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Belisarius 05 - The Tide of Victory

By Jeanette Simpson,2014-06-10 23:28
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Belisarius 05 - The Tide of Victory

The Tide of VictoryThe Tide of Victory

    David Drake

PROLOGUE

    Knowing what to expect, the two sisters had already disrobed by the time their

    new owner returned to his tent. The older sister's infant was asleep on the

    pallet. The sisters were a bit concerned that the ensuing activities would

    awaken himthe pallet was small and thin, oddly so for such an obviously wealthy

    manbut not much. The baby was accustomed to the noise, after all, having spent

    the first year of his life in a brothel crib.

    Unless, of course, their new owner was given to bizarre tastes and habits . . .

    That was the real source of the sisters' anxiety. For all its foulness, the

    brothel had at least been fairly predictable. Now, for the first time since

    their enslavement, they faced an entirely new situation. Newand

    unsettling.

    Their new owner had said nothing to them, other than commanding them into his

    tent after his caravan stopped for the night.

    But, as they waited, they took solace in the fact that they were still together.

    Against all odds, they had managed to keep from being separated during the long

    years of their captivity. Apparently, it tickled their new owner's fancy to have

    sisters for his concubines. They would see to it that he was satisfied with the

    result. In that manner, they might preserve the remaining fragment of their

    family.

    So it was, when their new owner pushed back the flap and entered the tent, that

    he found the sisters reclining nude on the pallet. The fact that they were

    holding hands was the only indication that any uneasiness lurked beneath their

sensual poses.

    Standing still and straight a few feet from the pallet, he studied them for a

    moment. The sisters found the scrutiny unsettling. They could detect nothing of

    lust in that gaze. For all the natural warmth of the man's dark brown eyes,

    there seemed to be little if any warmth in the eyes themselves. And not a trace

    of animal heat.

    That was odd. Odder, even, than the austerity of the pallet and the tent's

    furnishings. Their new owner was obviously as healthy as he was rich. He was not

    especially tall, but his broad shoulders and lean hips were those of a

    physically active man. And there was something almost feline about the way he

    moved. Very poised, very balanced, very quick.

    "Stand up," he commanded abruptly.

    The sisters obeyed instantly. They were accustomed to inspection by prospective

    customers. As soon as they were on their feet, both of them assumed familiar

    poses. Languid, sensual, inviting. But they were still holding hands. "Not like that," he said softly. "Just stand straight. And turn around slowly."

    His thin lips curved into a smile. "I'm afraid you'll have to stop holding hands

    for a bit."

    Flushing slightly, the sisters obeyed.

    "Slower," he commanded. "And lift up your arms so I can see your entire bodies."

    This was not customary. The uneasiness of the sisters mounted. The last characteristic that slave prostitutes wanted to see in a new customer was

    different. But, of course, they obeyed.

    In the long minutes which followed, the sisters found it increasingly difficult

    to keep the worry out of their faces. Their new owner seemed to be subjecting

    every inch of their bodies to a detailed and exhaustive scrutiny. As if he were

    trying to commit them to memory.

    "Which of these scars are from your childhood?" he asked. His voice was soft and

    low-pitched. But the sisters took no comfort in that mild tone. This was a man,

    clearly enough, who had no need to raise his voice for the simple reason that

    command came easily to him. He would not be denied, whatever he wanted. Which,

    again, was not a characteristic which slave prostitutes treasured in their

    customers. Especially new and unknown ones.

    They were so startled by the unexpected question that they did not respond

    immediately. Instead, they exchanged a quick and half-frightened glance.

    Seeing the glance, their new owner's face broke into another smile. But this one

    was not thin at all, and seemed to have some actual humor in it. "Be at ease. I have no intention of adding any new scars to the collection. It

    is simply information which I must have."

    The smile disappeared and the question was asked again. This time, with firm

    command. "Which scars?"

    Hesitantly, the younger sister lifted her left leg and pointed to a scar on her

    knee. "I got this one falling out of a tree. My father was furious with me."

    Their owner nodded. "He would know of it, then? Good. Are there any other such?

    Did he beat you afterward? And, if so, are there any marks?" The sisters looked at each other. Then, back at their owner. "He never beat us," whispered the older. "Not once."

    "Our mother did," added the younger sister. She was beginning to relax a bit.

    Enough that she managed a little chuckle. "Very often. But not very hard. I

    can't remember even being bruised."

    The man shook his head. "What kind of silly way is that to raise children? Especially girls?" But the question was obviously rhetorical. The smile was back

    on his face, and for the first time the sisters detected the whimsical humor

    which seemed to reside somewhere inside the soul of their new owner.

    He stepped up to the older sister and touched her cheek with his forefinger.

    "That is the worst scar. It almost disfigures your face. How did you get it?"

    "From the brothel-keeper."

    The man's eyes widened slightly. "Stupid," he mused. "Bad for business." "He was very angry with me. I" She shuddered, remembering. "The new customer

    hadunusual demands. I refused"

    "Ah." With a light finger, he traced the scar from the ear to the corner of her

    mouth.

    "I think he forgot he was wearing that huge ring when he slapped me." "Ah. Yes, I remember the ring. Probably the same one he was wearing when we

    conducted our transaction. A large ruby, set in silver?" She nodded.

    "Excellent," he said. "Easy for you to remember, then." He turned to the younger sister. Placing one hand on her shoulder, he rotated

    her partway around. With the forefinger of his other hand, he traced the faint

    lines across her back.

    "These are your worst. How?"

    She explained. It was a similar story, except the individual involved had been

    the chief pimp instead of the brothel-keeper, and the instrument had been a whip

    rather than a ring.

    "Ah. Yes, I believe I met him also. Rather short, squat. The little finger of

    his left hand is missing?"

    The two sisters nodded. He returned the nods with a curt one of his own.

    "Excellent, also."

    He stepped back a pace or two. "Can either of you write?" The sisters were now utterly confused. This man was the weirdest customer they

    had ever encountered. But

    So far, at least, he did not seem dangerous. The younger sister spoke first.

    "Not very well."

    "Our father taught us a bit," added the older sister. "But it's been a long

time. Several years."

    Both of the sisters, for the first time, found it almost impossible to maintain

    their poise. Memories of their father were flooding back. Their eyes were moist.

    The man averted his gaze, for a moment. The sisters took advantage of the

    opportunity to quickly pinch the tears away. It would not do to offend their new

    owner.

    They heard him snort softly. "Taught his daughters! Scandalous, what it is."

    Another soft snort. Again, the sisters thought to detect that strange whimsical

    humor. "But what else would you expect from"

    He broke off abruptly and looked back at them.

    "In a few days, you will write a letter. As best you can." Seeing the uncertainty in their faces, he waved his hand idly. "I am not concerned if the

    handwriting is poor. All the better, in fact."

    His eyes moved to the pallet, and then to the baby asleep to one side. "It will

    be crowded, with the four of us." Again, the thin smile. "But there's no help

    for it, I'm afraid. Appearances must be maintained."

    Moving with that unsettling ease and speed, he glided past them and reclined on

    the pallet. He was lying on the opposite side from the infant. He patted the

    middle of the pallet with his hand.

    "Come, girls. Sleep. It has been a long day, and tomorrow will be longer. And

    the days after, as well. We have a considerable distance to travel." Quickly, the sisters did as they were told. After the confusion of the preceding

    minutes, they almost found comfort in this familiar process. Not quite. The younger sister lay next to him. The gesture of protection for the older came

    automatically to her. The two of them had protected each other for years, as

    best they could. If she exhausted him, he might be satisfied. Her sister's

    infant would not be disturbed.

    Their new owner was still fully clothed. She began to stroke his chest,

her

    fingers working at the laces.

    Her hand was immobilized by his own. The man's grip was gentle enough, but she

    could sense the iron muscles and sinews in his hand.

    "No," he said softly. "That is all finished. Just sleep." He moved her hand

    away.

    Uncertainly, she obeyed. She stared at his profile. He was not a handsome man,

    not in the least. His face was lean and tightly drawn. High cheekbones, a

    sharply curved nose, thin lips below a thin mustache, clean-shaven cheeks so

    taut they seemed more like leather than flesh. Except for the mustache, he

    reminded her more of a bird of prey than a man.

    But she found herself relaxing, despite his fearsome appearance. His voice was

    soft, after all. And she had never been abused by a bird. His eyes were closed. "Finished," he repeated. "There will be no more scars."

    * * *

    Two days later, at daybreak, he arose from the pallet with his usual energy. The

    sisters had become accustomed to his way of moving. They no longer even found it

    frightening.

    "Enough time has elapsed," he announced. "I will be gone for a few days. Three,

    perhaps four."

    His words brought instant fear. The younger sister's eyes moved immediately to

    the tent flap. The older sister, suckling her infant at her breast, did not look

    up. But her sudden indrawn breath was quite audible.

    Their new owner shook his head. "Have no fear. The soldiers in my escort will

    not molest you. I have given them clear instructions."

    He turned away and began to push back the flap of the tent. "They will obey

    those instructions. You can be quite certain of it."

    Then, he was gone. The sisters stared at each other. After a few seconds, their

    tension eased. They still did not know their new owner's name, since he had not

    provided it. But they were coming to know him. Well enough, at least. Yes. His instructions would be obeyed. Even by soldiers. * * *

    He returned at midmorning, three days later. When he entered the tent, he was

    carrying a leather sack in one hand and a roll of leather in the other. Once

    flattened on the floor of the tent, the leather roll measured perhaps eighteen

    inches square.

    "Should be big enough to prevent a mess," he murmured. He jerked his head,

    motioning the sisters toward him, while he untied the sack. When they were squatting next to him, their new owner spilled the sack's contents onto the piece of flat leather.

    He had gauged correctly, and grunted his satisfaction. Even with the addition of

    the fluid pooled at the bottom of the sack, the two objects did not leak blood

    onto the floor.

    Both hands had been severed at the wrist, as if by a razor. Or

    The sisters glanced at the dagger scabbarded to their owner's waist. They had

    seen him shave with it, every day. He shaved with the quick and sure motions

    with which he did everythingexcept honing the blade. That, he seemed to enjoy

    lingering over.

    One hand was plump. The middle finger sported a large silver ring, with a great

    ruby set at its center. The other hand was thick and stubby. The little finger

    was missing.

    He rose and moved to one of the chests against the side of the tent. Opening it,

    he withdrew a small piece of vellum and writing equipment. "And now, the letter."

    * * *

    Long before the sisters had finished, they were sobbing fiercely. Their new

    owner did not chide them for it. Indeed, he seemed obscurely satisfied. As if

    the tears staining the words and causing the letters to run added something

    valuable to the message.

    When they were done, he began to roll up the vellum. But the younger sister

    stopped him.

    "Wait. There is something we can put in it." She hurried to the far side of the

    pallet and began plucking apart the threads along the seam. Her older sister

    opened her mouth, as if to protest. But whatever protest she might have made

    went unspoken. Indeed, by the time her sister had extracted the object hidden

    within the pallet, she was smiling. "Yes," she whispered. "Yes." The younger sister came back to their owner and, shyly, extended her hand.

    Nestled in the palm was a bright golden coin.

    "It's all we have," she said. "He won't recognize it, of course, because we got

    it after" She fell silent, fighting back further tears. "But still"

    The man plucked the coin out of her hand and held it up for inspection. Within

    seconds, he was chuckling softly.

    "Freshly minted Malwa imperial coin. I wonder"

    Smiling, he tucked the coin into the vellum and rolled it up. Then, quickly

    folding it further, he began tying it up with cord. As he worked, he spoke

    softly, as if to himself.

    "I wonder . . . Ha! Probably not, of course. But wouldn't that be a delicious

    irony?"

    The work done, he transferred the smile to the sisters. They had no difficulty,

    any longer, recognizing the humor in it. "I'm a man who appreciates such things,

    you know."

    They nodded, smiling themselves.

    His own smile faded. "I am not your friend, girls. Never think so. But, perhaps,

    I am not your enemy either."

    He lifted the package and hefted it slightly. "We will discover which, one of

these days."

    The older sister sighed. "It's not finished, then?"

    Their owner's smile returned, this time with more of bright cheer than whimsy.

    "Finished? I think not!"

    He was actually laughing, now. For the first time since they had entered his

    possession.

    "I think not! The game has just begun!"

    * * *

    In the days, weeks and months to come, that packageand the ones which

    went with

    itwould cause consternation, three times over. And glee, once. * * *

    The consternation came in ascending degrees. The least concerned were the

    soldiers who investigated the murder and mutilation of a brothel-keeper and his

    chief pimp.

    "Who cares who did it?" yawned the officer in charge of the squad. "Plenty more

    where they came from."

    He turned away from the bed where the brothel-keeper's body had been found. The

    linen was still soaked with blood from a throat slit to the bone. "Maybe a

    competitor. Or it could have been a pissed-off customer." It was apparent, from

    the bored tone of his voice, that he had no intention of pursuing the matter

    further.

    The pimp who had succeeded to the brothel's uncertain ownership sighed. "No

    problem, then?" He fought very hard to keep satisfaction out of his own voice.

    He was quite innocent of the murders, as it happened, but as the obvious suspect

    . . .

    "Not that I can see," stated the officer firmly. Just as firmly, he stared at

    the new brothel-keeper.

    "On the house!" that worthy announced promptly. "You and all your men! For a

    full day!"

The officer grinned. "Case closed."

    * * *

    There was more consternation, a few days later, when the murderer reported to

    his master.

    "You idiot," growled Narses. "Why in the name of God did you kill them? We don't

    need any attention being drawn. A simple slave purchase, all it was. Happens

    every day."

    "So do brothel killings," came the retort. Ajatasutra shrugged. "Three reasons.

    First, I thought the hands would lend a nice touch to the package. Proof of good

    intentions, so to speak."

    Narses snorted. "God help us. You're pretending to think." He displayed his

    inimitable sneer. "His daughters have been hopelessly polluted. What difference

    does it makeyou're Indian yourself, you know how it worksthat a couple

    of the

    polluters are dead? How many hundreds are still alive?" "You might be surprised. Purity is one thing, the satisfaction of vengeance is

    another. Even we heathen Hindus are not immune to that. Even a philosopher like

    him will feel a twitch, as much harm as he knows that will do to his karma."

    Ajatasutra leaned forward in his chair, stretching his arms and arching his

    back. He seemed to take as much pleasure in the supple movements as a cat.

    "Secondly, I've gotten out of practice." Half-growling: "Your methods are too

    damned subtle to keep an assassin's skills properly honed." Again, Narses snorted. "Pimps."

    Ajatasutra's lips twisted into a wry grin. "Best I could find." The grin faded.

    When it was completely gone, his still and expressionless face seemed more like

    that of a hawk on a limb than a man in a chair.

    "And, finally. I felt like it."

    Narses said nothing. He neither snorted nor sneered.

    * * *

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