A single shahin falcon traversed the azure sky, flying on toward the rising sun.
This was the eastern border of Pars.
These lands, previously part of the territories of the Principality of Badakhshan, consisted of rugged mountains, deserts, and semi-arid regions. The few scattered oases, along with the fact that the region was rich in mineral deposits and served as a primary source for rubies, justified this barren land’s existence as part of the country.
If one advanced further east, one would cross the great Kaveri River into Sindhuran territory. And nestled amid the overlapping peaks immediately before one’s eyes could be seen the red sandstone silhouette of the fortress of Peshawar, wherein the Parsian troops were based.
The falcon sighted its master’s figure on the ground.
It circled wide through the sky and swooped down.
On the highest platform of Fort Peshawar stood a single man. Clad entirely in armor, he raised his left arm high as if to welcome the falcon. The shahin, alighting upon its master’s arm, stopped and voiced a single chirp, in the manner of one used to being pampered.
“There, there, Azrael, you’ve done well in coming so far.”
The man was called Keshvad. He was one of the twelve Marzbans, famed for their valor, who served under Andragoras III. At twenty-nine years of age, he was the youngest of them after Dariun. His build, tall and well-proportioned, did not lose to Dariun’s. His facial features were shapely, his beard well-trimmed, and his eyes gentle.
He was nicknamed Tahir, the dual-wielding general, for he had mastered the elusive art of handling two swords at once. During his time as a thousand-rider captain, when he patrolled the western border, the reputation he amassed against the armies of Misr as both a tactician and a swordsman was undisputed. Along the border between Pars and Misr flowed the great river of Tigris, but even there they sung his praises:
“As long as there is Tahir Keshvad, crossing the Tigris is impossible even with wings.”
Two years previously, after Pars and Misr established a temporary truce, Keshvad had been dispatched to the eastern border. This was the condition requested by Misr, but in exchange, they turned over five fortresses to the Parsians.
As Keshvad untied the sheepskin scroll attached to the shahin‘s foot and glanced over it, a soldier climbed up onto the ramparts to report to him. Keshvad’s colleague, Marzban Bahman, was asking for him.
Bahman was known as a seasoned veteran of a general. At the age of sixty-two, he was the oldest of the Marzbans.
He and Eran Vahriz, who had fallen in battle at Atropatene, had been comrades-in-arms for forty-five years. His build was short and stout, but brawnier than one might expect of one so old, and his gaze too was as sharp as a youngster’s. Both his hair and beard had grayed; disregarding that, he would have looked ten years younger.
Keshvad arrived at his quarters and entered.
“Sorry for disturbing you, sir.”
“That shahin you’re so proud of just brought back some sort of report from the royal capital Ecbatana, didn’t it?”
“You’ve got ears everywhere,” said Keshvad, chuckling as he accepted the old man’s invitation and sat down cross-legged on the carpet. A zanj slave girl set down a jug of fuqah, beer, along with silver goblets, then withdrew.
“So, good news from the capital?”
“Not very good news at all. Looks like he was unfortunately misnamed.”
Keshvad smiled wryly. Azrael was, in Parsian cosmology, a beautiful angel whose duty was to herald the death date of every human according to the will of the gods. Truly, no matter whom one asked, it was a most inauspicious name.
Ensconced within the royal capital of Ecbatana were Keshvad’s trusted subordinates, who sent back miscellaneous reports regarding the capital three times a month via falcon. It was task of great importance, involving both military matters as well as Keshvad’s personal affairs.
“… I see, so the current whereabouts of His Royal Majesty and His Highness the Crown Prince remain unknown?”
“All that has been confirmed is that Her Majesty Queen Tahmineh still lives. And that she is with the Lusitanian army, or so I am told, but beyond that, well, you know what they say about the unfathomable nature of the mountains and the seas…”
Keshvad shook his head, evidently frustrated.
The number of Lusitanian troops stationed within the royal capital of Ecbatana had been recorded upon the sheepskin parchment at an estimated 300,000. Maintaining such large army was a most difficult task; the citizens of Ecbatana spent each and every day in fear of looters.
“At any rate, if they lack sufficient rations, even the Lusitanian army has no choice but to disperse their forces to a certain extent…”
“Even we folks here don’t have an infinite number of troops on hand.”
“Indeed, even if we were to mobilize down to the last man, we would fall short of a hundred thousand.”
Currently, their deployable forces were said to number at around 20,000 cavalry and 60,000 infantry. And this was only under the assumption that it would be fine to leave the eastern border defenseless.
“If it were just about Sindhura, we could probably relax. With their king ailing, they are caught up in a dispute over the matter of successorship; between the two princes Rajendra and Gadhavi, it does not seem bloodshed can be avoided. They should not have the luxury to mount an invasion on our borders.”
However, the two kingdoms of Turk and Turan did not seem to be embroiled in internal conflict. Were the two armies to surge forth from an undefended border, then even if the capital were retaken, there would be no way to prevent half the country from falling to enemy hands.
In the end, even if they wished to mobilize at once, they could not make a move. They had no choice but to continue monitoring the situation for the moment.
Having reached this not at all satisfactory conclusion, Keshvad left the room, leaving behind Bahman, who buried his face in his hands as if utterly exhausted.
Bahman had a secret he could not divulge to his younger comrade. No — a secret that must not be known to any other person but himself.
This secret was currently stowed away inside Bahman’s personal desk. It was a single letter. One that had been sent by Eran Vahriz prior to the Battle of Atropatene. When he read it, Bahman had been able to feel his own face blanching. The old veteran who had never once shied away from the frontline in battle over the span of forty-five years now refused to view that letter a second time.
“Dear me, Lord Vahriz, what an outrageous burden of a parting gift you’ve dumped on a useless fellow like me,” the old man muttered to himself, his voice and his expression both equally heavy. “Aside from directing troops, I am incapable. To bear a secret concerning the very fate of the nation is beyond my abilities. Lord Vahriz, if only your nephew has survived, then this responsibility can at least be shared…”
Old Bahman was not a sorcerer, nor did he have the gift of foresight, and thus he had no inkling that Vahriz’s nephew Dariun was even now escorting the crown prince Arslan toward Peshawar.
“… But if worse comes to worst, perhaps even the royal line of Pars descended from the Hero King Kai Khosrow shall now come to an end. Had I known I would live to witness such days, far better to have died in the golden years of Gotarzes, King of Kings!”
Meanwhile, on top of the ramparts, Keshvad spoke to his shahin.
“Somehow, it seems like that old fellow Bahman is hiding something from me. It’s like I’m still some wet behind the ears brat unworthy of his trust. I don’t think I’m quite that unreliable…”
The falcon did not reply, content simply to rest in safety upon its master’s arm as it gazed up into the azure sky.