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Volume 3176
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

CHAPTER SIXTY-ONE
DETOUR
There was a flurry of activity everywhere, of sailors and airmen scrambling about.  Engines roared and pumps grunted rhythmically, and I felt the great shift lift up smoothly.   All around us, the ships of my stolen fleet rose majestically up into the air.  Signal lights flickered complex instructions to each other, as ships moved to flank and cover each other.

I barely understood half of what went on, I could just conceive that I was witnessing an incredible display of skill and coordination among fifty or more airships.

A cluster of officers gathered around Admiral Latta as he strode towards the command bridge.  Apparently, the flagship had two bridges.   A normal bridge, and a command bridge, far forward, where the Admiral and staff officers did officer things.

I strode after them, trying to look like I belonged.   I minor officer came up to halt me, I glared at him and he went away.   Haughtily, I marched onto the bridge.

“What's happening?”  I demanded.

A staff officer looked up at me in confusion, from reporting to the Admiral.  I joined them.  Latta nodded at me.

“Begin again,” Latta ordered.

“We are under fire,” the officer said, “but it isn't serious.  Small arms from mounted forces, open country.   Nothing heavy enough to pierce our armour.   We think that they're actually engaged with each other.”

“Orgus fighting orgus?”  I asked.   The civil war between Aguus's followers and enemies had spread?  Or were these from the city?

“Mixed forces, both,” the officer replied.   “Human and orgus.”

I blinked.   A glance around told me I wasn't the only one who was surprised.

“Very peculiar,” said Latta.   Admiral Obvious, I thought.  How I longed for the fierce incisive insight of a Vadak Eth or a Japh Leah, as much as I now loathed them both.   What next, I thought, some remark that we were very high up.

“We are very high up,” Admiral Latta said thoughtfully.

His officers nodded.

“I suppose we could just bomb them,” he said.

“Bomb them?”

“Oh yes,” Latta replied, “our ships are adequately fitted to drop bombs.   It was refits, you see, we were preparing to bomb the uprising, when Markath Khan went mad.   In fact, when we met at the palace, I was on my way to discuss the selection of targets and acceptable damage to the city.”

My stomach turned over slowly.

“Your Holiness,” Latta asked with sudden concern, “are you all right.”

“Fine,” I said quickly, “but before we bomb them, is there any way to tell who we are bombing?  What if we bomb the wrong people?”

They looked blankly at me.

Yes, I could see their point of view.   A fleet gone renegade, they had no allies in the world, not their home, not strangers.  Everyone was an enemy.

“Faithful!”  I said loudly.  “Great things are going on in the world, of which this is only a part.  Everywhere, the faithful are under siege from heretics and infidels.  What if some of these are of the faith?”

“What things?”  an officer asked.

“What?”

“You said great things are going on?”

“Yes,” I said, thinking quickly, “great things!   Mysterious men appearing from nowhere, avatars of good and evil.”

“Markath Khan?”

Actually, I'd been thinking of Ton Sabat, but I'd go with that.  “Yes,” I responded, “and more.  Lost cities discovered in dead lands, extinct races found alive, wars and rumours of wars, plagues and pestilence.”

“I don't know of any plagues,” an officer said doubtfully.  His fellow staff nodded.

“Well.... they're coming, okay!”  I snapped.  “The point is, that a lot of great things have been going on, remarkable things, and this fleet is one of those great and remarkable things, the navy rising up to overthrow a tyrant.   And I can tell you now, that there is a larger pattern at work, the shapes of good and evil loom.”

Latta seemed to light up, grinning despite himself, taken up with the notion of a battle between good and evil.   The rest of the men seemed confused in varying degrees.  That was okay, I could work with confusion.

“I'm sorry,” an officer, “I'm not following it.”

“All will be made clear in time,” I said airily, wishing I could just throw him over the side, “for now, it is enough that you know that good and evil war throughout the world, and we stand on one side.  Another portion of the battle may lie below.”

They looked confused.

“We follow your wisdom, Holiness,” Latta said.  “What do you suggest?”

Finally, I thought.  But I was reminded how precarious my position was without Latta.

“Well,” I said, “we should determine who is fighting down there, so that we may determine if we should intervene on behalf of the forces of righteousness.”

Of course, I had no idea how to do that.  What?  Land?  Or fly so close we could see who was fighting?   But then, that might be close enough.

“Ah,” Latta said, “then we should examine the viewscopes.”

Viewscopes?   Oh, good.


The fighting was on at the edges of the Jagged Lands.  It looked like it had been a running battle, given the trail of bodies.  The fleeing force, Orgus with a handful of humans, had dug in among the rocks.

Their attackers outnumbered them, their weapons were more powerful, and they were steadily pushing their foes back.   A section of the attackers had managed to flank their enemy, cutting off retreat.  The battle had been fierce, would be fierce but there could only be one outcome.

But for now, firing had ceased.

Above their heads floated dozens of immense warships, cruisers and battle cruisers, destroyers.  Power to level cities and set the sky on fire.

They watched and waited.

I wasn't sure what to do.  Tell them to cut it out and go home?   A stern talking to?  That worked with children.  I wasn't sure how well it would do with murderous factions at each others throats.

We could tell them both to surrender.  But then, what if they opened fire on us?

“We bomb them both,” Latta answered helpfully when I raised the issue.

In the end, we settled on a simple exhibition, sending a squadron off to the rocks, and bombarding a set of  cliffs a short distance away to rubble.   The warships hovered in the sky, the bombs mere specks as they fell, producing terrifying cascades of fire and dust, the roar of the explosion reverberating in my chest.  Markath Khan had planned to drop these things on his own city?

“Smaller bombs,” Latta assured me.  “To more precise effect.”

That wasn't comforting.

“So why carry the big ones.”

“Shiaze,” he explained.  “Markath Khan tired of their resistance.  Normally, the goal is conquest, there's nothing to plunder in burned out ruins.  But he had determined to put an end to them, as a lesson to his enemies.”

A chill went up my spine.

An orderly came up to advise that the smaller, beleaguered faction, had sent messages asking for a parley.  Ponderously, the great flagship floated down to the crest of a hill where a small delegation awaited.  I joined Latta and the other officers as the boarding platform descended, and we got our first close up view of the warriors.

Aspar Aguus stared up at us.  But I could tell he was staring at me, absolute astonishment writ plain on his broad, tusked, reptilian face.

“They are a motley and vulgar crew, your holiness,” Latta commented distastefully.  The big Orgus picked up on it though.  His brow furrowed fiercely.  Who knew what would go on in that strange alien mind.

“Holiness?”  he rumbled.  I could just tell that he was going to say some infamously wrong thing.

Don't screw this up on me, I desperately thought at him.


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