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"I told you so," murmured Rana Sanga. The Rajput king strode over to the well and peered down into the shaft.
Pratap, the commander of the cavalry troop, suppressed a sigh of relief. Sanga, on occasion, possessed an absolutely ferocious temper. But his words of reproach had been more philosophical than condemnatory.
He joined the king at the well.
"You followed?" asked Sanga.
Pratap hesitated, then squared his shoulders. "I sent several men to investigate. Butit's pitch-black down there, and we had no good torches. Nothing that would have lasted more than a few minutes. By the time we finally cleared away the rubble and figured out what had happened, the Romans had at least an hour's head start. It didn't seem to me"
Sanga waved him down. "You don't have to justify yourself, Pratap. As it happens, I agree with you. You almost certainly wouldn't have caught up with them and, even if you had"
He straightened, finished with his examination of the well. In truth, there wasn't much to see. Just a stone-lined hole descending into darkness.
"From your description of the giant Roman, I'm sure that was one of Belisarius' two personal bodyguards. I've forgotten his name. But the other one is called Valentinian, and"
From the corner of his eye, he saw Udai wince. Udai was one of his chief lieutenants. Like Sanga himself, Udai had been present at the Malwa emperor's pavilion after the capture of Ranapur. The emperor, testing Belisarius' pretense at treason, had ordered him to execute Ranapur's lord and his family. The Roman general had not hesitated, ordering Valentinian to do the work.
For a moment, remembering, Sanga almost winced himself. Valentinian had drawn his sword and decapitated six people in less time than it would have taken most soldiers to gather their wits. Sanga was himself accounted one of India's greatest swordsmen. Valentinian was one of the few men he had ever encounteredthe very few menwho he thought might be his equal. To meet such a man down there
"Just as well," he stated firmly. "In the qanat, with no way to surround them, the advantage would have been all theirs." He turned away from the well, and began picking his way across the mound of rubble.
"The ambush failed, that's all. It happensespecially against an opponent as quick and shrewd as Belisarius."
Seeing Ajatasutra standing before him, at the edge of the stone pile which had once been a farmhouse, Sanga stopped and drew himself up.
"I will not have my men criticized." The Rajput's statement was flat, hard, unyielding. His brows lowered over glaring eyes.
Ajatasutra smiled, and spread his hands in a placating gesture. "I didn't say a word." The assassin chuckled dryly. "As it happens, I agree with you. The only thing that surprises me is that you came as close as you did. I didn't really think this scheme of yours was more than a half-baked fancy. Generals, in my experience, don't conduct their own advance reconnaissance."
"I do," rasped Sanga.
"So you do," mused Ajatasutra. The assassin eyed the Rajput king. His lips twisted humorously. "You were right, and Narses was wrong," he stated. "You assessed Belisarius better than he did."
Again, Ajatasutra spread his hands. "I will simply report the facts, Sanga, that's all. The ambush was well laid, and almost succeeded. But it failed, as ambushes often do. There is no fault or failure imputed."
Sanga nodded. For a moment, he studied the man standing before him. Despite himself, and his normal fierce dislike for Malwa spies, Sanga found it impossible not to be impressed by Ajatasutra. Ajatasutra was one of the Malwa Empire's most accomplished assassins. A year earlier, he had been second in command of the mission to Rome which had engineered the attempted insurrection against the Roman Empire. Narses had been the Malwa's principal co-conspirator in that plot. The insurrectionthe Nika revolt, as the Romans called ithad failed, in the end, due to Belisarius. But it had been a very close thing, and the Malwa Empire had not blamed Ajatasutra or Narses for its failure. The two men had warned Balban, the head of the Malwa mission, that Belisarius and his wife, Antonina, were playing a duplicitous game. That, at least, had been their claimand the evidence seemed to support them.
So, held faultless for the defeat, Narses had been assigned by Emperor Skandagupta to serve Lord Damodara as an adviser. The eunuch, from his long experience as one of the Roman Empire's chief officials, possessed a wide knowledge of the intricate politics of the steppe barbarians and the semibarbarian feudal lords who ruled Persia's easternmost provinces. He had been a great help to the campaign, as Damodara and Sanga fought their way into the Persian plateau.
Ajatasutra had accompanied Narses. He served the Roman traitor as his chief lieutenantand as his legs and eyes. The old eunuch was still spry and activeamazingly so, given his years. But for things like this sudden twenty-mile ride to investigate a failed ambush, Ajatasutra usually served in his stead. The assassin would observe, and assess, and report.
Sanga relaxed. In truth, he had found Ajatasutra guiltless of the self-serving "reports" for which Malwa spies were notorious among their Rajput vassals. He would never be fond of Ajatasutrahe had no more liking for assassins than he did for traitors, even ones on his sidebut he could not honestly find any other fault in the man.
"You're lucky, in fact," remarked Ajatasutra, "that you didn't suffer worse casualties."
"Four of my men were killed!" snarled Pratap. "Two others wounded, and yet another half-crushed when the farmhouse blew up. He will lose both his legs."
Ajatasutra shrugged. The gesture was not callous so much as one of philosophical resignation. "Could have been a lot worse. Most of the stonework collapsed inward, when Belisarius blew the walls. Fortunately, he was just trying to cover his escape. If he'd been forced to make a last stand, I guarantee that half your men would be dead. And precious few of the survivors uninjured."
Pratap's eyes smoldered resentfully. "I didn't realize you were well acquainted with the man." Then, with a sneer: "Other than suffering a defeat at his hands in Constantinople."
Ajatasutra studied Pratap's angry face. His own expression was relaxed, almost bland.
"Actually, I'm not. My own contact with Belisarius came at a distance. But I am quite well-acquainted with his wife, Antonina. Balban set a trap for her, too, you knowin Constantinople, right at the end."
The anger faded from Pratap's features, replaced by curiosity.
"I never heard about that," he stated.
"Neither did I!" snapped Sanga. The Rajput king glared at the Malwa assassin. "You tried to take revenge on Belisarius by murdering his wife?"
Sanga's famous temper was surfacing, now. Again, Ajatasutra made the placating gesture with his hands. "Please, Rana Sanga! It was Balban's doing, not mine. And you can't even blame himthe orders came directly from Nanda Lal."
Far from placating Sanga, mention of Nanda Lal brought his outrage to the surface. But at least, Ajatasutra saw, the tall and fearsome Rajput's fury was no longer directed at him. There was no love lost, he knew, between Rana Sanga and the Malwa Empire's spymaster.
The assassin spread his hands wide. "I thought it was a bad idea, myself. And I warned Balban that he was underestimating the woman."
The hot glare in Sanga's eyes faded, as the implication registered. "The ambush failed," he stated. "Belisarius' wife survived."
Ajatasutra laughed harshly. " `Survived'? That's one way of putting it. It'd be more accurate to say that she set her own ambush and butchered most of Balban's thugs."
By now, all of the Rajputs at the scene were clustering aboutSanga's own contingent as well as Pratap's cavalry troop. Like warriors everywhere, they enjoyed a good tale. Ajatasutra, seeing his audienceand the easing fury in Sanga's facerelaxed. He held out his hand, perhaps five feet above the ground.
"She's quite small, you know. This tall, no more. Gorgeous woman. Beautiful, voluptuous" He paused dramatically.
"But" He grinned. "Her father was a charioteer. He was reputed to have taught her how to use a blade. And I'm quite certain her husband trained her also. Probably had that man of histhat killer Valentinianpolish her skills."
Ajatasutra paused, to make sure he had his audience's rapt attention. Then: "When she realized Balban had set a pack of street thugs after her, she forted herself up in the kitchen of a pastry shop. I wasn't there, myselfI watched from outsidebut she apparently poured meat broth over the lot and began hacking them with a cleaver. Killed several herself, before one of Belisarius' cataphracts came to her rescue. After that"
He shrugged. "One cataphractagainst a handful of street toughs."
The Rajput cavalrymen surrounding him, veterans all, grunted deep satisfaction. Roman cataphracts were their enemy, of course, but
Street toughsagainst a soldier?
"A woman did all that?" queried one of the Rajputs. The air of satisfaction was absent, now. He seemed almost aggrieved. "A woman?"
Ajatasutra smiled. Nodded. Held out his hand again. "A little bitty woman," he said cheerfully. "No taller than this."
The assassin glanced at Rana Sanga. He saw that the anger in the Rajput king's face had completely faded. Replaced by something which almost seemed sadness, thought Ajatasutra.
Abruptly, Sanga turned away and began striding toward his horse. "Let's go," he commanded. "There's nothing more to be done here. I want to make it back to the army by nightfall."
Once astride his horse, he gave the scene a last quick survey. "The ambush failed," he announced. "That's all."
That night, standing before his tent in the giant camp of Damodara's army, Rana Sanga studied the mountains looming to the west. The full moon bathed them in a silvery beauty. But there was something ominous about that pale shimmer. Liquid, almost, those mountains seemed. As difficult to pin down as the man who lurked somewhere within them.
"I wish we had killed you," whispered Sanga. "It would have made things so much easier for us. And then again"
He sighed, turned away, pulled back the flap to his tent. He gave a last glance at the moon, high and silvery, before stooping into the darkness. He remembered another night he had done the same, after the massacre of rebel Ranapur. Remembered his thoughts on that night. The same thoughts he had now.
I wish you were not my enemy. But
I swore an oath.
That same moment, staring down onto the plateau from the mountain pass, Belisarius studied the flickering fires of the far-distant Malwa army camp. It was the day after the ambush, and his own army had arrived. The Roman troops were camped just half a mile below the crest of the mountains.
He was no longer estimating the size of the enemy army. He was done with that. He was simply contemplating one of the men he knew was among that huge host.
It was very nicely done, Sanga. Sorry to have disappointed you.
The thought was whimsical, not angry. Had he been in Sanga's place, he would have done the same. And he mused, once again, on the irony of the situation. There were few men in the world he dreaded as much as Rana Sanga. A tiger in human flesh.
He sighed and turned away. He would meet Sanga again.
Picking his way down the trail in the semidarkness, he remembered the message which the Great Ones had once given Aide and his race. The secretpart of it, at leastwhich those awesome beings of the future imparted to the crystals they had created, when those crystals found themselves threatened by the "new gods."
Guided by that message, the crystals had sent Aide back in time to find "the general who is not a warrior." But the Great Ones had understood the entirety of the thing. Descended from human fleshthough there was no trace of that flesh remaining in themthey understood all the secrets of the human soul, and its contradictions.
Aide, in a soft mental message, spoke the words: See the enemy in the mirror.
A sudden deep sadness engulfed Belisarius.
The friend across the field.
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|Author:||Eric Flint & David Drake|
|Copyright:||© 2000 by Eric Flint & David Drake|