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A hundred miles east of Ajmer, once they reached the dry country, the Pathan finally picked up Belisarius' tracks.
By the time they reached the city, he was a thoroughly disillusioned man.
"Not adopt this one never," he grumbled. "Very stupid beast. See no thing."
The tracker leaned from his horse, scanned the road, snorted, spat noisily.
"Probably he fuck goat. Think it wife."
"Pay no attention to no thing."
"Idiot blind man."
Riding beside him, Sanga smiled wrily. Like most men with a narrow field of vision, the Pathan tended to judge people by very limited criteria.
True, Belisarius had finally made a mistake. But it was a small mistake, by any reasonable standard. So small, in fact, that only an expert tracker would have spotted it.
Somewhere along the wayhardly surprising, in weeks of travelone of the Roman general's horses had cut its hoof. Nothing serious, in itself. Barely more than a nick, caused by a sharp stone. The horse itself would have hardly noticed, even at the time, and the "wound" in no way discomfited it.
But it was just enough to leave a distinctive track. No one else had spotted it, but the Pathan had seen it immediately. Several of the Rajputs, after the tracker pointed it out, had expressed their delight.
Henceforth, Belisarius would be easy to find!
The Pathan had derided their enthusiasm. Such a very good quickquick man, he assured them, would soon enough spot the mark himself. He would then remove it by carving away more of the tissue, leaving a hoof whose print would be indistinguishable from most others. If worse came to worst, and the mark could not be removed, the Roman would simply abandon the horse. He had four others, after all.
But, as the days went on, the mark remained. Day after day, the tracker followed the trail, with the ease of a man following a lantern at night. Day after day, his estimate of Belisarius plummeted.
By now, so far as the Pathan was concerned, Belisarius ranked very low in the natural order of things. Above a sheep, perhaps. Beneath a bullfrog, for a certainty.
The robbery of the merchant simply confirmed his viewpoint. Sealed his opinion like lead seals a jar.
Three days before Ajmer, the Rajputs had overtaken a merchant trudging alongside the road. The merchant was accompanied by two servants, each of whom was staggering under a weight of bundled trade goods.
All three men were stark naked.
When the Rajputs pulled alongside, the merchant immediately erupted into a frenzy of recrimination, denunciation, accusation, and reproach.
Outrage that such a thing could come to pass!
Where had been the authorities?
Robbed on a royal road! By a royal Ye-tai bodyguard!
Oh, yes! There was no mistake! The merchant was a well-traveled man! A sophisticated man! He had been to Kausambi itself! Many times!
A royal bodyguard!
Where had been the authorities?
He demanded justice! Retribution!
Most of allrestitution!
Robbed by a royal bodyguard!
Restitution was owed by the authorities!
In the event, once the merchant calmed down enough to tell the entire tale, restitution proved simplicity itself. The only thing which the Ye-tai bandit seemed to have actually stolen was the clothing worn by the merchant and his servants.
Nothing else, oddly enough. Not the merchant's money, not his trade goodswhich were spices, too; quite valuablenot even the gold chain around the merchant's neck or the rings adorning his fingers.
The Pathan was livid.
"What kind midget-brain bandit this man?" he demanded hotly. "Cretin idiot!"
The tracker glared at the merchant.
"I rob you, fat boy, you be lucky have skin left. Gold chain, cut off head. Rings, chop fingers. Quick, quick."
The Pathan leaned over his horse's neck, squinting fiercely at the servants. The two men edged back, trembling.
"Old one I kill. Other one I take. Sell him to Uighurs." He straightened up. Leaned over. Spat noisily. "Roman most idiot beast alive," he concluded. He had not budged from that conclusion since.
Sanga, on the other hand, thought the robbery was very shrewd. He had been wondering how Belisarius planned to make his way through Rajputana, especially in a city like Ajmer, disguised as a Ye-tai. In the Gangetic plain, a single Ye-tai leading a small train of horses would not particularly be remarked.
In Rajputana, however, his situation would be different. Rajputs had no love for Ye-tai, to put it mildly. A single Ye-tai in Rajput country would encounter any number of difficulties very quickly, especially in a populous place like Ajmer. Those difficulties would range from bands of belligerent youngsters to keen-eyed authorities who were not in the least intimidated by a Ye-tai's red-and-gold uniform. Not in Rajputana, where the Malwa writ ran very light.
By stealing the merchant's clothes, and that of the servants, Belisarius had provided himself with a perfect disguise. Itinerant merchants, traders, tinkerstraveling alone or in a small partywere commonplace throughout the arid stretches of western India. Sanga suspected that Belisarius would combine part of the merchant's relatively fine apparel with pieces of the servants' more humble clothing. The resulting pastiche would give him the semblance of a hardscrabble trader, barely a cut above a peddler.
It was shrewd, too, for the Roman to have ignored the merchant's coins, jewelry and trade goods. Bandits and thieves were as common as merchants, in that part of India, and everyone kept an eye out for them. If Belisarius tried to sell the merchant's jewelry or goods, or use the coin, he would run the real risk of drawing suspicion upon himself.
Sanga had noted, during the weeks of their pursuit, that Belisarius seemed to have always foraged for his food, rather than buying it. Buying food would have been much quicker. The main reason the Rajputs had been able to shorten the Roman's leadthe Pathan estimated he was only five days ahead of them, nowwas because of the time which Belisarius had spent every day searching for food. For the most part, the Roman had hunted his food, with the bow and arrows he had taken from the relay station's soldiers. Occasionally, he had stolen from a local granary or orchard. But never, so far as the Rajputs or their Pathan trackers had been able to determine, had he bought food.
Sanga was certain that was by choice, not necessity. Belisarius could not, of course, be carrying the immense treasure which the Malwa had bestowed upon him. But the Rajput was quite sure that Belisarius had kept a small amount of that treasure with him at all times. Just in case. That sort of elementary precaution would be second nature to such a man.
Yet he had never used it. Partly, Sanga thought, that was because Belisarius feared the suspicion which the use of royal coin and jewelry would bring down. But mostly, he suspected, it was because Belisarius was saving his money for the coast. To hire a shipto buy a ship, for that matter, if he had kept with him any one of a number of the gems in those chests.
So Sanga felt the Pathan was being quite unreasonable. But he did not remonstrate with the man. It would be as pointless as arguing with a stone.
The Rajput kinglet's chief tracker had been in his service for years, now. Ever since Sanga had captured him, after a ferocious single combat, during one of the many punitive campaigns against the mountain barbarians. The Pathan had been deeply impressed by his victor's skill and courage. So deeply, in fact, that he had begged Sanga to make him his own slave, rather than sell him to some unworthy fool.
Sanga had granted the request, and had never regretted doing so. The Pathan had served him faithfully for years, even after Sanga manumitted him. Served him extremely well, in fact. But Sanga knew the limits of that man's horizon, and had long since given up any hope of changing them.
Two days later, as the walls of Ajmer rose above the horizon, the Pathan was still grousing.
"Fucking idiot beast," Sanga heard him mutter. "I rob merchant, I do merchant good. Him no complain. Him no tongue."
At Ajmer, of course, they lost the tracks. Even a hoofprint far more distinctive than the one left by that little nick would have been obliterated by the traffic through the city. But Sanga was not concerned.
He sent half of his men, and all the Pathan trackers, circling around Ajmer. Keeping far enough away from the city to avoid routine traffic, those men would eventually find the direction Belisarius had taken. The distinctive track, by now, was as unmistakeable to the Rajputs as to the Pathans. In the meantime, Sanga and his remaining soldiers began a systematic search of the city itself.
They were looking for horses. For the memory of horses, to be precise.
Rajputana was a land of horsemen. A ragged merchant, by himself, might pass through Ajmer unremarked. But Sanga knew, as surely as he knew his own name, that his countrymen would have certainly noticed the horses. Those marvelous, splendid, imperial steeds.
And, sure enough, tracking the horses proved as easy as tracking the distinctive hoofprint. The memory trail was only five days old, and it led directly to the southern gate of the city. By mid-afternoon of the same day they arrived, Sanga was already interviewing the guards.
"Oh, yes!" one of them exclaimed. "As fine as any horses you've ever seen! As fine as royal courier steeds!"
Another guard pointed to the road leading south. "They went that way. Five days ago."
"The man," said Sanga. "What did he look like?"
The guards looked at each other, puzzled.
"Don't remember," said one. "Trader, maybe peddler."
"I think he was tall," said another, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "I think. I'm not sure. I was watching the horses."
Two miles south of Ajmer, they encountered the rest of Sanga's horsemen and the Pathan trackers. Coming north with the news:
The tracks had been spotted. Five miles out, on the road to the Gulf of Khambat.
"Probably Bharakuccha," stated Jaimal, as they cantered south. Sanga's lieutenant gazed ahead and to their right. The sun was beginning to set behind the peaks of the Aravallis.
"But maybe not," he mused. "Once he gets south of the Aravallis, he could cut west across the Rann of Kutch and follow the coast back up to Barbaricum. Be roundabout, but"
"He'd play hell trying to drive horses through that stinking mess," disputed Pratap. "And why bother?"
The argument raged until they made camp that night. Sanga took no part in it. Trying to outguess Belisarius in the absence of hard information was pure foolishness, in his opinion. They would know soon enough. The tracks would tell the tale.
His last thoughts, that night, before falling asleep, were a meditation on irony. So strangeso sadthat such a great man could be brought down, in the end, by something as petty as a stone in the road.
Two days later, the Pathan was almost beside himself with outrage. What shred of respect he retained for Belisarius was now discarded completely.
He leaned over the saddle. Spat noisily.
"Great idiot beast! Knew him stupid like sheep. Now him lazy like sheep too!"
He pointed an accusing finger at the tracks.
"Look him horse pace. My grandmother faster. And she carcass. Many years dead now."
Apparently satisfied that he had shaken off any pursuit, the Roman had slowed his pace considerably since leaving Ajmer. Sanga, again, thought the Pathan was being unreasonable. True, Belisarius was being careless. But, at the same time, allowances had to be made. He was only human, after all. The Roman had set himself a brutal pace for weeks. It was not surprising that he would finally take a bit of rest.
Not surprising, no, and hardly something for which a man could be condemned. But it was still a mistake, and, under the circumstances, quite fatal.
In less than two days, they brought Belisarius to bay.
By late afternoon of the following day, the lead tracker spotted him. Not five miles ahead, already making camp for the night.
The Rajput officers held a hurried conference. Sanga's lieutenants argued for surrounding the Roman's camp and attacking that very night.
Sanga would have none of it.
"Not him," he stated firmly. "Not that man, at night. First, he might make his escape in the darkness."
He held up his hand, forestalling Udai's protest.
"That's unlikely, I admit. What I'm more worried about is that we'd be forced to kill him. I want him alive. It may not be possible, but if there's any chance at all it will be by daylight. In a night attack, with its confusion, there'd be no chance at all."
He glanced up at the sky. The eastern horizon was already purple.
"And there's no need. He's making camp, so he's not going anywhere. We'll use the night to surround him, quietly."
A hard eye on his lieutenants. "Quietly." They nodded.
Sanga stared south.
"At dawn, we bring him down."
The Pathan himself brought Belisarius down. The tracker didn't even bother to stun him. He simply pounced on the Roman general, still wrapped up in his rollhalf an hour after daybreak, lazy sheep!by the embers of a small campfirea campfire on the run, idiot beast!jerked him up by the hair. Then, with his knife, sliced the Roman's cheek. A gash, no more, just enough to mark his man.
Quickquick, and the Pathan stepped away.
The Roman general staggered to his feet, shrieking. He clutched his cheek with both hands. Blood from the wound spurt through the fingers. He took two steps, stumbled, fell on his belly across the campfire. Then thrashed aside, shrieking more loudly still. Lurched to his feet, beating away the embers with his bloody hands.
The Pathan had had enough.
He strode forward and sent the Roman back on his belly with a vicious, stamping kick. Then he sprang upon him, jerked his head up by the hair, and manhandled him to his knees.
"Here you great general, Sanga King," he said contemptuously. He cuffed the Roman, silencing a squawl.
Rana Sanga stared down at Belisarius. Stared up at the Pathan holding him by the hair. The tracker was grinning savagely.
Stared down at Belisarius. The general was gasping like a fish, eyes glazed.
Stared back at the Pathan. Down at Belisarius.
"Who in the hell is that?" snarled Jaimal.
Stared down at that. Up at the Pathan.
"I've never seen this man before in my life," he told the tracker quietly.
It was almost worth it, then, for Rana Sanga. After all those years, finally, to see the Pathan gape. Like an idiot beast.
"I'm just a poor peddler," whined the man, for the hundredth time. He moaned, pressing the bandage against his cheek. Moaned:
"My name is"
"Shut up!" snarled Udai. "We know your name! What we want to know is where did you get the horses?"
The peddler stared up at the Rajput. Finally, something beyond squawling terror and babbling self-pity entered his mind.
"They're my horses!" he squealed. "You can't"
"Shut up!" bellowed Udai. "Just shut up!"
Rana Sanga put a restraining hand on Udai's shoulder. His lieutenant's fury was just frightening the man senseless.
The Rajput king squatted, bringing his eyes level with those of the bloody-faced man sprawled in the dirt.
"Listen to me, peddler," he said quietly. Quietly, but very firmly. The peddler fell silent.
"My name is Rana Sanga."
The peddler's eyes widened. He was not Rajput, but he traded in Rajputana. He knew the name. Knew it well.
"We will take your horses." Quiet, iron words.
The peddler opened his mouth, began to squawl.
"Those horses were stolen from the royal courier service. To possess them is to be condemned to death. Impaled."
The peddler's mouth clamped shut. His eyes bulged.
Sanga raised his hand reassuringly.
"Have no fear. We have no interest in your execution. If you serve us well, we may even repay you for the loss of the horses."
Partly, he thought, watching the avarice leap back into the peddler's eyes. Whatever you paid for them. Which, I am quite certain, is much less than what they are worth. I think I am beginning to understand what thatthatfiend
He took a deep breath.
No. What that fiendish mind has done here.
He glanced to the side. Thirty feet away, his Pathan tracker was holding up one of the horse's legs, examining the hoof. Very carefully.
Sanga turned back to the peddler.
"But now, man, you must tell mevery quickly, very simply, very clearlyhow you got the horses."
"He was a Ye-tai," gasped out the peddler. Then, in a sudden rush of words:
"A deserter from the imperial bodyguard, I think. I'm not sureI didn't ask!not a Ye-taibut. I think. I saw part of a uniform. Gold and red. He was on the run, I think. Had nothing but those fine horses, and seemed desperate to get out of Ajmer. So hehe"
Suddenly, amazingly, the peddler burst into laughter. "Idiot Ye-tai! Stupid barbarian! He had no idea what those horses we're worthnone, I tell you! In the endit only took me two hours of hagglingI traded them for three camels, some blankets, and a tent. Food. Maybe fifty pounds of water. Two big tureens full. And five bottles of wine. Cheap wine." Howling, howling. "Fucking idiot! Fucking savage!"
Sanga slapped the man's ear. "Silence."
The peddler's hysterical laughter stopped instantly. His faced turned pale.
"And what else?" grated Sanga. "There would have been something else."
The peddler's expression was a weird conglomeration of astonishment, fear, greed. Fear.
"How did you know?" he whispered.
"I know thatYe-tai," replied Sanga quietly. "He would not have simply sent you on your way. He would have made sure you came this way. How?"
Fear. Greed. Fear.
It was one of the Emperor's emeralds.
A small emerald, very small, by imperial standards. Probably the least of the jewels which Belisarius had with him. But it had been a fortune to the peddler. Enough to send him off to Bharakuccha, with the promise of a matching emerald if he delivered the message to the proper party.
A Greek merchant. A ship captain.
His name? The name of the ship?
Jason. The Argo.
Show me the message.
Rana Sanga could read Greek, but only poorly. It did not matter. Most of the message was mathematics, and that he understood quite well. (India was the home of mathematics. Centuries later, Europeans would abandon Roman numerals and adopt a new, cunning arithmetic. They would call them "Arabic numerals," because they got them from the Arabs. But they had been invented in India.)
So he was able to understand the message, well enough.
Finally, in the end, a king of Rajputana could not restrain himself. He began laughing like a madman.
"What is it?" asked Jaimal, when Sanga's howling humor abated.
"It's a theorem," he said, weakly. "By some Greek named Pythagoras. It explains how to calculate angles."
The Pathan rose from his examination of the horse's hoof and stalked over.
"Not cut by stone on road. Knife cut. Done by meant-to purpose."
Sanga had already deduced as much.
"Exactly." He smiled, stroking his beard. "He knew we would spot the mark. And that, after weeks of following it, would stop thinking about anything else. So he switched in Ajmer, sent us charging off south while he drives straight across the Thar on camelback."
He glanced at the peddler, still ashen-faced.
"Three camels," he mused. "Enough to carry himand his food and wateracross the desert without stopping."
He rose to his feet. It was a sure, decisive movement.
"We'll never catch him now. By the time we got back to Ajmer and set off in pursuit he'd have at least eight days lead on us. With three camels and full supplies he'll move faster than we possibly could across that wasteland."
His lieutenants glared, but did not argue. They knew he was right. Five hundred expert cavalrymen can eventually outrun a single horseman, even with remounts. But not across the Thar.
That was camel country. There probably weren't five hundred camels available in Ajmer, to begin with. And even if there were
Rajputs were not expert camel drivers.
"Stinking camels," grumbled Udai.
"Can't stand the fucking things," agreed Pratap.
"Good meat," stated the Pathan. The Rajputs glowered at him. The tracker was oblivious. His mind was elsewhere.
"So we give up, then?" asked Jaimal.
Sanga shook his head.
"No, we don't. But we'll not try chasing after the Roman again. Instead"
He held up the message.
"We'll take his advice. Angles. Maybejust maybewe can make better time by taking two sides of the triangle while he takes one. We'll head for Bharakucchaas fast as our horses can carry us. At Bharakuccha we'll requisition a shipseveral shipsand sail north to Barbaricum. That's where he's headed, I'm sure of it."
He strode for his horse.
"We might be able to meet him there. Let's go!"
That night, by the campfire, the Pathan finally broke the silence he had maintained for hours.
"After adopt, make him clan chief. No. Make him king. First Pathan king ever." He grinned at the Rajputs over the flickering flames. "Then Pathan conquer world entire whole." A gracious nod to Sanga. "You was good master. When you my slave, I be good master too."
Three days later, as the Aravallis rolled by on their right, Jaimal leaned over his saddle and snarled to Sanga:
"If that Pathan keeps telling that same joke, I swear I'm going to kill him."
"Jaimal," the Rajput king replied, coldly. "He is not joking."
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