by Den Valdron
I stared, horrified, at him.
“You are the one who set these calots loose,” he'd said.
I'd come to realize slowly, that beyond the awkward broken speech and grunting accent, beyond the strange clumsiness that had made such a strong impression even as he slowly overcame it, beyond the apparent impossibility of ever reading his expressions or manner, that there was a mind there. Even a clever mind. But it was too easy to think of him as an amiable fool.
But this? This awful astonishing insight, that pierced me like an arrow.
“You are the one who set these calots loose,” rang in my mind.
“Then what do I do now?” I asked him.
“We get out of here,” he said. “It's only a matter of time before Markath Khan gets his act together and comes down on this like a hammer.”
“But the people here...” I said.
“It's not going to be pretty,” he told me.
“But these people, they're winning,” I protested. “The soldiers are retreating.”
Ton Sabat shrugged.
“It's just rioting. They'll let it burn itself out, then they'll sweep back in. By tomorrow, it'll be all over. Just mopping up.”
Something hardened in me.
“No,” I said, “I won't do it. I won't let these people die. Take me... Take me somewhere that I can speak, that I can call.”
“More speeches from plays?” He asked.
“If that's what it takes,” I said.
He grinned one of his strange alien smiles, mirthless and full of teeth.
“It's your funeral, Jone Ovark.”
Had I ever told him I was named or titled Jone? I couldn't recall. It didn't matter.
Together, we made our way to another section of the slave barracks, the Orovars had already begun to riot, to attack the red slaves and everything they could get their hands on. Climbing on a wagon, I shouted, I roared, I got their attention, first just a few then more and more. Crowds gathered around me, as I rambled lines and pieces of martial speeches, mixing them and jumbling from memory.
But this time, even as I fed them, as I stoked rage and fury, I called out men to serve as sergeants and officers, the rudiments of command, men and women who could shout and lead. The wild riot built and unleashed itself, yet somehow, I found I could direct it, pointing it at the other barracks, liberating more slaves.
And beyond, there was a residue of structure, of hastily appointed squad leaders and commanders, lieutenants and messengers, identifying them on the fly with crude sashes and armbands.
I turned to Ton Sabat.
“What do I need...” I paused. “What do we need? We need weapons. Weapons are in armouries, where do we find them?”
“The Orgus should know,” he said. “They're the soldiers here.”
I turned to a newly appointed messenger. “Go to the Orgus, tell them you bear greetings from the Princess to Aspar Aguus, tell them we need them to lead attacks upon the armouries. Tell the officers.”
The Orgus, I thought. Or the Therns. The Therns would know a great deal. I knew hardly anything. I didn't know this city, didn't know the streets or the layout. Where were the armouries? What about food? The invaders in Az-Lium had seized the granaries, had used slow starvation as a weapon. Water? Where were we strong, and how could we use that strength?
What about the enemy? Would they really sit still while we burned their city around them? I didn't believe it.
“What's Markath Khan going to do,” I asked. “What are his tactics? What's his strategy.”
“In a situation like this,” Ton Sabat replied, “he backs off to secure points, no close in fighting, withdraw to kill zones and contain the situation. Once things run out of steam, move in and clear.”
“What are kill zones?” I asked. I didn't like the sound of that.
“Open areas, fortified areas, where the rioters can be killed faster than they can overrun the defenders. Think of a wide boulevard, with the defenders on one side, behind a wall and armed with rifles, shooting down everyone who tries to get at them.”
I thought of it. My stomach bottomed out, I felt nauseous, imagining the slaughter. I knew that Boulevard he was referring to. I'd passed down it coming in.
“Surely it's not all open, there must be places where the boulevard can be breached?”
“Riots have no direction, they just follow the path of least resistance. If you plan it right, you can make sure that path leads over a cliff.”
“So if they go towards the boulevard?”
“They'll be slaughtered, yes,” he said, “the survivors may break, or the riot may just flow in other directions.”
“We have to stop them,” I said.
“If they go there.”
I tried to sort out the little I knew of the geography of the city, where the fighting was, where the riots were. I needed maps, I needed information.
But I was the Princess, I spoke and people rushed to procure. We kept moving, bare steps ahead of a growing, sprawling corps of leaders and assistants, procurers, sergeants, mad rioters.
The night turned into a blur, I remember giving a maddened speech at the end of a street, mounted on the back of a thoat, struggling as the animal turned back and forth and reared, trying to dislodge me, a mangled version of some funeral speech spilling wildly from my lips, my throat hoarse with shouting, the air full of smoke, desperately turning back a haphazardly armed crowd of former slaves from a killing ground.
We rushed back and forth. Japh Leah joined us, then Vadak Eth. Slaves were rising up everywhere, people were fleeing, columns of refugees scurried down streets ahead of us, small army units set upon and torn to pieces. Everywhere I went, I made speeches, I organized, I appointed, I demanded, I strategised. Messengers went running everywhere, men and women I'd never seen or heard of rushed about wearing my armbands and sashes. Messages went to the Orgus, the Therns, to anyone I could think of. Lies, demands, exhortations. I announced again the death of Markath Khan, uprisings and rebellions of his officers, anything that seemed to serve the moment, I said, and just kept on moving. I felt like I was madly throwing stones, fistfuls of stones one after another as fast as I could into a pond, trying to force the endless ripples into shapes and patterns, never succeeding and throwing more stones and pebbles ever more furiously.
It was madness, there was no rhyme or reason to anything, I roused barracks of slaves to fury, we overran buildings, fires broke out. The enemy appeared and disappeared. As much as I struggled, and ordered, demanded, and exhorted, it all seemed frustratingly beyond my grasp. Maps and guesses out of date before they were told to me, it was always endlessly catching up, always behind events. I remember being spattered with blood, a fight breaking out all around me, men and women screaming and dying, and myself shouting and waving my sword, calling down death and destruction.
Late in the evening, Markath Khan's soldiers made an organized sortie. My hastily organized rabble folded, running for their lives. I struggled, yelling, making speeches, organizing new units, new groups, in the wake of the Dome's thrust, suddenly cutting them off from their support. Attacked from behind, the soldiers were slaughtered until they could turn to defend themselves. But they'd lost the initiative. They charged back towards their lines and were repulsed, turned and fled, their forces were split and split again, and overwhelmed. It was only after it was all over that I could put it together in my head, to make a story, a picture of what had happened.
As day came, as Ton Sabat had predicted, the fury of riot waned and faded. The pieces of organization I'd made, the effort to turn a mob into something resembling an organized force seemed to come to the fore. Markath Khan's soldiers advanced, and we retreated to barricades, threw up mounds of rubble, or destroyed buildings. I longed for Ton Sabat's kill zones, bitterly resenting the impunity with which Khan's forces moved through open territory with little resistance, we were not organized enough or armed enough. Everywhere, I watched as his forces massed.
“Can we break out?” Japh Leah asked, in impromptu war council.
“Open country,” Aguus replied. “No cover, no food, no water, Khan's airships will slaughter us.”
“Airships will slaughter us here,” Japh Leah said.
“Why haven't they?” Ton Sabat asked.
“Stretched too thin,” Vadak Eth said. “Az-Lium, Bukhara, Yukara, the war with Shiaze. All his bombard ships are deployed against the enemy. What's left is artillery ships.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Bombard ships have many small guns mounted along their undersides, its for pouring fire onto enemy on the ground. Artillery ships have larger guns, mounted on the sides, to attack other ships. Khan has arranged his forces to defend Diome from an enemy fleet.”
“But don't ships have both kinds of guns?”
“They do, but warships will tend to cleave to one or to the other.”
“So he can't touch us?”
“In the city? Not easily, there's too much cover, too many shelters, he can pour his firepower down, but it will have little effect.”
“But he'll bring the rest of his fleet back,” I said, “and when those ships come...”
“That's an uglier story.”
“So perhaps we should break out now, while we can?”
“And go where, there's no way to reach safety before he can gather his fleet.”
“The Jagged Lands,” I said, “they're close. Once in the Jagged Lands, much of his fleet can't reach. Even the ships built to travel the air there would find it difficult.”
“But if they catch you, before you reach it,” Aguus said, “it will be slaughter.”
“How long would we have?” I demanded.
“Impossible,” Aguus said. “You would need food and water. The Jagged lands have none. What use to escape there, only to starve?”
But, I thought, it's not completely empty. If we could reach Mant, we might endure. Was it right to bring this war to those innocent people? But then, Az-Lium had been left alone, until Markath Khan came. How long did Mant have, before they were discovered? Perhaps their best chance was an army of Orovars to defend them?
“I want information,” I said, “I need it. Find it from the Therns, find it from prisoners, or take new prisoners. Where are his ships, how long will it take for them to reach us?”
“We're well placed to stand a siege,” one of my new generals said. Thanks to the Princess, we have secured food and water in ample supply. We have weapons. We have defensible lines. We can retreat back to more lines. We can force Khan to pay with blood for every step.”
I looked squarely at Ton Sabat, at the strange crystalline military mind behind the placid idiot expression.
“Outcome of a siege?” I demanded. “If we stand and fight?”
“Outnumbered, outgunned, no reinforcements,” he replied. “You've done better than I thought possible. But this isn't a real army. At best, we can drag it out, but its going to end the same way.”
All this, all this was futile, had been futile. So much death, so much destruction, the smell of burned flesh and smoke and rotting corpses already in the air. For what.
“We could try to break out, to overcome Diome,” Japh Leah said.
“It's not a real army,” Ton Sabat said. “Not trained enough, not disciplined, not well enough armed or organized. Defending is one thing, but mounting an attack is a lot harder, and we're going to be fighting uphill.”
Fighting uphill? I hadn't heard that, but it was a vivid notion. Diome was flat, but attacking fortified or defended territory, that would be like battling uphill.
“Could we negotiate?” Vadak Eth asked.
“Markath Khan?” Japh Leah replied. “Impossible.”
“He might,” Vadak Eth said, “but not in good faith. To distract, to seek out weaknesses, to learn our strengths, to prepare his forces.”
“Then we negotiate,” I replied, “to distract him, to seek out weaknesses, to learn his strengths, to prepare our forces.”
And then what? I asked myself. Sit and wait for him to come and dig us out, to hunt us down, to make more mountains of corpses like the ones outside Az-Lium.
“Start gathering up supplies for a march. Food, water, wagons, carts, thoats, water, anything that can carry a load, anyone that can carry a load. We start preparing. Organize.”
“So you're going to try and break out anyway?” Aspar Aguus asked, his voice ringing with sardonic amusement.
“No,” I said. “Yes. Maybe. It's a chance... I don't know if it can be done. If it's a real chance. We need to know more about where his ships are and what our chances are.... But if it can, then we need to begin preparing now.”
I sucked in breath. I was blathering, I thought. Showing them uncertainty. I couldn't do that. I needed to be confident, to have then think I knew what I was doing.
“It's best if Diome thinks we'll run. If they think they'll catch us in the open, they'll wait. It will buy time. We need to be more like a real army any way. We need time to prepare and organize, maybe we can use this to organize a proper attack while they wait.”
Did that make any sense at all, I wondered? They seemed to be nodding.
“I'd suggest,” Aspar Aguus said, “sending sorties out to the Jagged lands. Test his ships. A few columns fleeing might well convince him of your intent. Keep your best soldiers here to ward him. Send out women and children, the weak, the unreliable... with a guard of Orgus, of course.”
He'd get most of his people out that way, I thought. They'd surround themselves with Orovars, and if necessary, they'd leave them behind. I found myself grinning in the Orgus manner. What else to do but grin at an implacable world, half sob, half laughter.
“We need information on the airships, where they are, how much time we'll have,” Japh Leah pointed out.
“Slaves weren't allowed near the airship facilities, that will be hard to find,” said Vadak Eth. “We'll have to take prisoners and interrogate them.”
“Ordinary soldiers, even most officers won't know much about airship deployments,” Aspar Aguus rumbled. “You'll need to raid the shipyards.”
“There's a shipyard within striking range,” Vadak Eth said.
“It's the one the Princess toured with the Admiral.”
Oh, right, that one. It was near? I hadn't realized. I followed that thought down.
“I should lead the raid,” I said, “Vadak Eth and I are the only two who have knowledge of the layout of the place.... “
I waited for them to object, to protest that the Princess was too valuable to risk. That my death or capture would be a mortal blow to the uprising. That Vadak Eth had seen everything I had seen, and that he was a trained soldier. He could lead the raid alone.
Instead, they just nodded.
Not one of them could pick up a proper cue to save their lives.
“...poor as that knowledge is,” I concluded lamely after a pause.
“I know Vadak Eth is far better versed in matters of war and strategy...” I said.
I kept waiting for someone to object.
“But this is of such importance, that we need you both,” Aspar Aguus finished for me. “The risk is vast, and everything is at stake. There is no other alternative.”
Damn him, I thought. Every single time, he could be counted on to say exactly the wrong thing. I promised myself that if I ever found him staked out on rocks in the desert again, I would just keep on walking and let the wild beasts eat him.
Instead, I nodded and put on a sober expression.
“It's a risk indeed,” Japh Leah said, “if we lose the Princess, that itself may crush the uprising.”
I decided that I loved Japh Leah.
“But I see no other alternative.”
I decided that I hated him.
“We must make sure that the Princess is protected at all costs.”
I still hated him. And yet... and yet... and yet...
I thought of a killing field. Vast empty ground, the dusty plains in the, women and children, the lame, the helpless, the fearful, all screaming and dying, torn to pieces by death falling from the sky, the empty rivers now running one last time with blood, gore and rotting flesh soaking into the barren lands.
Was this what I was leading us to?
What were the other choices, soldiers murdering cowering children in basements all over this city, people hunted down as they scrambled over mounds of rubble. A ruinous siege, starvation, murder, running and dying like rats, vast charnel pits for the dead, torture and mutilation for those unlucky enough to be captured alive.
Would the uprising have happened without me? Would it have succeeded? Probably not. Riots burn out, and in the end, there would be only purges and retribution and vast charnel pits. Or perhaps no riots at all, merely endless crushing slavery and degradation.
Was there any good choice?
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