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Volume 3168a
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron



Inside the temple we gazed upon the Holy Machines.

“Drills,” said Vadak Eth, finally,   “Immense gigantic drills.  Pieces of them anyway.”

I made cutting noises, and then pointed at my ears, mouthing words.   Living in a sightless world, these people must have developed hearing to an acute degree.  We could not be certain that any word said would go unheard.

Japh Leah caught my gestures and nodded.  A second later, Vadak Eth nodded as well.  Even Ton Sabat seemed to get it.

“Probably from the great drills that carved the gravity well,” blithered the Archivist, without noticing us.  Vadak Eth clamped a hand over his mouth and pantomimed slitting his throat.  The Archivist paled and nodded.

“Truly God is pleased with the devotion of his worshippers,” I ennunciated.   “This is undoubtedly the finest temple in the four cities.”  I emphasized ‘four’ and held up four fingers. “...and the focus of worship for vast multitudes.”

“It is a pity that our mission will take us from this place,” Japh Leah said loudly.  He pantomimed ‘How are we getting out of here?’

“I am sure that His Followers will recognize that his servants have many missions, and cannot tarry in their duties.”   I shrugged.  ‘Any ideas?’

Vadak Eth joined in, “we must remain at least long enough to accept tribute and sacrifice in the name of God, to do less would be to dishonour these noble people.”   He made grasping motions, and swept his arms about.  The message was clear - maybe we could con supplies from them.

“The necessities of life,” Aspar Aguus, “are always to be blessed as tribute to God.”    Food and water.

“All things have value before God,” Vadak Eth replied smoothly.   Gold and jewels would be nice.

“Nevertheless,” Japh Leah argued, “we must first minister to the followers of God’s word, and confer our blessings upon the worthy, who surely number in multitudes.”   Which, with gestures, translated as ‘Maybe think of a way to get out alive before we start plotting to swindle their treasures.”

The discussion went on, laboriously, as we tried to share our thoughts about this strange underground land, and conceive a plan of escape, preferably escape with enough supplies to keep us from starving in the rocks.

In the stories of course, we would be in an easy to escape prison, conveniently located next to a storehouse filled with every possible necessity, with a stable nearby, inept guards and a clear escape route.

I hated real life, it needed better writers.

Unfortunately, it was not long before the Master Jewelers arrived.  A handful of men and women, crystal orbs in their eye sockets, persons of all ages and sizes, riding upon thick disklike mollusks, so that they seemed to glide rather than walk.   They were, each of them, serious, somber and laden with gravity and cynicism.   These were the true rulers of the city.   I was frightened, despite myself, they reminded me of an Arts Grants Review Jury.

One by one, they performed what seemed to be ceremonial greetings upon each of us, which seemed to involve putting their hands in all sorts of awkward places.  We endured it in good spirits, and returned the greeting in like form, exchanging names as we went.

Then they sat cross legged upon their mollusks.  That was very convenient I thought.  Both transportation and cushion.

“Oh wise and noble Jewelers of Mant,” I began, “the lord, Your God’s, blessing upon each of you.”

“Yes, yes, whatever,” a mature woman said, I could only assume she was the leader.  “I will tell you now that this meeting is not being recorded.   The mollusk farmers have been sequestered and silenced.   The persons you injured are being examined carefully.  All that is known widely is that there has been a disturbance, and the Jewelers are meeting at the Holy Machines on a matter of great import.   I will not have this city thrown into a panic at tales of allegedly supernatural visitors.   Have I made myself clear?”

This was not a good sign at all.  I’d been casting about among good religious soliloquies and monologues, perhaps a sermon, and had kind of settled on something from the second act of “The Naughty but Devout Vicar.”  All that was dumped now.

This was going to be a hard audience to play, they looked to me like a group of born hecklers.  I began to sweat.

The message was very clear.  We could end the day with our throats cut and dumped in a ditch, and no one but this group of reptiles would ever know.

“We offer no insult,” I said gravely, “but we will require courtesy.”

“Courtesy is freely granted,” she said, “but plain speaking is to be valued.  If you do not like our courtesy, you may take the matter up with the warriors that ring the temple.  I am sure your magical powers are sufficient to the task.”

“Your soldiers surround the temple, but you are here with us.  We appreciate your faith,” I replied.

But more, I thought, their bravery.  Or perhaps their desperation.  A delegation of the cities rulers drawn to meet a group of unknowns at short notice?  They were scared of us.  Scared enough to come, scared enough to kill.

Perhaps scared enough to give us what we wanted and let us go?

“So, a group of strangely formed strangers, not previously known to us, appear mysteriously in speaking an archaic dialect and passing themselves off as messengers or servants, emissaries of God, or something like that.  Is that about the size of it?”

“Roughly,” I said.

“Rough will do,” she said dryly.  “You came from the upper levels, from the vicinity of the desecrated tombs.   And your first theological act,” here, she seemed to run her fingers over grooved notes, “was to molest a group of lowly mollusk farmers.”

It didn’t sound at all good, the way she said it.

“I’m sure the philosophical implications are startling,” she concluded dryly.

“They attacked us,” the Archivist replied angrily.   I winced.

What was this?  Had they all agreed to take turns embarrassing me in the middle of situations like this?  Were they taking lessons from Aspar Aguus when my back was turned.

“Indeed,” she answered, “and oddly enough, they seemed to do quite well against emissaries of God.  Remarkable that.”

“They ambushed us, it was a surprise,” the Archivist persisted.  Vadak Eth stepped up and placed a hand over his mouth.

I decided I loved Vadak Eth.

“Duly noted,” the Master Jeweler said.  “Strange how God overlooked that.”

“God allows to each of us,” I replied, lifting a bit of key dialogue from ‘Philosopher Trut’, trying to control the damage, “the gift of free will, and he averts his gaze that we might make our own choices.”   It was from the ‘Sermon of the Faithless’, a male role.

“But judgment like wisdom must always come later,” she quoted back at me.

I blanched.  How old was that play anyway?  And what was a shriveled old sightless hag from a race of blind monsters doing reading it?

“Let us stop beating about.  You have claimed divinity.  I grant you at least monstrosity.  Your large companion is a hideous beast out of nightmare.  Your smaller companion is of superhuman attributes, and his flesh and organs are different.   All of you are strangely made and proportioned, in a manner reminiscent of throwback freaks that show up among us, and of certain ancient and unholy statues.”

I glanced at Ton Sabat.  His organs were different?  They’d seemed perfectly fine to me.

“Were I inclined to believe in Demons, I would certainly conclude that you were just such creatures.”

“We are not Demons,” I replied.

“As I said, I do not believe in Demons,” she replied.  “So that confession earns you little.”

“It was not a confession,” I replied.

“So you do not confess that you are not a Demon?” she asked.   An evil smile quirked her lips.

I bit my lip.

“But by the same mark, I do not believe in messengers from God.  Unhappily for you.  Or happily, were I to believe in one, I should believe the other.  Were I to believe in both, I should almost certainly choose not to your liking.”

She chuckled.  I bit back resentment.  The evil old biddy was toying with me.  It was just like an Arts Jury.  She’d decided she had my measure, and now she felt she could play with us.

“But let me be fair,” she said, grinning without restraint.  I could hardly believe the unconcealed malicious glee in her face.  “If indeed you are Divine Messengers, as some of my more foolish colleagues...”

Some of those accompanying her squirmed and pulled faces.  Fascinating, I thought, most juries made a point of maintaining a solid front.  But their divisions were plain to read.  I felt a little bit of confidence come back.

“....would like to entertain, I think that we must at least examine this.  What proof do you offer?”

The metal, of course.   Our strange appearance had been one thing.  Our Divine claim was another.  But it was the metal that fascinated them.   I tried to think back to our brief glimpses of this strange city, the soldiers, the people in it.  Mollusks, leather, sticks, stone and carving in profusion, clubs for the soldiers, or stone axes, laquered armour.

But no bracelets, no rings or armbands.  We’d seen nothing metal at all, except the Holy Machines.

Japh Leah must have worked it out as well.  Or more likely, he merely had a doltish inspiration.

“We bear the Holy Metal,” he announced, stepping on my line again.

The old biddy grinned.   I was amazed that she was so transparent.  It gave her a malicious seeming.

“Then let us examine it, to assess your claim.”

“I offer this,” Japh Leah said, pressing his knife into her hand.

“So this has caused all the fuss,” she said, stroking the flat of the knife.

Very deliberately, Aspar Aguus clanged his swords together.

Her evil smile flickered.   She hadn’t expected two pieces, or three.  Interesting.

“There is more?” she asked.

I nodded carefully. From our group, came the rattle of swords and knives, the clang and tink of buckles and coins, armbands and bracelets.  Her smile faded steadily.

“If they are not Divine,” another spoke, “then they are at least persons of unspeakable wealth.”

“They’re not divine,” she snapped, but her voice had lost a little confidence, and her expression was worried, “and as for wealth, well, there are tricks one can play.”

“Examine the knife,” I coaxed.  “We will show you the rest in turn.”

Carefully, and with solemn deliberation, the knife was handed from hand to hand, until it reached an old wizened creature.   He examined it minutely, flicking it with his fingernail and listening, stroking every inch of it for texture.  He even licked it.  The examination went on.  By the expectant looks of the others, I judged him to be the expert.  Finally, he spoke.

“It is not in the catalogues, this is new metal.  By the taste, less than a ....”  and he gave some incomprehensible noise.   “...old.”

“When was the last time a new cache of uncatalogued metal was found?”

Another incomprehensible noise.   “...... time ago.  But you do not understand.  This is not unfound or lost metal.  This is new metal.  This metal was forged, perhaps ...”  incomprehensible noise, “... at least after the founding of Manal.”

This drew a burst of angry protests from them.  “Impossible!  Utterly impossible!”


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