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Volume 3173a
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

When I opened them again, the sky was bright pink.  Was it day?   It hardly seemed possible.  I had no sense of time passing.  It was as if I'd simply blinked for a moment.

“Welcome back, Princess,” a red man said.  For a moment, I didn't recognize him.  Then it clicked.  He was an airman, one of the hasty crew we'd pulled together.  There was another red man at the far end of the ship, and a couple of Orovars seeming to sleep next to the side guns.

I nodded in acknowledgment.  I swallowed, my throat was dry and rough, my tongue felt swollen in my mouth.  My body ached.  I peered out over the sides of the deck.  The sky was empty.

“Food,” he asked, “or drink?  There wasn't much time to stock provisions.”   He grinned at me.

I suppressed a shudder.  It was such an odd sensation to have a red man, one of the monstrous inhumans who had inherited this world from my own race, smiling at me.  I'd watched creatures just like him slaughter my own people.

I gave him a polite, careful smile.  Whatever he was, he was not one of those.

“Water, please,” I replied.

The craft rocked slightly as he retrieved the stores.  I accepted it gracefully and made my way to the pilots seats, and slipped in beside Japh Leah.   He looked awful.  Small wounds, some barely dressed covered his body, his face was drawn and haggard, his eyes red and glassy, his mouth drooping with exhaustion.  Every aspect of his frame showed deep fatigue.

“Princess,” he acknowledged me.   “I should have thought to bring another pilot.”

I'd slept.   I'd had the chance to rest.  He had not.

“Perhaps the one who crashed?”  I asked.

He smiled at that.

“How are we doing?” I asked.

“We lost the last of the pursuit sometime near sundown yesterday,” he said.  “Nothing can catch us.  It should be clear, until we come to the blockade at Shiaze.”

I nodded.  There was something wrong with that, but I couldn't put my finger on it.  Some implication of the statement.  Despite my sleep, I couldn't seem to think right.  I needed time to process the endless flux of events.

Instead, we stared out at the endless empty countryside, the ground rushing past beneath us.  We were flying very low, barely above the endless rolling red hills.

“So barren,” I said, “is all the world like this?”

“Enough of it,” he said.

In the histories, the lore of my race, I realized, these wastes had been oceans and seas, endless rolling purple plains, majestic scarlet forests.  Or had that ever been?  Had it always been like this, and our memories just illusions?   I was from a race out of time, I thought.  Our day was long gone.   And what was this new world?

“It is strangely beautiful,” I said quietly, “the emptiness of it all.”

He put his hand on mine, our fingers twined.

“Are you sure you can find Shiaze,” I asked.   “In all this emptiness, it might be easy to miss.”

He chuckled.

“Ask if a child can find his mother's breast.   No fear, Princess.  We'll be there by nightfall.”

Again, that niggling doubt.

“You're a mess,” I said.  “Can I do anything for you?”

“A kiss perhaps,” he gave me a tired grin, “but later, I think.”

“Of course my darling,” I said.

He glanced at me.

“You should get yourself cleaned up.”

I was covered with dried blood and old bruises.  I nodded.  Presentation was everything.   I needed to look the part of a Princess once again, preferably somewhat martial.  I tried to think of what I would say when we arrived.

It's tough to figure out how to lie to people you've never met.

Shiaze glittered like a forest of jewels ahead of us, full of tall gleaming spires.  The air around it was speckled with warships that grew larger as we approached.  Markath Khan's blockade. Passing through the blockade, as it turned out, was easy.  Our ship was marked as Diome's.  But as we approached closer, Shiaze's own air defenses were turned upon us.

“Hang on,” Japh Leah called, as he brought the ship down low, once again skimming between buildings.   The pop and crack of gunfire filled our ears.  The red men frantically ran out patterns on the signal lights.  The scout ship scraped along the side of a building.

“You are the worst pilot I've ever met,” I cried out, hanging on to the ships restraining straps.

“Sorry Princess,” he called.  But I could tell he was laughing a little, the wild glee that sometimes afflicted a fighting man doing something especially stupid.

The big goof, I thought.

“You big goof,” I yelled at him.

He laughed out loud.

“Brace yourself,” he told us.  “I'm going to try and approach the royal aerodromes.”

The royal aerodromes?   Wouldn't that be the most closely guarded location?  What sort of lunatic idea was that.  But there was no choice but to trust his judgment.  As it turned out, the fire upon us diminished, perhaps we were through defenses, or maybe the signals had worked.

We settled in at the shipyard almost easily.

Soldiers and officers rushed out to surround the ship, weapons at ready.

Showtime, I thought.  I wished I had a mirror to check my hair.  I'd cleaned up as best I could, wiped away excess blood, arranged the little wardrobe I had.  Sell it, I thought.  Be a Princess.

“We go unarmed,” I told my companions.  There was no fighting our way out of this.  It was bluff all the way.  “Follow me, and keep silent.”

Haughtily, I strode down the gangplank, my bearing straight and regal.  I ignored the weapons, my eyes clear and cold, looking for an officer.  They backed away.  Of course.  They'd never seen anything like me, the last thing they'd expected was a pale skinned, yellow haired woman of obvious nobility.  Play to that, I thought.

“We,” I announced proudly, “are Kam Asutra, Princess of the Royal line of the City of Az-Lium, of the Orovar nation, whose history and glory stretches to the age of seas.  I am here to meet with your Jeddak, pay me your honour.”

I stared at them, my eyes passing cold and regal from one to another.

They wavered.  Glanced at each other and at my party uneasily.

Everything hung on the moment.   I tried to radiate regal authority.

Slowly, the officer knelt.  I smiled to myself.

One by one, the other soldiers went to one knee.

Wait, there was something not quite right here.  Something was off.  They weren't kneeling to me.  They seemed to orient on someone behind me.

“My Prince,” the officer whispered.  “We are blessed to see you returned safely.”

I turned.

Japh Leah gave me a bashful smile.

They were kneeling to him.

I was blushing deeply, my face hot, my stomach tightening.  I felt thick and angry.

“You lied to me,” I whispered.  “You played me for a fool.”

“It's not quite-“ he began, but he had no chance to lie again.

I punched him with everything I had.  He wasn't expecting it.  My blow caught him at the jaw, wiping his hateful smirk away.  Suddenly, everything was blankness in his face, as he spun about and dropped.  Despite the shaft of pain that reached all the way up to my shoulder, it was very satisfying.

There was the click of firearms readied, and quite rapidly, no one was kneeling as I found myself surrounded by armed and angry men.

The blush of rage and humiliation blew out of me as quickly as it came.

Maybe, I reflected,  this wasn't the smartest thing I'd ever done.


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