Giv was walking along a long, spacious underground aqueduct that led outside the city. Torches blazed all along the brick and stone-enforced waterway, and the flowing water reached halfway to Giv’s knees. Giv and the black-veiled woman he was guiding had already been traipsing down the dark passage for about an hour.
This underground aqueduct existed for the royal family to escape in times of emergency, or so Giv had been informed by the prime minister. It was like that in all times and places. Royalty and powerful officials always had an escape route set aside for their use alone, forbidden to the commonfolk. Even the knowledge of their existence was not permitted. While the commoners were slaughtered by enemy soldiers, their corpses piling into a wall, the king and his clan fled alone to safety. Was this not rather contrary? Without any nation to speak of, it was the king who’d be in trouble, not the people.
“No matter how you look at it, they’re selling me short.”
Giv mocked both himself and the minister. As if the queen consort, unaccompanied by a single retainer or lady-in-waiting, would really entrust her fate to some wandering minstrel. That kind of thing happened only in the fanciful imaginings of a troubadour.
“You must be tired. Shall we rest a bit?”
The woman veiled in black shook her head wordlessly. She probably hadn’t any confidence that her voice would tally, so to speak.
“Don’t push yourself, now. It’s gotta be tough just pretending to be Her Majesty.”
After a long pause, a resigned voice broke the silence. It was, as it turned out, someone else’s.
“How did you realize?”
Giv pointed a finger at his shapely nose and displayed a knowing grin.
“Yer body odor’s not a thing like Her Majesty’s. Even if you use the same perfume.”
To that, the lady had no response.
“Using you as a double while that fibbing queen consort makes her getaway. It’s that sort of arrangement, isn’t it.”
The lady’s lips remained sealed.
“That’s what highborn people are like. Assuming that it’s perfectly natural for others to serve them. Taking it for granted that others will sacrifice themselves for their sake. Not knowing a damn thing about gratitude. Conceited creatures they are, see.”
“I shan’t allow you to slander Her Majesty.”
“No matter what Her Majesty and the Lord Minister think, I hear and obey loyally. All I have to do is fulfill my own duty.”
“Now that’s what they call a slave mentality.”
Giv spoke boldly and utterly without mercy.
“It’s because of servile types like you that the highborn can go on acting as they please. While they wallow in their own complacency, you folks are the ones who end up suffering. That kind of duty sure as hell ain’t my thing.”
“In that case, do you mean to say that you cannot take me any further?”
“Well, the agreement was for me to serve as the queen consort’s escort, not the escort of some court lady playing pretend. Seeing as I’ve brought you this far anyway, you’ve got no cause for complaint, eh?”
Giv’s lithe body suddenly leaned back as the lady unsheathed her acinaces with a single slash. As he lightly dodged her second strike as well, a wry smile surfaced.
“Aw, cut that out. Faithless fellow I may be, but I’d never turn my blade on a pretty woman.”
In an instant, that smile went the way of dispersing mist. Even as she attacked with her shortsword the second time, the lady had also kneed Giv in the groin, leaving him speechless.
With Giv left unable to even fire one last retort, the lady ran off, water splashing in her wake. She probably intended to return to court to inform them of the situation. Wrong direction, Giv wanted to say, but couldn’t make a sound.
After running for a while, the lady lost her way and came to a stop beneath the frail light of a torch. Soon enough, a shriek escaped her, for she had spotted the outline of a strange figure all too close at hand.
“Well, well. What’s this? Does Her Glorious Majesty of Pars mean to forget the sufferings of her people and escape alone?”
The flames of the torch reflected off a silver mask, dissipating into little bursts of light.
“What a fitting pair she makes with that villain Andragoras! One deserts his men and flees the battlefield; the other abandons the capital and its people to burrow away underground. Where have you misplaced the responsibilities of those who sit the throne?”
In the shadows behind the ominously masked man lurked several dozen more figures. Amid her fear, the lady recollected her duty.
“Who art thou?”
This simple but grim query was repelled by chilling laughter from the silver mask.
“One who shall exact true justice upon Pars.”
The voice resounded against the walls and the water before dissolving into the darkness.
His laughter had been cold, but utterly without humor. The man of the silver mask, at least, held no doubt whatsoever about his quest for justice.
Though her body was seized up in terror, the lady, still attempting to flee, kicked up her feet in the water. But when her gaze passed over a familiar face, her mouth opened in a cry.
“Marzban Qaran, milord! What are you doing in this kind of place…”
As he caught her words, the masked man’s suspicions transformed at once into certainty.
“Wench! You’re not the queen!”
The man’s hand tore off the veil, revealing the face of a young woman who, though comely, was far from any match for Tahmineh. Staring into that terror-paled face, he of the silver mask soon understood all he needed to know.
“That doddering Vahriz was one matter… Everywhere I turn, all these loyalist fools getting in my way!”
When the sound of grinding teeth filtered through the mouth slit of the silver mask, the surrounding knights ducked their heads as if in distaste.
The lady’s face twitched in fear, then in the clutch of overwhelming agony. The man of the silver mask closed his hands around the lady’s neck with merciless strength. From the slits around his eyes surged a reddish light that was difficult to behold.
Even when the lady’s flailing arms drooped from midair, the masked man’s hands continued to press. Only when the dull snap of bone was heard did the man finally release the unfortunate lady.
The lady’s body dropped into the shallows like a log, splashing droplets onto the silver mask like countless gems.
Without a word, the man of the silver mask moved as if to step out of the water. It looked, too, as if he had laid to rest all his rage, hatred, and disappointment in the waters alongside the lady.
A sharp voice arrested the silver mask’s steps. As one the company turned to see a young man whose appearance, bathed in the wavering light of the torches as he advanced step after step toward them, could only be described as elegant.
“What’s the point of offing a beauty, even if she wasn’t particularly stunning? If you’d let her live, maybe she’d have had a change of heart and let me be her kept man.”
No one but the “vagabond minstrel” Giv would possibly say such a thing. In the unfriendly silence that ensued, he coolly swept forward and tossed his own cloak over the lady’s half-submerged body.
“How ’bout giving me a peek at your face, ladykiller?”
He received no response.
“Or maybe that is your actual face, ‘coz it’s not blood that flows through your veins but quicksilver?”
“All of you: squash this jabbering mosquito. I’m going after the real queen.”
Having tossed out those words, the silver mask’s towering figure turned around. Qaran followed behind, while five of the knights stood forth to block Giv’s way.
There was the sound of blades unsheathing in succession. Five swords flashed before Giv in a ring. No doubt sensing their determination, Giv backed up against the wall of the waterway to avoid being surrounded. The moment he brandished his own sword, the first attack sliced down at him through the air.
The walls and the ceiling of the underground aqueduct echoed again and again with the clash of blades. The water about their legs splashed and soaked, and the light of the torches sizzled down to a sickly color.
The counting voice was accompanied by an impressively conspicuous spray of water mixed with red.
Every time the torchlight flashed off Giv’s blade, blood and water formed an inverted waterfall. If the man of the silver mask were present at this scene, there was surely no way he could disregard this display of swordsmanship. Even so, by the time the fifth knight had fallen to the flash of his blade, Giv had also frittered away a considerable amount of time and energy.
They’d not been shabby opponents.
“Alrighty, off to rescue that liar of a queen, or should I just stop now that I’ve done my dinars’ worth?”
Giv stroked his chin as he deliberated, and in the end chose a third path. He’d follow the aqueduct back down to the palace and take advantage of the chaos to help himself to the treasury. As long as it was just a matter of himself, he was confident that he could protect himself no matter what transpired.
Just as he was walking off, Giv came to a stop again. He searched the bodies of the Lusitanians he’d just cut down and came away with several small woolen pouches in hand. After opening them to confirm the presence of Lusitanian coin, he shamelessly performed a gesture of tribute.
“The dead have no need of such things. I’ll put them to good use, so thanks!”
The dead of course had no reply for him, but Giv didn’t seem to mind either. He strode over the corpses and started heading back down the darkness of the aqueduct to return to Ecbatana.