To be honest, this episode is more in-line with what I was expecting from Arslan Senki. I know the story Tanaka and Arakawa are telling here, but it nevertheless surprised me just how densely packed the first three episodes were – with action, with violence, with death, with sheer plot movement and character milestones. This is a huge series (14 novels and counting) so on some level I was expecting more of a slow build, but of course the reality is that the first act hasn’t really started yet – we’re looking at the preamble right now.
What I like about Arslan Senki, among other things, is that as ruthless as the battle sequences are the way the series goes about asking questions of the audience is rather gentle and restrained. The premiere was criticized by some (though not me) as being too broad, but this was the world as seen through the eyes of an 11 year-old boy with almost no experience of it – so the tone fit perfectly. That episode was manga-original too, which I think formed a basis for most of the complaints, though it may also contribute to the somewhat different narrative approach it takes. It was a scene-setter, nothing more – a preamble to the preamble, and it did what Arakawa intended for it to do by framing the larger issues of what is in fact a very large story indeed in broad terms.
Cue the events of this week, then. The intervening episodes were a tale of betrayal and death, of Arslan’s character being moulded by fire and steel as if it were on a blacksmith’s forge. What is he – a warrior, an aesthete, a weakling or a noble soul? Even those who love him, like Daryun does (and Vahriz did) worry that his kindness and sensitivity are a weakness and not a strength, yet clearly they also see that he possesses qualities beneficial in a ruler that his father does (did?) not. Now the story turns to the question of what kind of man Arslan will become, and what kind of man it’s possible for someone like him to become.
Narsus (even if there’s no direct connection between them, as one might speculate based on circumstantial evidence) obviously now emerges as a critical figure in the boy’s development. He’s savvy and sanguine in a way the fierce and capable Daryun is not, and he’s perhaps a model for what kind of adult Arslan might aspire to be – someone who excels at war but despises it, and appreciates the gentleness and beauty of the world (even if he’s shit at depicting it on canvas). He tells the young prince the details of how he made his fame in Andragoras’ service – with a brilliant scheme that sent the combined armies of three attacking kingdoms (500 thousand strong) at each other’s throats, and saved Pars from probable defeat at their hands.
Andragoras, despite his anger at the newly anointed Lord of Daylan for reporting with less than half the force his father had promised – because he’d abolished slavery in the province, losing half his footmen in the process and disgusting his cavalrymen so much most of them quit – allows the young lord to engage in this plan. That shows that, at least five years ago, Andragoras was a good enough judge of character to let the right man handle the right job. But it was Narsus’ persistent denunciation of slavery (or so at least Narsus tells Arslan) that led to Narsus’ eventual banishment and exile.
Narsus seems quite sincere in his desire to avoid being drawn back into either politics or war, though he’s obviously very carefully taking the measure of the young man before him. But Daryun has left him little choice, having intentionally passed through Kharlan’s lands in order to lure his men into following. Very risky it seems to me, though Narsus’ was obviously well-prepared for such an eventuality. As Arslan and Daryun hide in the ceiling, Kharlan’s captain passes on an offer to have his lands and position restored in exchange for serving Kharlan – who’s now ascended to Vahriz’ position and is professing to follow the Lusitanian religion. His angry refusal lures the attackers into a pit trap Narsus has prepared, leaving Narsus to decide whether the boy before him is worthy of following.
Slavery is an underlying theme throughout this story, and it’s a historical fact that countless seemingly good men defended it for centuries after it would have seemingly become obvious that it was an atrocity against humanity. When a way of life is all one knows, one tends not to question it – though I think it’s a credit to Arslan that he seems always to have questioned things most have taken for granted. In Elam he’s exposed to a second child his own age whose hatred of slavery burns strong (and causes clear resentment against him), and in fact when Arslan makes his offer to Narsus I initially thought it would be to end slavery after he becomes king.
While the post of court artist seems enough to motivate Narsus, that’s clearly mostly a front – he’s a man who thinks about the long game, and in Arslan he sees someone with the temperament and empathy to eventually be the greatest anti-slavery weapon he might wield. Both Arslan and Daryun have e devastated at the news of Varhiz’ demise, but they haven’t received the most important news of all – that Andragoras himself is likely dead, and with his death that Arslan is now king (though whether he still has a capital from which to rule is another question).