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Volume 3169c
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX
THE LAND HAS EYES
 
The first sight of Diome, as we approached, was of an immense gray wall ringing the city, broken again and again by massive gates.  Beyond the wall loomed huge buildings, spires and domes, tall towers topped by flat spreading platforms.  Airships filled the air, buzzing in and out above the cities walls.  There was a steady stream of men and beasts

As the Caravan entered Diome, through a colossal gate, onto a vast boulevard, I and my companions stood on the flat upper deck of Haja Obol’s great wagon.   This place reminded me more than anything of the Jagged Lands than any city.  Everywhere I looked there were vast expanses of stone, columns, walls, massive impersonal buildings.  The scale the the place seemed colossal.   There was a strange inhuman quality to the city, everything too big, too indifferent.  People in this place were like insects crawling among a vast and timeless rocky desert.  It was simply colossal shapes of rock, almost alien in their vast and crude symmetry.

Haja Obol pointed to my left to a great wall, the height of four or five men.  Beyond it, were the flat roofs of buildings.

“Those are slave pens,” he said.

“It’s huge,” I replied.

Haja Obol shrugged, “there are dozens more.”

He pointed towards a pair of gigantic statues on either side of the vast boulevard, one bearing a sword, the other a staff.   They were each well over a hundred feet tall.

“Gods?”  I asked.

“No,” he said, “representations.  The spirit of war, and the spirit of commerce.”

“They have the same face.”

Haja Obol shrugged.  I would notice the same face on many of the statues, it became very familiar.

Perhaps it was my expectations, but it seemed to me that Diome was an alien and hostile place.  As odd as it seemed to say, it was nothing like Az-Lium or even Mant.  Even long abandoned Tazor Ylan seemed more hospitable, its ruins and sand choked streets and broken doors seemed more welcoming of human presence than this spartan place.

It was not that it was empty.  People were everywhere, moving about with relentless purpose.  It seemed that everyone was either soldiers or slaves.   As I watched though, it seemed that even the civilians dressed as soldiers, weapons and martial livery were worn by merchants, by bakers and street vendors.   Soldiers dressed in armour and livery marched everywhere, following officers, or on their own missions.   The city seemed consumed by martial fervour, rigid discipline and posture spread a subliminal tension.  It seemed everyone was either marching or saluting or standing at attention.

Among these proud and relentless people, slaves moved, always in chains, sometimes in chain gangs, heads bowed, their postures abject, only whip wielding overseers paid attention to them.  As I watched, the warriors and citizens seemed to be oblivous of the slaves, marching past them, acknowledging them in no way.  But then, as I looked closer, it seemed that the citizens did not even acknowledge each other, that in the endless regimentation, there was no room for human behaviour.

No one idled, no one gossiped, no one looked about or smiled.  Conversations were barked like orders and acknowledgements, brief encounters without preliminaries, that ended with abrupt halts.

I looked to Haja Obol.

“This is Diome,” he said.  “All cities are warlike to some extent.  But few have devoted themselves so fully to war as this nation.”

“And yet, the carefree and easy going slackers of Shiaze continue to defeat Diome’s legions.”  Japh Leah offered.

“Your slave is very free with his tongue,” Haja Obol observed.  “Perhaps you should have cut off that instead.”

I shrugged.  “I kept the part I found most useful to my pleasure.”

Haja Obol chuckled.  Japh Leah had the sense to shut up.

“Shiaze remains standing, despite the martial enthusiasm of Diome’s citizens, in large part because its conquests are so extensive.   The forces of Diome are stretched to the limits.  Half the work in the city must be done by slaves, since citizens are so hard pressed to other duties.  Even so, Markath Khan must hire mercenaries, green men and orgus in vast numbers,” Haja Obol explained.

This seemed true to me.   The forces which had overrun Az-Lium had been at least two thirds mercenaries and monsters.  Perhaps one in four or less had been of the disciplined martial variety that I could see was the signature of Diome.

“What about the fliers,” I asked.

They had seemed a different breed in Az-Lium.

“Very good Priestess,” he said, “to march in formation, to shout ‘hoo-ah’, to swing a sword or to charge into a hail of bullets are all remarkable and commendable skills.  But they are not sufficient to pilot or crew an airship.  Their skills and traditions are rather different, and while their discipline is remarkable, it is not so...  blind.”

There was a moment of silence as we watched the soldiers march back and forth down the streets.

“I hear that in the navies, the old faith remains very strong,” he said quietly.

I nodded.

“I would assume then,” he said, “that her Holiness is intent upon visiting the shipyards and the docks.”

Behind him, Japh Leah nodded slightly.

“Our mission is to minister to the faithful,” I replied.

He nodded.

“Then perhaps it would be best to go below, and settle accounts.   I am happy to maintain confidentiality, for an appropriate price.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

“Under no circumstances,” Japh Leah said, “should we go near the airships.”

“I agree,” Aspar Aguus said, “the slave trader will sell us out before the day is up.  The last place we want to go is there.”

We had traded up to Thoats, and so we rode down the street with the pride and certainty of visiting dignitaries.   No one accosted us.   It seemed that these people were so conditioned to obedience that they simply deferred to anyone who seemed to exude authority.

“What should we do then?”  I asked.

“Nothing about this city is safe,” Japh Leah said, “and I would as soon get out of here as quickly as possible.  I say we trade our jewels for coins, and then book passage on the next caravan out.”

“I agree,” Ton Sabat said.   Vadak Eth nodded.

“How long are we safe?”  I asked.  “Should we disguise ourselves?”

Vadak Eth shrugged.   “We could disguise the colour of your skin, but it would be hard to find a suitable wig.   The Holy Therns are much respected, even now.   You will get far more deference as a Thern Priestess than you would as an Orovar, or even a Red Woman.”

I nodded.

“So we shall maintain the role for now?”

“I think that is wise,” Vadak Eth replied.  “If Markath Khan is in league with the Therns, then we will attract his attention, but it may keep him at a distance.”

“Markath Khan’s secret police are interested in everyone,” Japh Leah said, “it is damnable hard for other cities to send spies in.  Perhaps Vadak Eth is right.   If we seem important, they will be wary.  If it seems we have secret ties to Markath Khan then they will be reluctant.”

I nodded.  But inside I was close to panic.  To trade on an imaginary secret relationship to Markath Khan, literally under his nose?  That seemed like sheer suicide.  It might get us through an encounter, we might carry it on for a day or two.  But sooner or later, the word would seep up to Markath Khan, and then the knife would fall on all our necks.

“That’s a terrible plan,” I said.   “Find me a wig, we’ll put on the red paint, and disappear.”

“No amount of red paint will disguise me, Princess,” Aspar Aguus said.   “And it seems to me that for the rest of you, the surest way to raise alarm would be to disappear suddenly and without explanation.”

“Fine,” I sulked, outvoted, “but it’s still a terrible plan.”

This was horrible, I wanted to scream at them.  This was an awful plan, idotic, half baked, utterly suicidal, doomed to fail.  I just couldn’t come up with anything better.   And apparently, neither could this pack of homicidal idiots.  I needed to be trapped with smarter bandits.  I sighed.

“All the more reason to conclude our business quickly and depart the city.”

“Will it be difficult getting out?”

“Usually its more difficult getting in.”

“How long will it take,”  I asked, “for us to arrange our escape from this dismal place?”

“The Orgus are common here,” Aguus said, “and well represented as Caravan Guards.  I will scout there, and see what the prospects are.”

I nodded.

Japh Leah spoke, “I am the least....  noticeable...  in our group.  I can look for places to convert our wealth quickly.  I have a few contacts here.”

Contacts?  I wondered about that.  But then, it made sense, criminals and thieves, they would have connections in different cities, or at least places they might go to find connections.  It just confirmed to me, once again, how despite his charm, Japh Leah was an unsavoury character.

They waited.

We rode along.

Were they waiting for my approval?  It was strange.  Had I been pretending to be a Princess so long they’d simply fallen into a habit of obedience.

“Ton Sabat can disguise himself easily,” I said.   “As long as he doesn’t speak, he should have no trouble passing.  And you may need his strength if things go badly.”

Ton Sabat nodded agreement.

“Very good Princess,” Japh Leah said.

“They will be watching us,” Aspar Aguus said.

I nodded.

“Then I shall have to dismiss you publicly,” I whispered.  “Holy Therns would have no use for a country guide in this city...   especially one that we caught thieving.“

I thought some more.

“And if we dismiss the Orgus, then I would have to send an acolyte with my slave, to retain new assistance.”

“We shall have to have a scene,” I said.   “Something messy and public.”

I almost smiled.  I was thinking of something from “Three Brides and a Cuckold”, or perhaps “The Fishwife’s Adventure.”   I was sort of looking forward to it, it would be a chance to do something like real acting.   Hmmm, not too over the top, I didn’t want Aspar Aguus thrown in jail.  But definitely, he needed to be dismissed in a shameful way.

Then my near smile faded away entirely.

“But if they are watching us,” I said, “to cover your departures, we must keep their attention on me.  Which means that I have to act as they might expect.   So it seems that I must go to the shipyards.”

“Brilliant, Princess,” Aspar Aguus chuckled.  They all seemed to be nodding with approval.  My stomach was turning knots.  I could only hope that they were as ruthlessly efficient at their designated tasks as they were at murdering people.

“It’s a terrible plan,” I said.

And I was right, as it turns out, since I ended up getting arrested.


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