by Harry Turtledove

Publication date: June 1996
Copyright© 1996 by Harry Turtledove
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Chapter One

When the younger Maniakes looked west from the governor's residence--a polite name for a fortress--in Kastavala, he could see only ocean. Even so, staring out at that ocean did not bother him unduly: He knew that beyond it lay the town of Opsikion, and beyond Opsikion the rest of the Empire of Videssos.

He and his father, from whom he drew his name, had lived on the island of Kalavria half a dozen years now. It was exile, but polite, honorable exile: The elder Maniakes was governor of the island. The Avtokrator Likinios had named him to the post, and Genesios, after murdering Likinios and all his sons and seizing the imperial throne for himself, had seen fit to leave him undisturbed. In his day, the elder Maniakes had been a soldier to reckon with; Genesios was no doubt just as glad to keep him busy far, far away from Videssos the city, the great capital of the Empire.

The younger Maniakes stirred restlessly. He knew just how far Kalavria was removed from the center of the imperial stage. In his six years here, he had ridden over almost every inch of the island. He had camped by a fire on the eastern shore and looked out to where the Sailors' Sea ran on ... forever, as far as anyone knew. The view east shouldn't have looked different from the view west, but somehow it did. Realizing you had your back to everything you would ever know seemed to change the way your eyes worked.

A voice came from behind him: "Woolgathering again, I see."

"Father! I didn't hear you come up," the younger Maniakes said.

"Proves my point, doesn't it?" The elder Maniakes chuckled raspily. He was a solidly made man in his middle sixties. A great fleshy beak of a nose dominated the rest of his features. He had aged about as well as he could for a man of his years. He still had most of his teeth, and his eyes and ears worked well enough. Along with his big, thick, bushy beard, his hair was white, but he had most of it, too. His wits, if anything, were sharper than they had ever been.

"I wasn't woolgathering," the younger Maniakes insisted, though his voice rose a little in embarrassment. "I was thinking." He had fewer than half his father's years, but most of the same features, including the impressive nose and the heavy beard that grew up almost to his eyes. Both were signs of the Vaspurakaner blood the two Maniakai shared: The elder Maniakes' father had left the land of the princes to take service with Videssos, and his scions had prospered there.

Now the elder Maniakes laughed out loud. "And what were you thinking that was so all-fired important you didn't even notice me?"

The younger Maniakes looked around, and listened, too. No, no servants were in earshot. You couldn't be too careful these days. Lowering his voice, he said, "About Genesios."

That got his father's attention. "Were you?" the elder Maniakes said, also quietly. He strode forward to stand by his son and look west with him. The governor's residence stood on a height above the town of Kastavala proper. From it, the red tile roofs of houses and shops and the golden domes that topped Phos' temples seemed spread out as if on a chart of parchment.

Beyond the houses, beyond the temples, lay the harbor that was Kastavala's true reason for being. By the sea squatted sun-bleached wooden warehouses and fish-drying sheds. When the wind blew out of the west, as it did more often than not, everyone in Kastavala was reminded of those sheds without any need to see them.

Wooden piers jutted into the sea. Most of the vessels tied up at them were fishing boats. The men who took them out day after day brought back the mackerel and squid that helped feed Kastavala. The merchant ships that came from Opsikion and sometimes even from Videssos the city loomed over them like bulls over calves.

At the base of one of those piers stood a spear; its butt jammed into the sand. Suspended from the point of the spear was a skull. A little skin, a little hair still clung to it. At Genesios' command, that spear and its burden had stood in place there for more than five years. When it came to Kastavala, the skull had been a head: the head of Hosios, eldest son and heir to the overthrown Avtokrator Likinios.

Softly still, the younger Maniakes said, "Genesios Avtokrator hasn't done all the things he might have for Videssos."

Beside him, his father snorted. "Tell the truth, son. As far as I can see, Genesios Avtokrator hasn't done any  of the things he might have for Videssos." Scorn filled his voice. Even so, he did not raise it. One thing Genesios was good at: scenting treason growing and rooting it out before it came to flower.

The younger Maniakes said, "Between the civil war, the Kubratoi, and the Makuraners, I wonder if there will be anything left of Videssos after a few more years. Here on this island, we're away from trouble, too."

"If it hadn't been for the Kubratoi, Likinios would still be Emperor today, or Hosios after him," the elder Maniakes said with a sigh. "Better he should have lost against the nomads than won a victory that made him think he could win more by ordering his troops to stay north of the Astris River through the winter and live off the land." He shivered at the thought of it. "If I'd been in that army, I might have rebelled, too."

His son shook his head, not believing it for a moment. The elder Maniakes had the grace to look abashed. Duty ran deep in him. He might complain about the onerous parts of a soldier's life, but he would never shirk them.

The younger Maniakes said, "Since Likinios fell, it hasn't been just the Kubratoi running wild up it the northeast." He stopped bemused by a perspective based on the view from Videssos the city. Kubrat lay north of Kalavria, but also west, not east. But then, from Kalavria just about everything lay to the west. He went on, "The men of Makuran have caused the Empire even more grief, I think."

"And whose fault is that?" The elder Maniakes pointed first at his son, then at himself. "Ours, no one else's."

"No, Likinios', too," the younger Maniakes said. "If he hadn't ordered us to help Sharbaraz--" In Videssian fashion, he pronounced the name of the Makuraner King of Kings as if it were Sarbaraz  . "--get his throne back from that usurper, Makuran would be in no position to fight a war against Videssos. They'd have their own troubles to deal with, out there in the far west."

"Likinios Avtokrator may have ordered it, but we accomplished it, you and I," his father answered. "Sharbaraz was properly grateful, too; I'll say so much for him. And now he uses gratitude as an excuse to avenge his benefactor--and swallow up as much of the Videssian westlands as he can."

The younger Maniakes turned and stared out the window again. At this distance, the standing spearshaft and the skull on it were invisible, but he knew where they stood. Half to himself, he said, "I wonder if the Hosios Sharbaraz claims to have with him might actually be Likinios' son."

"No." The elder Maniakes' voice was hard and flat. "Whatever else Genesios Avtokrator may be, he is an effective butcher. If he claims he massacred Likinios' whole clan, you may rely on him to speak the truth there--even if nowhere else. And I recognized that head when it still had flesh on it. Didn't you?"

"Yes," the younger Maniakes admitted unwillingly. "But still--"

"You wish we had some legitimate choice besides Genesios and his endless murders and betrayals," his father finished for him. "By Phos the lord with the great and good mind, so do I. But with Genesios holding Videssos the city, we don't, so what point even to thinking about it?"

The younger Maniakes left the window. His sandals clicked over the mosaic tiles of a hunting scene as he walked to the doorway. He looked out into the hall. It was empty in both directions. All the same, he closed the door before he went back to his father. When he spoke, it was in a whisper. "We could go into rebellion."

"No, by the good god," the elder Maniakes said, almost as quietly. "Do you know how many rebels' heads adorn the Milestone in the plaza of Palamas these days? A couple of dozen, maybe more. If an Avtokrator who holds the capital is even slightly awake to the world around him, a revolt in the provinces--especially in a Phos-forsaken province like Kalavria--is foredoomed to failure. Videssos the city is too hard a nut to crack."

"Yes, Father." The younger Maniakes sighed. They had this discussion about twice a year, or whenever word of some new disaster of Genesios' came into Kastavala, whichever was more frequent. By now they both knew all the steps in it as well as a standard opening sequence in the Videssian board game.

But now, like a skilled player trying a variation on one of those sequences, the elder Maniakes said, "Or are you still pining for that fiancee of yours back in Videssos the city?"

Swarthy though he was, the younger Maniakes knew he was flushing. "You know bloody well it's not that," he said. He had been engaged to Niphone, the daughter of Likinios' logothete of the treasury, and assotted of her, as well. But when Likinios named his father governor of Kalavria and packed both Maniakai off to the island, they had had to leave in too much haste for a wedding. The younger Maniakes had wept bitter tears most of the way to Kastavala.

"I didn't think that was it," his father said with a twinkle in his eye, "but I did want to check. I'm sure Rotrude will be glad to hear it."

The younger Maniakes flushed again. Rotrude had been his leman for four years now. She had stayed behind in Kastavala when her husband, a trader in furs and amber from up in cold Halogaland, died of a flux of the bowels. Her exotic good looks had caught the younger Maniakes' eye: Almost no Videssians had golden hair and eyes the green-blue color of the sea.

"Hard to believe Atalarikhos will be three soon," he said. He gave the boy's name the Videssian pronunciation and ending. Rotrude had wanted to name her son after her dead husband, and in the Haloga fashion simply called him Athalaric.

"He's a likely enough lad, but one of these days you should get yourself a legitimate heir," the elder Maniakes said.

His son turned that one against him like a board-game player bringing a captured piece back into action on his own side. "By the good god, where am I to find a girl of proper noble birth here on Kalavria?"

"A point." The elder Maniakes conceded that it was a good one by dipping his head and changing the subject. He pointed out to sea and said, "Isn't that a sail coming in from the west?"

"By Phos, I think it is," the younger Maniakes answered. "Nothing wrong with your eyes, Father, that's plain enough."

"Nothing wrong for looking out over the ocean, anyhow. When I try to read, it's another matter. I have to hold everything at arm's length, and then, half the time, the letters are too small to make out."

"That's a good-sized ship," the younger Maniakes said, gauging it against a fishing boat bobbing in the chop not far away. "I think I'll go down to the pier and see what cargo it brings." Watching a merchantman unload was more interesting than most things that happened in Kastavala.

"Pick up the news from the mainland, too," his father said. "It won't be good--it never is any more--but we should have it."

"I'll do as you say, Father."

The younger Maniakes hurried downstairs. At the doorway that opened onto the path leading down into town, he almost ran into his cousin Rhegorios. The two of them looked enough alike to be brothers: not surprising, since Rhegorios' father Symvatios, the elder Maniakes' younger brother, could almost have been his twin.

"Where away in such a hurry?" Rhegorios asked.

"Down to the harbor. I was on the top floor and saw a merchantman coming in," the younger Maniakes said. "Want to come along?"

"Why not?" his cousin answered. "Wait here a moment--let me get my swordbelt." He trotted down the hall toward his chamber.

Maniakes was already wearing his sword, belted on over a robe of brocaded silk. When winter came and snowstorms rolled across the sea and into Kastavala, he changed to tunic and trousers and thick sheepskin jacket, as did everyone else in town. Many men, maybe most, wore tunic and trousers the year around, but nobles were expected to be respectably conservative.

Rhegorios hurried back, still closing the heavy gold buckle on his swordbelt. He liked display better than Maniakes did. But then, he'd seen less fighting than his cousin: A fancy-decked soldier only made a juicier target for his foes.

A servant came up to bar the door behind Maniakes and Rhegorios. The wind was rising, and from out of the west. Maniakes coughed a little--it threw the reek of the fish-drying sheds full in his face. Rhegorios laughed, understanding him. "Think on the bright side, cousin," he said. " It stinks, aye, but it brings that ship in faster."

"True enough," Maniakes said. The slope of the rise lengthened his strides and sped his pace into town. He knew the slog back would be long, but was young enough not to worry about that till he had to do it.

Kastavala had no wall. Danger here came from the sea, not from the island. Soon Maniakes and Rhegorios were in among houses, most presenting to the world only whitewashed fronts with narrow, shuttered windows and stout door; taverns and inns and brothels that catered to sailors; eateries smelling of fried fish; and shops of all sorts, most with trades connected to the sea, ropemakers, carpenters, coopers, with here and there a silversmith or a jeweler: A good many sailors carried their wealth on them.

Sailors and artisans, merchants and farmers from the hinterland crowded Kastavala's narrow, winding streets. Only the road that led from the harbor up to the governor's residence was cobbled; dust from the others in a hovering, eye-stinging cloud. Maniakes and Rhegorios picked their way through the crowd, now and then dodging a wagon heading up from the quays with a rattle of iron-clad wheels and horseshoes on cobbles and the hideous squeak of ungreased axles.

In dodging, Maniakes almost bumped into a priest. "Your pardon, holy sir," he said.

"No harm done. Phos bless you, young man." The priest sketched the good god's sun-circle above his left breast. He wore a gold-embroidered circle there on an otherwise plain robe of sky-blue wool. That garb, his shaven pate, and an untrimmed beard normal for a Vaspurakaner but unusual among all Videssians save clerics were the badges of his office.

Maniakes and Rhegorios returned the gesture and pressed on. A moment later, Maniakes glanced around and saw his cousin was no longer with him. He whirled around. There stood Rhegorios, ogling a pretty girl. By her plain linen tunic and disordered hair, she was probably a laundress or cook rather than a tart seeking to draw men's eyes.

"Come on," Maniakes called.

Rhegorios came, still looking back over his shoulder. "I want to see which shop she goes into," he said. The road bent. He sighed. "She's gone--lost forever." He clapped a melodramatic hand over his heart.

Maniakes led out a snort. "You can take a pandoura into a tavern here and sing of your vanished love. Bring a sailor's cap along and you'll cadge enough coppers for a night's worth of wine. Meanwhile, watch where you're going. You almost stepped into a pile of horse turds, there, and didn't even know it."

"You're a cruel, hard man, cousin of mine." Rhegorios staggered, as if wounded.

"What are you miming--being pierced by the arrow of common sense?" Maniakes asked. Rhegorios poked him in the ribs with an elbow. They half wrestled their way down to the piers.

Aboard the approaching merchantman, the sailors had put sweeps into the oarlocks fore and after and were using them to guide the ship toward a good-sized open space on one of the quays. "Pull, lads, pull!" the captain called, his voice easily audible across a narrowing gap of water. "A little to port on the steering oars ... a little more. Now--back water!" The ship stopped smoothly by the quay. Sailors jumped across to hold it in place with lines.

Rhegorios pointed to a knot of well-dressed men who stood close by the ship's near rail. "Not the usual sort of crowd you find at sea," he remarked. "Wonder what it means that they're here?"

"It means trouble," Maniakes replied. "You see that one in the saffron robe with the red and black brocade?" Without waiting for his cousin to nod, he went on, "That's Kourikos, the logothete of the treasury."

"Your fiancee's father." Rhegorios' eyes widened.

"That's right," Maniakes answered grimly. "Him I'd know anywhere. The others--it's been six years, but I recognize half of them, maybe more. All the ones I do recognize are men who ran things back in Videssos the city before Genesios overthrew Likinios. The ones I don't know have the same look to them, too; I'd bet they're Genesios' appointees to fill the jobs of men he's killed. But your question was the right one: What are they doing here  ?"

Rhegorios drew his sword. He held it with the point down by his right foot, but seemed ready to raise it and strike at any provocation--or none. " You gave it the right answer, cousin: they're bringing trouble."

A little more slowly than Maniakes had spotted him, Kourikos recognized his daughter's betrothed. He waved frantically at Maniakes, then turned and said something to his companions. In an instant, they, too, were waving like men possessed. At the captain's orders, a couple of sailors extended a gangplank from the ship to the pier. The richly dressed men almost fought one another to be first across it; Maniakes was surprised no one fell--or got elbowed--off the plank and into the sea.

Kourikos in the lead, the nobles and government ministers rushed toward Maniakes and Rhegorios. "Eminent, most noble Maniakes!" his fiancee' s father cried, bowing low before him. "Take us at once to the dwelling of your wise and heroic father, that we may pour out for him our tale of the woe and horror and despair that have fallen on the city, the queen of cities--" He meant the imperial capital but, like many Videssian nobles, preferred talking around something to coming right out and saying it."have overwhelmed the Empire!"

One of the other men--Maniakes thought his name was Triphylles--said, " Only your father can rescue Videssos from our present calamity!" Everyone else nodded emphatically.

"What's gone and fallen to the Makuraners now?" Rhegorios asked.

"The Makuraners?" Now Kourikos, evidently spokesman by virtue of his relationship to the younger Maniakes, shook his head. "The Makuraners outside the city do dreadful things, too, seizing our land and carrying off prisoners innumerable, but that murderous Genesios does worse than they within."

Triphylles tapped him on the arm and said, "Eminent Kourikos, if you go through the whole tale of woe here, it will delay us in reaching the elder Maniakes, whereupon we shall just have to retail it over again."

"What you say is true, excellent sir," Kourikos answered. He turned back to the younger Maniakes. "Phos grant that you forgive my cutting short intercourse with you here, that we may speak to your magnificent father as soon as is practicable."

"Yes, certainly," Maniakes said after a moment--he was no longer used to the flowery language in vogue among the upper classes at the capital and had to make sure he knew what Kourikos meant. But instead of leading the delegation of grandees straight back toward the governor's residence, he held up a hand. "First you must tell me whether Niphone is safe and well."

"She was well when I left Videssos the city," Kourikos answered, "and as safe as she could make herself: She and her mother have both entered the convent dedicated to the holy Phostina. We all pray that even the monster Genesios will hesitate before dragging out anyone, female or male, who has taken service with the good god."

"May it be so," Maniakes said, and sketched Phos' sun-circle over his heart. With any Avtokrator he had ever heard of, the safety of those mured up in monasteries or convents would have been a given. If Kourikos still worried about what Genesios would do, then Genesios probably was a monster. Maniakes took a step toward the base of the pier. "Come with me, excellent sirs, eminent sirs." He pointed toward the mansion on the high ground in back of town. "There dwells my father. He will hear you with great attention, I am sure."

Together, he and Rhegorios led the nobles from Videssos the city back through Kastavala. The Kastavalans stared curiously at the newcomers, who stood out not only because they were strangers but also by virtue of their rich and splendid robes. Seeing such obvious wealth, a couple of tarts called sweet-voiced invitations. The nobles took no notice; they were undoubtedly used to better.

By the way they looked at Kastavala, that attitude applied to more than just the easy women of the town. Next to the capital, Kastavala was small and drab and dirty and smelly. Maniakes knew that perfectly well. But the same applied to any provincial center. He had seen a great many such towns, all through the Empire of Videssos; Kastavala was typical of the breed. After a while, he realized some of the grandees hadn't seen anything outside Videssos the city save perhaps their country estates and hunting lodges. For them, a provincial town had to be something of a shock.

"Coming out!" somebody called from a second-story balcony, and emptied a jar of slops, splat!  in the middle of the street. Kourikos and the rest jumped back in alarm and disgust, tugging at the hems of their robes to makes sure the stinking stuff didn't splash them.

"That woman should be clapped in irons," the logothete of the treasury declared.

"Why?" Maniakes asked. "She warned us before she let fly."

Kourikos stared at him in horror that only grew when he realized his prospective son-in-law was serious. Most of the houses and blocks of flats in Videssos the city had drains that connected them to underground sewers. That was an unimagined luxury in Kastavala.

Several of the grandees from the capital were puffing and red in the face by the time they reached the governor's residence. Maniakes didn't need to open the door and usher them inside: Someone had seen them coming, and quite a crowd had gathered in front of the residence to greet them and learn what word they brought.

Voice doubtful, Kourikos asked, "Eminent Maniakes, is that your father there?"

Maniakes didn't blame him for being wrong; the resemblances was striking. "No, that's my uncle Symvatios, father to Rhegorios here. He and my father have always been like as two peas in the pod. And that's his daughter there beside him--my cousin Lysia."

Lysia was still too far away to have heard him speak her name, but chose that moment to wave to him. He waved back, smiling as he did so. He had hardly known her before Symvatios and his family sailed with the Maniakai to the island of Kalavria, but the two of them had grown close since: so close that Rotrude had teased him about it once or twice. He hadn't risen to the teasing as he usually did; it left him nervous.

As Maniakes and the nobles drew near, Lysia called, "What interesting people you've brought us, cousin! Phos' blessing on you for that." Symvatios nodded vigorously. So did more than a few of the grooms and cooks and serving women who had come out with their masters. The prospect of fresh faces and fresh news piqued everyone's curiosity.

Maniakes pointed to a servant. "Aplakes, go fetch my father at once. The eminent Kourikos here and these other excellent sirs and eminent sirs have come from Videssos the city to confer with him on an urgent matter."

Aplakes dashed back into the mansion. Everyone else started buzzing. The grandees looked like important people. Hearing just how important they were set tongues wagging. Lysia stared at Maniakes, her eyes shining in a face slightly rounder and less craggy than that of her brother Rhegorios. Better than the servants, she could guess one reason why the nobles might have come from the capital to Kastavala.

Aplakes hadn't bothered closing the entry door after him. He soon emerged, the elder Maniakes a pace behind. As soon as the elder Maniakes appeared, Kourikos and his companions, instead of bowing as the younger Maniakes had expected, dropped first to their knees and then to their bellies, touching their foreheads to the dirt in the full proskynesis normally reserved for honoring the Avtokrator of the Videssians alone.

The younger Maniakes simply gaped. His father's bushy white eyebrows climbed toward his hairline. He spat on the ground, as if in rejection of the dark god Skotos. "Get up, the lot of you," he growled, anger and fear in his voice. "If you think you'll trick me thus into treason against Genesios Avtokrator, you can bloody well think again."

As the grandees rose, they looked at one another with mixed horror and dismay. "Most noble Maniakes, you misunderstand," Kourikos said, a quaver in his voice. "We are the ones guilty of treason, at least in Genesios' eyes. We have fled here from Videssos the city to beg you to take the crown and save the Empire. Without you, it will surely fall, either from the ravages of the Makuraners or simply from the insane excesses of the tyrant whose bloodstained backside now defiles the imperial throne."

The two Maniakai exchanged glances. Not long before the ship that had brought Kourikos and his comrades to Kastavala came into sight, they had talked about rebellion against Genesios. The elder Maniakes had rejected it then. Now--now he looked thoughtfully at the group of nobles and asked, " What has Genesios done to turn you against him after you followed him like dogs these past half-dozen years?"

Several of the grandees hung their heads. Kourikos had more spirit--or perhaps more desperation--than most; he said, "If you speak of following like dogs, Lord Maniakes, I noticed you've not taken poor Hosios' head down off its pike in all these years. D'you bark with the rest of us, then?"

"Mm, put that way, maybe I do." The elder Maniakes stroked his beard. " Very well, eminent sir; say on: Why would you sooner see my backside on the throne than Genesios'?"

"Why?" Kourikos clapped a dramatic--and possibly rehearsed--hand to his forehead. "Were Skotos to come up to Videssos from his hell of ice--" He spat as the elder Maniakes had. "--He could hardly serve it worse than Genesios the poxed, the madman, the butcher, the blundering, bungling idiot who is about to cast centuries of imperial splendor onto the dungheap forever."

The elder Maniakes bowed slightly. "You can curse with any man, eminent sir. But what has Genesios actually done  ?"

Kourikos took a deep breath. "Let us leave to one side the disasters against Makuran and the misfortunes against Kubrat. You surely know of those already. Not long ago, Genesios spoke to the city mob in the Amphitheater, currying favor with them because he knew everyone else hated him. But some of their leaders jeered him because of his many failings. He sent soldiers in among the seats, seized a dozen men, maybe more, ordered them stripped naked, and put them to the sword in front of the crowd.

"When the general Sphrantzes failed against the Makuraners--and how could he do otherwise, with neither men nor money enough to fight?--Genesios whipped him to death with leather lashes. Elpidios the prefect of the city exchanged letters with Tzikaste, Likinios' widow. Genesios cut off his hands and feet and then his head. Then he slew Tzikaste herself and both her daughters at the same spot where he'd murdered Likinios Avtokrator and his sons. At this rate, not a man nor woman will be left alive in Videssos the city by the time winter comes, save only the tyrant and his toadies. Save us, save Videssos, I beg you, most noble Maniakes!"

"Save us!" the rest of the nobles chorused.

"Eminent sirs, excellent sirs, if you expect me to jump into your ship and sail back to Videssos the city with you, I'm afraid I'm going to leave you disappointed," the elder Maniakes said. "But I'll not deny you've given me much to think on." He peered down toward the harbor. "Will your servants be fetching your baggage here to the residence?"

"Most eminent Maniakes, we found the opportunity to flee, and we took it," Kourikos answered. "We brought no servants; the more who knew of our plan, the likelier we were to be betrayed to the monster. As for baggage, what you see is what we have."

The elder Maniakes' eyebrows rose again. For Videssian nobles to travel without baggage was a truer measure of desperation than any woeful tale, no matter how heart rending. The revelation startled the younger Maniakes, too. He did notice the grandees had fat leather pouches at their belts, pouches that might well be filled with goldpieces. They might have come as fugitives, but they probably weren't beggars.

"Well, well," the elder Maniakes said. "In that case, come in and be welcome. I shan't turn you over to Genesios; that much I promise you. If he has a ship on your heels, you can flee into the countryside and escape. For now, though, ore gladsome things: Aplakes and the other servants where will show you to chambers. We have room and to spare, that we do, by Phos. And at supper in the courtyard this evening, we'll speak further on these matters. Meanwhile ..." He used his eyes to gather up his son, Rhegorios, and Symvatios.

The servants led the nobles into the governor's residence. As the younger Maniakes went up to his father, Lysia set a hand on his arm. "Isn' t it marvelous!" she exclaimed, her black eyes flashing with excitement. " At last, Phos willing, Genesios will get what he's long deserved. And then--"

"And then," Symvatios broke in, his voice almost eerily like that of the elder Maniakes, "we have to figure out what to do next, if we decide to do anything at all. Are you going to plot with us here?"

Lysia made a face at her father. "I would if you'd let me, but I don't suppose you will." Symvatios slowly shook his head. His daughter made another face. She stood on tiptoe to kiss the younger Maniakes on the end of his nose--he was used to that; because his beard was so thick and full, she did it a lot--then went into the residence herself.

The two older brothers and their sons put their heads together. Rhegorios said, "Uncle, they aim to set you on the throne." His eyes snapped with the same high spirits that had filled Lysia's.

"I know that," the elder Maniakes answered matter-of-factly. "What I don't know is whether I want to sit there. Way things look to me now, I have my doubts, and big ones."

His son, brother, and nephew all gaped in amazement. In the middle of their gaping, the door to the mansion opened. The cook came out. He sent the elder Maniakes a dirty look and headed down the slope toward the markets of Kastavala almost at a run. Symvatios laughed. "That's what you get for inviting a whole raft of people to supper on short notice," he said, resting a hand on his paunch for a moment; he was heavier than his brother.

"If a glare is all I get, I'll count myself lucky." The elder Maniakes chuckled. "I just hope it's not nightshade in the soup, or some such." He sobered. "Back to it. Look at me, all of you. I'm an old man. I've done nothing but fight since I was fifteen years old, except these past few years here in Kalavria. I hated Likinios when he sent me here, but do you know what? I've come to like this place and to enjoy the easy life. I don' t want to fight any more, and I don't care to sit on a throne and know half the people watching me are trying to figure out how to throw me off it. What do you think of that?" He looked defiantly at his kinsmen.

"Let it all be as you say, Father," the younger Maniakes answered. " Can we sit out here on this island and watch the Empire get dragged down to the ice? If Genesios is as bad as this, even Videssos the city may fall to the Makuraners--or to the Kubratoi. One day a fleet may sail for Kalavria with the red lion of the King of Kings of Makuran painted on the sails."

The elder Maniakes chuckled again, but without humor. "And wouldn't that be strange, when the two of us led the Videssian army that helped put Sharbaraz back on his throne? But you're right. If he saw the chance, he wouldn't hesitate, not even for a heartbeat."

"Well, then," the younger Maniakes and Rhegorios said together.

"Well, then--what?" the elder Maniakes answered.

"You have to take the throne," his son explained, as if the necessity were as obvious as a geometric proof.

"Nonsense," the elder Maniakes said. "I don't have to do any such thing. What's more, the more I think about it, the less I want to do any such thing. I'm perfectly content to rusticate, and, as best as I can recall, I've never been perfectly content before. Governor of Kalavria suits me fine. If you think the Empire needs saving, son, you  save it."

Symvatios and Rhegorios looked from the elder Maniakes to the younger. For a moment, he didn't understand why they were looking at him as they were. Then he did, and ice and fire might have coursed together through his veins. "Father," he said slowly, "if I go, will you help me?"

Now it was the elder Maniakes' turn to hesitate before he replied. " You mean this," he said. It was not quite a question. The younger Maniakes nodded. The elder sucked in a long breath, then folded his son into an embrace that still had a good deal of strength in it. "Of course. The whole clan will." His eyes swung to this brother and nephew.

"Aye," Symvatios said at once.

"Aye," Rhegorios agreed. "If Maniakes here hadn't spoken up, I would have myself." Now the younger Maniakes stared at his cousin. He was far from Avtokrator as yet, but did he already have a rival?

"We shall essay it, then," the elder Maniakes said. That should have been a ringing declaration. Instead, as had his earlier words, it came out almost as a query. A moment later, he showed the reason for his doubt. "If we fail, we die. The whole clan dies, all the kinsfolk we have whom Genesios can reach. We had best not fail. We don't need to move on Videssos the city tomorrow, and we'd be mad if we did. We think it through before we try it."

"Yes," the younger Maniakes said. Beside him, Rhegorios twisted like a restive horse. He didn't want to wait. He wanted to charge right at Genesios. The younger Maniakes remarked, "Sometimes the straightest way is not the shortest one."

"My boy!" his father said, now full of pride. "You've learned something after all." He hugged the younger Maniakes again.

Symvatios said, "Now that we know we are going to do this thing, let's go in and get ready for supper. I want to see Kourikos' face when he finds out he's going to be father-in-law to an Avtokrator right away."

The elder Maniakes chuckled, but the younger said, "Genesios will find that out, too. I hope it doesn't put Niphone in any danger; Kourikos said she was in a convent in Videssos the city."

"One more thing to worry about," the elder Maniakes said. "On campaign, you'll add something to your list a hundred times a day. But for now, Symvatios is right. We've done what we can for the time being. Let's get ready for supper."

One more thing to worry about,  the younger Maniakes thought as he walked toward the tables and chairs that had been hastily set up among the flowers of the courtyard. Rotrude was on his arm, with Atalarikhos walking along holding his mother's hand. How Kourikos would react on seeing his soon-to-be-son-in-law with not only a leman but also a bastard boy was liable to be ... interesting.

By rights, the logothete of the treasury had no cause for complaint. He could hardly have expected Maniakes to have stayed celibate as a monk when he had been far away from his intended bride all these years. He might have expected Maniakes not to show his woman here so openly. Maniakes had thought about that. If he had left Rotrude behind, it would have said he was ashamed of her, which not only wasn't true but would have infuriated her had it so much as crossed her mind.

Most of the nobles fled from the capital were already in the courtyard, talking among themselves, drinking wine, and pretending to admire the plants. The younger Maniakes knew they were politely insincere there; the formal gardens of Videssos the city outshone this one as the sun did a dim star.

Talk of the garden ceased when they saw Rotrude. Few women of the Halogai came into the Empire. Her golden hair drew a Videssian man's eye like a lodestone. Once you stopped staring at that, you noticed the eyes, the strong chin, thrusting cheekbones, and short straight nose, the sheer size of her--she was almost as tall as the younger Maniakes, who was not short--and her shape, womanly despite her inches.

The grandees' stares gave him a certain amount of pride. They irked her. Turning to him, she said, "I am not one of the big beasts from the Hot Lands, the ones with snakes for snouts." Her Videssian was clear but slow, with the half-drawled accent of her homeland.

"They're admiring you," Maniakes said. "If you'd been born in the Empire, you'd be preening for them."

"If I had been born in the Empire, I would have the same seeming as they and you, so they would not need to gape." She reached down and ruffled Atalarikhos' hair. "So your son does."

"Mostly," Maniakes said. The hair through which Rotrude ran her fingers was as black as his own, but straight, not wavy like Maniakes.' But Atalarikhos had some of his mother's coloring: Maniakes was slightly swarthier than the average Videssian, his son slightly fairer. The shape of his face was more like Rotrude's, too, though even at less than three he gave signs of developing a nose of impressive proportions.

Kourikos strode toward Maniakes and his companions. Behind the logothete, the other nobles grew suddenly quiet, watching to see what he would do. Kourikos bowed to Maniakes. "Good to see you again, eminent sir," the grandee said, his voice politely neutral. "Well you be so kind as to perform the introductions here?"

"Of course," Maniakes said, matching his courtesy. "Eminent Kourikos, I present to you my lady Rotrude and her son--our son--Atalarikhos." There. The truth was out. Let Kourikos make of it what he would.

"Your--lady," Kourikos said carefully. "Not, I take it, your lady wife?"

"No, eminent sir," Maniakes answered. "How could that be, when I am affianced to your daughter?" Rotrude knew about his engagement to Niphone. She had a fierce, direct way of looking at the world; keeping things of important from her was unwise. Up till now, the engagement had never bothered her: a woman far away in Videssos the city remained quite nicely hypothetical. But if Kourikos was real, that made his daughter realer, too.

As if Rotrude were not standing before him, the logothete of the treasury said, "Of course you will put your--ladywhen your father is anointed and crowned Avtokrator of the Videssians."

Rotrude looked not at Kourikos but through him. He might have abruptly ceased to exist. Dodging part of the question, the younger Maniakes said, " It's not for me to discuss my father's plans. He is more than able to do that for himself--and here he comes now."

Kourikos and the rest of the nobles cried, "Thou conquerest, Maniakes Avtokrator!"--the traditional acclamation of a Videssian Emperor. They began to prostrate themselves, as they had in front of the governor's mansion.

"Stop that!" the elder Maniakes said testily. "I'm not Avtokrator and I don't intend to become Avtokrator, so stop treating me as if I were. If you think you can flatter me into donning the red boots, you can bloody well think again."

Kourikos' expression said the elder Maniakes might have just taken an image of Phos from the iconostasis of a temple and set a torch to it. The rest of the grandees looked similarly downcast. Triphylles said, "But your maj--uh, most eminent sir--"

"All I'm going to say now is that you won't get left in the lurch." The elder Maniakes waved to the servitors behind him. "First we sup. Then we talk."

Sulkily the nobles from Videssos the city took the places to which Aplakes led them. They kept on murmuring among themselves. The younger Maniakes watched their eyes flick this way and that. Sometimes those glances rested lightly on him, sometimes on his father, sometimes on Symvatios and Rhegorios. Whenever you caught a noble staring, his gaze would flit away like a frightened fly.

From down the table, Lysia caught the younger Maniakes' eye. Her eyes gleamed; her father or brother must have told her what they had decided. Maniakes smiled at her, glad to find someone who could look his way without seeming guilty about it.

The cook might have been dismayed at the prospect of having to serve a flock of unexpected guests of high rank, but he acquitted himself well. His first course was a salad, carrots and parsnips lightly cooked in olive oil and cumin, then served with salted olives and hard-cooked eggs on a bed of endive. Atalarikhos devoured his egg and the olives and started to cry when Rotrude tried to make him eat some carrots.

"Don't force him, not tonight," the younger Maniakes told her. "Let's keep him quiet if we can."

She sucked in her underlip, as she did when she disapproved. "He needs to eat to grow strong," she said. Then she sighed. "I yield. One night's food does not matter."

After the salad came an earthenware casserole full of leeks and fava beans stewed in broth and then wrapped in cabbage leaves. At the sight of that, Atalarikhos said something in the Haloga language he had learned from his mother. The younger Maniakes was glad none of the grandees from the imperial city understood enough of that speech to realize he had called the casserole a big chamber pot.

For the main course, the servants brought from the kitchen trays of steamed young mackerel stuffed with a mixture of mint leaves, pepper, chopped almonds, and honey. Atalarikhos enthusiastically ate up his stuffing but wanted no part of the fish in which it was contained. Now it was the younger Maniakes who avoided Rotrude's probing eye.

The sweet was apple slices, apricots, and grapes, candied together in honey. Atalarikhos swept his own bowl clean, then started stealing grapes from his mother. Rotrude sighed. "He is not starving," she said, as if reminding herself.

Servants swept away dishes, knives, and spoons while supper guests licked their fingers clean. More servants lit torches all around the courtyard. The sky above darkened from bright blue toward black. The first stars began to glisten.

Grunting a little and patting his belly, the elder Maniakes got to his feet. The nobles stared expectantly at him. He swigged from his cup of wine, set the silver vessel down with a clang, and cleared his throat. "I' m not much for speechmaking," he said, which was a crashing lie; his son had never seen anyone better at rousing troops to go forward even when some of them were sure to die. But the lie served its purpose here: It let him say what he wanted without having to festoon it with curlicues of rhetoric. He went on, "You are gracious enough to say you wanted me to wear the crown. Very well, lords, I shall give you a Maniakes Avtokrator."

"Thou conquerest, Maniakes!" Kourikos shouted. In an instant, all his companions took up the cry. So did some of the servants, their voices rising in excitement. Maybe they dreamed of escaping Kastavala for the fabled splendor of Videssos the city.

The elder Maniakes held up a hand. He coughed once or twice, a habit of his when he thought he had outsmarted someone. "I told you this afternoon, lords, I wasn't sure I cared to be Avtokrator. I've spent the day thinking on it and, as I said before we sat down to sup, I have to tell you I've decided I don't. But I won't deny this carbuncle of the arse of Videssos named Genesios needs casting down. And so, my friends, I give you--Maniakes Avtokrator." He pointed to his son.

As the elder Maniakes sat down, the younger rose. He had known this moment was coming, but knowing that and living it were not one and the same. The grandees studied him now, their glances sharp as swords. They were older than he, and more experienced. Some of them would want to rule him, or rule through himthe ones who least looked like it, for they would be the most accomplished dissemblers.

He would sooner have gone into battle against the fearsome cavalry of Makuran, its men and horses glittering alike in armor of iron, than faces these cagey, devious lords. But if he could not master them, how was he to hope to rule Videssos?

He said, "If Phos has not altogether despaired of the Empire, he will give Videssos a ruler who can end the civil strife that has so long consumed us, who can reclaim from the King of Kings the cities and provinces Makuran has stolen from us, and who can hold in check the ferocious horsemen of Kubrat. Doing any one of those things will be hard. Doing all three at once ... I wish the lord with the great and good mind had not brought Videssos to such a pass. But since he has, I shall do all I can do rescue the Empire from those who threaten it, whether on the borders or in Videssos the city itself."

It wasn't the sort of speech to send men rushing into battle, throats full of cheers, swords held high. The Empire's problems were too great for the younger Maniakes even to think about making a speech like that. If he could win the throne, he knew what he wanted to do. How he would do it, unfortunately, was another question altogether.

The grandees courteously heard him out. He was not surprised when Kourikos was again first to cry out "Thou conquerest, Maniakes Avtokrator!"--his prospective father-in-law naturally hoped to use his accession for himself. But all the nobles acclaimed him, their voices fulsome if not necessarily sincere.

The younger Maniakes raised his goblet high. "To Videssos!" he shouted, and drank.

"To Videssos!" shouted his family, the servants, and the grandees, all together. The younger Maniakes wondered for how many that toast actually meant To me  !

A single lamp burned on the night table next to Rotrude's bed. Atalarikhos slept in the next room, with an unbarred connecting door between them. Once or twice that had proved embarrassing for the younger Maniakes. He hadn't been used to a little boy wandering in at an awkward moment, needing to piddle or to be comforted after a bad dream.

Rotrude took such interruption in stride. From what she had said, in Halogaland several families often lived together in one big room under the same roof. Privacy was a Videssian notion to which she had had to acclimate herself.

Now she sat at the edge of the bed, brushing out her long, golden hair. Maniakes watched the lamplight play off it. Shadows filled and magnified little lines at the corners of her mouth and by her eyes; she hadn't many fewer years than he.

She tossed the bone-handled brush onto the night table. The flame from the lamp jumped for a moment, then steadied. Her face still full of the intent concentration it had held while she was brushing, she turned to Maniakes and said, "If you win your fight for the city, you will marry the maiden Kourikos sired?"

He bit his lip. He hadn't thought she would put it so bluntly. But the men and women of Halogaland, from what he had seen of them in the capital and here in Kastavala, were a straighter-spoken folk than most Videssians. Rotrude simply sat, awaiting his rely. He sighed. "Yes, I suppose I shall," he said. "Before I came here, as I've told you, I was very much in love with her."

"And her father stands high among the Emperor's counselors," Rotrude said, "and would have reason for wrath were she cast aside."

"That, also," Maniakes agreed soberly.

Rotrude bit down on the nub of it. "And so what of me? And so what of our son, child of our flesh?"

Again, Maniakes had hoped that question would not come so soon, or would have been phrased to give him more room to talk around it. None of the answers he came up with struck him as good enough. He did the best he could. "Come what may, both of you will always be dear to me. If you want to stay on Kalavria, you will want for nothing--by Phos I swear it." He sketched the sun-circle over his heart.

Rotrude shrugged. She didn't mock Phos, but she didn't worship him, either; her reverence belonged to the gloomy, bloodthirsty gods of her homeland. "And if we fare forth to Halogaland once more, what then?" she asked.

"I wish you would promise not to do that," Maniakes said slowly. The thought of how much mischief a Haloga chieftain could work with an Avtokrator's bastard for a tool made his blood run cold. "So long as you stay, you can have anything here you wish."

"What I wish here mostly is you," she answered. He hung his head. Most Videssian women, just then, would either have dissolved in tears or started throwing things. Rotrude did neither, she measured him with her eyes as a warrior might have over the top of his shield. "What if I were to find another man who suited me?"

"If you wanted to wed him, and if I thought he would treat you and our son well, you would have my blessing," Maniakes said.

Rotrude studied him again. "I wonder if you tell me this because you care for me not at all or because you care for me very much," she said, perhaps half to herself, and then went on, "You have said what will be, and not wrapped lies in honey to make them sound sweet. For so much I give you credit. Not all men of my folk would have done as much, and few of you southrons, from what I have seen. So I shall choose to believe you. You are one who counts the needs of your folk before those of yourself, is it not so?"

"I hope I am, at any rate," Maniakes answered. It gave him an easier escape than he had looked for. If he wasn't that sort of man, he thought, now would be a good time to try to become such.

"You shall not sail on tomorrow's tide," Rotrude said. "To ready a rebellion to topple the tyrant, you will need to think before you do. What shall become of us before you wander west from Kastavala, from Kalavria?"

Maniakes said, "I leave that up to you. If you find you want nothing more to do with me now that you know I'm going to fight Genesios--" That seemed a better way to put it than now   that you know I'm going to leave you  . "--I can hardly blame you. I won't force myself where I'm not wanted." He would have felt more virtuous about that speech had he not known any number of women would throw themselves into an Avtokrator's bed, some simply because power drew them, others in the hope of the advantage they might wring from it.

Rotrude glanced down at her robe. "This sleeve has a seam that wants fixing," she remarked. Instead of reaching for needle and thread--sewing, like reading, was best done by daylight--she got to her feet and pulled the robe off over her head. She stood a moment in her linen drawers, then slid them down over her legs and kicked them aside. Almost defiantly naked, she stared a challenge at Maniakes.

Her body was thicker than those of most Videssian women, but shapely in its own way. Where the sun never saw it, her skin was so pale and fair, it seemed to glow in the lamplight. Even after she had nursed Atalarikhos for close to two years, her nipples were a delicate pink, hardly darker than the full, heavy breasts they topped. The triangle of golden hair at the joining of her legs matched the long locks that fell over her shoulders.

Maniakes' mouth went dry as he looked at her. If he tore a seam getting out of his own robe, he never noticed. Only when he yanked down his drawers did he realize he was still wearing sandals. He pulled out his feet without unfastening the catches, threw the shoes against the wall. That was foolish; it might have wakened Atalarikhos. This time, luck went with him.

The coupling reminded him as much of battle as of lovemaking. When Rotrude bit the strip of flesh between his shoulder and neck, he wondered if she had drawn blood. His hands roamed rough over her body, squeezing, demanding. Their kisses smashed lips hard against teeth.

At last, both of them afire, she straddled him. When she impaled herself on him, she groaned as if pierced by a veritable lance rather than one that would presently lose its hardness. Something like triumph was on her face as she slowly began to move. "You will never forget me," she whispered, her breath warm and moist against Maniakes' cheek. "Never."

For a moment, even through growing ecstasy, he knew alarm, wondering if she was trying to bewitch him. They had wizards and witches in Halogaland, even if their magic was different from that of Videssos. Then she lowered her head to kiss him again. Her breasts brushed against the thick mat of hair on his chest. His arms tightened around her back, pulling her down to him. Women could work magic even when they used no spells.

Their lips were joined once more when she moaned and quivered above him, and a moment later when he, too, cried out. The bedchamber was not warm--even summer in Kastavala was mild, and summer nights often cool and foggy--but sweat soaked both of them.

He ran a hand along the slick curve of her back. "I will never forget you," he said, "but you're heavy on top of me." He laughed. "You've told me that, often enough."

"That's so," she admitted, and got up on her elbows and knees. Their skins made small, wet, squelching noises as they separated. Her hair spilled down onto his face. Through the strands, he saw her intently looking at him. "You are a warrior," she said at last. From a woman of the Halogai, he cold expect no higher praise.

"On the battlefield, one side or the other must lose," he said. "This fight, we both won."

She stretched out beside him. "Also true," she said. "And here, we can quickly struggle again." She left a hand rest on his chest for a moment, then teased his nipple with thumb and forefinger, as he had with her a little before. Her hand wandered down, closed on him. "For as long as you are here by me, I shall be greedy of you, and take all you can give."

"Whether I can give again so soon--" Maniakes shrugged. When his beard was newly sprouted, he had been as randy as a he-goat. He remained proud of what he could do, but thirty wasn't seventeen, no matter how he wished it could be. His lance needed longer now to regain its temper.

But rise again he did. He and Rotrude joined with something close to the desperation they had shown in their first round. They were both worn and gasping when they finished. After such frenzy, Maniakes wondered what sort of appetite he would be able to conjure up for his promised bride if all went well and he cast Genesios down from the imperial throne.

He didn't wonder for long. Sleep swallowed him before he could raise his head to blow out the beside lamp.

The two Maniakai, Symvatios, and Rhegorios strode along the beach north of the harbor of Kastavala. The younger Maniakes looked back toward the town and toward the governor's residence on the rise beyond it. He and his kinsmen had come too far for him to see the grandees up on the wall there, but he knew they were staring out toward him as he peered their way.

Symvatios half turned back toward the residence, too, but only for a moment. He made a slashing, contemptuous gesture with his left hand. "They have their gall," he said scornfully. "This is family business now, and they can bloody well keep their beaks out of it."

"Beaks indeed," the elder Maniakes said, chuckling. He set a hand on his own great nose. "They've lived in Videssos the city all their lives is their trouble; they think it gives them the right to give orders anywhere in the Empire. Not a proper soldier among 'em, either, which is too bad. Help worth having we could have used."

"They help us," Maniakes said. "If his own chiefest men can stomach Genesios no more, Videssos the city may drop into our hands like a ripe orange falling off a tree." He sighed. He missed oranges. They would not grow on Kalavria: Summers did not get hot enough for them to flourish.

"If the orange doesn't fall from the tree, we'll cut it off." Rhegorios drew his sword and slashed at the air.

"If we think this fight will be easy, we are doomed before we begin," the elder Maniakes said. "How many rebels have thought the city would fall to them?" He opened and closed his hands several times to answer his own question. "And of that great flock, how many have seized the throne so?" He held up one hand, the fingers curled in a fist, none showing. "The usual way for an Avtokrator to lose the throne is by treachery within Videssos the city itself."

"Well, what of Likinios?" Rhegorios said. "Genesios took the city from without."

"Only because his own men wouldn't fight for him," the elder Maniakes answered. "If I'm keeping the accounts, that also goes down as treachery from within."

"By all the stories, Genesios' men hate him, too," the younger Maniakes said. Rhegorios nodded vigorously. He made more cut-and-thrust motions. His impulse was always to go straight at a foe.

"Not all of them," the elder Maniakes answered. "If enough of them hated him, his head would go up on the Milestone, not those of all the rivals he'd slain." He set a hand on his son's shoulder. "I don't want to see your head there, lad. When we move against Genesios, that's not something we can take back if it's not going as we'd like. We have only the one chance."

The younger Maniakes nodded. He had been through enough battles, and had enough years on him, to know things could go wrong. You did what you could to keep that from happening, but not everything you did was going to work.

Symvatios said, "What the fleet on the Key does will be the key to whether we rise or fall."

No one misunderstood him. The island called the Key lay south and east of Videssos the city and was indeed often the key to the city's fate. Its fleet was next in power after that based at the capital itself. With it, the rebels would stand a fair chance of success. Without it ...

"You have spoken truth," the elder Maniakes said to his brother. "And it is a truth that worries me. I have--we all have--connections wide and deep within Videssos' army. Some we've not used in a while, but they're there. I expect we can take advantage of them. But few men of Vaspurakaner blood have taken to sea. The grand drungarios of the fleet and his captains have no reason to back us."

"Save that Genesios is a beast," Rhegorios said.

"Genesios has been a beast for some time," the elder Maniakes replied. "He has also been an enthroned beast for some time."

Thoughtfully the younger Maniakes said, "Perhaps some of our, ah, guests back at the residence have relations serving in the fleet. We should look into that."

"A good notion," his father agreed. "We shall look into that. We'll also have to gather ships and fighting men from all around Kalavria to make the core of our force. We'll have enough ships to get the men and horses across to the mainland, I expect: We need a decent-sized fleet hereabouts to put down the pirates who drip into Videssian waters."

"We sail for Opsikion, I suppose," Symvatios said. "There's a fine highway from there to take the soldiers straight west to Videssos the city. If we leave them at Opsikion, they can attack by land while the fleet sails around the cape and then up to invest the sea walls."

"See what the clan can do when we put our heads together?" the elder Maniakes said. "Seems to me that's the only way to take Videssos the city; if it can be done at all: Assail it from all sides at once, stretch the defenders too thin to guard everything, and pray all the powerful mages are either dead or fled from Genesios like the gardees. If we have to sit for weeks outside the city's walls, some deviltry will land on us, sure as Genesios is bound for Skotos' ice."

Rhegorios looked at the younger Maniakes. "You'll command the fleet, I suppose. That will be our striking arm and probably reach the city before the overland forces can. Give me leave to lead the infantry and cavalry, then. I'll get them across from Opsikion as fast as I can. Phos willing, I' ll bring plenty of troops from the garrisons along the way, too."

Symvatios coughed. "I'd thought to play that role myself, son." Rhegorios looked stricken. Symvatios coughed again. "It may be that you're right, though." He patted his belly. "I may be too old and too round to push ahead as hard as would suit us best. Have it your way."

Rhegorios whooped and sprang in the air. The elder Maniakes slipped an arm round his brother. "I'm not going, either, Symvatios," he said. " Better the young, strong ones come to power now than that we seize it and have them hating us and counting the hours till we die. Having your sons sitting around hoping your eyes will roll up in your head and you'll fall down dead off the throne's no way to rule. Worrying whether your sons might give you something to make your eyes roll up in your head--that's worse."

"We'd never do such a thing!" the younger Maniakes cried. Again Rhegorios nodded.

"You say so now," the elder Maniakes answered, "but you're liable to find never is a long time. Suppose I  seized the throne now--just suppose. And suppose I live another fifteen years or more, till I'm past eighty. It could happen, you know--nothing's killed me yet." He chuckled wheezily. " You'd be pushing on toward fifty by then, son. Would you be getting impatient, waiting for your turn? Suppose I found some pretty little chit in the city, too, and got a son on her. His beard would be starting to sprout. Would you peer at him out of the corner of your eye and wonder if he'd get the prize you'd wanted so long? What do you think? Answer me true now."

Rhegorios and the younger Maniakes looked at each other. Neither of them felt like meeting the elder Maniakes' eye. The younger Maniakes did not care for what he feared he saw in his own heart. His father was right: He hadn't looked far enough ahead when he shouted out his protest.

The elder Maniakes laughed again, this time long and deep. "And that's why Symvatios and I, we'll stay back here on the island and give the two of you good advice while you're doing the hard, dirty work it'll take to thrown down Genesios."

"How many men and ships can we realize from the island?" his son asked; like the elder Maniakes, the younger yielded points by changing the subject.

"In terms of numbers, I can't begin to guess until I go through the records and see just what's spread out in the harbor and garrisons," the elder Maniakes answered. "In terms of what we can do with what we have, my guess is that it amounts to this: We'll get enough here to begin the job but not enough to finish it. If all the top soldiers and sailors in the Empire decide they'd rather see Genesios on the throne than you, you're a dead man. We're all dead men."

"From the news that trickles out to Kalavria, Videssos is liable to be a dead empire if they decide that," the younger Maniakes said.

"Which doesn't mean it won't happen," his father told him. "If men weren't fools so often, the world would be a different place--maybe even a better one. But Skotos pulls on us no less than Phos. Sometimes I wonder if the Balancer heretics of Khatrish and Thatagush don't have a point--how can you be sure  Phos will triumph in the end?" He held out his arms, the palms of his hands out before him, as if fending off his kinsmen. "I'm sorry I brought that up. Don't start arguing dogma with me now like so many theology-mad Videssians, or we'll never get back to the residence."

Rhegorios said, "I don't know whether our generals and ship captains are fools, but I can name two men who aren't: Sharbaraz King of Kings and his brother-in-law Abivard, his chief general."

"That's true," the two Maniakai said in the same breath. The elder went on, "And it was thanks to the infinite wisdom of Likinios that we helped put Sharbaraz back on the throne of Mashiz and gave Abivard the chance to show what he could do: do to us, I should say."

"No, the two of them aren't fools," the younger Maniakes agreed. "That means just one thing: If we're going to keep them from swallowing up all the wetlands--maybe even keep them from swallowing up all the Empire of Videssos--we'd better not be fools, either."

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