by Den Valdron
SHEER LUCK HOME
Directions from ancient maps and archaic tales were not always reliable. Landslides and rock falls blocked our path, forcing us to climb over them, or to find ways around them. We became lost again and again, and were forced to retrace our path.
Twice, to maintain my fabrications, I pretended to sense the Jewels of Power, each time after an hours wandering, pronouncing it a false lead. I had no illusions about my ‘leadership,’ much as it might serve both sides to pretend otherwise, it was the leadership of one lighting a pathway for those behind, but not the leadership of command. My safety lasted so long as they believed me useful.
Once, we saw another airship, but it did not come anywhere near us.
The days wore on, and though my circumstances were far from genial, and despite concealed bouts of fear, despair and self pity, I occasionally managed to enjoy myself.
I could not see this journey ending well - we'd either starve to death in the rocks, or they would mutiny, or decide that there were no Jewels or they were not worth the effort, or we would reach fallen Az-Lium and those who now ground my city under their boots. None of these outcomes appealed to me.
So given these eventual outcomes, wandering aimlessly around great jagged rocks was not such a bad thing for now.
Vadak Eth, Japh Leah and I formed a sort of triumvirate for the expedition. The men were divided between Vadak Eth and Japh Leah. In the natural course of things, Japh Leah would have dominated, but Vadak Eth maintained himself with his cleverness and the support of the imbecile Ton Sabat's supernatural strength. I with the support of the Orgus Jed, and my fabricated knowledge of the path to Az-Lium, its wealth and the Jewels of power, formed the third leg of our trinity, at first weaker and more uncertain than the other two, but more vital. It was not stable of course, but for now it endured.
“You know, Princess,” Japh Leah said to me, as we rode at the front of the column, “we've seen no sign of the First Expedition, the rock we have traversed has been bare of marks. It is as if no one has passed in ten thousand years.”
I shrugged, glancing back at Aspar Aguus, who rode immediately behind us as my bodyguard. Behind him rode Vadak Eth in earnest conversation with Ton Sabat. Leah followed my glance, his eyes resting on Ton Sabat.
“There is not much trail to leave on naked rock,” I replied, “and the expedition would have been careful not to leave signs for my city's enemies to follow.”
“I suppose,” he began. “But it still-“
“You were speaking of Empires,” I cut him off, in order to change the subject. It didn't seem to be a good idea to let him follow on his own mental paths, I might not like the conclusions he reached.
Oddly, the journey had been an education for me. From Vadak Eth, I had learned the history of the world since Az-Lium's seclusion. Of the vanishing seas, receding year by year, leaving vast drying mud flats, the very air growing thin. From the highlands came starving hordes of Green Men on their Thoats, and the fall of cities and nations.
The Orovar kingdoms fell one after the other, refugees fleeing ahead of the green hordes, overwhelmed the strongholds of the black and the golden races in the north and south collapsed. Barsoom became a world of war, whole nations dying on battlefields, as the survivors fought and clawed for vanishing stores of food and water.
The world that I had learned in histories was long gone. Eventually, even the wars exhausted themselves, leaving only bands of survivors constantly on the move, fleeing or fighting, scavenging what they could as they went.
A new race, the Red men, emerged from the hardy survivors of other races. A new people, cruel and relentless, a nation of privation and despair, made in the image of their dying world. The Green warriors finally found a worthy opponent.
Unlettered barbarians that they were, the Red Men inherited the legacies of their forbears, building their own cities - places of primitive splendour with vulgar names like Helium, Jahar, Jekkara, Raliad and Toonol, in parody of the Orovar heights.
They drove great canals across the surface of the world, to harvest the remaining waters of the vanishing seas, and of the poles. And they created a cult of river worship, led by a strange secretive pale race called the Therns, abandoning faith for superstition.
And of course, they built new Empires, in further parody of the accomplishments of the Orovar people.
“Empires,” Japh Leah said thoughtfully. “It is said by the historian Torg Mator, that the age of Empires has long passed.”
Who was Torg Mator? I had no idea. But Vadak Eth had referred to him as well. I supposed he was some sort of historian. The interesting thing was that despite his pretensions to being an uneducated soldier of fortune, Japh Leah somehow seemed to be rather too.... Literate.
“The thinking is that so much of Barsoom is barren, and centers of cultivation and productivity are widely scattered and distant. This means that population and industry are concentrated in city states widely removed from each other. The intervening territory has little value. Loyalty is local. Empires become impossible.”
“It is expensive and difficult for one city state to field its armies across the vast distances and inhospitable territory to conquer its neighbor. It is easy for the neighbor to defend itself. Even conquered, loyalty remains local, the invader will always be despised and eventually expelled. Consequently, all conquerors are doomed to fail...”
“That makes sense,” I conceded. “But....?”
There had to be a ‘but’, his pause was a bit too pregnant.
“But Barsoom is a world of war,” he said. “Historians failed to reckon on human ambition. There are grievances, there are conflicts. Opportunities are perceived and pursued. Clever rulers scheme to overcome the limitations of their cities.”
“Some,” he said, “like Helium and Zodanga sought to build their power over generations, by costly increments expanding their control and reach. In contrast, Tul Axtar of Jahar set upon a campaign of unrestricted expansion which gave Jahar vast armies but produced famine. Hin Abtol of Panar gathered a vast army of mercenaries, and kept them on literally until needed.”
“What of Markath Khan?” I asked.
“Good example,” he said abstractly.
I had a sour moment, Markath Khan was not an abstraction to me. He was the name I attributed to mass murder, to the rape of a nation and a city in flames.
“Markath Khan,” Japh Leah continued, “is by every account a brilliant man. Since coming to rule in Diome, he has brought his nation considerable wealth. From this wealth, he hires mercenaries from other nations, the Orgus, the green men, to conquer his neighbors. With the riches of conquest, he pays for more mercenaries to use in more conquests, to produce more riches.”
“This does not seem particularly brilliant,” I said bitterly. “Merely murderous.”
Japh Leah chuckled. It made me want to hit him.
“There is a flaw in the theory. The richest conquests are those most able to defend themselves. The costs of conquests outweigh the riches gained. It is cheap to conquer the destitute, but not worth the cost. Eventually, most who seek to spend their way to empire end bankrupt and destitute, unable to pay mercenaries to defend them from their enemies. Often they finish at the mercy of unpaid mercenaries.”
He laughed. “And unpaid mercenaries are not known for mercy at all.”
“You seem so glib,” I said, with more archness than I'd wanted. “Do you admire him?”
“I am a fighting man,” he shrugged. “I respect success, whether by friends or enemies. And Markath Khan is very successful. Diome was a city in ruins when he took over, defeated by Bukhara in a bitter war. His legions have overwhelmed Yukhara, and from there Bukhara and Duhor. He should have collapsed by now, but as it is, in this part of the world, only Shiaze continues to stand against him. And for how long?”
“And now Az-Lium,” I said. “The wealth of ten thousand years, conquered cheaply.”
“Very cheaply,” he said genially. “A lost Orovar city, no allies, ten thousand years of wealth, I am sure that he will wring it dry.”
“Oh yes. Gold, silver, jewels... ancient manuscripts, anything of value in Az-Lium will be harvested to feed his war machine, the population will be reduced to slavery and sold across the world... slaves from a lost race? They will go for a good price. Why,” he chuckled, “I warrant that before he's done, Markath Kahn's men will be pulling gold teeth from corpses’ mouths.”
My stomach twisted in knots at the thought.
“I have trouble viewing it as equitably as you seem to,” I said, “given that these are my people.”
“Ah,” he said, “but you shall recover the Jewels of Power, and sweep Markath Khan and his forces from the face of the world.”
“Of course,” I said.
Oh damned lies, I thought. In a stage play, the Jewels would be salvation. But this was the real world.
“What is the matter, Princess?” he asked.
“It occurs to me to wonder,” I said, “what brigands were doing in the middle of a dead city remote from anywhere? It seems to me that robbers would prefer to stay near candidates to be robbed.”
“That is an interesting question, Princess,” he said. “What conclusions have you drawn?”
“I think perhaps that you had heard rumours of a lost city of fabulous wealth.”
“And you had found an Orovar wandering about.”
“And so you hoped, that he could lead you to it, so that you might profit from the looting.”
“The appearance on the Fool's Path suggested that Ton Sabat might have passed through the dead city. We hoped that bringing him back to it might jog his memory.”
“Lucky for you all then, that I showed up.”
Which had been the meaning of One Eye's words on attacking Ton Sabot - ‘we don't need you any more.’ They had me.
“Very lucky, Princess,” he said, “but your arrival, and the knowledge of the Jewels of Power, changes everything.”
“What would you do with these Jewels, Japh Leah?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Nothing,” he replied evasively, “one of my blood cannot use them. You'll use them to liberate your city, I suppose. From there, who knows?”
“I think,” I said, “that I would like to have Ton Sabat ride with me for a time.”
“As you wish, Princess.”
As we crested a hill, the great dome of Az-Lium came into view.
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