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Volume 3173b
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

I was caged again.  It was becoming a very familiar experience.  This new world had no shortage of chains and cages and prison cells.  Odd that they felt the need to restrain and confine each other, in world with so much vast and dead empty space.

Apparently these people didn't take well to having their royal personages struck, no matter how much such royal personages turned out to be big, two-faced, lying goofs who spent months laughing at you behind your back and toying with your heart like a plaything.

On the other hand, my prison was a tower chamber.  I had a nice view, sumptuous furnishings, and the guards bowed and scraped and gave me anything I asked for, apart from freedom.  It seemed that the rich really did live differently.

Even their suffering was more pleasant.

That I was here suggested that they were still buying the Princess act, at least somewhat.  They saw me as someone important, or at least valuable.  So, I just had to find a way to use that to my advantage.

I sighed, staring out over the city.

As if it was so easy.

“May I enter?”

I looked over.  Japh Leah stood at the doorway.

I shrugged.

“I am your captive,” I said, “do as you wish, you don't need my permission.”

He stepped into my chambers.

“My Princess,” he chuckled, “I find it hard to imagine you as anyone's captive.”

“Strangely,” I replied, “I don't find it hard to imagine at all.  Somehow, I can imagine it quite readily.”

“How is your hand?” he asked.

“Hurts like hell,” I said.   Another unpleasant way in which real life differed from art.  When you struck an obnoxious galoot on stage, generally you got a round of applause and it didn't hurt at all.   In real life, a shock of pain travels up your arm, and your fingers end up swollen and throbbing and you can't so much as pick up a cup.

“The Royal physician says nothing was broken,” he said.  “We sent up cold pads to reduce the swelling.”

“Thanks for that.”

He nodded.   For a moment, we looked at each other.

“So,” I said, to break the silence, “it seems you really are a Prince.”

And I really wasn't a Princess.  Thinking back, there'd been so many small clues.  That remark about a fencing master.  His fierce negotiations in Mant.  His military acumen.  The endless signs of education and culture.  How had I missed it?  The humiliation of it stung.  All this time, he must have seen right through me, had laughed and toyed with me and used me for his purposes.  How many times had those smiles I'd loved so much been at my expense.

“Yes,” he replied.  “But not the Crown Prince.   I'm twenty-sixth in line for the throne.”

I looked out the window, watching the warships of Markath Khan's blockade.

“I imagine in time of war, the line can get much shorter.”

He laughed.

“Possibly, but it all depends on the order in which prospective heirs die.  I could end up thirty-fifth from the throne.”

“Poor you,” I said.

“It is liberating actually,” he replied.  “Not so much pressure for arranged marriages, less demand to attend at court.  I was free to travel, to see the world, to find different ways to serve my people.”

Free to take advantage of helpless women.

Though to my mind, perhaps he hadn't taken nearly enough advantage, the big goof.

He was probably one of those Princes who preferred the company of rugged burly he-men.   Amused by the idea, I snorted and half smiled.

“By hanging out with bandits in a dead city?”

“Shiaze was at war with Diome.  We had learned that Markath Khan was sending ships into the jagged lands, searching for something,” he said.   “And then we heard that a live Orovar had been discovered.”

“Ton Sabat?”  I remembered my long ago conversation with Vadak Eth as we'd ridden through the wastelands.

“Yes, Ton Sabat.   Where there was one Orovar, there must be others, and the Jagged Lands seemed the most obvious place.  Clearly, Markath Khan was searching for Az-Lium.   As we were at war, it was in our interests to frustrate his purpose.  Or at least to see what he was up to.”

“So you weren't just bandits?” I asked.  “None of you.”

“Yes and no.   They were bandits.  Pul Bayl was a notorious brigand of low character.  A filthy disgusting man of depraved morals, given to plunder and rape.”

“I noticed,” I said dryly.

He had the decency to blush at that.   He was so cute.  I hated him for his winning ways.

“But Markath Khan was the hand behind Bayl.”

“So you joined the expedition as a spy?”  I asked.  “In hopes of finding Az-Lium?  And then what?”

He shrugged.

“No idea.  Perhaps I might take over the expedition.  Or make a separate contact with Az-Lium.  Make an alliance.  Or frustrate Markath Khan's purposes some other way.   Or at least bring the knowledge back to Shiaze.”

“You improvise a lot,” I said.

He laughed, and against my wishes, I found myself joining him.

“But as it was, Ton Sabat could not remember, and so we waited in Tazor Ylan until you came along.”

Ton Sabat could not remember because, whatever he was, he was not of Az-Lium.  Japh Leah still had not figured that out.  I decided not to tell him.

“And in the meantime,” he concluded, “Markath Khan found Az-Lium some other way.”

Yes, he had.  And the sky broke open and the soldiers came, and the world I knew died in blood and burning, and a happy land knew sorrow and the stink of endless mounds of murdered corpses.  The laughter died in my throat, turning ashen.  I turned away from him.

“So,” I said coldly, “a Prince and a Spy.  You are a man of many talents.  But sadly, for my people, not a successful one.”

“Princess,” he began, catching the shift in my mood.

“There will be no rescue effort,” I said.  “Shiaze is besieged.  It cannot break out.  If Diome's fleet blockades you, then it means you have no fleet of consequence of your own.   There is no army to save my people.”

He didn't respond.  So I was right.

“In any case, the distance is so great, that by the time an army arrived, it would be too late.  They'd all be dead.”

“How long have you known?” he asked quietly.

“I've had time to think,” I replied.  I should have figured it out sooner, but things had all happened so quickly, there'd been so little time to reflect.

And perhaps I hadn't wanted to think.  I thought back to the battle at the shipyards, the terror and helplessness, ruin and death on every side, and nothing to run to but a doomed last stand.

“There was never a chance.  This was all to save your own life,” I said coldly, facing away from him.

He put his hand on my shoulder.

“And to save your life too.”

Perhaps the truth was that I hadn't wanted to think it through.  That when the possibility of escape of surviving had presented itself, I'd simply leaped for it.  It had been apparent from the start, Japh Leah had lied.  But I could forgive him that.

But I had lied to myself.  I didn't know that I could forgive that.

“You fled the fight and left helpless people behind to die.   Better that you had fled and left me with my people,” I told him.

“I could not,” he said.

“Why not!”  I cried, turning and smashing my fists against his broad chest.  My blows were futile, without force, he wrapped his arms around me.  “Why couldn't you leave me be.  They're going to die, they're all going to die, waiting for me to save them and I can't.  Why couldn't you leave me behind?”

“I couldn't,” he said again, “I could never leave you behind.”

“But they were my people,” I wept, “they needed me, even if I couldn't save them, I should have been with them.  You don't know what it's like.”

“I do,” he said quietly.  He lifted his head, and I knew he glanced out the window at the airships besieging his city, the flares and crackles of the nightly attacks on the walls.  Yes, I realized.  He did.  He was a real Prince fighting for his people, and I was just an actress too caught up in her role.  But to the people depending upon me, I was real, and that was too painful to bear.

“If you knew,” I whispered, “if you knew this burden, this obligation, then how could you do this to me?”

“Because,” he whispered back, “I could not let you die.  I would see the whole world fall to ruin before I would let you come to harm.”

What was he saying, I thought.  Suddenly, he was spouting lines out of a bad romance, confessing some juvenile crush.  It appalled me.   A nation was dying.  All the faces I'd memorized, the people who had listened to me, looked up to me.  People I'd never met would suffer and die in doomed rebellion.  My city, my race faced doom, and I could do nothing.

And he was spouting clichés.  This big goof was mooning over me like some infatuated puppy.

In the face of all that happened, it seemed surreal.  How could I deal with such a thing?  It was too trivial for words.

But wait a second.

I couldn't solve the worlds problems.  I couldn't save all these people.  I never could.  I wasn't even a Princess, that was just an act, a role, a series of lies that had run out of control.   All I could do was survive, all I could save, was myself.

A genuine Prince had me in his arms, murmuring sweet nonsense.

And I was fighting it?  What the hell was wrong with me?  Wake up!

Tell him what he wanted to hear, I told myself.  Say whatever words would give me advantage.   Use him, play him, spin a web and trap him in lies.

What choice did I have?  What was left?

“You say you are my captive, but I am your slave.”

Ouch!  I winced.   Who wrote his dialogue?  That was awful.  I'd sometimes felt awkward lifting lines from plays.  Well, no, I'd never felt awkward about stealing lines.  But if this sort of mawkish tripe was what came from writing your own material, I was glad I'd had none of it.

I pulled away from him a little, staying within the comfort of his arms.  I lifted my face to his, let my eyes go big and liquid, put a tremble in my lips.  For good measure, I heaved my bosom.  His eyes flickered down.  Good.  I heaved them again for good measure.

“What are you saying?” I whispered, putting just the slightest choke into my voice, “Do you truly mean it?”

“Every word,” he whispered passionately.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, children burned and died waiting, praying for salvation that would not come.  I pushed it away I could not save them.  I could not save anyone.  Only myself.  Play this man, I thought.

“Then make it true,” I whispered back.  “Seal it with a –“

The door to the chamber burst open.   Vadak Eth stood before us in the doorway, alive, dressed in the livery of Shiaze, his uniform stained with gore, his sword dripping, a look of wild panic in his eyes.

“My Princess,” he exclaimed, “my Prince, we must flee.  Shiaze has fallen!”

Oh damn!

Damn!  Damn!  Damn!


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