Upon noting the arrival of the prince and the Eran, King Andragoras’s expression grew even nastier. He knew exactly why his own son and his most valued retainer had come here in such a rush.
“My lord father…”
Arslan’s voice was instantly overpowered by one ten times its volume.
“What the hell are you doing here when I haven’t even called for you? This is no time for you to be poking your nose into other people’s business. Think of your own measly record! Now scram!”
Faced with words that closer resembled outright dismissal than true reprimand, Arslan could not help but give rise to feelings of resentment. Though what the king had said was not wrong, Arslan could not comprehend why his lord father insisted on treating him with such an attitude. In contrast, the king treated Arslan’s mother Queen Tahmineh with such warmth and tenderness, one could almost say he doted on her.
Twelve Marzbans in all served under Shah Andragoras III and Eran Vahriz in the armies of Pars. These twelve were named Saam, Qobad, Shapur, Garshasp, Qaran, Keshvad, Manuchehr, Bahman, Khwarshed, Kurup, Hayir, and Dariun. Among them, Keshvad and Bahman were stationed at the eastern border, Saam and Garshasp guarded the capital Ecbatana, and the remaining eight prepared to do battle alongside their king and the Eran at Atropatene. Each of these eight Marzbans commanded ten thousand horsemen. Including the king’s personal guard, the five thousand Athanatoi “Immortals”, the cavalry totaled 85,000 in all. All these men in addition to the infantry were currently arrayed upon the hazy plains.
As the crown prince, Arslan was in a position to someday take over command of these men as Shah. However, position and actual power were two different matters. At the moment, he was little more than a lowly officer who had been assigned a mere hundred cavalrymen. Of course, seeing as how this was his first time in battle, commanding even this number of subordinates would be no easy task. In fact, it was probably more accurate to consider those men his supervisors rather than his subordinates. Regardless, Father could at least allow me to voice my own opinions… So thought Arslan within his heart.
Vahriz, seeing that Arslan was at a loss for words, stepped forward in his place. But rather than speaking, he chose instead to take action. He strode over to his nephew. Then, suddenly, he raised his hand and smacked Dariun firmly in the face.
“You insolent little brat! Do you not realize your own position? How dare you talk back to your king!”
Dariun had only just opened his mouth to speak when he received another slap. Left with no further recourse, he heaved a great sigh and turned to the king, wordlessly lowering his head to the floor. Eran Vahriz knelt and bowed to the king as well.
“Your Majesty, allow this sack of old bones to beg your pardon in place of his foolish nephew. Please, have mercy! Forgive your old servant’s nephew for his transgressions!”
“That’s enough, Vahriz.”
Though the king spoke thus, his displeasure was made clear in his tone and expression. He had seen through the old man, and realized that the harsh rebuke of his nephew was actually a clever stratagem to protect him while allowing King Andragoras room to back down without losing face. Had the two parties’ mutual disgruntlement otherwise been allowed to continue causing friction under these circumstances, the scene might well have ended in an irreversible rift.
“Dariun!” King Andragoras addressed the young knight kneeling before him in a voice still brimming with wrath. “The dismissal from your post still stands! However, I shall give you a chance to recover your position! Should you perform well in the coming battle in the station of a regular cavalryman, I’ll take your record into account when I decide how to deal with you!”
“My lord is merciful. Thy servant is grateful,” said Dariun, clearly struggling for an appropriate response.
The king did not even bother to spare him a glance. Instead, he turned his cold gaze onto Arslan, who was standing awkwardly to the side.
“What are you still doing here?”
“Rest assured, Father. We shall leave at once.”
Having spoken thus, Arslan immediately exited the tent. Certainly his father the king was in a bad mood, but Arslan himself harbored discontent as well. It was more than obvious that King Andragoras had taken Vahriz’s feelings into consideration. But to his own son and heir, could he not display even the slightest bit of civility?
A rather contrite-looking Dariun caught up to them from behind.
“Please forgive me for causing Your Highness such trouble.”
“It’s fine. After all, what you said was not wrong, was it?”
“Yes, and Lord Qaran agrees with me as well. It is not my intention to push blame on another, but it was in fact he who first proposed that we speak our minds to the king.”
Arslan nodded, but his interest had already transferred to a different figure, one who was not currently present at all.
“Dariun, what kind of a person was Narses?”
“I counted him as a friend. To my knowledge, there exists no other man so wise as he.”
“What nonsense! A perverse, peculiar fellow, he was,” countered the Eran then with a single gibe.
With a spark of challenge in his eye, Dariun replied, “Uncle, did you not once claim yourself that Narses was the finest strategist in the entire kingdom? Or was that nonsense as well?”
“I speak of defects of personality, not defects of the mind.”
Watching the squabbling pair, Arslan could not help but feel a tinge of envy. It occurred to him suddenly what a happy thing it would be, if only he and his father could converse like this. With such passion and frankness. Feeling that he could not interpose himself between uncle and nephew any longer, Arslan turned his horse away.
The Eran bowed toward the prince’s departing back before continuing to berate his nephew. “Dariun, even if you wish to petition the king, you should choose your time wisely, you know? His Majesty finally acknowledged your talent and achievements and promoted you to Marzban. Yet now, with a single act, you’ve destroyed it all. Was it really worth it?”
“Yes, I know. There is a proper time for making petitions. But if I had waited until after we lost the battle, it would have been too late.”
With his king and his prince, Dariun had naturally held back. But with his own uncle, he had no such compunctions.
“Sir, I have no faith that I will even survive this battle! I am not so incredible that I’d be able to return as a ghost just to present my entreaties –“
The old but still quite robust Eran could not help but snort. “Don’t you spout such irritating nonsense. That Narses was the same. The moment he was convinced he was in the right, all restraint was gone. Nothing but blather from his mouth.”
Dariun had been about to say something else, but upon realizing that whatever he said would only be met by more digs from his uncle, he kept his silence.
The old man quickly changed the topic.
“Dariun, it’s been sixteen years now since I took on the mantle of Eran.”
“You were already Marzban when I was born.”
“Indeed! It’s certainly been a long time. Look, my beard’s already turned white.”
“But you still have a fine set of lungs!”
“What a cheeky brat you are! Oh, forget it. It’s about time for me to make way for the younger generation anyway.”
Upon seeing his nephew’s confusion, the old man said, in a brisk but measured tone, “You shall be the next Eran of the Kingdom of Pars. I informed the queen of my wishes before we set off from the capital.”
Dariun stared at his uncle in shock. “I appreciate your efforts, sir, but any decision regarding such matters is entirely at the behest of His Majesty the king. Not to mention the incident just now… Uncle, no matter what you say, there is simply no way the king will heed you now.”
“What are you talking about? Of course he’ll take heed. He’s well aware of your ability.”
The old man gave a slight yawn.
“Ah, that’s right, Dariun.”
“Hm?” Dariun leaned forward unconsciously in anticipation of what his uncle would say next.
“I’ve been observing Prince Arslan for quite a while now. What do you think of his looks?”
“Well, he has grown quite comely, I should think. In another two or three years, all the young noblewomen of the capital will be fighting tooth and claw over him. But, sir, why…”
“Who do you think His Highness takes after? The king or the queen?”
Dariun found himself perplexed at his uncle’s query. Surely neither beauty nor lack of it was an absolutely vital, indispensable quality in a ruler. So why was his uncle so concerned over such a detail?
“If you’re seriously asking, I suppose he takes more after the queen!”
To be more precise, it was not so much that the boy resembled the queen as it was that he didn’t resemble his father King Andragoras III. But as a mere vassal, that was hardly something Dariun could voice out loud.
“As I thought, he doesn’t take after His Majesty,” replied the Eran, nodding as if he had read his nephew’s mind. Indeed, were the boy to take after his father the king, the lines of his face would have to be rougher, sturdier, filled with more ferocity and vigor. The Eran continued, “Dariun, may I ask you to declare your loyalty to His Highness Arslan?”
The young warrior who had been, until just recently, a high-ranking officer in command of ten thousand men, looked back at his uncle incredulously. With such an important battle looming ahead, his uncle’s attitude was simply inexplicable.
“I have already pledged my loyalty to the royal family of Pars. And now you want me to swear an oath…”
“I mean to His Highness himself, Dariun.”
“I understand. If that is what you wish, Uncle…”
“Swear upon your sword?”
“I swear upon my sword!”
Having thus sworn, Dariun’s stoic expression spread into a thin, wry smile. He felt that his uncle had been a little too insistent regarding this matter. “Perhaps you would like me to sign a written pledge for you now, sir?”
“No, the oath was enough.”
On Vahriz’s face there was not the slightest hint of mirth. On the contrary, he wore an expression of keen intent and spoke with the utmost solemnity. Upon seeing this, Dariun was forced to relinquish his mordant mood.
“All I want is for you to serve as Prince Arslan’s companion. After all, not even a thousand cavalrymen can match up to one of you.”
“Sir…” Dariun could not help but raise his voice. If such was his beloved uncle’s wish, then naturally, he would accept it. However, that did not keep him from expressing his misgivings.
Just at that moment, a horn sounded, piercing through the thick fog to their very ears. The battle had begun. With an easy grace that belied his age, Vahriz spurred his horse toward the main column, and Dariun lost his chance to uncover his uncle’s true motives.