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The first rocket awed the mob in the Hippodrome. By sheer good fortune, the missile soared almost straight and exploded while it was in plain view of the entire crowd. A great flaming burst in the sky, just over the unoccupied southwestern tiers.
The faction thugs roared their approval. Many of them rose in their seats and shook their weapons triumphantly.
In the imperial box, Hypatius and Pompeius seemed suitably impressed as well, judging from their gapes. But Narses, watching them from behind, spotted the subtle nuances.
Hypatius' gape was accompanied by the beginning of a frown. The newly crowned "Emperor"his tiara wobbling atop his headwas not entirely pleased. The crowd's roar of approval for the rockets was noticeably more enthusiastic than the roar with which they had greeted his "ascension to the throne," not five minutes earlier.
His brother Pompeius' gape was likewise accompanied by a frown. But, in his case, the frown indicated nothing more than thoughtfulness. Pompeius was already planning to overthrow his brother.
In the rear of the kathisma, Narses sneered. This, too, he knew, was part of the Malwa plot. The Indians intended the overthrow of Justinian to set in motion an entire round of civil wars, one contender for the throne battling another. Years of civil warlike the worst days of the post-Antonine era, three centuries earlierwhile the Malwa gobbled up Persia without interference and made ready their final assault on Rome itself.
As always, Narses thought the Malwa were too clever for their own good. They would have done better to stick with their initial schemesimply to encourage Justinian's ambitions to conquer the west. That would have served their purpose, without any of the attendant risks of an armed insurrection.
But Narses, slowly and carefully, had convinced them otherwise. The eunuch had his own ambitions, which required Justinian's removal. He would risk the Malwa's future plans for the sake of his own immediate accession to power. There would be no civil wars. Narses would put an end to them, quickly and ruthlessly.
The eunuch watched another rocket soar into the sky. The trajectory of this one was markedly more erratic than that of the first. By the time the rocket exploded, it had looped out of sight beneath the northwestern wall of the Hippodrome.
Narses sighed with exasperation. He, too, was being excessively clever. Buthe was old. He had little choice. Narses did not have the time to wait, for years, while Justinian exhausted the Roman Empire in his grandiose attempt to reconstruct its ancient glory.
Another rocket. Properly behaved, this one. But the fourth, after an initially promising lift-off, suddenly arced down and exploded in the Hippodrome itself. Fortunately, the section of the tiers where it landed was unoccupied.
Narses sighed again.
He was startled by another explosion. A section of the tiers near the Blue faction erupted in flame and smoke. No one was hurt, however.
Narses frowned. He had seen no rocket.
Another explosion. This one erupted on the fringe of the Blue crowd, killing several thugs and hurtling shredded bodies onto their nearby comrades.
Balban, seated next to the "Emperor" Hypatius, leapt to his feet. He turned and glared at Ajatasutra.
"Did you give grenades to the factions, you fool?" he demanded.
Ajatasutra began to deny the charge, but fell silent. There was no need for his denial.
The truth of the matter was suddenly obvious.
A series of explosions now rocked the tiers, killing Blues and Greens indiscriminately. The giant mob was scrambling to their feet, shouting and brandishing their weapons.
Brandishing them, not in triumph, but at their new enemywho was even now marching into the Hippodrome through the wide entrance in the unoccupied southwestern portion.
Cataphractson foot, for a wonderflanking a small army of menand women?who were hurling grenades at the Hippodrome mob. With slings!
Everyone in the kathisma lunged to their feet, now, and pressed forward against the stone wall overlooking the Hippodrome.
Everyone except Narses. Who simply remained in his seat, sighing. Faintly, Narses could hear the battle cries of the newly arrived enemy.
Much too clever.
Belisarius, standing on the wharf, heard the same explosions.
"That's Antonina!" exclaimed Irene. "The battle in the Hippodrome's already started!"
Sittas and Hermogenes looked at Belisarius.
"The Hippodrome can wait," he stated. "Antonina can hold her own against that mob, at least for a while. We need to make sure the Emperor and Empress are safe, before we do anything else."
Sittas pointed out to sea.
"There are still some ships left from Aegidius' fleet. They'll be landing at Portus Caesarii soon."
Belisarius shrugged. "Let them. Most of that army's been shattered. Aegidius is probably already dead. Even if he isn't, it'll take him time to rally his troops and start marching them to the inner city. We'll deal with them later."
He pointed up the hill. "We must secure the Great Palace. Now."
Without another word, he began striding off the wharf. Irene and his Thracian bucellarii followed. Very quickly, Sittas and Hermogenes had their own troops marching away from the harbor.
The Great Palace was only a quarter of a mile away. With Belisarius in the lead, the little army of five hundred cataphracts and two thousand infantrymen reached the wall surrounding the Great Palace in minutes.
The Great Palace of Constantinople was a vast complex, not a single structure. It was almost a small city within the city. The many buildings of the Palace were separated by peristyle porticoes alternating with open courtyards and gardens. The porticoes were decorated with mosaics, the courtyards and gardens with statuary and fountains.
It was perfectly designed terrain for defense, and Belisarius knew that he had to overwhelm any enemies before they could organize such a defense. So, for one of the few times in his life, he decided to order a straightforward frontal assault.
He looked to Hermogenes.
"Did you bring scaling equipment?"
Hermogenes answered by simply pointing to the rear. Turning, Belisarius saw that squads of infantrymen were already rushing up with ropes and grappling hooks.
He was pleasedsomewhat. He studied the wall more closely. It was at least eight feet tall.
"We really need ladders, too," he muttered, "to get enough men over in time to"
He broke off, seeing the look of restrained exasperation on Hermogenes' face.
"We trained for this," growled Hermogenes. "I didn't want to haul a lot of bulky ladders around, so instead" He took a deep breath. "Just watch, general. And relax."
Belisarius smiled. Watched. Smiled very broadly.
At thirty-foot intervals, down a two hundred yard stretch of the wall, ten-man squads of infantrymen anchored grappling hooks. Immediately, two men from each squad scaled the wall and dropped over into the gardens beyond. The others divided into two-man teams. Each team began hoisting a stream of soldiers by using a shield held between them as a stepping stone. After the first wave of soldiers went over the wall, the hoisting teams were replaced by fresh soldiers and went over the wall themselves.
Coming from the palace grounds, Belisarius could hear the shouts of surprised defenders and the hammering of weapons on shields. But there were not many of those shouts, and the hammering died away very quickly.
Belisarius was impressed. In less than a minute, five hundred infantrymen had swarmed into the palace grounds andjudging from the soundhad already overwhelmed the immediate defenders.
"With a wall this shortIrene measured it for methis works faster than ladders," commented Hermogenes smugly. "If necessary, I could get all the infantry over in less than four minutes. But we shouldn't need to because"
Belisarius heard a cry of triumph. Turning his head, he saw that one of the gates was opening. In seconds, the infantrymen opening that gate from within had pushed it completely to one side. A moment later, he saw two more gates opening.
Sittas and twenty of his cataphracts were already thundering through the first gate. Other cataphracts positioned themselves before the other gates. As soon as the way was cleared, they too began pouring into the palace grounds.
Once the heavy cavalry had all entered, the rest of the infantry followed. Belisarius and Hermogenes trotted in the rear, with Irene a few paces behind. Valentinian and Anastasius led the way. Menander, Ashot, and the rest of the Thracians flanked them on either side.
As soon as he entered the palace grounds, Belisarius made a quick survey of the area. Hermogenes' troops had already formed a well-ordered perimeter, within which Sittas and his men were drawing up into their own formations. The cataphracts were a bit disorganized. The checkerboard arrangement of the palace groundsgardens next to small patios next to open-sided porticoeswas hardly ideal terrain for heavy cavalrymen.
Belisarius was not concerned. Enemy cataphracts would be equally handicapped and he doubted if, as individuals, they would match Sittas' elite horsemen. He would use Sittas and the cataphracts as a mailed fist, if necessary. But he was really depending on the infantry.
That infantrythat excellent infantryhad already given him the advantage. Their speedy swarming over the wall had obviously caught the traitors completely off guard. Lying near the gates, Belisarius could see the bodies of perhaps thirty men. Most of them, from their uniforms, he took to be John of Cappadocia's retainers. Other than that, the only enemy soldiers in sight were a handful scuttling away in rapid retreat.
Here and there, scattered among the corpses of the Cappadocian's bucellarii and a few of Hermogenes' infantry, he also saw the bodies of men dressed in the livery of excubitores. And he could hear, dimly, the sound of combat in the direction of the Gynaeceum.
He turned to Irene.
"Where is Justinian? And Theodora?"
She pointed to the northeast, at one of the more distant buildings.
"They were going to hold an emergency council in the audience chamber of Leo's Palace."
"I know which one it is," said Belisarius. He began trotting in that direction.
"Hermogenes!" he shouted. The infantry general, a few yards away, looked at him. Belisarius, still trotting, pointed toward the building.
"Half of your mensend them with me! You take the other half and secure the Gynaeceum!"
Sittas came galloping up, followed by his mounted cataphracts. Still trotting, Belisarius waved his hand in a circle.
"Sittasclear the palace grounds!"
Sittas grinned. The burly general reined his horse around.
"You heard the man!" he bellowed. He jumped his horse over a low hedge and began galloping toward the center of the complex. His cavalrymen followed, pounding through gardens, courtyards and porticoes. Vegetation was trampled underfoot, statuary was shattered or upended. The fountains survived, more or less intact. So, of course, did the columns upholding the porticoesalthough many of the beautiful floor tiles were shattered into pieces, and a few of the wall mosaics suffered in passing from casual contact with the armored shoulders and lance butts of cataphracts.
At the very center of the palace complex, Sittas encountered two hundred of John's bucellarii. Most of them were mounted. The ones who weren't were in the process of doing soa laborious process, for armored cataphracts. All of them seemed confused and disorganized.
Sittas gave them no chance at all. He didn't even bother to shout any orders. He simply lowered his lance and thundered into the mob. His five hundred cataphracts came right behind, following his lead.
The result was a pure and simple massacre. The Cappadocian's bucellarii were surprised and outnumbered. By the time they realized the danger, Sittas and his men were almost upon them. At that range, bows were useless. Most of John's retainers had time to raise their lances, but
They didn't have stirrups. Sittas and his cataphracts went through them like an ax through soft wood. Half of the Cappadocian's bucellarii either died or were badly wounded in the first lance charge. Thereafter, matching sword and mace blows with men who were braced by stirrups, the remainder lasted less than a minute. At the end, not more than twenty of the retainers were able to surrender. The rest were either dead, badly injured, or unconscious.
Hermogenes, meanwhile, led a thousand of his infantrymen into the Gynaeceum. Once inside the labyrinth of the womens' quarters, Hermogenes followed the sounds of fighting. Two minutes after entering the complex, he and his men were falling on the backs of the bucellarii fighting what was left of Theodora's excubitores.
The battle in the Gynaeceum was not as bloody as the cavalry melee in the courtyards, for the simple reason that John's retainers surrendered almost immediately. They were hopelessly trapped between two forces; and they were, at bottom, nothing but mercenaries. Whatever his other talents, John of Cappadocia had none when it came to cementing the loyalty of bucellarii.
Belisarius himself faced no enemies at all, beyond a small group of bucellariinot more than fortywhom he encountered leaving Leo's Palace just as he was approaching. The cataphracts were in the process of mounting their horses.
There was no battle. The bucellarii took one look at the thousand infantrymen charging toward them and fled instantly. Those of them who had not managed to mount their horses in time retreated also, lumbering in the heavy way of armored cavalrymen forced to run on their own two legs.
Belisarius let them go. He had much more pressing concerns. He plunged into the building. Followed by his infantry, he raced through the half-remembered corridors, searching for the audience chamber.
Hoping against hope, but fearing the worst.
"Who is that?" squawked the "Emperor" Hypatius, leaning over the wall separating the kathisma from the Hippodrome. He stared at the little army pouring through the southwestern gate. Then, goggled, seeing them slinging grenades at the huge mob of faction thugs on the other side of the Hippodrome.
"Where did they get grenades?" he shrieked.
A new battle cry was heard: "Antonina! Antonina!"
Ajatasutra leaned over the wall and examined the invaders. His eyes were immediately drawn to a small figure bringing up the rear. Helmeted; armoredbut unmistakeably feminine for all that.
He smiled bitterly, turning away. He looked at Balban and gestured with his thumb.
"That's what you called the sheep."
Hypatius was now gobbling with sheer terror. Pompeius, the same.
Someone began pounding on the rear entrance to the kathisma, the barred door which led to the Great Palace. Narses recognized John of Cappadocia's voice: "Open up! Open up!"
At Balban's command, the kshatriya guarding the door unbarred and opened it.
John of Cappadocia burst into the kathisma, trailing three of his bucellarii.
"Belisarius is here!" he shouted. "His whore Antonina has some kind of army" He fell abruptly silent, seeing the scene in the Hippodrome.
"She's here already!" snarled Balban, pointing over the wall. "And she's got grenades!"
Too clever by half.
The eunuch rose. Strode forward. Took charge.
"Have you blinded Justinian?" he demanded.
John of Cappadocia nodded.
"She's under guard in the palace."
Narses took Balban by the arm and pointed over the wall separating the kathisma from the Hippodrome. He was pointing to the hundreds of kshatriya manning the rockets. The four hundred kshatriya, unlike the thousands of milling and confused faction thugs, were already forming their battle lines. Most of them were opening baskets of grenades. The kshatriya manning the rockets were hastily re-aiming the troughs.
"You've still got your own soldiers andif you provide some leadershipthat huge faction mob. Get down there! Now!"
Balban neither argued nor protested. Immediately, the spymaster began clambering over the wall.
Narses grabbed Hypatius and shoved him to the wall. "Go with him!" he commanded. "You're the new Emperor! You need to rally the Hippodrome crowd!"
Hypatius babbled protest. Narses simply manhandled the "Emperor" over the stone rampart. Despite his terror, Hypatius was no match for the old eunuch's wiry strength. Half-sprawled over the wallon the wrong side of the wallHypatius stared up at Narses.
"Do it!" ordered the eunuch. His eyes were fixed on Hypatius like a snake on its prey. An instant later, Narses tore Hypatius' clutching fingers off the wall. The "Emperor" landed in a collapsed heap on the stone platform below.
Hypatius immediately lunged to his feet and jumped at the wall.
Hopeless. That wall had been designed to keep assassins from the emperor. A strong and agile man could have leapt high enough to grasp the top of the wall. Hypatius was neither.
The new "Emperor" gobbled terror.
"Do it!" commanded Narses.
Hypatius gasped. He turned his head and spotted Balban. The spymaster was racing around the upper tiers of the Hippodrome, heading for the kshatriya rocketeers. He was already forty yards away.
Gibbering with fear, Hypatius staggered after him.
In the kathisma, Narses turned from the wall and confronted John of Cappadocia.
"Where are the rest of your bucellarii?" he demanded.
The Cappadocian glared at him.
"You idiot!" snarled the eunuch. "Kept them in the palace, didn't you? Planned to keep them unharmed, didn't you? So you'd have them available for later use."
John was still glaring, but he did not deny the charge.
Narses pointed to the chaos in the Hippodrome.
" `Later use' is now, Cappadocian. Get them! With your thousand bucellarii added to the brew, we might still win this thing."
John started to protest. The eunuch drove him down.
John argued no further. The Cappadocian charged down the corridor leading to the Great Palace. Narses went after him, dragging Pompeius by the arm. Before following, Ajatasutra ordered the kshatriya still in the kathisma to join Balban. As he left the kathismanow unoccupiedthe kshatriya were already climbing over the wall and dropping down into the Hippodrome.
In the corridor, Ajatasutra quickly caught up with Narses and Pompeius.
Smiling, the assassin leaned over and whispered:
" `Years of civil war,' you said."
Narses glanced at him, but said nothing. The eunuch was concentrating his attention on forcing the gibbering Pompeius forward. The new "Emperor's" brother was practically paralyzed with fear.
"If you don't start moving," snarled Narses, "I'll just leave you here."
Pompeius suddenly began running down the corridor.
Narses let him go.
"At least he's headed in the right direction," grumbled the eunuch. "We'll catch him later. He'll stumble into a faint, somewhere up ahead."
The eunuch began trotting. Ajatasutra matched his pace easily.
Again, the assassin leaned over and whispered. Still smiling:
" `The Roman Empire will be in chaos for a generation,' you said."
Narses ignored him.
" `Much better than just letting Justinian fight his stupid wars,' you said."
Narses ignored him.
They reached the end of the corridor. Now, they found themselves in one of the many buildings of the Great Palace. They could hear the sound of fighting coming from somewhere in the outer complex.
As Narses had predicted, Pompeius was waiting for them. In a manner of speaking: the nobleman was squatting on the floor, leaning his head against a wall, sobbing.
Narses leaned over, seized Hypatius by his hair, and dragged the "emperor's" brother to his feet.
"The only place you're safe now is with me," hissed the eunuch. "If you collapse againif you disobey me in any wayI'll leave you." Narses released his grip and stalked toward one of the corridors leading to another building in the complex. Ajatasutra strode alongside. Hypatius followed.
The sound of fighting grew louder. Among those sounds, Narses recognized the heavy thundering of a cavalry charge. So did Ajatasutra. Both men picked up their pace.
"Where are we going?" whispered the assassin. "And why"he pointed with a thumb over his shoulder"are you so intent on hauling that creature with us?"
"I'll need him," growled Narses.
They reached the end of the corridor. They were in another large room in yet another building. Narses plunged through a door against the left wall.
Again, a short corridor. Again, another room in yet another building. Again, Narses led the way through another door. Again, another corridor.
Ajatasutra, though he had an abstract knowledge of the Great Palace's layout, was by now completely disoriented.
"Where are we going?" he repeated.
"I have something to attend to," muttered Narses.
The eunuch broke into a trot. The corridor made a bend. Once around the bend, Ajatasutra could see that the corridor ended in a massive set of double doors. One of the doors was ajar. Beyond, Ajatasutra heard the sound of indistinct voices.
Once they got within ten feet of the half-open door, Ajatasutra recognized one of the voices in the room beyond.
John of Cappadocia's voice.
Narses hissed. "That bastard. I knew he'd come here first."
The eunuch turned his head. Reptilian eyes focussed on Ajatasutra. "Decide," he commanded.
Ajatasutra hesitated for only a second. Then, with a half-smile:
"You're the best of a bad lot."
Narses nodded. He gestured toward Pompeius, who was just now staggering up.
"Keep him safe," muttered the eunuch. "And deal with the bucellarii."
Narses turned away and slid through the door. Ajatasutra followed, dragging Pompeius by the arm.
Inside, they found a dramatic tableau.
Theodora was on her knees, cradling Justinian. The Emperor, though still unconscious, was beginning to moan.
John of Cappadocia loomed above her, with a sword in his hand. His three bucellarii were standing a few feet away, between John and Narses. Hearing the eunuch enter, the bodyguards turned hastily and raised their weapons. Then, recognizing him, they lowered the swords and stepped aside. Narses slid past them, heading toward John and the Empress.
Ajatasutra relinguished his grip on Pompeius and sidled close to the bucellarii.
The Cappadocian glared down at the Empress. He began to snarl something.
Theodora, her face like a mask, sneered:
"Stop talking, traitor. Do it, coward."
John raised his sword.
Narses, hissing like a snake:
"Stop, you idiot! We're going to need her. Alive."
Startled, John turned away from the Empress. His sword lowered, slightly.
"Why?" he demanded. "We were going to kill her, anyway, after she hailed the new Emperor. She and Justinian both. There's no reason to wait, now." He scowled. "And why are you here?"
Narses strode forward.
"I swear, Cappadocian, you've got the brains of a toad."
Closer, closer. The eunuch pointed to the Empress. John turned his head, following the pointing finger.
Ajatasutra, watching, was impressed. The old eunuch stabbed like a viper. The little knife seemed to come from nowhere, before it sank into John's ribcage.
John screamed, staggered, dropped his sword. The knife was still protruding from his side.
Narses stepped back.
The bucellarii bellowed, raised their swords, and took a step toward the eunuch.
One step. They got no further.
Ajatasutra slew the three bucellarii in as many seconds. Three quick blows from his dagger into the bodyguards' backs. Each blowpowerful, swiftslid expertly between gaps in the armor, severing spinal cords. Ajatasutra's victims died before they even realized what had happened. The bodyguards simply slumped to the floor.
John of Cappadocia had already fallen to the floor. But his was no lifeless slump. The praetorian prefect's face was twisted with agony. He was apparently trying to scream, but no sound escaped from the rictus distorting his face.
"It's quite a nasty poison," remarked Narses cheerfully. "Utterly paralyzing, for all the pain. Deadly, too. After a time."
Ajatasutra quickly cleaned his dagger, but he did not replace it in its hidden sheath.
"Explain," he commanded.
Narses began to sneer. But then, seeing the expression on the assassin's face, thought better of it. "Do you still have any illusions, Ajatasutra?" he demanded. The eunuch pointed toward a nearby wall. Through that wall, thick as it was, came the sounds of combat. Grenade explosions, shouts, screams.
"It's over," he pronounced. "We lost."
Ajatasutra frowned. Without being conscious of the act, the assassin hefted his dagger.
Narses was conscious of that act. He spoke hurriedly:
"Think, Ajatasutra. Where did Antonina get the grenades? She didn't steal them from us. She had them made. That means she's been planning this for months. It means everything that fool Procopius told that fool Balban was duplicity. Not histhe gossiping idiot!but hers. Antonina hasn't been holding orgies on her estateshe's been training an army and equipping them with gunpowder weapons."
Ajatasutra's frown deepened. "But she couldn't have the knowledge"
He got no further. Theodora's cawing laugh cut him short. The assassin, seeing the triumph in her face, suddenly knew that Narses was right.
He lowered the dagger. Lowered it, but did not sheathe the weapon. "There's still a chance," he said. "From what I saw, she doesn't have much of an army. Balban still has the kshatriya, and the mob."
Narses shook his head.
"No chance at all, Ajatasutra. Not with Belisarius here."
The eunuch shook his head again. The gesture had a grim finality to it.
"No chance," he repeated. "Not with Belisarius here. He's already shattered the Army of Bithynia. Even if Balban manages to defeat Antonina in the Hippodrome, he'll still have to face Belisarius. With what? A few hundred kshatriya? Faction thugs?"
Narses gestured scornfully at the bodies of John's bucellarii. "Or do you think these lap dogs are capable of facing Belisariusand his cataphracts?"
Ajatasutra stared at the three corpses. Not for long, however. The sounds of combat were growing louder.
He slid the dagger into its sheath. "You're right. Now what?"
Narses shrugged. "We escape. You, me, and Pompeius. We'll need him, to mollify your masters. We can at least claim that we salvaged the `legitimate heir' from the wreckage. The Malwa can use him as a puppet."
The assassin winced. "Nanda Lal's going to be furious."
"So?" demanded Narses. "You weren't in chargeBalban was. You warned him that Antonina was deceiving us. I'll swear to it. But Balban wouldn't listen."
Ajatasutra glanced at Pompeius. The nobleman was leaning against the far wall. His face was pale, his eyes unfocussed. He seemed completely oblivious to everything except his own terror.
The assassin's eyes moved to the Empress. Theodora glared back at him.
Black, black eyes. Hating eyes.
"Her?" he asked.
The old eunuch's face was truly that of a serpent, now. For a moment, Ajatasutra almost drew his dagger again. But, instead, he simply murmured:
"Who would have ever thought Narses would commit an act of personal grace?"
Smiling, the assassin strode over to Pompeius, seized the nobleman by the arm, and dragged him to the door. There, he stopped, waiting for Narses.
The eunuch and the Empress stared at each other.
The eunuch's was a gaze of sorrow. Theodora's
"I will never forgive you. You are a dead man."
Narses nodded. "I know." A rueful little smile came to his face. "But I might still win. And I'm an old man, anyway. Even if I lose, I may well be dead before you kill me."
The smile faded. Sorrow remained.
The eunuch turned away, and began walking toward the door. Theodora's voice halted him.
For the first time, there was anguish as well as hatred in her voice. Narses, without turning, simply shrugged.
"Ambition," he said.
"No. Not that. Why this?"
Narses turned his head. His eyes met those of Theodora's. There was a hint of tears in her eyes. Just a hint.
Narses fought back his own tears.
"There was no need. And"
He could not face those eyes. He looked away. Harshly: "I did not stop loving you, child, simply because I planned to murder you."
Anguish fled the Empress. Only the hell-voice remained:
"You should have killed me, traitor. You will regret it, coward."
Narses shook his head.
"No, Theodora, I won't. Not ever."
A moment later, he was gone. Theodora gazed down at her husband. Justinian's moans were growing louder. Soon, he would regain consciousness and begin to scream.
The Empress lifted his head off her lap and set it gently on the carpet.
She had something to attend to.
Crawling on her hands and knees, Theodora made her way to the body of the nearest soldier. She drew a dagger from the corpse's sword-belt.
Then, still crawling, she began making her way toward John of Cappadocia.
The Empress did not crawl because she was unable to stand, or because she was injured, or because she was in a state of shock.
No. She crawled simply because she wanted the Cappadocian to see her coming.
He did. And then, despite the agony which held him paralyzed, tried to scream.
But he couldn't. He couldn't make a sound; couldn't move a muscle. He could only watch.
Theodora crawled toward him, the dagger in her hand. Her eyes were fixed on those of the praetorian prefect.
She wanted those eyes.
It was the last thing John of Cappadocia would ever see, and he knew it.
Three minutes later, Belisarius burst into the room. Behind him came his cataphracts and Irene.
All of them skidded to a halt.
Irene clapped her hand over her mouth, gasping. Menander turned pale. Anastasius tightened his jaws. Valentinian grinned.
Belisarius simply stared. But he too, for a moment, was transfixed by the sight.
Transfixed, not by the sight of the bodies littering the chamber. Not by the sight of Justinian, moaning, blinded. Not even by the sight of the praetorian prefect, prostrate, screaming in a silent rictus, his back arched with agony.
No, it was the sight of the Empress. Squatting over the dying traitor, a bloody knife in one hand, her imperial robes held up by the other. Urinating into the empty eyesockets of John of Cappadocia.
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