by Den Valdron
LOVE AMONG THE RUINS
I clung to Japh Leah’s muscular body as we huddled in the shadow of a building. Not a hundred feet above us, one of the Diome’s warships passed, its shadow merging with the building.
Looking up, I had my best view. Its underside was covered with a heavy scaled armour, its sides tapering down to a central bow, with a large heavy keel that stabilized it. Clinging to the sides were immense folded landing skids, and beyond that, lines of small gunports dotted the underside. These were for ground strafing. The heavy guns, the artillery, lined its upper sides, out of our view, but Japh Leah had explained how they were there. From the rear, heavy engines droned away.
As it drifted out of sight, I breathed a sigh of relief. Somewhere in the distance, there were the sounds of explosions, some other airship wreaking havok, firing on buildings, perhaps targeted, perhaps random.
Perhaps the Guard was trying to reform again, as it seemed to do periodically, gathering itself up, pulling its battered soldiers together, only to be smashed again and again by the invaders from Diome.
There was no way to know. All one could hope was that when the guns fired, the wounded screamed, the buildings burned and fell, that it was happening somewhere else. Death was a constant companion in Az-Lium now. Life went on, but in a furtive scurrying way. We had become a nation of rats in our own city.
It was strange that my flight had taken me back here, as if all roads simply lead back to Az-Lium.
“That was close,” I whispered.
“It’s not likely that they’d have fired on a red man,” he said.
“Of course not,” I replied bitterly, “invaders know their own, or think they do.”
The invaders were actually several groups. In charge were the Airship men, aloof and deadly, keeping entirely to themselves. At their side were the officers and soldiers of Diome, aloof, deadly, disciplined, methodically directing the looting and enslavement, but their numbers were relatively few compared to the size of the city. Beyond them were the mercenaries, panthans, men and monsters from all over Barsoom, quarreling, bargaining, lax in discipline, but the ones who actually patrolled and fought on the city streets.... And in some cases, bargained, argued, quarreled, bought and sold, and carried out their own smaller lootings. Some even gathered their own Orovar servants or accomplices. My bandits fit in perfectly.
“You don’t trust me, do you?” he said.
Since our arrival, my bandits had found they moved about with relative freedom. They were easily able to pass as mercenaries in the employ of Diome, and I posing as their helpless captive, sometimes a slave, sometimes a guide, sometimes a mere plaything.
Aspar Aguus all but vanished. The Orgus mercenaries kept to themselves. Aguus would have attracted attention among red men or white. But as the third jed, he was like a small king among his people, no matter where they were. Which reminded me of how tenuous our alliance had been.
“I don’t trust any of you,” I replied.
I much preferred the role of Princess. I have always believed that there are no small parts, only small actresses, but truthfully, it is better to take the role of a Princess than a slave. You get to dress better, eat better, people listen when you tell them things.
“I’m sorry,” I said softening, “but I cannot afford to trust. This is not your city, these are not your lives. You’re bandits.”
Down the street, we watched some ruffians scrawl a graffiti, “The Princess Abides.” Whatever that was supposed to mean.
“I understand,” he said, his hand gentle upon my shoulder, “so much rests upon you.”
There was more and more graffiti showing up about “The Princess.” At first, I had blamed Japh Leah, or perhaps Vadak Eth. Aspar Aguus hadn’t seemed the type to leave messages in writing, he spoke in blood and steel, or so he said. I thought it was just dramatics. Blood and steel? How do you ask for more toast with blood and steel? How do you order new laces for your boots?
In the end, it had turned out to be the other men, Orthis and Haro. I had no idea what possessed them to do such a foolish thing. The last thing we needed was to draw attention to ourselves.
But now it had taken on a life of its own, more and more graffiti showing up, rumours flying among the enslaved and dispossessed about a Princess who had survived the purges and now plotted liberation.
“I wish it didn’t,” I said.
All very well, but that wasn’t me. I was an actress. I had no script, there was no story, no magical jewels, no hidden army. There was only a broken city and an enemy with unstoppable weapons and its boot on all our throats.
What this city really needed, what I really needed, was a real genuine Princess with a real army at her back and real magical weapons to sort things out and rescue us all. Or maybe a Prince, I could do with a romantic subplot.
“I would help you carry this burden,” he said.
I smiled at that.
“If you were a Prince,” I asked, “what would you do?”
Perhaps I could pick his brain. He knew far more of war than I did.
“Were I a Prince,” he said, “I’d take you in my arms.”
And just like that, he took me in his arms. My heart started to race. I had not felt a man’s intimate touch since that night in the dead city. Travel through the jagged lands by Rodal did not encourage intimacy, and I’d had a role to play. He was a handsome virile man.
“A Prince for a Princess,” I whispered. “But what if I was not a Princess, what then?”
“Why,” he said, “Princesses in my experience are dull creatures, full of gossip and self absorption. I do not care for them, as a rule.”
“You know a lot of Princesses?” I teased.
“In my life, I’ve made the acquaintance of a few.”
“You like to aim high.” I whispered. “Lucky that I am a Princess, and so meet your standards.”
His lips were very close.
“Even were you not a Princess,” he whispered back, his lips descended to me, “you are still the most remarkable woman I have ever met, indomitable, fearless, fiendishly intelligent and clever, a skillful actress –“
I punched him in the jaw as hard as I could. Pain shot up my arm, my fingers gone nerveless and numb. It hurt! It wasn’t supposed to hurt. In performances, this sort of thing never hurt. His head snapped around, and the force of the blow pushed him away. His expression first startled, then hurt, then beginning to anger.
“But I am a Princess,” I said, putting suppressed rage into my voice to cover the throbbing pain in my hand. “And you are a mere bandit. You forget yourself. You will not kiss me until I invite you.”
His emotions flickered across his face. Now shame and embarrassment, and finally .... pleasure?
“As you promise, Princess.”
Had I made a promise? I quickly retraced my words. I wasn’t sure. Best not to let it show.
“It is understood then,” I said.
“If I may be so bold,” he asked, “are you really a Princess? Are there really Jewels of Power?”
Where had this come from? Mentally I cursed, as delicious and handsome a man as he was, he was still a bandit, and worse, he was far far too clever and perceptive. There is a saying from a play, “A bandit you can trust, but a clever man, never!” They might as well have written it with him in mind.
I drew myself up haughtily.
“Every word I have ever spoken,” I lied, “is the truth.”
“Except...” a voice came. We turned, startled. An ancient man stood facing us, his hair thin and white, his frame tall but withered with age. Behind him were a dozen younger, harder looking men in the uniforms of the City Guard, their pikes and swords at ready. “Except that I am the Royal Archivist, and I know the lineage and faces of the Royal line from here to a hundred generations past.... And I know of no Princess.... And I certainly don’t know you.”
This was all Japh Leah’s fault, I decided.
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