by Den Valdron
“Would you like some water, Princess?”
Don't answer, I thought, pretend to be asleep. I could feel shackles on my neck and wrists, the weight of chains on my body. There was a gentle rocking under me that suggested that we were in the air, though piloted by someone with more skill or less desperation than Japh Leah. I kept my eyes closed, my breathing regular. I felt terrible, my head ached, my mouth felt like thoats had been doing awful things in it. If they thought I was unconscious, then perhaps there'd be a chance.
“I know you're awake, Princess,” the voice said. Vadak Eth.
I opened one eye.
“Jerk,” I said.
Vadak Eth smiled.
“Water?” he offered.
“It's probably poisoned,” I snarled. “Therns are notorious poisoners.”
“Why would I poison you?” he asked. “I already have you.”
“So you can render me helpless and ravage me.”
“I've already had that pleasure,” he said, “and it was mutual. I am very appreciative.”
“Appreciative enough to jump off this ship?”
“Water?” he offered again. “I know the potion they used on you renders a victim helpless. But it leaves dry mouth and inflicts terrible headaches. You must be thirsty.”
I stared hard at him for a few minutes.
He held the cup to my lips. I took a sip, but thirst overwhelmed me and I drank deeply, sucking draught after draught. Finally, I forced myself to stop.
“That wasn't pure water,” I said.
“Very good. I slipped a minor potion in it to relieve your headache.”
I nodded. Nothing I could do about it, even if he was lying.
“I take it then that you're not taking me to the Hilly Valley of the Therns.” That had been my first thought. Vadak Eth had spent so much time filling my head with stories of Thern's treachery and duplicity, their murderous tortures, and their inhuman stealth, I had wondered, in the instant of my capture, that he'd been working for them all along.
“Holy Valley,” he corrected.
“Whatever,” I replied. I couldn't imagine Thern's being solicitous of their prisoners.
“Who are you?” I asked. “Who are you working for.”
But I thought I already knew that answer. If not the Therns, there could only be one.
“I'm a simple Panthan, Princess,” he told me, “but a wandering mercenary.”
“In the employ of Markath Khan.”
“Markath Khan is a very good market for those who sell their blades.”
I said something obscene. He raised an eyebrow.
“That's remarkable language for someone of royal blood,” he said. “Are you really a Princess?”
I would not give him satisfaction.
“What do you think?”
“I'm not sure. At first I thought yes, then I thought no, and then I thought yes again. Japh Leah and I have debated the matter intensely, but I confess, I don't know what to think.”
I decided to leave him to his confusion.
“Did you know Japh Leah was a Prince of Shiaze?” I asked.
“I knew he was of Shiaze, but not till Az-Lium did I learn he was a Prince. I thought ‘Prince of Steel’ was merely an honorific.”
“Were you in Markath Khan's service in Az-Lium?” I asked. I thought a bit. There'd be little opportunity to recruit him then. And not during the journey from Tazor. “You've served him from the beginning, from before Tazor.”
“Why? What were you doing in Tazor?”
Vadak Eth leaned back against the bulkhead, making himself comfortable. We were in a larger ship, I thought. There was crew, I could hear them moving around. Vadak Eth was here as my captor, I assumed.
“It begins,” he said, “with Az-Lium and Ton Sabat,” he said.
“There had always been rumours of a lost city of Orovars. Of forgotten places in the Jagged Lands.”
“Like Az-Lium,” I said.
“And other places, yes.” He paused. “Markath Khan had begun as a minor jeweler from some far off land. There were small trickles of gems to be found at the edges of the Jagged lands, finding their way to Diome. I suppose that the prospect of raw gems bought cheaply must have been what drew him originally. Quite clever, buy raw gems from Diome, cut them, and sell them dearly on the caravan expeditions.”
“I think he must have gotten the notion that there was more wealth to be found. Even dead, the cities within it would be unlooted. So early on, upon his ascension to power, he set himself the task of sending scouts and building ships, to locate fabled Az-Lium.”
“Oh, the name still lingered in ancient archives. Places lost and legendary, long extinct.”
“And then Ton Sabat shows up, wandering naked in a dried out canal.”
“Yes. Markath Khan's agents took possession of him quickly,” he said, “but not quickly enough. The word got out.”
“The Orovars survived, somewhere in the Jagged Lands, Az-Lium endured,” I offered.
“Yes, Shiaze learned of it quickly. Other cities learned, as did mercenaries and bandits.. The search was on. Everyone wanted Ton Sabat, he was the key. But there was something the other nations did not know.”
“Ton Sabat was not from Az-Lium.”
Vadak Eth smiled and nodded.
“You've known all along?” He said. “I shouldn't be surprised. Yes, Markath Khan's scholars were hot on the trail of Az-Lium. Hot enough that they quickly determined that Ton Sabat was not of that city. He was from somewhere else. But his mind was so broken and disordered that nothing intelligible could be gleaned.”
“So, I asked, where is he from?”
“I have been as close to him as anyone in the world. He once shared this with me.”
I looked at him expectantly.
“He says he is from a place called Urt which is a world third from the sun, with a gigantic moon a thousand times the size of both of ours put together. And in Urt he is a citizen of a land called Nu Char Say, in the realm of Fur Chin Hya, or perhaps a place he calls Amrey Ka.”
I absorbed this information quietly. And then I burst out laughing. Vadak Eth joined me, and together our sides shook with hysterical gales of laughter.
“Whatever was done to him,” Vadak Eth laughed, “his brains are scrambled beyond all hope of recovery.”
“He really believes that?”
“But that's ridiculous. I mean, a giant moon? It would tear the world apart. It makes no sense.”
“Well,” Vadak Eth said equably, “the third world in our system has a huge moon. “
“Have you told him of this?”
“It would only feed his delusions. But no, no part of his story makes a bit of sense.”
“Indeed,” Vadak Eth, “in so many ways, he is extraordinary. He is easily the third most remarkable person I have met in my life.”
“So Markath Khan determined that Ton Sabat was not of Az-Lium. And that his knowledge was useless,” I prompted.
“Or at least that he was non-cooperative,” Vadak Eth amended. “Ton Sabat had grown quite dissatisfied with Markath Khan's hospitality, and had resolved to leave. You may have gathered by now that keeping Ton Sabat when he did not want to be kept might be a task. Sadly, he had grown quite disenchanted with Diome, and bent upon escape.”
“So you helped him escape?”
“That was how I met him, yes. No one clearly of Diome could earn his trust by that time. And worse, other nations were conspiring to free him. Sooner or later, one would succeed. The choices were to kill him and lose all chance of the knowledge that must be locked in his head, or loose him but make sure he had a loyal keeper to find other ways to make use of him.”
“It worked quite well. Ton Sabat became a fountain of misinformation. No one, not Shiaze, not even the Orgus, and they were looking hard, came close to finding Az-Lium. We used Ton Sabat to send them scurrying in the wrong directions.”
“You've been with Markath Khan all this time?”
Vadak Eth inclined his head and smiled. “I have already admitted such.”
“How is it that you haven't sold us out before?” I asked bitterly.
“When?” Vadak Eth asked. “In Tazor? On the journey to Az-Lium? During that insane pell mell escape? Or in Mant? Or out in the barrens? It was more difficult than you think to be a spy in Az-Lium, the city divided as it was between masters and slaves, I could not move freely and I had no contact...”
“And in Diome?”
“You kept me too close. By that time, I had some grasp of your capability, and I had to be careful. I had no opportunity to break away until the raid on the shipyard, and by then things were out of control.” He shrugged.
“So how did you and Ton Sabot end up in Tazor anyway?” I asked.
“Ton Sabat was far too remarkable in every respect. He had to go somewhere. Best thing was to be well away from other nations or empires that might take possession. He'd been found in the Canal. Tazor was the only place even close to it. If his memory came back, it was felt that this would be the place from which he might lead us to wherever his people hid.”
“And if he did remember?”
Vadak Eth shrugged.
“The scholars judged Az-Lium the real prize, if it existed. Wherever Ton Sabat came from, it was thought to be smaller and poorer.”
“But a prize nevertheless.”
“Quite so,” Vadak Eth agreed. “And if he had found his way, I would have been required to act and Markath Khan would have two Orovar cities to loot.”
“I'm sure Ton Sabat would have appreciated your treason?” I said archly.
He looked pained at that. “I served Markath Khan all along, so technically, it would not be treason. It did not come up, fortunately. I do confess, Ton Sabat is my friend and I love him as much as I love anything else in this world. I might have found myself with a question of loyalty. Perhaps Ton Sabat's lost city would have stayed lost.”
“Like another place?” I asked, referring to Mant.
Again, he looked troubled. “I keep my promises,” he whispered. “No one shall know.”
“And what of Pul Bayl?” I asked, to change the subject, “what was his role in all this?”
“A simple thug,” Vadak Eth replied, “it's best that way. All he wanted was to find and loot Az-Lium, or simply find it and sell its location to the highest bidder. He was a tool.”
“Pul Bayl's lieutenant, no more, I thought,” he replied. “A man of Shiaze, and thus a possible problem at some point. But I felt that no more a problem than a quick knife in the night might require.”
“Shiaze and Diome in microcosm waited out in Tazor, neither of us really knowing the other was an agent. Ironic, isn't it. I did not realize at the time, that it was Japh Leah who pulled Puhl Bayl's strings. Or as much as a thug like that could be manipulated. I am sure, however, that Japh Leah had planned it all.”
He paused thoughtfully.
“You realize, if it had been Japh Leah who had succeeded, and Shiaze had found Az-Lium first, they would have done exactly the same as Diome. They'd have enslaved and looted your people. They were at war and the desperate, they would have had no other choice.”
I bit my lip, wanting to protest. But I'd learned enough of this cruel world, I could not exactly deny it.
“It strikes me,” he said, “that no matter how things had played, Pul Bayl's fate was sealed the minute he rode into Tazor. Even without you, whether by Japh Lea, or me or Ton Sabat, he would not survive. Sad really, he thought himself a king of his little world, but he was merely a clown.
“And so it all stood,” I said, “spies watching spies, watching each other swirling around a brain damaged madman, in the hands of an oblivious thug. All of you sitting around in a dead city, waiting and waiting, possibly forever, while the world turned on its axis.”
“Until you showed up.”
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