by Den Valdron
We lost the Archivist, of course. As well as our buckles and studs, bracelets and rings and fasteners, and bits of chain and practically every bit of metal in our possession short of our actual weapons, and even there we gave up a few knives.
“I feel bad about the Archivist,” I said as we made our way back to the surface.
He had been allowed to accompany us to the top chambers, within sight of the day's light. We'd given him both our ship's torch lights. The others opposed my gesture but I insisted. We would make out, he was probably going to spend the rest of his life in an alien society deep under ground. A little light would mean much.
Aspar Aguus shrugged, “He lives.”
I thought about that for a moment, and about my poor Orovar bodyguard and my last sight of him, falling and screaming, flung from the cruiser to fall from the sky during our flight. The Archivist had a better fate, I suppose. Jar Ham Nee, Lhand Alu Vace, Am Bor Lyn, friends and colleagues, Beyer Jah the Sergeant, Kavian Por and Tor Ega the mercenaries, Aspar Aguus’ companion, Pul Bayl the one-eyed bandit chief, all those poor people who had been tricked into rioting to cover our escape, friends enemies, strangers.
Did I feel guilt over surviving where so many others died? I didn't think so. Perhaps I ought to, for at least some of them might still live, but for me. Instead, though, I was struck by the randomness of it, I had seen better or worse than me die, smarter and more foolish, more innocent and more ruthless, schemers and dreamers, warriors, heroes and cowards, while I was untouched.
“We have food and water in abundance now,” Vadak Eth pointed out. “And sleds to carry them in. And new harnesses and garments of exquisite mollusk leather studded with jewels, as well as a fortune in jewels.”
“As well,” Aspar Aguus noted, “we have a remarkably long trade agreement.”
A largely fictional document, I thought, since the Federated Nations trading monopoly on whose behalf I'd signed the treaty didn't exist. Despite
“We might as well have taken our chances with the Spiderlings,” Japh Leah groused as we made our way back to the surface.
“I didn't think it was that bad,” I said.
“They raped us,” he said, “they bent us over a table and raped us. By Sacred Iss, the compound interest penalty clauses alone!”
“You helped negotiate it,” I pointed out. He'd actually done most of the negotiating with me. For all his complaints, he'd been a ferociously astute bargainer. “You seemed more a merchant than a fighting man, as you argued over every single detail. It was tedious.”
“Well,” he replied, “I wanted it to seem authentic. If we'd agreed too much they would not have believed it.”
“You didn't agree to anything!” I told him.
Aspar Aguus began to laugh. I could just tell that I was going to be stuck hauling a sled again. Maybe if some of these spiderlings were still around, we could tame and harness them.
“You know,” Vadak Eth said thoughtfully, “that agreement might be worth more than all the jewels we carry. A trade monopoly with a hidden nation? We could all become wealthy beyond dreams.”
Awesome wealth? I had no idea what to think of that. Even a few weeks ago, before the sky broke open and the dome fell, it might have been alluring. Now, it merely seemed unreal.
“They approached me privately,” Aguus said, “seeking a side deal.”
They had? Interesting, I thought. I kept forgetting that Aspar Aguus was the third jed of the Orgus nation. I had no idea if they were interested in trade or wealth. But if they were... I wished him well.
Wealth beyond dreams? I tried the thought on. A chance at stability, at security. Something better than jumping desperately from one outrageous lie to the next, digging myself in deeper with each one. Real wealth could buy safety.
Az-Lium, though the thought broke my heart, was ended, the life I had known was over. I was no Princess, sometimes it seemed easy to forget that. And I was not going to liberate my city, as so many had been tricked into believing, as even my companions seemed to believe of me. There were no jewels of power, no foreign alliances, the rebellion had no hope.
So, why not make a new life? Find a place in this awful new world? I wouldn't mind being wealthy.
“No chance,” Japh Leah said, startling me.
“No chance at all. Markath Khan controls the Jagged Lands. No matter who starts trade with Mant, he would take over.”
“You know, “ I said to him, crossly, “sometimes I think I like you. But then you speak and the feeling goes away.”
Aspar Aguus laughed again. “Markath Khan? He does not trade if he can take. Look at the example of Az-Lium.”
“We could still make a fortune,” Vadak Eth insisted, “before Markath Khan found out and took it all over.”
I frowned. But he would find out, sooner or later. There would be no way to conceal it in the long run. A nation of the blind, faced with the weapons of these red men, they would be even more helpless than my own city. It would be the rape and enslavement of yet another nation.
I thought of the glimpses of the people we had met, the Mollusk farmers, the soldiers, the jeweler. That arch and stern woman who had quoted an ancient play back to me. The couple walking with their children. The strange exotic city beneath the world, those elaborate buildings, the art and design incised everywhere into stone.
“Then this place must remain a secret,” I said. “I will not allow it, not allow Markath Khan the ruin of another nation.”
Ton Sabat surprised me with his determined agreement, and then Aspar Aguus came on. After much argument with Vadak Eth and Japh Leah, we swore oaths on our lives to keep this secret, and buried the treaty in the tombs of the buried city.
“Well,” said Japh Leah, as we sealed the document in a desecrated crypt, “what now, Princess?”
I shrugged, and tried to think of something
“Shiaze, I suppose,” I said. “If we can reach it. Anywhere far from Diome and Markath Kahn's grip.”
But where was it? I had not the grasp of ancient geography that the Archivist had, but I thought I had a reasonable sense of the layout of the Jagged Lands. Of the lands beyond, I knew only from ancient records as seas and mud flats. My companions knew the Jagged Lands not at all, but were familiar with the locations of cities beyond.
We scratched maps in the dirt, guessed and argued about guesses. In the end, it seemed that the closest reachable city to where we must be was Yukhara.
“Yukhara is under the rule of Diome,” Japh Leah said dubiously, “it was one of Markath Khan's first conquests.”
“Markath Khan's rule rests lightly there,” Vadak Eth said. “From there, we can purchase supplies and go anywhere in the world.”
Aspar Aguus shrugged. Of course Diome would not trouble him. The Orgus served Markath Khan as mercenaries.
“I think,” Japh Leah said, “once we leave the Jagged Lands, I will find my own way.”
He was leaving? The thought was like a spear in my heart. He was a frustrating, infuriating man, full of cleverness and secrets, always acting like he knew more than he admitted. Never to see his smile again? I turned away.
“What of Shiaze?” I asked.
I could almost hear his shrug. “You'll find little help there, Princess. This is not a world where sentiment compels the rescue of forgotten nations. They are more occupied fighting for their lives.”
“Well enough then. I don't care where you go,” I said, keeping my voice level.
Vadak Eth stepped forward. “We should divide our fortunes once we are beyond the Jagged Lands.”
“You too, Vadak Eth?” I asked.
“I fear Princess,” he said, “that Ton Sabat and I are but simple men. The affairs of states and nations are beyond us. These paltry trinkets from Az-Lium and Mant are all the reward I can see from our participation. Further involvement can only cost. It is time we moved on.”
“Your logic is impeccable,” I replied, my heart sinking further.
“It is past time I returned to the Temple of Skulls, and to my Jeddak,” Aspar Aguus said. “There is unfinished business I must attend to.”
I nodded. I did not turn back to face them, but instead, stepped away, staring up at the harsh and empty sky that stretched away into the void.
They were not my friends, I thought to myself. They were mercenaries, brigands, killers and thieves, aliens and monsters. We traveled together, relied upon each other, supported each other. But I had always known I could not trust them. And how could I ask their trust, when everything I'd ever said to any of them had been nothing but lies.
Still, I had gotten used to them. Come to take a measure of safety from their presence. Now, that was coming to an end.
I was going to be alone in the world, again.
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