by Den Valdron
If anything, the trip out of the canyons was even worse than the journey in. For most of the journey, there was nowhere to turn the ship around, and so teams of Orgus and Rodals had to drag the ship backwards, bumping ceaselessly against canyon
walls, grinding off armour plates, and relentlessly dislocating my spine.
“If this is the way to the ultimate shrine of Iss, your holiness,” the Captain said, “then they can have it.”
I looked at him blearily.
What? Oh right.
“The voice of the divine is frequently inaccessible,” I told him, piously. It hadn't been a terribly good lie, and I was sure that they had seen though it. But then again, they had not been allowed to cross the final stretch to the Orgus sanctuary. So who knew what really lay out there, so far as they were concerned.
I made a mental note to manufacture something utterly appalling and unbelievable, for when that story wore thin. Every now and then, I found myself wondering at the ever growing, ever spreading, edifice of deceit and artifice I'd woven. Would it
collapse under its own weight? Would it burst into flame from its own sodding decomposition? Or would it just keep on going, new lies ceaselessly outrunning old ones.
It couldn't possibly work. And yet it did, the endless forward momentum carrying me along, never looking back.
An airman bowed briefly to me as he bustled past, trying to keep some part of the little ship from falling off. Automatically, I blessed him.
It was becoming easier, more innate. The further along I went, the more I seemed to inhabit the roles, becoming the Princess or the Priestess. There was not that much difference between the two, both worldly, both fearless and commanding.
She wasn't real, of course, she was simply a figment, a moment's inspiration. And yet, there seemed times when even I forgot it.
The ship lurched on its side, riding high up a rock slope. I grabbed a safety line. Grabbing safety lines had become automatic now. My feet went out from under me, I felt my bottom slam hard against the deck, as I slid into a stanchion, bruising my hip.
I hated this new world. I hated travel. I hated koru, rodals, slidars, thoats, airships of every description, I hated the food, the sand, the dry air, the disgusting ceaseless grit. I hated people who treated common weeds as rare botanical specimens.
If I ever got out of this, I promised myself, I'd find a nice comfortable apartment, and chain myself to it.
“Are you all right, Princess,” Aspar Aguus called from the driving teams up ahead. His collection of Thoats and Rodals were preparing to drag the boat past some obstacle, which if the crew couldn't get the buoyancy up, would tear the pinnace in
“Just fine, thank you.” I cursed. He'd called me Princess. Still, it didn't matter much at this point. These men depended on me, and it no longer mattered much whether I was Princess or Priestess. They were long since committed, had burned
their bridges. What mattered was that I offered someone to follow, something to believe in, even if they weren't quite sure who or what I was. My confidence was their beacon.
I held on tight as the ship lurched again.
Finally after a long journey, we had reached the break in the canyon wall that meant we were finally out of that horrible passageway. As the airship's men inspected the damage, I ventured onto stable solid ground, luxuriating in the feel of jagged
rock and inhospitable slope under my feet.
“I am sorry that your location is compromised,” I said. “Now there's a risk of Markath Khan or others taking this route to your fortress.”
Aguus shrugged. “It is of no moment. We are already mining this passage into a series of deathtraps. Markath Khan would lose an army coming this way, and in the end, we would bury it all under impassable rock.”
Well, I didn't feel so bad then.
Some of Aguus’ men came up, giving him the Orgus salute to a Jed, giving him their reports as they prepared to form ranks. I noticed they gave me the same salute.
“What was that all about?” I asked, referring to the honour they seemed to have paid me. “They saluted me as well as you, when did they start that?”
I hadn't seen any such respect while on the Admiral's ship, and I could have used it then.
“Oh that? Heddo Lettus has conferred upon you the rank of an Orgus Jed, it was a great honour.”
So that's why everyone seemed so obedient and deferential during the preparations for departure. I just thought they were happy to be rid of me.
“But...” I asked, “but... why didn't Heddo Lettus mention this. Why make me a Jed and not tell me?”
“Ah,” he said, “that was the wisdom of the great Jeddak. He did not want to deprive you of the opportunity of lying about it.”
I opened my mouth. Then closed it. Then opened it again, but no words came out. Finally, I threw my arms around the dour monster and hugged him. He accepted my embrace.
“Thank you, Aspar Aguus,” I said, “did you ever believe any of my nonsense?”
“There was such a prodigious amount of it,” he replied, “I figured that some of it had to be true. The only question was what parts.”
After that, it was relatively smooth sailing. Well, as smooth as a badly mangled ship could make, lurching and bumping along every random air current.
Ah for the age of oceans. My ancestors had sailed the seas, smooth placid bodies of water, gliding effortlessly at the behest of gentle winds. That would have been the way to travel.
But then, despite myself, I recalled old stories of sea storms, giant waves, waterspouts and typhoons, horrid beasts of every sort. Maybe every form of travel was simply disgusting.
Still, it was not too bad. The ship, for all that its exterior resembled battered junk, was remarkably air worthy and much faster than it looked.
We made good time, remarkably good time, proceeding to the rendez vous point that had been previously arranged. My head was already spinning with plans, where to take the fleet, what to do with it. I knew that Heddo Lettus runners were already
on their way, that a hundred threads of resistance and rebellion would be gathered up in a tapestry, no, a rope, better, a noose to draw around Markath Khan's neck and end his reign of terror.
By the time we reached the fleet, I knew exactly what I would say, and how I would handle Admiral Latta..
The little Pinnace, battered and scraped raw, was a shabby spectacle among the gleaming destroyers and battle cruisers of the fleet, but nevertheless, as we passed among the great ships, their decks were lined with cheering crewmen. I waved,
grinning, riding the feel of elation. We rode slowly, passing by ship after ship, announcing our presence to the fleet.
Finally, we docked at the Admiral's flagship, and I was piped aboard to a formal welcome from the assembled fleet captains.
Admiral Latta greeted me effusively, taking my hands in his, his lined face beaming with joy.
“Oh truly, your Holiness, this is an auspicious moment for you to return.”
“Indeed, Admiral,” I replied graciously, “for I have received important revelations from the Goddess, the path to virtue is now clear.”
“Indeed it is,” he said. “Indeed it is, holiness. For there have been great developments these last few days. I am sure you will recognize the hand of the divine. The fleet is on the verge of reunification...”
“Reunification?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Negotiations have been taking place. We are agreed on the terms of an amnesty. On proper respect for the fleet.”
Oh I didn't like the sound of this.
“Why, Markath Khan, himself is on his way!”
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