That day, in the open space before the south gate of the capital, a grand book burning ceremony was held. A total of twelve million volumes had been designated to burn as “wicked heathen books”; the royal libraries had been entirely emptied. Standing before the texts piled mountain high and the crowd of spectators was the shouting Archbishop Bodin. One particular knight with scholarly interests bravely — or perhaps rashly — raised a protest against the book burning.
“Even if you say they’re heathen books, is it really a good idea to toss such precious texts into the fire without even examining them? Even if they are to be set aflame, shouldn’t it be after enough time has been spent determining their value?”
Bodin stamped his feet upon the ground.
“If what is recorded in these texts is in accordance with the holy scriptures of Ialdabaoth, then the scriptures alone are sufficient for earthly mortals. Should they contradict the scriptures, then they are based on the trickery of evil demons and must be destroyed. No matter what, all should be thrown to the fire!”
“But to toss even medical texts into the fire….”
Receiving a severe strike to his mouth, the knight staggered back.
“One who reveres Ialdabaoth from the bottom of his heart shall not be possessed by the demons of disease. One who is diseased, carrying the seeds of evil within his heart, shall receive divine retribution! Even if he is king of a nation…”
Directing a look full of poison at the king sitting upon his distant throne, Bodin raised his voice anew.
“Even if he is king of a nation, when he gives rise to such wicked designs as taking a heathen woman to wife, one so haughty shall surely be struck down by a divine staff formed from his own sickness. Repent and reform, oh sinful ones!”
Innocentius VII paled, and his flabby body quivered. Not out of fear, but out of extreme displeasure. The royal prince Duke Guiscard, stationed beside him, was secretly satisfied. To him, this was an excellent sign.
Bodin raised his hand, and the mountain of texts was doused with oil before a torch was tossed in.
The flames blazed high at once, swallowing twelve million volumes of texts in the conflagration. The recorded thoughts and feelings of humanity accumulated for over a millennium from before the nation’s founding were now all erased in the name of the invaders’ god.
History, poetry, geography, medicine, pharmacology, philosophy, agriculture, artisanship… the effort and passion of countless people that must be poured into the completion of a single volume were all cremated in the flames and transformed to ash.
Blocked by ranks of armored Lusitanian soldiers, the Parsians witnessing this fiery scene muffled their cries of outrage and grief.
Standing side by side within the crowd was a pair of tall men whose hoods were pulled low over their eyes. The slightly shorter man muttered in bitter fury.
“So it’s not enough to steal all our property; now they mean to incinerate our very culture. This can no longer be described as mere barbarism. This is the work of apes.”
“Look at the one in charge, that so-called archbishop dancing around in glee.”
“I am going to kill that man Bodin or whatever he’s called. I’ll leave the king and his brother to you. Got it, Dariun? That bastard is mine.”
It was Dariun and Narses.
Without bothering to see the book burning to the end, the two of them left the space before the gates and strolled toward the somewhat mazelike downtown area. Disregarding their anger over the book burning, they had a need to gather news on King Andragoras and Queen Tahmineh.
“Originally, it seems the word ialdabaoth meant ‘sacred ignorance’ in ancient Lusitanian.”
Narses explained this with no evident amusement as they walked along.
According to their mythology, humanity once belonged to a paradise of eternal spring, where they dwelled in bliss, free of suffering and doubt, but were cast out of paradise for taking a bite from the forbidden fruit of wisdom. In Narses’s view, this was a rather unpleasant myth. He felt it was a way of thinking that reduced humans to pigs. People who failed to question inconsistencies, who failed to rage at injustice, were not even equal to pigs. And yet why was it that, not just the Ialdabaothan faith, but religions in general always seemed to preach against doubt and anger?
“Did you know, Dariun? You could say that these people’s destruction of Maryam, and even their invasion of Pars, was actually encouraged by what is written in their scriptures.”
“You mean their god bestowed Pars upon them?”
“Pars was not specified, exactly. However, according to their scriptures, their god promised to grant his followers the most beautiful and bountiful lands in the world. From their perspective, then, a land of such beauty and wealth such as Pars is naturally theirs to claim, while we are little more than unlawful squatters, so to speak.”
“How very convenient.”
Dariun, adjusting his hood, brushed aside the hair that had fallen into his eyes.
“So, the Lusitanians believe wholeheartedly in this so-called mandate of their god?”
“Well, is it faith? Or is it just using faith to justify their own invasion?”
If it were the latter, the Lusitanians could perhaps be negotiated with diplomatically from the same standpoint. Were it the former, the Parsians would not survive without using brute force. No matter what, they had to consider different methods to defeat the Lusitanians.
“There are several ways to take the Parsians in hand.”
For the sake of the prince who had promised him the position of court artist, Narses was resolutely plotting out various possibilities with all his might.
“For example, if we emancipated all the ghulam of the land under the prince’s name and promised to abolish the institute of slavery altogether, and just one tenth of them took up arms, that would form an army of 500,000. This is operating under the premise that they shall be self-sufficient, though.”
That made sense. Dariun said as much and nodded.
“But in that case, we shan’t be able to expect the support of the territorial lords and aristocrats who currently own slaves. There is no one so gullible as to agree to an alliance despite knowing they shall lose out in the exchange.”
“When you were lord of Dailam, did you not free your slaves and even give up your territories?”
“I’m an eccentric, after all.”
Narses’s remark sounded suspiciously like a boast, but all of a sudden, he made a bitter expression.
“… Besides, even if the slaves are emancipated, it’s not like everything would be settled then. It’s what comes after that’s difficult; we cannot expect everything to go as we’ve dreamed up before our desks.”
Narses seemed to be speaking from personal experience. Dariun did not question him further. Narses gave his head a single shake, as if to recollect his composure, and began to count off on his fingers a number of strategies for defeating the Lusitanian forces.
“One method is to use the territories of former Badakhshan as bait for hooking Sindhura. Another method is to infiltrate Maryam and incite the royalist faction to revolt with the intent of restoring the throne, thus cutting their nation’s communications with the Lusitanian army. Or perhaps we might as well work in Lusitania itself and stir up ambitions for the throne among the remaining royals and nobles. Or we can agitate for the conquest of Lusitania among the neighboring nations…”
Dariun stared at his friend in admiration.
“How do you manage to throw out clever moves and schemes one after another like that? Compared to an unsophisticated military man like me, you really are something else.”
“Flattered as I am to earn the praise of the finest warrior of Pars, of the hundred plans one might concoct, only ten can actually be put into effect, and only one shall be successful, and that’s about it. If all the things one considers could come true, there would be no such thing as ruined nations and perished rulers.”
The two of them were about to enter a tavern. Even in times of chaos there were some businesses that did not halt operations — brothels for instance, or gambling dens, or fences dealing in victory spoils and pillaged loot. And along with them, establishments offering drink with conversation. Naturally, such places were were filled with irresponsible rumors, and in fact the number of reports flying around probably exceeded the number of gathered people.
From the tavern tottered out a single Parsian soldier. He was no doubt affiliated with Qaran’s faction, one of those who had sworn loyalty to Lusitania. The soldier, about six parts drunk, collided into Dariun’s shoulder in attempt to sidestep him, and glanced at the face beneath the hood while cursing under his breath. His expression transformed at once.
“… Ahh! Dariun!”
With a magnificent yelp, the soldier fled, shoving the people in his way and thrusting them aside as he made his escape. Whatever alcohol content in his body had probably hurtled out to the other end of the skies; there was not even the time to reach out and seize him by the collar.
Narses, stroking his chin, said admiringly, “Running away without a fight, eh? You certainly understand your own limits well.”
After that, the two of them followed after the fleeing soldier. But they did not break into a run. Instead of chasing him down, they had already made deliberations beforehand.
The two of them, purposely keeping their distance from each other, wandered deeper and deeper into the labyrinthine streets. The faint whisper of conversation trickled down from the walls of the buildings, and every last eye was fixed in surreptitious surveillance upon their figures.
Narses had not even counted to a thousand when his way was blocked by four soldiers who had expectantly tagged his head with an invisible bounty.
Dariun had already achieved the titles of Mardan and Shergir in his teens, and had also been the youngest of the Marzbans. For this was he called “marde-e mardan,” a man among men. In comparison, Narses would quite understandably be seen as the easier target. However, in the end this choice brought upon them no fortune whatsoever. Four white blades unsheathed, but this was the extent of their initiative.
In a single breath Narses leaped at the rightmost enemy and chopped down with his sword from the side. The enemy had no time to even parry, and his own sword was sent flying by Narses’s blow. The moment after their blades clashed, Narses’s sword traced short white claws through the sky, slicing cruelly across his opponent’s neck.
Adroitly evading the spray of blood shadowing his field of vision, Narses stooped lightly on one knee and swiftly flicked up the point of his blade. The right arm of the enemy who had appeared before his eyes flew into the sky, trailing blood, sword still in hand. Half a cry later, a third soldier fell to the ground, his chest run through by the flash of a sword as Dariun rushed back into view.
A fourth soldier remained standing, unable to make a peep; looking over one shoulder, he witnessed Dariun’s approaching figure, and turning back around, he saw Narses’s mocking grin, and so he dropped his sword and slumped to the ground. As his mouth flapped open and shut in vain, he tossed out a pouch of cowhide.
The pouch opened, spilling ten dinars and several times more drachms to the ground, but neither Dariun nor Narses paid them any heed whatsoever.
“We want one thing only: the whereabouts of King Andragoras.”
“I don’t know,” cried the soldier at first, in a voice close to despair. “If I knew, I’d tell you. I do value my life, but I really don’t know.”
“Even mere rumors will do. Think hard for your own sake,” Narses coolly pressed on.
Knowing his life depended on it, the soldier spilled out everything he knew. It seemed King Andragoras was truly still alive. He’d probably been imprisoned somewhere, but Lord Qaran had only confided in a handful of his closest men. Even the Lusitanian generals hadn’t been informed, and they seemed to be disgruntled over that. That’s right, there was one more thing, a rumor that couldn’t be ignored…
“Supposedly Queen Tahmineh is to be wed to the Lusitanian king — or so I’ve heard the Lusitanian soldiers gossiping. They say their king lost his soul the moment he first laid eyes on Her Majesty.”
“What did you say — !?”
Both the audacious Narses and the intrepid Dariun gaped mutely, unable to dredge up any further remarks.
After tying up the soldier and tossing him into a trash bin, the two of them began to walk back toward the streets. The situation with Queen Tahmineh left them despondent. When a person died, that was it, but living on, just how much trouble and suffering did one have to face?
“Badakhshan, Pars, and now Lusitania. To seduce the rulers of three nations in a row, beauty like Her Majesty’s ought to be considered a crime.”
“Whatever the case may be, if the queen is to be married off, we must concern ourselves over King Andragoras. No matter which nation, not a single one recognizes bigamy. Even if he still lives, he may well fall under harm simply for being an impediment to this marriage.”
“Or perhaps the Lusitanian king is forcing Queen Tahmineh into this marriage by dangling King Andragoras’s life in exchange for her hand.”
They both discussed matters for some time, but were unable to reach a clear conclusion. Whatever the result, they decided once more to go ahead with the same strategy as before. They would worry about the results when they happened. They wanted more evidence to corroborate the soldier’s earlier confession; and as for Narses, he felt it would be a pain to come up with a new plan at this point.
Agreeing to meet up at the previously designated tavern if they came up empty-handed, the two parted ways.
Was it coincidence? Or was it an impartial appointment of fate? None could say. After Dariun had turned a number of corners, danger came howling at his door.
Before Dariun’s very eyes appeared a sinister silver mask.