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Volume 3195
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

CHAPTER SEVENTY-SEVEN
There were shouts in the instant before Markath Khan's flagship slammed into our ship.  I saw it looming behind Markath Khan.

Then, with a mighty crash, the sound of metal grinding and timbers snapping, pieces of the two ships  tearing and scraping against each other.  Khan's flagship dipped, forcing our ship up.  There was an immense lurch, a sudden jerk that tore the sword from my hand and sent me flying.  Instinctively I grabbed at a swinging safety line, sudden terror giving me a new surge of strength.  Screaming, I held onto the line with everything I had, wrapping my arms and legs around it, as it swung in dizzying arcs.

The air was filled with screams and flying debris, coils of rope, unsecured objects.  In the distance, I could hear the keening sound of men falling to their deaths. Closer by were the shouts of crewmen of both ships, clinging to lines or whatever they could grab onto.

The two great aerial behemoths lurched against each other, the collision going on and on, as their inertia and engines grinding.  It went on for minutes, the two ships shuddering, and rolling.  Finally, the great flagships impact dissipated, the awful lurching and shuddering easing away.

Sometime during the ordeal, my feet had found the deck.   As it settled, I clung fast to the safety line, and looked around.   The ship was half wrecked, the back fore deck torn off, the main deck was buckled and heaved up.  The admiral's deck, forward on, seemed intact, though half the rail was gone.

My sword was gone.  There was not a weapon in sight.

Where was Markath Khan?

My gaze swept the ship, passing over marines and sailors, officers and captains clinging to lines or whatever they could find.   The ship was in chaos.

I spotted him, when the ships had impacted, the boarding deck had shattered, the gangblank swinging far out from the ship.   Markath Khan clung with both arms to the edge of the gangplank, still hanging on to his sword.

I checked the length of my safety line.  Could I get out there?   Carefully, I made my way out across the fractured deck, to the shattered gangway.   Stepping carefully and cautiously, testing the line as I went.  Markath Khan watched me approach, his eyes burning.

Finally, I stood over him.   He glared up at me, his lips curled in an animalist snarl.  He clutched the sword hard, even though holding it meant he was slowly losing his grip on the plank.

“You spoke of vision once,” I said, “and yet, what comes from this vision, but a world in flames.  You spoke of will to power, but to what end?   This is your work and your world, suffering and misery.  Everything you've touched, you have destroyed.  Everyone you've known, you have murdered.   What good have you done for any life other than your own, what have you done for anyone but yourself.  You live only to make the world burn.  You are alone in a world full of people.  There is nothing in you, you would destroy everything as a monument to your own vanity.”

He spat at me.   There was nothing human in his eyes.

I kicked him in the face as hard as I could.  For a second, he looked shocked.  Then I kicked him again, harder, stamping down, and he lost his grip.    He screamed as he fell away into the distance.

I felt an awful hollowness open up within me.   I watched Markath Khan fall until he was no longer even a speck.

I'd murdered a man.   With all the death I'd seen, with killing and fighting all around me, I had finally committed murder.   It was necessary, I told myself.   But was it.  Did it make things different now?

Once upon a time, Markath Khan had committed his first murder, had that been the first step on a path of what he had become.  Would I walk that path.   I thought of my genial murderers, Ton Sabat, Japh Lea, Aspar Aguus, Vadak Eth.  Was I like them now?  Would it be easier the next time?  Would it become casual.

The gangplank and fractured deck creaked beneath me.  I turned and carefully made my way back, finally making my way back to the relative safety of the ship.  It was still creaking, still swaying.   There were men everywhere, the ships had stabilized enough that the crews had left their safety lines, were busy confronting each other, seeing to emergency repairs, swords and firearms were in hand everywhere, but no one was fighting.

They were all watching me.  They'd watched me kick Markath Khan to his death.   Now they watched me make my way back.   My legs felt like they were made of water, my body suffused with weakness.  I held my back straight, walked stiffly.

Vadak Eth was near the deck where I came.  As I walked past him, he whispered.

“That was quite good, where did you get it from?”

“It was me,” I replied flatly, not even bothering to look at him.  “My words.”

I kept walking, projecting an illusion of strength I did not feel.  I made it work for me, my stiffness giving me a regal air.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Japh Lea and Ton Sabat.  What were they doing here?   Had they been on Markath Khan's flagship?   I couldn't allow myself to think of it.   Just keep moving.

I stood in front of an officer, stared at him with all the cold malice of a Thern Priestess.

“Your sword,” I said.

“What?”   He seemed young and uncertain.

“Give me your sword,” I ordered.

He handed it over, and I took it and walked past him.   There was an intact ladder to the Admiral's deck.  Good.  I climbed it laboriously, focusing on one step at a time.

Finally, I mounted the deck, I brushed past Captain's and officers as if they were not there, moving purposefully to the Admiral's address platform.   A pair of senior captain's huddled there, but withdrew from my glare as I approached.

Finally, I stood up on the platform, the borrowed sword in my hand, surveying the throng on the ship, rebels and loyalists together.    There were so many men and women, soldiers, warriors, crewmen, officers.   It seemed that the entire crew of both ships were out on the decks.

They'd watched me kill Markath Khan, I thought.   They'd watched me duel Markath Khan, all of them, as we'd stumbled and clashed all across the deck.  They'd watched and done nothing but get out of the way.  They would have watched Markath Khan kill me, and they would have done nothing.   And if he had killed me, they would have simply gone on obeying him, telling each other whatever lies as he'd claimed.   They would have deserved him.

I felt a deep welling of contempt for them, and knew that this was what Markath Khan had felt when he had looked at them.

“I....”  I started.  My voice sounded tired and reedy.  I stopped and swallowed.

“I,” my voice rang loud, “I am the Holy Priestess, favoured by the Divine,” I told them.

“And you have seen the will of the Divine casting down her enemies here today.  Do not forget that.”

I licked my lips, put everything I had into looking fierce and indomitable.  I tried to make my eyes flash.

“And I am also the Princess....”

I raised up my sword, striking a dramatic pose, with the perfect flair of having watched from the sidelines as a supporting player or an extra, in a heroic pageant.   I wished it could be on a stage, I wished my friends could see my perfect form and pose, even in a rehearsal.

“I am the Princess Kam Asutra,” I roared suddenly, “and I will not kneel.   I will never kneel.   It is you who will kneel.  Now!”

A murmur went through the assembled throng.  Men jostling and glancing at each other, their eyes uncertain.  I maintained my pose, tried to make my expression fierce, my gaze piercing.  As if I was looking into each one of their eyes.

Aspar Aguus,  standing in the crowd knelt, followed by Ton Sabat.   Japh Leah grinned and bowed before going down to one knee.  At first, one by one they knelt, then in clusters, until finally the whole throng was bowing.

“I am the Princess Kam Asutra,” I roared again, “and you will all kneel before me!”


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