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Chapter 1

Spring, 531 a.d.

As soon as Antonina put Photius to bed, she hastened to the imperial audience chamber. By the time she arrived, the Persian ambassador was reaching the conclusion of what had apparently been a lengthy speech.

Taking her seat next to Belisarius, Antonina scanned the room quickly. Except for the guards standing against the walls, the huge chamber was almost empty. The usual mob of advisers who sat in on Theodora's audiences was absent. The only Romans present to hear the Persian ambassador were Theodora, Justinian, and Belisarius.

Baresmanas himself was the only Persian present. Antonina knew that the extremely limited participation had been at the request of the Persians. That fact alone made clear the seriousness with which they took this meeting. She focussed her attention on the ambassador's final remarks.

"And so," said Baresmanas sternly, "I must caution you once again. Do not think that Roman meddling in the current internal situation in Persia will go unchallenged. Your spies may have told you that our realm verges on civil war. I, for one, do not believe that is true. But even if it is—all Aryans will unite against Roman intrusion. Do not doubt that for a moment."

The ambassador's stern expression relaxed, replaced by a semi-apologetic smile which was, under the circumstances, quite warm. Antonina was struck by Baresmanas' change in demeanor. She suspected that the friendly face which now confronted the Roman Empress and her top advisers was much closer to the man himself than the stiff mask which had delivered the previous words.

"Of course, it is quite possible that all of my teeth-baring is unnecessary. I do not mean to be rude. Rome is known for its wisdom as well as its martial prowess, after all. It is quite possible—likely, I should say—that the thought of intervening in Persia has never once crossed your mind."

Antonina was impressed. Baresmanas had managed to deliver the last sentence with a straight face. The statement, of course, was preposterous. For the last five hundred years, no Roman emperor had spent more than three consecutive days without at least thinking about attacking Persia. The reverse, needless to say, was equally true.

She leaned over and whispered into Belisarius' ear:

"What's this about?"

His reply also came in a whisper:

"The usual, whenever the Persians have to find a new emperor. Khusrau's been the leading candidate ever since Kavad died—he's been officially proclaimed, actually—but his half-brother Ormazd is apparently not reconciled to the situation. Baresmanas was sent here by Khusrau to warn us not to muck around in the mess."

Antonina made a little grimace.

"As if we would," she muttered.

Belisarius smiled crookedly. "Now, love, let's not be quite so self-righteous. It has happened, you know. Emperor Carus took advantage of the civil war between Bahram II and Hormizd to invade Persia. Even captured their capital of Ctesiphon."

"That was over two hundred years ago," she protested softly.

"So? Persians have long memories. So do we, for that matter. Carus' invasion was retribution for Ardashir's attack on us during our civil war after Alexander Severus was murdered."

Antonina shrugged. "The situation's different. We've got the Malwa to worry about, now."

Belisarius started to make some response, but fell silent. The great double doors to the audience chamber were opening. A moment later, a worn-looking Persian officer was being ushered in by Irene Macrembolitissa, the chief of the Roman Empire's spy network.

"Speaking of which—" he muttered.

Antonina started. "You think—?"

He shrugged. "We'll know soon enough. But we've been expecting the Malwa to invade Mesopotamia, sooner or later. From the look of that Persian officer, I suspect 'sooner' has arrived."

The Persian officer had reached Baresmanas. The ambassador was standing some fifteen feet away from Theodora. Although a chair had been provided for him, Baresmanas apparently felt that his stern message would carry more weight if delivered standing.

The ambassador stooped slightly to hear what the officer had to say. The newly arrived Persian whispered urgently into his ear.

Antonina could see an unmistakable look of surprise and apprehension come to the ambassador's face. But Baresmanas was an experienced diplomat. Within seconds, the ambassador had regained his composure. By the time the Persian officer finished imparting whatever report he had brought with him, Baresmanas' expression was impassive and opaque.

When the officer finished, Baresmanas nodded and whispered a few words of his own. Immediately, the man bowed to the Roman Empress and hastily backed out of the room.

Antonina glanced over at Irene. The spymaster, after ushering the officer into the audience chamber, had discreetly taken position against the wall next to the door.

Antonina's gaze met Irene's. To all outward appearance, the spymaster's own face seemed void of expression. But Antonina knew Irene very well, and could not miss her friend's suppressed excitement.

Behind Baresmanas' back, Irene gave Antonina a quick little gesture. Thumbs up.

Antonina sighed. "You're right," she whispered to her husband. "Irene's like a shark smelling blood."

"The woman does love a challenge," murmured Belisarius. "I think she'd rather be tortured in the Pit for eternity than go for a week without excitement." A chuckle. "Provided, of course, that Satan let her keep her books."

Baresmanas cleared his throat, and addressed Theodora once again.

"Your Majesty, I have just received some important news. With your permission, I would like to leave now. I must discuss these matters with my own entourage."

Theodora nodded graciously. Then:

"Would you like to schedule another meeting?"

Baresmanas' nod was abrupt, almost curt.

"Yes. Tomorrow, if possible."

"Certainly," replied Theodora.

Antonina ignored the rest of the interchange between the Empress and Baresmanas. Diplomatic formalities did not interest her.

What did interest her was Irene.

"What do you think?" she whispered to Belisarius. "Is she going to be the first person in history to actually explode?"

Belisarius shook his head. He whispered in return:

"Nonsense. Spontaneous human eruption's impossible. Says so in the most scholarly volumes. Irene knows that perfectly well. She owns every one of those tomes, after all."

"I don't know," mused Antonina, keeping a covert eye on her friend against the wall. "She's starting to tremble, now. Shiver, quiver and quake. Vibrating like a harp string."

"Not possible," repeated Belisarius. "Precluded by all the best philosophers."

Baresmanas was finally ushered out of the room.

Irene exploded.

"It's on! It's on! It's on! It's on! It's on!"

Bouncing like a ball. Spinning like a top.

"The Malwa invaded Mesopotamia! Attacked Persia!"

Quiver, shiver; quake and shake.

"My spies got their hands on the message! Khusrau's instructed Baresmanas to seek Roman help!"

Vibrating like a harp string; beating like a drum.

"See?" demanded Antonina.



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