Abivard son of Godarz stared through sea mist to the east over the strait called the Cattle Crossing toward Videssos the city. The sun gleamed off the gilded globes the Videssians had set on spires atop the countless temples they had built to honor Phos, their false god. Abivard's left hand twisted in the gesture Makuraners used to invoke the God, the only one they reverenced.
"Narseh, Gimillu, the lady Shivini, Fraortish eldest of all, let that city fall into my hands," he murmured. He'd lost track of how many times he'd beseeched the Prophets Four to intercede with the God on his behalf, on behalf of Makuran, on behalf of Sharbaraz King of Kings. As yet his prayers remained unanswered.
Beside him Roshnani, his wife, said, "It seems close enough to reach out and pluck, like a ripe fig from a tree."
"Scarcely the third part of a farsang from one side of that water to the other," he agreed, setting a hand on her shoulder. "Were it land, a man could walk thrice so far in an hour's time. Were it land--"
"It is not land," Roshnani said. "No point wasting time thinking what you might do if it were."
"I know," he answered. They smiled at each other. Physically they were very different: she short, round-faced, inclined to plumpness; he lean and angular, with brooding eyes beneath bristling brows. But they shared a commonsense practicality unusual both in their own folk--for Makuraners were given to extravagant melodramatics--and in the devious, treacherous Videssians. After a decade and more of marriage no one knew Abivard's mind better than Roshnani, himself often included.
The sun beat down on his head. It was not nearly as fierce as the summer sun that blazed down on Vek Rud domain, where he'd grown to manhood. Still, he felt its heat: He'd lost the hair at the back of his crown. Godarz had boasted a full head to his dying day, but the men of his mother, Burzoe's, family, those who lived long enough, went bald. He would rather not have followed in their footsteps, but the choice did not seem to be his.
"I wonder how the domain fares these days," he murmured. Formally, he was still its dihqan--its overlord--but he hadn't seen it for years, not since just after Sharbaraz had overthrown Smerdis, who had stolen the throne after Sharbaraz' father, Peroz King of Kings--along with Abivard's father, Godarz, along with a great host of other nobles, very nearly along with Abivard himself--had fallen in an attack gone disastrously awry against the Khamorth nomads who roamed the Pardrayan plain north of Makuran.
His younger brother, Frada, ran Vek Rud domain these days. Sharbaraz had flung Abivard against the Empire of Videssos when the Videssians had overthrown Likinios, the Avtokrator who'd helped restore the King of Kings to his throne in Mashiz. Videssian civil strife made triumphs come easy. And so, these days, all of Videssos' westlands lay under the control of Makuran through the armies Abivard commanded. And so--
Abivard kicked angrily at the beach on which he walked. Sand spurted under the sole of his sandal. "Back in Mashiz that last third of a farsang looks easy to cross to Sharbaraz. What a tiny distance, he's written to me. May his days be long and his realm increase, but--"
"And who has done more than you to increase his realm?" Roshnani demanded, then answered her own question: "No one, of course. And so he has no cause to complain of you."
"If I do not give the King of Kings what he requires, he has cause to complain of me," Abivard answered. "His Majesty does not understand the sea." Through Makuran's long history few men had ever had occasion to understand the sea. A handful of fishing boats sailed on the landlocked Mylasa Sea, but before Videssos' recent collapse, the writ of the King of Kings had not run to any land that touched the broad, interconnected waters of the ocean. Sharbaraz thought of a third of a farsang and saw only a trivial obstacle. Abivard thought of this particular third of a farsang and saw--
Oars rhythmically rising and falling, a Videssian war dromon centipede-walked down the middle of the Cattle Crossing. The choppy little waves splashed from the greened bronze beak of its ram; Abivard could see the dart thrower mounted on its deck and the metal siphons that spit liquid fire half a bowshot. Videssos' banner, a gold sunburst on blue, snapped in the breeze from a flagstaff at the stern.
He did not know how many such dromons Videssos possessed. Dozens, certainly. Hundreds, probably. He did know how many he possessed. None. Without them his army could not leap over that last third of a farsang. If he tried getting a force across in the few fishing boats and merchantmen he did command--most of those had fled away from the westlands whither he could not pursue them--there would be a great burning and slaughter and the green-blue waters of the Cattle Crossing would redden with blood for a while.
And so, as he had for almost two years, he stared longingly through sea mist over the water toward Videssos the city. He had studied the single seawall and the great double land wall not only with his eyes but also through detailed questioning of scores of Videssians. Could he but put his siege engines alongside those walls, he thought he could breach them. No foreign foe had ever sacked Videssos the city. Great would be the loot from that plundering.
"Let me but put them alongside," he muttered.
"May the God grant that you do," Roshnani said. "May she grant you the wisdom to see how it can be accomplished."
"Yes, may he," Abivard said. They both smiled. The God, being of unlimited mutability, was feminine to women and masculine to men.
But then Abivard turned his gaze back toward the capital of the Empire of Videssos. Roshnani's head swung that way, too. "I know what you're looking for," she said.
"I expected you would," Abivard answered. "Old Tanshar gave me three prophecies. The first two came true years ago, but I have yet to find a silver shield shining across a narrow sea." He laughed. "When Tanshar spoke those words, I'd never seen any sea, let along a narrow one. But with so much that glitters in Videssos the city, I've never yet seen light sparking from a silver shield. Now I begin to wonder if the Cattle Crossing was the sea he meant."
"I can't think of any other that would be," Roshnani said, "but then, I don't know everything there is to know about seas, either. Pity we can't ask Tanshar what he meant."
"He didn't even know what he'd said in the prophetic fit, so strongly did it take him," Abivard said. "I had to tell him, once his proper, everyday senses came back." He sighed. "But even had he known, we couldn't call him back from his pyre." He kicked at the sand again, this time with a frustration different from that of a man thwarted of his prey. "I wish I could recognize the answers that spring from foretelling more readily than by spotting them as they've just passed. I shall have to speak to my present wizard about that."
"Which one?" Roshnani asked. "This new Bozorg or the Videssian mage?"
Abivard sighed again. "You have a way of finding the important questions. We've spent so long in Videssos since Likinios' fall, we've come to ape a lot of imperial ways." He chuckled. "I'm even getting a taste for mullet, and I ate no sea fish before these campaigns began."
"Nor I," Roshnani said. "But it's more than things like fish--"
As if to prove her point, Venizelos, the Videssian steward who had served them since they had drawn near the imperial capital, hurried up the beach toward them. The fussy little man had formerly administered an estate belonging to the Videssian logothete of the treasury. He'd changed masters as readily as the estate had. If the Videssians ever reclaimed this land, Abivard had few doubts that Venizelos would as readily change back.
The steward went down on one knee in the sand. "Most eminent sir," he said in Videssian, "I beg to report the arrival of a letter addressed to you."
"I thank you," Abivard answered in Makuraner. He probably would have used Videssian himself had he and Roshnani not been talking about the Empire and its influence on their lives. He'd learned that speech in bitter exile in Serrhes, after Smerdis had driven Sharbaraz clean out of Makuran. Then he'd wondered if he'd see his homeland again or be forced to lived in Videssos forevermore.
He shook his mind off the past and followed Venizelos away from the beach, back toward the waiting dispatch rider. The suburb of Across, so called from its position relative to Videssos the city, was a sad and ragged town these days. It had gone back and forth between Makuran and Videssos several times in the past couple of years. A lot of its buildings were burned-out shells, and a lot of the ones that had escaped the fires were wrecks nonetheless.
Most of the people in the streets were Makuraner soldiers, some mounted, some afoot. They saluted Abivard with clenched fists over their hearts; many of them lowered their eyes to the ground as Roshnani walked past. That was partly politeness, partly a refusal to acknowledge her existence. By ancient custom, Makuraner noblewomen lived out their lives sequestered in the women's quarters first of their fathers' houses, then of their husbands'. Even after so many years of bending that custom to the breaking point, Roshnani still found herself an object of scandal.
The dispatch rider wore a white cotton surcoat with the red lion of Makuran embroidered on it. His whitewashed round shield also bore the red lion. Saluting Abivard, he cried, "I greet you in the name of Sharbaraz King of Kings, may his years be many and his realm increase!"
"In your person I greet his Majesty in return," Abivard answered as the horseman detached a leather message tube from his belt. The lion of Makuran was embossed there, too. "I am delighted to be granted the boon of communication from his flowing and illustrious pen."
No matter how well the Makuraner language lent itself to flowery flights of enthusiasm, Abivard would have been even more delighted had Sharbaraz let him alone and allowed him to get on with the business of consolidating his gains in the westlands of Videssos. Mashiz lay a long way away; why the King of Kings thought he could run the details of the war at such a remove was beyond Abivard.
"Why?" Roshnani had said once when he had complained about that. "Because he is King of Kings, that's why. Who in Mashiz would presume to tell the King of Kings he cannot do as he desires?"
"Denak might," Abivard had grumbled. His sister was Sharbaraz' principal wife. Without Denak, Sharbaraz would have stayed mured up forever in Nalgis Crag stronghold. He honored her still for what she had done for him, but in their years of marriage she'd borne him only daughters. That made her influence on him less than it might have been.
But Sharbaraz might well not have heeded her had she given him sons. Even in the days when he had still been fighting Smerdis the usurper, he'd relied most of all on his own judgment, which, Abivard had to admit, was often good. Now, after more than a decade on the throne, Sharbaraz did solely as his will dictated--and so, inevitably, did the rest of Makuran.
Abivard opened the message tube and drew out the rolled parchment inside. It was sealed with red wax that, like the tube and the messenger's surcoat and shield, bore the lion of Makuran. Abivard broke the seal and unrolled the parchment. His lips moved as he read: "Sharbaraz King of Kings, whom the God delights to honor, good, pacific, beneficent, to our servant Abivard who does our bidding in all things: Greetings. Know that we are imperfectly pleased with the conduct of the war you wage against Videssos. Know further that, having brought the westlands under our hand, you are remiss in not extending the war to the very heart of the Empire of Videssos, which is to say, Videssos the city. And know further that we expect a movement against the aforementioned city the instant opportunity should present itself and that such opportunity should be sought with the avidity of a lover pursuing his beloved. Last, know also that our patience in this regard, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, can be exhausted. The crown stands in urgent need of the last jewel remaining to the downfallen Empire of Videssos. The God grant you zeal. I end."
Roshnani stood beside him, also reading. She was less proficient at the art than he was, so he held the parchment till she was through. When she was, she let out an indignant snort. Abivard's glance warned her to say nothing where the dispatch rider could hear. He was sure she wouldn't have even without that look, but some things one did without thought.
"Lord, is there a reply?" the dispatch rider asked.
"Not one that has to go back on the instant," Abivard answered. "Spend the night here. Rest yourself; rest your horse. When morning comes, I'll explain to the King of Kings how I shall obey his commands."
"Let it be as you say, lord," the dispatch rider answered submissively.
To the messenger Abivard was lord, and a great lord at that: brother-in-law to the King of Kings, conqueror of Videssos' westlands, less exalted by blood than the high nobles of the Seven Clans, perhaps, but more powerful and prestigious. To every man of Makuran but one he was somebody with whom to reckon. To Sharbaraz King of Kings he was a servant in exactly the same sense as a sweeper in the royal palace in Mashiz was a servant. He could do more things for Sharbaraz than a sweeper could, but that was a difference of degree, not of kind. Sometimes he took his status for granted. Sometimes, as now, it grated.
He turned to Venizelos. "See that this fellow's needs are met, then join us back at our house."
"Of course, most eminent sir," Venizelos said in Videssian before falling into the Makuraner language to address the dispatch rider. These days Abivard was so used to lisping Videssian accents that he hardly noticed them.
The house where he and Roshnani stayed stood next to the ruins of the palace of the hypasteos, the city governor. Roshnani was still spluttering furiously when she and Abivard got back to it. "What does he want you to do?" she demanded. "Arrange a great sorcery so all your men suddenly sprout wings and fly over the Cattle Crossing and down into Videssos the city?"
"I'm sure the King of Kings would be delighted if I found a wizard who could work such a spell," Abivard answered. "Now that I think on it, I'd be delighted myself. It would make my life much easier."
He was angry at Sharbaraz, too, but was determined not to show it. The King of Kings had sent him irritating messages before, then had failed to follow up on them. As long as he stayed back in Mashiz, real control of the war against Videssos remained in Abivard's hands. Abivard didn't think his sovereign would send out a new commander to replace him. Sharbaraz knew beyond question that he was loyal and reliable. Of whom else could the King of Kings say that?
Then he stopped worrying about what, if anything, Sharbaraz thought. The door--which, but for a couple of narrow, shuttered windows, was the only break in the plain, to say nothing of dingy and smoke-stained whitewashed facade of the house--came open, and his children ran out to meet him.
Varaz was the eldest, named for Abivard's brother who had fallen on the Pardrayan steppe with Godarz, with so many others. He had ten years on him now and looked like a small, smooth-faced, unlined copy of Abivard. By chance, even his cotton caftan bore the same brown, maroon, and dark blue stripes as his father's.
"What have you brought me?" he squealed, as if Abivard had just come back from a long journey.
"The palm of my hand on your backside for being such a greedy thing?" Abivard suggested, and drew back his arm as if to carry out that suggestion.
Varaz set his own hand on the hilt of the little sword--not a toy but a boy-sized version of a man's blade--that hung from his belt. Abivard's second living son grabbed his arm to keep him from spanking Varaz. Shahin was three years younger than his brother; between them lay another child, also a boy, who'd died of a flux before he had been weaned.
Zarmidukh grabbed Abivard's left arm in case he thought of using that one against Varaz. Unlike Shahin, who as usual was in deadly earnest, she laughed up at her father. In all her five years she'd found few things that failed to amuse her.
Not to be outdone, Gulshahr toddled over and seized Varaz' arm. He shook her off, but gently. She'd had a bad flux not long before and was still thin and pale beneath her swarthiness. When she grabbed her brother again, he shrugged and let her hold on.
"Our own little army," Abivard said fondly. Just then Liv- ania, the Videssian housekeeper, came out to see what the chil- dren were up to. Nodding to her, Abivard added, "And the chief quartermaster."
He'd spoken in the Makuraner language. She answered in Videssian: "As far as that goes, supper is nearly ready." She hadn't understood the Makuraner tongue when Abivard's horsemen had driven the Videssians out of Across, but now she was fairly fluent.
"It's octopus stew," Varaz said. The name of the main ingredient came out in Videssian; as Makuran was a nearly landlocked country, its language had no name for many-tentacled sea creatures. All Abivard's children used Videssian as readily as their own tongue, anyhow. And why not? All of them save Varaz had been born in formerly Videssian territory, and all of them had spent far more time there than back in Makuran.
Abivard and Roshnani glanced at each other. Both of them were easily able to control their enthusiasm for octopus. As far as Abivard was concerned, the beasts had the texture of leather with very little redeeming flavor. He would have preferred mutton or goat or beef. The Videssians ate less red meat than did Makuraners at any time, though, and years of war had diminished and scattered their herds. If the choice lay between eating strange beasts that crawled in tide pools and going hungry, he was willing to be flexible.
The stew was tasty, full of carrots and parsnips and cabbage leaves and flavored with garlic and onions. Abivard, his family, Livania, and Venizelos ate in the central courtyard of the house. A fountain splashed there; that struck Abivard, who had grown up in a dry country, as an extravagant luxury.
On the other hand, no bright flowers bloomed in the courtyard, as they would have in any Makuraner home this side of a hovel. Livania had started an herb garden. Most of the plants that grew in it were nondescript to the eye, but their spicy scents cut through the city and camp stinks of smoke and men and animals and garbage and ordure.
Abivard snapped his fingers. "Have to find artisans to repair that broken sewage main or the smell will get worse and the men will start coming down sick by companies. We've been lucky we haven't had anything much going through them, because we've stayed in one place a long time."
"That's true, most eminent sir," Venizelos said gravely. "If once a few men are taken ill with a disease, it can race through a host like fire."
"May it not come to pass." Abivard twisted his left hand in a sign intended to avert any evil omen.
"When do we get to fight the Videssians again, Father?" Varaz asked, once more setting hand to sword hilt.
"That's up to Maniakes Avtokrator more than it is up to me," Abivard answered. "We can't get at his soldiers right now--"However much Sharbaraz doesn't care for the notion, he added to himself "--and he won't come to us. What does that leave?"
Varaz frowned, seriously considering the question. The past couple of years Abivard had taken to asking him more and more questions of that sort to get him used to thinking like an officer. Some of his answers had been very good. Once or twice Abivard thought they were probably better than the ones the officer facing the real situation had come up with.
Now Varaz said, "If we can't go over the Cattle Crossing and Maniakes won't cross over here to fight us, we have to find some other way to get at his army and beat it."
"Wishing for something you can't reach doesn't make it fall into your lap," Abivard answered, reminded that his eldest son was still a boy, after all. "There is another way for us to get to Videssos the city, but it's not one we can take. It would mean bringing an army over the Pardrayan steppe, all the way around the Videssian sea, and then down into Videssos from the north. How would we could defend ourselves from the nomads if we tried that or keep the army supplied on the long journey it would have to take?"
"We keep our armies supplied here in Videssos," Varaz said, reluctant to abandon his notion.
"Yes, but here in Videssos they grow all sorts of things," Abivard said patiently "This coastal lowland is as rich as the soil of the Thousand Cities between the Tutub and the Tib, I think. And they have towns here, with artisans to make every kind of thing an army needs. It's different on the steppe."
"What's it like?" Shahin asked. He knew Videssos and little else.
"It's--vast," Abivard said. "I was only out there once, on the campaign of Peroz King of Kings, the one that failed. Nothing but farsang and farsang of rolling grassland, none of it very rich but so much of it that the nomads can pasture great flocks out there. But it has no cropland, no towns, no artisans except for the few among the Khamorth--and all they know is connected to the herds one way or another."
"If the country is that bad, why did Peroz King of Kings want it?" Varaz asked.
"Why?" Across a decade and more remembered anger smoldered in Abivard's voice. "I'll tell you why, Son. Because the Videssians spread gold among the Khamorth clans, bribing them to cross the Degird River into Makuran. You can never be too sure about Videssians."
"Well! I like that," Livania said indignantly.
Abivard smiled at her. "I didn't mean people like you and Venizelos. I meant the people in the palaces." He waved east, toward the imperial residence in Videssos the city. "They are devious, they are underhanded, they will cheat you three different ways in a minute's time if they see the chance--and they commonly do see it."
"But didn't Maniakes Avtokrator help put Sharbaraz King of Kings, may his years be many and his realm increase, back on the throne?" Varaz persisted.
"Yes, he did," Abivard said. "But that was your mother's idea."
Varaz had heard the story before. He looked proud, not astonished. Abivard thought Shahin had heard it, too, but he must not have understood what it meant, for, with his smaller sisters, he stared at Roshnani with enormous eyes. "Your idea, mother?"
"Smerdis' men had beaten us," she said. "They'd driven us away from Mashiz and across the Thousand Cities to the edge of the badlands that run between them and the border of the Videssian westlands. We were doomed if we stayed where we were, so I thought we couldn't do worse and might do better if we took refuge with the Videssians."
"And look what's become of that," Abivard added, driving the lesson home. "A lot of people--men mostly, but a surprising lot of women, too--think women are foolish just because they're women. They're wrong, all of them. If Sharbaraz hadn't taken your mother's advice, he probably wouldn't be King of Kings today."
Varaz pondered that with the same careful attention he'd given Abivard's question on strategy. Shahin just nodded and accepted it; he was still at the age when his parents' words had the authority of the Prophets Four. Maybe, if he heard such things often enough when he was small, he would pay more heed to his principal wife once he grew to be a man.
With luck, he would have a principal wife worth heeding. Abivard glanced fondly over at Roshnani.
Twilight deepened to darkness. Servants lit torches. They drew moths to join the clouds of mosquitoes that buzzed in the courtyard. Because the coastal lowlands were so warm and damp, the droning pests flourished there in swarms unknown back at Vek Rud domain. Every so often a nightjar or a bat would dive out of the night, seize a bug, and vanish again. There were more bugs, though, than creatures to devour them.
Livania put Zarmidukh and Gulshahr to bed, then came back for Shahin, who made his usual protests over going to sleep but finally gave in. Varaz, grave in the responsibility of approaching adulthood, went off without a fuss when his own turn came half an hour or so later. Roshnani chuckled under her breath. Abivard understood why: In another couple of weeks--or couple of days, for that matter--Varaz was liable to forget his dignity and go back to squawking.
"Will there be anything more, most eminent sir?" Venizelos asked.
"Go to bed," Abivard told him. "Roshnani and I won't be up much longer ourselves." Roshnani nodded agreement to that. As the two of them got up and headed for their bedchamber, the torches that had been lighted were doused. The stink of hot tallow filled the courtyard. The servants left a torch burning near the entrance to the house. Abivard paused there to light a clay lamp filled with olive oil.
Roshnani said, "I'd sooner burn that stuff than cook with it or sop bread in it the way the Videssians do."
"I'm not fond of it, either," Abivard answered. "But you'll notice all the children love it." He rolled his eyes. "They should, seeing how Livania stuffs it into them every chance she gets. I think she's trying to turn them into Videssians from the stomach out."
"I wonder if that's a kind of magic our wizards know." Roshnani laughed, but the fingers of her left hand twisted in the sign to turn aside the evil idea.
She and Abivard walked down the hall to their bedchamber. He set the lamp on a little table by his side of the bed. The bed had a tall frame enclosed by gauzy netting. There were usually fewer mosquitoes inside the netting than outside. Abivard supposed that was worthwhile. He pulled off his caftan and lay down on the bed. Sweet-smelling straw rustled beneath him; the leather straps supporting the mattress creaked a little.
After Roshnani lay down beside him, he blew out the lamp through the netting. The room plunged into darkness. He set a hand on her hip. She turned toward him. Had she turned away or lay still, he would have rolled over and gone to sleep without worrying about it. As it was, they made love--companionably, almost lazily--and then, separating to keep from sticking to each other once they were through, fell asleep together.
The Videssian in the blue robe with the cloth-of-gold circle on the left breast went down on one knee before Abivard. "By the lord with the great and good mind, most eminent sir, I beg you to reconsider this harsh and inhuman edict," he said. The early-morning sun gleamed off his shaved pate as if it were a gilded dome topping one of false Phos' temples.
"Rise, holy sir," Abivard answered in Videssian, and the hierarch of Across, a plump, middle-aged cleric named Artanas, grunted and got to his feet. Abivard fixed him with what he hoped was a baleful stare. "Now, see here, holy sir. You should be glad you are allowed to practice your religion in any way at all and not come whining to me about it. You will obey the decree of Sharbaraz King of Kings, may his days be long and his realm increase, or you will not be allowed to worship and you will be subject to the penalties the decree ordains." He set a hand on the hilt of his sword to make sure Artanas got the idea.
"But most eminent sir," Artanas wailed, "forcing us to observe heretical rituals surely condemns us to Phos' eternal ice. And the usages of the Vaspurakaner heretics are particularly repellent to us."
Abivard shrugged. "If you disobey, you and all who worship with you will suffer." In the abstract, Sharbaraz had been clever to force the Videssian temples in the westlands to conform to Vaspurakaner usages if they wanted to stay open: It had split them away from the Empire of Videssos' central ecclesiastical authority. As for the Vaspurakaners themselves-- "As I say, holy sir, count yourself lucky. In the land of Vaspurakan we require the worship of the God, not your false spirits of good and evil."
"That serves the Vaspurakaners right for their longtime treachery against the true faith," said Artanas, who did not object when the Makuraners interfered with someone else's belief, only when they meddled with his own.
For his part, Abivard was not sure the King of Kings was acting rightly in imposing the cult of the God in Vaspurakan. He did not doubt for a moment that faith in the God was the only guarantor of a happy afterlife, but he also had no reason to doubt the fanaticism of the Vaspurakaners for their own faith: All the followers of Phos struck him as being passionately wedded to their own version of error, whatever it happened to be. If one pushed them too far, they were liable to snap.
That same thought also applied to Artanas, though Abivard didn't care to admit as much to himself. Sharbaraz might have done better not to meddle in any matters of religion till after the war against Videssos had been won. But if Abivard did not carry out the policies the King of Kings had set forth, word of his failure would soon head for Mashiz--after which, most likely, he would, too, in disgrace.
He said, "We shall attend closely to what you preach, holy sir. I am not schooled in your false beliefs, but we have men who are. No matter what you say or where you say it, some of them will hear you. If you do not preach the doctrine you are ordered to preach, you will suffer the consequences. Perhaps I shall send to Mashiz for a special persuader."
Artanas' skin, already a couple of shades paler than Abivard's, went almost fish-belly white. Sweat gleamed on his shaved skull. Makuraner torturers and their skill in torment were legendary in Videssos. Abivard found that amusing, for Videssian torturers enjoyed a similar reputation in Makuran. He did not tell that to the Videssian hierarch.
"You ask me to preach what I know to be untrue," Artanas said. "How in good conscience can I do that?"
"Your conscience is not my concern," Abivard answered. "Your actions are. If you do not preach of Vaspur the Firstborn and the place of the Vaspurakaners as his chiefest descendants, you shall answer to me."
Artanas tried another tack. "The people here, knowing the Vaspurakaners' claims to be ignorant, empty, ignoble, and impious, will not heed this preaching and may rise up not only against me but also against you."
"That is my affair, not yours," Abivard said. "Where the armies of Videssos have not been able to stand against the brave warriors of Makuran for lo these many years, why should we fear a rabble of peasants and artisans?"
The local prelate glared at him, then said, "Videssian arms won a great victory against the barbarians of Kubrat earlier this year, or so I have heard."
Abivard had heard that, too, and didn't care for it. He knew more than he'd ever wanted to learn about nomad horsemen pouring down out of the north. After the Khamorth had destroyed the flower of Peroz King of Kings' army out on the steppe, they'd raided over the Degird and into Makuran. The flocks and fields of his own domain had come under attack. Since Videssian meddling out on the steppe had set the clans in motion, he was anything but sorry to see the Empire having nomad troubles of its own and anything but glad to see those troubles overcome.
Making his voice hard, he said, "We are stronger than the barbarians, just as we are stronger than you Videssians. Heed what I say, holy sir, in your services and sermons, or you will learn at first hand how strong we are. Do you understand me?" When Artanas did not say no, Abivard made an abrupt gesture of dismissal. "Get you gone."
Artanas left. Abivard knew that the hierarch remained rebellious. That edict of Sharbaraz' imposing Vaspurakaner usages on the Videssian westlands had already sparked riots in a couple of towns. Abivard's men had put them down, true, but he wished they hadn't had the need.
Since Sharbaraz was King of Kings, the God was supposed to have blessed him with preternatural wisdom and foresight. If the God had done that, the results were moderately hard to notice. And here the sun was, not a third of the way up the sky from rising, and Abivard already felt like having a mug of wine or maybe two.
Hoping to escape any more importunate Videssians, he went out to the encampment of his own troops, not far from the field fortifications Maniakes had run up in a vain effort to hold the armored horsemen away from Across. The Videssian works were not as strong as they might have been; Maniakes, realizing they were too little, too late, had neither completed them nor defended what his engineers had built. Abivard was grateful for the wasted effort.
Back among the Makuraners, Abivard came as close to feeling at home as he could within sight of Videssos the city. The lean, swarthy men in caftans who groomed horses or sat playing dice in what shade they could find were of this kind. His own language filled his ears. Many of the warriors of the army he and Sharbaraz had so painstakingly rebuilt spoke with a northwestern accent like his own. When Sharbaraz had been a rebel, the Northwest had rallied to him first.
But even in the camp not all was as it would have been near Vek Rud domain or near Mashiz or between the Tib and the Tutub. A lot of the servants and most of the camp women were Videssians who had been scooped up as his army had traveled back and forth through the westlands. Some of those women had children seven and eight and nine years old. The children used a weird jargon of their own, with mostly Videssian words but a grammar closer to that of the Makuraner tongue. Only they could understand most of it.
And here came the man Abivard perhaps least wanted to see when he was fed up with things Videssian. He couldn't even show it, as he could with Artanas. "I greet you, eminent Tzikas," he said, and presented his cheek for the Videssian officer to kiss, a token that he reckoned Tzikas' rank but little lower than his own.
"I greet you, Abivard son of Godarz, brother-in-law to Sharbaraz King of Kings, may his years be many and his realm increase," Tzikas answered in Makuraner that was fluent and only slightly lisping. He kissed Abivard's' cheek just as a minor noble from Mashiz might have, though that was not a practice the Videssians followed among themselves.
"Have you learned anything new and interesting from the other side, eminent sir?" Abivard asked, pointing with his chin east over the Cattle Crossing toward Videssos the city.
Tzikas shook his head. He was a solidly made middle-aged man with a thick head of graying hair and a neatly trimmed gray beard. He seemed quite ordinary till one looked at his eyes. When one did, one discovered they had already looked through one, weighed one's soul, measured it, and assigned one to one's proper pigeonhole in the document file of his mind. The turncoat Videssian was, Abivard had reluctantly been forced to conclude, nearly as clever as he thought he was--no mean assessment.
"Too bad," Abivard said. "Anything I can find out about what Maniakes is planning for this summer will help. I've seen him in action. If he has steady troops behind him, he'll be difficult."
"That pup?" Tzikas made a dismissive gesture that irritated Abivard, who was not far from Maniakes' age. "He has a habit of striking too soon and of thinking he's stronger than he really is." His face clouded. "It cost us dear in the Arandos valley not long after he took the crown."
Abivard nodded, though Tzikas was rewriting things in his memory. For years the garrison Tzikas commanded at Amorion, at the west end of the valley, had held off Abivard's force: Abivard had developed a healthy respect for the Videssian general's skill. But at last Amorion had fallen--before Maniakes' army, pushing west up the line of the Arandos, could reinforce it. Abivard's men had beaten Maniakes after that, but it had not been the Avtokrator's fault that Amorion had at last been taken.
What Abivard said was, "If he's as hasty and headstrong as you say, eminent sir, how did he smash the Kubratoi as he did?"
"Easy enough to win a fine name for yourself fighting savages," Tzikas answered. "What you get from it, though, won't help you much when you come up against soldiers with discipline and generals who can see farther than the ends of their noses."
Abivard took his own nose between thumb and forefinger for a moment. It was of generous size, though in no way outlandish for a man of Makuran. He hoped he could see past the end of it. "You do have a point," he admitted. "Fighting the Khamorth is nothing like coming up against you Videssians, I must say. But I worry about Maniakes. He made fewer mistakes against me last year than he had before--and tried to accomplish less, which is almost another way of saying the same thing, considering how unsteady his soldiers were. I fear he may be turning into a good commander."
Tzikas' lip curled. "Him? Not likely."
The first question that came to Abivard's mind was, No? Then why did you fail when you tried overthrowing him this past winter? He didn't ask it; on the orders of his sovereign, he was treating Tzikas with every courtesy in the hope that Tzikas would prove a useful tool against Maniakes. Had many Videssian garrisons in the westlands been left, Tzikas might have persuaded their commanders to go over to Makuran, as he had. But the only Videssian troops here these days were raiding bands largely immune to the renegade general's blandishments.
A traitor Tzikas might be; a fool he was not. He seemed to have a gift for plucking thoughts from the heads of those with whom he conversed. As if to answer the question Abivard had not asked, he said, "I would have toppled the pervert from the throne had his protective amulet not warded him just long enough to reach his wizard and gain a counterspell against my mage's cantrip."
"Aye, so you've said," Abivard replied. To his way of thinking, an effective conspirator would have known about that amulet and found some way to circumvent it. Saying that to Tzikas, though, would surely have offended him. If only Tzikas took similar care when speaking to Abivard.
Again the Videssian replied to what Abivard had not said. "I know you Makuraners think nothing of first cousins marrying, or uncles and nieces, or even brothers and sisters among the Seven Clans." He pulled a face. "Those usages are not ours, and no one will convince me they are not perverse. When Maniakes bedded his uncle's daughter, that was incest, plain as day."
"So you've said," Abivard repeated. "More than once, in fact. Has not your Mobedhan Mobedh, or whatever your call your chief priest, given leave for that marriage?"
"Our patriarch," Tzikas answered, reminding him of the Videssian word. "Yes, he has." Tzikas' lip curled again, more this time. "And no doubt he gained a fitting reward for the dispensation." Abivard picked up the meaning of that Videssian term from the context. Tzikas went on: "I stand with true righteousness no matter what the patriarch might say."
He looked very righteous himself. He was never less believable than when he donned that mantle of smug virtue, for it did not fit him well. He'd made his play, it hadn't worked, and now he seemed to want a special commendation for pure and noble motives. As far as Abivard was concerned, if one tried killing a man by magic, one's motives were unlikely to be pure or noble--odds were, one just wanted what he had.
Tzikas said, "How I admire Sharbarza King of Kings, may his days be long and his realm increase, for maintaining the imperial dignity of the true heir to the throne of Videssos, Hosios the son of Likinios Avtokrator."
"How generous of you to recognize Hosios' claim," Abivard answered tonelessly. If he had to listen to much more of Tzikas' fulsome good cheer, he'd need a steaming down at the closest bathhouse. The real Hosios was long years dead, executed with his father when Genesios had butchered his way to the Videssian throne. As far as Abivard knew, three different Videssians had played Hosios at Sharbaraz' bidding. There might have been more. If one started to think one really was an Avtokrator rather than a puppet--
"I would recognize any claim in preference to that of Maniakes," Tzikas said seriously. But that was too much of a courtier's claim even for him to stomach. Shaking his head, he corrected himself: "No, were I to choose between Maniakes and Genesios, I would choose Maniakes."
Abivard knew that he ought to despise Genesios, too. The man had, after all, murdered not only Likinios, the benefactor of Makuran, but also all his family. But had it not been for Genesios, he would not be able to look over the Cattle Crossing and see Videssos the city. Under what passed for the murderer's reign, Videssos had dissolved in multicornered civil war, and more than one town in the westlands had welcomed the Makuraners in the hope that they would bring peace and order to replace the bloody chaos engulfing the Empire.
When Tzikas saw that Abivard was not going to respond to his preferences for the Videssian throne, he changed the subject, at least to some degree: "Brother-in-law to the King of Kings, when may I begin constituting my promised regiment of horsemen in the service of Hosios Avtokrator?"
"Soon," Abivard answered, as he had the last time Tzikas had asked that question, and the time before that, and the time before that.
"I have heard there is no objection in Mashiz to the regiment," Tzikas said delicately.
"Soon, eminent sir, soon," Abivard repeated. Tzikas was right; Sharbaraz King of Kings was happy to see a body of Videssian troops help give the current Hosios' claim to the throne legitimacy. The hesitation lay on Abivard's part. Tzikas was already a traitor once; what was to keep him from becoming a traitor twice?
Roshnani had used a homelier analogy: "A man who cheats with a woman and then marries her will cheat on her afterward--not always, maybe, but most of the time."
"I trust I shall not have to appeal directly to Sharbaraz King of Kings, may his years be many and his realm increase," Tzikas said exactly as a Makuraner noble might have--the Videssians knew how to squeeze, too.
"Soon I said, and soon I meant," Abivard replied, wishing that some hideous disease--another bout of treason, perhaps--would get Tzikas out of his hair. For the Videssian renegade to use the word trust when he was so manifestly unworthy of it grated. What grated even more was that Tzikas, who was so perceptive elsewhere, seemed blind to Abivard's reasons for disliking him.
"I shall take you at your word," Tzikas said, "for I know the nobles of Makuran are raised to ride, to fight, and to tell the truth."
That was what the Videssians said of Makuraners. The men of Makuran, for their part, were told that Videssians sucked in mendacity with their mothers' milk. Having dealt with men from both sides of the border, Abivard had come to the reluctant conclusion that those of either nation would lie when they thought that was to their benefit or sometimes merely for the sport of it, those who worshiped the God about as readily as those who followed Phos.
"Everything I can do, I will," Abivard said. Eventually, he added to himself. He did not enjoy being imperfectly honest with Tzikas, but he did not relish the prospect of the Videssian's commanding troops, either. To take the moral advantage away from Tzikas, he went on: "Have you had any luck in finding ship's carpenters, or whatever the proper name for them is? If we are going to beat Maniakes, to beat Videssos once and for all, we'll have to get our men over the Cattle Crossing and assault Videssos the city. Without ships--"
Tzikas sighed. "I am making every effort, brother-in-law to the King of Kings, but my difficulties in this regard, unlike yours concerning horsemen, are easy to describe." Abivard raised an eyebrow at that jab. Unperturbed, Tzikas went on. "Videssos separates land and sea commands. Had a drungarios fallen into your clutches, he could have done better by you, for such matters fall within his area of responsibility. As a simple soldier, though, I fear I am ignorant of the art of shipbuilding."
"Eminent sir, I certainly did not expect you to do the carpentry on your own," Abivard answered, working hard to keep his face straight. Tzikas' describing himself as a simple anything would have drawn a laugh from any Makuraner--and probably from most of the Videssians--who had ever had to deal with him. "Learning where to gather the men with the requisite trades is something else again."
"So it is, in the most literal sense of the word," Tzikas said. "Most of the men who practice these trades have left the westlands in the face of your victorious advance, whether by their own will or at the urging of their city governors or provincial chiefs."
Such urging, Abivard knew, had probably been at a sword's point. "The Videssians dug a hole and pulled it in after themselves," he said angrily. "I can see them over there in Videssos the city, but I can't touch them no matter what I try. But they can still touch me--some of their seaborne raids have hurt."
"They have a capacity you lack," Tzikas agreed. "I would help you remedy that lack were it in my power, but unfortunately it is not. You, on the other hand, have the ability to allow me to recruit a suitable number of horsemen who--" Without apparent effort, he turned the tables on Abivard.
By the time Abivard managed to break away, he'd decided he would gladly let Tzikas recruit his long-desired cavalry regiment provided that the Videssian swore a frightful oath to take that regiment far, far away and never come nagging any man of Makuran again.
Abivard missed Tanshar. He'd always gotten along well with the fortune-teller and wizard who'd lived for so long in the village below Vek Rud stronghold. But Tanshar now was five years dead. Abivard had been searching ever since for a mage who could give him results that matched Tanshar's and not make him feel like an idiot for asking an occasional question.
Whether the wizards who traveled with the army suited him or not, it had a fair contingent. Battle magic rarely did an army any good. For one thing, the opposition's sorcerers were likely to block the efforts of one's own mages. For another, no magic was very effective in the heat of battle. When a man's passions were roused to fever pitch as he fought for his life, he scarcely sensed spells that might have laid him low had they taken him at his ease.
The wizards, then, did more in the way of finding lost rings--and occasionally lost toddlers--for the camp women than they did in hurling sorcerous fireballs at Maniakes' men. They foretold whether pregnant women would bear boys or girls--not with perfect accuracy but better than they could have done by random guessing. They helped heal sick men and sick horses and with luck helped keep camp diseases from turning into epidemics. And, being men, they boasted about all the other things they might do if only they got the chance.
Every so often Abivard summoned one of them to see if he could make good on his boasts. One hot, sticky high-summer day he had called to his residence the mage named Bozorg, a young, eager fellow who had not accompanied the army in all its campaigns in the Videssian westlands but was newly arrived from Mashiz.
Bozorg bowed very low before Abivard, showing he recognized that his own rank was low compared with that of the general. Venizelos fetched in wine made tangy with the juice of oranges and lemons, a specialty of the coastal lowlands. Over the past couple of years Abivard had grown fond of it. Bozorg's lips puckered in an expression redolent of distaste.
"Too sour for me," he said, and then went on, "unlike my gracious and generous host, whose kindness is a sun by day and a full moon by night, illuminating by its brilliance all it touches. I am honored beyond my poor and humble worth by his invitation and shall serve him with all my heart, all my soul, and all my might, be my abilities ever so weak and feeble."
Abivard coughed. They didn't lay compliments on with a trowel in the frontier domain where he'd grown up. The Videssians weren't in the habit of quite such cloying fulsomeness, either; their praise tended to have a sardonic edge to it. But at the court of Mashiz flattery knew no bounds.
Bozorg must have expected him to take it for granted, too, for he continued. "How may I serve the valiant and noble lord whose puissance causes Videssos to tremble, whose onset is like that of the lion, who strikes with the swiftness of the goshawk, at whose approach the pale easterners who know not the God slink away like jackals, who overthrows city walls like an earthquake in human form, who--"
Abivard's patience ran thin. "If you'll give me a chance to get a word in edgewise, I'll tell you what I have in mind." He was glad Roshnani wasn't listening to Bozorg; he would have been a long time living down earthquake in human form.
"Your manner is harsh and abrupt," Bozorg said sulkily. Abivard glared at him. He'd sent looks less hostile toward the Videssian generals whose armies he'd overthrown. Bozorg wilted. Shifting from foot to foot, he admitted, "I am of course here to serve you, lord."
"That's a relief," Abivard said. "I thought you'd come to stop up my ears with treacle." Bozorg assumed a deeply wounded expression. He hadn't practiced it enough; it looked plastered on rather than genuine. Abivard did him a favor: He ignored it. After pausing to marshal his thoughts, he went on. "What I need from you, if you can give it to me, is some sort of picture of what Maniakes has in mind to do to us this year or next year or whenever he decides he's strong enough to face us in open battle."
Now Bozorg really did look worried. "Lord, this is no easy task you set me. The Avtokrator of the Videssians will surely have his plans hedged around with the finest sorcery he can obtain from those small fragments of the Empire still under his control."
"If what I wanted were simple, I could give silver arkets or Videssian goldpieces to any local hedge wizard," Abivard said, looking down his long nose at the mage from Mashiz. "You, sirrah, come recommended for both talent and skill. If I send you back to the capital because you have not the spirit to essay what I ask of you, you shall get no more such recommendations in the future."
"You misunderstand me, lord," Bozorg said quickly. "It is not to be doubted I shall attempt this task. I did but warn you that the God does not guarantee success, not against the wizards Maniakes Avtokrator has under his command."
"Once we're born, the only thing the God guarantees is that we'll die and be judged on how we have lived our lives," Abivard answered. "Between those two moments of birth and death we strive to be good and true and righteous. Of course we can't succeed all the time; only the Prophets Four came close, and so the God revealed himself to them. But we must strive."
Bozorg bowed. "My lord is a Mobedhan Mobedh of piety," he said. Then he gulped; had he laid his flattery on with a trowel again? Abivard contented himself with folding his arms across his chest and letting out an impatient sigh. Hastily the wizard said, "If my lord will excuse me for but a moment, I shall fetch in the magical materials I shall require in the conjuration."
He hurried out of Abivard's residence, returning a moment later with two dust-covered leather saddlebags. He set them down on a low table in front of Abivard, undid the rawhide laces that secured them, and took out a low, broad bowl with a glistening white glaze, several stoppered jars, and a squat jug of wine.
After staring at the jug, he shook his head. "No," he said. "That is wine of Makuran. If we are to learn what the Avtokrator of the Videssians has in his mind, Videssian wine is a better choice."
"I can see that," Abivard said with a judicious nod. He raised his voice: "Venizelos!" When the steward came into the chamber, he told him, "Fetch me a jar of Videssian wine from the cellar." Venizelos bowed and left, returning shortly with an earthenware jar taller and slimmer than the one Bozorg had brought from Mashiz. He set it on the table in front of the wizard, then disappeared as if made to vanish by one of Bozorg's cantrips.
Abivard wondered if a Videssian mage might not serve better than a Makuraner one, too. He shook his head. He couldn't trust Panteles, not for this.
Bozorg used the knife to cut through the pitch sealing the stopper in place. When the stopper was freed, he yanked it out and poured the white bowl nearly full of wine as red as blood. He also poured a small libation onto the floor for each of the Prophets Four.
He opened one of the jars--there was no pitch on its stopper--and spilled out a glittering powder from it into the palm of his hand. "Finely ground silver," he explained, "perhaps a quarter of an arket's worth. When polished, silver makes the finest mirrors: Unlike bronze or even gold, it adds no color of its own to the images it reflects. Thus, it also offers the best hope of an accurate and successful sorcerous view of what lies ahead."
So saying, he sprinkled the silver over the wine, chanting as he did so. It was not the ritual Tanshar had used in his scrying but seemed a shoot from a different branch of the same tree.
The powdered silver did not sink but stayed on the surface of the wine; Abivard got the idea that the incantation Bozorg had made had something to do with that. The mage said, "Now we wait for everything to become perfectly still." Abivard nodded; that, too, was akin to what the wizard from the village under Vek Rud stronghold had done.
"Will you tell me what you see?" he asked. "When the bowl is ready, I mean."
Bozorg shook his head. "No. This is a different conjuration. You will look into the bowl yourself and see--whatever is there to be seen. I may see something in the depths of the wine, too, but it will not be what you see."
"Very well," Abivard said. Waiting came with dealing with wizards. Bozorg studied the surface of the wine with a hunting hawk's intensity. At last, with a sudden sharp gesture, he beckoned Abivard forward.
Holding his breath so he wouldn't spoil the reflective surface, Abivard peered down into the bowl. Though his eyes told him the floating specks of silver were not moving, he somehow sensed them spinning, spiraling faster and faster till they seemed to cover the wine with a mirror that gave back first his face and the beams of the ceiling and then--
He saw fighting in mountain country, two armies of armored horsemen smashing against each other. One of the forces flew the red-lion banner of Makuran. Try as he would, he could not make out the standards under which the other side fought. He wondered if this was a glimpse of the future or of the past: He'd sent his mobile force into the southeastern hill country of the Videssian westlands, trying to quell raiders. His success had been less complete than he'd hoped.
Without warning, the scene shifted. Again he saw mountains. These, at a guess, were in hotter, drier country than those of the previous vision: The hooves of the horses strung out in the line of march kicked up sand at every step. The soldiers atop those horses were unmistakably Videssians. Off in the distance--to the south?--the sun sparkled off a blue, blue sea filled with ships.
There was another shift of scene. He saw more fighting, this time between Makuraners and Videssians. In the middle distance a town with a mud-brick wall stood on a hill that rose abruptly from flat farmland. That's somewhere in the land of the Thousand Cities, Abivard thought. The settlements there were so ancient that these days they sat atop mounts built up of centuries' worth of accumulated rubble. Again, he might have been seeing the future or the past. Videssians under Maniakes had fought Smerdis' Makuraners between the Tutub and the Tib to help return Sharbaraz to the throne.
The scene shifted once more. Now he had come full circle, for he found his point of vision back at Across, staring over the Cattle Crossing toward Videssos the city. He could see none of the dromons that had held his army away from the imperial capital. Suddenly, something flashed silver across the water. He knew that signal: the signal to attack. He would--
The wine in the bowl bubbled and roiled as if coming to a boil. Whatever it had been about to show Abivard vanished then; it was once more merely wine. Bozorg smacked his right fist into his left palm in frustration. "My scrying was detected," he said, angry at himself or at the Videsian mage who had thwarted him or maybe both at once. "The God grant you saw enough to suit you, lord."
"Almost," Abivard said. "Aye, almost. You confirmed for me that the 'narrow sea' of a prophecy I had years ago is indeed the Cattle Crossing, but whether the prophecy proves to be for good or ill I still do not know."
"I would hesitate before I sought to learn that, lord," Bozorg said. "The Videssian mages will now be alerted to my presence and watchful lest I try to sneak another scrying spell past them. For now, letting them ease back into sloth is the wiser course."
"Let it be as you say," Abivard answered. "I've gone without knowing the answer to that riddle for a long time now. A little longer won't matter--if in fact I can learn it before the event itself. Sometimes foreseeing is best viewed from behind, if you take my meaning."
Before, Bozorg had shown him flattery. Now the wizard bowed with what seemed genuine respect. "Lord, if you know so much, the God has granted you wisdom beyond that of most men. Knowing the future is different from being able to change it or even to recognize it until it is upon you."
Abivard laughed at himself. "If I were as wise as all that, I wouldn't have asked for the glimpses you just showed me. And if you were as wise as all that, you wouldn't have spent time and effort learning how to show me those glimpses." He laughed again. "And if the Videssians were as wise as all that, they wouldn't have tried to keep me from seeing those glimpses, either. After all, what can I do about them if the future is already set?"
"Only what you have seen--whatever that may be--is certain, lord," Bozorg warned. "What happened before, what may come after--those are hidden and so remain mutable."
"Ah. I understand," Abivard replied. "So if I saw, say, a huge Videssian army marching on me, I would still have the choice of either setting an ambush against them or fleeing to save my skin."
"Exactly so." Bozorg's head bobbed up and down in approval. "Neither of those is preordained from what you saw by the scrying: They depend on the strength of your own spirit."
"Even if I do set the ambush, though, I also have no guarantee ahead of time that it will succeed," Abivard said.
Bozorg nodded again. "Not unless you saw yourself succeeding."
Abivard plucked at his beard. "Could a man who was, say both rich and fearful have a scryer show him great chunks of his life to come so he would know what dangers to avoid?"
"Rich, fearful, foolish men have indeed tried this many times over the years," Bozorg said with a scornful curl of his lip worthy of Tzikas. "What good does it do them? Any danger they do so see is one they cannot avoid, by the very nature of things."
"If I saw myself making what had to be a dreadful error," Abivard said after more thought, "when the time came, I would struggle against that course with all my might."
"No doubt you would struggle," Bozorg agreed, "and no doubt you would also fail. Your later self, having knowledge that the you who watched the scryer lacked, would assuredly find some reason for doing that which was earlier reckoned a disaster in the making--or might simply forget the scrying till, too late, he realized that the foretold event had come to pass."
Abivard chewed on that for a while, then gave it up with a shake of his head. "Too complex for my poor, dull wits. We might as well be a couple of Videssian priests arguing about which of the countless ways to worship their Phos is the single right and proper one. By the God, good Bozorg, I swear that one flyspeck on a theological manuscript of theirs can spawn three new heresies."
"They know not the truth and so are doomed to quarrel endlessly over how the false is false," Bozorg said with a distinct sniff, "and to drop into the Void once their foolish lives have passed."
Abivard was tempted to lock Bozorg and Artanas the hier- arch in a room together to see which--if either--came out sane. Sometimes, though, one had to sacrifice personal pleasure for the good of the cause.
Bozorg bowed. "Will there be anything more, lord?"
"No, you may go," Abivard answered. "Thank you for your service to me."
"It is my pleasure, my privilege, my honor to serve a commander of such great accomplishment, one who excites the admiration of all who know of him," Bozorg said. "Truly you are the great wild boar of Makuran, trampling down and tearing all her foes." With a final bow the wizard reassembled his sorcerous paraphernalia, loaded it back into the saddlebags in which it had traveled from Mashiz, and took his leave.
As soon as his footsteps faded down the hall, Abivard let out a long sigh. This sorcerer wasn't a Tanshar in the making, either, being both oily as what the Videssians squeezed from olives and argumentative to boot. Abivard shrugged. If Bozorg proved competent, he'd overlook a great deal.
Abivard's marshals sprang to their feet to greet him. He went down their ranks accepting kisses on the cheek. A couple of his subordinates were men of the Seven Clans; under most circumstances he would have kissed them on the cheek, not the other way around. They might even have given him trouble about that had he been placed in command of them--were his sister not Sharbaraz' principal wife. As brother-in-law to the King of Kings, he unquestionably outranked them. They might resent that, but they could not deny it.
Romezan was a scion of the Seven Clans, but he had never given Abivard an instant's trouble over rank. Thick-shouldered rather than lean like most Makuraners, he was a bull of a man the tips of whose waxed mustaches swept out like a bull's horns. All he wanted was more of Videssos than Makuran had yet taken. As he did at every officers' gathering, he said, "How can we get across that miserable little stretch of water, lord?"
"I could piss across it, I think, if I stood on the seashore there," another general said. Kardarigan was no high noble; like Abivard, he was a dihqan from the Northwest, one of so many young men forced into positions of importance when their fathers and brothers had died on the Pardrayan steppe.
Romezan leered at him. "You're not hung so well as that." Laughter rose from the Makuraner commanders.
"How do you know?" Kardarigan retorted, and the laughter got louder. The generals had reason to make free with their merriment. Up to the Cattle Crossing they'd swept all before them. Sharbaraz might be unhappy because they'd not done more, but they knew how much they had done.
"We must have marble in our heads instead of brains," Abivard said, "not being able to figure out how to beat the Videssians, even if only for a little while, and get our men and engines across to the eastern shore. Can we but set our engines against the walls of Videssos the city, we will take it." How many times had he said that?
"If that accursed Videssian traitor had built us a navy instead of stringing us along with promises, we might have been able to do it by now," Romezan said.
That accursed Videssian traitor. Abivard wondered what Tzikas would have done had he heard the judgment against him. Whatever he thought, he wouldn't have shown it on the outside. It would have to hurt, though. The Makuraners might use him, but he would never win their trust or respect.
A messenger, his face filthy with road dust, came hurrying up to Abivard. Bowing low, he said, "Your pardon, lord, but I bear an urgent dispatch from the marzban of Vaspurakan."
"What does Vshnasp want with me?" Abivard asked. Up till then Sharbaraz' governor of Vaspurakan had done his best to pretend that Abivard did not exist.
He accept the oiled-leather message tube, opened it, and broke the wax seal on the letter inside with a thumbnail. As he read the sheet of parchment he'd unrolled, his eyebrows climbed toward his hairline. When he was through, he raised his head and spoke to his expectantly waiting officers: "Mikhran marzban requests--begs--our aid. Vshnasp marzban is dead. The Vaspurakaners have risen against him and against the worship of the God. If we don't come to his rescue at once, Mikhran says, the whole province will be lost."