When the bazaar resumed after the fall of the city, there was a reasonable level of bustle and a fair amount of goods exchanging hands. If not for this, Parsian life would no longer be sustainable.
Among the crowd was a single girl.
With skin the color of wheat, hair like black silk, and equally dark eyes, this tall maiden was quite the beauty. And so, unable to keep his eyes away from her sparkling vitality and intelligence, one of Qaran’s men, a Parsian soldier standing guard over the bazaar, called out to her. Though the girl seemed slightly annoyed, she looked at the mounted ranks passing through the bazaar beside them and inquired whose troops they were.
“Those’re troops under the direct supervision of your Marzban — no, the current Eran, Lord Qaran.”
“I wonder where they are going?”
The girl’s voice was so innocent that the soldier told her all he knew, even as he promised to show her something good — though of course his information wasn’t of much note.
With that, the soldier nonchalantly but forcefully took the girl by her wrist, pulling her away from the bazaar and into a little-used alleyway. Before, he’d been able to do nothing but bite his fingers and stand by as he watched the Lusitanians’ violent savagery. Parsian women ought to belong to Parsian men… The girl struggled against him, but the overly excited soldier seized her head in attempt to pin her down.
The soldier cried out. The cloth wrapped around her head, along with the girl’s hair, had fallen clean off. It was a wig! As the soldier’s shock turned into anger, the tip of an acinaces flashed out and pierced his chest. Once the soldier had fallen into the dust, his assailant, like a nimble little bird, hopped into a different alley.
The pretty maiden — or rather, the youth dressed as one — spat at the ground unhappily. It was Elam.
At Narses’s request, he’d sneaked into the capital Ecbatana to spy on the movements of the Lusitanian army within. I implore you, do not attempt anything dangerous, Narses had insisted, the hypocrisy of which Elam found laughable.
At any rate, he had to report back to Narses.
Elam turned two or three corners before entering the backyard of someone’s home. He removed his girl’s clothes, then put on a set of male clothing that had been laundered and dried. Then he set down five mithqal coppers to cover the use of the girl’s clothing and smeared mud all over his face and clothes.
As he cut through the bazaar once more, Elam could hear the faint shouts of the soldiers raising a clamor over the discovery of their comrade’s dead body.
“Qaran’s led more than a thousand riders out of the city?”
Narses tilted his head at the report of the youth Elam, who had just returned from the capital. Arslan and company had been moving back and forth between the ruins of various villages sacked by the Lusitanians.
Arslan crossed his arms.
“Sending out this many to capture me is a bit excessive, is it not?”
“It’s only a matter of course. Your Highness, they do not know our numbers. Moreover, your cause is just. With you at the lead, it is possible to muster enough strength to resist the Lusitanians. The Lusitanian army is most inconvenienced; even Qaran cannot possibly rest easy.”
That made sense, thought Arslan, but he still had his doubts. They should not have any idea of where he was hiding, so how did Qaran intend to find him?
“If I were Qaran, and needed to capture Your Highness as swiftly as possible, I would first ambush a suitable village and burn it down.”
“Burn a village?”
Arslan’s eyes widened, and Narses, passing Elam a towel as if telling him to go wash his face, explained.
“After that, there are countless methods he can employ. One way is to burn down the village, kill the villagers, then post a warning edict directed at Your Highness. In it he will announce that if Your Highness does not turn yourself in, he shall continue attacking villages and killing innocents. Though there are various other methods as well, in terms of order this is probably the one he shall try first.”
Arslan sucked in his breath.
“Qaran would go so far? No matter what, he is a warrior.”
“Yes, an exemplary warrior who sold out both king and country.”
Narses’s sarcastic point silenced Arslan. Qaran had already crossed the river to the opposite shore. Likely he no longer felt any need to adhere to such principles as the avoidance of senseless slaughter. Having concluded thus, Arslan broke his silence.
“Narses, do you know which village Qaran will target?”
“I certainly do.”
“By their guidance. All we need to do is follow them. Shall we?”
Arslan nodded forcefully.
When the prince had left to saddle his personal steed, Dariun, who seemed to have been lost in thought as he listened to the previous dialogue, spoke up.
“Qaran is not such a simple man. Mustering troops to leave the capital in broad daylight and all, isn’t his intent to lure His Highness into a trap right from the start?”
“If you think so, then why did you not stop him?”
“Oh, Dariun, this is the perfect chance for us to see exactly what that prince of ours is capable of. And how faithfully I look forward to it.”
Dariun blinked, and Narses burst into laughter.
“We must hear directly from Qaran sooner or later anyway, or we shan’t be able to figure out what’s really going on. To capture the sher’s cub one must enter the sher’s den; sometimes there’s just no avoiding it.”
Dariun raised his brow slightly.
“You — had the prince failed to go save the villages, you would have considered him unworthy as a liege and abandoned him, wouldn’t you?”
No reply came from Narses’s lips. He only laughed wickedly. But his expression was a clear affirmation of his friend’s insight.