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Chapter 1


Spring, 533 a.d.

Are you sure of this? asked Aide. The crystalline thought in Belisarius' mind shivered with uncertainty. They have protected you for so long.

Belisarius made the mental equivalent of a shrug. This coming campaign is different, Aide. I will be commanding—

He broke off for a moment, scanning the imperial audience chamber. The crooked smile that came so naturally to him made its reappearance. There was enough of royalty, nobility, officers and advisers crowded about to fill even that huge and splendiferous room. The costumes and uniforms worn by that mob were as varied as the mob itself. Roman, Persian, Ethiopian, Arab—only the Kushans were absent, for reasons of secrecy.

No one in the West has assembled such a gigantic force since the days of Xerxes and Darius and Alexander the Great. I will be leading well over a hundred thousand men into India, Aide. So there's no way I'll be at the forefront of any more cavalry charges.

The crystal being from the future flashed an image in Belisarius' mind. For just an instant, the Roman general saw a Homeric figure storming a rampart, sword in hand.

Aide's voice came sour, sour. Alexander the Great did.

Belisarius snorted. Alexander was a lunatic as well as a genius. Thought he was Achilles come back to life. I have no such pretensions, myself. And if I ever did—

He winced, remembering the way Rana Sanga, Rajputana's greatest king as well as champion, had hammered Belisarius into a bleeding pulp on a battlefield in the Zagros mountains. Would have killed him, in fact, if Valentinian hadn't come to his rescue.

You should not send Valentinian away! Especially not when you're sending Anastasius also!

Belisarius ignored Aide's last remark, for the moment. The raging argument between Sittas and Kurush which had filled the audience chamber for several minutes seemed to be coming to a head, and he thought it was about time that he intervened. It wouldn't do to allow two of his top commanders to come to actual blows, after all.

Loudly, he cleared his throat. Both Sittas and Kurush stopped bellowing, although they did not leave off their ferocious mutual glares.

"Kurush will command the left," pronounced Belisarius. Sittas made a choking sound and transferred his glare from his Persian equivalent to the top commander of the joint expedition. Beneath the indignation and outrage in his expression lurked something of the small boy—betrayed!—by his trusted older brother.

Belisarius shook his head. "Don't be stupid, Sittas. The left wing will be responsible for protecting the entire expedition against Malwa cavalry raids. Rajputs and Pathans, most like. The Aryans are far more experienced cavalrymen than Roman cataphracts in that kind of mountainous terrain."

The words did not seem to mollify Sittas at all. To the contrary—Belisarius' huge friend was giving him the enraged boar's glare that was one of Sittas' trademarks.

Belisarius found it hard not to smile. On one level, of course, he could hardly blame Sittas. The official justification which Belisarius had just given for allowing the Persian dehgans to take the prestigious position on the expedition's left flank was absurd. By the time Belisarius' huge army was nearing the Indus valley, the Malwa would certainly have detected the northern expedition of Kungas and his Kushans. Any Rajput or Pathan raiders available to the Malwa after their crushing defeat the previous year at Charax would be busy trying to protect the Hindu Kush. They certainly wouldn't be wasting their time in futile cavalry raids against Belisarius' army far to the south in Baluchistan.


The Kushan expedition was still a secret, so Sittas—choking with indignation all the while—could not argue the point. He was forced, grudgingly and angrily, to cede the argument and resume his seat. Kurush did likewise. Fortunately, the young Persian general had enough tact to keep his face expressionless rather than indulge in open gloating.

Good enough, thought Belisarius. He would make it a point to discuss the matter with Sittas privately after the council meeting. In truth, he should have discussed it with him prior to the meeting. But in the press of his responsibilities, he simply hadn't thought of it. Belisarius had been away from the imperial court at Constantinople for so long that he'd forgotten the touchy pride of the capital city's elite cataphracts. He should have realized that Sittas would find a point of honor in the issue of whether the left flank was under the command of Persians or Romans.

Stupid, he thought sourly. Sittas should have the sense to understand that I must keep the Persians satisfied. And their pride is even touchier!

His eyes met those of Agathius. Belisarius' chief of staff was sitting at a large table across the room, with the campaign maps and logistics records spread out in front of him. Seeing the easy manner in which Agathius handled that mass of written material, no one would have guessed that he had been effectively illiterate until a year ago. Beneath Agathius' brawler's appearance, the chief of staff was as intelligent and capable as any man Belisarius had ever met.

There seemed to be a little twinkle in Agathius' eyes. Belisarius gave him the faint hint of a smile, as a man does when he is sharing a subtle unspoken secret with another.

Stupid noblemen . . .

Until the injuries which had crippled him at the Battle of the Nehar Malka, Agathius had been a cataphract himself—and a great one. But the lowborn baker's son had never approached war with any attitude beyond plebeian practicality.

Agathius now cleared his own throat. "If we can move on to the logistics . . ."

Belisarius nodded his assent. As Agathius began running through the state of the logistical preparations for the coming campaign, Belisarius let his thoughts go inward again.

It is too important an opportunity to pass up, Aide. If Irene is right—

She's guessing! Nobody knows what that cryptic message means!

Belisarius made the mental equivalent of a shrug. She's a very good guesser, you know. And I think she's right. The thing has all the earmarks of a Narses maneuver.

He's a traitor.

No, Aide. He was a traitor. Now he is in the service of another. And, unless I miss my own guess, I suspect that he is serving Damodara very faithfully indeed. Not—there came a momentary silent chuckle—that I think Damodara has any idea what his chief of espionage is doing.

Aide said nothing for a moment, though his uneasiness was still evident. Then: But why Valentinian and Anastasius? He complained. They aren't spies and intriguers. They—

—are the deadliest soldiers in my army, Belisarius completed the thought. And they both speak the language—well enough, at least—and they are both familiar with India. I don't think Narses wants spies, Aide. He has plenty of his own. I think—

You're guessing!

Belisarius sighed. Yes, I am. And I am also a good guesser. And can I finish my thought without interruptions?

He could sense the "jewel" sulking. But Aide kept his peace.

As I was saying, Belisarius continued, I suspect that what Narses needs are people who can get someone out of India in a very big hurry. Or protect them. And who better for that than Valentinian and Anastasius and Kujulo?

Aide was silent, but Belisarius could sense the unspoken disagreement.

Oh, stop sulking! Say what you were going to say.

The thoughts came in a rush. And that's another thing—those three are well known to the Malwa! They will be spotted!

By whom? The only ones who would recognize them are Chandragupta's imperial entourage—which there's no chance at all of encountering, as tightly sequestered as Skandagupta keeps himself—and—

The Rajputs! Rana Sanga fought Valentinian in single combat for hours! You think—

Belisarius drove over the protest. And Damodara's Rajputs—who, by all accounts, have been stationed in Bihar and Bengal since they returned to India. Half a continent away from where Valentinian and—

Things change, pouted Aide. You say that yourself, all the time.

Again, Belisarius made that mental shrug. Yes, they do—and probably will again. Judging from what Irene told us of the Maratha rebellion's progress, I imagine that Damodara and Rana Sanga will soon be ordered into the Great Country. Which—

He could sense Aide's growing surly pout, and had to fight down another smile. Which is also half a continent away.

Belisarius broke off the exchange. In his usual terse and efficient manner, Agathius was completing his logistics report. Belisarius braced himself for another round of bellowing and bickering.

Kurush was already on his feet. "What is this nonsense?" he roared. "Not more than four servants—even for Aryan nobility? Absurd! Impossible!"

Belisarius gave Sittas a quick, sharp glance. The Roman general's returning glare faded instantly into a look of suppressed glee and cunning.

Sittas shoved his great powerful form out of his chair. "Nonsense," he rumbled. "Any Roman cataphract can make do with two servants, easily. But if the noble sahrdaran thinks maintaining a lean baggage train is a problem, perhaps we could reconsider the assignment—"

Bellow, roar, rumble. Sound and fury.

Ah, the joy of command, thought Belisarius sourly.

You will keep Isaac and Priscus? Came Aide's timid, fearful thought.

Yes. No point in sending them into the Malwa maw. He began to add some jocular remark, but then, sensing the genuine anguish lurking in Aide's mind, he shifted immediately.

They are almost as good as Valentinian and Anastasius, Aide. I will be safe enough.

There came a crystalline equivalent of a sigh. Then: It is just— I love you dearly.

* * *

The roar and bellow of outraged and bickering dehgans and cataphracts continued to fill the chamber, as a gigantic army continued to take form and shape. But the commander of that army himself was oblivious to it all, for a time, as he communed with the strangest form and shape which had ever come into the world. And if others might have found something strange in the love and affection which passed between man and crystal, neither the man himself nor the crystal gave it a moment's thought.

They had been together for years now, since the monk and prophet Michael of Macedonia had brought Aide and his warning of a terrible future to Belisarius' door. Over the course of those years of battle and campaign, they had come to know each other as well as father and son, or brother and brother. What they thought—hoped—was the final campaign of the long war against Malwa was now upon them. They would survive, or not, as fate decreed. But they would go into that furnace united in heart and soul. And that, more than anything—so they thought, at least—was the surest guarantee of future triumph.

* * *

A sharp sound echoing in the audience chamber brought Belisarius' mind back to the present. A brisk handclap, he realized. Belisarius saw Khusrau Anushirvan rising from his throne perched at the opposite side of the chamber.

"Enough!" The Persian emperor clapped his hands again. Beneath the thick, square-cut beard, his youthful face was stern. "Enough, I say. At least for the moment. It is past noon, and we have an imperial wedding to attend."

He turned his head to Belisarius. The sternness of his expression seemed to ease a bit. "A wedding which, I'm sure the illustrious Roman general will agree, is more important than the details of marching order and logistics."

Belisarius nodded and rose to his own feet. "Indeed so, Emperor. Far more."


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