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Volume 3165b
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

CHAPTER NINETEEN
BLURRED VISION

 

A prisoner again, I thought.   This was getting monotonous.   We had been bound and hooded, and hustled quickly away.   I gathered from the turns of the route that we were somewhere near the Ministry buildings, someplace underground, perhaps the tunnels.

The hoods were pulled from our heads.  I looked around, blinking in the dim light, my eyes were slow to adjust.   Some thirty of the City’s Guardsmen were assembled in a makeshift bunker, sitting on matts, restringing bows, cooking.  They watched us with wary interest.

One of Guardsmen, one with the sigils of an interrogator, was heating up irons in a fire.  I glanced nervously at him.  He worked carefully, honing the instruments of torture.

“To my knowledge,” the old archivist said stiffly, “the Royal line was utterly extirpated.  The tree was destroyed, branch and root.  So you can imagine my feelings of joy and hope when the word began to circulate that one had somehow survived.”

“But the more the rumours circulated,” he said, “the less sense they made.   A Princess in company with a tusked robber?  Commanding red men?  A Princess whose name or lineage, I had never heard of?   And a group of mercenaries who didn’t seem to be answering to anyone among the invaders.  Well, questions had to be asked.”

He paused.   “Hard questions.”

The interrogator looked up.  “Very hard questions.”

Japh Leah looked towards me.

Burst your bonds, I thought at him.  Hurl the torturer into his own fire, take up his irons and lay about you.  This was how it was done in the theatre.  Mentally, I could block the whole scene out, including the exit stage left.

Rescue me, you idiot, I tried to project at him, and I’ll kiss you!

“You’re going to torture us for answers?”   Japh Leah asked.

“Yes.”

“Out here in front of everyone?”

“That was the plan, yes,” the Archivist admitted.  “I dislike torture, but we are under pressure.  The invaders constantly attack our formations.”

“What formations?”  Japh Leah asked.  “I see a half dozen different uniform markings, this is not a battallion, these are remnants.”

“We have been under pressure....”

“Why are they even wearing uniforms in an occupation?”  He asked.

“Well, so the people know we fight...”

“So the enemy can find you more easily,” Japh sneered.

“What do you know of military tactics,” the Archivist said hotly.

“More than you lot obviously,” Japh retorted.  Fine, I thought, make the torturers angry.   “At least I know not to interrogate prisoners in a room full of soldiers, so much for security!”

“Well, why not?”

“Because some of them may not be loyal.”

“They’re all loyal!”

“How can you be sure of every man, the enemy may have bribed them, or taken family hostages.  There are a hundred ways to subvert a man, especially a common soldier.”

“I refuse to believe it.”

“Suppose we reveal something you don’t want your soldiers to know?”  I intervened.

What was wrong with Leah?  I wondered.   Don’t upset the torturers.  You’d think that even a barbaric red man would figure that out.

“Like what?”

“I can’t say that out here, it would defeat the purpose,” I said with exasperation.

The Archivist mulled it over.

“She’s right,” the torturer said from the sidelines.   “This sort of thing is usually done in private.  Like sex.”

“Hmmm?” the Archivist asked.

“Best not to do interrogations out in front of the enlisted men.   It upsets them, and you never know what someone’s going to say.  Best to make sure not too many hear it.   Otherwise....  Well, soldiers gossip like old wives,” he continued.

The Archivist thought it over.

“Very well,” he said, “we’ll take them to the back chamber.  And it will be just us and the officers.”

“No fire in the back chamber,” the interrogator pointed out.

“So?”

“The irons will get cold.”

‘Well.... just make do!”  The Archivist spat.

We were hustled off to a smaller chamber in back.  The only exit was into the main gallery.  I wasn’t sure how this improved our position.  I was gratified to see that Japh Leah had shut up.  I was unhappy that he was once again looking expectantly at me.

“Tay See Lors Kam Asutra,” the Archivist said, “I’ve never heard of you.”

“Kam Asutra,” the interrogator said, “is a Princess in a play.  She was in ‘The Sea’s Revenge’”

Oh damn, I thought.  I was about to be exposed.  I’d had a terrific supporting role as the Princess’s plucky, loyal but wanton maidservant.  Several reviews had singled my performance out as a crowd pleaser, particularly my bedroom closets scene where I’d madly concealed three lovers from each other and from the Princess.

“Really?  I don’t get out much.  Was it any good?”

The interrogator shrugged, “if you like sort of thing.  A bit too slapstick for my tastes.”

The interrogator gazed at me with no hint of recognition at all.  I was a bit insulted.  The reviews had been marvelous.  I’d practically stolen that show.

“Some people like slapstick,” I said archly.

“Enough,” the Archivist snapped.  “We’re not here to discuss third rate low comedy.”

Third rate!!!   He ought to be glad I was tied down.

“I do not care who you are, and I will not be distracted.   The name may be real, or not, it is immaterial.  You are obviously of our race,” the Archivist said, “as your companion, is equally obviously not.   The thing we are interested in, is why you are working for the invaders, and what their plans are.”

“We aren’t working for the invaders,” Japh offered, “but I know Diome, and I know the ways of war in the outside world.  I can tell you what their plans are.”

“Indeed,” the Archivist turned to focus on him.   “Then be so good as to share them.”

“Diome,” he said, “is fighting wars.   That is why there are so few soldiers here, so many mercenaries.  It needs to pay for these wars.  That is why it is here.  It intends to squeeze your city dry of wealth.  Bit by bit, everything of value will be stripped from this place.  Even your population will be sold off as slaves, or discarded.  What remains, what cannot be carted away, will be sold or divided among the powerful for favours.

“And the Committee of Az-Lium citizens which they have appointed to rule the city?”

“Hirelings, agents, slaves of Diome.  Threatened or bribed to help keep order, to make the rape of your city proceed more smoothly.”

“It will not happen,” the Archivist said fiercely.  “We will stop it.”

Japh laughed.   Stop upsetting them, I swore mentally.

“You?” he said.   “Pikes and arrows against rifles and airships?  A resistance that capers around in parade uniforms, with not half a notion of how to fight a war against occupation?”

One of the officers, incensed, stepped forward and struck Japh a blow across his face.  I was outraged.   This was standard villainy, the sort of thing that the script called for a Red Man to do.  For an Orovar soldier, it was an appalling breach of character.   What a grasping extra.

“How dare you!”  I exclaimed.   “How dare you strike a bound man!   You!   What’s your name?”

The officer was startled by my outburst.

“Mos Mor Tak, 2nd Captain of the Blue Shift,” he replied..

“The Blue Shift is one of the most honoured regiments of the City, winner of the military games three years running,” I replied.   “You are bound by the regimental code of honour.”

I had no idea if there was even such a thing, I seemed to remember it from some modern play.

“You mean the Brigade Code,” he replied.  “The regimental code was superseded in the reorganization of...”

“What does the code say about striking unarmed prisoners?”  I demanded.  I gave him my best glare.

He licked his lips, glancing at his fellows for assistance.

“Don’t look at them,” I ordered.  “Look at me and tell me where the Code authorizes striking of unarmed prisoners outside of an interrogation.”

“This is an interrogation.”

“Are you an interrogator?”  I demanded.

“Uhm...  No.”

“No,” I repeated.  “You are not an interrogator.  You have no authority to strike an unarmed prisoner.  You have violated the Code.”

“Why are we talking to her?” he asked his fellows.  “She’s just a prisoner.”

“Answer the question,” I thundered.

“What question!”

“Don’t you dare play games with me, Captain, or I’ll see that you’re busted down to Lieutenant!”

“Now wait just a-“

“Corporal!  Where does the code authorize striking prisoners?”

“Better answer before you end up as a private,” the Torturer said genially.

He sighed.

“It doesn’t...  It prohibits it.   But these are extraordinary situations.”

“So...”  I persisted, “you’re saying that the code is optional?  You are only bound by it when... you feel like it?   When it’s convenient?”

“That’s not what I said,” he sputtered helplessly.

“Captain,” the Archivist said wearily, “if I may intervene before you are reduced to an enlisted man, I would note we have torturing to get to.  Just apologize so we can get on with it.”

“Very well, I apologize,” he said quickly.

“It is not me you must apologize too,” I said primly.

He blushed and turned to Japh Leah.

“I formally apologize,” he said to Japh Leah, “I must advise you that pursuant to Article 216(b)(iii) of the Brigade Code you have the right to demand satisfaction in the dueling circle.”

Japh nodded.

“The apology is accepted,” he said, “as one soldier to another, I can appreciate the trying circumstances you are faced with.”

“Thank you.”

I stared at the other officers.   Almost involuntarily, they took a step back from me.

“This has been very entertaining,” the Archivist said.  “But who are you, really?  What are you doing?  Why are you here?”

“She is the Princess,” Japh Leah said, “she escaped the fall, to search for the Jewels of Power. She’s returned to liberate the city.  We follow her.”

The Archivist stared.

Jewels of power?  I winced.  I could only pray they didn’t delve into that.

“You speak with conviction, as if you believed that,” he said.   “Some of it anyway.”

“She is,” Japh insisted, “she’s the daughter of Prince Komak and Nolar Tis.  It was a secret.”

“No,” the Archivist replied, “I was the one who exposed that scandal, and I investigated it thoroughly.  There was no offspring of that wretched union.”

Ouch, I thought.  That wasn’t good.

He turned to me, cupping my chin in his hand.

“The bone structure of the face has no trace of royalty.”

I thought quickly.  I would not be able to fool this man with a tale of royalty, I realized.   What to say then?

“I am an actress,” I said.

“That’s a lie,” he said.  “You were discovered outside the Dome.  I have talked to witnesses who were there when you came through.  You had a key.”

Who goes outside the Dome, I thought.  Explorers? Adventurers? Exiles?  I mentally flipped through a series of potboilers involving journeys outside the Dome.

“I’m a Surveyor!”

He nodded.

“I didn’t think there were any left.”

“It’s a small division now, checking the Dome exterior for slippage, erosion, monitoring the surrounding country.  There weren’t many of us.”

He seemed to think that over.   He nodded finally.

“That has the ring of truth.”

“Interesting,” the Captain said, “that she and the Surveyors journeyed beyond the Dome, and we are now invaded by armies from beyond.”

I swore, mentally.   The Captain had been humiliated, and now he wanted payback.

“Did the Surveyors bring the invaders here?”  He asked.

“No!”

“Was it you?”

“No!”

“How did they find us?”

How indeed?  How was I supposed to know?  But they expected an answer.

“We explored,” I said.  “Some of us.  Not me.”

Why explore?  Think, woman.

“There were merchants, who were paying us.  Budget enhancement.”

The Archivist nodded.

“And they found the outsiders?”

“We knew about the outsiders,” I said.  “About the cities.  Diome and its wars.  We guarded that information.”

“Not well enough,” the Captain said dangerously.

“But the merchants,” I said, “saw an opportunity.”

Merchants were a reliable stage villain, always grasping after profit.

“The Surveyors began to disappear,” I said.

They had to.  How old were the plays that featured Surveyors.  Did the occupation still even exist?  It was hard to say.  In Az-Lium’s bureaucracy, there were many strange nooks and crannies.

But if they no longer existed, I needed a reason why I was the only one.

And if they did exist, I needed an explanation for why any they turned up didn’t corroborate my story.

“I’m not sure, perhaps simply my division.  But they began to disappear.  We began to suspect...  We tried to warn someone.  Something was going on.”

I hesitated, my eyes moistened.  I allowed my lip to tremble.  Let them make the connections myself.

“But no one would listen to us!”  I put a note of desperate anguish into my voice.

They were watching me now, watching carefully, their expressions hungry ....  and...  sympathetic.

“Soon,” I said, “I was the only one left.”

Another officer stepped forward.

“I’m going to speak a name,” he said.  “Tell me if you recognize it.”

I waited.

“Sath Van Gar.”

I had no idea who that was.  I dropped my head, nodded once, ever so slightly, and sighed.  My movements so slight and imperceptible that if the name was truly meaningless, it would be taken as weariness.  But if it was meaningful...

There was a sudden intake of breath.

“The head of the Committee!”  Someone swore.

“Oh the infamous traitor!   If I had my hands around his neck right now!”

“Now it all makes sense!”

“Not all of it,” the Archivist said.  I cursed to myself.  I was learning to despise clever men.

I’d always been attracted to clever men, there was something sexy about them.  But now?  I could happily see them all dropped off a cliff.  In the future, it was dumb and gullible all the way for me.

“There is still the matter of you and your companions,” he said.

“When the city fell, I fled out into the wastelands,” I replied.  Which was sort of true, and gave me time to think.  It wasn’t just what would they believe.  It had to be something they wanted to believe?  What did they want?

Help.

What had Japh said?   Wars.  Diome was at war.  That’s why they’d come here, he told them.

“I sought out Diome’s enemies, hoping to enlist aid.”

“Yes,” one of them said excitedly, “the other did say that the invaders were at war, they had adversaries.”

Yes, I thought.   Think of one.  I tried to recall the names that had come up in conversations through the Jagged Lands.  Tazor Ylan?  No, they knew that name.  Helium?   That just sounded silly.   Zodanga?  Bukhara?  No, Bukhara had been overrun.   Shiaze?  I thought Shiaze might still be at war.  Jahar?  No, something bad had happened there.

“They’re at war with Shiaze,” I said.  At least, I hoped they were.   “I went there for help, revealed our location.”

“You’ve given us away, again!”

“Hold,” the Torturer said, “she had no choice.  What would you do in her place?”

Careful, I thought.  They’d expect an army to show up.  All I had was a handful of bandits, that I would have to explain.

“I brought back a scouting expedition, to prove our case and mark a path for an army.”

That didn’t sound good enough, I thought.

“An army to rescue us,” I said.

“What’s in it for them?”  The Archivist challenged.  Have people in the outside world improved so much.

Improved?  I couldn’t honestly say that the folk of the outside were an improvement.  Rather the opposite.

“Shiaze does not want to see Diome enriched,” I said.  I gauged their reactions.  Good, but not quite there.  “And they would expect to be rewarded.”

That satisfied their cynicism.

“What of the monster?”

“Aspar Aguus,” I said, “Third Jed of the Orgus.  We can enlist his forces.”

“There is an Orovar with you,” he said, “but not of our city.”

“Ton Sabat,” I replied.  How long had they been watching us?  I’d thought us stealthy, but clearly, not stealthy enough.

“He is of Tazor,” I said, “another Orovar city, also an enemy of Diome.”

“Tazor Ylan still endures?”

“It would have to, I suppose, I mean if we survived...  Wouldn’t they?” the Captain said.

“Yes,” I lied, “they survived.  And they too will help us.”

“Quite a coalition you’ve built, ‘Princess’,” the archivist said.  “But often, I’ve seen castles built of smoke.  How do we know any of these plans have substance?”

Damn him.   Usually, at this point, I’d pull rank and rely upon my royal authority as Princess.  But he wasn’t going to swallow that.   Still, authority was the way to go.   If not my authority, then...

“Ask him,” I told them, gesturing at Japh Leah.  The fool had finally had the sense to stop provoking them.  He’d been listening to me with earnest fascination.  I hoped he would have the sense to play along.

“Him?”  the archivist turned on Japh Leah, “who is he?”

“He is the Crown Prince of Shiaze, himself,” I announced.

Japh Leah’s jaw dropped.


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