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Chapter 8


Spring, 533 A.D. 

The first rocket was a flare, one of the newly designed ones with a small parachute. After it burst over the ramparts at Barbaricum, it drifted down slowly, lighting the area with an eerie glow. Within seconds, several other flares came to add their own demonic illumination.

"Open fire!" roared John of Rhodes.

Immediately, the small fleet of Roman warships under John's command began firing their cannons into the shipping anchored in the harbor. Under cover of night, John had sailed his flotilla into gunnery range without being spotted by the sentries on the walls of the city. The larger fleet of Ethiopian warships following in his wake began adding their own gunfire to the brew.

John's ships, pure sailing craft, would be limited to one pass at the Malwa shipping. The Axumite vessels, with their oared capability, would wind up doing most of the damage even though none of those galleys carried the same weight of cannon. Without the necessity of tacking back upwind in order to escape—not something John wanted to do once the huge siege cannons on Barbaricum's walls began firing—the Ethiopians would be able to take the time to launch the fireships.

For that reason, John was all the more determined to wreak as much havoc as he could in the short time available. In particular, he was determined to strike at the Malwa warships—which, unfortunately, were moored behind a screening row of merchant vessels. Now that the flares were burning brightly, he could see those war galleys moored against the piers.

"Closer!" he bellowed, leaving it to his sailing master to translate the command into nautical terms.

Standing on the deck at John's side, Eusebius winced. Through his thick spectacles—another of the many new inventions which Aide's counsel had brought into the Roman world—the gunnery officer could see the mouths of the siege cannons overlooking the harbor, illuminated by the cannon fire and the flares. Once they came into action, those guns would be firing stone balls weighing more than two hundred pounds. True, the siege cannons were as awkward to load and fire as they were gigantic, and the weapons were wildly inaccurate. Unlike smaller cannons, whose bores could be hand-worked into relative uniformity and for which marble or iron cannon balls could be polished to a close fit, the giant siege guns and their stone missiles were the essence of crudity. But if one of those balls did hit a ship . . .

Eusebius winced again.

"Closer, damn you!" bellowed John.

* * *

A few miles further south along the Indus delta, Belisarius had a dazzling view of the battle which was taking shape in Barbaricum's harbor. At the distance, of course, he couldn't see any of the details. Not even with his telescope. But the visual and auditory display was truly magnificent. Which, when all was said and done, was the whole point of the exercise. Whatever damage John and the Ethiopians succeeded in inflicting on the Malwa at Barbaricum, the true purpose of that bombardment was to divert attention from Belisarius' doings.

"All right, General," growled Valentinian. "You can stop smiling so damned crookedly. I admit that you were right and I was wrong." Sourly: "Again."

In the darkness, there was no way Valentinian could have spotted that smile on Belisarius' face, not even standing next to him. Still, the general removed the smile. He reflected, a bit ruefully, that Valentinian knew him more than well enough to know Belisarius' characteristics.

So did Aide, for that matter. Damned stupid crooked smile, came his own surly thought.

There was no moon that night. There was not even a starblaze. India's monsoon season had begun, and the sky was heavily overcast. Except for the distant glare of the flares and cannon fire, the nearby coast was shrouded in darkness.

In that same darkness, Valentinian and Anastasius and Kujulo began lowering themselves into the river barge which had pulled alongside their vessel. The barge had been towed all the way from Charax. It was one of the Indian vessels which had been captured after the Malwa invasion of Persia was defeated the year before. Belisarius had chosen it because it would be indistinguishable from the other barges plying their trade along the Indus river.

Lowering themselves slowly and carefully—falling into the sea laden with armor and weapons was the fastest way to drown that the human race had ever discovered—the three leaders of the expedition eventually found the security of the barge's deck. As their accompanying party of Kushan soldiers followed, Anastasius' voice came up out of the darkness.

"Any last instructions?" the giant Thracian cataphract asked.

"No. Just be careful."

That statement was met by the sound of muttering. Valentinian's last words, Belisarius was quite certain, consisted of pure profanity.

Don't blame him, said Aide. The thought was almost a mutter itself. Aide had reconciled himself to Belisarius losing his best bodyguards, but he was still not happy with the situation.

Belisarius made no reply to either voice. In truth, he was not feeling any of the usual surety which accompanied his decisions. This expedition—everything about it—was dictated by the logic of spycraft, not warcraft. That was not a realm of human endeavor in which the Roman general felt completely at ease. He was relying heavily on Irene's advice, coupled with his own estimate of an old eunuch. A traitor, to boot.

The lines holding the barge to the warship were cast off. Belisarius could hear the barge's oars begin to dip into the water, moving the craft toward the unseen mouth of one of the delta's outlets.

"I hope you know what you're doing, Narses," he whispered.

The uneasy thought of Narses' former treason brought a sudden whimsy to his mind. For a moment, he hesitated, gauging the noise. Then, satisfied that the roar of the distant battle would disguise any sound, he shouted a few words toward the receding barge.

"Anastasius! You're a philosopher! What do you think of the veil of illusion?"

Anastasius' rumbling voice came back out of the darkness. "You mean that Hindu business about `Maya'? Bunch of silly heathen rot. No, General—things are what they are. Sure, Plato says they're only a shadow of their own reality, but that's not the same—"

The rest was lost in gunroar and distance. But Belisarius' crooked smile was back.

"This'll work," he said confidently.

Mutter mutter mutter, was Aide's only comment.

* * *

"I think maybe we should—"

Eusebius fell silent. Even after his years of close association with John, Eusebius knew better than to prod the Rhodian. Right at the top of John's multitude of character traits, admirable or otherwise, stubbornness took pride of place.

But even John, it seemed, was satisfied at the destruction which his flotilla had inflicted on the Malwa vessels anchored in the harbor. His cannonade, combined with the guns of the Ethiopians, had pounded much of the shipping into mastless and unmaneuverable wrecks. True, he hadn't been able to strike very hard at the war galleys moored to the piers. The merchant vessels—just as the Malwa no doubt intended—had served as a protective screen.

The issue was moot. John had no doubt at all that every seaman on those merchant ships had long since abandoned their vessels and fled to the safety of the shore on whatever lifeboats had been available. There would be no one left to prevent—

"That's the first one," said Eusebius with satisfaction.

John looked to the north. The Axumites had lit the first of the fireships and were pushing it off. Within seconds, John could see the other three fireships burst into sudden flames.

He moved his cold eyes back to the harbor. "That's so much kindling, now," he grunted with satisfaction. With the prevailing winds as they were, the fireships would inexorably drift into the tangled mass of battered merchant shipping. Given the speed with which fire spread across wooden ships, all of the vessels in Barbaricum's harbor would be destroyed soon enough.

"Time to go," he stated. He turned and issued the orders to the sailing master.

No sooner was he done than a huge roar filled the harbor. The ramparts of the city were suddenly illuminated by their own cannon fire. The huge siege guns had finally gone into action.

Eusebius flinched, a little, under the sound. John grinned like a wolf.

"Relax, boy. A first salvo—fired in the darkness? They'll be lucky if they even manage to hit the ocean."

Realizing the truth of the Rhodian's words, Eusebius relaxed. His shoulders, tense from the past minutes of action, began to slump.

A moment later, not knowing how he got there, Eusebius was lying on the deck of the ship. The entire vessel was rolling, as if it had collided with something.

There are no reefs in this harbor, he thought dazedly. Every shipmaster we talked to swore as much. 

The area of the ship where he had been standing was half-illuminated by the flames of the fireships drifting into Barbaricum's harbor. Eusebius could see that a section of the rail had vanished, along with a piece of the deck itself. In front of him, lying on the shattered wooden planks, was an object which Eusebius thought he recognized. By the time he crawled over and picked it up, the helmsman was shouting at him.

Still half-dazed, Eusebius realized the man was demanding instructions. The sailing master had apparently also vanished.

There was no need, really, for the steersman to be given orders. Their course was obvious enough, after all. Get the hell out of here. The steersman was simply seeking reassurance that leadership still existed.

Shakily, Eusebius rose to his feet and shouted something back at the steersman. Anything. He didn't even think of the words themselves. He simply imitated, as best he could, the assured authority with which John of Rhodes issued all his commands.

Apparently the tone was enough. Broken planks falling into the sea from the splintered deck and rail, the ship sailed out of Barbaricum's harbor. On what remained of that portion of the deck, Eusebius studied the object in his hands, as if it were a talisman.

* * *

An hour later, the barge on which Valentinian and his expedition was making its way up the Indus was part of a small fleet of river craft, all of them fleeing from the battle at Barbaricum.

"Worked like a charm," grunted Kujulo. The Kushan gazed at the small horde of vessels with satisfaction. The vessels were easy to spot, fortunately. All of them—just as was true of their own barge—had a lookout in the bow holding a lamp aloft. For all the urgency with which the river craft were making their escape from the holocaust in Barbaricum, the oarsmen were maintaining a slow and steady stroke. Except for the meager illumination thrown out by the lamps, the night was pitch dark. No merchant—and these were all merchant vessels—wanted to escape ruin in a besieged harbor only to find it by running his ship aground.

"Worked like a charm," Kujulo repeated. "Nobody will ever notice us in this mob. Just another batch of worthless traders scurrying for cover."

As usual, Valentinian looked on the dark side of things. "They'll turn into so many pirates in a heartbeat, they learn what cargo we're carrying."

Kujulo's grin was wolfish. "Two chests full of Red Sea coral? A small fortune, true enough. I tremble to think of our fate, should these brave river men discover the truth."

Anastasius snorted sarcastically. After a moment's glower, Valentinian's own grin appeared. Very weaselish, it was.

"Probably not the worst of our problems, is it?" he mused, fingering the hilt of his sword. But it was only a momentary lightening of his gloom. Soon enough, he was back to muttering.

"Oh, will you stop it?" demanded Anastasius crossly. "Things could be worse, you know."

"Sure they could," hissed Valentinian. "We could be floating down the Nile, bound hand and foot, fighting crocodiles with our teeth. We could be hanging upside down by our heels in the Pit, fending off archdevils with spit. We could—"

Mutter, mutter, mutter.

* * *

By the time Belisarius and his ship made the rendezvous with the Roman/Ethiopian fleet which had savaged Barbaricum, the sun was rising. So, as he climbed the rope ladder onto John of Rhodes' flagship, he got a good view of the damage done to it amidships. One of the huge stone cannon balls, clearly enough, had made a lucky hit in the darkness. Fortunately, the ship was still intact below the water line, and the masts had remained unscathed.

Eusebius met him at the railing.

"Where's John?" demanded Belisarius.

The nearsighted gunnery officer made a face. Silently, he led Belisarius over to a folded, blood-stained piece of canvas lying on the center of the deck. Then, squatting, he flipped back the canvas covering and exposed the object contained within.

Belisarius hissed. The canvas contained a human arm, which appeared to have been ripped off at the shoulder as if by a giant. Then, spotting the ring on the square, strong-fingered hand, he sighed.

Antonina had given John that ring, years ago, as part of the subterfuge by which she had convinced Malwa's spies that the Rhodian was one of her many lovers. Once the subterfuge had served its purpose, John had offered to return it. But he had immediately added his wish to keep the thing, with her permission. His "lucky ring," he called it, which had kept him intact through the many disastrous early experiments with gunpowder.

"May God have mercy on his soul," Belisarius murmured.

Next to him, a voice spoke. The bitterness in the tone went poorly with its youthful timber.

"Stupid," growled Menander. "Pure blind fucking bad luck. A first salvo, fired at night? They should have been lucky to even hit the damned ocean."

Belisarius straightened, and sighed again. "That's the way war works. It's worth reminding ourselves, now and again, so we don't get too enamored of our own cleverness. There's a lot of just pure luck in this trade."

The general planted a hand on Menander's shoulder. "When did you come aboard?" Menander, he knew, had been in command of one of the other ships in the flotilla.

"Just a few minutes ago. As soon as there was enough light to see what had happened, I—" The young officer fell silent, cursing under his breath.

Belisarius now squeezed the shoulder. "You realize that you've succeeded to the command of John's fleet?"

Menander nodded. There was no satisfaction at all in that gesture. But neither, Belisarius was pleased to see, was there any hesitation.

"So it is," stated the general. "That will include those two new steam-powered ships Justinian's building, once they get here from Adulis. You're more familiar with them than anyone except Justinian anyway, as much time as you've spent with the old emperor since he got to Adulis."

Menander smiled wryly. When Justinian had been Emperor of Rome, before his blinding by Malwa traitors had disqualified him under Roman law and custom, he had been an enthusiastic gadget-maker. Since he relinquished the throne in favor of his adopted son Photius, Justinian's hobby had become practically an obsession. Along with John of Rhodes, Justinian had become the chief new weapons designer for the Roman empire. And he loved nothing so much as the steam engines he had designed with Aide's advice and whose construction he had personally overseen. Even to the extent of accompanying the engines to the Ethiopian capital of Adulis and supervising their installation in ships specially designed for the purpose.

Throughout that work, Menander had been the officer assigned to work with Justinian. The experience had been . . . "Contradictory," was Menander's diplomatic way of putting it. On the one hand, he had been able to spend a lot of time with Deborah also. On the other hand . . .

He sighed. "I could usually manage a entire day in Justinian's company without losing my temper. Barely. John of Rhodes couldn't last ten minutes." He stared down at the severed arm. "Damn, I'll miss him. So will Justinian, don't think he won't."

Belisarius stooped and flipped the covering back over its grisly contents. "We'll send this to Constantinople. I'll include instructions—`recommendations,' I suppose I should say—to my son. Photius will see to it that John of Rhodes gets a solemn state funeral, by God. With all the pomp and splendor."

Even in the sorrow of the moment, that statement caused a little chuckle to emerge from the crowd of Roman officers standing nearby.

"I'd love to be there," murmured one of them. "Be worth it just to see the sour faces on all those senators John cuckolded."

Belisarius smiled, very crookedly. "John will answer to God for his failings." The smile vanished, and the next words rang like iron hammered on an anvil. "But there will be no man to say that he failed in his duty to the Empire. None."


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