(By Juan Cole)
The Fall of the New Year Throne
(To read this sword and sorcery novel as it has unfolded before this installment, click here)
Matroyao felt as though she were cutting off both of her legs at the knee, but she had no choice. Jamshid was too suspicious to leave her quarters unguarded for a moment, and she guessed that unseen spies lurked beyond the guards. There was no way for her to spirit her daughters out of the palace without being caught. She herself, however, might well succeed in her desperate attempt at escape.
She had dressed in the blue tunic and conical hat of the zaotars and was accompanying Vandid Khim though the corridors. One of his beardless neophyte priests had stayed behind, and would try to leave unnoticed later in the day.
The guards stopped them, looking into the eyes of each priest. Matroyao froze.
“Why are you leaving so soon?”
Vandid Khim stared at him with the authority of an elder. “We priests are not like the nobles, who conduct business at leisure, son. We cannot risk the sacred flames at the temple going out while we remain here.”
One of the guards came up to each priest, examining his features carefully. Matroyao knew that any hint of nervousness on her part could be fatal at this moment. She also knew that to feign being noncommital was the most difficult act in the world.
He took her by the chin. “You should stay.”
Her heart thumped. Had he recognized her?
“What is the meaning of this?” Vandid Khim flashed his anger.
“His features are fine.” He looked down on her from a height. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay the night, boy? The immortals could offer you a great deal of entertainment!”
The other guards guffawed. “He wouldn’t be able to sit down for a month afterwards!”
Vandid Khim harrumphed. “The zoatars uphold the order of the realm. They are not to be trifled with, especially when apoasha roams beyond the walls of Aratta.”
The guards sourly motioned to them to pass.
Matroyao had been sure the man would recognize her. But she was well aware that clothing and occasion were powerful pieces of legerdemain. The eye only saw superficially and let the other things fill in the details.
Outside the gates, they descended into the bustling city, making their way to the temple. There, Matroyao changed into the clothing of a peasant woman. The coarse cloth scratched and made her itch on the back between the should blades, where her hands could scarce reach. She picked up an empty straw basket, as though she had brought in vegetables to sell from her village and had unloaded her wares.
Vandid Khim brought her a donkey. “It is not the steed you deserve, my lady, but a peasant woman on horseback would never be allowed to pass the gates.”
“You are risking everything, old man. I fear for your life if Jamshid ever comes to suspect your role.”
“There is no reason for him to. Besides, an father who has already buried his eldest son has little reason to live.”
Matroyao felt tears sting her eyes. She had seen Jamshid’s brutal murder of Zopyrus with her own eyes, and felt ashamed that her own husband had committed such a crime. She knew it was the constant imbibing of haoma that had driven the shah mad.
“I am sorry, Vandid Khim.”
“It is a matter unrelated to you, my lady. It is between Nar and zoatar now. It is well that you will not be here when the two clash.”
“I’ll find a way to come back and stop it, old man. Don’t despair. And who knows, perhaps Jamshid will sober up and experience some remorse.”
“My lady, when a die is cast, it cannot be rolled again. The shah has shaken the cup, and snake eyes have come up.”
She mounted the donkey with both legs hanging over its right side, and tried to accustom herself to its choppy gait. At the city gate, the guard waved her through without a second look. She was one of hundreds coming and going that day.
Vandid Khim had attempted to dissuade her from this perilous journey alone. But she had a premonition that first Jamshid would proclaim a divorce, and then he would announce an execution. Yimak would not want a divorced wife in the same city, lest the shah ever entertain regrets and rekindle the old flame. She was ruthless and had gained an iron hold on her brother.
Matroyao struck out north toward Ecbatana and the palace of Dioce Shah. Her posterior already was sore from her steed’s unfamiliar rhythm, but she dared not slow his pace. A gaited donkey, he had been trained by the priests to move faster than a trot, even though he appeared only to be walking. Her heart ached when she thought about Scheheranaz and Arnavaz, her little girls. How horrified they would be to discover her gone! Would that fearsome Yimak take an interest in them, warping their souls?
She most feared being exposed at night, or meeting rogues on the highway. In one of the saddlebags she had stowed a bow and a quiver full of arrows, but did not know if she could get to them fast enough if she were waylaid. She could not sling them over her shoulder, for that would mark her as a warrior on the run. No peasant would be permitted to travel armed, and a soldier under orders would be on horseback and likely in the company of others.
More than the dangers of the road, she was apprehensive of Jamshid’s seven-ringed goblet, in which he could see the world at will. If he knew of her departure while she was still so close to Aratta, he could easily discover her whereabouts and have his immortals ride out for her.
The topaz sun was slung by the revolving vault toward the west more rapidly than she had expected, and sunset was approaching without her having spied a village where she could seek refuge for the night. She had a bag of humble danaka coins with her to pay for lodging, since specie would have raised suspicions and invited larceny.
It was already twilight when she saw three horsemen approaching. The neared, then halted.
“What have we here, a widow traveling alone at night?”
“Widows miss it, mate. We should take pity on her.”
Matroyao dismounted. “My lords, I can pay for passage.” She began rummaging in the saddlebag as if looking for her bag of coins.
“We have no need of your copper, wench. We prefer to be paid in kind.”
Before she could grasp her bow, the lean wiry one had leaped down and grabbed her wrist, his broad smile showing yellow, broken teeth through his straggly moustache. He stank, and his breath reeked like the sulfur in a dragon’s maw.
The other two dismounted as well and were running over, undoing the threads that held up their pantaloons.
Comments and suggestions on the installments are welcome, but they should please be constructive. Commenters relinquish the rights to any ideas they express in the comments section, which become the property of Juan Cole. Presumably they want them incorporated into the final work, and they might be. The novel is copyright by Juan Cole, 2014, and may not be mirrored or reproduced without express permission from the author.