By the time Arslan awoke the next morning from a deep, dreamless slumber, the autumnal sun was already high overhead. It seemed rather embarrassing to be lazing around indulgently in bed despite all the hardship and difficulties he would no doubt be facing from now on. Bedding had been laid out on the floor, too, where Dariun seemed to have spent the night. Feeling that he had been cruelly monopolizing a great many privileges simply on account of being a king’s son, Arslan grew subdued. He dressed hastily and headed to the adjacent room, where it seemed Dariun and Narses had also only just awoken.
Just as the three of them were exchanging their greetings, from the outside there sounded the rumble of hoofbeats. Everyone inside tensed at once.
The window was open a crack. Dariun peered through, sweeping his gaze across the scene outside. Though he’d not had the time to don his armor, he had with one hand already drawn his sword from its scabbard.
“I’ve seen those faces before. Qaran’s men.”
“Oho…” Narses tapped his chin with a finger. “Well, aren’t they discerning — coming all the way here to search for you two. I suppose that’s Qaran for you, to have trained such excellent subordinates…”
Suddenly Narses snapped his mouth shut and sent a suspicious gaze toward Dariun. Dariun attempted an innocent expression, but Narses shrewdly pressed on.
“I’d forgotten to inquire until now, Dariun, but by which route did you come here?”
Aware of Arslan’s shocked stare affixed on his profile, Dariun shrugged his wide shoulders and offered a few place names.
“… Well, around thereabouts.”
“Right past Qaran’s stronghold!” groaned Narses, pitching a wild glare at Dariun’s face. “You scoundrel! You knew perfectly well there were other ways here, but purposely chose the one route you knew Qaran’s men would be watching! You meant to drag me into this from the start, to force me into becoming your ally, didn’t you!?”
Having been seen through, Dariun came clean at once.
“Forgive me, but I had no choice. All was for the sake of your genius. Now that we’ve come to this, Narses, you might as well give up on that hermit lifestyle of yours or whatever and come serve His Royal Highness!”
Narses growled again and kicked at the floor. He had no time to settle things with Dariun. He bade Arslan and Dariun climb up into the ceiling from the adjacent room, then pulled away the ladder. Elam’s voice echoed from the entrance.
“Lord Narses is still in slumber. I humbly request that you leave — ah, how rude!”
The door was forced open and Elam shoved aside as several soldiers stumbled in. When Narses had finished helping him back up, a total of six armored knights had entered. Each one rested a hand on his sword. No doubt they were aware of Narses’s reputation with a blade.
The middle-aged man who seemed to be the eldest of the six spoke up. “You are none other than the former lord of Dailam, Sir Narses, if I am not mistaken.”
“I am but an ordinary hermit.”
“You are Sir Narses, aren’t you!?”
“I am indeed Narses. However, having offered my name, I wonder if the other party might not identify themselves as well?”
Narses spoke in a voice so low he could barely be heard. For a moment the knights quailed, but on noticing that Narses carried no sword, they relaxed and became quite courteous.
“Our deepest apologies. We are here on the command of our lord, Eran Qaran of Pars.”
Up in the darkness of the ceiling, long-limbed Dariun twitched. Arslan, too, stopped breathing. Ever since King Andragoras’s accession, any mention of the Eran of Pars should have referred to Vahriz alone.
“Eran Qaran certainly has a nice ring to it. Be that as it may, the vicissitudes of the world truly are incommensurable. When I withdrew from court, the commander-in-chief of this country was still the doyen Vahriz, but perhaps the good elder has retired as well?”
Narses raised his voice so that the hiding Dariun and company could hear clearly of these developments.
“Or perhaps, you cannot mean that he has passed away…”
“Old man Vahriz has indeed kicked the bucket. And not of illness either. Even now, his wrinkled head lies rotting before the gates of Ecbatana, mouth hanging open, demanding the surrender of everyone in the city!”
A violent tremor jolted through Dariun’s body. The sound seeped through the thick panels of the ceiling, arousing the knights’ suspicions.
“What was that noise?”
“Wild rats, no doubt. They’re always coming in after my grain stores, the nuisances. Incidentally, might I inquire what purpose you have all come calling for, so early in the morning?”
In truth, there was no need for him to ask, but Narses made the inquiry regardless, deliberately and shamelessly playing dumb. The knights pursed their lips in displeasure.
“Several witnesses have stated that they saw the defeated commanders Arslan, as well as Dariun, fleeing toward these mountains. Was the Lord Narses not aware of this?”
“Well, not in the slightest.”
“You speak of defeated commanders, but to begin with, Dariun would never lose to anyone. As long as he did not encounter some incredibly ignoble treachery, that is.”
The knights’ expressions filled visibly with rage, but their representative restrained his comrades.
“In that case, I do have a single request to make of you. In the name of our lord Eran Qaran, I ask that Sir Narses consider entering into our lord’s employ. The honorable master’s ingenuity, in addition to his first-rate swordsmanship, place him highly in our lord’s regard…”
Narses stroked his chin, looking rather bored.
“Hm. In the event that I should become Qaran’s subordinate, what manner of compensation should I expect, I wonder?”
“All the privileges of a follower of Ialdabaoth.”
The silence dragged out.
“And as an expression of gratitude, you may also resume lordship over the territories of Dailam. What is your response?”
“Must I answer now?”
“By all means.”
An acerbic smile surfaced on Narses’s face.
“Well, then. Go back and tell that dog Qaran this: ‘Finish that rotten meat yourself. Narses finds it most unappetizing!'”
As soon as he had spoken, Narses swiftly leapt back. Too late, six furious blades came rushing at him. As it was six against one, the knights were surely confident in their victory. But that, too, lasted only for a moment.
The floorboards swung open, revealing a square area spanning about three gaz1. Howls of fury and dismay trailed behind the knights as they toppled deep into the ground beneath. There arose the sound of violent splashing and clattering armor. Apparently a pitfall had been dug out there and filled with water.
“Fools. Did you think I would not have made measures for entertaining discourteous or uninvited guests?”
Narses turned his back on them. A storm of curses hurled up from the shadowy depths, but Narses did not even spare them a glance as he called for Arslan and Dariun to come back down from the ceiling.
As Dariun walked in, he peeped into the darkness of the pit and said, “Those bastards can’t crawl back up, can they?”
“Not to worry. It’s about seven gaz from the surface of the water to the floor here. As long as they don’t hail from some clan of newts, they shan’t be climbing out any time soon. That said, whatever shall we do with these fellows?”
“If it’s true Uncle has been killed, the bastards are of a feather with my sworn enemies. For that — they shall pay.”
Dariun’s voice trembled dangerously. Narses made a contemplative gesture.
“Now, hold on there. Murder isn’t going to put any food on the table. Let’s think of something a little more useful.”
“Will they not drown?”
“Your Highness, there is no need for concern. The water is not even a gaz deep. As long as they don’t wish it, they shall most certainly not drown.”
At that moment, the youth Elam interrupted.
“Lord Narses, breakfast has been ready for some time now. What should we do?”
“Ah, I’d completely forgotten.”
Narses’s mouth stretched into a broad grin, as if he found this all quite amusing.
“First, let’s go fill our stomachs, shall we? We can deal with those rude fellows anytime, but there is, as they say, a proper time for repast!”
Whether this was a sign of audacity or of remarkable composure, or nothing but a simple matter of frivolity, his reasoning was difficult to argue against.
At any rate, they proceeded to breakfast. Arslan thought to help Elam in preparing the meal. It just didn’t seem right to sit around doing nothing while a boy his own age busied about. But Elam rejected Arslan’s proposal in polite terms, then bluntly excused himself. The implication, more or less, was that the prince would probably end up more hindrance than help.
In the end, Arslan directed all his attention into eating, but could not help but obsess over his own shortcomings regardless. Ever since the previous day, he had done nothing but accept help and support from other people, or to put it another way, it seemed he hadn’t done a thing for anyone else…
Narses suddenly picked up his emptied plate. With a flick of his wrist, he sent the plate flying right into the face of the knight who was just about to crawl out of the pit onto the floor. There was an angry, agonized groan, followed by the sound of armor crashing into water. Just as they’d finally made it out of the pit to the surface by lifting each other up on their shoulders, they were forced to fall right back to where they started.
“Your efforts are appreciated, but I’m afraid you’ll just have to try again,” said Narses with his wicked tongue.
“Lord Narses, please don’t abuse the dishes.”
“Oh, sorry, Elam, sorry.”
Scolded thus by his youthful retak, Narses rubbed the back of his neck in apologetic shame. It seemed that even for a man who did whatever he damn well pleased, there were occasions when he, too, could only meekly lower his head to another.
“Lord Dariun, it doesn’t seem you’ve touched much of the food. Should I make something else for you?”
“No, Elam, it’s fine. This is enough.”
All of a sudden Narses turned cross.
“No need to do anything for the likes of him. No thanks to this scoundrel, we must go searching for a new refuge now.”
“Then why don’t you just cut it out with all this talk of giving up on the world and…”
“Quiet, you traitor. You’ve no right to fuss over my peaceful lifestyle.”
Seeing that Narses had turned a deaf ear to whatever he might say, and indeed seemed to want to give him a piece of his own mind instead, Dariun simply lifted his broad shoulders in a shrug. That he so easily held his tongue was likely because he was busy thinking of how to interrogate the soldiers in the pit regarding his uncle’s death.
Arslan set down his soup spoon.
“Narses, will this do? I, too, beg you: please join Dariun in aiding me.”
“You are much too kind. However…”
“Then how about this? In exchange for your loyalty, I shall compensate you accordingly.”
“By compensation I suppose you mean something like the dinars your lord father bestowed upon me?”
“No. I do not believe money could buy your loyalty.”
“Rank, then? Framatar, perhaps?”
Narses’s only reaction seemed to be boredom. Written plainly across his entire face was the sentiment, Do I really look like the kind of man who can be bribed with wealth or position?
“That’s not it. When I have expelled the Lusitanian barbarians and become the king of Pars, I shall welcome you, Sir Narses, as my official court artist. How does that sound?”
Narses gaped at the prince. This had certainly fallen outside his expectations. A few beats of silence passed before he broke out in low, merry laughter. It was as if something inside him had been removed or chased away.
“I like it. And how!”
After muttering to himself for a bit, Narses cast a triumphant glance at his friend.
“How about it? Did you hear that, Dariun? His Highness’s pronouncement is the perfect example of what they call a ruler’s magnamity. What a world of difference his broad-mindedness is, compared to one who lives his life wretchedly devoid of art!”
“Just drop it. Even if it is a wretched life, at least it’s one that doesn’t have anything to do with the likes of your so-called art.”
As barbed tongue met barbed tongue, Dariun turned to look at his prince.
“Your Highness, if one such as Narses becomes the official court artist, Parsian culture is doomed to degenerate. To make this man a scribe or a minister shows a ruler’s discernment, but to make him court artist of all things…”
“Isn’t it all right, Dariun? Rather than allow some famed Lusitanian artist depict the manner of my death, I should rather have Narses illustrate the circumstances of my life. Do you not agree?”
Once more Dariun fell silent. Narses clapped his hands together in glee.
“Your Highness, it seems Dariun is saying that as much as he dislikes the idea of dying, he dislikes the idea of me drawing his portrait even more! For that alone I would love to accept this assignment, but…”
His joking manner vanished, replaced with grave consideration.
“I suppose it’s true I cannot simply stand by and watch as the Lusitanian armies trample my country underfoot. Perhaps I have no choice but to put forth some effort, but still, it is as I mentioned last night: to King Andragoras, my name is taboo. Even though it is more than possible that Your Highness shall be incurring displeasure on my account, is this still acceptable?”
“Understood. Then I shall aid Your Highness, reluctant as I am to play straight into the hands of that blackguard Dariun…”
Narses laughed as if everything was settled. The youth Elam prostrated himself before his master.
“You’ll take me along too, won’t you, Lord Narses?”
“… Mm,” answered Narses, a little too quickly, evidently reluctant to make an immediate decision. “I’ve an acquaintance in the port city of Gilan. I’d meant to entrust you to him.”
This acquaintance was the mercantile shipowner of about ten sailing vessels; even if the Lusitanian army’s invasion were to reach so far, those vessels could still set sail and escape across the sea to other lands. A letter would be provided when he went, along with enough money to cover travel and living expenses — all of this Narses explained, but Elam refused it all, begging to stay by his Lord Narses’s side.
In the end, Narses yielded and agreed to take Elam along, in part because both Arslan and Dariun were glad to count the young retak among their allies. Elam was an earnest youth who could surely be put to use somehow or another, and his skill with both bow and acinaces2 alike was not shabby. Furthermore, for Arslan, it was an opportunity to make a friend of the same age whom he would have never met at court.