The hooting of an owl shattered the stillness, disturbing the flow of the chill night air.
“Have you not met Narses since then?”
In response to Arslan’s query, Dariun nodded. They were traversing a mountain trail in the deep of night. The light of the half moon through the needled branches of the conifers cast the two riders and their horses in pale silver.
“Nevertheless, if that’s all there was to the matter, I do not believe my lord father would have exiled him permanently from court. Was there nothing else to it?”
“The truth is…”
When he absconded from court, Narses left behind a letter for King Andragoras. As Dariun’s uncle Vahriz put it, this was a rather uncalled for gesture. Nonetheless, in it Narses had written out a critique of the rampant corruption within the administration — of putting a halt to the priests’ moneylending, of entrusting management of the kariz to peasant representatives, of instituting a justice system unaffected by rank or position, and other such suggestions.
O my liege, I beg you: open your eyes and bear witness to the true condition of your government! If only you were to look past that which is beautiful on the surface and face the ugly reality beneath, what a blessing that would be!
“Hmph, that bastard Narses! So he forgets the appointment We bestowed upon him and remonstrates with me in his conceit!”
The enraged Andragoras tore up the letter and ordered Narses’s arrest, but between Vahriz’s mollification and the fact that Narses had by then returned to his domains in Dailam, his fury subsided. All injunctions were dismissed but for the banishment from court, which suited Narses just fine. Secluding himself in a cottage in the mountains, he lived alone in peace, immersed in his painting and his foreign literature…
“Narses enjoys painting?”
Arslan’s question had been intended only as a cursory remark, but Dariun’s reply did not seem to be quite so negligible.
“Well, every man must have his vice.” On receiving a confused glance from the prince, he continued in a somewhat exasperated tone, “If one really must speak of it, it can only be described as an extreme case of passion in ineptitude. That man — when it comes to the movements of the heavens, the geography of distant lands, and the changing tides of history, there is nothing he does not know. However, in this one subject alone, the matter of his own artistic ability…”
A sudden whooshing noise pierced through the night. A pale sliver of light skimmed across their vision and stabbed into the trunk of a conifer. The horses whinnied in distress. Even as the two of them soothed their mounts, their eyes fell upon the single arrow buried in the trunk of the tree, glimmering in the moonlight.
“Take one more step, and the next one’ll find your face!”
From the dark depths of the forest echoed the voice of a boy who could only be about Arslan’s age.
“Beyond here lies the residence of my master Narses, the former lord of Dailam. No one is permitted past this boundary uninvited. Back off if you don’t want to be hurt!”
Dariun called out, “Elam, is that you? It’s Dariun! I’ve come to call upon your master, whom I’ve not seen in three years. Will you not let us pass?”
After a few beats of silence, the shadows rustled, and a human figure emerged in approach.
“Why, Lord Dariun, long time no see. Forgive me for not recognizing you!”
A youth with quiver slung over his back and short bow in hand bowed to Dariun. His uncovered hair shone black in the moonlight.
“I see you’ve grown. Is your master in good health?”
“Yes, very much so.”
“Same as ever then, I suppose, idling away his days with his unpresentable painting?”
The youth made a considering expression.
“What makes art good or bad, I don’t really understand. My folks’ last request was for me to take care of Lord Narses, that’s all. After all, Lord Narses was the one who raised them from ghulam to azat.”
The youth led the pair of them down the dark mountain trail. His night vision must have been most excellent, for his steps were not only light, but sure.
A cottage with a triangular roof made of stone and wood had been erected right at the edge of the forest before the grassy clearing beyond. Below the clearing burbled a stream, and overhead, the sky danced with stars. As the three of them neared, the door flung open, and light spilled out onto the ground. The youth, breaking into a run, lowered his head before his master. Dariun, too, dismounted from his black horse and called out.
“Narses, it’s me, Dariun!”
“No need to announce yourself, you noisy fellow. I could hear you from a farsang away.”
The master of the cottage was no Dariun, but he was nonetheless tall and blessed with a well-proportioned body. He had a pleasant, intellectual sort of face, and despite his wicked tongue, his eyes were filled with warmth and laughter. He looked to be about a year younger than Dariun. His blue tunic and matching trousers gave off an impression of unaffected youth.
“Narses, this here is…”
“I am Arslan, the son of King Andragoras. I’ve heard quite a bit about you from Dariun.”
“My, is that so? I’m afraid I’ve dirtied your noble ears.” Narses laughed and bowed, then turned to face the youth. “Elam, if it’s not too much trouble, would you mind bringing our guests here some refreshments?”
The diligent youth led their two horses to the back of the cottage before heading to the kitchen. In the meantime, both Arslan and Dariun shed their armor. Though they should not have yet reached the point of fatigue, their bodies felt conspicuously lighter.
Now the young page, or retak, came bearing large platters. Grape wine, stewed bird, flatbread smeared in honey, skewers of grilled mutton and onion, cheese, dried apples, dried figs, dried apricots, and all sorts of other savory scents wafted through the air, whetting Arslan and Dariun’s appetites. Come to think of it, not only had there never been a day until now in which they had depleted so much of their bodily reserves, they hadn’t eaten a thing since breaking fast that morning.
After seating themselves at a low wooden table, they focused wholeheartedly on the food for some time. While Elam waited on them, Narses sipped leisurely at a glass of wine and watched on, as if marveling at their appetites.
When all the food that had been laid out on the table was now settled in the guests’ stomachs, Elam tidied up the tableware, brought out the post-meal green tea, then bowed to Narses and retired to his own room.
“Thanks to your hospitality, I feel returned to my senses. I owe you my gratitude.”
“No need for thanks, Your Highness Arslan. I once received ten thousand dinars from your lord father. Today’s meal hardly even amounts to a drachm, you know.”
Narses laughed when he saw the look on his old friend Dariun’s face.
“Well, then. I’m already aware of your general circumstances, but let’s hear the details now. Our armies suffered a great loss at Atropatene, didn’t they?”
As Dariun related the circumstances of the battle at Atropatene, Narses slurped at his tea and listened. Upon reaching the part about Qaran’s betrayal, his brows narrowed, but he did not otherwise express any surprise at the Lusitanians’ tactics.
“The primary asset of a cavalry is its mobility. If one wishes to overcome that, the only possible strategy is to seal their movements. Encircling with ditches and fences, setting fires, taking advantage of fog. Even using a traitor. There must be some wise fellow among those Lusitanian barbarians, eh?”
“Yes, there must be. Therefore I wish to borrow your wisdom in turn, for Prince Arslan’s sake.”
“Now, Dariun, you have come a long way indeed. However, I no longer harbor any desire for nor attachment to worldly matters.”
“But surely it is far better than holing away in the mountains doodling those crappy pictures of yours!”
At the mention of “crappy pictures,” Narses’s expression turned sullen.
“I can already imagine what this Dariun fellow means to say. You mustn’t give him any credence, Your Highness. This fellow may be a peerless warrior of our nation, and can indeed be quite principled and discerning, but he possesses not even the slightest whit of artistic sensibility. Truly, it is most deplorable.”
Dariun was about to protest, but Narses raised a hand to silence him.
“Art is eternal. The rise and fall of nations, a fleeting instant.”
The solemnity of Narses’s pronouncement moved his company. Arslan, taken aback, remained silent; Dariun cast aside his usual gravity and grinned. Or perhaps, more accurately, he could not help but smile.
Recovering himself, the prince said, “Even if this is one of those instants you speak of, we cannot simply cross our arms and do nothing. Please, Narses. I would like to hear your thoughts on this matter.”
“Well, if it’s my thoughts you want… The Lusitanians believe in Ialdabaoth, their one true god. On one hand, all believers are equal in the eyes of this god. On the other hand, all believers are enjoined to wipe the followers of other religions from the face of the earth. This I heard from Maryamian travelers, but in all likelihood they too are now no more than corpses of so-called heretics buried in the wilds and mountains of Ecbatana.”
“I shall not allow the followers of this god to succeed in their aim. How do you think this should best be handled?”
“At this point, Your Highness Arslan, it is too late to do anything. His Majesty your father ought to have abolished the institution of ghulam altogether. What reason do those oppressed by a nation have, to fight for the sake of said nation?”
Narses’s voice was tinged with fervor. A change had occurred at some point. His heart was no longer that of a hermit who had forsaken the world.
“What happens next can already be foreseen. The Lusitanian army will encourage the slaves to convert to the Ialdabaothan faith, and grant freedom to those who do so. If they are then given arms and incited to action, acting in concert with the Lusitanians, Pars shall be annihilated. After all, the ghulam far outnumber both the nobles and the priests.”
As Narses concluded rather cynically with this ominous prediction, Arslan, swelling with unease, raised an objection.
“However, Ecbatana shall not fall. Last year, when the great armies of Misr laid siege to the capital, it did not even waver in the slightest.”
Narses looked at the prince with pity.
“Your Highness, even Ecbatana has not long left. Indeed, the gates of the capital shall not be brought down so easily by fire arrow or battering ram. However, external attacks are hardly the only viable tactic in warfare, you see.”
“You mean, if the ghulam in the capital were to cooperate with the Lusitanians?”
“Exactly, Dariun. The Lusitanians will no doubt appeal to them from outside: ‘O slaves of the city! Rise up and cast down your oppressors! Our god Ialdabaoth promises you all freedom and equality! Both lands and riches are yours for the taking!’ Something like that’d be pretty effective, wouldn’t you say?”
After a brief glance at Arslan, who seemed to be mulling deeply over something in silence as if he had swallowed his voice, Dariun inquired after possible countermeasures to such a scenario.
“Ah, that’s right, I suppose we could promise the ghulam soldiers that of course they would also be raised to azat as a reward for doing well in battle. That ought to work for a while. But it wouldn’t last long, eh?”
“I intend to return to Ecbatana before then,” said the prince. “Narses, please. Will you not lend us your wisdom after all?”
Narses averted his gaze from the prince’s earnest eyes.
“I am truly sorry, Your Highness, but it is my intent to seclude myself in these mountains and dedicate the rest of my days to the creation of Art. I already hold no more concern for the world outside this mountain. Please do not think ill of me — no, even if you should, it cannot be helped…”
Dariun shoved aside his teacup on the table.
“Narses! Is there not an excellent line that goes, ‘Apathy is but a breeding ground for Evil; ’tis no ally of Good’?”
“Excellent? Pretentious, rather. Who said it?”
“Why, you did, Narses. When we were drinking together, the night before I left for Serica.”
“… That certainly is some worthless drivel you’ve remembered.”
Narses tutted in disapproval, but Dariun persisted.
“It’s said that the Lusitanians massacre all non-worshippers of their god Ialdabaoth. Don’t you think it’s doubtful that a people who would discriminate thus in their god’s name would truly have any intent to emancipate the ghulam?”
“Even if that is so, a slave would certainly choose to be released from the undeniable dissatisfactions of the present, rather than the uncertain horrors of the future.”
Having so declared, Narses turned to face the prince. “Your Highness Arslan, I am not in your lord father’s favor. If you insist on employing me as an adviser, it shall only deepen his displeasure. I daresay that won’t do you much good.”
Looking terribly young and so very unlike his father the king, the prince allowed a bitter smile to flash across his delicate face.
“That is not an issue. I myself have never been in my lord father’s favor. And Dariun here has also fallen from my lord father’s esteem. In any case, we are all of us fellows in his dislike. Is that not so?”
Was this prince truly so unaffectedly honest? Or was he just at a rebellious stage? Narses gave him a brief, considering glance. Arslan met his gaze with a starched, utterly guiltless expression, upon which Narses let out a small sigh.
“Whether in war or in politics, all fades to ash in the end. That alone which survives through posterity is the work of a Great Master. Truly I am aware of how rude this must seem, but I absolutely cannot make any promises about leaving this mountain. But if there is any way I might serve you during your stay here…”
“I understand. I apologize for needlessly pressing the matter.”
Arslan smiled gently. Then, weariness settling suddenly onto his face, he yawned.