In early winter of the 320th year of Pars, the kingdom fell into the greatest tumult it had ever experienced since the accession of Hero King Kai Khosrow.
There had been various such events until now throughout the history of Pars. Among the royal court unfolded bouts of intrigue and assassination. So too had there been insurrections among the shahrdaran, invasions from other nations, or conversely, instances of Pars invading other nations. Peasants had revolted when they could no longer endure bad harvests or heavy taxation. Slaves had marched en masse to the deserts in search of freedom. Princes resolved to defeat their royal fathers had led troops across the eternally frozen peaks…
Even so, Pars remained Pars, a major power whose might and unity could not be swayed. Never had its royal capital been occupied by enemy countries; never had the royal throne sat empty. Until now.
That is, currently, the purportedly unrivaled cavalry of Pars had been routed at Atropatene, and the whereabouts of Shah Andragoras III were unknown. With the royal capital of Ecbatana now occupied, the Queen Consort Tahmineh had been captured by the Lusitanians, and the Crown Prince Arslan was even now fleeing through the mountains as a fugitive. Furthermore, not all of this news being circulated was entirely accurate. Misinformation and false reports jumbled together, and things being as they were, it was impossible to judge which of them to believe.
The conquering Lusitanian army, based in the key locales of the royal capital Ecbatana and the kingdom’s northwestern border, just about occupied no more than a third of the total territories of Pars. The troops, officials, and shahrdaran situated elsewhere could not even begin to guess at where their loyalties ought to be directed.
Whoever should call out for it, those various aforementioned powers would surely swarm to his support. However, if no one did so, all of them would only make preparations to deploy or wage war while adopting a wait and see approach. To make the first move without fully grasping the circumstances, only to become the first to be trounced in battle, would make for a shameful sight.
For Lusitania, the unification of these various internal factions under the banners of opposition was something that absolutely could not be allowed. While they hemmed and hawed, wavering in indecision, the Lusitanians must take advantage and crush every last one of them.
Therein lay the political significance of the callow youth of fourteen known as Arslan. There, too, lay the reason the Lusitanian army and their collaborators must prevent Arslan’s party, who numbered not even a dozen, from entering the citadel of Peshawar at all costs.
If Arslan’s party were to enter Fort Peshawar, it would result in the combination of a righteous cause and actual military power.
At this time, Hirmiz, who had been in command of the pursuing forces, ended up riding back to Ecbatana after leaving things to Zandeh. This was immediately after Narses and Afarid pulled off their escape.
“It seems that nasty little spawn of Andragoras has several vassals he hardly deserves,” muttered Hirmiz in a tone filled with self-derision, upon reuniting with the troops led by Zandeh. Not only had he himself been escaped by Narses, Zandeh too had been escaped by Dariun and company, and the other set of troops had failed to capture Arslan; all of them had wound up gathered here in this sad state, utterly empty-handed.
“I have no excuse for my failure, Your Highness.”
“No matter. What of your wound, anything serious?”
“Grateful though I am for your concern, it is but a mere flesh wound,” Zandeh replied vehemently. His eyes sparked with unflagging determination. “Even if I should lose an arm or a leg in the process, I promise I shall smash in Dariun’s skull for your pleasure. Please, just give me a little more time.”
Hirmiz believed in those grandiose words. Rather, there was nothing he could do but believe. He had no other allies to rely on, and this youth named Zandeh, as rough and unkempt as he looked, had done well enough in providing him with detailed intelligence.
“I’ll be making a return to Ecbatana. Guiscard, that bastard of a Lusitanian prince, has some need for me, it seems. In the meantime, you take command of the men in my place.”
Hirmiz spoke thus to Zandeh, but curiously enough, it was not all that reflective of reality. Hirmiz did not have even a single soldier to his own name to begin with; they had all been the late Qaran’s subordinates, and now served Zandeh. Telling Zandeh to take command was, at this point, rather unnecessary.
Yet both Hirmiz and Zandeh were very much in earnest. To the two of them, the “rightful Shah of Pars and his affiliated court” were very much a real existence. And so, Zandeh had merely been entrusted temporarily with the royal army itself.
“May the Hero King Kai Khosrow watch over His Highness Hirmiz!”
As Zandeh and his men bowed reverently to his back, Hirmiz spurred his horse north toward Ecbatana.
On his horse, Hirmiz sank into contemplation. He had long tired of acting subordinate to the Lusitanians. That mad ape Bodin, the disgusting King Innocentius, who substituted sugar water for wine, and the rest of their ilk could be dealt with anytime, he thought.
The only one who could not be taken lightly was the king’s shrewd younger brother, Guiscard.
On his part, he was using Guiscard to maintain his own standing among the Lusitanian army. “The man of the silver mask” — that is, Hirmiz — was certainly not a figure looked kindly upon by a single Lusitanian. These sentiments simply remained unvoiced out of fear that they would reach Guiscard’s ears. And yet, at times even Guiscard’s eyes flickered with something peculiar when he looked at Hirmiz, didn’t they? Perhaps the time had come to consider severing his connections after all.
Nevertheless, that he who was the rightful Shah of the great nation of Pars must still scurry back and forth between the capital and the frontier at Guiscard’s bidding… Hirmiz’s lips curled into a deeply bitter smile beneath his mask. But even that would come to an end soon enough. Righteousness would be restored to Pars.
By righteousness, he meant the rule of the rightful Shah. Ever since that day sixteen long years ago, Hirmiz had held continually to this belief.
In a chamber beneath the capital, the gray-robed sorcerer was receiving a report from his disciples. The report of a death among their ranks.
“Arzhang has been killed? That was unexpectedly quick.”
“‘Tis truly shameful. We who are his comrades have been disgraced before thee, Master. Please, we beg of thee a chance to restore our honor.”
“Nay, enough. No need for further penance.”
The man laughed briefly. He could no longer be referred to as an elder. With every passing night and day, youth and vitality were restored to him.
“The magic art of ghadaq can be broken by pouring oil into the earth and setting it aflame, or by soaking the ground with poisoned water. Either way, not a thing can be done about it. The only thing is, no crude backwater peasant could have possibly been clever enough to think of such. Arzhang could only have been felled by one far more capable than himself.”
“Master, what manner of individual could that possibly be?”
As both the man’s tone and expression alike were vague, the other sorcerers were unable to comprehend their master’s true feelings.
“In any case, no one who wishes for the second coming of our lord the Serpent King Zahhak, I am sure. More importantly, following Arzhang, someone must once more dispose of a notable Lusitanian personage.”
From the hem of his gray robes, the sorcerer’s finger stretched out, indicating a single point in the darkness.
“Sanjeh, this I command thee…”