5. Successor to the Throne (iv)

(notes)

If Dariun possessed the same power as Farangis to understand non-human speech, perhaps he would have sensed his Uncle Vahriz’s voice warning him from the other realm.

However, even lacking such power, he could easily sniff out the danger emanating from this opponent he was encountering for the first time. Naked hostility and malice blasted toward Dariun with the heat of the desert wind.

That Dariun drew his sword in response to this killing aura was perhaps what they referred to as warrior instinct.

“You certainly went to a lot of trouble with those petty tricks of yours, dunce!”

Both the low laughter from behind the mask as well as its physical appearance had an equally ominous vibe. No need to exchange useless dialogue now. There was a mutual understanding: they were enemies.

The clash of blades crescendoed. Dariun, darting around, continued his offensive after the first strike, but could not so much as graze his opponent.

Dariun was unnerved. Even he whose valor was acknowledged by all could not remain unconscious of or unalarmed by his opponent’s immense strength. He switched tactics. Halting his offensive, he retreated half a step and turned to defense.

The man of the silver mask nimbly stepped forward, showering him in severe attacks, but much like Dariun a moment ago, he was met with an impenetrable guard.

As they cut left and right, traces of gleaming blades flashed through the air; each party had come to realize the existence of a foe of never before seen gallantry.

Pale blade engaged pale blade, locking forcefully midair. The two men’s faces loomed close; each could hear the other’s breathing overlapping with his own.

“Let’s hear your name!” said the man of the silver mask. Underneath his chilled voice seeped the slightest hint of awe.

Glaring back at the light gleaming from the eye slits of the mask, Dariun brusquely reported his name.

“Dariun!”

“Dariun, you say…?”

The questioning tone as he sifted through his memories transformed an instant later into a voice filled with malicious derision. Dariun could not help but be startled at this unexpected reaction.

“This is rich. That nephew of Vahriz? No wonder…”

… you’re so strong, or something or other, but the silver mask swallowed his words and shot forth a baleful glare, his mask quaking with peals of laughter that would have surely raised the hairs of anyone other than Dariun. When his laughter settled, an arrogant confession came flying from his lips.

“Tell you what — it is I who cut off the scraggly white head of your uncle Vahriz!”

“What!?”

“For a lapdog of Andragoras, such retribution is only fitting. Would you like to die as your uncle did?”

The moment their crossed blades sprang apart, Dariun’s sword swept singing through the air. Such ferocious speed exceeded the expectations of the man of the silver mask. The man’s blade, moving into the defensive, swung uselessly into the air as Dariun’s blow struck his face.

Crack! went the silver mask as it split in half. The face that had been protected so uncompromisingly was exposed to the air. Violent gasps heaved from the man’s mouth.

And so Dariun saw it — two faces. Beneath the cloven mask was the countenance of a young man approximately the same age as Dariun. The pale, elegant visage on the left, and the dark, grotesque patch of inflamed burns on the right: both coexisted upon a single contour.

Though it was only a fleeting glimpse, this face etched itself deeply into Dariun’s vision. The man raised his left arm to conceal his face, but his eyes, welling with a bloody light, glowered at Dariun. His blade flashed in counterattack.

Dariun leaped back, but the keenness of the sword, fueled by rage and hatred, could not be compared to before. It danced like a striking snake, its white blade stretching out in pursuit of Dariun. Sure enough, Dariun staggered, thrown off balance.

As he was about to land the critical strike, the man who had lost his silver mask abruptly shifted direction, just barely deflecting the blade slicing toward him from the side. Before the man’s fearsome view stood Narses.

“Hey now, won’t you ask for my name? Otherwise, shan’t it be embarrassing to introduce myself?”

The gleam of murderous intent shot forth like arrows from the face shadowed by arm and cloak, but Narses did not notice — at least not on the surface.

“Who are you, buffoon?”

“I don’t much care for your manner, but as you’ve asked, I suppose I must commence introductions. Narses is my name; I am to be employed as the official court artist under the reign of the next king of Pars.”

“Court artist, you say!?”

“You wouldn’t know, lacking any connection to art, but those with the sense for it all call me the second coming of the great master Mani.”

“Says who!” a recovered Dariun muttered emphatically as he straightened himself. Seeing that his breathing and his pulse were both completely back under control, the man of the silver mask knew he must let go of this already lost chance for victory. One against two, and with his arm engaged in hiding his face besides, even as he fended off such gallant foes. As well, he had perhaps recalled the forecast of the gray-robed elder in that underground chamber.

“Let’s settle this some other time. Consider today a draw.”

“So you’re a fellow who spouts the conventional lines for every occasion. No need to delay until tomorrow something that can be done today!”

Having lost his silver mask, the man did not rise to Narses’s challenge. Still covering his face with one arm, he deftly retreated from the dangerous pincer.

“This is farewell, you travesty of an artist. Improve your skills for the next time we meet!”

This was a baseless taunt, but it was more than enough to wound Narses’s ego. Without a word, the future court artist advanced, hurling back a strike that sliced through the wind.

The man who had lost his silver mask twisted smoothly around even as he parried the blow. It was a move even more elegant than it was skillful; whether Narses or Dariun, neither could find an opening to exploit.

The man of the silver mask dove into a narrow alley, kicking down the tubs and barrels along the walls to seal his trail. When the hem of his cloak vanished around the first corner, the pair of knights in service to Arslan relinquished all thoughts of pursuit. Dariun clapped his friend’s shoulder.

“I’ve no idea who that bastard is, but he’s got tremendous skill. If it weren’t for your help, he’d probably have smashed my head to pieces by now.”

“Sure, whatever you say, but that fellow truly is difficult to stomach. What nerve, calling me a travesty to art. The world is rife with pompous fools who lack any understanding of arts and culture. Surely this must be the end of days.” When Dariun did not reply, he continued, “By the way, that man seemed to be well acquainted with your lord uncle. An old friend, perhaps?”

“I’ve been considering that as well, but can’t recall anything. Though I did wonder if that mask was just for show, that doesn’t seem to be the case. With those terrible burns, he probably has no choice but to cover up.”

Despite nodding along to Dariun’s voice, Narses wore an expression indicating that he was not entirely satisfied.

Whatever the case, he felt there had to be something more to it. One reason to wear a mask was so that others would be unable to recognize his original appearance, but when among complete strangers in a completely unfamiliar land, such an excuse ought no longer hold. If it weren’t for those burn scars, perhaps even Narses himself would have unexpectedly recollected something with ease…

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