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Volume 3173c
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO
THE DISTRACTION
“Vadak Eth?”  I cried.  “How are you alive?”

He bowed formally.

“I escaped and fled,” he told us, “barely ahead of Markath Khan's fleets.  But there is no time.  The main walls have fallen, there is fighting in the inner city.”

Outside we could hear the thunder of ship's guns.

“That's impossible,” Japh Leah swore.  “We were just in Diome.   We were in one of the shipyards.  There was no sign of fleet preparation, no provisioning.”

“I know,” Vadak Eth replied, “I was there too, I saw the same.  They must have assembled it elsewhere.”

“But where?”

“My lord,” Vadak Eth said, “I've served you well, and would love nothing more to sit back with you and the Princess and debate Markath Khan's strategy.  But his forces are on the move and if we do not vacate this tower, we will be trapped.  They are too close already.”

Wait, I thought, this isn't right.  If they built up somewhere else, how had Vadak Eth managed to flee just in front of them?  I opened my mouth.

“Wait...” I said.

“You're right!” Japh Leah swore.   He turned, seizing me in his arms.  “Princess, the problems of two people in this crazy world don't amount to a hill of sand.  Someday, we'll be together.”

That was just terrible!  Mawkish and senseless.  I'd never be caught dead with dialogue like that.

He turned to Vadak Eth, ignoring me.

“Where have they broken through?”

“The second gate, the fifth gate, and the sixth, a section of wall beyond the seventh.  The air defenses are down all along there, and the fleet is pouring through the gap in fields of fire.  We're trying to orient some of the surviving guns to fire inward.”

“How far have his soldiers reached?”

“The Uru Valth district.  Sightings in the Torbar.”

I didn't understand a word of that.  Well except for the part about the breach and the fields of fire.  I'd learned enough of tactics in Az-Lium and Diome to know that airship defenses were all pointed outward.  If they'd been able to breach those defenses and place airships inside the city, then Markath Khan could fire at will and hollow the place out like a rotten fruit.  There might not be much left when he was done.

“We can still stop them at the Regents walls,” Japh Leah explained.   He turned back to me, bringing me close.  “Princess, I must go.”

Kiss me you big goof, I thought, desperately.

But no, the manly idiot let me go and stepped to Vadak Eth, taking him in a manly embrace.  Maybe he really did like boys more.

“Take her to the Citadel,” he said.  He pressed a metal disk from his harness into Vadak Eth's hands.  “this is my sigil, it will let you pass freely.  Bring her to the royal compound and stay with her.”

He hesitated.

“If the Citadel falls, then flee...”  he told him, “keep her safe.  If I live, some day I will find you.”

Again, he turned back to me.

“Princess,” he whispered, “my princess.”

I felt his hands on my shoulders, as he stepped close.

Okay, finally.  I closed my eyes, tilted my head back ever so slightly.  Kiss me, you fool, I thought.

And then he was leading me to Vadak Eth, causing me to stumble, as the bald warrior grabbed my wrist.

The big goof.

“On my word,” Vadak Eth promised him, “I will get her out of the city before it falls.”

Then Japh Leah was out the door.

“Come Princess,” Vadak Eth, said, “we must flee.”

“You couldn't have waited ten minutes,” I complained.   But you know how it is with half naked men with swords on a mission.  They don't listen to a thing you say.

We stumbled desperately down altogether more stairs and ramps than I remembered, finally making the ground.  Citizens were rushing back and forth.  The sky was full of the bursts of gunfire and artillery.   Hanging in the sky beyond the city walls were Markath Khan's warships.

I looked around.  I did not know much of the geography of this city, but I knew the royal citadel, it was where we had landed.  It dominated the skyline.

“There,” I pointed.

“Yes,” Vadak Eth replied.  “But we must go this way.”

“But that's away,” I protested.

“Markath Khan's men are coming from that direction,” Vadak Eth said, “our route must be indirect.”

And so we fled, him pulling me this way and that way by the wrist.  Through milling crowds, and sometimes through deserted streets, and sometimes through ordered ranks of soldiers.  It was a dizzying journey, across vast boulevards and through narrow alleys.  Once, we crossed a bridge of many levels, more a work of art than a means of transport.  Frequently, we were stopped by soldiers, but Japh Lea's metal sigil always got us through.

Finally, we came to a garden.

“Wait,” I said, pulling my wrist from his hand.

“Princess,” Vadak Eth said, “there's little time.”

“A moment,” I said, looking around at the vast garden landscape, the cultivated trees and bushes and grasses.   “What is this place?”

“The botanical gardens of Shiaze,” he said.  “famed the world over for their collection of exotic plants.  They say that some specimens exist only here.  But we must not tarry.”

I looked around and around, turning a slow circle.

“I recognize these,” I said.  “They're weeds.”

“Princess...”

“Weeds,” I said again.   I was struck suddenly with an awful disorientation.  A vast botanical garden full of ...weeds.  Plants so common place and undistinguished that I'd barely glanced at them as I'd gone through my day to day life.  Gardeners had cursed as they'd torn them out to make way for more precious flowers or vegetables.

But here they were, as common and ordinary and familiar as the fingers of my hand.   This was my world after all.

I shivered.  I'd been pretending, play acting all along.  I'd fallen into this strange world of red men and green monsters, of deserts and strange nations, and I'd preserved myself, saved myself from madness and death by pretending it wasn't real, that it was all some other landscape, some other world.

But here I was.  And here were weeds.  It was our world, changed, altered, but inescapable.  Az-Lium had been the fantasy, I realized, a shared dream we’d all had as reality had left us behind.

I stared, wide eyed, my heart breaking with the revelation.

Above the trees, in the distance, loomed the Citadel.  In the far distance.

“Something's wrong,” I said, “we're not approaching the Citadel, we're getting further away.”

“We have to avoid the enemy,” he said.

“We haven't seen a trace of any,” I replied.

Suddenly, it all came together for me.  The erratic flight.  The crazed wandering.  The citizenry and soldiers in their state of tension, but not panic.   And now, we were further away from the Citadel than ever.

“You,” I pointed.  “I know your secret.”

Vadak Eth stepped back, blanching a little.

“You're lost!”  I accused.  “You've gotten us completely lost.”

A strange expression crossed his face.

“So very clever,” he whispered.  “Unspeakably clever, but not perfect.”

“I beg your forgiveness, Princess,” he said, a half smile crossing his features.  He made a gesture with his fingers.  What was that about?   “I keep my promises.”

“I am not lost,” he told me.

Suddenly strong arms seized me from behind.  I tried to scream, but a hand clamped across my mouth.  I struggled helplessly, my eyes bulging.  Vadak Eth merely stood there with his half smile.

The hand left my mouth, but I got out barely a squeal, as a damp cloth was pressed against my face.  I inhaled fumes.  The strength went from my limbs, I felt weak and watery.  My head swam.

As my vision went black, I heard Vadak Eth's last words.

“I am not lost, Princess.  But you are.”


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