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Volume 3170b
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

I found I could not sleep.   Instead, early in the morning, I wrapped the night silks around me and went up to the roof of the inn we were staying at.

It was cold, and I shivered a bit, but did not mind.   Above me, the sky was full of stars.  I had thought the night would be more comforting than the day.  I'd lived my whole life under a dome, and I found that if I stared at the unbounded sky of day that dizziness would overcome me.

At first, it had been frightening.   A world stretching away in all directions, a universe that went on and on, a sky so deep that you could just keep looking and looking.  Sometimes though, I'd find myself sneaking peeks, just to see.

An open endless sky.  Sometimes it seemed liberating.

But the night sky was even more endless, the litter of stars everywhere, proposing inconceivable depths and distances.

I could not look at it more than a minute at a time.

Instead, I sat on the edge of the roof and watched the city.

At night, Diome was almost as dead as Tazor, the streets empty and vacant, only an occasional guard patrolling through.  I could imagine the place was uninhabited.

As dawn crept, the first sign of life was soldiers marching, and lines of slaves cringing and cowering.  Nothing but soldiers and slaves.   Was that all there was to this new world?  Cities of soldiers and slaves?

I sighed.   If this is what the world had become, it would have been better off dying with the Orovars.   The only real life, the only real passion had been with the bandits and the Orgus.  Let them have it, I thought to myself.  Let the Red Men die off as the Orovars had, and let the bandits and Orgus enjoy whatever is left.

A large covered wagon passed slowly down the street.

“Am I disturbing you?”   I jumped.  But it was only Japh Leah.

I shrugged.

“What is that wagon?”  I pointed.  “I've seen garbage wagons, and night soil collectors, water carriers and flat beds carrying all manner of things, even slave wagons....  I'm not sure about that one.”

As we watched, it proceeded to the end of a street.  Two men exited a building carrying a wrapped object between them.  They heaved it into the wagon, and then it started up again and disappeared around a corner.

“Corpse wagon,” Japh Leah said.  “I've heard of it.”

“Corpse wagon?”

“In Diome,” he explained, “people die on schedule.  Worn out slaves, spies, dissidents, people who have fallen out of favour Markath Khan, or merely the unlucky.   The city is under curfew at night, the only persons allowed out are the secret police.  They go from house to house.  Sometimes there are bodies.   In the morning, the corpse wagon comes to collect them.”

I shivered.   Mistaking it for the cold, Japh Leah draped his silk around my shoulders and put his arm around me.

“That's horrible,” I said.

“Yes,” he said, “it is.”

This was not an adventure.  In adventures, villains were bad, they threatened and abused, but it was personal.  You could point to the character in the story and say ‘this is the one, this is who does evil things and but for him the world is decent.’

But this, this was monstrous, this was beyond the villainy of the adventure stories I'd dealt with all my life.  Easy enough to blame Markath Khan.   But this was not about a villain.  It was the world.  This was a city, a whole society of nothing but soldiers and slaves, a city that became a corpse at night, but for secret police flitting like ghosts, and corpse wagons in the morning carting away the night's murders.

In the stories, you could solve everything by defeating a villain.

But this?  In the real world, evil was just there, woven into the fabric of life and you could not simply pluck it out or ignore it or blame it all on someone.   In the real life, evil was the impersonality of a city for which corpse wagons were just another part of its life.

“Are you worried about tomorrow,” Japh Leah asked.

“Tomorrow is almost today,” I told him.   “I go to the Thern Temple, I don't think I'll get out alive, if what Vadak Eth says is true.  But I don't have any choice.”

I paused.

“I'd rather run away, or surrender, or cry and beg for mercy.  But I can't.  I'm afraid to die.  I'm afraid of being tortured or raped.  I'm afraid of these Therns.  I'm afraid of everything and everyone.  It's all awful and terrible.”

“I feel like I'm never more than a step away from doom, that I keep leaping from moment to moment, extending my life, an hour here, a few minutes there.  But any moment...”

He hugged me close.

“If I had any other choice,” I said, “I'd take it, whatever it was.  But all I can do is keep going forward.”

I shrugged, helplessly.

I laughed a little.

“It was always like this on opening night, you know.  This fear, butterflies in my stomach, even if it was a small part, just an extra, it would be there.  Even if I only had one line, I'd feel it, this terror, what if I blow it, what if they boo.”

I licked my lips.

“I fell off the stage once.  It doesn't get worse than that...   Except,” I said, “that apparently it does.  It gets much, much worse.”

I'd all but told him that I wasn't a Princess.   I found I was past caring.

“You won't fall off,” he assured me.

“I hope not.”

I licked my lips.

“I wish I could go there with you,” he said.   “Instead of Vadak Eth and Ton Sabat.”

Liar, I thought.  But it didn't feel like a lie.   Fool then, I corrected myself.

“I'm astonished they're coming,” I told him, “they must know its certain death.  Even Aspar Aguus refuses to brace the temple, and he's fearless.”

“They, we, have faith in you.”

Definitely fools, I thought.

“Aguus does not have faith,” I said, “he set a hard price.”

“Aguus is practical,” he replied.  “He limits his risk.  But he expects you to succeed.”

I grunted.

“But what then?”  I replied.  “I succeed, and what then.   A few more hours?  A few days?  Then what?”

“Then...  Whatever.   You'll deal with that, whatever it is.”

“I admire your faith.”

Oh foolish man, I thought.

He shrugged.

“Not faith,” he said, “you are unstoppable.  You are like this mercurial force of nature.”

I laughed at that.  Oh, I certainly had him fooled.  But these Therns would not be so easily gulled.

“If it does not work, then you can still escape,” I smiled a little, “that pleases me.”

I laid my head against his shoulder.

If this had been a story, a script, a play or a performance, then the music would have swelled, and the moment would have come, and he would have taken me in his arms and kissed me.

But alas, this was real life.  There was no music, no competent dramatist to script our moment, if there was a god looking on it was a blind and feeble idiot.

Therefore, I thought wistfully, there was no kiss.   Instead, we sat together and watched the sun rise, and I thought it might be the last sunrise I might ever see.  And there was no kiss.

The big goof.


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