by Den Valdron
Fan Kuzar stepped back.
"If you are truly a Thern Priestess," he demanded, "remove your wig."
“Before an unbeliever? I shall do no such thing!”
“Well surely you see my problem,” he said. “Here you are, appearing out of nowhere, a lone Thern Priestess, this seems remarkable. And you are accompanied by Red Men and an Orgus, just as the demon Princess... Well, that seems plainly suspicious.”
“Regardless,” I announced, “I shall not profane a the sacred headpiece by removing it in front of a heretic.”
“High Priestess,” I corrected.
“Priestess,” he said, “I would point out that your men are outnumbered and I see no guns among you. I therefore feel that I am both able and obliged to insist.”
“Outnumbered you say?”
“Most clearly Princess,” he replied, “by two to one.”
“You have thirty men?” I asked.
“You have fifteen?” He looked around, smiling. “I only see four. Where are the others, hidden away perhaps.”
The smile flickered.
I stared levelly at him, exuding confidence that I did not feel. This was not a stupid man, nor a gullible one.
“If you are bluffing, Princess, then my men will kill you all. If you are not bluffing, we die, but then the battle shall attract reinforcements from the Caravan in such numbers that you will be killed anyway.”
His logic was impeccable.
“So you see, Princess,” he said, “if you are a Thern, it is in your interests to prove it. Remove your wig.”
I sighed, with what I hope was condescending boredom.
“I will not,” I said, “but this charade has gone on long enough. Vadak Eth! Ton Sabat! The time is long past to remove that ridiculous red paint.”
Vadak Eth stared at me.
He sheathed his sword, and returning to our packs, dampened a cloth and cleansed the red stage paint from his face and bald head, exposing the white features beneath. He tossed the cloth to Ton Sabat, who had the wit to follow suit. Vadak Eth then picked up his sword and returned to my side.
“Ah,” said Fan Kuzar thoughtfully, “so a party of Therns in disguise.”
“It is more convenient to travel in the guise of Red Men,” Vadak Eth said.
It was fortunate that Kuzar was not looking at Japh Leah or Aspar Aguus, who were both shocked by this revelation.
“But not your Priestess?”
“Her Holiness does not compromise,” Vadak Eth replied, with just the slightest roll of his eyes. “Ever.”
“I can see that,” Fan Kuzar replied dryly.
He indicated, Japh Leah.
“What of him, he does not remove his make up?”
“He's not a Thern,” I said.
“Japh Leah is my personal foot slave.” I told him.
“He looks rather rough to be a foot slave,” Fan Kuzar said doubtfully.
“He was. That's why I had him castrated.”
He glanced at Japh Leah, who had the sense to sit back in his saddle and cast an effeminate glance at the Captain. He nodded ever so slightly, and then winked..
Fan Kuzar shuddered.
“I see,” he said slowly. “And the Orgus?”
“The Orgus,” I said, “is simply a guide hired at exorbitant cost from Hedo Lettus.”
“Not a Jed?”
Aspar Aguus began to laugh, a cruel booming sound. “These whining creatures would not part with the gold necessary to hire an Orgus Jed.”
Fan Kuzar laughed in turn. “I hear that they are quite expensive. Well, you look like you could afford Hedo Lettus prices. Do you really have a dozen men waiting to kill us?”
“Very well,” he said. “Whatever you are, you're clearly not bandits and you don't seem to be the fabulous Demon Princess. So we have no concern.”
“The territories around here are full of bandits, and I am therefore obliged to offer you the hospitality of Haja Obol, and travel with our caravan to fair Diome. May I accompany you back?”
“No,” said Vadak Eth too quickly.
“Not tonight,” I cut him off, we had to allay suspicion. “We have made our camp, we will remain. We will join the Caravan in the morning. I trust that you will make appropriate arrangements for our arrival.”
He nodded. “Very well.”
“In the meantime,” I said, “you will accept our hospitality. Dismount and my foot slave will brew a tea, in the fashion of Valley Dor.”
Fan Kuzar looked to Vadak Eth, who simply shrugged back. Then he chuckled.
“Who am I to defy the will of the most Holy.”
The conversation over tea was useful, if brief. After Fan Kuzar and his men had departed, we had a fierce debate.
It seemed accepted that the offer of hospitality was genuine. I was certain that we were going to be slapped in chains and sold into slavery, a sentiment that Ton Sabat shared. But Japh Leah and Vadak Eth assured us that in the traditions of the red men, we were safe.
When Red Men met, they either warred unto death, or they embraced like long lost brothers. It seemed that there was no middle ground. Red Men were obviously crazy, but for once, it worked in our favour. We would be as safe in the Caravan, as a royal family in its palace.
The news that the city so near was Diome, stronghold of Markath Khan, the center of a rapacious and warlike Empire, the despoiler of Az-Lium, was appalling. Yukhara would have been bad enough, but this?
But a short distance away was a trading caravan of hundreds, even thousands, of souls, and now they knew where we were. If we fled, surely that would arouse suspicion, and with their numbers, and their fleet Thoats, they'd have no difficulty running us down. So the only option, it seemed, was to march bravely into the jaws of the dragon, first to the Caravan, and then to Diome.
The only advantage that we could see was that entry with the Caravan might allay some suspicions in Diome, and while there, we might secure our wealth and resources to leave expediently.
Vadak Eth spent the rest of the evening coaching me in the ways of the Therns and the intricacies of the Thern cult.
In the morning we struck camp and joined the caravan.
“Welcome my friends,” Haja Obol embraced us all like long lost kin. “Surely, we are blessed to have members of the Holy Race join our humble expedition, and as such a propitious moment.”
Haja Obol, as it turned out, was a portly red man, savagely scarred by what I was told were Great White Apes. It left him with half a hand, and a permanent limp and crouch, but he bore his injuries with good grace.
His Caravan was like a small traveling city, an assembly of hundreds of red men and women, riding or driving wheeled carts of every sort, drawn by huge creatures called Zitidars, as well as Thoats, Toruks and even Rodals and Slidars. Some of the carts were but simple wagons, others were huge constructions.
Haja Obol's cart was like a palace on wheels, a massive edifice three stories tall, with a stark watchtower, constructed of sumptuous woods, elaborately carved. The main floor or deck of his cart was a decadent banquet hall, its windows framed by scarlet curtains, the furniture drenched with cushions, the room filled with slaves, warriors, merchants and courtesans of every description. A slim hipped boy with eyes darkened by kohl simpered at me.
“I hope,” he said, “that you are not affected by these small creature comforts.”
“The true faith,” I said, “does not require that life's journey be conducted in suffering. Rather, to appreciate the pleasures of paradise, one must taste of worldly joy.”
“Well said,” he told me, “but then, I have heard that the Therns of old always knew to enjoy worldly pleasures. Your jeweled harnesses tell me that you are no strangers to the appreciation of wealth. Do you perhaps cleave to the more traditional ways?”
“Once upon a time, the Therns were a hidden people, the agents and agency of a single world spanning faith. But now, look at you... dragged into the light, your church broken, half your worshippers have renounced you, and the rest are divided among a dozen squabbling cults.”
“The true faith shall triumph,” I said calmly.
“Yes,” he replied, “I suppose it must. Can I offer you wine or refreshments, while we wait for that blessed day?”
“You may,” I replied. Servants raced to see to the needs of all of your group, except Japh Leah, who they considered a mere foot slave. I smirked at him, as we made ourselves comfortable.
“So,” he said, “what are your plans, coming to Diome?”
I smiled at him.
“Religious matters,” I said, “there are souls to save.”
“Indeed,” he said.
“My Captain says that you are interested in the location of Az-Lium.”
“May I inquire?”
Haja Obol smiled and shrugged. He was asking too many questions to suit my tastes.
“Your man took us for the party of some Demon Princess,” I said.
“Superstition. Markath Khan's enemies and victims pine their hopes on some imaginary figure. An Orovar Princess with a secret army and a most improbable band of followers - an Orgus Jed, a Prince of Shiaze, a demon, red men, white men, an invisible army, supernatural weapons, the story changes constantly.”
“Utter nonsense of course, the stories make no sense. She is of the royal blood of Az-Lium, but they are all purged. She appears at the Temple of Skulls, bargaining with the Orgus. She leads mercenaries in the outer world. She leads a slave rebellion. Half a dozen times, she is reported killed. Yet a dozen more times, she is alive performing improbable acts.”
“Yet,” he said thoughtfully, “I can see how your circumstances might have led him to such a mistake. Of course, if there are always seeds of truth in the most extravagant tales. Who knows, perhaps a Thern Priestess traveling with disguised priests and a simple guide might have unknowingly contributed.”
My heart started beating quickly.
“We are only recently come from Valley Dor to these barren lands. I'd heard reports of this Demon Princess well before I arrived.”
“Rumour does travel lightly,” he replied.
“You are a slaver,” I said, eager to change the subject. “Yet I do not see many slaves in this Caravan. It seems mostly merchants of various sorts.”
Haja Obol laughed.
“Bring slaves to Diome?” He said. “That's foolishness. Diome is an empire of slaves. As we arrive, you will see the great pens where tens of thousands are bound in servitude, the work factories and the chain gangs, the ceaseless activity of human bondage. No, I do not travel to Diome to sell slaves. I come here to buy them, and in vast numbers.”
“I see,” I said.
“You need not search for Az-Lium,” he chuckled. “Wait in Diome, and Az-Lium will come to you, thoroughly tractable and properly domesticated. Why, I hear that there are already vast crops of Orovars harvested and sitting in Diome, wanting only purchasers.”
“Does that bother you, Priestess,” he asked.
“Slavery is the natural state of lower beings,” I said dismissively.
“I may have to join your church after all, Priestess,” he laughed. He stared at our jeweled harnesses. “Your jewels are quite remarkable. Would you consider parting with some of them?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“They are trinkets, we are well supplied,” I told him. “One of our reasons for coming to Diome is sell a few and restore our funds and supplies.”
He leaned back on his cushions.
“Interesting,” he said, “did you know Markath Khan was once a jeweler himself?”
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