Even as Guiscard enacted his own personal battle against his royal brother, the archbishop, and the Knight Commander, Hirmiz left the Parsian nobleman’s estate that had been allocated him, his footsteps leading him to a single residential building toward the back of the grounds. He meant to call upon a certain convalescent.
This convalescent was Marzban Saam of Pars.
He was a man who had suffered near mortal wounds in valorous combat during the fall of the royal capital Ecbatana. Had it not been for his command of the defenses, the fall of Ecbatana should have been all the more swift. Moreover, had his proposed ploy — to emancipate the slaves and allow them to join the defensive efforts — been utilized by Queen Tahmineh, the fall of the royal capital may very well have been delayed yet further.
King Andragoras had not been without reason in entrusting the capital’s defense to him.
Tarrying at the entrance of the sickroom, Hirmiz observed Saam through his silver mask.
Saam glared in return. His torso was swathed in gauze, but his spirit had not diminished in the slightest.
After the brief clash of gazes, Hirmiz cast forth his voice. “You do not kneel to greet me?”
“I am a Marzban of Pars. The Marzbans of Pars bow to none but the gods in the heavens, and upon this earth to one man alone: the Shah of Pars.” Saam’s eyes blazed fiercely. “Why should I, sirrah, bend my knee to one of your ilk, who associates with the barbarians of Lusitania? If you dare wish for such, then kill me! Once you’ve killed me, go ahead and force my corpse to its knees!”
Saam grimaced. Beneath the gauze, his wounds throbbed.
“That integrity of yours pleases me,” Hirmiz muttered in a tone of utter sincerity, then took a single step into the room. His boots settled on the carpet upon an image of the undying huma bird.
“I am qualified to command your obeisance.”
“… Qualified, you say?”
“I am indeed most qualified, oh Saam. Why? For I am the true Shah of Pars.”
“… Have you lost your fucking mind?”
“I am in perfect possession of my senses, as I shall prove to you now. My father was King Osroes V of Pars, and my uncle is the usurper Andragoras.”
Saam, sucking in his breath, raised his eyes to the gleaming silver mask. Across his keen warrior’s face flashed a hectic succession of expressions.
“So? You know my name, don’t you?”
“Prince Hirmiz…? It can’t be, it can’t be. The prince was supposed to have passed away in that incident sixteen years ago, that fire, was he not? For him to be alive and here should not…”
Saam’s voice broke off. Hirmiz unfastened the clasp of his mask with his hand, exposing his face to the Marzban’s view: both the white elegance of the left half and the dark red of the tragically burnt right.
The Marzban’s gaze focused on Hirmiz’s left. It seemed he sought there for some trace of the former king, Osroes V.
“Then, my prince, thou’rt still alive…?”
Saam moaned. He who had been counted among the strongest heroes of Pars trembled uncontrollably despite his injured body. Until now, he had been determined to believe that the man of the silver mask was naught but a pawn of the Lusitanian army.
“And yet, and yet, where is the evidence?”
“Evidence? This fire-ravaged face, my hate for Andragoras. What more proof do you need?”
Hirmiz’s voice was not all that loud, but it struck the very air of the room like thunder. The last of Saam’s resistance shattered; his shoulders slumped, and his head drooped.
By the time he lifted his face again, the man of the silver mask had already departed. Saam, staring at the shut door, mumbled, half-dazed, “Oh, Saam, which of them are you going to pledge your service to now…?”
A mounted company came galloping through the gates of Ecbatana.
Had they been Lusitanian troops, this would not be quite so shocking. However, those who had come riding, with their helms of Maryamian make glittering under the sunlight and their fluttering mantles of Serican silk, were quite evidently Parsians.
The Lusitanian soldiers shouted out in challenge, demanding identification. They thrust out their spears to obstruct the riders’ path.
With a sharp flick of his wrist, the young rider at the company’s fore tossed a thin bronze token at the soldiers. By the time the soldier who hastily caught it confirmed that it was one of the travel permits issued by the royal prince Guiscard, the company’s horses had already clattered onto the cobblestone and were now galloping on their way.
Their destination, however, did not lie with Guiscard.
Hirmiz, only just returned home from visiting Saam, stared wordlessly at the company of riders that seemed to have flooded his doorstep. The young fellow who dismounted at this point knelt reverently before him.
“Your Highness, I am able, for the first time, to present myself at your will. I am called Zandeh. My father was Marzban Qaran of Pars. This time, so that I might serve Your Highness in place of my late father, I have rushed here from my domains to pay my respects.”
Beneath his mask, Hirmiz’s eyes widened.
“I see, you are Qaran’s son?”
The young man was perhaps nineteen years old, at most barely twenty. Subtracted from him was the weighty presence of his deceased father, but in exchange, his countenance possessed an additional ferocity.
Perhaps, in terms of indomitability, he even surpassed his late father Qaran. The impression he gave of virile intensity was to such an extent.
Hirmiz recalled the promise he had made to himself. I must take personal responsibility for Qaran’s bereaved family, he had thought. Hirmiz answered the youth with a gesture for him to rise. Then he welcomed him into his quarters. The youth’s subordinates, numbering aorund thirty, were bidden to rest in the hall. Hirmiz sat down on the carpet cross-legged and invited his young guest to follow suit.
“I shall drive the accursed usurper Andragoras from Pars, sweep away the barbarians of Lusitania, and reinstate the legitimate bloodline. Afterward, I intended to appoint your father Eran, high commander of the armies of Pars. However, now that he has passed, this office can only be offered to none other but you.”
Under Hirmiz’s gaze, the youth bearing the name of Zandeh was deeply moved. His belief in Hirmiz’s legitimacy grew resolute.
“I am most grateful to accept your request; Father, too, must be rejoicing in the other world. I must needs repay Your Highness’s favor, and moreover, as a son, take revenge for my father. Upon my word, before the last of winter’s frost melts, Your Highness shall behold before you the heads of the three traitors Arslan, Dariun, and Narses!”
“I look forward to it.”
Beneath his silver mask, Hirmiz laughed in evident delight. However, if Qaran’s son were one who had experienced the extent of hardship his father had, no doubt he would have perceived the slightest trace of cynicism within that laughter. Hirmiz was well aware that Dariun was no easy foe. The nephew of Eran Vahriz was the first man who had ever crossed swords with him in an even match.
On the other hand, when it came to Dariun’s confederate, the man named Narses, he knew nothing in detail.
“Just now you mentioned Narses, but just what sort of fellow is he?”
Thus did Hirmiz, for the first time, grasp the history behind the individual called Narses. The true colors of the self-proclaimed “court artist” who had cooperated with Dariun about ten days previously were established now at long last.
“Is that so? Through words alone, he forced the armies of three nations into retreat?”
His voice sounded muffled coming through the silver mask.
Unfair, isn’t it? thought Hirmiz.
That detestable son of Andragoras, Arslan. He, an immature child of no more than fourteen, received the services of Dariun and Narses, such talents that the sovereigns of any land would salivate over. And yet he, Hirmiz, the rightful Shah of Pars, was able to command only a single youthful subordinate whose experience was not even equal to his own.
Hirmiz wanted, at the very least, to obtain the services of Saam. Once he swore his allegiance, with his courage and wisdom he would surely become an excellent and most trusted retainer for Hirmiz. But for the time being, Hirmiz’s only support was the strength of the youth called Zandeh.
“I had ordered your late father to investigate the whereabouts of the usurper’s brat. However, no matter what he attempted, in the end Qaran found nothing, and met with untimely death. So? Have you any idea, perchance, of where that insolent pup Arslan has been hiding?”
“It is my pleasure to be able to report to Your Highness Hirmiz regarding this matter.”
Zandeh’s eyes were shining.
Hirmiz focused on the youth. As long as he had donned the silver mask to conceal his identity, he must never be addressed by his true name, he said. Sooner or later he must inform Saam of this as well. Though there was no way to declare such a thing lightly.
“I hear and obey. As for Arslan and his party, though, it seems they headed south.”
Zandeh proceeded to detail Arslan and company’s movements with considerable accuracy.
Hirmiz muttered, as if checking his memories, “Indeed, there should be a castle in those mountains held by one of the shahrdaran, Hojir. Has the man thrown in his lot with that damned Arslan?”
“As for that, it seems that on the contrary, he has fallen at the hands of Arslan’s party.”
“And the reason things came to this?”
“The details are unknown to me, but according to what I heard, Hojir attempted injury upon Dariun and Narses in order to take the role of Arslan’s guardian for himself, only to be beaten at his own game…”
Hirmiz nodded. His silver mask rattled slightly with the sound of cold laughter.
“A fitting death for that fool. Naivety befitting a child. A man of insatiable greed, without any comprehension of his own station.”
“It is indeed as you say. My own father had no high opinion of Hojir either. By the way, Your Highness…”
“Desist with the Highness.”
“As — as you say. In what manner would it be best for me to address Your Highness?”
“Just call me Lord Silvermask. Hardly a name, but there is no form of address more fitting.”
The topic of conversation changed. Rumors of the monster that had wormed its way beneath the capital, killing off the leadership of the Lusitanian army, had reached Zandeh’s ears as well. Naturally, a gag order had been issued, but it had been of no use.
“Somehow, the talk has gotten troubling. Can it possibly be sorcery, as some are claiming?”
“I have heard of ghadaq, a form of earth sorcery; I daresay that is it,” Hirmiz remarked casually, upon which Zandeh, with a spooked look, examined the carpet and the surrounding floor.
“Concern yourself not. We are not likely to be harmed.”
Hirmiz had already figured out who was behind everything. Concealed within that subterranean chamber unknown to the Lusitanian army, creeping about in the shadows: the elder robed in gray. This was his doing.
“What mischief is he plotting, that slime of a sorcerer? There’s no place for him out here on this earth, surely,” Hirmiz muttered to himself. Within those contemptuous words echoed, if only slightly, a hint of doubt and unease. Of course, none of this was clear enough for Zandeh to recognize.