August 465 BC. A longstanding court plot has come to fruition and Xerxes, the King of Kings, has been assassinated in his bed. Even before his body is cold, the palace dissolves into panic. By sunrise, his eldest son Darius has also been executed on charges of parricide, by the order of the king’s third son Artaxerxes. Artaxerxes now looks set to succeed… if only he can make it through the day. The palace is still a dangerous place for princes. Xerxes, after all, has been murdered by those he most trusted: the royal bodyguards, the Immortals, led by their captain Artabanes, one of the linchpins of the plot. Now, as morning breaks, Artabanes rallies his men in the apadana or forecourt of the palace, ready to hold off the spearmen of the loyal army regiments massed outside the palace walls. He believes he can also count on the Syrian archers commanded by his co-conspirator, the nobleman Megabyzus (general, satrap and son-in-law of the dead king). But, when Megabyzus and his men arrive, finding the Immortals gathered in the sunken forecourt, they do not come down to join Artabanes. Instead, the general deploys his archers to cover the courtyard and strikes at Artabanes’ trapped forces from the rear. But he’s a man of honour, for all that, and so he offers Artabanes the honour of single combat. On one level, it’s a courtesy between two Persians of high rank. But at the same time, they both know too much and, if either of them wishes to survive under the new regime of Artaxerxes I, then first the other must die.
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[Some geeky historical notes if anyone cares: the Immortals are as close as I can get to historical accuracy using the products I have (and based on the tiled reliefs from Susa, as displayed at the Louvre). The archers, the two captains and the spearman in blue are all wearing Median dress, which was often adopted by Persians in battle as it was easier to fight in than the long court robes that you see the Immortals wearing here. Blue was a colour of high rank, while Tyrian purple (actually a dark red) was worn by those with particularly close links to the royal family. Megabyzus is wearing purple leggings and cloak, as he had royal blood in his own right as well as being married to the king’s daughter. Artabanes, of lower birth, is wearing blue. There is evidence for scale armour being worn by Persian generals, although the turban/helmet headgear is an invention on my part. The archers are wearing the more familiar Persian ‘tiara’, a cloth cap with flaps over the ears. The spears are all in a Persian style, while the bows are actually Scythian rather than Persian.]