An Oblique Approach
by David Drake and Eric Flint
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this
book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is
Copyright ? 1998 by David Drake and Eric Flint
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions
thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Cover art by Keith Parkinson
First printing, March 1998
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Production by Windhaven Press, Auburn, NH
Printed in the United States of America
The first facet was purpose.
It was the only facet. And because it was the only facet, purpose had
neither meaning nor content. It simply was. Was. Nothing more.
purpose. Alone, and unknowing.
Yet, that thing which purpose would become had not come to be
haphazardly. purpose, that first and isolated facet, had been drawn into existence by the nature of the man who squatted in the cave, staring at it. Another man—almost any other man—would have gasped, or drawn back,
or fled, or seized a futile weapon. Some men—some few rare men—would
have tried to comprehend what they were seeing. But the man in the cave simply stared.
He did not try to comprehend purpose, for he despised comprehension.
But it can be said that he considered what he was seeing; and considered it, moreover, with a focused concentration that was quite beyond the capacity of almost any other man in the world.
purpose had come to be, in that cave, at that time, because the man who sat there, considering purpose, had stripped himself, over long years, of
everything except his own overriding, urgent, all-consuming sense of purpose.
* * *
His name was Michael of Macedonia. He was a Stylite monk, one of those holy men who pursued their faith through isolation and contemplation, perched atop pillars or nestled within caves.
Michael of Macedonia, fearless in the certainty of his faith, stretched forth a withered arm and laid a bony finger on purpose.
For purpose, the touch of the monk's finger opened facet after facet after
facet, in an explosive growth of crystalline knowledge which, had purpose
truly been a self-illuminated jewel, would have blinded the man who touched it.
No sooner had Michael of Macedonia touched purpose than his body
arched as if in agony, his mouth gaped open in a soundless scream, and his face bore the grimace of a gargoyle. A moment later, he collapsed. For two full days, Michael lay unconscious in the cave. He breathed, and his heart beat, but his mind was lost in vision.
On the third day, Michael of Macedonia awoke. Instantly awoke. Alert, fully conscious, and not weak. (Or, at least, not weak in spirit. His body bore the weakness which comes from years of self-deprivation and ferocious austerities.)
Without hesitating, Michael reached out his hand and seized purpose. He
feared yet another paroxysm, but his need to understand overrode his fear. And, in the event, his fear proved unfounded.
purpose, its raw power now refracted through many facets, was able to control its outburst. purpose, now, was also duration. And though the time
which it found in the monk's mind was utterly strange, it absorbed the confusion. For duration was now also diversity, and so purpose was able
to parcel itself out, both in its sequence and its differentiation. Facets opened up, and spread, and doubled, and tripled, and multiplied, and multiplied again, and again, until they were like a crystalline torrent which bore the monk along like a chip of wood on a raging river.
The river reached the delta, and the delta melted into the sea, and all was still. purpose rested in the palm of Michael's hand, shimmering like moonlight on water, and the monk returned that shimmer with a smile. "I thank you," he said, "for ending the years of my search. Though I cannot thank you for the end you have brought me."
He closed his eyes for a moment, lost in thought. Then murmured: "I must seek counsel with my friend the bishop. If there is any man on earth who can guide me now, it will be Anthony."
His eyes opened. He turned his head toward the entrance of the cave and glared at the bright Syrian day beyond.
"The Beast is upon us."
That night, Belisarius was resting in the villa which he had purchased upon receiving
command of the army at Daras. He was not there often, for he was a general who
believed in staying with his troops. He had purchased the villa for the benefit of his wife
Antonina, whom he had married two years before, that she might have a comfortable residence in the safety of Aleppo, yet still not be far from the Persian border where the general took his post.
The gesture had been largely futile, for Antonina insisted on accompanying Belisarius even in the brawl and squalor of a military camp. She was well-nigh inseparable from him, and in truth, the general did not complain. For, whatever else was mysterious to men about the quicksilver mind of Belisarius, one thing was clear as day: he adored his wife.
It was an unfathomable adoration, to most. True, Antonina possessed a lively and attractive personality. (To those, at least, who had not the misfortune of drawing down her considerable temper.) And, she was very comely. On this point all agreed, even her many detractors: though considerably older than her husband, Antonina bore her years well.
But what years they had been! Oh, the scandal of it all.
Her father had been a charioteer, one of those raucous men idolized by the hippodrome mobs. Worse yet, her mother had been an actress, which to is to say, little more than a prostitute. As Antonina grew up in these surroundings, she herself adopted the ways of her mother at an early age—and, then!—added to the sin of harlotry, that of
witchcraft. For it was well known that Antonina was as skilled in magic as she was in the more corporeal forms of wickedness.
True, since her marriage to the general there had been no trace of scandal attached to her name. But vigilant eyes and ears were always upon her. Not those of her husband, oddly enough, for he seemed foolishly unconcerned of her fidelity. But many others watched, and listened for rumor with that quivering attentiveness which is the hallmark of proper folk.
Yet the ears heard nothing, and the eyes saw even less. A few turned aside, satisfied there was nothing to see or hear. Most, however, remained watchful at their post. The whore was, after all, a witch. And, what was worse, she was the close friend of the Empress Theodora. (No surprise, that, for all men know that like seeks like. And if the Empress Theodora's past held no trace of witchcraft, she had made good the loss by a harlotry so wanton as to put even that of Antonina to shame.)
So who knew what lecheries and deviltry Antonina could conceal?
About the general himself, setting aside his scandalous marriage, the gentility had little ill to say.
A bit, of course, a bit. Though ranked in the nobility, Belisarius was Thracian by birth. And the Thracians were known to be a boorish folk, rustic and uncouth. This flaw in his person, however, was passed over lightly. It was not that the righteous feared the wrath of Belisarius. The general, after all, was known himself to make the occasional jest regarding Thracian crudity. (Crude jests, of course; he was a Thracian.)
No, the tongues of the better stock were stilled on this subject because the Emperor Justinian was also Thracian (and not even from the ranks of the Thracian nobility, such as it was, but from the peasantry). And if Belisarius was known for his even and good-humored temperament, the Emperor was not. Most certainly not. An ill-humored and suspicious man, was Justinian, frightfully quick to take offense. And frightful when he did.
Then, there was the general's youth. As all people of quality are aware, youth is by nature a parlous state. An extremely perilous condition, youth, from an ethical standpoint. Reckless, besides—daring, and impetuous. Not the sort of thing which notability likes to see in its generals. Yet the Emperor Justinian had placed him in the ranks of his personal bodyguard, the elite body from which he selected his generals. And then, piling folly upon unwisdom, had immediately selected Belisarius to command an army facing the ancient Medean foe.
True, there were those who defended the Emperor's choice, pointing out that despite his youth Belisarius possessed an acute judgment and a keen intellect. Yet this defense failed of its purpose. For, in the end, leaving aside his marriage, it was this final quality of Belisarius that set right-thinking teeth on edge.
Intelligence, of course, is an admirable property in a man. Even, in moderation, in a woman. So long as it is a respectable sort of intelligence—straight, so to speak. A thing
of clear corners and precise angles, or, at the very least, spherical curves. Moderate, in its means; forthright, in its ends; direct, in its approach.
But the mind of Belisarius—ah, the mystery of it. To look at the man, he was naught
but a Thracian. Taller than most, well built as Thracians tend to be, and handsome (as Thracians tend not to be). But all who knew the general came to understand that, within his upstanding occidental shape, there lurked a most exotic intellect. Something from the subtle east, perhaps, or the ancient south. A thing not from the stark hills but the primeval forest; a gnarled mind in a youthful body, crooked as a root and as sinuous as a serpent.
Such did many good folk think, especially after making his acquaintance. None could fault the general, after taking his leave, for the courtesy of his manner or the propriety of his conduct. A good-humored man, none could deny; though many, after taking his leave, wondered if the humor was at their expense. But they kept their suspicions muted, if not silent. For there always remained this thought, that whatever the state of his mind, there was no mistaking the state of his body.
Deadly with a blade, was Belisarius. And even the cataphracts, in their cups, spoke of
his lance and his bow.
It was to the house of this man, then, and his Jezebel wife, that Michael of Macedonia and his friend the bishop brought their message, and the thing which bore it.
Spring, 528 ad
Upon being awakened by his servant Gubazes, Belisarius arose instantly, with the habit of a veteran campaigner. Antonina, at his side, emerged from sleep more slowly. After hearing what Gubazes had to say, the general threw on a tunic and hastened from his bedroom. He did not wait for Antonina to get dressed, nor even take the time to strap on his sandals.
Such strange visitors at this hour could not be kept waiting. Anthony Cassian, Bishop of Aleppo, was a friend who had visited on several occasions—but never at midnight.
And as for the other—Michael of Macedonia?
Belisarius knew the name, of course. It was a famous name throughout the Roman Empire. Famous—and loved—by the common folk. To the high churchmen who were
the subject of Michael's occasional sermons, the name was notorious—and not loved in
the slightest. But the general had never met the man personally. Few people had, in truth, for the monk had lived in his desert cave for years now.
As he walked down the long corridor to the salon, Belisarius heard voices coming from the room ahead. One voice he recognized as that of his friend the bishop. The other voice he took to be that of the monk.
"Belisarius," hissed the unfamiliar voice.
The next voice was that of Anthony Cassian, Bishop of Aleppo:
"Like you, Michael, I believe this is a message from God. But it is not a message for us."
"He is a soldier."
"Yes, and a general to boot. All the better."
"He is pure of spirit?" demanded the harsh, unforgiving voice. "True in soul? Does he walk in the path of righteousness?"
"Oh, I think his soul is clean enough, Michael," replied Cassian gently. "He married a whore, after all. That speaks well of him."
The bishop's voice grew cold. "You, too, old friend, sometimes suffer from the sin of the Pharisees. The day will come when you will be thankful that the hosts of God are
commanded by one who, if he does not match the saints in holiness, matches the Serpent himself in guile."
A moment later, Belisarius entered the room. He paused for a moment, examining the two men who awaited him. They, in turn, studied the general.
Anthony Cassian, Bishop of Aleppo, was a short, plump man. His round, cheerful face was centered on a sharply curved nose. Beneath a balding head, his beard was full and neatly groomed. He reminded Belisarius of nothing so much as a friendly, well-fed, intelligent owl.
Michael of Macedonia, on the other hand, brought to mind the image of a very different bird: a gaunt raptor soaring through the desert sky, whose pitiless eyes missed nothing below him. Except, thought the general wryly, for the straggliness of his own great beard and the disheveled condition of his tunic, matters which were quite beneath the holy man's notice.
The general's gaze was returned by the monk's blue-eyed glare. A crooked little smile came to Belisarius' lips.
"You might want to keep him hooded, Bishop, before he slaughters your doves."
Cassian laughed. "Oh, well said! Belisarius, let me introduce you to Michael of Macedonia."
Belisarius cocked an eyebrow. "An odd companion at this hour—or at any hour, from
Belisarius stepped forward and extended his hand. The Bishop immediately shook it. The monk did not. But, as Belisarius kept the hand outstretched, Michael began to consider. Outstretched the hand was, and outstretched it remained. A large hand, well shaped and sinewy; a hand which showed not the slightest tremor as the long seconds passed. But it was not the hand which, finally, decided the man of God. It was the calmness of the brown eyes, which went so oddly with the youthful face. Like dark stones, worn smooth in a stream.
Michael decided, and took the hand.
A small commotion made them turn. In the doorway stood a woman, yawning, dressed in a robe. She was very short, and lush figured.
Michael had been told she was comely, for a woman of her years, but now he saw the telling was a lie. The woman was as beautiful as rain in the morning, and her years were the richness of the water itself.
Her beauty repelled him. Not, as it might another holy man, for recalling the ancient Eve. No, it repelled him, simply, because he was a contrary man. And he was so, because he had found all his life that what men said was good, was not; what they said was true, was false; and what they said was beautiful, was hideous.
Then, the woman's eyes caught him. Eyes as green as the first shoots of spring. Bright, clear eyes in a dusky face, framed by ebony hair.
Michael considered, and knew again that men lied.
"You were right, Anthony," he said harshly. He staggered slightly, betrayed by his weak limbs. A moment later the woman was at his side, assisting him to a couch.
"Michael of Macedonia, no less," she said softly, in a humorous tone. "I am honored.
Though I hope, for your sake, you were not seen entering. At this hour—well! My
reputation is a tatter, anyway. But yours!"
"All reputation is folly," said Michael. "Folly fed by pride, which is worse still."
"Cheerful fellow, isn't he?" asked Cassian lightly. "My oldest and closest friend, though I sometimes wonder why."
He shook his head whimsically. "Look at us. He, with his shaggy mane and starveling body; me, with my properly groomed beard and—well. Slender, I am not." A grin.
"Though, for all my rotundity, let it be noted that I, at least, can still move about on my own two legs."
Michael smiled, faintly. "Anthony has always been fond of boasting. Fortunately, he is also clever. A dull-witted Cassian would find nothing to boast about. But he can always find something, buried beneath the world's notice, like a mole ferreting out worms."
Belisarius and Antonina laughed.
"A quick-witted Stylite!" cried the general. "My day is made, even before the sun rises."
Suddenly solemn, Cassian shook his head.
"I fear not, Belisarius. Quite the contrary. We did not come here to bring you sunshine, but to bring you a sign of nightfall."
"Show him," commanded Michael.
The bishop reached into his cassock and withdrew the thing. He held it forth in his
Belisarius stooped slightly to examine the thing. His eyes remained calm. No
expression could be seen on his face.
Antonina, on the other hand, gasped and drew back.
Anthony shook his head. "I do not think so, Antonina. Or, at least, not the craft of black magic."
Curiosity overrode her fear. Antonina came forward. As short as she was, she did not have to stoop to scrutinize the thing closely.
"I have never seen its like," she whispered. "I have never heard of its like. Magic
gems, yes. But this—it resembles a jewel, at first, until you look more closely. Or a crystal. Then—within—it is like—"
She groped for words. Her husband spoke:
"So must the sun's cool logic unfold, if we could see beneath its roiling fury."
"Oh, well said!" cried Cassian. "A poetic general! A philosophical soldier!"
"Enough with the jests," snapped Michael. "General, you must take it in your hand."
The calm gaze transferred itself to the monk.
For a moment, the raptor glare manifested itself. But only for a moment. Uncertainly, Michael lowered his head.