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Volume 3172
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE
STORM RIDERS
I shrugged.

“No, Ton Sabat, saying Markath Khan was dead was just an inspiration to sow confusion.  Maybe if the news gets out, his soldiers will lose heart, or some of his officers will be motivated to try their luck.”

“Smart,” he said, wrapping his arms around me for another spine jolting jump.  My guts lurched, and with each leap, it felt like all my bones were being stretched apart.  Still, with what little thoughts I was able to gather, it seemed to me a very good idea.   I tried to collect names of officers and generals in my head, to concoct plausible stories of uprisings and coups, filing it away for later.

Abruptly, we landed near the beginnings of the slave barracks, near an astonished group of Diome officers.   They drew swords and rifles and headed towards us at a run.   Ton Sabat drew his blade and readied himself.

And me once again, stuck in the middle.

I took three steps towards them, not really meaning to, but my legs were wobbly from all that leaping around, and then sank to my knees and vomited.

For some reason, that made them stop.

Strange, I thought.  It was surreal, these red men, always so ready to slaughter.  But suddenly, at the sight of a woman on all fours vomiting, they were arrested.

I wondered where it had come from.  I didn't recall eating since the last time I threw up.  It tasted worse this time.

“Markath Khan or Baron Graz,” I mumbled through vomit stained lips.

“What?”  one asked.  “Never mind, you're under arrest.”

“Markath Khan or Baron Graz,” I repeated again, more loudly.

“What are you going on about?”

“Are you loyal to Markath Khan?” I yelled as they drew near.

“Of course we're loyal to Markath Khan,” the nearest one said.

I grabbed him around the knees and wrapped my arms around him, drawing him close.  He struggled awkwardly to keep from stepping in my vomit.  For good measure, I burst into theatrical tears.

“They're loyalists,” I wept.  “Oh Ton Sabat, we are saved, they're loyalists!  We thought the wicked Baron had all but won.”

“What are you talking about?”  One of them demanded.  “Baron Graz is dead, he died in the assault on Shiaze, there's an insurrection.  The Orgus have risen.”

Oops.

“Deception!  Deception!”  I redoubled my weeping.  “The Baron faked his death to return to Diome in secret and gather his allies to take over.”

“What about the insurrection.”

“There is no insurrection, it's just a diversion of the Baron.”

“Wait, I was there.  I was at Shiaze when the Baron was killed, he couldn't have faked that.”

“There's no insurrection,” I cried, “the Baron launched an attack upon the Orgus loyal to Markath Khan to sew confusion.”

“But the Baron is dead, I saw it.”

“No,” one of the men said, “‘you’ said you saw the Baron die.  I don't know what you saw.   Only what you claim.  But she says he's alive.”

“Wait, are you calling me a liar?”

“I'm not calling anyone anything, but something is going on, and the Baron may be behind it.”

“This is outrageous.”

“Yeah, a spy would say that.”

“That's it–“

“Please,” I cried out, “there's not much time.  There are still officers loyal to Markath Khan, we must gather our strength and go out and meet them before all is lost.”

“But we've got to watch the slaves.”

“The city hangs by a thread,” I said, “and you want to waste time guarding docile slaves.”

“Not so docile...”

“Who the hell is she?”

“No wait, I think I've seen  her, she's that High Priestess.”

“Admiral Latta's mistress?”

Mistress?

“The one who had the lieutenant whipped.”

“Oh right.”

“Yes,” I cried.  “I was going to warn him, when the attack came.  We learned in Shiaze that Baron Graz had slipped back under cover for evil purposes.”

“Can we contact Admiral Latta.”

Ton Sabat began to look twitchy.

“Listen,” I said, drawing myself up, “the hour is now, the fate of this city depends on each and every one of you.  I was not born to Diome, but I have come to love this land as my own, I have pledged my life to Markath Khan and my heart to Admiral Latta.....”

This had their attention.

“And if anything happens to either of them, I'll have wild calots rip each of you to pieces.”

That threw them.   I'd gone from hysterically weeping woman at their knees, to a hectoring warrior woman.

“Everything hangs upon a thread.  The enemy is at the gates, and each of you must do your duty.  Go, spread the word, gather up all the forces we can muster, and proceed to the merchant's quarter ....  It was about as far from the fighting or the slave quarters as I could think to send them.  That is where the loyalists are gathering.   Go now, and any who remains at their posts shall be branded as a coward and sold into slavery themselves.”

I took my fiercest most erect stance, my eyes blazing my back arched and bosom heaving, and extended my arm, pointing dramatically at nowhere in particular.

“What about you?”  one of them asked.

“I....”  I paused dramatically,   “I carry the word.”

I swear, shivers ran down their spine.

“Markath Khan's favour upon you!”  one of them called.

And suddenly, like leaves, they scattered.

Ton Sabat stepped up behind me.

“Are you going to throw up again?”

“No.”

“Do you want to have sex.”

“Not right now.”

“Okay.  Just wondering.”

“What do we do now?”

I dreaded the thought of him leaping again.

“Wait for Aspar's people to catch up, I suppose,” he said.  “We're in Indian country now, so there's no point in pushing further.”

“Besides, I don't think I can jump much more.”

Thank the gods for that.

“Undee-an?”  I asked.

“Just a word.  It means enemy territory.”

“Ahh.”

While we waited, I tried to clean myself up as best I could.  My face felt tender and puffy from the Orgus blows.  My hair on one side, past my temple was matted with dried blood.  It was still a little wet.  But the blood had ceased from my nose and lip.  Ton Sabat said it wasn't so bad.

Gods, but I was tired.   A part of me, amidst all the confusion and terror, wanted to just curl up and go to sleep.  People never felt like this in the stories.

Aspar Aguus’ advance squads reached us.  Ton Sabat, with ruthless efficiency organized them into an assault force.   I watched him with disquiet.   There was nothing brain damaged about him now, his language was still clumsy and broken, but he knew exactly what he was doing.  Whoever he was, wherever he was from, they trained their murderers to a fine peak in every martial endeavour...  Except weapons.    Forget about it,  I put the mystery of Ton Sabat aside.

Instead, I simply followed as they assaulted the first of the slave barracks, sweeping aside token resistance from guards.   Indeed, most places, the guards had already fled.  Riots and resistance were already breaking out in several of the barracks.

“They have no weapons,” I said.

“They'll pry up paving stones if they must,” an Orgus said, “it's been done before.”

“Has anyone ever won a war with paving stones?”  I asked.

The laughed in that humourless way that Orgus have.

“We'll take armouries,” he assured me.

And then, all of a sudden, in a way that somehow I didn't quite understand, though I had been there for every step of the way, I was facing thousands upon thousands of people.  Men and women, a sea of red and white faces, all looking up at me.

I stared back at them.   And in my head, there was a sound, a sound like thunder in the distance, the sound like the waves of an ancient ocean pounding the shore, a sound that was more like a sensation, an awareness.   It was history.

“Hello,” I said.  Not an auspicious beginning.  I kicked myself.

They were waiting.

“Hello,” I said again.  I searched my memory, an inspiring speech, a valiant speech.  I'd never been a particular fan of rousing military drama.   Too much too and fro, all sorts of blather.

Huge casts though, so it was always steady work.  But invariably, I'd get stuck in some ill fitting soldiers costume clumping around the stage and pretending to be rapt with attention as some veteran thespian declaimed.   Pompous nonsense, but now I needed it.

The Heroes of the Broken Pass?

“Some of you know me,” I told them, “some of you have heard of me.   I come here to you, and here is my blood, as your blood.  We thought we were safe.  We thought that the terrors of our lives were long past, that history was dead.  But it has returned with a vengeance.  We were high, and have been brought low, we have been proud and are now humiliated, we were whole but are now bloodied, we were free but now bear chains...”

I paused, waiting for a suitable dramatic interval.  I was pretty sure I'd jumbled it up, but nobody seemed to notice.

“But we are not broken.  We were never broken.   All the indignities, all the suffering upon us, we shall rise.  We shall overcome.”

Pause again.

“They think we are beaten,” my voice rang loud.  “We have only just begun to fight.  We will throw off the shackles of tyranny.  We will drive their navies back to the sea.  We will sink them as they come against us, and burn them to their waterlines.   We will not be stopped.  We will be free.”

Slowly it came, an answering ripple, a rumble that became a roar, a tide of angry voices.

“Destroy it all,” I cried.  “Raze this city that sought to enslave us.  Burn it to the ground.  Teach them what the Orovar once were and what we are now”

And thunder roared back at me.

In the play, everyone dies, but no one seemed to make that connection.

Suddenly, it was a mob, a riot, sweeping onward and outward, a tidal wave of violence spilling down streets, tearing apart everyone and everything in its path.  I glimpsed panicked soldiers fleeing, children torn limb from limb.  Soldiers emptied volleys of gunfire into the howling mob, but it made no difference, bodies fell and were crushed underfoot, and those who climbed over them overwhelmed the soldiers.

It swept me up, and as Ton Sabat and I struggled, it moved on past us.  I had no wish to lead this thing I had created.   We struggled through, into the hands of Orgus warriors, gathering around us the Orovars who had found some sense and semblance of discipline.

“That was a hell of a speech, Princess,” Ton Sabat said.  “Though I didn't understand parts of it.”

“It's not mine,” I told him.  “It's from an ancient play.   Nothing is mine, really.  All the words, its speeches and lines and stagecraft borrowed or lifted from hear and there.  A thousand years worth of stories and scripts, sagas and songs, preserved ten thousand years, so I can pluck bits and pieces.”

He seemed to think about that.  “Well, you say the words really good.”

I didn't have any response to that.  We listened to the sounds of the riot.  There was a lot of screaming.

“So many of them will die,” I said.

“Yes.”

“This is awful,” I said, “the endless blood and horror, the senselessness and waste.  This is nothing but misery and suffering.”

Ton Sabat shrugged.

“It is war, Princess.”

He sat down on a pile of rubble.

“We pretend different, but this is what war is.  This is what war always is.  Not all the time, but there it is.  It starts, it happens, it becomes this, sometimes for a short time, sometimes a long time, sometimes again and again, all sorts of ways.   It doesn't last, so we tell ourselves when its all over, that it was worth it.   But this is what it is.”

“And what defense to this,” I asked, “that it is necessary?”

He put his head in his hands.   He seemed tired.  We both were.  But we knew there would be no rest.

“You tell me, Princess,” he said, “you are the one who set these calots loose.”


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