Summer, 531 a.d."Under no circumstances, Empress," stated the viceroy of Muziris firmly. "Your grandfather will neither see you, nor will he rescind the ban on your travel to the capital at Vanji."The viceroy turned in his plush, heavily-upholstered chair and gestured to a man sitting to his right. Like the viceroy, this man was dressed in the expensive finery of a high Keralan official. But instead of wearing the ruby-encrusted sword of a viceroy, he carried the emerald-topped staff of office which identified him as one of Kerala's Matisachiva. The title meant "privy councillor," and he was one of the half-dozen most powerful men in the South Indian kingdom.The Matisachiva was slender; the viceroy, corpulent. Otherwise, their appearance was similar and quite typical of Keralans. Kerala was a Dravidian land. Its people were small and very dark-skinned—almost as dark as Africans. Shakuntala's own size and skin color, along with her lustrous black eyes, were inherited from her Keralan mother.The Matisachiva's name was Ganapati. The moment Shakuntala had seen him, sitting next to the viceroy in his audience chamber, she understood the significance of his presence. She remembered Ganapati. Ten years before, at the age of nine, she had spent a pleasant six months in Vanji, the capital city in the interior. At the time, she had been the daughter of the great Emperor of Andhra, visiting her mother's family. She had been well-received then, even doted upon—and by none more so than her grandfather. But, even then, there had been times that a head-strong girl had to be held in check. Whenever such times came, it had always been Ganapati who was sent to do the deed.Andhra was gone now, crushed under the Malwa heel. But she was quite sure that Ganapati retained his old special post—saying no for the King of Kerala.Ganapati cleared his throat."The King—your grandfather—is in a difficult situation. Very difficult. The Malwa Empire is not directly threatening us. Nor are they likely to, in the foreseeable future. Malwa's ambitions in the Deccan seem to have been satisfied by their"—he grimaced apologetically—"conquest of your father's realm. And now their attention is focussed to the northwest. Their recent invasion of Persia, from our point of view, was a blessing. The great bulk of their army is tied up there, unavailable for use against the independent south Indian monarchies. Persia will not fall easily, not even to the Malwa."The viceroy leaned forward, interjecting earnestly: "That's especially true in light of the newest development. According to the most recent reports, it seems that the Roman Empire will throw its weight on the side of the Aryans. Their most prestigious general, in fact, is apparently leading an army into Persia. A man by the name of Belisarius. As Ganapati says, the Malwa Empire is now embroiled in a war which will last for years. Decades, even."Ganapati cleared his throat."Under these circumstances, the obvious course of action for Kerala is to do nothing that might aggravate the Malwa. They are oriented northwest, not south. Let us keep it that way."Dadaji Holkar interrupted. "That is only true for the immediate period, Matisachiva. The time will come when Malwa will resume its march to the south. They will not rest until they have conquered all of India."Ganapati gave Shakuntala's adviser a cold stare. For all of Holkar's decorum and obvious erudition, the Keralan councillor suspected that the headstrong Empress-in-exile had chosen a most unsuitable man to be her adviser. The impetuous child had even named the man as her peshwa! As if her ridiculous "government-in-exile" needed a premier.The Matisachiva sniffed. No doubt Holkar was brahmin, as Maratha counted such things. But Maratha blood claims were threadbare, at best. Like all Maratha, Holkar was a deeply polluted individual.Still—Ganapati was a diplomat. So he responded politely."That is perhaps true," he said. "Although I think it is unwise to believe we can read the future. Who really knows Malwa's ultimate aims?"He held up a hand, forestalling Shakuntala's angry outburst."Please, Your Majesty! Let us not quarrel over the point. Even if your adviser's assessment is accurate, it changes nothing. Malwa intentions are one thing. Their capabilities are another. Let us suppose, for a moment, that the Malwa succeed in their conquest of Persia. They will be exhausted by the effort—and preoccupied with the task of administering vast and newly-subjugated territories."He leaned back in his chair, exuding self-satisfaction."Either way, you see, Malwa poses no danger to Kerala—so long as we do not provoke them."The Matisachiva frowned, casting a stony glance at Holkar."Unfortunately, the recent actions of the Maratha rebels are stirring up the—""They are not rebels," snapped Shakuntala. "They are Andhra loyalists, fighting to restore the legitimate power to the Deccan. Which is me. I am the rightful ruler of Andhra, not the Malwa invaders."For a moment, Ganapati was nonplussed."Well—yes. Perhaps. In the best of all worlds. But we do not live in that world, Empress." The frown returned. "The fact is that Malwa has conquered Andhra. In that world—the real world—Raghunath Rao and his little band of outlaws—""Not so little," interjected Holkar. "And hardly outlaws! Speaking of new developments—we just received word yesterday that Rao has seized the city of Deogiri after overwhelming the large Malwa garrison."Ganapati and the viceroy jerked erect in their chairs."What?" demanded the viceroy. "Deogiri?" "Madness," muttered the Matisachiva. "Utter madness."Ganapati rose to his feet and began pacing. For all the councillor's practiced diplomacy, he was obviously very agitated."Deogiri?"Holkar nodded."Yes, Matisachiva—Deogiri. Which, as you know, is both the largest and the best fortified city in southern Majarashtra."The Matisachiva pressed both hands against his beard."This is a catastrophe!" he exclaimed. He turned toward Holkar and Shakuntala, waving his hands in midair."Do you know what this means? The Malwa will be sending a large army to subdue the rebels! And Deogiri is not far from Kerala's northern frontier!"Holkar smiled icily."What 'large' army?" he demanded. "You just got through pointing out that most of the Malwa Empire's forces are tied up in Persia."Shakuntala's adviser overrode the Matisachiva's splutter of protest."You can't have it both ways, Councillor Ganapati! The fact is that Rao's stroke was masterful. The fact is that he does not lead a 'small band of outlaws.' The fact is that he seized Deogiri with a large force, and has every chance of holding it for some time. The Malwa satrap Venandakatra has nothing at his disposal beyond provincial troops and what small portions of the regular Malwa army can be spared from the war in Persia. Personally, I doubt if they will be able to release any of those forces. As it happens, I know the Roman general Belisarius personally. His military reputation is quite deserved."Ganapati's hand-waving now resembled the flapping of an outraged hen. "This in intolerable! The whole situation is intolerable!" He glared furiously at Shakuntala and her peshwa. "Enough!" he cried. "We have tried to be diplomatic—but enough! You and your Marathas have practically taken possession of Muziris! At least two thousand of your brigand horsemen—"Shakuntala shot to her feet. "They are not brigand horsemen! They are Maratha cavalrymen who escaped from Andhra after the Malwa conquest and have been reconstituted as my regular army under properly appointed officers!""And there are quite a bit more than 'at least two thousand,' " growled Holkar. "By last count, the Empress of Andhra's Maratha cavalry force in Muziris numbers over four thousand. In addition, we have two thousand or so infantrymen, being trained by eight hundred Kushans who have spurned Malwa and given their loyalty to Shakuntala. Elite soldiers, those Kushans—each and every one of them—as you well know."In short," he concluded coldly, "the Empress has a considerably larger force than the Keralan garrison residing in the city." Very coldly: "And a much better force, as well."Ganapati ogled the peshwa. "Are you threatening us?" he cried. "You would dare?" Holkar rose to his own feet. It was not an angry, lunging gesture; simply the firm stance of a serious man who has reached the limit of his patience. "That's enough," he said, quietly but firmly. He placed a hand on Shakuntala's shoulder, restraining her anger."There is no point in pursuing this further," he continued. "The situation is clear. The King of Kerala has abandoned his duty to his own kin, and acquiesces in the Malwa subjugation of Andhra. So be it. In the meantime, refugees from the Malwa tyranny have poured into Kerala. Most of these refugees have concentrated in Muziris. Among them are thousands of superb Maratha cavalry loyal to Empress Shakuntala. All of which means that, at the moment, she constitutes the real power in the city."Ganapati and the viceroy were staring wide-eyed at Holkar. The peshwa was speaking the simple, unadorned truth—which was the last thing they had been expecting.Holkar spread his hands in a sharp, forceful gesture. "As you say, Ganapati, the situation is intolerable. For us as much as for you.""You threaten us?" gobbled the Matisachiva. "You would dare? You would—""Be silent!" commanded Shakuntala.Ganapati's gobbling ceased instantly. Holkar fought down a grin. The Keralan dignitary had never encountered Shakuntala in full imperial fury. When she threw herself into it, Shakuntala could be quite overpowering, for all her tender years."We do not intend to occupy Muziris," she stated, coldly—almost contemptuously. "Since my grandfather has demonstrated for all the world his unmanliness and disrespect for kin, I cast him from my sight. I will leave Kerala—and take all my people with me."She glared at the two Keralan officials. "All of them. Not just the cavalrymen, but all of the other refugees, as well."The viceroy shook his head, frowning. "There are at least forty thousand of them," he muttered. "Where will—""We will go to Tamraparni. The ruler of that great island has offered one of his sons in marriage to me. He has also said he would welcome Andhra's refugees and will assist me in my struggle to regain my rightful place. In light of my grandfather's treachery, I have decided to accept the offer."She fell silent. After a moment, Ganapati and the viceroy exchanged stares.At first, their expressions registered astonishment. Then, delight. Then, once the obvious obstacle occured to them, puzzlement.Gauging the moment, Shakuntala spoke again. "Yes. I will require a fleet of transport ships. At least a hundred and fifty. Preferably two hundred. You will provide them for me, along with the funds needed to carry through this great migration."Again, the squawks of official outrage filled the room. But Holkar, watching, sensed the victory. When it came, even sooner than he had expected, he was gratified but not surprised. Following his sovereign through the corridors of the viceregal palace, back to their waiting escort, he took the time to admire the small figure of the girl striding before him.She is listening to me. Finally. As they rode back toward the refugee camps, Shakuntala leaned over her saddle and smiled at Holkar."That went quite well.""I told you it would work.""Yes, yes," she murmured. "I see now that I really must listen more closely to my adviser."Holkar did not miss the sly smile."Impudent child," he grumbled."Impudent?" she demanded. "This—coming from you? Wait till the ruler of Tamraparni discovers that he has promised to aid me in my war against Malwa! And his son's hand in marriage!""He has a son," replied Holkar, with dignity. "Several of them, in fact. And I have no doubt that he would have made the offer, if he listened carefully to his advisers."Shakuntala laughed. "You are an incorrigible schemer, Dadaji!""Me? You are no slouch yourself, Your Majesty."Holkar gave her a wry smile. "Although there are times you petrify me with your boldness. I thought you were mad, to order Rao—""I told you Rome would enter the Persian war immediately," the Empress stated. The satisfaction on the girl's face was obvious. It was not often that the nineteen-year-old Empress had been proven right in a disagreement with her canny, middle-aged peshwa. "And I told you Belisarius would be leading their army.""Yes, you did," agreed Holkar. "That was why you overrode my protest at the insane idea of having Rao seize Deogiri immediately. I had thought to wait, until we were certain that Belisarius and the Romans had entered the war."The humor left Shakuntala's face. "I had no choice, Dadaji," she whispered. "You were there when Rao's courier told us of Venandakatra's atrocities in the Majarashtra countryside. The beast was murdering ten villagers for every one of his soldiers lost to Rao's raiders."Holkar's own face was drawn. "He will butcher even more, in retaliation for Deogiri."The Empress shook her head."I think you are wrong, Dadaji. With southern Majarashtra's largest city in our hands, Venandakatra will have no choice. His own status with the Malwa Emperor will depend on retaking Deogiri. He does not have so great an army that he can besiege Deogiri—you know how strong it is; the place is a fortress—and still send his cavalry on punitive rampages throughout the Deccan. Nor can he call for assistance from Emperor Skandagupta. You know as well as I do that the Malwa have been pressing him to release troops for the Persian campaign. With Rome—and Belisarius—now in the war, they will most certainly not send him reinforcements."Again, she shook her head. "No, I am right here also—I am sure of it. The pressure on the Maratha country folk will ease, while the Vile One concentrates on Deogiri.""And what if he takes Deogiri?" demanded Holkar. "What then? And what if the Malwa defeat the Persians and Romans quickly?"Shakuntala laughed. "Quickly? With Belisarius leading the Romans?"Holkar smiled. "I admit, the likelihood is not great." He cocked an eye at her. "You're counting on that, aren't you?"She nodded—firmly, seriously. "I never would have ordered Rao to take Deogiri, otherwise."The look she now gave her adviser was not that of an impetuous child. It was almost ancient in its cold calculation."He is using us, you know—Belisarius, I mean. That was why he freed me from captivity, and gave me most of the treasure he stole from the Malwa. To start a rebellion in their rear, draining forces which would otherwise be sent against him."Dadaji nodded. "It is his way of thinking." He studied her face. "You do not seem indignant about the matter," he commented.The Empress shrugged. "Why should I be? Belisarius was never dishonest about it. He told me what he was doing. And he also promised me that he would do what was in his power to aid us. Which"—she chuckled—"he is certainly doing."She urged her horse into a faster pace. "You know the man well, Dadaji—better than I do, when it comes down to it. He is the most cunning man in the world, yes—unpredictable, in his tactics. But there is one thing about Belisarius which is as predictacle as the sunrise.""His honor."She nodded. "He promised me. And he has not failed to keep that promise. He will batter the Malwa beasts in Persia, while we bleed them in the Deccan."She urged her mount into a trot. There was no reason for that, really, other than her irrepressible energy."I was right to order Rao to seize Deogiri," she pronounced. "Now, we must see to it that he can keep the city." Chapter 13THE EASTERN
Summer, 531 a.d.The expedition which set sail from Rhodes toward the end of summer was an impressive armada.Antonina had brought a sizable fleet with her from Constantinople, to begin with. She had enough transport ships to carry her grenadiers, the five hundred bucellari under Ashot's command, and the infantrymen from the Army of Syria who would embark later at Seleuceia. The transports, all of them merchant sailing vessels, were escorted by two dromons, the oared warships favored by the Roman navy.She had even requisitioned three of the great grain ships. The merchant combines which financed those ships had complained bitterly, despite Anto-nina's generous compensation, but the Empress Theodora had cowed them into submission. Quite easily. A simple frown, a purse of the lips, a glance at the Grand Justiciar. The merchants had suddenly discovered their compensation was quite ample, thank you.The huge grain haulers slowed her fleet considerably, but Antonina had had no choice. At a great ceremony in the Forum of Constantine, five days before her departure from Constantinople, Michael of Macedonia had presented her with the Knights Hospitaler who had volunteered for the Egyptian expedition. Antonina had been expecting the monks from the new religious order—but not three thousand of them, proudly drawn up in their simple white tunics, marked by the distinctive red cross.What she had conceived of, initially, as a lean military expedition, had grown by leaps and bounds. No sooner had she obtained the grain ships for the Knights Hospitaler than a small horde of officials and bureaucrats showed up at the docks. These were staffs—the typically bloated staffs—for the newly-appointed civil and canonical authorities of Egypt, clerks, and scribes, in the main, to serve the new Praetorian Prefect of Egypt and the Patriarch of Alexandria. Each and every one of whom, naturally, luxuriated in the grandiose titles with which those mundane occupations were invariably annointed by Roman official custom: tabularii, scrinarii, cornicula-rii, commentarienses, magister libellorum, magister studiorum, speculatores, beneficiarii . . .And so on and so forth.They, too, wailed like lost sheep when presented with their crude shipboard accommodations—tents, for the most part, pitched on the decks of the small sailing ships which Antonina hastily rounded up, naturally over the wails of their owners. But they, too, like the disgruntled grain traders, reconciled themselves to their fate. Theodora's frown had almost magical capabilities, when it came to quelling indignant merchants and bureaucrats.Then, the very day before departure, Michael had shown up to inform her, quite casually—insufferable saint! damnable prophet!—that many more Knights Hospitaler would be waiting in Seleuceia and Tyre and possibly other ports along the Levant, eager to join the crusade in Egypt.Three more grain ships were seized—one of them overhauled by her dromons as it tried to flee the Golden Horn—emptied hurriedly of their cargoes and pressed into imperial service. Again, Theodora put her frown to work.Finally, departure came. For a few days, Antonina luxuriated in the relative quiet of a sea voyage, until her arrival at Rhodes placed new demands upon her. John had been forewarned, by courier, of the imperial plan to transfer his armaments complex to Egypt. But, with his stubborn, mulish nature, he had made only half-hearted and lackadaisical efforts to organize the transfer. So, once again, the task had fallen on Antonina. She scrambled about, requisitioning ships on Rhodes itself—and then, coming up short, sending Ashot with the dromons to commandeer some of the vessels at Seleuceia—until the expedition was finally ready to sail.But, in the end, sail it did. With the newest addition to the fleet proudly in the fore—John's new warship.John took immense pride in the craft. It was the first warship in the history of the world, he announced, which was designed exclusively for gunpowder tactics. Menander demurred, at first, on hearing that claim, pointing out that the Malwa had already developed rocket ships. But John had convinced the young cataphract otherwise. The Malwa rocket ships, he pointed out, were a bastard breed. Clumsy merchant ships, at bottom, with a few portable rocket troughs added on. Jury-rigged artillery platforms, nothing more.Menander, after seeing the ship for himself, had quickly changed his mind. Indeed, this was something new in the world.John's pride and joywas not completely new, of course. In the press of time, the Rhodian had not been able to build a ship from scratch. So he had started with the existing hull of an epaktrokeles—a larger version of the Roman Empire's courier vessels. He had then added gunwales and strengthened the ship's deck with bulwarks, so that the recoil of the cannons would not cave in the planking.In the end, he had a swift sailing craft armed with ten cast-bronze guns, arranged five on a side. The cannons were short-barreled, with five-inch bores which had been scraped and polished to near-uniform size. For solid shot, which they could fire with reasonable accuracy up to three hundred yards, John had selected marble cannon balls. The balls had been smoothed and polished to fit the bores properly. For cannister, the cannons were provided with lead drop-shot."What did you decide to call her?" asked Menander."The Theodora.""Good choice," said Menander, nodding his head vigorously.John grinned. "I am mulish, stubborn, contrary, pig-headed and irascible, Menander. I am not stupid." Had her fleet consisted purely of warships, Antonina could have made the voyage to Alexandria in less than a week; with favorable winds, three or four days.The winds, in fact, were favorable. Antonina learned, from John and Ashot, that the winds in the eastern Mediterranean were almost always favorable for southward travel during the summer months. Eight days out of ten, they could count on a steady breeze from the northwest.The slow grain ships, of course, set the pace for the armada. But even those ships, with favorable winds, could have made the passage in a week.Yet, she estimated the voyage would take at least a month, probably two. The reason was not nautical, but political and military.The immediate goal of her expedition was to stabilize the Empire's hold over Egypt and Alexandria. But Irene and Cassian had counseled—and Theodora had agreed—that Antonina should kill two birds with one stone. Or, to use a more apt metaphor, should intimidate the cubs on her way to bearding the lion.The religious turmoil had not spread—yet—to the Levant. But the same forces which were undermining the Empire in Egypt were equally at work in Syria and Palestine, and, in the person of Patriarch Ephraim, had an authoritative figure around which to coalesce.So Theodora had instructed her, as she sailed along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, to "show the standard."Antonina had been quite taken by that expression. When she mentioned it to Belisarius, her husband had smiled crookedly and said:"Catchy, isn't it? She got it from me, you know. From Aide, I should say—although the proper expression is 'show the flag.' "Antonina frowned, puzzled."What's a 'flag'?"After Belisarius explained, Antonina shook her head."Some of what they do in the future is just plain stupid. Why would anyone in their right mind replace a perfectly good imperial gold standard with a raggedy piece of cloth?""Oh, I don't know. As a soldier, I have to say I approve. A flag's light. You try hauling around a great heavy gold standard in a battle someday. In Syria, in the summertime."Antonina brushed the problem aside, with great dignity."Nonsense. I'm not a lowly foot soldier. I'm an admiral. My ships will damn well 'show the standard.' " And show it they did.At Seleuceia, first. They stayed in that great port for a full week. Two of those days were required to embark the hundreds of new Knights Hospitaler who came aboard. But most of the time was spent bearding Patriarch Ephraim in his den.Seleuceia was Antioch's outlet to the sea. Antioch was the Empire's third greatest city, after Con-stantinople and Alexandria. Antonina did not take her troops into Antioch itself, but she spent the week parading about the streets of Antioch's harbor. By the third day, most of the population—especially the Syrian commoners—were cheering her madly. Those who weren't were huddling in their villas and monasteries. Thinking dark thoughts, but saying nothing above the level of a mutter.On her seventh and last day in Seleuceia, a large contingent from the Army of Syria arrived from their fortress in Daras. Most of those soldiers boarded her ships. The rest—With great ceremony, Antonina turned over to their safe-keeping the large band of artisans who would erect the semaphore stations between Antioch and Seleuceia. Those stations would serve as the link between the coastal network she would create and the Anatolian-Mesopotamian leg which Belisarius was constructing.While Antonina engaged in public browbeating, Irene occupied herself with subterfuge. She traveled secretly to Antioch, and, by end of the week, had solidified the previously-shaky imperial spy network in Ephraim's domain.* * *South, now, to Tyre. Stopping, if only for a few hours, at every port of any size along the way.Showing the standard.Tyre was a celebration. And a great, subtle victory.The population of the city was out in force, packed into the harbor, awaiting her arrival. She and her soldiers could hear the cheering from a mile away. Standing on the docks, proudly drawn up, were another thousand Knights Hospitaler.And, standing among them, the Bishop of Jeru-salem.Theodosius, the newly-designated Patriarch of Alexandria whom Antonina was taking to Egypt, pointed him out to her as soon as her flagship drew near the docks. He began to whisper urgently into her ear, explaining the significance of the Bishop's presence. On her other side, Irene was doing the same.Antonina stilled them both with a gesture. "I know quite well what it means, Theodosius—Irene. The Bishop of Jerusalem has decided to break from Patriarch Ephraim's authority and submit to that of the imperium's church."She chuckled drily. "Of course, he has his own fish to fry. The See of Jerusalem has been trying to get official recognition as a Patriarchate for—what is it, now? Three centuries?"Theodosius nodded.Antonina's chuckle turn into a little laugh. "Well, and why not? Isn't Jerusalem the holiest city in Christendom, when you come right down to it?"Theodosius stroked his beard furiously. "Well, yes, I suppose. But the Church councils have always ruled against Jerusalem's claim, on the grounds—""—that it's a dinky little border town. Filled—or rather, not so filled—by a bunch of sleepy provincials."Theodosius winced. "That's putting it rather crudely. But—yes. In essence.""And what's wrong with sleepy provincials? You won't see them ruining a perfectly good afternoon nap by wrangling over the relationship between the prosopon and the hypostasis of Christ."She turned away from the rail, still smiling. "Patriarchof Jerusalem," she murmured. "Yes, yes. Has a nice sound to it." In the end, she actually went to Jerusalem. Suspending her voyage for a full month, while she and her Theodoran Cohort—and all of the Knights Hospitaler from Constantinople, eager to finally see the Holy Land for themselves—marched inland.A great, grand escort for the Bishop of Jerusalem in his triumphant return. Antonina found the bishop to be, in his person, a thoroughly obnoxious creature. Petty in his concerns, and petulant in his manner. But she took great delight in his persona. By the time she left Jerusalem, the Bishop—who was already calling himself the Patriarch—had given his complete and public blessing to her enterprise.By tradition and church rulings, the Patriarch of Antioch had always held authority over that great area of Syria and the Levant which Romans called Oriens. No longer. In a week at Seleuceia, Antonina had undermined Ephraim's prestige. Now, in a month in Palestine, she had cut his ecclesiastical territory in half.A new council would have to be called, of course, to confirm—or, again, deny—Jerusalem's claim. Antonina did not begin to have the authority to do so. Not even the Emperor, without the approval of a council, could establish a new Patriarchate. But any such council was far in the future. Theodora would stall, stall, stall. For years to come, the Bishop of Jerusalem would defy Ephraim and cling as closely as possible to the Empress Regent's imperial robes.* * *Show the standard, indeed. As her flagship sailed away from Tyre, Antonina gazed up admiringly at the great, gold imperial standard affixed to the mainmast."A 'flag'!" she snorted. "How in the name of Christ could you intimidate anybody with a stupid rag?" But the best—the very best—came at a fishing village. Antonina was pleased, of course, by the welcome given to her by the small but enthusiastic population, who greeted her armada from their boats. But she was absolutely delighted by the welcome given by the men aboard the much bigger ship which sailed among those humble fishermen.A warship from Axum. Carrying Prince Eon and his dawazz, who bore official salutations from the negusa nagast to the new Roman Emperor. Along with a proposal for an alliance against Malwa.Her first words to Eon were: "How in the world did you get a warship into the Mediterranean from the Red Sea?"His, to her with a grimace. "We portaged. Don't ask me how. I can't remember.""Fool boy!" Ousanos said. "He can't remember because it's impossible. I told him so."Irene to Ousanas, grinning: "You must have slapped his head a thousand times."Ousanas groaned: "Couldn't. Was much too weary. Idiot Prince made me carry the stern. All by myself."Eon, proudly: "Ousanas is the strongest man in the world."Ousanas slapped the Prince atop his head. "Suckling babe! Strongest man in the world is resting somewhere in his bed. Conserving his strength for sane endeavors!"