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Volume 3193c
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

CHAPTER SEVENTY-TWO
I returned to Admiral Latta, and used every subtle skill I could to dissuade him.  Nothing worked.  The man was deliriously happy, honourable to the core, this rebellion had never suited him.  He'd been forced to lead the fleet away by Markath Khan's mad rage, my fast talking and his own need to
survive.

But given half a chance, he'd gladly return to the fold.   This was his dream.

There was no dissuading him.

The most I could wheedle from him was an evening of ministering to the ships of the fleet and a morning sermon before Markath Khan arrived.

After that, I stared on the flagship officers, probing, exploring.   The chain of command from Latta splintered in several directions.  There was no clear successor, merely fleet commanders.  Perhaps my weight behind one of them would be decisive?   I pondered that as I went from commander to commander, and then travelled from ship to ship.

At least the crew of my battered little pinnace seemed loyal to me.

Sentiments through the fleet were mixed.   Some welcomed the reunification. Many were skeptical of Markath Khan.  He'd always been somewhat unpopular in Diome's navy, a bastion of traditionalism and elitism.  When he'd ascended to power, they'd held their nose and obeyed.  But they'd never stopped looking down at him, and when the fleet had rebelled many had cheered.  They'd been only too willing to believe the tale of his madness, had taken a sadistic pleasure from it.

Now the talk was of returning to his control.   That wasn't going down entirely well.   The fleet lived and died by discipline, so they'd obey.

But there was fertile ground here.   If something happened, if Markath Khan ventured treachery....  Perhaps.

Midway through the night, a ship's captain came to me.

“Markath Khan's ships are approaching,” he said.

It was still hours to dawn, to the appointed rendezvous.  I felt a thrumb of tension in my belly.  I looked out over the skyline, at the lights which represented the ships of the fleet.  In the distance, there was another scattering of lights and spots of blackness.  The other fleet.

Why had he come to me with this?  He was uncertain and nervous.  He wanted guidance.

“Admiral Latta is wise and just,” I said carefully, “but among the Captains and Commanders, there is doubt about Khan's good faith.   What if he comes to attack.? Can we defend ourselves?”

I stopped talking.  I'd let my fear show.

“We could win,” he said.  “We have the majority of the line ships...”

“But...”     The ‘but’ in his silence was loud.

“But not if we allow them to take the initiative,” he blurted.    “He's deploying his ships in an encirclement attack formation.”

I glanced again into the night, patches of darkness and spots of light, our ships and theirs drifted moving slowly against each other.

“How so?”

From there, he launched into an impassioned and almost unintelligible discourse on the tactics of ship position.  I listened and nodded and tried to follow some of it.

“So what would you do?”  I asked.  “If you were the Admiral.”

“Reposition the fleet,” he said.  “Elevate the capital ships.   Pull the battleships towards the center, flank with the cruisers.”

I nodded.

“The Admiral is sleeping,” I said.  “He must be fresh for his great summit with the Jeddak tomorrow.”

I licked my lips.   “It would be the decision of the Captains and Commanders on duty as to how the fleet organizes itself.  There is no need to disturb the Admiral with such trivial matters.”

We stared at each other.   Slowly, he nodded.

“On your authority?”

What authority?

“On my authority?”

“I'll pass the word,” he said.

I nodded.

“We do nothing,” I replied, “that is a violation of orders.  We are merely
....”

“Doing fleet adjustments,” he said, “in the normal course.”

“Yes,” I replied.  “As normal.”

Perhaps, just perhaps, this might work out, I thought.  Still, my guts were clenching.  I felt no peace and no certainty.  Fear and uncertainty were my companions.

I moved through the night, ministering where I could, sewing what seeds I might, looking for opportunities and advantages, for places to run, if running was needed.   There wasn't enough time, and as the dawn approached, I felt the minutes dwindling away.

Soon enough, Latta commanded me back to the flagship to give my sermon, a rambling hesitant affair.   Shuttles brought ranking officers and senior captains to the flagship.  But hopefully, I'd done my work, many of those let behind had secret orders, waited defensively near their positions, against things going wrong.

The morning sun appeared.  The air grew light.   The sky was filled with ships, more than I'd ever seen before.  Majestic behemoths of war, floating serenely in the heavens, slowly drifting in and out of position with each other.  Steel eyed captains watching their rivals, easing their ships up or down, back or forth, as they judged their most advantageous position.   It was magnificent, and terrifying.

The air was cold, goose pimples rippled across my skin.  A light breeze played with strands of my hair.  I stood beside Admiral Latta on the deck of his flagship.   He smiled at me.  I smiled back.

I was practically peeing myself.  I wanted to be anywhere else in the fleet. But of course, that wasn't a possibility.  Latta had commanded that all the fleet commanders, the senior captains and ranking officers attend.  As High Priestess of the rebel fleet my attendance was mandatory.

Markath Khan's flagship hung in the air barely a few hundred yards distant.

“It is a great day your Holiness,” he said.

I was never going to a Priestess again, I told myself.   It sucked.  As a religious leader, you were stuck with people going off and doing whatever they wanted, and pretending they were obeying you.  From now on, I'd stick with Princess.  People were more obedient if they thought you could have their heads chopped off.

Heddo Lettus made a lot of sense.

“Is it safe though,” I said nervously, folding my arms.   “What if he plots against us.”

Latta chuckled and stroked my arm.

“I am no fool, Priestess,” he said.  “Markath Khan has agreed to show his good faith by coming to us on a shuttle.  He will place himself in our power, with naught but a personal guard.  He trusts me.”

Of course he trusted Latta.  The Admiral didn't have a treacherous bone in his body.  That wasn't what I was worried about.

The shuttle broke away from Khan's flagship.  The great Flagships were so immense that they could not actually come into contact.  Their immense mass would grind each other to pieces.  So shuttles were used to move between the large ships.

Markath Khan's shuttle, of course, was gaudy and ornate.  I could see the clumsy attempts at something reminiscent of Orovar styling, and of course, the masthead was a rather artistic styling of Khan's own face.   I watched it cross the abyss with growing trepidation.

Maybe there'd be an accident, the motor would blow, or one of the tanks would puncture and they'd all go spinning down to their deaths.

I watched.  Didn't happen.   Too bad.

The shuttle docked with the flagship, deck hands rushed to secure it.  The gangplank was extended.

Ranks formed up on either side, everyone standing stiffly at attention. Blood pounded in my temples.

Markath Khan's personal guard stepped forward, one after the other, deploying themselves along the edge of the deck.

My mouth was dry.

Finally, Markath Khan stepped forward, marching down the plank, stepping on to the deck.  A golden circlet crowned his hair, I wasn't fooled it was just there to keep his wig in place.  It did look magnificent, thought.   His red cape flapped in the wind, a sword hung in a jeweled scabbard, a dagger hanging above it.  He stood there, the morning light gleaming upon him, striking a noble pose, strong jaw, clear eyes.  I had to admit it, he was every inch a Jeddak.

Admiral Latta turned once more to me, smiling kindly.  He patted my arm, and then without a word, stepped forward to meet, marching the length of the deck to meet the Jeddak.

As they approached, Markath Khan extended his hand.  Admiral Latta reached out to take it.

“My Admiral,” Markath Khan said.   “It has been too long.”

“My Jeddak,” Latta began.

But before he could utter another word, Markath Khan drew his knife with his free hand and with a single smooth violent motion plunged it into Latta's guts.   The Admiral went pale, his eyes shocked.  His mouth moved, but all that came out was a hollow woof.   Markath Khan grabbed him then, pulling him close.  Latta's body jerked as Khan plunged the knife up into his guts again and again.  For a moment, the Admiral seemed to struggle, clutching at the Jeddak, his face contorted with horror.

And then it was all over.  The strength all seemed to run out of Latta, even as his blood poured away.  Markath Khan was almost gentle as he laid him down.

“You deserved a better end, old friend,” he said in a loud stage whisper.

He nodded to one of his guardsmen.   The man, a husky fellow with a big chest, stepped forward and proclaimed in a booming voice.

“From this moment on, with the death of the Traitor Latta, Markath Khan decrees amnesty to all who were deceived and mislead.”

Everyone was frozen.  Markath Khan stood up, casually straddling the mutilated body of Admiral Latta.  He'd just been smiling at me.  We'd spoken seconds ago, and now he was dead.   I was speechless, blood pounding in my temples so loud I could hear it, mouth dry, legs shaking.  Oh no.  Oh no, no, no.

The crier kept declaiming the proclamation.  From other ships, voices boomed in announcement, signal lights conveyed the message.   Officers stared at each other, eyes white with shock and fear.

Another of his royal guards came forward, holding a wet towel.  With calm economy, he wiped the blood from his fingers.   They'd planned this.  He'd planned this, even down to the washing of his hands.  His eyes fixed on me.

“So much for your lies and play acting, your sham is over.  It ended as it was destined too, and all your evasions and games could not change the course of fate.  Who dares, wins.”

He smiled.

“I win.”


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