by Den Valdron
My heart froze, my blood ran cold, my stomach lurched appallingly. That murdering, hideous monster was on his way. This was a disaster. This was worst than a disaster, it was a nightmare. This old idiot had killed us all!
I smiled and put on the most enthusiastic and pleasant expression I could manage.
“How wonderful,” I said sweetly. “Tell me more.”
“It is the most extraordinary thing,” he prattled. “Markath Khan sent an emissary, an ambassador under flag of truce.”
Mentally, I cursed. I should have expected something like this. Undoubtedly a close friend of Latta's, some scion of the old nobility, distinguished, trustworthy, whose credentials and credibility were impeccable.
“Who was it?”
“Why Matlag An!” Latta exclaimed, “a close friend, a scion of the old nobility, distinguished, trustworthy, a man whose credentials and credibility are utterly impeccable.”
“It could be nothing else,” I said sweetly. Mentally, I was kicking him for being a thumping great idiot. Of course, Markath Khan would send someone with all the qualities he lacked, a cultured idiot as his harbinger, a good man that evil could conceal itself behind.
“So there was an explanation for his murderous insanity,” I asked.
“Matlag An has revealed that he was suffering from the poisoning or possibly sorcery by the Demon Princess, who subsequently escaped.”
Of course. No explanation of course for the rape of Az-Lium, the wars against nations like Shiaze that had never troubled Diome, for turning Diome itself into a giant armed camp of soldiers and slaves, for a thousand other atrocities and treacheries. All this was the work of sense and sanity. How many tantrums had been overlooked, how much was excused.
These Diome had made a fetish of excusing Markath Khan, it only took a little effort for Latta to overlook his murderous display in front of his own eyes. It was the lampshade on his head, I thought cynically, that had been hard to swallow.
I glanced around at Latta's officers. They were not so sanguine, it seemed. Was there a trace of doubt in their eyes and expressions? I looked for the ones who had accompanied us in the flight from the palace. They were far from persuaded.
“Quite remarkable,” I replied. Dare I chance it? “Although, as you know, the Holy Race by virtue of our good works have encountered many instances of spells and poisons...”
The Therns, I had learned, were dedicated poisoners, but I assumed that they did not reveal this proclivity to their worshippers.
“....I can think of no sorcery or potion that might have produced the sort of derangement we saw that day.”
Latta's smile faltered a bit. He wanted to believe what he wanted to believe. I kept my eyes on him, I did not dare risk another glance around at the officers. I could only hope I'd planted some sort of seed. Latta visibly resolved himself.
“The Demon Princess,” he said, “has been noted for unworldly powers. Things have come out of Az-Lium unknown to the world for tens of thousands of years, perhaps even unknown to the Holy people.”
“That might well be true,” I agreed, putting the barest shade of doubt into my voice. Careful, girl, I told myself. Take a wrong step, and Latta might start wondering if there was a connection between the Fleet's Priestess and the Demon Princess. And if Latta didn't, others might.
“So Markath Khan has recovered from his fit?”
“Yes! And he is filled with remorse! Already he has made amends to the families of those killed on that unfortunate day. He has sent his emissary to render his apologies. I am assured that he is returned to himself, that he is a scion of Diome, first, last and always.”
But he wasn't from Diome. I thought about mentioning that, and then decided against it. Later perhaps, in other circumstances.
“Markath Khan agrees,” Latta said, “as do I, that the people and the fleet of Diome must be united. Divided against each other, we can only fall to our enemies. United we are unstoppable.”
And of course, I was not of the race of Diome. Latta showed no sign of thinking that way, but the seed had been subtly planted and ready to sprout.
“This is truth itself!” I exclaimed piously. “I am pleased that Markath Khan has woken to virtue once again. Did I not foretell just such a thing.” I hadn't actually, but I'd said a lot of vague and platitudinous things which could be construed, in hindsight, to fit.
“Yes,” he agreed. “and so Markath Khan is coming here.”
“And bringing the rest of the fleet with him of course?”
“Yes, for a great reunification ceremony!”
Damn, damn, damn. My fleet would not fire upon Diome's ships. But I had no doubts that the forces under Markath Khan's control would be so fastidious. Markath Khan would rule the entire fleet, or the sky would be filled with burning hulks.
“Wonderful,” I said. I had a thought. “What of an amnesty?”
Latta beamed, all but glowing with pleasure. “Suggested by Markath Khan's through his emissary, we did not even have to ask. Full amnesty for all.”
“Terrific,” I said.
“Even,” he followed up, “for our Holy patron, not just an amnesty, but a royal apology!”
There was a round of applause from the officers. I could only smile wanly. I didn't believe a word of it. There would be no amnesties or apologies if Markath Khan ever got his hands on me. I wanted to throw up. Instead, I could only grin and acknowledge the clapping.
“So when does this ceremony take place?” I asked.
“Marvellous,” I said.
Damn, damn, damn.
The first thing I did when I was able to return to my cabin was stick my fingers down my throat and throw up copiously. Then I smashed and tore everything that could be destroyed, which, given that it was an airship cabin and everything was designed to be secured, was not that much. A few cups, and some bedding. Then I threw myself on the mattress and had a good long cry about the horrid, miserable unfairness of life.
How could everything turn so completely awful? I cursed Aspar Aguus for taking me away from the fleet on his own trivial quest for vengeance. What had I had to do with any of that? I should have left him chained to his rock. Every time I'd turned around, the blundering oaf had said or done something that nearly got me killed. Oh, it was all very nice that the selfish jerk had his quest to avenge his lost love in front of a cheering gallery, but why drag me into it? I despised cheap theatre, it was just scenery chewing.
And not just him. Vadak Eth, that cheap lying snake! And what of Japh Lea, oh sure, turns out he'd been a prince all along, playing me for an idiot. But in the end, he'd been dumb as a sack of rocks, haring off after fabricated threats, leaving me helpless. And Latta, had there ever been a more gullible old fool! I despised them all.
For a while I amused myself with hideous tortures I'd inflict, were I a real Princess. But that palled quickly. For one thing, none of them really deserved it, except perhaps Vadak Eth, and even then I didn't have the heart. For another, their torture and mine at the hands of Markath Khan was far too real a possibility.
Anyway, after a good cry, I considered my situation calmly.
I liked that a lot. If Markath Khan was coming, I wanted to be going. Of course, I couldn't pilot an airship to save my life, literally. Not even one of these one or two man flyers. So, I'd need a pilot, perhaps a whole crew. And a very fast ship. Sure, escape from the center of one of the largest fleets in the world.
Scratch that then.
So what else? Kill Latta? I smirked at the thought. It would be wonderful if he would just die and the fleet would fall in behind me. Too bad the Orgus were all gone, I discrete word or two, an accident that couldn't be connected to me. I shuddered, when had I become so cold blooded.
It wouldn't work anyway. Even if Latta's death didn't lead back to me, the fleet had its own chain of succession, and I wasn't part of it. As the Holy Priestess, I was outside the line, a spiritual power but without legal authority. Whoever replaced Latta might be much harder to manipulate. Hmmm. Who would replace Latta? I wasn't sure. I should find out.
Perhaps there was some way to manipulate the situation. Maybe I could wreck this armistice. Or at least prepare for Markath Khan's treachery.
Except, of course, I wasn't going to accomplish anything laying in bed feeling sorry for myself.
Markath Khan was coming....
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