by Den Valdron
ALL THE WRONG PLACES
I was once again, utterly speechless. I stared at an audience of thousands. Every actress dreams of a stage so vast.
Every Actress’s nightmare is not knowing your lines. Showing up on stage, hitting your mark, receiving your cue, the entire audience rapt and on the edge of their seats waiting for the words to come ringing from your lips. And you open your mouth... and nothing. Not a word, not a thought, not an idea, your fellow actors staring expectantly, waiting, the action paused, the world hanging on words that would were not there.
Silently, they stared back.
Aspar Aguus strode forward.
“Free men and women of Azlium,” he roared his voice booming out to all within sight. Thousands watched.
“You have heard tales of the Princess,” he boomed. “The Princess who promises liberation, the Princess who has no fear of your enemies and tormentors.”
He gestured at me, beckoning me to step forward.
“Well, here she is. She strides without hesitation into the place where they are strongest, and you are weakest. And she washes her hands in their blood. Await her words!”
Me? What the hell was I supposed to say.
I smiled a little and waved.
“Hi,” I said.
I kicked myself. ‘Hi’? That was the best I could come up with? I tried to think of something better. Aguus didn’t wait. Instead, he bellowed forth.
“She commands you now, her loyal subjects, rise up and fight! Throw off the yoke of tyranny! Turn on your tormentors now! The Princess says that liberation is at hand!”
What? These people were unarmed prisoners, half of them in chains, broken and helpless, surrounded by armed guards and guns and airships. He was calling for slaughter, the slaughter of my people. I grabbed him.
“This is madness,” I said.
But it was too late, the crowd was already rising, a roar swept through. The nearest guards were seized and torn to pieces. Weapons and tools were being seized, chains were being smashed or carried.
“It is war, Princess,” he replied.
“They’ll be slaughtered,” I said. “You’ve roused them only to be slaughtered.”
“Some yes,” he answered, “many perhaps. But they were being slaughtered in any case. Now, at least, it will be a fight. From now on, the Diome will pay for their conquest, and sooner or later, the price will be too high.”
“For whom?” I screamed, as the riot swept out, as the sound of rage and pain and screaming, of shots fired and men and women dying, rippled out.
Aspar Aguus only laughed, watching the carnage.
Japh Leah and Vadak Eth came up on deck. Vadak Eth was heavily bandaged. They gazed about them with the expertise of professional soldiers.
“They will be crushed,” Vadak Eth said easily.
“But not right away,” Aguus replied. “It will serve its purpose.”
Japh Leah pointed to a group of towers near the headquarters of the Diome invaders. “Can you read the signals?” he asked.
“Rebellions, I think,” Vadak Eth replied, “breaking out in other parts of the city. Riots.”
“So quickly?” Japh Leah replied.
Aspar Aguus shrugged.
“The capture of the Princess, the escape of the Captain, the Airship crashing its way across the city...” he said reflectively. “They have not suffered oppression well. Once the spark was lit, the fire comes fast.”
“This was all to start a pointless riot?” I asked. “Why?”
“Because your people were dying Princess, because they knelt for the slavers chains, and suffered a thousand tiny cuts, because they were slowly being bled to death, and eventually it would be too late,” Aguus said.
“But the Guard, the resistance?”
“In the beginning, they fought like fools and died for it. Then they learned not to be fools, but did not fight, waiting for a moment that may never come. Now they must fight, the city must fight.”
“But they may lose,” I said.
“It is war, Princess,” Japh Leah placed his hand on my shoulder. Angrily, I shook it off. “Come, it’s time to go.”
“Go?” I asked.
“We’ve been making preparations to flee the city for some time now, Princess,” Vadak Eth said.
“I know that,” I snapped. “But now?”
“An uprising?” Japh Leah said. “It’s perfect timing. The men of Diome and their airships will be so busy trying to contain the city, they’ll never notice a single flyer escaping.”
“But this is a wreck!” I said.
“Superficial damage,” Japh Leah replied. “I was careful of that. It will serve.”
Then it all fell into place.
“You hypocrites,” I snarled, “you stinking hypocrites with all this fine talk of rousing the people and saving them from death by inches. Its all a ruse. You’ve lead a nation into a slaughterhouse for no more noble purpose than to conceal your escape.”
I shoved Vadak Eth so that he fell sprawling. I struck Japh Leah twice hard across the face, he did not resist. Ton Sabat had come up onto the topdeck and was coming towards me. I pounded my fists against Aspar Aguus immobile chest.
“Damn you!” I cried, “Damn you all!”
“Princess...” Aspar Aguus began.
“I am no Princess,” I cried. “I’m nothing and no one. Damn you! Leave me here, I’ll die with my people.”
Ton Sabat wrapped me in his arms, his unbreakable grip.
“Damn you all!” I cried, kicking helplessly. “Damn this world. You’re all monsters. I want nothing of you!”
But they paid no heed as they carried me down into the hold of the flyer. Japh Leah, went into the cabin and the engines hummed to life, the flyer lifted from the ground. But even over the engines, I could hear the sounds of fighting and dying. I kicked and cursed and struggled, but they held me still and hung their heads. Looking back, I think they knew shame.
“It is war, Princess,” Aspar Aguus said softly, and there was no pride in his voice.
They were right, the riots grew and grew until columns of smoke sprouted everywhere. Mercenaries hid or fled, the warriors of Diome retreated to their fortifications, and the airships roamed the sky constantly, their guns dealing death, firing until their ammunition ran out.
As predicted, no one paid any attention to a half-wrecked airship floundering above the streets, touching down here and there, at designated sites. The city was in flames. Fights broke out as we landed. We lost men, and I found, that though they were little more than red animals, I wept at their passing. The Archivist joined us, another Orgus, and an Orovar guardsman.
The flyer was packed with scant provisions, and as much gold and jewels as they could pack in. It was more wealth than I expected to see in a lifetime. But somehow, it seemed bitter and poisonous to me.
Word of the Princess was on everyone’s lips. Stirring words said long ago, new words I’d never spoken, speeches, slogans, exhortations, it came and came. Piles of corpses were burned in my fictitious name.
Before we left, I insisted upon a final tour.
Our battered flyer hopped around the city, sometimes fleeing the enemy airships, darting between buildings, hiding in clouds of smoke. I showed myself, I spoke where I could. Bullets whirled around me, and I laid my hands upon children and warriors, upon the frightened and the brave and tried to be to them what they needed. It only attracted the enemy.
Then we fled.
Airships pursued, guns fired. But too little too late.
We made for the great fracture in the Dome, headed into the harsh pink sky. I stared out the aft ports, watching my city, broken and bleeding, smoke rising everywhere, until we’d passed the chasm in the sky. I stared at the Dome until it was lost to sight, and wept a single tear.
Freedom is a strange thing. Sometimes, when you are free, it doesn’t feel like that at all. Rather, it feels like an emptiness, a strange void between places, between coming and going, between being and becoming.
I looked down at the Jagged lands from a platform high in the sky. It seemed unreal to be so high up, to be a part of the sky itself. Beneath me, the Jagged Lands stretched out in all directions, and strangely, it didn’t really look different from the way it had seemed when we were travelling through it.
And then, the Airship lurched and rolled over, and we all screamed in terror. My Guard, my brave Orovar who had come to protect his imaginary Princess went tumbling out of the hatch to his death.
“Damn,” shouted Aguus, “I did not feel us hit.”
From within the cabin, I heard Japh Leah’s answering shout. “We’re not. It’s the air currents. The Jagged Lands aren’t safe for ordinary airships.”
“We’re going to crash,” the Archivist shouted.
Someone screamed, I thought it was me.
BACK TO NOVEL INTRO AND CHAPTER NAVIGATION CHART