Ecbatana, the royal capital of Pars, had been occupied by the invading Lusitanian army ever since autumn of the year 320.
Until only recently, Ecbatana had been a beautiful city. Certainly there existed hypocrisies within their social fabric and disparities between the poor and the rich, but nonetheless palaces and temples of marble shone beneath the splendorous light of the sun; poplars and waterways lined the stone-paved paths on either side; and come spring, laleh, or tulips, bloomed in fragrant profusion.
The transformation from beautiful to grotesque transpired in a mere instant. In the immediate aftermath of the Lustianian invasion, Ecbatana had been strewn with blood and corpses and human waste; even now, not much had changed. From the Parsians’ perspective, the filthiness and ignorant vulgarity of the Lusitanians, especially of their rank and file, was truly unbelievable. They did not bathe nearly often enough, their doctors had no knowledge of anesthetic techniques, and they marveled at the sight of Serican paper. They simply rode high on their status as conquerors, taking even the slightest offense as an excuse to draw blades and cut down common citizens.
These arrogant oppressors, all of them officers and subordinates of the Lusitanian army, were thrown into a panic by an incident that occurred at the start of winter.
That was the bizarre end of a certain influential man — who was not only Count, Knight Commander, and General, but also an ordained bishop — by the name of Pedraos.
… On that night, the fifth of the twelfth month, Pedraos, drunk on Parsian white wine, was swaggering back to his self-appointed residences along with several knights. He was gloating on loudly and heedlessly about just how he’d have all those wicked heathens punished. He would boil a huge pot of oil and have some heathen spawn tossed in to fry, then threaten its parents at swordpoint into eating it — so he boldly proclaimed. After that, the mother would go mad and the father would attack Pedraos barehanded, only to be sliced into pieces.
The knights accompanying him were naturally disturbed by such extreme cruelty, some even to the point of nausea, but under the watchful gaze of such a powerful authority as Pedraos, they could only offer forced laughter in response. For it was well known that an attendant had once roused Pedraos’s temper and gotten his eyes gouged out for his trouble.
Before long, Pedraos, parting from the rest of the company, stepped into a laleh flowerbed to relieve himself. No Parsian noble, though likewise of privileged rank, would ever behave so. To begin with, the fact that Lusitanian dwellings often did not even have latrines was something that the Parsians, who took such things for granted wherever there was a sewage system, were unaware of.
It happened suddenly.
A confused cry spilled from Count Pedraos’s mouth. The knights and nearby sentries, glancing back in surprise, were unable to comprehend in that moment what could have possibly happened.
The count, leaning backwards, staggered, and after reaching for the sword at his waist, toppled to the ground. The knights and sentries rushed over in alarm, ready to come to his aid. Only then did they see that some sort of blade had bored deeply into the count’s lower abdomen, from which blood and entrails were now pouring out.
Not a single person mourned the death of Pedraos, but seeing as the man had been murdered, they couldn’t afford not to locate the culprit. They surveyed their surroundings, peering through the darkness of the night. Then they discovered it. A hand grasped around a sword, sprouting from the ground about five steps away. Before their dumbfounded gazes, both sword and hand vanished swiftly into the earth.
One knight ran over, drew his broadsword from its scabbard, and stabbed it into the ground. The blade met with pebbles and dirt, but nothing else.
In the next instant, a white light flashed about the knight’s knees.
A more sickening scene appeared then. The knight’s body, chopped off at the knees, fell to the earth in a sliding motion. What remained of his two legs continued to stand, lined up on the ground…
“It’s a monster. One of the wicked heathens’ fiendish demons is submerged beneath our feet!”
Terror and panic engulfed them. To them, anything they could not explain with the teachings of Ialdabaoth or through personal experience was considered the work of evil demons. Incomprehensible foreign languages were demonic tongues, civilizations that had developed independently from different belief systems were demonic cultures. And what they had experienced just now was surely proof of the existence of such demons and monsters.
When the direction of the night wind shifted, suddenly wafting the scent of blood to their nostrils, one man uttered a cry and ran off. With abrupt cries of their own, the others followed suit.
“Save me, oh Ialdabaoth!”
That shout was probably the most sincere prayer of their lives.
After they had all escaped, only the dark night and two corpses remained. One other, a single hand wielding a sword, glinted white as it wriggled in the darkness, but only for a moment before vanishing leisurely back into the ground…
Upon receiving the report of this freakish incident, Duke Guiscard, the de facto commander of the Lusitanian troops, as well as the younger brother of the king, headed to the royal palace.
The archbishop and Grand Inquisitor Bodin was waiting beside the king, and looked askance at Guiscard with a gaze overflowing with poison. Or so Guiscard felt, at least.
“So you’ve come already, right on cue.”
To himself, Guiscard cursed silently.
King Innocentius VII of Lusitania raised a silver goblet of sugar water to his lips, his eyes flickering back and forth in a state of agitation. Though he was not a man with the firmest grasp on reality, he was at the very least aware of the enmity between his younger brother and the archbishop.
Today, the first one to lapse into sarcasm had been Guiscard. He was already not in the best of moods, for he had been in bed with a Parsian woman, a freeborn azat whose looks were much to his taste, when he’d been called out.
“Your Most Reverend Eminence, this is but a trifling, worldly concern, not at all a matter pertaining to the glory of Heaven. There is no need for Your Eminence to trouble yourself.”
His tone was polite, but Guiscard’s eyes were clearly saying something else: “Don’t you meddle in this, you fraud of a saint.”
Bodin was not the sort of person who could be described as tactful. He was the kind of man who, from time to time, would even lambaste the king, Innocentius VII himself. A man in whose physical existence was represented all of the exclusionary and self-righteous elements of the Ialdabaothan faith, as if all the mighty authority of the church had donned vestments to walk about in human form.
“Though you say so, Your Royal Highness, I think otherwise. Count Pedraos, who was killed by this heathen monster, was not only a valued minister of the court but also a leader of the church. In the name of God, he must be avenged upon the people of this evil-infested land. So you see, this is in fact a matter pertaining to the glory of Heaven.”
“Indeed, the life of a single disciple of Ialdabaoth is worth a thousand heathen lives. As for the life of a holy man…”
Only ten thousand heathen lives would be sufficient compensation. Thus did Archbishop Bodin declare.
“This is what the Archbishop suggests, Guiscard, but what about you, my brother?” inquired Innocentius VII, cradling his goblet of sugar water in his hands.
Bodin, you bastard. You’re more than a religious zealot, you’re a regular madman, Guiscard thought with a silent cluck to himself. Any human being who possessed the slightest sense of decency, like Guiscard himself, should have been considering the necessity of tracking down and capturing the true culprit.
“If it is just a matter of burning ten thousand people at the stake, one supposes there still remains the question of what shall be done about venue and kindling,” Innocentius VII continued, oblivious to his brother’s feelings and rather missing the point with his concerns. Guiscard just barely managed to suppress a sudden urge to scream at him.
Bodin spoke up once more.
“Just to clarify, I mean to have them roasted bit by bit, without building up any smoke.”
Once again Guiscard refrained from clucking his tongue.
It was not incorrect that death by fire was already a cruel method of execution to begin with, but the truth was, there existed plenty of other, crueler forms of punishment. Typically when one referred to execution by fire, it was when a fire was built up with kindling for some time, creating a shroud of smoke, so that the sentenced criminal would suffocate on the fumes or lose consciousness before dying. What was called execution by fire was not a literal death by burning, but referred rather to the religiously symbolic purification of the transgressor’s sins within the fire.
However, to speak of killing gradually, without building up smoke — this referred to something else entirely. To put into other words, it was to have the transgressor burned to death while still conscious. The suffering of one sentenced thus is surely beyond imagination.
“The composition of these ten thousand sinners must not be biased in any way. For they must atone for the sins of all of Pars. They shall be split half male and half female; infants, children, youths, adults, and the elderly should each compose one fifth of the sum.”
“So the honorable Archbishop means to have two thousand infants and two thousand children killed?”
What a preposterous suggestion! But Guiscard held his tongue for the third time. To kill ten thousand innocent people would no doubt increase the hatred directed at the Lusitanian army by tenfold.
It was not that Guiscard sympathized particularly with the heathens’ plight. Nor was he an especially compassionate individual. However, Guiscard was not just considering things from a politician’s perspective, he also happened to possess something the other two lacked — that is, common sense.
“I entreat you, Archbishop, to appreciate our present circumstances. We occupy the royal capital of Pars and have secured lines of communication with Maryam, but that is all. Of our unfinished conquest of the rest of Pars one cannot even begin to speak.”
“Naturally, I understand. For that very reason must we impart to the infidels the supreme glory of Ialdabaoth and absolute might of Lusitania. If for such purposes bloodshed cannot be avoided, then by the will of God it should not be avoided.”
“The problem lies not just with Pars. Misr, Turan, Turk, Sindhura — one cannot say when the border nations shall bare their fangs and launch an attack. If these nations’ military forces are combined, their number should not total less than one million. Our troops number 300,000, and cannot possibly hope to counter them. I would not like to see us make waves within the borders any more than we already have…”
What Guiscard said may have been exaggerated, but it was no lie. For instance, taking Turan as an example, if they were to invade with the purport of providing succor to Pars in her time of need, Lusitania would be in no position to cry foul.
Yet Archbishop Bodin settled the entire matter in a handful of words.
“What need is there to fear the likes of a million heathens? Any paladin blessed with the protection of God can crush a hundred heathens or so by himself alone.”
Guiscard, not in the mood for debate, remained silent, but at the archbishop’s next words, his eyes very nearly bulged out of their sockets.
“If a time comes when the situation has gotten out of Duke Guiscard’s capable hands, those servants of God stationed at Maryam, the Templars of Sion, need only be called upon to join this holy crusade…”
King Innocentius VII, seemingly flustered, turned to glance at his younger brother. He set his silver goblet down on a table imported from Serica; the sugar water churned out, soaking the red sandalwood surface.
“You are saying, Archbishop, that you mean to summon the Templars here from Maryam?”
For Guiscard to parrot the Archbishop’s words so gracelessly was an indication of just how disturbed he was by this. The military might of the Templars under Bodin’s religious leadership formed a combination that posed a serious threat to royal authority. It was because he had thought of all this that Guiscard had spent so much effort plotting to make sure the Templars were kept behind in Maryam and not brought to Pars. Now that had all come to naught.
Bodin watched Guiscard with a faint smile playing about his lips.
“It seems they’ve already had around 1,500,000 heathens and heretics killed in Maryam. Moreover, it seems more than half of those were women, children, aged, or ailing; an impressive record, you must admit.”
Guiscard’s eyes were practically spitting fire as he glared sidelong at Innocentius VII. The one who had permitted such wanton carnage was none other than his brother the king.
“Only through the most severe of deaths can the infidels receive redemption for their sins. This is the will of Ialdabaoth; such is His mercy.”
Bodin took the tone of one whom no slight breeze could hope to shake. A towering tree in the form of a man, with sprawling roots burrowed deep within the ground of prejudice and fanaticism. That was what Bodin was. Made aware of this all over again, Guiscard could not help but feel a chill. And this although he was hardly a man of weak will.
“But surely there is no need to go so far as killing women and children…”
“Sooner or later a woman shall give birth. When her child matures, he becomes a heathen warrior. The old and the sick too were once heathen warriors, at whose hands no doubt lie the deaths of Ialdabaoth’s followers.” Bodin raised his voice in triumph. “All this is the desire of God, as well as His aim. Thus do we carry out His wishes. Not for mortal purposes. Thus do we realize His will. Have you any objections, Duke Guiscard?”
Guiscard kept silent. There was no way to hold any sort of discussion with someone who kept bringing up God at every turn.
Bodin’s cheap trick of dragging God into anything and everything just to justify his own behavior, and his stubborn lack of self-awareness over the fact that he wasn’t playing fair: Guiscard’s loathing of it all currently knew no bounds. Suddenly, a way to strike back, however slightly, occurred to him.
“Be that as it may, there remains one point of doubt regarding tonight’s incident that I cannot quite resolve. I would like to request your edification, Archbishop.”
“And what point would that be, Your Royal Highness?”
“Why, just a simple matter. Why did Ialdabaoth not rescue His faithful devotees from that demonic sorcery, I wonder?”
His voice pierced into the archbishop’s ear like a poisoned arrow. Guiscard, for the first time that night, tasted victory against his foe.
“You dare speak such blasphemy? You –” Bodin’s tone grew rough, but as expected, he hesitated, no doubt on account of his opponent’s rank. Or perhaps he had some other ulterior motive. His expression swiftly wiped blank, and he said, primly, “One such as myself cannot presume to make suppositions about the vast and boundless wisdom of God.”
Having only now at last expressed himself as befitting a holy man, Bodin took his leave, and Guiscard spat at the marble floor. This was, again, something no Parsian aristocrat would ever do, but Guiscard, even with this, was holding back the full brunt of his feelings.
King Innocentius spoke up then to his ill-tempered brother. He drew close with a wheedling voice:
“Oh, Guiscard, I’ve something much more important than all that to tell you; won’t you hear me out?”
“Huh, and what’s that?”
The prince’s response was not enthusiastic.
“Well, the truth is, Tahmineh, in regards to King Andragoras in the underground jail…”
“Begged for his release, did she?”
“No, no, she wants the man’s head, or else she cannot marry me — that is what she says.”
For a moment, Guiscard, quite naturally, lost his voice.
Tahmineh was the queen of Pars, who was currently being held captive in the palace. And it was that very same woman who was now begging for the head of her husband, Andragoras III!? What in the world was the meaning of this? There had to be some sort of catch.
“Now that she mentions it, ’tis only reasonable. As long as that man lives, Tahmineh would be committing the sin of bigamy. ‘Tis good that she has resolved herself to this.”
There was no ill will in the king’s rejoicing. That Tahmineh was making the first step towards wedding him was his firm belief, one utterly free of doubt.
Of course, Guiscard’s considerations were entirely different from his brother the king’s.
“Apparently that beautiful queen is actually a formidable witch in disguise…”
That this thought occurred to Guiscard was because he was considering whether or not the queen had seen through the dissension that had arisen among the upper echelons of the Lusitanian army.