“Your liege is dead. Do you mean to fight on for a dead man?”
Narses shouted this as Dariun hoisted the lord’s head high, and the soldiers ceased fighting. Already the dead numbered more than twenty, and the wounded numbered several times more. Although, many among them had in fact been in fact injured by their own comrades recklessly waving around their swords.
Having lost their liege as well as their morale, they probably preferred to drive away these harbingers of death instead. They meekly opened the fortress gates as Narses had requested.
Should they not claim the fortress of Kashan to use as a base for their operations? It wasn’t that Narses hadn’t considered it, but on seeing Arslan turn his horse back toward a corner of the castle grounds, his brows raised slightly.
“What, may I ask, are you planning to do, Your Highness?”
“We’ve already come this far, after all. I think we should free Hojir’s slaves. Just now I asked where the slave huts are.”
The prince advanced upon his horse; the other five followed him. However, one could not see expressions of unconditional approval on their faces.
Before the slaves’ mud huts, the prince jumped down from his horse and broke the lock on the door with his sword. Then he flung open the door, startling awake the slaves huddled in slumber within.
“Now then, you can go. You’re free now.”
The ghulam stared with evident doubt at the far too young prince. For some time, not a single person moved.
After a while, a black zanj about as tall as Dariun hoarsely put forth a question. Was their master Lord Hojir aware of this matter?
“Hojir is dead. Therefore, you are now free.”
“Master is dead!?”
Unexpectedly for Arslan, shouts of panic and anger arose.
“It was you bastards who killed him, wasn’t it!”
“Master must be avenged! Don’t let those outrageous villains escape!”
The slaves took up hoes and spades and swarmed forth.
Dariun, rushing over, leaned over from his horse to scoop up the prince’s body. Giv led over the prince’s horse. The prince was then passed over to his own mount. Had they moved even just a moment later, there was no doubt that Arslan would have been beaten to death at the slaves’ hands.
Six riders galloped out the gates as one. Elam, at the tail end, looked back to see a huge mass of loudly hollering slaves practically pouring out the gates.
Thus did they depart the fortress, galloping down the mountain trails in the middle of the night.
Though the slaves came chasing after, not only were they on foot, they were also bearing torches. There was hardly any need to be worried about being exhausted by their pursuit.
Arslan, whose good intentions had been rejected outright, sat silently on his horse. Seeing this, Narses spoke.
“To the slaves he owned, Hojir was a kind master. From those slaves’ perspective, both we and Your Highness would certainly be viewed as objects upon which to exact vengeance for their master.”
Arslan returned Narses’s gaze. His eyes glimmered with the color of an unclouded night sky.
“Why did you not inform me? That such a situation might result?”
“Even if I had informed you beforehand, Your Highness may not have been able to accept it. In this world there are things that cannot possibly be understood without firsthand experience, I believe, so I purposely refrained from stopping you.”
“… By that, are you are referring to yourself as well, Narses?”
Arslan’s question was right on target. A somewhat bittersweet expression played about Narses’s lips.
“Your Highness is aware, I believe, of my emancipation of the slaves when I succeeded my father five years ago.”
Of this matter Arslan did in fact know, for he had heard it from Dariun, albeit not in complete detail.
Five years ago, after using an unconventional stratagem to repel the invading armies of a three-way alliance between Sindhura, Turk, and Turan, Narses had then returned to his own lands. And there he discovered that, of the slaves who should have already been freed, about eighty percent had come slinking back.
They possessed neither the ability nor the sense of purpose needed to live independently as freemen. When Narses first released them, he had granted them each a year’s worth of living expenses, but they were not used to budgeting ahead with their finances. In no time at all, they squandered all their money and so came back to serve under Narses.
“The late Master was kind. Not a thing like the current Master, chasing us out like that.”
The slaves’ criticism of the young lord had given Narses a great blow. Exactly like Arslan now, five years later…
“There are slaves who serve under generous masters. There is no happier life than this. No need to think for oneself, receiving food and shelter just by carrying out orders. Five years ago, that was something I did not understand.”
Elam gazed anxiously at his beloved master.
Arslan asked once more, “However, did you not act righteously according to your own convictions? Is that not so?”
Narses seemed to sigh. “Your Highness, what one calls righteousness is perhaps not so much like the sun, but rather, like the stars. The stars in the heavens are countless, each and every last one competing to outshine the others. There’s something Dariun’s esteemed uncle always used to say. ‘You both only ever think of yourselves as being in the right.'”
On hearing those words, Dariun’s expression also turned complicated.
“Then in that case, Narses, do humans truly have no need for such things as freedom?”
“No, Your Highness. Humans are by nature creatures who seek freedom. That slaves would rather seek the bliss of chains over freedom is caused by a warped societal paradigm.” Narses hurriedly shook his head. “… No. At any rate, Your Highness, don’t be swayed by my rambling. Your Highness intends to take the high road. By all means, please continue to advance down this path.”
At this point, Dariun, who had been keeping silent, spoke up for the first time.
“And so, Your Highness, in which direction shall we head now?”
Heading south across vast parched lands would take them to the port city of Gilan. If they turned their horses east, waiting for them was the distant eastern border, where they should be able to link up with Keshvad and Bahman’s troops, currently squaring off against the Sindhuran and Turkish armies. If they proceeded west, there were patrols stationed at the western border, consisting primarily of infantry…
Where should they head?
Arslan halted his horse, and the other five stopped as well. The son of Shah Andragoras III of Pars, a boy of fourteen who should have become the 19th king of the nation, turned back to look at his party.
Suddenly, a thought arose in his heart. These five people: for just how long would they follow him like this? While they had not yet run out of patience with him, Arslan must certainly become a worthy ruler.
“To the east,” said the prince.
He must reclaim the capital and rescue both his missing father as well as his mother, held captive by the Lusitanians. For that, he required military power, and currently, the military might of Pars was concentrated primarily at the eastern border.
A few moments after that, the first rays of light broke through the night.