The long night passed.
The man of the silver mask — Hirmiz, son of the 17th King of Pars, Osroes V — was observing the various incidents that had occurred among the occupying Lusitanian forces with the iciness of a thousand-year blizzard. The monster who killed men with a hand stretched out from the ground. The panic the Lusitanians had gotten themselves all worked up into regarding said creature. To Hirmiz, these were all nothing more than targets for his cold laughter.
The chair facing him right now was an enormous one, with a back for reclining and two armrests, along with silk upholstery. In it sat a single guest. The Lusitanian king’s younger brother and Hirmiz’s ostensible superior, Duke Guiscard. He was wiping at his face with a silken handkerchief. And not because he was sweating. Rather, it seemed, in order to conceal his expression.
“You have asked me to hand over Andragoras. Is that an order?”
Guiscard was fazed by the chilly gaze directed at him through the slits of the silver mask. Although he trusted in and took advantage of the abilities of the man of the silver mask, not once had he ever allowed him free rein.
“It is not an order; I merely asked if you might not consider it.”
“The agreement, I believe, was that I would be granted full and absolute custody of Andragoras. In exchange, I asked for no other recompense.”
Having made his refusal more or less apparent, Hirmiz, changing his tune, began to make inquiries into the matter. For Guiscard to go back on his previous promise, he must without a doubt have his reasons.
And the account of events that came from Guiscard’s mouth was most incredible to Hirmiz.
“In other words, Tahmineh said that as long as she has not witnessed the severed head of Andragoras, she cannot marry King Innocentius?”
The light emanating from the eyes of the silver mask grew harsh. Hirmiz had considered Tahmineh a demonic woman from the start. What mischief was this witch who had seduced both his father and his uncle plotting now, he wondered.
“You understand too, don’t you. King Andragoras is not long for the world; in this matter, both my brother and Archbishop Bodin share the same stake. It goes without saying that my brother sees Andragoras as a hindrance to his marriage with Queen Tahmineh.”
“And the archbishop?”
“That bastard’s already starved for heathen blood to begin with. No matter whom you listen to, when it comes down to it, Andragoras is better off dead.”
Hirmiz shook his head slightly, his silver mask moving along with him.
“If that dog Andragoras is killed, then that’s that. However, if his life is preserved, there are various ways we can use him.”
Guiscard nodded, but it was a somewhat affected gesture.
“It is precisely because I felt the same that I left Andragoras in your charge. On this point, my thoughts remain unchanged.”
“If that is so…”
“Don’t misunderstand me; it is not I who needs convincing. It’s my brother and Bodin.”
For the first time, the intensity of Guiscard’s expression relaxed.
Hirmiz fell silent. Looking at him in that moment, with his silver mask and tall, armor-clad figure, it was as if one gazed upon one of the temple’s statues depicting Verethragna, the god of victory. From early childhood, he had been prodigious in matters both martial and scholarly, and his late father the king had often remarked the following:
“This child shall someday become a far greater king than the likes of me.”
Certainly this should have been so. If only accursed Andragoras had not committed the great sin of fratricide! How could anyone suggest that the bastard be allowed to die so easily?
“In that case, Your Royal Highness, what result do you yourself wish for?”
“The stage isn’t mine to act upon, this time. It all depends on my brother and Bodin.”
Beneath his mask, Hirmiz’s lips twisted into a sneer. He could not help thinking that Guiscard’s considerations were quite transparent. After having Andragoras killed, the antagonism between King Innocentius and Archbishop Bodin would surely grow all the fiercer. It could not help but become this way. King Innocentius wished to wed Queen Tahmineh. Archbishop Bodin, of course, opposed this, and would interfere.
And well, then what?
Under the temptation of Queen Tahmineh, would King Innocentius banish Bodin, or perhaps even have him executed? If that were to transpire, then what of the Templars led by Bodin, how would they respond? Tremble in fury, unable to speak a word? Or perhaps, on the contrary, they would incite their fellow believers to seek vengeance against the king.
On the other hand, what would Archbishop Bodin do? Was he really the helpless type who would meekly sit around waiting to be exiled or executed? No doubt he would denounce King Innocentius as a vow-breaker and apostate and drag him from the throne. After that, there was no way he could possibly accede to the throne himself, so he would probably need to find a suitable puppet to act according to his will.
In any case, the question of whether Innocentius VII’s fate was to live happily ever after or not would not be so easily settled. There was no mistaking that Guiscard was anticipating such a turn of events.
Before long, Guiscard left Hirmiz’s room. He had not expected an immediate reply to begin with. At this time, one of the knights under his command came running up in a hurry. He whispered something in Guiscard’s ear, upon which Guiscard’s expression instantly transformed.
“What? You say the Templars of Sion have already arrived — ?”
The royal prince Guiscard reproached himself for underestimating Bodin’s guile.
When he first began to conflict against Innocentius VII with regard to the treatment of Queen Tahmineh, Bodin had already dispatched a messenger to Maryam to summon that order of crusading knights who fought on behalf of the church.
The Templars numbered a total of 24,000 knights. Fewer than the regular Lusitanian army, but after all was said and done, their true strength was their religious authority. If the Templars were to raise the holy banners of silver on black at their fore, the Lusitanian army would likely sheathe their blades and dismount without even putting up a fight.
The gates had been flung wide open; the sight of the arrayed Templars riding en masse into the city brought a smile laden with triumph to Bodin’s face. Guiscard gritted his teeth. The nearby knights watched on in extreme consternation, raising a clamor.
Close to noon, Innocentius VII broke into a cold sweat as he faced down Bodin, who had come to negotiate accompanied by Hildiger, the commander of the Templars.
“We shall wed Tahmineh. We shall name her empress of the new Empire of Lusitania. And We shall name the child she gives birth to Our successor.”
Despite his quavering voice, Innocentius VII managed to finish what he had to say. No doubt he’d had to gather up every last speck of courage in his body. Guiscard, standing in support beside him, found himself surprised; he was impressed, if only slightly, by his brother’s dedication to Tahmineh.
“Good heavens. To think that His Majesty the King of Lusitania, Defender of the Faith, could actually lose his mind like this…” Knight Commander Hildiger put on a shocked display, but his derision was clear to see. “Do you think we journeyed all this way from Maryam just to hear such balderdash?”
He was quite composed even as he dumped such rude words as “balderdash” upon the king of an entire nation. As one who took pride in answering directly to God and God alone, it seemed he chose to disregard such worldly concepts as etiquette.
With that, Hildiger smiled faintly, then fell silent. His dark auburn beard shook slightly with every breath he took.
“Whatever you choose, the final decision is Your Majesty’s. Shall your name be immortalized for the ages, remembered as that of a holy man, a royal saint, the earthly embodiment of the glory of Ialdabaoth Himself? Or else, shall you be a traitor to the faith, condemned for eternity, roasting forevermore in the fires of hell? Which shall you become?” Bodin glared at the king, his two eyes like blazing coals.
The word “hell” was something that had terrified Innocentius VII ever since he was a babe. In a flash, the blood drained from the king’s face, and he clutched the armrests of his chair as if seeking succor. He gazed at his younger brother, his lips moving soundlessly.
Guiscard ignored him. This was not due to any particular ill intent on his part. Having gained such a strong ally in the Templars, Bodin would only grow more and more brazen. Unless he drew up countermeasures, it would be no time before Guiscard was forced into a dangerous position himself.