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Theodora arrived at the estate toward the end of summer. Her appearance came as a surprisenot the timing, but the manner of it.
"She's worried," muttered Antonina to Maurice, watching the Empress ride in to the courtyard. "Badly worried. I can think of nothing else that would make Theodora travel like this."
Maurice nodded. "I think you're right. I didn't even know she could ride a horse."
Antonina pressed her lips together. "You call that riding a horse?"
"Don't snicker, girl," whispered Maurice. "You didn't look any better, the first time you climbed into a saddle. At least Theodora doesn't look like she's going to fall off from a hangover. Not the way she's clutching the pommel."
Antonina maintained her dignity by ignoring that last remark altogether. She stepped forward to greet the Empress, extending her arms in a welcoming gesture.
Theodora managed to bring her horse to a halt, in a manner of speaking. The twenty cataphracts escorting her drew up a considerable distance behind. Respect for royalty, partly. Respect for a surly horse at the end of its patience, in the main.
"How do you get off this foul beast?" hissed the Empress.
"Allow me, Your Majesty," said Maurice. The hecatontarch came forward with a stool in his hand. He quieted the horse with a firm hand and a few gentle words. Then, after placing the stool, assisted the Empress in clambering down to safety.
Once on the ground, Theodora brushed herself off angrily.
"Godswhat a stink! Not you, Maurice. The filthy horse." The Empress glowered at her former mount. "They eat these things during sieges, I've heard."
"Well, that's something to look forward to," she muttered.
Antonina took her by the arm and began leading the Empress into the villa. As she limped along, Theodora snarled:
"Not that there'll be many sieges in this coming war, the way things are going."
Antonina hesitated, then asked:
"Worse," growled the Empress. "I tell you, Antonina, it shakes my faith sometimes, to think that man is created in God's image. Is it possible that the Almighty is actually a cretin? The evidence of his handiwork would suggest as much."
"I take it Justinian is not listening to your warnings?"
Growl. "In His image, no less. A huge Justinian in the sky."
Growl. "Think of a gigantic babbling idiot."
Growl. "Creation was His drool."
Later, after a lavish meal, Theodora's spirits improved.
She lifted her wine cup in salutation.
"I congratulate you, Maurice," she said. "You have succeeded in bringing the provincial tractator to the brink of death. By apoplexy."
Maurice grunted. "Still peeved, is he, about the taxes?"
"He complained to me for hours, from the moment I got off the ship. This large estate represents quite a bit for him in the way of lost income, you know. Mostly, though, he's agitated about the tax collectors."
Maurice said nothing beyond a noncommittal: "Your Majesty."
Smiling, the Empress shook her head.
"You really shouldn't have beaten them quite so badly. They were only doing their job, after all."
"They were not!" snapped Antonina. "This estate is legally exempt from the general indiction, and they know it perfectly well!"
"So it is," agreed Cassian. "Res privata, technically. Part of"
Theodora waved him down.
"Please, Bishop! Since when has a provincial tractator cared about the picayune details of an estate's legal tax status? Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. Let them complain to Constantinople. By the time the bureaucrats get around to ruling on the matter, everyone'll be dead of old age anyhow."
Maurice nodded sagely. "Quite nicely put, Your Majesty. Those are indeed the usual tactics of tractators."
He took a sip of his wine. "Excellent tactics. Provided you pick the right sponge."
Theodora shook her head. "Which does not, I assume, include an estate inhabited by several hundred Thracian cataphracts?"
Maurice cleared his throat. "Actually, Your Majestyno. I would recommend against it. Especially when those cataphracts have secrets to keep hidden from the prying eyes of tax collectors."
Theodora now beamed upon the Bishop. Again, she raised her cup in salutation.
"And a toast to you as well, Anthony Cassian! I do not believe any Bishop in the history of the Church has ever before actually caused a Patriarch to foam at the mouth while describing him."
Cassian smiled beatifically. "I'm sure you're exaggerating, Your Majesty. Patriarch Ephraim is a most dignified individual." Then, slyly: "Did he really?"
Theodora nodded. Cassian's expression became smug. "Well, that certainly places me in august company. It's not actually true, you know. That I'd be the first. The great John Chrysostom caused any number of Patriarchs to foam at the mouth."
Antonina smiled at the exchange. Until she remembered the fate of John Chrysostom. Around the table, as others remembered also, the smiles faded like candles extinguished at the end of evening.
"Yes," said the Empress of Rome. "Dark night is falling on us. May we live to see the morning."
Theodora set down her cup, still almost full.
"I've had enough," she said. "I suggest you all go lightly on the wine. We've a long night ahead of us."
For all its politeness, the suggestion was an imperial command. All wine cups clinked on the table, almost in unison. AlmostSittas took the time to hastily drain his cup before setting it down.
"Justinian will not listen to me," began the Empress. "I might as well be talking to a stone wall." Growl. "I'd rather talk to a stone wall. At least a stone wall wouldn't pat me on the head and say it's taking my words under advisement."
She sighed. "The only ones he listens to are John of Cappadocia and Narses. Both of them, needless to say, are encouraging him in his folly. And assuring him that his wife is fretting over nothing."
For a moment, she looked away. Her face was like a mask, from the effort of fighting down the tears.
"It's Narses' words that do the real damage," she whispered. "Justinian's never actually had too many illusions about the Cappadocian. He tolerates John because the man's such an efficient tax collector, but he doesn't trust him. Never has."
"He's too efficient," grumbled Sittas. "His tax policy is going to ruin everyone in Rome except the imperial treasury."
"I don't disagree with you, Sittas." The Empress sighed. "Neither does Justinian, actually. It's one of the many ironies about the man. Rome's never had an Emperor who spends so much time and energy seeing to it that taxes are fairly apportioned among the population, and then ruins all his efforts by imposing a tax burden so high it doesn't matter whether it's evenly spread or not."
Theodora waved her hand.
"But let's not get into that. There's no point in it. My husband's tax policy stems from the same source as his religious policy. Both are badand he knows itbut both are required by his fixed obsession to reintegrate the barbarian West into the Roman Empire. That's all he sees. Even Persia barely exists on his horizon. The Malwa are utterly irrelevant."
Bishop Cassian spoke.
"There's no hope, then, of Justinian putting a stop to the persecution of Monophysites?"
Theodora shook her head.
"None. He doesn't encourage it, mind. But he resolutely looks the other way and refuses to answer any complaints sent in by provincial petitioners. All that matters to him is the approval of orthodoxy. Their blessing on his coming invasion of the western Mediterranean."
Antonina spoke, harshly.
"I assume, if he's listening to John and Narsesespecially the Cappadocianthat also means Belisarius is still under imperial suspicion."
Theodora' smile was wintry. "Oh, not at all, Antonina. Quite the contrary. John and Narses have been fulsome in your husband's praise. To the point of gross adulation. It's almost as if they know"
She stopped, cast a hard eye on Antonina.
The sound of Sittas' meaty hand slapping the table was startling.
"Ha! Yes!" he cried. "He's tricked the bastards!" He seized his cup, poured it full. "That calls for a drink!"
"What are you babbling about, Sittas?" demanded the Empress.
The general smiled at her around the rim of his wine cup. For a moment, his face disappeared as he quaffed half the wine in a single gulp. Then, wiping his lips with approval:
"If they're so resolute in advancing Belisarius at court, Your Majestyyou know how much John of Cappadocia hates himthat can only mean they have information about him which we don't. And that"
The rest of the wine disappeared.
"can only be a report from India that Belisarius is planning treason against Rome."
He beamed around the room. Reached for the wine bottle.
"That calls for a"
"Sittas!" exploded the Empress.
The general looked pained. "Just one little drink, Your Majesty. What's the harm in"
"Why is this cause for celebration?"
"Oh. That." Cheerfully, Sittas resumed his wine-pouring. "That's obvious, Your Majesty. If they've heard news from Indiaand I can't see any other interpretationthat tells us two things. First, Belisarius is alive. Second, he's doing his usual thorough job of butt-fuoutwitting the enemy."
Again, he saluted everyone with an upturned cup.
"How are you so sure the report isn't true?" grated the Empress.
By the time Sittas replaced his cup on the table, his cheerfulness had given way to serenity.
"Worry about something else, Your Majesty," he said. "Worry that the sun will start rising in the west. Worry that fish will sing and birds will grow scales." He snorted derisively. "If you really insist on fretting over fantasy, worry that I'll start drinking water and do calisthenics early in the morning. But don't worry about Belisarius committing treason."
Antonina interrupted. Her voice was cold, cold.
"If you pursue this, Theodora, I am done with you."
The room froze. For all Theodora's unusual intimacy with that small company, it was unheard of to threaten an Empress. That Empress, for sure.
But it was Theodora, not Antonina, who broke off their exchange of glares.
The Empress took a deep breath. "I amI" She fell silent.
Antonina shook her head. "Never mind, Theodora. I don't expect an actual apology." She glanced at Sittas. "Anymore than I'd expect him to start doing calisthenics."
"God save us." The general shuddered, reaching for his wine cup. "The thought alone is enough to drive me to drink."
Theodora, watching Sittas drain his cup, suddenly smiled. She picked up her own cup and extended it.
"Pour for me, Sittas. I think I'll join you."
When her cup was full, she raised it aloft.
"To Belisarius," she said. "And most of all, to trust."
Two hours later, after Theodora had finished bringing her little band of cohorts up to date with all the information which Irene had collected over the past months in Constantinople, the Empress announced she was off to bed.
"I've got to be at my best tomorrow morning," she explained. "I wouldn't want your new regiment of peasantswhat did you call them?"
"Grenadiers," said Hermogenes.
"Yes, grenadiers. Has a nice ring to it! I wouldn't want them to be disappointed in their Empress' inspection. Which they certainly would be if I collapsed from nausea."
All rose with the Empress. After she left, guided to her chamber by Antonina, most of the others retired also. Soon, only Sittas and Anthony Cassian were left in the room.
"Aren't you going to bed, too?" asked the general, pouring himself another cup.
The bishop smiled seraphically.
"I thought I might stay up a bit. The opportunity, after all, will come only once in a lifetime. Watching you do calisthenics, that is."
Sittas choked, spewed out his wine.
"Oh, yes," murmured Cassian. "It's only a matter of time, I'm convinced of it. A miracle, of course. But miracles are commonplace this evening. Didn't I just see the Empress Theodora give a toast to trustfulness?"
Sittas glowered, poured himself a new cup. The bishop eyed the bottle.
"I'd be careful, Sittas. That's probably turned into water."
The Empress did not disappoint her new regiment, the next morning. No, not at all.
She appeared before them in full imperial regalia, escorted to her throne by Antonina, Sittas, Hermogenes and Bishop Cassian.
The peasant grenadiers, watching, were impressed. So, standing next to them in the proud uniforms of auxiliaries, were their wives.
By the regalia, of course. By the august nature of her escort, to be sure. Mostly, though, they were impressed by the throne.
Clothes, when all is said and done, are clothes. True, the Empress wore the finest silk. They wore homespun. But they were a practical folk. Clothes were utilitarian things, in the end, no matter how you dressed them up.
The tiara, of course, was new to them. They had no humble peasant equivalent for that splendor. But everyone knew an empress wore a tiara. Impressive, but expected.
Even her escort did not overawe them. The young Syrians had come to know those folk, these past months. With familiaritythe old saw notwithstandinghad come respect. Deep respect, in truth. And, in the case of Antonina and Cassian, adoration. Yet it was still familiarity.
But the throne!
They had wondered what the thing was, during the time spent waiting for the Empress to make her appearance. Had passed rumors up and down the lines. The regulars from Hermogenes' infantry who served as their trainers and temporary officers had tried to glare down the whispers, but to no avail. The grenadiers and their wives had their own views on military discipline. Standing in well-ordered formation seemed sensible to the peasantsvery Roman; very soldier-likeand so their ranks and files never wavered in the precision of their placement. But maintaining utter silence was obvious nonsense, and so the grenadiers did not hesitate to mouth their speculations.
For a time, the rumor of heathenism seemed sure to sweep the field. Some of the grenadiers were even on the verge of mutiny, so certain were they that the object was an altar designed for pagan sacrifices.
But the appearance of the bishop squashed that fear. The chief competing rumor now made a grand reentry. The object was to be the centerpiece of a martial contest. Matching platoon against stalwart platoon, to see which might be the collective Hercules that could pick up the thing. Maybe even move it a foot or two.
So, when Theodora finally planted her imperial rump upon the throne, she was most gratified to see the wave of awe which swept those young faces.
"I told you it was worth hauling it here," she murmured triumphantly to Antonina.
Although her face never showed it, Theodora herself was impressed in the two hours which followed.
By the grenades themselves, to some extent. She had heard of the gunpowder weapons which the Malwa had introduced to the world. She had not disbelieved, exactly, but she was a skeptic by nature. Then, even after her skepticism was dispelled by the demonstration, she was still not overawed. Unlike the vast majority of people in her day, Theodora was accustomed to machines and gadgets. Her husband took a great delight in such things. The Great Palace in Constantinople was almost littered with clever devices.
True, the grenades were powerful. Theodora could easily see their military potential, even though she was not a soldier.
What Theodora was, was a ruler. And like all such people worthy of the name, she understood that it was not weapons which upheld a throne. Only the people who wielded those weapons.
So she was deeply impressed by the grenadiers.
"How did you do it?" she whispered, leaning over to Antonina.
Antonina's shrug was modest.
"Basically, I took the peasants' side in every dispute they got into with the soldiers. In everything that touched on their life, at least. I didn't intervene in the purely military squabbles. There weren't many of those, anyway. The Syrian boys are happy enough to learn the real tricks of the trade, and they never argue with Maurice. They just don't want any part of the foolishness."
Theodora watched a squad of grenadiers demonstrating another maneuver. Six men charged forward, followed by an equal number of women auxiliaries. The grenadiers quickly took cover behind a barricade and began slinging a barrage of grenades toward the distant shed which served as their target.
Soon enough, the shed was in splinters. But Theodora paid little attention to its destruction. She was much more interested in watching the grenadiers, especially the efficient way in which the female auxiliaries made ready the grenades andalwayscut and lit the fuses.
Watching the direction of her gaze, Antonina chuckled.
"That was my idea," she murmured. "The generals had a fit, of course. But I drove them down." She snorted. "Stupid men. They couldn't get it through their heads that the only people these peasants would entrust their lives to were their own women. No one else can cut the fuses that short, without ever blowing up their husbands."
A new volley of grenades sailed toward the remnants of the shed, trailing sparks from the fuses.
"Watch," said Antonina. "Watch how perfectly the fuses are timed."
The explosions came almost simultaneous with the arrival of the grenades. The last standing boards were shredded.
"It's an art," she said. "If the fuse is cut too short, the grenade blows up while still in the air. Too short, before the grenadier can even launch it. But if it's cut too long, the enemy will have time to toss it back."
She exhaled satisfaction. "The grenadiers' women are the masters of the art." Chuckle. "Even Sittas finally quit grumbling, and admitted as much, after he tried it himself."
Antonina smiled. "At first, every grenade he sent got tossed back on his head. Fortunately, he was using practice grenades, which only make a loud pop when they burst. But he was still hopping about like a toad, trying to dodge. Finally, he got frustrated and cut the fuse too short." Grin. "Way too short."
"Was he hurt?"
Big grin. "Not much. But he had to drink with his left hand for a few days. Couldn't hold a wine cup in his right, for all the bandages."
The exercises culminated in a grand maneuver, simulating a full scale battle. The entire regiment of Syrian peasants and their wives formed up at the center, in well spaced formation. Units of Hermogenes' infantry braced the gaps, acting as a shield for the grenadiers against close assault. Maurice and his cataphracts, in full armor atop their horses, guarded the flanks against cavalry.
Sittas gave the order. The grenadiers hurled a volley. Their sling-cast grenades tore up the soil of the empty terrain a hundred and fifty yards away. The infantry marched forward ten yards, shields and swords bristling. The grenadier squads matched the advance, their wives prepared the next volley, slung. Again the soil was churned into chaos. Again, the infantry strode forward. Again, the grenades.
On the flanks, the cataphracts spread out like the jaws of a shark.
Sittas turned in his saddle, beamed at the Empress.
"Looks marvelous," murmured the Empress to Antonina. "How will it do in an actual battle, though?"
"It'll be a mess, I imagine. Nothing like this tidy business. But I'm not worried about it, Theodora. The enemy won't be in any better shape."
Theodora eyed her skeptically.
"Relax, Empress. My husband's a general, remember. I know all about the First Law of Battle. And the corollary."
Theodora nodded. "That's good." Cold smile: "Especially since you're now the new commander of this regiment. What are you going to call it, by the way?"
"Come, come, woman. It's an elite unit. It's got to have a name."
Antonina gasped like a fish out of water. "What do you meancommander?I'm not a soldier!I'm" Wail: "I'm a woman, for the sake of Christ! Who ever heard of a woman"
The Empress pointed her finger to the grenadiers, like a scepter.
"They have," she said. Theodora leaned back in the throne, very satisfied. "Besides, Antonina, I wouldn't trust this new regiment in anyone else's hands. These new gunpowder weapons are too powerful. You'll be my last hope, my secret force, when all else fails. I won't place my life in the hands of a man. Never again."
The Empress rose.
"I'll inform Sittas. He'll bleat, of course, like a lost lamb."
Coldly, grimly: "Let him. I'll shear him to the hide."
Oddly, Sittas did not bleat. Not at all.
"I thought she'd do that," he confided to Antonina. He was standing next to her, watching the reaction of the crowd to the announcement which the Empress had just made. "Smart woman," he said approvingly.
Antonina peered at him suspiciously.
"This is not like you," she muttered. "You're the most reactionary"
"Nonsense!" he replied cheerfully. "I'm not reactionary at all. I'm just lazy. The reason I hate new ideas is because they usually require me to do something. Whereas this"
He beamed upon the peasant grenadiers. Uncertainly, some of them smiled back. Most of them, however, were staring at their new commander. At the few, full-figured inches of her. The men were wide-eyed. Their wives were practically goggling.
"Have fun, girl," he murmured. "I'd much rather lounge back in the ease of my normal assignment. I could lead cataphract charges in my sleep."
He turned away, and leaned toward Theodora.
"I think we should call them the Theodoran Cohort," he announced.
"Splendid idea," agreed the Empress. "Splendid."
That night, clustered uneasily in the great hall of the villa, the village elders made clear that they did not think the situation was splendid.
Not at all. None of it.
It was not the name they objected to. The name, so far as they were concerned, was irrelevant.
What they objected to was everything else.
"Who will till the land when they are gone?" whined one of the elders. "The villagers will starve."
"They will not," stated Theodora. She loomed over the small crowd of elders. At great effort, her throne had been moved into the villa.
"They will not starve at all. Quite the contrary. Every grenadier in the Theodoran Cohort will receive an annual stipend of twenty nomismata. I will also provide an additional ten nomismata a year for equipment and uniforms. Their wivesthe auxiliarieswill receive half that amount."
Standing behind the elders, the representatives of the young grenadiers and their wives murmured excitedly. An annual income of twenty nomismatathe Greek term for the soliduswas twice the income of a Syrian peasant household. A prosperous household. The extra ten nomismata were more than enough to cover a soldier's gear. With the wives' stipends included, each peasant family enrolling in the Cohort had just, in effect, tripled their average income.
The elders stroked their beards, calculating.
"What of the children?" asked one.
"The children will accompany the Cohort itself. The Empress has also agreed to provide for the hire of whatever servants are necessary."
That announcement brought another gratified hum from the grenadiers. And especially from their wives.
"In battle, of course, the children will be held back, in the safety of the camp."
"The camp will not be safe, if they are defeated," pointed out an elder.
One of the grenadiers in the back finally lost patience.
"The villages will not be safe, if we are defeated!" he snarled. His fellows growled their agreement. So did their wives.
The elders stroked their beards. Calculating.
They tried a new approach.
"It is unseemly, to have a woman in command." The elder who uttered those words glared back at the peasant wives.
"The girls will start giving themselves airs," he predicted.
To prove his point, several of the wives made faces at him. To his greater chagrin, their husbands laughed.
"You see?" he complained. "Already they"
The Empress began to cut him off, but her voice was overridden by another.
"Damn you for Satan's fools!"
The entire crowd was stunned into silence by that voice.
"He does that so well, don't you think?" murmured Cassian.
The Voice stalked into the room from a door to the side.
The elders shrank back. The young grenadiers behind them, and their wives, bowed their heads. Even Theodora, seated high on her throne, found it hard not to bend before that figure.
That hawk. That desert bird of prey.
Michael of Macedonia thrust his beak into the face of the complaining elder.
"You are wiser than Christ, then?" he demanded. "More certain of God's will than his very Son?"
The elder trembled with fear. As well he might. In the stretches of the Monophysite Syrian countryside, the rulings of orthodox councils meant nothing. Even the tongs and instruments of inquisitors were scorned. But nobody scoffed at holy men. The ascetic monks of the desert, in the eyes of common folk, were the true saints of God. Spoke with God's own voice.
Michael of Macedonia had but to say the word, and the elder's own villagers would stone him.
When Michael finally transferred his pitiless eyes away, the elder almost collapsed from relief.
His fellows, now, shrank from that raptor gaze.
"You are on the very lip of the Pit," said Michael. Softly, but his words penetrated every corner of the room. "Be silent."
He turned, faced the grenadiers and their wives.
"I give these young men my blessing," he announced. "And my blessing to their wives, as well. Especially to their wives, for they have just proved themselves the most faithful of women."
He stared back at the elders. Stonily:
"You will so inform the people. In all the villages. Publicly."
The elders' heads bobbed like corks in a shaken tub.
"You will inform them of something else, as well," he commanded. The monk now faced the Empress, and Antonina standing by her side.
He prostrated himself. Behind him, the peasants gasped.
"God in Heaven," whispered Cassian into Antonina's ear, "he's never done that in his life." The Bishop was almost gasping himself. "It's why he's refused all the many invitations to Constantinople. He'd have to prostrate himself before the Emperor, or stand in open rebellion."
Michael rose. The peasants' murmurs died down.
"I have had a vision," he announced.
Utter silence, now.
The monk pointed to the Empress. Then, to Antonina.
"God has sent them to us, as he sent Mary Magdalene."
He turned, and began leaving. Halfway to the door, he stopped and bestowed a last gaze upon the elders.
The hawk, promising the hares:
He was gone.
Sittas puffed out his cheeks.
"Well, that's that," he pronounced. "Signed, sealed, and delivered."
He bent down to Theodora.
"And now, Your Majesty, with your permission?"
Sittas stepped forward, facing the grenadiers. Spread his heavy arms. Beamed, like a hog in heaven.
"This calls for a drink!" he bellowed. "The casks await us outside! Your fellowsall the villagershave already started the celebration! While we, poor souls"a hot-eyed boar glared at the cowering elders, baring his tusks"were forced to quell our thirst."
Once a village elder, always a village elder.
"The expense," complained one.
"We'll be ruined," whined another.
Sittas drove them down.
"Nothing to fear, you fools! I'm a rich man. I'll pay for it all!"
"I'm not sure I can handle this much longer," muttered Theodora, watching the eager peasants pour from the room. "One more miracle and I'm a dead woman, for sure."
She shook her head. "Talismans from God. Messengers from the future. Magic weapons. New armies. Women commanders. Saints walking about."
Grump. "And nowSittas, with generous pockets. What next?" she demanded. "What next? Talking horses? Stars falling from the sky?"
She rose. "Come," she commanded. "We should join our new army in a toast to their success. Quickly. Before the wine turns into water."
Three days later, early in the morning, the Empress departed the estate.
"You're sure this is your tamest beast?" she demanded.
Maurice managed not to smile.
"Yes, Your Majesty." He patted the old mare's neck. Then, helped Theodora into the saddle. The task was difficult, between Theodora's clumsiness and the stern necessity of never planting a boosting hand on the imperial rump.
Now astride the horse, Theodora looked down at Antonina.
"Remember, then. As soon as I send the word, get your cohort to Constantinople. And don't forget"
"Be on your way, Theodora," interrupted Antonina, smiling. "I will not forget any of your instructions. Hermogenes has already picked out his regiments. Sittas is doing the same. The Bishop's making the secret arrangement for the ships. And the ten cataphracts left for Egypt yesterday."
"Ashot's in command," stated Maurice. "One of my best decarchs. When Belisarius finally arrives, he'll get him hereor to the capital, whichever's neededas fast as possible."
Theodora sat back in her saddle, nodded.
Then, looking down at her horse:
"Maybe there'll be sieges, after all," she muttered grimly.
She put her horse into motion awkwardly. Her last words:
"Keep that in mind, horse."
The next day, Maurice wiped the grins off the faces of the grenadiers.
"To be sure, lads, Antonina's your commander," he said, pacing up and down their ranks. "But commanders are aloof folk, you know. Very aloof. Have nothing to do with the routine of daily training." He stopped, planted his hands on hips. "No, no. That's trivial stuff. Always leave that sort of thing in the hands of lowly hecatontarchs."
Grimly: "That's me."
The grenadiers eyed him warily. Eyed the grinning cataphracts who stood nearby. The announcement had just been made that they were to be the new trainers.
Maurice gestured in their direction.
"These are what we callcadre."
Very evil grins, those cataphracts possessed.
"Oh, yes," murmured Maurice. "Now your training begins in earnest. Forget all that silly showpiece stuff for the Empress."
He resumed his pacing. "I will begin by introducing you to the First Law of Battle. This law can be stated simply. Every battle plan gets fucked up as soon as the enemy arrives. That's why he's called the enemy."
He stopped, turned, smiled cheerfully.
"Your own plans just got fucked up."
Grinned ear to ear.
"I have arrived."
Yes, the grins disappeared from their faces. But the smile in the hearts of those young peasants did not. Not ever, in the weeks which followed, for all the many curses which they bestowed upon Maurice. (Behind his back, needless to say.)
No, not once. The young Syrians were not foolish. Not even the men, and certainly not their wives. Uneducated and illiterate, yes. Stupid, no. For all their pleasure in their new-found status, they had never really thought it was anything but a serious business.
They were a practical folk. Serious business, they understood. And they had their own peasant estimate of serious folk.
Antonina was a joy; the Empress had been a pleasure. Sittas was a fine magnanimous lord; Cassian the very archetype of a true bishop.
And Michael, of course, a prophet on earth.
But it was time for serious business, now. Peasant work. And so, though they never grinned, Syrian peasants took no offenseand lost no heartfrom the abuse of Thracians.
Farm boys, themselves, at bottom, those Thracian cataphracts. Peasants, nothing better.
Just very, very tough peasants.
And so, as summer became autumn, and as autumn turned to winter
a general and his allies fought to escape Malwa's talons,
an Empress watched an empire unravel in Constantinople,
conspirators plotted everywhere
And a few hundred peasants and their wives toiled under the Syrian sun. Doing what peasants do best, from the experience of millenia.
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