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Had Nanda Lal not intervened, it might have come to blows. Rana Sanga would have been executed, thereafter, but he would have had the satisfaction of slaughtering Lord Tathagata like the swine that he was.
"Silence!" bellowed the spymaster, as soon as he charged into the room. "Both of you!"
Nanda Lal had a powerful voice. It was distorted somewhat, due to his shattered nose, but still powerful. And the spymaster's voice was filled with a pure black fury so ugly it would have silenced anyone.
That mood had settled on Nanda Lal as soon as he recovered consciousness on the floor of Great Lady Holi's barge. On the blood-soaked carpet, stained by his own wound, where a foreign demon's boot had sent him sprawling.
A week had gone by, now, and his rage had not lifted. It was a spymaster's rageicy, not hot, but utterly merciless.
Sanga clenched his jaws. He stared at Nanda Lal, not out of rude curiosity, but simply because he could no longer bear the sight of Lord Tathagata's fat, stupid, pig of a face. Then, realizing that his stare could be misconstrued, Sanga looked away.
In truth, the Malwa Empire's chief of espionage was a sight to behold. On almost any other man, that huge bandage wrapped around his face would have given him a comical appearance. It simply made Nanda Lal look like an ogre.
Tathagata, recovering from his startlement, transferred his fury onto Nanda Lal.
"What is the meaning of this?" demanded the Malwa army's top officer. "It's outrageous! You have no right to issue commands here! This is purely a military matter, Nanda LalI'll thank you to mind your own"
Nanda Lal's next words came hissing like a snake.
"If you so much as finish that sentence, Tathagata, you will discover what rights I have and do not have. I guarantee the discovery will shock you. But only briefly. You will be dead within the hour."
Lord Tathagata choked on the sentence. His jaw hung loose. His eyeswide as a flatfishgoggled about the room, as if searching the magnificence of his headquarters to find something that would gainsay Nanda Lal's statement.
Apparently, he found nothing. Such, at least, was Rana Sanga's interpretation of his continued silence.
Nanda Lal stalked into the room. He did not bother to close the door behind him. Sanga could see, through that door, a part of a room. One of the Emperor's own private chambers, he realized. Sanga had never entered that room, himself. The Rajput's only contact with Skandagupta had been in chambers given over to public gatherings. He was now in a part of the Grand Palace which was essentially unknown to him. The very core of that great edifice, and the power which rested within it.
"Why are you here, Sanga?" asked the spymaster. His voice, now, was low and calm.
Sanga began to explain his theory about Belisarius' escape, but Nanda Lal interrupted him immediately.
"Not that, Sanga. I've already heard that." The spymaster began to make a wry grimace, but the pain in his nose cut the expression short. He waved toward the open door.
"We all heard that much. The Emperor himself sent me in here to stop your shouting." A hard glance at Tathagata, still gaping like a blowfish. "And his. We couldn't hear ourselves think, for the commotion." All trace of amusement vanished. "I ask again: why are you here?"
"I want the authority to lead a search for Belisarius to the west. That's where he's gone. I'm certain of it."
Lord Tathagata's outrage, finally, could contain itself no longer. Butcarefullyhe made sure it was directed at the Rajput.
"This is insolent madness, Nanda Lal," he grated. "The stinking Rajput just got tired of"
He was silenced, this time, by the Emperor's own voice.
"Bring them both here, Nanda Lal," came the imperial command from the next room.
Tathagata ground his teeth. But he said nothing, even though his face was flushed with anger.
The next words, coming from the adjoining room, caused his fat face to go pale. Words spoken by an old woman.
"Yes, Nanda Lal, bring them here. At once."
Rana Sanga was surprised by the Emperor's private chamber. It was much smaller than he expected, and almostwell, "utilitarian" hardly fit a room with such tapestries and furnishings. But, compared to any other setting in which the Rajput kinglet had ever seen his sovereign, the chamber was almost stark and bare.
There were three occupants in the room. Emperor Skandagupta, his daughter Sati, and his aunt the Great Lady Holi. Sanga had seen both of the women before, on ceremonial occasions, but only from a distance. He had never spoken to either of them.
He was struck by their appearance. Neither of the women was veiled. The princess Sati was a beautiful young woman, abstractly, but she seemed as remote as the horizon. The Great Lady Holi seemed even more distant, especially when Sanga met her eyes. Blank, empty eyes. Vacant eyes.
More than their appearance, however, what impressed Sanga was their chairs. Not spectacular, those chairs, by imperial standards. But they were every bit as good as the Emperor's. No one, in Sanga's experience, ever sat in a chair which was as good as the Emperor's. Not in the same room that he occupied, at least.
Sanga did not have time to ponder the significance of the fact, however. Lord Tathagata, again, could not restrain his outrage.
"Your MajestyGreat Lady HoliI must insist that this Rajput be punished. Severely. What is at stake here is nothing less than the most essential military discipline. Thisthisthis dog disobeyed my express"
Great Lady Holi's tone of voice was as vacant as her eyes. But the words themselves were like a knife. Cold, thin, sharp.
"What is at stake here, Tathagata, is the incompetence of our military command. Every word you speak illustrates it further."
Tathagata gasped. Sanga, watching, realized the man was utterly terrified. The Rajput kinglet transferred his gaze back to the Great Lady. His face bore no expression, but his mind was a solid frown of puzzlement. He could see nothing in that elderly female figure to cause such pure fear. Except, possibly, those eyes.
Is she a power behind the throne? he wondered. I've heard taleswitchcraft, sorcerybut I never took them seriously.
The Emperor spoke now, to Tathagata. Like a cobra might speak to its prey. A short, pudgy, unprepossessing cobra. But a cobra for all that.
"We have just discoveredonly this morningthat Rana Sanga attempted to warn us once before that Belisarius was deceiving us. But you silenced him then, just as you are trying to silence him now."
"That's a lie!" exclaimed Tathagata.
"It is not a lie," spoke a voice from the rear.
Sanga turned. Lord Damodara was seated in a far corner of the room. The Rajput had been so preoccupied when he entered the imperial chamber that he had not spotted him.
Damodara rose and advanced into the center of the room.
"It is not a lie," he repeated. "At the Emperor's council at Ranapur, when Rana Sanga gave his opinion on Belisarius' actions, he attempted to speak further. To warn us that the Roman was planning treachery. You silenced him."
"Yes, you did," growled the Emperor. "I remember it quite clearly. Do you call me a liar?"
Tathagata shook his head feverishly. "Of course not, Your Majesty! Of course not! ButI did not know what he was going to sayand it was a Malwa councilhe is a Rajputand" Almost in a wail: "How does anyone know what he meant to say?"
Damodara: "Because I asked him, afterward. And he told me. That is why, when the council reconvened, I demanded that" He fell abruptly silent. "That is why I demanded what I did."
Damodara pointed toward Sanga with a head-nod. "I said nothing, at the time, of Rana Sanga's words." Bitterly, contemptuously: "Lest he be penalized by such as you. But I finally managed to tell the Emperor and Nanda Lal andGreat Lady Holijust this morning."
Bitterly, contemptuously: "Which was the earliest moment you would allow me an audience with them."
"I knew nothing of this," whined Tathagata.
"That is why you are guilty of incompetence rather than treason," said Great Lady Holi. Her words, for all their harshness, were spoken in a tone whichto Rana Sanga, at leasthad absolutely no emotional content whatsoever. She might have been speaking about the weather. A thousand miles away, in a land she had never visited and never would.
"Leave us, Lord Tathagata," commanded the Emperor. Skandagupta sat up in his chair. He was still short, and pudgy. But he reminded Rana Sanga of nothing so much as a cobra flaring its hood.
"You are relieved of your command. Retire to your estate and remain there."
"You are now relieved of half your estate. The richer half. Do not attempt to dissemble. Imperial auditors will check your claim."
Tathagata stared, wide-eyed, paralyzed.
"If you are still in this room one minute from now, you will be relieved of your entire estate. In two minutes, I will have you executed."
Tathagata was out the door in four seconds.
The Emperor glanced at Lord Damodara.
"Inform Lord Jivita that he is now the commander of the army. I will see him in one hour."
Lord Damodara bowed and turned to go. Great Lady Holi stopped him.
"Tell him to meet the Emperor in his western chamber, Lord Damodara."
Again, Sanga was struck by the cold, icy tone of her words.
(Nothe tone was not cold. Cold is a temperature. Ice is a substance. That tone had no temperature at all. No substance at all.)
But he was struck even more by the Emperor's sudden start of surprise.
She just commanded the Emperor to leave this room, he realized. Then, watching the Emperor's slight shrug: And he's going to obeywithout so much as a protest! What gives this old woman such power?
Nanda Lal spoke. "What, exactly, do you propose to do, Rana Sanga?"
The Rajput shook off the mental shock caused by Great Lady Holi's words. Almost with relief, he turned to the spymaster.
"First, I will need the assistance of your spies, and your records. Belisariusnot even Belisariuscan have managed to escape Kausambi without leaving a trace. It will be there, if we search. Then, if I am right, and we find that he went west rather than south, I will go after him with my cavalry."
"Your troop? That's only five hundred men."
Sanga repressed a snort of derision.
"That will be more than enough. He is only one man, Nanda Lal, not an asura. The problem is finding him, not capturing him once we do. For that, five hundred good cavalrymen are enough."
He decided to throw caution to the winds.
"They are not simply enoughthey are the best soldiers for the job. That huge mob floundering about in the south"he made no attempt to conceal the derision in his gesture"are just getting in each other's way. If Belisarius can be caughtif, Nanda Lal; I make no promises, not with that man having a week's lead on usmy Rajputs and Pathan trackers will catch him."
"And if you fail?" demanded the Emperor.
Sanga looked at Skandagupta, hesitated, and then threw all caution to the winds.
"If I fail, Your Majesty, I fail. In war, you sometimes lose. Not because you are incompetent, but simply because the enemy is better."
"And isthis foul Romanbetter than you?"
All caution to the winds.
"He is not a `foul Roman,' Your Majesty. That has been our mistake all along. He is a true Roman, and that is what makes him dangerous. That, and his own great skill."
The Emperor's corpulent face was flushed with anger but, like Lord Tathagata before him, that flush was erased by the Great Lady Holi.
"Stop, Skandagupta," she commanded. "Link has no more time for Malwa vanity."
Sanga was shocked to see the Emperor's face turn pale. There was something odd, he realized, about the Great Lady Holi's voice. It was somehow changing, transmuting. Emotionless before, it was now beginning to sound utterly inhuman.
And who is "Link"? he wondered.
The strangeness deepened, and deepened. Great Lady Holi's voice:
"NANDA LAL, DO AS RANA SANGA ASKS. QUERY YOUR SPIES. CHECK ALL RECORDS."
There was nothing at all human in the tone of that voice, any more. It sounded like
Rana Sanga froze. He had heard tales, now and then, but had paid them no mind. Years ago, bowing to the collective decision of Rajputana's assembled kings in council, Rana Sanga had also given his oath to the Malwa Emperor. He had ignored, then and thereafterwith all the dignity of a Rajput Hinduthe whispered rumors of Malwa's new gods.
like the voice of a goddess. Cold, not like ice, but like the vastness of time itself.
In a half-daze, he heard the voice continue:
"LEAVE US, SKANDAGUPTA. LINK WISHES TO SPEAK TO RANA SANGA."
The Rajput heard the Emperor's protesting words, but understood not a one of them. Only the reply:
"LEAVE, MALWA. YOU ARE OUR INSTRUMENT, NOTHING MORE. IF YOU DISPLEASE US, WE SHALL FIND ANOTHER. LEAVE NOW."
The Emperor leftscurried from the room, in fact, with little more dignity than Tathagata had scurried not long before. Sanga was alone, now, with the two women.
At first, he expected to see the young princess leave as well. Instead, Sati spoke to him:
"I realize that this must come as a shock to you, Rana Sanga," she said in a very polite tone. Her voice, Sanga was relieved to discover, was still that of a young woman. A cold, distant, aloof voice, true. But unmistakeably human.
The Rajput glanced at Great Lady Holi. The old woman, he was even more relieved to discover, seemed to have retreated into a trance. It was almost as if she were not there. Only a statue of her, unmoving, rigid.
Sati followed his glance, smiled faintly.
"She is not Great Lady Holi. Not really. Great Lady Holi is simply a vessel. The divine being who dwells in that vessel is named Link."
"A goddess? Or a god?" asked Sanga. He was rather proud that his voice neither stammered nor had a trace of tremor.
"Neither," replied Sati. "Link has no sex, Rana Sanga. It is a pure being, a deva spirit sent by the gods. The new gods." The young princess straightened her back. "When Great Lady Holi dies, I will replace her as Link's vessel. I have trained for that sacred mission my entire life. Since I was but a babe."
Watching her obvious pride in that announcement, Sanga felt a sudden pang. He did not find Sati attractive, as a man might find a woman. For all the comeliness of the young princess, hers was a type of aloof beauty which appealed to him not at all. His own wife was plump, plain-faced, and prematurely grey. She was also as warm as rich earth, and as playful as a kitten.
Still, he felt a pang. He could not imagine this princess ever tickling a husband in bed, mercilessly, as his own wife delighted in doing. But he could not help that pang, thinking of this young woman aswhatever Holi was. Something not human.
The inhuman thing in the room, he now learned, could read minds far better than any mortal.
"DO NOT FEEL SORROW AT SATI'S FATE, RANA SANGA. YOUR SORROW IS MISPLACED. IT DERIVES FROM NOTHING MORE THAN IGNORANCE."
He stared at Great Laat Link.
"YOU ARE PRIVILEGED, RANA SANGA. YOU ARE THE FIRST HUMAN I HAVE SPOKEN TO SINCE I ARRIVED IN THIS WORLD, OTHER THAN MALWA."
"Why?" he managed to ask.
"IT IS NECESSARY. I DID NOT EXPECT BELISARIUS TO BE SO CAPABLE. THE HISTORICAL RECORD MISLED ME."
Sanga frowned. Curiosity overrode all fear.
"You knew of him?"
"OF COURSE. IN THE WORLD THAT WAS, HE RECONQUERED THE ROMAN EMPIRE FOR JUSTINIAN. GIVEN THE SEVERE LIMITS UNDER WHICH HE WAS FORCED TO OPERATE, HE MAY HAVE BEEN THE GREATEST GENERAL EVER PRODUCED BY HUMANITY. HE WAS CERTAINLY ONE OF THEM. THE DISTINCTION, AT THAT LEVEL OF GENIUS, IS STATISTICALLY MEANINGLESS."
Sanga did not understand the word "statistically," but he grasped the essence of herof Link'sstatement.
"If you knew all that, why"
"I AM NOT A GOD. THE GODS THEMSELVESTHE NEW GODS, EVEN, WHO ARE REALARE NOT GODS. NOT AS YOU UNDERSTAND THE TERM. NOTHING IN THE UNIVERSE CAN BE A `GOD' AS YOU UNDERSTAND THE TERM. IT IS PRECLUDED BY CHAOS THEORY AND THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE."
The last sentence was pure gibberish, but, again, Sanga understood the sense of Link's statement. For a moment, his Hindu orthodoxy rose in rebellion, but Sanga drove it down. The moment was too important for religious fretting.
"Explain further. Please."
"I COULD KNOW OF BELISARIUS, BEFORE I ARRIVED, ONLY THAT WHICH IS RECORDED IN HISTORY. THAT HE IS A GREAT GENERAL, IS A MATTER OF RECORD. THAT HE IS SOMETHING GREATER, IS NOT. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THAT UNEXPECTED CAPACITY. NO GENERAL COULD HAVE DONE WHAT HE HAS DONE. NO GENERAL COULD HAVE MANIPULATED ALL OF MALWA SO PERFECTLY. AND, CERTAINLY, NO GENERAL COULD HAVE REACTED SO INSTANTLY WHEN I DETECTED HIS DUPLICITY."
For a moment, Link paused, as if in thought.
Does such a being even "think"? wondered Sanga.
"EITHER MY DATA ARE INCOMPLETE, OR OTHER FACTORS ARE AT WORK. I MUST DISCOVER WHICH. IT IS ESSENTIAL THAT YOU CATCH HIM, FOR THAT REASON ABOVE ALL OTHERS."
Awed, Sanga was; frightened, even. But he was still a Rajput. A Rajput king, he reminded himself.
"I cannot promise you that," he stated harshly. "And I will make no vow which I cannot keep."
In the silence which followed, Sanga had time to wonder at his punishment. Would thisdivinitybe satisfied with stripping him of his lands? Or would it demand his life?
The response, when it finally came, astonished him. From the divine being who secretly ruled Malwa, he had expected a Malwa reaction.
"EXCELLENT. YOU ARE A TREASURE, RANA SANGA. IT IS POSSIBLE THAT WE ERRED, CHOOSING MALWA OVER RAJPUT. IN THE END, RELIABILITY SEEMED MORE IMPORTANT THAN CAPABILITY. FROM THE LONG VIEW OF TIME."
The last sentence was chilling. Sanga suddenly graspedeven if only vaguelythe immensity of that "long view of time." As gods might see it.
"NOW, AS A RESULT, WE MUST ADAPT. MORE OF RAJPUTANA'S ESSENCE MUST BE INCORPORATED INTO THE NEW WORLD WE ARE CREATING. MORE OF THAT CAPABILITY."
Sanga was not entirely sure he found those words reassuring. For him, Rajputana's essence was not Rajput ability. It was the Rajput soul. Rajput honor.
Again, the divine being called Link seemed to read his mind perfectly.
"YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND, RANA SANGA. MALWA AND RAJPUT ARE BUT MOMENTS. STAGES IN A PROCESS, NOTHING MORE. TO YOU, THEY LOOM LARGE AND FIXED. TO THE NEW GODS, THEY ARE AS TRANSIENT AS MAYFLIES. ALL THAT MATTERS IS THE PROCESS."
"Whatprocess?" he croaked.
"THE SALVATION OF HUMANITY FROM WHAT IT WILL BECOME. FROM THE HORROR OF ITS SELF-CREATED FUTURE. I WAS SENT BACK IN TIME TO CHANGE THAT FUTURE. TO CHANGE HISTORY.
"I WILL SHOW YOU THAT HORROR. I WILL GUIDE YOU THROUGH THE FUTURE. THROUGH HUMAN DAMNATION. THROUGH FINAL POLLUTION."
Sanga had time, just, to begin raising his hand in protest. His hand felt limply to his side.
Visions gripped him, like a python.
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