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Volume 3175c
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

CHAPTER SIXTY
BORN TO LOSE
I hated real life.

In the theatre  of course, this would be the end.  The whole fleet would rise up, Markath Khan would be thrown from his palace to some suitably ignominious fate, usually involving rotten fruit, and then we'd all march around singing until we organized into a glorious parade, with banners flying, marching out of the amphitheatre with the audience following in cheering rows.

Don't laugh, that's the entire eight hundred years of the Rhiannon Islands theatre tradition.   Lots of martial plays.   It was awful, tedious, and stultifyingly dull, and I never understood the revival.  I never got picked for a lead, either.

Of course, in theatre, the villain would be sane and articulate, brought on stage for his own soliloquy, with sensible motives and even a certain amount of sympathy.   I still reeled from my near rape by a raving maniac.

In real life, large parts of the navy remained loyal to Markath Khan, or incapable of rebellion.  Latta dithered at every opportunity, and only by pushing relentlessly could I put steel into him.

Ship after ship declared for Latta, taking to the skies.  But as many remained under the control of officers or political agents loyal to Markath Khan.

“We're doomed,” Latta bleated, in the stateroom of Diome's flagship, an immense armoured beast.

“How are we doomed,” I argued.  “You have ships, most of the ships.   How many ships have pledged to us.   Fifty?  Sixty?   How many remain loyal to Markath Khan, thirty?  Thirty five?”

“No,” he said morosely, “we've lost the shipyards, the landing beys, the aerodromes.  We've become a remnant fleet.  We can only flee and hide.

I hadn't heard that term before.

“A Remnant fleet?”

“Like the fleets of Shiaze, of Yukhara and the others, defeated, denied their sanctuaries, they can only slink off to hiding, skulking about to avoid destruction.  Once Shiaze fell, we were going to hunt them down and obliterate them,” Latta muttered.  “Now the same fate awaits us.”

“Could we enlist these fleets?”

He laughed.

“You'd have to find them to enlist them.”

“We still have numbers on Markath Khan.”

“Ships of the line firing on each other?  If I try that, I'll lose my navy before I have a chance to order a second volley.”

“Is that why Markath Khan's have not fired upon us?”

He nodded.   Good to know, maybe I could use that somehow.

“If his Officers fire on us, their crews will tear them to pieces.  We are all men of Diome.”

“Could we provoke them?  Trick them into doing something that would cause their crews to rebel?”

“Dishonourable,” he replied.    I wanted to hit him.

“Can we attack the ground forces, would your crews stand for that?”

“Markath Khan's rabble?”   Finally a sign of fire.   “I wish we could clean them out.  But...”

Let me guess.

“No bombard ships,” I asked.

“Not enough to make a difference.”

“Could we cover the rebellion,” I asked.  Lead by my appointed captains, the uprising endured, whole sections of the city remained in the hands of my people, dug in and defending.  Markath Khan hadn't been able or willing to dig them out as of yet.

“That would be treason.”

“They're fighting Markath Khan the same as us.”

“They're still rebels,” he insisted.

But he must realize now that I was the demon princess, though he kept on referring to me as ‘Holiness.’  What sort of self deception was he running to maintain his balance?

He was my one hold on this.  Here I was, all alone on the huge flagship floating above the slowly burning city of  Diome, surrounded by a fleet of other ships of the line, slowly circling another, smaller fleet, far far from friends or allies.  I was a stranger to every man and woman on this ship, except for Admiral Latta, who seemed to be constitutionally unable to make a decision.  I needed him desperately, but I also needed him to be more than he was.

“What about the rest of the fleet,” I asked.  “Markath Khan has recalled his ships, bombard ships, they could turn him out.”

“They won't be loyal to us,” he replied.  “We only gained this much of the fleet through the element of surprise.  The other ships, when they come, will be in the service of Markath Khan.”

Damn.  I wanted to kick furniture.

“So how do we win?”  I demanded.  “What do we do?”

“We can't.”

“Well, that's not helpful,” I snapped in frustration.

“We could negotiate with Markath Khan, reunify the fleet.  Several officers have proposed this to me.”

No!

“You know the price would be your execution,” I told him.

“I have given my life to the fleet,” he said primly.  “I am not afraid to die for the fleet.”

Was he really thinking of sacrificing himself.

“It won't just be you,” I said quickly.  “Markath Khan will not honour any agreement.    No matter what he says now, everyone who followed you will be tortured to death, and he'll make you watch and mock you for a fool for surrendering.”

“He wouldn't,” Latta argued.

Oh my god.

“Of course he would,” I snapped.  “Remember the man we saw, remember the way he looked.  He was mad, insane.  He attacked you without provocation.  He's a wild beast.”

Latta blinked and made a sheep face.   He didn't like it, he desperately wanted to disbelieve it.  But if I forced him, he accepted it.   But if I left him alone, he'd go back to wanting to surrender.

“So we cannot fight, we cannot relieve the rebels, cannot overthrow Markath Khan, and when the rest of the fleet arrives, we'll be outnumbered and overwhelmed is that it?”

“Yes,” he seemed to almost smile.  “That's why we must negotiate...”

“No,” I said, “we must flee....”

He looked distraught.

“But it would be cowardice to flee.”

My head hurt.   More power at our fingertips than some Empires could hope to command, and yet, utterly impotent.

“Your Holiness,” he whispered.  “In these dire situations, there is often a more direct solution...”

Hope flared in me.

“Yes?”  I asked.

“May we pray together?”


“....and thus,” I finished, “it is by the will of Iss that we shall endure all trials and tests, and as all things flow from the river, in the end, all shall return.

The assembled throng of flagship officers and ship captains bowed their heads in response to my sermon while Admiral Latta beamed beside me, and gave an ‘Amen.’   I found the soft unison chorus kind of creepy.  A polite round of applause would be better I thought.  But no accounting with religions.

On the one hand, we had progress.  At least we were moving.  The fleet had left Diome, traveling slowly upcountry towards the Jagged lands for lack of any better destination.   I'd had some notion that we might find refuge there, but Admiral Latta and his captains had finally persuaded me that normal ships could not brave the treacherous air currents.  Only Markath Khan's specially built ships could navigate, and even then not easily.

Moving through the closing rituals, made up on the spot largely because simply saying ‘the end’ wasn't quite satisfactory, it was time to mingle with the captains.

“Your Holiness,” he said, “that was quite an inspiring sermon, I've never heard the like.”

Was that good?  I checked his expression.  It seemed to be.  The little I knew of the Iss faith I had tactfully supplemented with speeches and dialogues which seemed most appropriate.   My latest sermon was based on a very loose rendition of a four way conversation between a priest, a general, a prostitute and a baker of pastries.  In the original scene, they were all in bed naked together, but I'd taken some liberties.

“Thank you,” I replied graciously.  “The faith has many blooms, and the path is ever winding.”

Try and figure that out, I thought.

“I'm glad you are with us in this crisis, you are a great source of strength to many of us.”

I bowed.

“Why,” he said, “we have not seen Admiral Latta so resolute in years.   He has returned to a paragon of certainty.”

“The Admiral draws strength from tradition,” I said diplomatically.

“As do we all.”

There were those I recognized as Therns, either overtly or passing as red men, and priests and lay preachers of Iss.  I was quite cautious around them.  But with Admiral Latta's fervent endorsement, I'd been ascended to unquestioned spiritual leader of the fleet.

Several captains gathered around me.

“We are concerned about our situation,” one said, “perhaps we might seek spiritual guidance.”

I nodded.

“Our situation is dire...”

Yes, I thought, tell me about it, I hadn't noticed.

“Markath Khan has gone mad, the city is in rebellion, the fleet has divided, even the Orgus war upon themselves.  Our enemies grow restive, Shiaze resists.    We wander aimlessly in the barrens.  We do not see a way out.”

Neither did I.

“As the river flows, as all things come apart, so to do they join together.  All paths converge,” I replied.

“So the fleet will be united again?”

I nodded.

“When the paths converge,” I replied serenely.  But that wasn't enough, I needed a little more.  “As friends become enemies, so too enemies become friends.  All things have their proper time.”

A line like that would have gotten me laughed off the stage, but here they all nodded as if it was profound wisdom.

“So you are saying we should ally with Shiaze?   Our enemy?”

I replied smoothly, “I do not give advice on temporal matters.  Such matters of the world are for the worldly to decide.”

That and privately Latta had been adamant that we could not ally with Shiaze, to side with the enemy in a state of war was...  Treason!   I was so tired of that.

“But,” I said, struck by inspiration, “is Shiaze truly your enemy?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know now that Markath Khan is mad,” I replied.  “But madness does not bloom overnight, it festers and grows slowly, long before it is visible, it taints and poisons everything around it, masked sweetly.   There is war with Shiaze, yes.  But whose war was it truly?  Was Shiaze ever your enemy before Markath Khan.”

“We have always been at peace with Shiaze,” someone offered helpfully.

Mostly because the two nations had been so far apart that they'd ne

“Perhaps then,” I replied, “nations must come together before the fleet can come together.  There is a poison that seeps into souls, it must be drained.”

If I couldn't persuade Latta, then possibly I might change his mind through his captains.  Perhaps we could take the fleet to Shiaze, we had to take it somewhere.  But I was uncertain about what to do from there.  A portion of Markath Khan's fleet besieged that city.   If we appeared, would they back down?   If not, I could not see our fleet being willing to fire on them.  Which would mean we were back to nowhere.

It was frustrating.  The rebellion in Diome, uprising in Az-Lium, the siege of Shiaze, the Orgus at war and now the fleet divided.  Markath Khan would win, as he had told me.  For all his troubles, they were divided, they could not assemble into something great enough to challenge them.  We were all floundering in our own little islands and he would crush us all one by one.

Perhaps we should flee to a neutral city, somewhere far off.  But inevitably, war would follow.  This was no single renegade warship.  This was too large a portion of his fleets to allow to escape, or to allow another nation to have.

From one of the lead ships, came a cry.

“Orgus!   Firing upon us!”


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