At present, the palace had become a hunting ground for armor-clad predators.
“Find the queen! Capture her!”
The hollering and heavy footsteps of the trespassing Lusitanians clattered across the mosaic tiling.
Capturing the queen consort Tahmineh may have been the Lusitanian soldiers’ official goal, but in the meantime, they were also busy satisfying their own personal desires. They assaulted the fleeing court ladies, and after killing them seized their necklaces and rings, thus slaking all three of their lusts at once.
No matter how barbarically they acted towards the heathens, their god Ialdabaoth would forgive them. This their clergymen had guaranteed. Their persecution of the heathens was all according to the will of God, and was their duty as His adherents. They had no reason to hesitate. Besides, by doing so they could unleash their own bestial urges…
And so the palace was filled with the raucous laughter of the victors and the desperate wails of the defeated. The magnificent marble halls that had, before King Andragoras’s departure for the front, been filled with such splendor and luxury, transformed into a swamp of blood and disgrace.
The man of the silver mask paced around the palace, alone. His goal, however, was not at all the same as that of the Lusitanian soldiers. Though his leather boots were drenched in blood as he tread across dismembered bodies, he was not moved even in the slightest. No one could hear the muttering hidden behind his mask.
“That woman can’t have expected that Ecbatana would fall so swiftly. She must have intended for that double to draw Lusitanian attention away from her, while she herself would escape only after they let their guard down. If that is the case, there must be some hidden chamber or other secret passage somewhere…”
Silver Mask stopped pacing. One of the heavy curtains that had been sliced in half was wriggling about like a squirming caterpillar. After determining that there were no other Lusitanians going about their business in the vicinity, Silver Mask strode over and ripped away the curtain, revealing a single cowering figure.
It was a middle-aged man dressed in the vesture of a magpat, a high priest. Those priestly robes in their gaudy gold and purple did not at all emphasize the greasy man’s saintliness, but rather, his worldliness.
“Convert! I’ll convert!”
Before Silver Mask could even open his mouth to speak, the priest had already thrown himself to the ground, groveling.
“I shall make my disciples convert as well. Nay, I shall have every single priest in the nation pledge fealty to Ialdabaoth. Thus I beg you — please, spare me!”
With the demeanor of one ignoring the squealing of a pig, the man of the silver mask was just about to walk away when the priest spoke again, his voice at once both unctuous and sly.
“Truth be told — regarding the matter of where Queen Tahmineh has secreted herself away, I may perhaps be of some help.”
Despite wincing at the vicious glance directed at him from the silver mask, the shameless priest proceeded to tell all.
“Now that I have informed you of this, please deal with the matter of my conversion and salvation as you see fit, please, oh please.”
“… Very well. As you wish.”
And thus was the queen consort Tahmineh sold out to her enemy by this high priest, in exchange for all manner of privileges and favors.
When she, along with several of her ladies, was dragged out from a secret room beneath the wine cellar, the queen consort stared down the silver mask with cool regality. So too did the man return her gaze.
“That’s right, this is the woman. She with whom Andragoras was so obsessed, the consort of Badakhshan…”
His voice was like stagnant water drawn from the deepest wells of memory. Though Tahmineh’s expression did not falter, her cheeks paled noticeably.
“You haven’t changed at all since that time. Only by nourishing yourself with the lives and fates of countless men can such beauty have been preserved, oh monster!”
The unimaginable depths of hatred shrouded within his insult brought chills to all those present.
Two flags waved at the fore of Ecbatana. One was the national flag of Lusitania, and the other was the standard of Ialdabaoth. The two differed only in the color of their fields; their designs were otherwise identical. In the center was a silver emblem formed by two short horizontal stripes crossed with a longer vertical stripe. The border, too, was lined in silver. The national standard was fielded in red, while the religious standard was black. Red to signify earthly authority; black to represent the glory of heaven.
The Lusitanian generals conversed while gazing at the flags.
“Seems that fellow with the silver mask’s captured Queen Tahmineh.”
“Oh? Capturing both of the royal couple all by his lonesome, huh? What an impressive achievement.”
“That man, has he perhaps truly devoted himself from the bottom of his heart to our Kingdom of Lusitania after all?”
“Hmph, if that were the case, then why has he not yet revealed to the Parsians that their king is now his captive?”
Voices expressing disbelief, suspicion, and distaste surged forth.
“If the damn fools knew their own king had been captured, it would be a great blow to their morale. Those Parsian heathens would completely lose their will to resist. Just like that, the entire city would capitulate. So why hasn’t he acted? It’s the same with that secret underground waterway. Sneaking in with only himself and his own men, while making us engage in a brute force attack!”
“I bet he just wants all the credit to himself. Not endearing at all, but understandable, at least.”
“I suppose it’s something like that. However, one still can’t help but wonder if he’s concealing some sort of plot.”
… Though the man of the silver mask could not hear any of this, he probably wouldn’t have paid them any heed even if he were to hear. Silver Mask was just then taking the captured queen consort Tahmineh to the Lusitanian king, Innocentius VII. They were at the audience chamber, a spacious room from which the blood and the dead had just been hurriedly cleared away.
King Innocentius VII of Lusitania looked like no mighty conqueror or fiendish invader. He was certainly tall and well-built, but he had a bad complexion, and his skin lacked the sheen of vitality. Passion emanated from his eyes, but that passion was not directed toward anything of the earth.
He could be described as the very model of devoutness as a follower of Ialdabaoth. He did not drink, nor did he consume meat. He worshiped thrice daily, and had done so for thirty years without fail. When he was ten, he had fallen seriously ill, and at the time vowed thus: until he had destroyed every last heathen nation in the land and erected temples to Ialdabaoth in all their capitals, he would never marry. Even now, at forty years of age, he remained unwed.
“All obscene texts that contradict the holy scriptures shall be burned; every last heathen shall be wiped off the face of the earth.”
Such had been his lifelong creed. Fifteen years he’d ruled now, and in this time he had killed around three million heathens — infants included — and burned around a million volumes of texts on witchcraft, atheism, and foreign culture. Scholars who insisted “There is no such thing as God” had their tongues extracted. Lovers caught in clandestine meetings at temples of worship were burned bright red, impaled on giant iron skewers so that “the two would become one flesh.”
Should such a fanatical king ever cross paths with a heathen queen, the only possible outcome was surely the cruelest of executions. However, his vassals’ expectations all fell short of the mark.
Upon beholding Tahmineh’s visage, the Lusitanian king fell silent for some time. Gradually, the evidence of profound impact began to suffuse his face, and before long, his entire body was in a shiver.
Several of his vassals exchanged glances. As the shadow of misfortune fell across their hearts, they gazed in constrained silence at their own king and the queen of their destroyed enemy.