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Volume 3174c
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

For a second, I was speechless.   He had me.  My stomach was full of butterflies, I felt small and afraid.

“I am the Princess,” I tried to insist.

“Oh give it a rest,” he said dismissively.

He turned to his chamberlain, his expression one of boredom.

“Well, this is a waste of time,” he said.  “Bring her to my private chambers.  Court is dismissed for the afternoon.”

“But there's a meeting with Admiral Latta,” the chamberlain protested.   “About the fleet recall.”

“Oh spare me that officious old fart,” Markath Khan said.  “I'm the master here, and he'll come when I call.”

“He's a great stickler for tradition,” the Chamberlain said, “and well respected within the fleet.  It would be well to give him respect and courtesy.”

“His great tradition is to do what he's told when he's told,” Markath Khan replied, “I need nothing more.  You can give him respect and courtesy.”

The guards marched me away.  My mind was spinning.

What was I going to do now?

The window was huge and overlooked the city, I could see plumes of smoke in certain quarters.  Was the rebellion still going on?   Not that it did me any good at all, still in chains, and that was the least of my problems.   I was trying to think of my next move, possibly throwing myself over, when  Markath Khan entered the sumptuously appointed chambers.

 “I'm amazed that anyone fell for you.  You're a terrible actress,” he said conversationally.

“I am not,” I insisted, “I have very good reviews.”

“You got good reviews by sleeping with the reviewers.”

“Not all of them!”

“I saw you fall off the stage.”

“That was an accident!”  I said desperately.  “It could have happened to anyone!”

He grunted.   And walked over to a cabinet.  Opening it, he revealed an assortment of beverages in differently shaped glass bottled.  He stared at it thoughtfully, and then glanced at me.

“A terrible actress,” he repeated, “an utter nonentity, a worthless little person who lived a worthless little life, playing at make believe, a lifetime of triviality, an existence without consequence...  and yet, here you are before me, the source of so many troubles.”

Cold sweat trickled down my back, my mind raced through soliloquys, monologues, dialogues, polemics, scenes, and came up blank.  Nothing.  I did not dare speak.  I did not dare move.  It was like being before the Sadok once again, a powerful, dangerous creature was before me and my life hung by a thread.

Dismissively, his gaze returned to his cabinet of bottles.

“I'm not sure what I expected,” he said.  “Something, I suppose.  Something of substance.  But in you come, with your cheap bag of theatrics, making an entrance like a pretend queen in a slapstick play.”

He selected a bottle, pulled it from the racks.   He held it up to the light, inspecting it critically, and then, his opinion confirmed, he pulled the cork, and set out two glasses to pour.

I had no idea how to respond.  But then, I didn't need to.  He reminded me of a star actor, full of himself, needing only the sound of his own voice, the flow of his thoughts.  For someone like that, conversation was merely a rude interruption, breaking up the smooth flow of his wisdom.

“I guess it worked well enough, you have caused me quite a bit of trouble.  But nothing of any consequence.   Az-Lium will be whipped until it bleeds, and every drop of blood will be squeezed from it until there is nothing left.  I had intended to enjoy it at my leisure, you've merely forced me to pick up the pace.”

He gestured out the window.

“Your rebellion of rabble will be crushed, I was thinking of tearing down those sections of the city anyway.    All this city shall be remade, eventually, all the dross of old Diome shall be swept away, purged, replaced with something purer, with vision.”

Two glasses poured, he replaced the bottle, and walked towards me.

Something purer, I thought about the barren sterility I'd seen, the sparse and empty streets.  Was  that his vision?  Endless regimentation, a soulless hive, inhabitants huddling in their rooms each night waiting for the ceaselessly inquisitive secret police, and the rounds of corpse wagons.

I shivered.

“The Orgus?  I was going to purge them sooner or later, they were convenient, now they're inconvenient, but nothing more either way.  And the Therns, they'll just go back to plotting against each other and licking my boots, as they always have.”

Markath Khan handed me a glass.

“So you see, nothing you've done in your endless scampering and plotting, in all the lies you've told, the people you've lead to disaster, has made a difference.  Your existence has been as futile and meaningless....  as it always was.”

He looked down at the glass in my hand.

“Do not fear.   Obviously, I have no need to poison you.”

I looked down at the glass.

“And everyone who looked to you, who believed in the Princess,” he smiled.  “Will die.  Horribly, mostly.  Drink, Princess.  Drink.”

He tossed his glass back, draining it in one swallow.  Did he expect me to drink it, as if toasting the murder of everyone I'd ever met, everyone who had ever believed?  My mouth felt like ashes.

“I find I have no thirst,” I mumbled.

“More's the pity,” he replied.  “It's quite good, and profoundly expensive.”

He wandered back to his cabinet, and poured himself another drink.

“That bit about me dying though,” he said, “that was quite inspired actually.   You have no idea the confusion and inconvenience that sewed.  Quite a few officers decided to try their hand.   I've had to have had quite a large number executed, executions which are still going on.”

“Troublesome, but in the end, it helps me by eliminating disloyal elements that might have hidden and caused trouble later.  Your little gambit brought the worms out into the light.  So I guess I should thank you in the long run.”

He finished his second drink, seemed to contemplate a third and thought better of it.  He replaced the bottle and shut the cabinet.

“But that was the part,” he said, “which persuaded me that I could not simply leave you running about.”

“And so here you are,” he smiled, teeth flashing.   He crossed the room to a large ornate chair beside a table, and turned it to face me.    “Really, you should drink that.  It's best if taken quickly, even a few minutes in the air, and the flavour goes off.”

Sat back on his chair, a smaller throne, his fingers steepling.  He stared at me.

“It's remarkable,” he said, “the talents that emerge in adversity.   A nobody like you, who would have thought.... ”

He paused.

“But perhaps it tells us more about the gullibility and feeble mental qualities of this degenerate red race which has inherited the world, as alternately trusting and treacherous as children.  It makes you wonder, doesn't it, how the old Orovars lost their world to such as these.”

He stared at me with unnerving intensity, as if dissecting me with his gaze.

“You're very good at staying alive.  At clawing your way out from under.  No, that's not right....” he said, pausing.

“You're not really good at surviving at all, you have no skills, no plans, no initiative.  You're just good at not dying, at avoiding unpleasant things.  You're very good, at extending your life.   A few seconds here, a few hours there, not really living, just not dying, not being raped, not being murdered in a ditch, postponing fate a few minutes at a time.  It's a gift of sorts, I suppose.”

“But at what price?  You buy a few hours, a day or so, and how?   You spread lies, you spread chaos, you steal, you cheat, you say whatever you need to, you kill.”

“I don't kill,” I said.

“Really?” he asked.  “How many dead men and women lie in your wake?   I know your story better than you do.  My spies and agents have retraced your every step.  Your path is drenched with blood.   For all your pretensions to greatness, the blood is real.”

Time to shut up again, I thought.

“But then, isn't the path to greatness always drenched with blood?”

He was back to his own thoughts again, my interruption was overlooked.  He stepped off the throne, went to stand in front of the window and looked out.  After a moment, he turned back to me.

“Let me ask you a question, little mouse, little grasper, little striver for further moments...  Have you ever had a vision?”

I was sweating.  It was never a good thing when an egotist asked a question.

“A vision?”

“An ambition, a great purpose, an objective, a quest.  Have you ever felt that there were great things calling you.   Was there ever a desire beyond getting through whatever passed for a day?”

“Ahhh...”  I said,   “well....   I suppose...  I guess...”

I thought really hard.

“I've always sort of wanted to direct.”

I was going to say more, but my voice trailed off, seeing the expression on his face.  Shock, distaste, disgust.  The wrong thing, oh yes, definitely I'd stepped into it.  Never answer a question, I thought, just say whatever they seemed to want to hear.

“You really are an imbecile,” he said finally.   “I don't know what I expected when I brought you here.  But this?   You are so much less than I could have anticipated.   You're petty, you're tiny, you don't even grasp where you are, what you've done, have you.  Your world is no more than a hot meal or a glass of wine, the satisfaction of a moment, safety with no thought of any future.”

This wasn't good.  Talking endlessly about himself was one thing.  But I couldn't afford to leave him thinking of me in this way.  I had to change the subject, I couldn't allow this train of thought.

“Who are you,”  I asked, a thousand angry replies bubbled in me.  I choked them all down.

“Who are you, that you know me,” I finished lamely, “that you knew I fell off a stage?”

Instead of answering, he dramatically reached up and pulled off a black wig, revealing close cropped blonde hair.

What?   He was a Thern?   There were blondes among the red men?  What did this mean?

“I don't understand,” I said.

“Idiot,” he replied.   “You can't see what's before you?   How have you managed to get so far.”

It made no sense, what was he saying?

“You wear a wig?  Your hair is too short?”

“My hair is short?” he laughed without humour.  Stepping to the table he picked up a damp cloth and rubbed his face.   Where the cloth wiped, his flesh was pale, as white as mine.   He was an Orovar.  My heart started to pound.   Suddenly, I knew how the invaders had found us.

“You're of Az-Lium,” I gasped.

“Markath Khan is the name I rule these animals by,” he sneered.

“My true name,” he exclaimed dramatically, “is...    Mar Kat Kins!”

He paused expectantly.   My heart pounded, I knew that a response was expected of me.  But I knew that what I would say would be the exact wrong thing, and yet I could not stop myself.

“Who?”  I asked.


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