside us."A little mutter of agreement swept the crowd. There was resentment in that mutter, even some anger, but nothing in the way of hot fury.Agathius spoke, very firmly: "Those boys were a bad lot, sir. We all knew it. Wasn't the first time they mistreated folk. Still—""Shouldn't be dragged," someone complained.A different voice spoke: "Fuck that! A stinking filthy bunch they were—and you all know it!"The man who had spoken rose."Drag them all you want, sir. Just don't do it next to us. It's—it's not right."The mutter which swept the crowd was more in the nature of a growl, now.Belisarius nodded. "Fair enough. I'll have them buried first thing in the morning. A Christian burial, if I can find a priest to do the rites."A soldier nearby snorted. "Fat lot of good that'll do 'em, once Satan gives 'em the eye."A ripple of laughter swept the encampment.Belisarius smiled himself, but said: "That's for the Lord to decide, not us. They'll have a Christian burial."He paused, then spoke again. His powerful voice was low-pitched, but carried very well. Very well."There will be no more of this business."He made no threats. The hundreds of soldiers who heard him noted the absence of threats, and appreciated it. They also understood and appreciated, now, that their general was not a man who issued threats. But that, came to it, he would have half an army drag the corpses of the other half, if that was what it took to make it his army."Yes, sir," came from many throats."My name is Belisarius. I am your general.""Yes, sir," came from all throats. The next morning, shortly after the army resumed its march, a courier arrived from the Persian forces who had gone ahead. The courier had been sent back by Kurush to inquire—delicately, delicately—as to the current state of the Roman army.Belisarius was not there to meet the courier. He was spending the day marching in the company of his Constantinople troops. But Maurice apprised the Persian of the recent developments.After the courier returned to Kurush's tent, that evening, and related the tale, the young Persian commander managed to restrain himself until the courier was gone.Then, with only his uncle for an audience, he exploded."I can't believe it!" he hissed. "The man is utterly mad! He deals with a mutiny by dismissing the officers?—and then promotes the mutineers? And then spends the whole night carousing with them as if—""Remind me again, nephew," interrupted Bares-manas, coldly. "I seem to have forgotten. Which one of us was it—who won the battle at Mindouos?"Kurush's mouth snapped shut. That same evening, in the Roman encampment, the new chiliarch of the Constantinople troops arrived for his first command meeting. He brought with him the newly appointed tribunes—Cyril was one of them—and two hecatontarchs. Throughout the ensuing conference, the seven Greek soldiers sat uneasily to one side. They did not participate, that night, in the discussion. But they listened closely, and were struck by four things.One. The discussion was lively, free-wheeling, and relaxed. Belisarius clearly did not object to his subordinates expressing their opinions openly—quite unlike most Roman generals in their experience.Two. That said, it was always the general who made the final decisions. Clear decisions, clearly stated, leading to clear lines of action. Quite unlike the murky orders which were often issued by commanders, which left their subordinates in the unenviable position of being blamed in the event of miscommunication.Three. No one was in the least hostile toward them. Not even the general's Thracian cataphracts.Indeed, the commander of his bucellarii, Maurice, singled them out following the meeting, and invited them to join him in a cup of wine. And both commanders of the Syrian troops, the brothers Bouzes and Coutzes, were quick to add their company. Many cups later in the evening, Agathius shook his head ruefully."I can't figure it out," he muttered, "but somehow I think I've been swindled.""You'll get no sympathy from us," belched Coutzes."Certainly not!" agreed his brother cheerfully. Bouzes leaned over and refilled Agathius' cup. "At least you got swindled into an army," he murmured.Agathius stared at him, a bit bleary-eyed. "What's that supposed to mean?""Never mind," stated Maurice. The burly veteran held out his own cup. "I believe I'll make my own reconnaissance-in-force on that amphora, Bouzes. If you would be so kind."And that produced the fourth, and final, impression in the minds of the Constantinople men that night.A peculiar sense of humor, those Thracians and Syrians seemed to have. The quip was witty, to be sure—but to produce such a howling gale of knee-slapping laughter? 
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