At the walls in the far reaches of the capital where the sound of Giv’s barbat could not reach, fire and sword continued to conduct a symphony of slaughter. The Lusitanians who had been momentarily daunted by their hostage’s death resumed their assault on the walls, and the Parsians as well met them in battle from the ramparts. On seeing the approach of the Lusitanians’ siege towers, a single soldier rushed to report to Marzban Saam.
“It’s them! Those are the towers from which they shot fire arrows and shamed our troops!”
“That sort of child’s play?”
With a cluck of his tongue, Saam ordered the soldiers to fill bags of sheepskin with oil. Lining up shields to block the onslaught of arrows from the towers, they took advantage of a break in action to launch the bags from catapults. The bags hit the towers, and oil spilled out from the torn stitches, drenching the soldiers on top.
“Release the fire arrows!”
Right on command, hundreds of fiery arrows colored the sky in red streaks. Not a single thing obstructed the view from the walls to the towers.
The Lusitanian siege towers transformed into towers of flame. The Lusitanian soldiers, bodies engulfed by fire, howled as they tumbled to the ground; soon afterwards, the towers themselves collapsed as well.
Having lost their towers, the Lusitanians leaned scaling ladders one after another against the walls and began to climb. In turn, the Parsians on the walls released a barrage of arrows upon their enemies’ heads, showered boiling oil on them before loosing fire arrows, and every now and then launched heavy rocks via catapult to crush the Lusitanian soldiers. The occasional Lusitanian did manage to reach the top, but was each and every one surrounded by the defending Parsian soldiers and slain.
At this point the seige of Ecbatana had already lasted ten days, but the Lusitanians had been unable to progress a single step into the city. The Lusitanians, having already lost fifty thousand of their number at the Battle of Atropatene, perhaps realized the foolishness of a direct assault through force alone and chose to resort at last to psychological tactics.
On the fifth day of the eleventh month, more than a hundred heads were lined up on a platform at the forefront of the Lusitanian ranks. “Surrender, or share their fate!” — a simple threat, but upon seeing such faces as had been familiar to them in life, the audience was struck no small blow.
The queen consort Tahmineh turned a pale face to Marzban Saam, who had come to the palace to make his report. “Surely not, surely not His Majesty….”
“No, my queen. His Majesty’s was not witnessed among them. Only the Eran, Lord Vahriz, and the Marzbans Manuchehr and Hayir…”
Saam spoke through gritted teeth. To behold, in such a manner, the heads of men with whom he had once ridden to battle and shared drinks together, one could not possibly remain unfazed.
“Saam! Best to open the gates and sound a charge! What else is the cavalry for? We must not let these Lusitanian barbarians continue as they please,” proposed Marzban Garshasp.
“There is no need for panic. We number ten thousand within these walls, and our provisions and weaponry are both more than sufficient. If we wait for reinforcements to arrive from the eastern border, with their support we can engage the Lusitanians out there in a pincer attack and demolish them in a single morning. Is there, then, any need for us to launch a premature attack?”
As the two men in charge of the city’s military affairs, Garshasp and Saam often butted heads. Garshasp favored swift action and resolution; Saam favored battles of endurance. Furthermore, when the Lusitanians outside the city had incited the ghulam in the city to action with promises of emancipation, Garshasp supported methods of force to suppress the slaves, while Saam opposed him, insisting that such actions would only further raise their ire and lay the grounds for greater unrest.
“How many times must I tell you? No reason to panic. There is still Keshvad. Bahman as well. They will surely lead troops to our aid.”
Terse though it was, Garshasp’s response was filled to the brim with animosity. Nor did Saam feel any urge to answer him. Even if Keshvad and the others stationed at the eastern borders turned back toward the capital immediately upon receiving news of the defeat at Atropatene, it would take them no less than a month to arrive. Besides, he and Saam must now set aside these military matters to deal with a far more urgent quandary.
“Neither the status of His Majesty the king nor that of His Royal Highness the crown prince is known. Whom should we look to for leadership in the battle ahead of us?”
Garshasp spoke thus: “If by some mad chance something has happened to both of them, what shall become of the Kingdom of Pars?”
“When the time comes, we shall have no choice but to crown the queen consort Tahmineh and have her rule the country as Queen Regnant.”
“Tsk…” Garshasp clucked his tongue. “If such a thing comes to pass, no doubt the people of Badakhshan will rejoice. The consort of the Prince of Badakhshan becomes Queen Regnant of Pars! In the end, is it not Badakhshan who has the last laugh?”
“Don’t quibble over ancient history. Whatever she may have been in the past, she is at present none other than the queen consort of our kingdom. Other than her, who else can possibly be suitable for the position?”
Even as they spoke, the Lusitanians’ attack continued. In particular, the shouting directed at the ghulam in the city increased relentlessly.
“O oppressed of the city! Mankind was not meant to be enslaved. All are equal in the eyes of Ialdabaoth. Whether king or knight or peasant, all alike are disciples of God. For how long do you intend to groan under the weight of tyranny? Redeem your dignity and break off your chains!”
“What nonsense. Aren’t you bastards the ones who are oppressing us?”
As Garshasp muttered unhappily to himself, an urgent report arrived.
“The slaves have set fire to the Great Temple! They beat the priests to death with their chains and intend to welcome the Lusitanians through the west gate!”
Garshasp was at that time directing the defense of the north gate, but immediately entrusted command to his subordinate and rode alone to the west gate. Amid a swirl of flame and smoke clashed a skirmishing mob of slaves and soldiers.
“Defend the gates! Don’t let them be opened!”
As Garshasp flew to the gates on horseback, the slaves, bearing torches and sticks, at first made as if to run. But on noticing that Garshasp was by himself, they swarmed forward again. It seemed they meant to drag him from his mount.
Garshasp’s sword slashed left and right from atop his horse in flurries of pale light. Bright blood leaped from the ground in response as the corpses of slaves began to litter the stone pavement. Crying out in despair, the slaves attempted to flee, this time for real, only to find themselves surrounded by Saam and his arriving men. Thus were the gates barely secured.
“Garshasp! Is killing slaves something to be proud of?” spat a disgusted Saam.
Garshasp lost his temper. “They are not slaves, but insurgents!”
“Wielding nothing but sticks?”
“Within their hearts, they carried swords!”
Confronted with this sharp rebuttal, Saam shut his mouth. But as he watched the slaves being whipped back into place and dragged off, he spoke again.
“Look at their eyes, Garshasp. You may have killed a dozen insurgents, but in exchange you have given birth to a thousand more.”
Saam’s prognosis hit the mark.
The very next day, not far from the north gate, the slaves who had been imprisoned there in a small cell revolted.
Unable to put up with these successive slave riots any longer, Marzban Saam sought audience with Queen Tahmineh and offered exhaustive advice on how to ameliorate the situation.
“There is no longer any other choice. Your Majesty, I beg you: emancipate all the slaves in the city, raise them to azat, and offer them compensation and arms. If this is not done, the impregnability of the royal capital shall become little more than a fanciful illusion.”
The queen’s slender brows knit together in consternation.
“It is not that I do not understand thy suggestion, Lord Saam. However, the wispuhran, wuzurgan, azadan, azat, and ghulam form the cornerstones of Parsian society. Wert thou to disturb the very foundations of the nation for naught but a momentary security, upon the return of His Majesty the king no excuse or apology should suffice.”
Saam heaved a sigh at the queen’s obstinacy.
“That is indeed true. But with all due respect, Your Majesty, those so-called foundations are, even at this very moment, jeopardizing the capital. Who, after all, would fight for a country that keeps him under bondage? The enemies laying siege to us have promised these slaves exactly what we cannot grant them. Even if that sort of promise can hardly be anything trustworthy, from the perspective of slaves who have lost hope in their present circumstances, believing in such a promise is no longer unreasonable.”
“I understand. I shall consider it.”
As the queen offered no further commitment, Saam was forced to withdraw.
And so the situation continued to worsen.
To the minstrel Giv, who had been bestowed a room in the palace, it was as if the fiery chaos of battle outside wasn’t any of his business at all. He indulged in a life of luxury, fine dining, and general indolence, until one night, he was summoned to the offices of the prime minister Husrav.
The prime minister, who, due to a bad stomach, looked as scrawny as an impoverished commoner, greeted the young minstrel with an obsequious smile.
“I rather wonder if, as it seems to me, your wits are not just as impressive as your archery.”
“So I’ve been told since I was a kid.”
Giv’s blithe acceptance of this flattery left the prime minister Husrav at a loss for words. His gaze roved about the detail of the mural on the walls. Then, with the manner of having made some sort of discovery, he invited Giv to sit. Well aware that he had the upper hand, the young minstrel settled down without the slightest hint of reserve.
“Now, then. There’s something I’d like to discuss with you. Given your indubitable cleverness, I suppose I can rely on you?”
Giv did not respond immediately. He fixed his gaze upon the minister’s face, every last one of his senses probing the air about him. He could feel the metallic aura of blade and armor. If he refused the minister’s proposal, his opponent wouldn’t be just one single fully armored knight. Besides, he was currently unarmed. If it came down to it, there was always the option of using the minister as a human shield, but this withered little official seemed to be sharper than he looked.
“So? How about it? Will you accept?”
“Let’s see… given a proper reason and a proper reward, and not to mention the possibility of success, then of course I’ll accept, but…”
“To ensure the continuation of the Kingdom of Pars: that alone is the reason. The reward, I believe, shall be satisfactory.”
“If that’s the case, Your Excellency, then I shall do my humble best.”
Evidently gratified, Husrav nodded.
“Is that so? When she hears your response, I’m sure Her Majesty the queen shall also be pleased.”
“Summoning you here was not my idea. It was the will of Her Majesty. A sign of the great faith she places in you.”
“My, my. To place her faith in a vagabond minstrel such as myself — I’m quite simply overcome.”
Neither party was being entirely sincere. Only one as stupid as a pig would believe in the courtesies of the powerful and the privileged.
“In brief, Giv, I would like you to escort Her Majesty the queen through a secret passage and take her somewhere safe outside the city.”
“Her Majesty is going to escape the capital?”
“The royal capital is titled thus because of the presence of the king and his consort. The moment either one is absent, Ecbatana shall no longer be worthy of her good name.”
Whatever sarcasm was present in his words, the minister did not seem to notice, wrapped as it was in pleasant, silvery tones.
“If the queen successfully escapes, and joins elsewhere with His Majesty the king in safety, thus establishing once more the royal authority of Pars, those generals and soldiers and subjects who yet remain loyal will surely gather there. Ecbatana or not, there is no need to fuss and cling over such a thing.”
All in all, well said.
“There are a million citizens in Ecbatana. What about their lives?”
The moment Giv pointed this out, the minister instantly revealed his displeasure. As such talk was no longer mere sarcasm, but outright censure, the minister could hardly not notice.
“That has nothing to do with you. Most importantly, the royal family must be protected. It is simply impossible to take into account every single last commoner out there.”
“… That’s it. That’s exactly why innocent citizens have no choice but to fend for themselves. Just like me.”
As the minister was no mindreader, he was unable to hear the muttering in Giv’s heart. That he had served as the prime minister of Pars for sixteen years without incident was simply because he adroitly anticipated the will of Andragoras, whose authority was absolute, without ever getting on his bad side, and possessed exceptionally keen judgment regarding both internal and external court intrigues.
All decisions were left to Andragoras. All Husrav had to do was realize those decisions accordingly. Though he did also enrich his personal coffers every now and then, compared to most other nobles and priests his offenses were not outrageous; and besides, it was probably taken for granted that a high-ranking official would take advantage of his position, and that one in a position of power would receive certain allowances from the commonfolk. He had no reason to explain himself to the likes of some lowly vagabond minstrel such as Giv.
One hundred dinars were bestowed upon Giv. Giv accepted them with a great show of reverence. No need, after all, to turn down that which was freely given.