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Chapter 1

Aleppo
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 his reputation."


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 outstretched hand.


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.


"Witchcraft!"


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.


"Why?"


For a moment, the raptor glare manifested itself. But only for a moment. Uncertainly, Michael lowered his head.


"I do not know why. The truth? You must do it because my friend Anthony Cassian said you must. And of all men that I have ever known, he is the wisest. Even if he is a cursed churchman."


Belisarius regarded the bishop.


"Why then, Cassian?"


The bishop gazed down at the thing in his palm, the jewel that was not a jewel, the gem without weight, the crystal without sharpness, the thing with so many facets—and, he thought, so many more forming and reforming—that it seemed as round as the perfect sphere of ancient Greek dreams.


Anthony shrugged. "I cannot answer your question. But I know it is true."


The bishop motioned toward the seated monk.


"It first came to Michael, five days ago, in his cave in the desert. He took the thing in his hand and was transported into visions."


Belisarius stared at the monk. Antonina, hesitantly, asked: "And you do not think it is witchcraft?"


Michael of Macedonia shook his head.


"I am certain that it is not a thing of Satan. I cannot explain why, not in words spoken by men. I have—felt the thing. Lived with it, for two days, in my mind. While I lay unconscious to the world."


He frowned. "Strange, really. It seemed but a moment to me, at the time."


He shook his head again.


"I do not know what it is, but of this much I am sure. I found not a trace of evil in it, anywhere. It is true, the visions which came to me were terrible, horrible beyond description. But there were other visions, as well, visions which I cannot remember clearly. They remain in my mind like a dream you can't recall. Dreams of things beyond imagining."


He slumped back in his chair. "I believe it to be a message from God, Antonina. Belisarius. But I am not certain. And I certainly can't prove it."


Belisarius looked at the bishop.


"And what do you think, Anthony?" He gestured at the thing. "Have you—?"


The bishop nodded. "Yes, Belisarius. After Michael brought the thing to me, last night, and asked me for advice, I took it in my own hand. And I, too, was then plunged into vision. Horrible visions, like Michael's. But where two days seemed but a moment to him, the few minutes in which I was lost to the world seemed like eternity to me, and I was never seized by a paroxysm."


Michael of Macedonia suddenly laughed.


"Leave it to the wordiest man in creation to withstand a torrent like a rock!" he cried. He laughed again, almost gaily.


"But for just an instant, when he returned from his vision, I witnessed a true miracle! Anthony Cassian, Bishop of Aleppo, silent."


Cassian grinned. "It's true. I was positively struck dumb! I don't know what I expected when I took up the—thing—but certainly not what came to me, not even after Michael's warning. I sooner would have expected a unicorn! Or a seraph! Or a walking, wondrous creature made of lapis lazuli and beaten silver by the emperor's smiths, or—"


"A very brief miracle," snorted Michael. Cassian's mouth snapped shut.


Belisarius and Antonina grinned. The bishop's only known vice was that he was perhaps the most talkative man in the world.


But the grins faded soon enough.


"And what were your visions, Anthony?" asked Belisarius.


The bishop waved the question aside. "I will describe them later, Belisarius. But not now."


He stared down at the palm of his hand. The thing resting there coruscated inner fluxes too complex to follow.


"I do not think the—message—is meant for me. Or for Michael. I think it is meant for you. Whatever the thing is, Belisarius, it is an omen of catastrophe. But there is something else, lurking within. I sensed it when I took the thing in my own hand. Sensed it, and sensed it truly. A—a purpose, let us say, which is somehow aimed against that disaster. A purpose which requires you, I think, to speak."


Belisarius, again, examined the thing. No expression showed on his face. But his wife, who knew him best, began to plead.


Her pleas went unheard, for the thing was already in the soldier's hand. Then her pleas ceased, and she fell silent. For, indeed, the thing was like the sun itself, now, if a sun could enter a room and show itself to mortal men. And they, still live.


 


The spreading facets erupted, not like a volcano, but like the very dawn of creation. They sped, unfolding and doubling, and tripling, and then tripling and tripling and tripling, through the labyrinth that was the mind of Belisarius.


purpose became focus, and focus gave facets form.  


identity crystallized. With it, purpose metamorphosed into aim. And, if it had been within the capacity of aim to leap for joy, it would have gamboled like a fawn in the forest.


 


But for Belisarius, there was nothing; nothing but the fall into the Pit. Nothing but the vision of a future terrible beyond all nightmare.


 


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Framed