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Belisarius watched Rana Sanga and his men ride away. Not until the Rajputs had vanished did he turn to Dadaji Holkar.
"I do not think he is typical of Rajputs," he said. It was more of a question than a statement.
The Maratha slave disagreed. Instantly, and without hesitation. With any other master, he would not have done so. By ancient Indian customthough only the Malwa had ever written it into lawa slave was expected to cherish as well as obey his master. That Dadaji Holkar did so in actual fact was due, as much as anything, to the fact that his outlandish foreign master interpreted obedience as devotion to his purpose rather than his person.
"You misunderstand him, master. Rana Sanga is quite famous. Most Indiansand all Marathaconsider him the truest of Rajputs. He is perhaps the greatest Rajput warrior today living, and certainly the finest Rajput general. His exploits are legend. He is a king also, of course, but" the Maratha smiled "that means little by itself. There are so many Rajput kings, most of whom rule their little hilltop as if it were all the universe. But Sanga is of the Chauhar dynasty, which is perhaps their greatest line of royalty. And the Chauhar are known for their thought as well as their archery and swordsmanship."
Belisarius cocked his eyebrow. "And so?"
Dadaji Holkar shrugged. "And so, Rana Sanga is the truest of Rajputs, and takes his deepest pride in that fact. But because he does so, and thinks like a Chauhar thinks, he also ponders on what being a Rajput means. He knows, you seehe has even been heard to make the occasional jest about itthat the Rajput lineage is really not so much grander than that of we disreputable Maratha hillmen. Yet he also knows that the lineage is true, nonetheless. And so he thinks about lineage, and how it comes to be, and how truth emerges out of illusion. And he wonders, I think, where the difference between truth and illusion lies, and what that means for his dharma."
The slave stroked the horse's neck. "Those are dangerous thoughts, master. Outside of their sorcerous weapons, and their vast armies, the Malwa have no resource so valuable to them as the skill of Rana Sanga on the battlefield. But I believe they fear that resource as much as they treasure it."
"Do they have reason to fear him?" asked Belisarius.
Dadaji Holkar squinted into the distance where the Rajputs had disappeared.
"Hard to know, master. Raghunath Rao once said the day would come when Rana Sanga would choose between Rajputana's honor and Rajputana's duty. And that, when that day came, the truest of Rajputs would understand that only honor gives duty meaning."
The Roman general scratched his chin. "I was not aware the two men knew each other."
"Oh, yes. They fought once, in single combat. They were both young at the time, but already famous warriors. It is a well-known episode."
Belisarius started slightly.
"I'm amazed either of them survived!"
The slave smiled.
"So were they! And everyone! But survive they did. Badly wounded, of course, both of them. Early in the fray, with his bow, Sanga slew the Maratha chieftain's horse and then wounded Rao in the arm. But he became overconfident and closed too soon. Rao gutted the Rajput's mount and then pressed him with sword and iron-clawed gauntlet. Here the combat was even, and they fought until both were bloody and disarmed. Then they fought by hand. No man in India beside Rana Sanga could have held his own against Raghunath Rao in unarmed combat. He was not as skilled, of course, but he was much larger and stronger. By the end of the day, both men were too weak and exhausted to lift an arm, or even stand. So they laid down side by side and continued their combat with words."
Belisarius chuckled. "And who won?"
Holkar shrugged. "Who is to say? At sundown, they decided honor had been satisfied. So they called upon their followers to carry them away and tend their wounds, and the armies themselves never clashed. All the Rajputs and Marathas present felt the duel had been so glorious that any further combat would only sully the memory. As the years passed, both Rao and Sanga became famous commanders, although they never met on the field of battle again, neither as warriors nor as generals. But from that day forward, Raghunath Rao has always stated that there exists no greater archer in the world than Rana Sanga, and not more than four or five who are his equal with a sword. For his part, Sanga makes the equal claim for Rao's clawed gauntlet and his fists, and swears he would rather fight a tiger with his own teeth than face Rao again on the field of philosophy."
Belisarius' chuckle became an outright laugh.
"What a marvelous tale! How much truth is there in it, do you think?"
Holkar's face was solemn. "It is all true, master. Every word. I was at that battle, and helped bind Rao's wounds myself."
The Roman general stared down at his slave. Dadaji Holkar was a small man, middle-aged, grey-haired, and slightly built. In his appearance as well as his demeanor he seemed every inch the highly literate scribe that he had been before the Malwa enslaved him. Belisarius reminded himself that, for all his intellect, Dadaji Holkar was from Majarashtra. Majarashtra, the Great Country. A land of volcanic stone, harsh and unforgiving. The land of the Marathas, who, if they were not India's most noble people, were certainly its most truculent.
"I do not doubt you, Dadaji," he said softly. The Roman general's large and powerful hand, for just an instant, caressed the slender shoulder of his Maratha slave. And the slave knew, in that moment, that his master was returning his own cherishment.
Holkar left abruptly then, leading Belisarius' horse to its feeding trough. He squeezed his eyes, shutting back the tears. He shared his master's tent, and had listened, night after night, while his master spoke softly to the divine presence in his mind. He knew, from those muttered words, that Belisarius had met Rao himselfhad met Rao, not in this world, but in the world of a vision. In that world of vision, all of India had fallen under the Malwa talons, and Rome had eventually followed. In that world, Rao had failed to save Majarashtra and had become, through the strange workings of fate, the Maratha slave of the greatest of Roman generals.
Gently, Dadaji Holkar stripped the horse of her saddle and began wiping the mare down. He was fond of horses and, by her nuzzle, knew the fondness was reciprocated. He knew, also, that Belisarius' invariable kindness to him was partly the transference of his feelings for Rao onto another of his countrymen. Belisarius had said to him, once, that in a lifetime where he had met many fine men, he had never known a finer than Raghunath Rao. But Dadaji Holkar had come to know his new master well, in the months since he had been purchased in Bharakuccha to train a newly arrived foreigner in India's tongues and scripts. And so he knew that he was himself a man to Belisarius, not simply a surrogate for another, and that the heart of the Roman's love for him belong to he himself. He, and his loyalty, and his service, and the memory of his broken people and his shattered family.
The slave Dadaji Holkar began feeding his master's horse. There were none to see, now, so he let the tears flow freely. Then, after a moment, raised his blurry vision and gazed at the distant, splintering, brick walls of rebel Ranapur.
Ranapur will fall, soon. The Malwa beasts will savage its people, even worse than they savaged my own.
He lowered his gaze, wiped the tears from his face, watched the horse feed. He enjoyed watching the mare's quiet pleasure as she ate. It reminded him, a bit, of the joy he had taken watching his wife and children eat the food he had always placed on their table. Until the Malwa came, and devoured his family whole.
Enjoy your triumph, Malwa cobras. It will not last. You have let the mongoose himself into your nest.
The horse was done feeding. Holkar led her into the thatched stalls which the Roman soldiers had erected for their horses. The stalls were very large, and completely shielded from outside view. An outside view which might have wondered, perhaps, why such a small body of men would need such a large number of horses. And such fine horses!
Indeed, they were very fine. Holkar was fond of the mare, but he knew she was the poorest of the mounts which rested in the stalls. The Romans never rode the fine ones, the superb riding steeds which Holkar himself had purchased, one by one, from the various merchants scattered about the siege of Ranapur. Horses which were always purchased late in the day, and led into their stalls in the dark of night.
His master had never explained the reasons for those purchases, nor had Holkar inquired.
Nor had Belisarius explained the reason for purchases which were still more odd.
Not two days ago, at his master's command, Holkar had purchased three elephants. Three small, well-tamed, docile creatures, which were kept in a huge but simple tent located in a small clearing in the forest, many miles from the siege, and many miles from the official camp of the Romans and Ethiopians.
Holkar had asked no questions. He had not asked why the tent should be so far away, and so different in appearance from the grandiose pavilion which the Ethiopian prince Eon had erected for himself and his concubines. Nor why the elephants themselves should be so different in their appearance from the two huge and unruly war elephants which the Ethiopians maintained as their public mounts. Nor why the elephants were only fed at night, and only by the African slave named Ousanas, whose invisibility in the darkness was partly due to the color of his skin, but mostly to his incredible skill as a hunter and a woodsman.
No, Holkar had simply obeyed his master's commands, and not asked for any explanation of them. The Maratha did not think that his master could have explained, even had he asked. Not clearly, at least. Not precisely. The mind of Belisarius did not work that way. His thoughts never moved in simple straight lines, but always at an angle. Where other men thought of the next step, Belisarius thought of the next fork in the road. And where other men, coming upon that fork, would see a choice between right and left, Belisarius was as likely to burrow a hole or take to the trees.
He closed the thatch door to the stalls. There was no lock, nor need of one. The Kushans would make short work of any thief or intruder. As he made his slow way back to his tent, Holkar smiled. Darkness had now fallen, but he could sense the keen scrutiny of the Kushan guards.
Almost as keen as their curiosity, he thought, chuckling. But they keep their curiosity to themselves. When Kungas commands, his men obey. The Kushans, also, ask no questions.
Holkar glanced over to the huge pavilion which belonged to Prince Eon. About nothing, Holkar suspected, were the Kushan guards more curious than that tent. Although he was not certain, he thought that the Kushan commander already knew the secret within that tent. Knew it, and knew his duty, and had decided to ignore that duty, for reasons which Holkar could only surmise. The Kushan commander's face was impossible to read, ever. But Holkar thought he knew the man's soul.
Dadaji Holkar himself, for that matter, had been told nothing. Nor had he ever entered Prince Eon's pavilion. But he was an acutely observant man, and he had come to know his new master well. Holkar was certain that inside that tent rested the person of Shakuntala, the only survivor of the Satavahana dynasty, the former rulers of conquered Andhra.
Like everyone in Indiathe tale had spread like wildfireHolkar knew that the famed Maratha chieftain Raghunath Rao had rescued Shakuntala from her Malwa captors months ago. But where all others thought she had escaped with Rao, Holkar was certain that she had been hidden away by Belisarius and his Ethiopian allies. Disguised as one of Prince Eon's many concubines.
Again, he smiled. It was exactly the sort of cunning maneuver that his master would relish. Feint and counter-feint. Strike from an angle, never directly. Confuse and misdirect. In some manner, Holkar suspected, Belisarius had even been responsible for the replacement of Shakuntala's Kushan guards by priests and torturers. The same Kushan guards who now served as Belisarius' own escort had earlier been Shakuntala's guardians. Holkar had seen enough of them, over the past months, to realize that not even Raghunath Rao would have been able to penetrate their security.
He paused for a moment, considering the tent. A faint sneer came to his face.
The Malwa would pay him a fortune for his knowledge. But Holkar never even considered the possibility of treachery. He was devoted to Belisarius as much as he hated the Malwa. And besides, like Raghunath Rao, he was a Maratha himself. The Princess Shakuntalathe Empress, nowwas the rightful ruler of Majarashtra. She was his own legitimate monarch, and, with a mental bow, Dadaji Holkar acknowledged that suzerainty.
He resumed his progress toward Belisarius' tent. A little smile came to his face. Like many intelligent, well-educated men, Dadaji Holkar had a fine sense of historical irony. So he found his fierce loyalty to the memory of Andhra amusing, in its own way.
When the Satavahana dynasty had been at the peak of their power, the Marathas had been the most unruly of their subjects. Never, since its incorporation into Andhra, had Majarashtra risen in outright rebellion. But the Satavahanas had always been careful to rule the Great Country with a light hand. Now that all of Andhra was under the Malwa heel, the Marathas had become the most fervent partisans of the former dynasty. None more so than Dadaji Holkar.
A sudden bright flash on the horizon drew his gaze. Holkar halted, stared. Moments later, the sound of the cannonade rolled over the encampment.
He resumed his steps.
Soon, yes, Ranapur will fall. And the cobra will sate itself again. As it has so many times.
He drew near his master's tent. For a moment, he stopped, studying that simple structure.
Not much to look at, truly. But, then, the mongoose never takes pride in its appearance. It simply studies the cobra, and ponders the angles.
Holkar began pulling back the tent flap. Another rolling cannonade caused him to pause, look back. For a moment, his scholar's face twisted into the visage of a gargoyle, so driven was he by hatred for all things Malwa.
But there were no Malwa spies close enough to see that face. Such spies had learned quickly that the endless squabbles over women between the foreigners and their Kushan escorts seemed to erupt in sudden brawls which, oddly, injured no one but bystanders watching the scene. In the first days after the foreigners set up their camp, two Malwa spies had been accidentally mauled in such melees. Thereafter, the spies had kept a discreet distance, and reported as little as possible to their overseers, lest they be ordered to resume a close watch.
The slave pulled back the flap and entered the tent. He saw his master squatting on a pallet, staring into nothingness, mouthing words too soft to hear.
Hatred vanished. Replaced, first, by devotion to his master's person. Then, by devotion to his master's purpose. And then, by devotion itself. For the slave had closed the demon world of Malwa behind him and had entered the presence of divinity.
He knelt in prayer. Silent prayer, for he did not wish to disturb his master's purpose. But fervent prayer, for all that.
Across the ancient, gigantic land of India, others also prayed that night. Millions of them.
Two hundred thousand prayed in Ranapur. They prayed, first, for deliverance from the Malwa. And then, knowing deliverance would not come, prayed they would not lose their souls as well as their bodies to the asura.
As Holkar prayed, his family prayed with him, though he knew it not. His wife, far away in a nobleman's mansion in the Malwa capital of Kausambi, hunched on her own pallet in a corner of the great kitchen where she spent her days in endless drudgery, prayed for her husband's safety. His son, squeezed among dozens of other slave laborers on the packed-earth floor of a shack in distant Bihar, prayed he would have the strength to make it through another day in the fields. His two daughters, clutching each other on a crib in a slave brothel in Pataliputra, prayed that their pimps would allow them to remain together another day.
Of those millions who prayed that night, many, much like Holkar, prayed for the tenth avatara who was promised. Prayed for Kalkin to come and save them from the Malwa demon.
Their prayers, like those of Holkar, were fervent.
But Holkar's prayers, unlike those of others, were not simply fervent. They were also joyous. For he, almost alone in India, knew that his prayers had been answered. Knew that he shared his own tent with the tenth avatara. And knew that, not more than five feet away, Kalkin himself was pouring his great soul into the vessel of the world's deliverance. Into the strange, crooked, cunning, mongoose mind of his foreign master.
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