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Volume 3165c
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

CHAPTER TWENTY
TOMORROW IS YESTERDAY

 

I was finding that the key to success seemed to be to just keep telling bigger and bigger lies, until the skeptics keeled over from exhaustion.   I could hardly believe that they were swallowing it.  Japh Leah was a fine specimen, certainly.  Tall and well formed, an experienced fighting man, and altogether too clever for my good.

But a Prince?   That untutored, uncultured, rough hewn lout?   Just look at him.   By rights, they should have burst into laughter.

But no, suddenly the torturer was calmly packing up his instruments, the officers were untying us both, there were apologies all around, and Japh Leah had at least the sense to play to the role.  Things became quite warm, and we were offered refreshments and company.  I let Japh Leah discourse upon the politics and wars of the outer world.   Military men, I find, treasure the company of other military men.

All we needed was to make a discrete exit, before they came up with more awkward questions.

Oh, oh.  I noticed some of the officers arguing with the Archivist.  They headed towards me.

“Kam Asutra,” the Captain said, “we’ve been discussing the vital need to ensure good relations with our new allies.  It seems that the Prince of Shiaze is quite convinced of your royal station...”

“Which,” another officer said, “leads us to reconsider our hasty judgment.”

“It wouldn’t do for the Prince to come to believe he’s been led around by some inconsequential bureaucrat.  Etiquette demands that he deal with someone near his station.  We must avoid upsetting Shiaze.”

Ten minutes ago, they hadn’t even heard of Shiaze.  Now they were debating foreign politics?  For all I knew, Shiaze was imaginary, some misheard name I’d botched or conflated, or perhaps a fable made up by Japh Leah or Vadak Eth.

“We were also thinking, that it is important, not just to our allies, but perhaps vital to our people that there be a legitimate claimant.   Someone to unify the people, and discredit the Committee.”

“Alas, I had believed that the Royal Line,” the Archivist said reflectively, “was utterly extirpated.”

“Which poses problems,” the Captain pointed out.  He nudged the Archivist.

“On the matter of Komak and Nol Par His,” the Archivist said sourly, “I acknowledge that the affair was conducted surreptitiously, and so quite obviously, it is barely possible that certain conceivable, hypothetical, possible facts may not have come to light.”

The Captain punched him in the arm.

“There might have been a baby,” the Archivist said.

The Captain punched him again.

“There almost certainly was a baby,” the Archivist said.

“And so....”  the Captain prodded.

The Archivist reached out and cupped my chin in his hand.

“Her bone structure,” he said, peering at my features, turning my face from one side to another, “it is not that of modern Royalty.  But it bears a strong resemblance to portraits of the ancient Queen, Mand And Lai, who of course, was ancestral to both Prince Komak and the Arch-Priestess Nol Par His...”

“So it’s possible?”

“No it’s not!” he swore suddenly.

“We talked about this,” the Captain insisted.

“All right,” the Archivist said sullenly, “it’s possible, not likely but possible.”

“We need a Princess.”

The Archivist sighed.   “So we have a Princess.”

Excellent, I thought.  I was a Princess again.  I smirked.

“It was why they could not kill me, when they were eliminating the other Surveyors,” I said.

“Royal blood?”

I did not reply, just gave them a knowing smile.  Let these clever men draw their conclusions.

“Where better to conceal a distaff offspring than in an obscure arm of the bureaucracy whose mandate and operations were outside the Dome?”  The Captain said, a trace of awe in his voice.

I watched the dawning comprehension.   On the Archivists face, there was a moment of shock cutting through the resentment, as of pieces falling into place.   I could see the moment when, all of a sudden, he believed.

“Of course,” the Archivist said, “and an organization whose mandate was to monitor the world beyond the Dome would be of special interest to the King.  It would be vital to know what the state of that world was, what nations now existed.”

I nodded.

“Are you really....” the Archivist asked.

I smiled.  Perhaps clever people were not so bad after all.  It wasn’t so much about fooling them, as finding a way to let them fool themselves.

On the other hand, Surveyor, Prisoner, Priestess, Acolyte, Jewels of Power, Caches of riches.  I needed to start keeping track of who I was telling what.  I had this feeling that sooner or later, it would catch up to me.

Eventually, matters were sorted out.  As we made our way back to our companions, Japh Leah whispered to me.

“Crown Prince of Shiaze,” he said, with the slightest tone of joking, “I’ve been promoted!”

“Shut up,” I said, easily.

I had actually been dreading this conversation.  Since the lie left my mouth, I knew that there’d be a reckoning.  At least he’d had the sense to play along.  I just prayed that he didn’t ask too many questions, or think too much.

“Where did you get it from?”

“You heard them, they weren’t about to accept the truth.  I needed to come up with something that suited them.”

“You’re quite remarkable,” he said.  “Did you notice that they didn’t seem to believe you were the Princess?”

Yes, he’d thought about it too much.

“Did you notice that they were fools?” I whispered airily

“Just so,” he laughed, and to my utter relief, he left the subject alone after that.


After that, of course, the cult of the Princess grew by leaps and bounds.   I wasn’t entirely sure how much they believed, or whether they believed at all.

But the surviving remnants of the Guard and the old order desperately needed a figurehead to rally sentiment around, so the romantic notion of a surviving Princess was alluring.   It’s hard to sustain a cause when all your cherished symbols are buried together rotting in a big hole with bullets in their brains.

So, I supposed, they believed in the Princess, by necessity.  Because not believing in a Princess would be too harsh to bear.

Doubts would have to be swallowed down for another day.

And I didn’t intend to be around when those doubts came back to the surface.

Meanwhile, my bandits brought their own bits and pieces of expertise to fighting a war in an occupied city.   Which apparently does not involve dressing up in parade uniforms and mounting charges over open country with bows and arrows against airships equipped for ground strafing.

Who knew?

To be truthful, I was a little embarrassed that we needed to have outsiders come to explain this to us.  But regardless, they were well acquainted with war in the outer world, and we needed that knowledge desperately.

I was exposed to the tedium of Liberation Committee meetings, and quickly had my fill.  With Japh Leah’s and Vadak Eth’s assistance, we helped to organize the resistance into cells, limit infiltration, and revise the command structures, all of which I learned far more than taught.   On the other hand, I coached Japh Leah constantly with confidence in the role of a Prince, a part he played with an odd amusement.

We even explored infiltration and enlistment of mercenaries.  Soon, a small trickle of firearms were finding its way to the Guard, not enough, but significant nevertheless.   Information about the enemy grew better.

Oddly, the increasing organization and sophistication of the underground in Az-Lium meant a reduction of attacks against the enemy.  Partly, this was in recognition of the overwhelming advantages of firearms and airships.

Partly, because increasingly, the strategy of the resistance was to wait until the armies from our allies in the Orguz, Shiaze and Tazor came to rescue us.  Phantom armies, and allies who either did not exist, or did not know we existed..

I felt bad about that.

Then one day, the Committee and the Occupiers put a price upon the head of Princess Kam Asutra, last of the Royal line of Az-Lium, and I found myself wanted in a whole new, and thoroughly unpleasant way.


“It’s a terrible likeness,” I complained, looking at the poster.  My bravado covered a growing unease.    There were others, one for Ton Sabat, another for Japh Leah.   For the Archivist, and the Captain of the Guard.

“They’re drawing you as a member of the current royalty,” the archivist sniffed.  “They do not realize that you have the features of archaic royalty.”

Yes, I thought, from before the inbreeding became pernicious.  But never mind.

“We’re compromised,” Vadak Etht said.   “We must flee the city.”

“I will not flee,” said the Captain, with heroic bravery.  Did I say heroic?  I meant idiotic.  “Even if they hound me through the streets, I will stand and fight.”

Good, I thought.  While they were hunting you down, me and mine will get away.  Still, his sentiments might be dangerous.

“What do you think?” I asked the Archivist.  He was clearly flustered.

“I...  I...  I don’t know.”

Damn.

“Crown Prince of Shiaze,” I turned to Japh Leah, hopefully using his fabricated title would clue him in.  “what should we do?”

“As Crown Prince...”  he said carefully, “my capture would be too great a blow to the cause.  As would the Princess.”

What did that even mean?  Honestly, sometimes I thought he was as brain damaged as Ton Sabat.

“Yes,” I said firmly, “the city is still under enemy control.  Capture is too great a risk.  We must make arrangements.”

Actually, we had been making quiet arrangements to leave for some time.  My companions were, at heart, bandits motivated by greed.  We’d been forced to play along with the Guards as they played at resistance, played the role of soldiers and liberators.  And I’d been forced to play along with the bandits as they secretly accumulated treasure and made preparations, finding excuses not to leave.

It’s not that I wanted to stay.  It was just that I couldn’t trust them.  They’d followed me seeking fortune, which was fine, as long as we were still looking.

But they’d found it.

Now, as long as they were trapped in the city, they had to play good little followers.

Once they were out, with their fortunes...   Well, as dangerous as it was in the city, it seemed more dangerous outside.

Aspar Aguus I might once have relied upon.  But I saw little of him these days, as he spent time circulating among the other Orgus mercenaries, doing inscrutable things.   Not even the invaders seemed to have a clear grasp of what the Orgus were about.

I’d been caught.  Unable to stay, unable to leave.  Until now a choice had been made for me.

“I’ll need guards,” I told the Captain, “your most loyal men.”

“What of the men you came with?” he asked.

I was saved from having to manufacture an answer when the door burst down.

Aspar Aguus burst through the door, with a squadron of Orgus mercenaries, their weapons pointed at us.  We froze.  Behind him, came several officers of Diome, clad in black and silver regalia.

“You are all under arrest,” Aguus thundered.  He glanced at the men of Diome, “I claim the bounties on behalf of the great Jeddak, Heddo Letus.”

I was speechless.


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