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Volume 3170a
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT
EVIL EYES
 
As it turns out, there is nothing quite so dull as a particular kind of enthusiast.  The Admiral spent the morning walking me through the shipyards, showing me everything from varieties of rope to chamber pots, to dismantled engine parts.   I smiled and nodded throughout.

We walked beneath a superstructure of a warship under construction, a thirty man cruiser.  Without its armour plating it seemed to be a large oval flat deck, beneath which were  rows of large metal canisters, and between them a central lower column that jutted downwards.  In the main, the ship resembled a great ‘T’ with cylindrical tanks beneath the arms of the T.

“In airships, stability is the key.   Did you know,” he said, “that way back in the beginning, they trapped the lifting gas in huge sacks and suspended the ship beneath them.”

I chuckled as he expected at such an obviously silly thing and announced I could not possibly believe it.

“It is true.   And more,” he told me, “it was a stable design, believe it or not.  But as the lifting gases were refined into their elemental ray, the sacks were unable to contain the concentrated form, and so the construction shifted to wood and leather and eventually to metal canisters.”

I nodded.

“Eventually, we began to place the canisters beneath the deck, which I'm sure you will agree is a much sounder proposition.”

Was it?   I had no idea.

“But then, of course, stability becomes a struggle.  So, between rows of canisters, we placed a heavy keel, to keep the ship stable.  Otherwise the deck would flip over in the slightest breeze.   And now, you have the secret of airship construction.   For no matter their shape, all modern airships are built to this design.”

“I shall guard it with my life,” I told him.

He chuckled and patted my arm.

“It lacks armour and guns.  You cannot appreciate the true majesty of such a weapon in its unadorned state.”

A weapon, I thought.  This marvelous strange machine could fly, and all it was, was a weapon.   There seemed something tragic and pointless about that thought.   These red men of the outer world...  Murder was all they ever thought about.

But then again, my people, the Orovars, conquered the world in our day as well.

And how well had that served us?

I shivered.

“Your Holiness?”  Admiral Latta said solicitously.

“I think it is perfectly beautiful,” I said, “just the way it is.”

He checked a time piece.

“Ah, it is almost time for the launch of our newest warship.   I can show you a perfect specimen, a hundred and fifty feet in length, three decks, thirty guns, two hundred men crew.  A monster of beauty and art, the finest work of Man, the Pride of Diome.   Will you join me, to give it your blessing?”

I noted Vadak Eth's sudden look of panic.  Could I simply beg off?   No, I saw no easy way out of this.   The Admiral had spent a part of his day squiring a Thern Priestess around the shipyards.  And then she was absent from the consecration?

“Of course,” I said.

When he turned away, Vadak Eth exchanged helpless looks.

With any luck, the consecration of a ship would be a fleeting unimportant thing.

It wasn't.   It dragged on, I was introduced to a number of important persons, I smiled and nodded at points.   I smiled and chatted, gave blessings in whatever fashion seemed to please them most.

Above us, held by tethers and locks, the warship loomed, its surface smooth and unscratched, its guns pointing down with the polished look of weapons waiting to be fired for the first time.  It blocked the sun, and its shadow covered us.

This was the sort of thing that had broken our dome, had broken my world like a cook breaking an egg shell, that had swept within, guns firing, slaughtering and burning all within reach.  I kept looking up at it.   It was strangely impersonal, as if its awful purpose, its awful power, gave it no real identity.  It was just an object, a thing, waiting for the use that would transform it into an entity of evil.

I did like the other one better, I thought.  The one without armour and guns, the one whose structure and purpose had simply been flight.  That was a more honest craft, a purer work.  It was a shame that it would be sleeved in steel and made into a thing of war.

“Is there any other use for these things,” I asked Admiral Latta, “except war?”

He lifted his noble brows.

“Like what?”

“I'm not sure.  Exploration, perhaps.  Or trade.  Or perhaps simply travel.”

Admiral Latta laughed.

“You'll find pleasant fellowship with Markath Khan,” he told me.  “Did you know he specifically ordered the design of Airships that could explore the Jagged Lands?  Everyone thought it a mad, foolish venture.   I fought it myself.  But his genius paid off.”

“Indeed.”

“But for the most part,” he said, “it is a dangerous world.  A city that wastes its airships on trade or exploration, does not have them at hand to defend itself from its neighbors.  That is a lesson that the Orovars of Az-Lium should have taken to heart.”

“But I heard they had no airships, no defenses,” I replied with careful abstraction.

“And now they pay the price,” he said.

Jerk.

It was late in the day when we finally evaded the polite attentions of Admiral Latta, and returned to the civilian part of the city.

There was a man waiting for us outside the gates.   Solemnly, he stepped forward and handed us a scroll.   I took it, stared for a moment at the illegible gibberish therein, then, with careful solemnity, I handed it to Vadak Eth.

He seemed able to read it.  He looked at me expectantly.  A response was needed.  I nodded.

Vadak Eth then bowed to the man.

“Her Holiness shall attend as requested.”

The man bowed and then ran off.

What had that been about?  I wondered.  Nothing good, I suspected.

Vadak Eth had turned pale and had begun to shake.

“That was a Thern Priest,” he said.

It was?  I could see a slight resemblance to Vadak Eth.  He'd resembled any other red man, presumably it was skin paint and a wig.

“We are commanded to attend in the presence of the Hekkador of the Temple, for inquiry, at the high noon, tomorrow.”

I thought about that.

“Is that bad?”  I asked.   I already knew the answer.

“When the Hekkador sees through the masquerade, we will be tortured to death.”

I sighed.

Not again.


“Is it safe,” I asked Vadak Eth, “to go to the meeting point?”

He shrugged.  Up ahead of us, a group of soldiers stood at attention.  They saluted as we passed by, our costumes and bearing presumably convincing them we were people of importance.

“Is anything safe in this city?   It is near the appointed time.”

Vadak Eth had been morose to the point of depression since we'd met the Thern messenger.

We proceeded through the city.  The sun was low on the horizon, but that did not change the ceaseless insect-like bustle.

“Suppose we refuse to go?”  I asked.

“Then the Hekkador will have us brought to him, and tortured to death.”

“Suppose we flee.”

“Then the Hekkador will have us pursued, brought to him, and tortured to death.”

“Suppose we confess all, tell the truth and throw himself on his mercy?”

“Hekkadors have no mercy, we will be tortured to death.”

“Bribe?”

“Hekkadors are incorruptible...”

“Right, tortured to death.”

“You seem strangely calm.”

I was, now that I thought of it.  I was always bare steps from being tortured to death it seems, and from persons rather closer and more proximate than this.  The only novelty was the source of the threat.   Of course, I suspected I would not be so calm when red hot irons were an inch from my face.

We passed a long chain gang of blond, white skinned slaves.  What had they been doing a month ago in Az-Lium, I wondered.  What had they been?  Physicians and nurses, teachers, stonemasons, minor nobles, merchants.  They had been free.  I tried not to think of it.

“We should have painted my skin red, as you and Ton Sabat had.”

“We had nothing to colour your blond hair black.”

“But you coloured Ton Sabat's hair.”

“It was already that colour.”

Of course, I thought.   No Orovar had hair like Ton Sabat's, another small mystery.

One of the slaves dared to glance up, our eyes met.  Quite deliberately, I nodded.  He looked away quickly.

Was this what lay in store for my people?

“Go among the Orovars,” I bent and whispered to him impulsively.   “Tell them that the Princess is among them.  Tell them that liberation is coming.”

“It will be done, your Highness,” he whispered

I felt a little better.  But I found myself wondering if that had been wise.  It probably was not.

“Do nothing rash,” Japh Leah had reminded me.

I wished he was here so that I could tell him to shut up.  I hoped he'd had better luck.

“Can we kill the Hekkador,” I asked Vadak Eth.  The thought did not particularly bother me.  Perhaps I'd spent so much time in the company of murderers.

“The temple is a fortress, we will be overcome, captured and --”

“Tortured to death, yes, I know. You've been there?”

“I've passed through,” he said evasively.   He knew more than he was telling.  No surprise.  Could I trust him?

Of course not.

Two blocks before the meeting point, Aspar Aguus appeared from an alley, in company of three other Orgus.  He was wearing the livery of Diome.

He bowed before me.

“You've found friends,” I said.  I wasn't surprised.  He'd often disappeared among the Orgus in Az-Lium.

“These men of Diome cannot tell one Orgus from another, Princess,” he told me, “if I change my metal, then I am simply another of the race.”

I held up my hands in false benediction.

“That simplifies matters greatly,” I said.   “We can simply hire you again, when it is time to leave.  Have you found a caravan?”

“One leaves in three days hence,” he replied.   “But there are complications.”

Three days?   That was a complication in itself.  I didn't think I could carry this masquerade for three days.  I might not survive past tomorrow.    It was one thing to pretend to be a Princess in Az-Lium, where everyone wanted and needed me to play the role.  But to play the Priestess in this hostile city of suspicion and spies and murderous religious cults?

“The Tenth Jed is here,” he told me.

For a second, I went blank.  Then I remembered that it was the second and the tenth Jeds who had killed his companion and tied him out on a rock to be eaten.   He hadn't talked about it much at all, and suddenly, I was struck by how little I actually knew of this creature. This did complicate things.

“Are you going to kill him?”  I asked.   I flashed back on my conversation with Vadak Eth only a moment ago, when I'd asked about killing the Hekkador.   Mentally, I began to cast about for ways to talk him out of it.   I didn't think that Orgus murdering each other would be helpful to our escaping.

“No,” he replied, “but there must be a settling of scores.”

That didn't sound good at all.

“Do nothing rash,” I whispered, as he backed away.

Damn, I thought.

“Wait!”  I said, almost loudly.

He returned and bowed.

“How many Orgus could you muster for tomorrow morning?”  I asked.

“Why?”  he answered with guarded reserve.  Not the answer I hoped for.

“It would take fifty men to breach the Temple,” Vadak Eth protested.

“I can raise fifty,” Aguus said truculently, “if I have need.”

“You'd need siege engines.”

“I can get siege engines.”

“It's impossible,”  Vadak Eth declared, “attack the temple, and we'd bring the city guard down on everyone before it was over.”

“He's right,” Aguus said, “if I start a battle, it will be for my own purposes and ground of my own choosing.  Not for some suicidal blunder for your own foolishness.  You should never have pretended to be a Priestess.”

Oh, like it was all my fault?

“Wait,” I said, thinking hard, “we don't have to attack the temple.”

“We just have to bluff them,” Ton Sabat said suddenly in his broken accent.  I was startled, it was so easy to think him a fool.  But he kept reminding me that he was anything but.

Aguus seemed to consider it.  “You want me to support a bluff, there will be a price.”

“We can't bluff,”  Vadak Eth said, “these aren't ignorant hill bandits or gullible nomad chiefs.  These are people whose very breath is deceit and treachery.   We can't bluff them.  If they ask her one question, we'll all be undone.”

“Then,” I said, “we cannot allow one question.”


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