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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.


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