The “vagabond minstrel” Giv managed to acquire a horse after escaping from the capital Ecbatana. Although he’d originally intended to purchase one from a farmer in one of the nearby villages, he’d changed his plans upon hearing that the Lusitanian soldiers had taken all the sheep and livestock along with the food, and after crossing blades with a single Lusitanian soldier who seemed to be a messenger of some sort, ended up getting a horse for free. Following up on that, he’d kindly received a purse, along with a belt ornamented with gold: proper recompense for his considerable efforts — or so Giv thought to himself.
For that one particular figure and Giv to cross paths afterwards could not be chalked down to mere coincidence. If one wished to avoid running into Lusitanian soldiers while traveling, one was naturally limited in both timing and possible routes.
When their horses passed, both parties kept their distance, ready to draw blades at any moment — a natural precaution. It was a half-moon night, and they were about seven to eight gaz away from each other, so Giv noticed nothing at first. Only when the direction of the wind changed and a feminine scent wafted to him on the night breeze did he realize that the other party was a woman disguised as a man. From atop his horse, Giv turned back to look.
Though her head was wrapped in silk, from the shadows unraveled a length of glossy jet black hair reaching all the way to her waist. Her eyes were a dark, vivid green, reminiscent of the verdant days of early summer. That Giv could see this was because the woman had also glanced over her shoulder, albeit for an entirely different reason from his. The moment her gaze met Giv’s, she urged her horse on and left him behind.
For quite some time, Giv, half-dazed, watched the woman’s retreating silhouette beneath the moonlight, but at last he clapped his knees.
“Yup, rare indeed, a fine woman like that. Way younger than that lying queen too.”
Giv hurriedly cycled through various calculations. He now had an objective to act toward.
“That beauty’s definitely going to be ambushed by scoundrels. If I come to her rescue, it’ll only be natural for her to turn grateful and admiring. And then she’ll be wanting to thank me however she can, I think. That’s how it should turn out. That would be nice. That better be how it turns out.”
Having thus decided things in his own favor, Giv set his horse to follow behind the woman at an appropriate distance.
Before long, his chance arrived. Ever since the fall of the capital, Lusitanian soldiers had been running rampant, naturally growing more and more aggressive, gathering together in little bands to kill and loot. Duke Guiscard had posted ordinances warning against the harm of innocent citizens, but the policy was all too often unenforced.
The shadows of seven or eight riders appeared from the line of cypress trees, blocking the woman’s path. They shouted at her in Lusitanian, utterly crude phrases, it seemed.
The woman, looking irritated, kicked lightly at her horse’s flanks. The horse seemed to be very well trained. Understanding its rider’s intent, it began to dash forward before the Lusitanian soldiers could even react. In the blink of an eye, the Lusitanians were left behind by about thirty gaz; by the time they gave chase, the woman upon her horse had already drawn her bow taut, into the shape of a full moon.
In the next moment, the moonlight itself seemed to form into an arrow and pierce the knight.
From his pierced throat gushed blood and a strangled cry as the knight toppled to the road below.
Having recovered from their momentary shock, the other knights, hollering angrily and waving around their blades, closed in on the woman. No, they attempted to, rather, but the twang of the bow split through the night and yet another rider fell from his saddle through the air into a cloud of dust. Already another arrow had flown forth, and a third rider was lost.
“Can’t let her go on like this.”
Giv spurred his horse toward the road earlier than he had planned. If he dilly-dallied any longer, he’d lose the chance to earn that woman’s gratitude.
The first of the Lusitanian soldiers who turned upon hearing the approach of hoofbeats became his first victim.
The Lusitanian was cut open from his left shoulder to his chest with a single slice of Giv’s blade. Screams and blood sprayed high toward the half moon, and the Lusitanian tumbled from his horse.
The appearance of a new enemy, and moreover one who could not be underestimated, drove the Lusitanian soldiers into a fright. They exchanged a flurry of words in a tongue Giv could not understand, then scattered left and right upon their horses with swords in hand.
Although they meant to close in on Giv from three directions, their intent was foiled by Giv’s swift action. Fresh blood spouted forth in a crescent from the neck of one; another’s head was snapped back from a blow to the nose.
The remaining two were no longer concerned with such things as honor. Without even turning back around, they spurred their horses down the road, escaping into the darkness beyond. Seeing them off with a cold smile, Giv glanced over his shoulder to receive a small shock of his own. For the woman too was already leaving the scene to continue down her way. This was completely different from what he’d predicted.
“Please wait, my lady!” he called after her. But perhaps she didn’t hear, or perhaps she planned to ignore him, for the woman did not halt her horse’s advance.
“Oh beautiful one…!”
Though this time he called out in a louder voice, the woman still did not react.
“Oh matchless beauty!”
For the first time the woman paused. She glanced back at Giv unhurriedly. Her graceful profile, illuminated by the moon, carried an expression of utmost serenity.
“Were you calling for me?”
Even Giv was at a loss, and in that brief moment as he tried to settle on a response, the woman continued.
“To call me beautiful is one thing, but there is no reason to call me a matchless beauty…”
Curiously enough, her matter-of-fact acknowledgment of her own attractiveness was not at all off-putting. Giv, somehow or other, cheered up, as he could finally say something suitable to his personality.
“Nay, ’tis not just your pulchritude, your martial prowess as well is truly admirable. Giv I am named, a wandering minstrel with no place to call home; and in my appreciation for beauty, which surpasses even that of kings and nobles, do I take pride. Now, summoning forth my undernourished muse, I shall compose a verse in praise of your grace.”
The woman did not respond.
“Your figure grows as slender as the cypress, with black hair cut from the night sky, eyes that glitter like the facets of an emerald, and bewitching lips like rose petals touched with morning dew…”
“You lack originality as a bard, don’t you.”
The woman spoke with cool indifference, and Giv scratched his head.
“Well, perhaps it is true I have yet to mature as a poet, but then again, my passion for beauty and justice would not lose even to the great poets of yore. For that very reason did I come to your rescue just now.”
“Although I did find it rather convenient, did you not simply just bide your time for the right moment?”
“How unfair of you to suspect me so. My guardian deity, goddess Ashi, conferred her protection upon you and me and wreaked well-deserved retribution upon those Lusitanian barbarians for their lack of faith. Should we not give praise to such divine justice?”
The woman’s smile seemed bitter. Giv inquired after her name, and she replied quite readily.
“My name is Farangis. I was engaged in service at a temple of Mithra in the Khuzestan region. The High Priestess dispatched me as an envoy to the capital Ecbatana.”
“Oh? Mithra! After Ashi, good old Mithra’s the one I pay most respect to. My lady Farangis and I definitely share a unique bond of destiny, no mistaking it.”
Giv’s flippant words were completely ignored by the beautiful priestess.
“However, I have heard it said that the capital has already fallen. Not wishing to return in failure, I was thinking I must at least find some place to rest the night when those Lusitanian curs appeared.”
“May I ask what business you have at the capital?”
“To locate the crown prince, His Highness Arslan. I have a single query to make of you: might the respectable Sir Minstrel possibly be aware of the whereabouts of His Royal Highness?”
“No, I am not — However, if my lady Farangis means to search, I can lend you my strength if you like. That said, why are you looking for His Highness Arslan anyway?”
“On the occasion of His Highness Arslan’s birth, a donation was made to our temple under his honored name. For this reason, should His Highness ever find himself in need, from among those in service to the temple, one who has dedicated themselves to the martial arts must be sent to help him. Or so was written in the will of the previous High Priestess, who passed away this spring.”
Farangis’s black hair swayed as she shook her head.
“Those who leave such wills never consider what trouble they may cause for the people they leave behind. And so, from among those who met the requirements, it was I who was chosen; however, this was not only because my martial skill was the most excellent among theirs.”
“What do you mean?”
“A woman of talent, who like me is graced with beauty and proficient in arts both scholarly and martial, shall be begrudged by her peers.”
“… I see.”
“Using the fulfillment of the deceased’s will as an excuse, they chased me away from the temple. I wonder if you understand, Sir Minstrel.”
Though he did not doubt what Farangis had said, there was plenty of room left for Giv to use his imagination. Perhaps some lustful priest had approached her and received a harsh, ahem, rejection, making it awkward for her to remain at the temple. No matter how martially proficient she was, sending a lone woman on such a mission was simply far too dangerous.
“All the more reason, Lady Farangis, to just toss aside a duty you’re so reluctant to uphold, don’t you think?”
“No, no matter what, I do not approve of the ways of the Lusitanians. I may be an adherent of Mithra, but I feel no need to force my faith upon those who hate it. If they are to be chased out of Pars, I would like to join in.”
Giv nodded forcefully.
“It is exactly as Lady Farangis says. I completely agree.”
“Mere lip service, is that not?”
The raven-haired, green-eyed beauty’s tone was filled with acrimony, but Giv’s reply held no indication of such.
“No, it’s not just lip service. The way those Lusitanians impose their god on other faiths doesn’t sit well with me either. For example, that’d be like claiming only women with golden hair and blue eyes and skin as pale as snow can be beautiful, while refusing to recognize other women as beauties. What somebody thinks is beautiful or what they feel is precious is up to every individual, and shouldn’t be something that can be forced…”
Giv cut short his fervent monologue. This was because he’d noticed that Farangis had shut her eyes and placed a thin little crystal flute at her lips. Though he couldn’t hear anything at all, Giv gazed enchanted at her face, bathed in the light of the half moon, as white as Serican porcelain. Then, Farangis opened her eyes and removed the flute from her lips, and looked upon Giv as if considering him anew.
“… Is that so? Then very well.”
She spoke as if responding to some unheard voice.
“According to the jinn, it seems your loathing of the Lusitanians, at least, is no lie.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
There was no civility in Farangis’s voice.
“An infant hears the voices of people, but understands not the meaning of their words. You are the same. You hear the sound of the wind, and yet cannot even hope to comprehend the whispers it carries from the jinn.”
“I get it, so I’m just a baby?”
“Your comprehension is lacking; it seems my example was a bad one. You are far too malicious to be an infant.”
The little crystal flute was caught between Farangis’s white fingers. A tool to call upon the jinn, perhaps.
“At any rate, it seems like you’ve acknowledged my sincerity. How about it, Lady Farangis? Generally speaking, every meeting between one and another is brought about by a thread of fate. Personally, I’d like to travel with you, but…”
“Do as you wish. Provided, however, that like me, you pledge your loyalty to His Highness Arslan…”
“My loyalty is a bit lacking, though for now I’ve got more than plenty for you, Lady Farangis.”
“I have no need of your loyalty.”
“Saying that’s kinda cold, don’t you think? Aren’t my lady Farangis and I in a relationship now?”
Farangis’s raised voice swiftly silenced. Giv shut his mouth too and pricked up his ears. It was the sound of horses from somewhere unknown, beyond the poplar forest by the road. Surging into view upon the night road came the silhouettes of a large cavalry troop riding hard from the direction of the capital, in numbers stretching completely across their field of vision.
“Those’re the troops of Marzban Qaran.”
Besides his, no other Parsian troops would hoist the Lusitanian flag at their fore.
The beautiful priestess muttered daringly as her gaze followed the thunderous hoofbeats and the clouds of dust fading into the distance under the moonlight.
“Perhaps someone among them knows His Highness Arslan’s whereabouts. For that alone, I should go try and see…”