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Volume 3176c
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

We had to backtrack a bit.  But within a day, the fleet waited in front of the place that the Orgus called Korokus Urus, a great wedge shaped chasm in a mile high expanse of flat stone.

“Bad country,” Admiral Latta said to me.   “Very bad country for ships.   For thousands of years, the Jagged Lands treacherous winds and currents have forbidden it to airships.

I nodded.  I already knew this.

“And yet” he said, “I fear to send you in there with these monsters, without protection.”

The fleet had landed for the Orgus to disembark, an awkward process for big ships designed for landing cradles.  A number of them leaned drunkenly on their sides as the Orgus and their mounts disembarked.  Only a handful of ships remained in the air, keeping watch.

If Markath Khan, or anyone else found us now, we'd be slaughtered.  Which I suppose was why Latta insisted on prattling, as we watched Aspar Aguus forming up ranks.

“I wish I could assign you the Mosar,” he said.  “Our smallest destroyer, better armed than the Makaprana, it might be able to brave the canyons.  Your Aspragus creature thought it might be able to make its way.

I shook my head.   The Makaprana was the most heavily armed Pinnace we had.  It was a short, narrow, long bottomed boat, that we had agreed would be the most nearly capable of being dragged.  Workmen were even now improvising running sleds, weighing it down with new gun mounts, ammunition and provisions.

“No,” I said, “Mosar is too long, the canyon has sudden twists I'm told.”

“But for those points, it could refill its buoyancy and rise above obstacles.”

“And be hurled half the length of the Jagged Lands by a sudden wind devil or gust, or torn apart by a storm,” I pointed out.   “There's no flying in the Jagged Lands, except through Markath Khan's special ships, and we don't have those.  We'll have to drag along the ground almost all the way.”

Luckily, these airships could adjust their buoyancy, to rise high in the air or fly low.  Or, as we had conceived, reduce the buoyancy so low that the ship sat lightly on the ground, while balancing and neutralizing its weight so exactly that a child could drag it along.

The results, I had been told by Latta's engineers, would be a spine crushingly bumpy ride.

What else was new?  Since being thrown into this awful outer world, the only certainty had been that each new form of transportation was even more hideously unappealing.  Rodals, Slidars, Thoats, Airships, they were all horrible.  If I ever managed to find someplace safe, I was going to chain myself to a rock and never travel again.

Still, it was better to have an armed, potentially flight capable ship than to be completely at the mercy of the Orgus.

Impulsively, I hugged Latta, making him blush furiously.

“Thank you for everything,” I said.

“It is the least I can do.  Return safely to us.”

“One week,” I promised.  “At the rendezvous, the Shiaze hills.”

The hills overlooking Shiaze seemed to be the most logical destination given our course.  Not that there was much hope of breaking the siege of Shiaze, though I'd been working on persuading them of that.

Basically, there were no good options.  I would have loved to have taken the entire fleet to Az-Lium and liberate my people.  I thought I could even talk them into it.  But the only ships in the world capable of traversing the Jagged Lands remained in Markath Khan's hands.   The next best thing would be to blast Markath Khan out of Diome and save my people there, but the navy would not raise a fist against their own city, nor support a revolt of slaves, no matter how much they loathed Markath Khan.   And they would not fight against their fellow ships.

So what was left?  Approach Shiaze.  If I could persuade them to break the siege, I might then persuade Shiaze to send an army, or force Markath Khan to negotiate, or something.

And if that didn't work, then from the territories of Shiaze, the fleet could strike out into the wider world and possibly find a home somewhere far away.

I wasn't really a Princess, I had to keep reminding myself.  I was just a girl looking for a safe place in a dangerous world.

Until I found one, a warship was a nice thing to have.

A child could tow the pinnace?   Hah!

Dozens of grunting Thoats and Rodals strained at the end of lines to drag that lurching nightmare.  Its runners were battered, its sides scraped raw against canyon walls.  The once polished pride of the Diome Navy now looked like a battered tin can.

For myself, I'd had enough of the endless heaving as it juddered and bumped and rocked at every stray pebble.  The relentless unpredictable pitching motion had left me nauseous.   I now rode a rodal beside Aspar Aguus, and every time the beast looked sideways at me, I clouted it with a stick.   We rode along, my rodal and I, in a state of mutual primal loathing.

The Pinnace was perhaps half a day behind us, quite far back.  I had left instructions with them.  They would come as far as the final rise that lead to Megas Ark, and wait for me there.   Aguus assured me that so long as they did not set eyes upon Megas Ark they would be safe to leave.

I'd left my own instructions, which were simply that if at the end, the Orgus returned to the ship without me, to simply shoot the bunch of them.  I hadn't mentioned this to Aspar Aguus.  He lied to me, I lied to him, it balanced out.

Aspar Aguus rode beside me, looking entirely at ease and comfortable.

I hated him for it.

“I have exacted a promise,” he said, “a blood vow, from each and every one of my men.   When I am dead, they will see you safe.  They will lead you from Megas Ark, back to your fleet, or wherever you wish to go, to do your bidding, or each die in the attempt.  You will be as a Jed to them.”

Fine, I thought sourly.  I'd be an Orgus Jed, another in my long line of assumed titles and fabricated honours.

“Terrific,” I snapped at him.   “But why do I have to go in the first place.  This has nothing to do with me.  This is some inscrutable alien revenge thing.  It's all some weird, honour, vendetta.   I'm human.  It's not our thing.  I am Orovar...”

“You are my friend...” he said quietly.


“...and I confess, I am afraid to die alone.”

So you're going to take me with you, you great big tusked idiot?  What kind of nonsense was that.  And what's this ‘die alone’ twaddle?  He had an entire army Orgus back at his side.

“This thing I come to do,” he said, “it will be an awful thing.  None of them will understand.  I will break the laws.  My name will be spat upon, my tale will be disgrace.”

“Then why?”  I asked him.  “Why throw your life away?”

We rode silently for a time, my strange monster keeping his thoughts to himself.

“Have you ever been in love?” he asked finally.

No more than a dozen times or so, I thought.   He did not wait for an answer.

“I was in love,” he said.  “I had found a companion for my life, that rarest of treasures.  We spent years together, guarding each other, making love among the rocks, sharing laughter and sadness.  Always at my back in danger.  Trusted as no other.  My other self, my other soul, my light, my life.”

“Oh,” I said.

I was shocked.   How had I not noticed this?   That this seven foot tall, reptilian visaged, tusked monster had been all this time mooning about full of romantic grief of the most cliched time.

But then, I hadn't known of his kind before I'd met him.  As we'd travelled, I had come to take his moodiness and manner for granted as typical of him and his kind.

“The body, back at the rocks where I found you.”

He nodded.   He'd killed the sand dragon with his companions sword.  And he'd almost killed me for taking his companions knife.  I shivered, finally appreciating the mad irrationality that I had blithely walked into, lost in my own misery then.

“That's why you wanted so badly to return to the Temple of Skulls.”

To confront them.  To confront and destroy Mattlass Kay and Konand Oyl, amongst their followers, in front of all the Orgus.  A hopeless, mad ambition.  He'd known it.  That was why he'd allowed me to divert him from the Temple.  Trapped there in the middle of nowhere, his ideals fallen to pieces, mad with grief,  paralyzed by indecision, with no good course of his own to follow, he'd ended up following me because I'd seemed to have purpose, although my only purpose had been to avoid the Temple of Skulls.

He nodded.   I shivered, he seemed now a far more complex and conflicted creature than I had assumed.  These glimpses showed new and hidden depths.

And more than ever, it made me want to be far, far, far away from him.

Gods, I realized I was trapped in one of those horrible puerile romance tragedies that teen aged girls loved so much.

“Your companion,” I said, “what was her name.”

Staring off into the distance, Aspar Aguus replied.

“His name was B-Rok Olay.”

“Now there's a name I have not heard spoken in quite some time,” a loud and cheerful voice boomed out from the rocks.

An Orgus stepped forward, taking a proud stance, but not so proud he could not immediately dive for cover.  He grinned at us, dark eyes flashing.  His tusks were polished ivory, his tunic and armour quilted mail.  He was larger and more robust than Aspar Aguus.

“And I suppose I could have gone quite a long time without needing to hear it again.”

Aspar Aguus growled deep in his throat, his hand reaching for his sword.   All around me, my Ogus companions

“Careful now,” the great Orgus chuckled.  “Did you think I would let you come this far, without choosing the perfect spot for an ambush?”

I glanced around.  From the rocks and cliffs all around us, Orgus were rising, with rifles trained on us.

“We wouldn't want an accident, would we?”   He laughed.  “Not with you so desperate for revenge.”

Aspar Aguus stared hard at his nemesis, giving no sign that he acknowledged the existence of the army that had sprung up around us.

Finally, he sheathed his sword.

I cursed.  This is what I got for allowing myself to be dragged into other peoples problems!  As if I didn't have enough of my own.

The big Orgus grinned and gave another booming laugh.

“Poor Aspar Aguus,” he said.  “Always honourable, always endlessly straightforward and predictable.  No subtlety in you at all.   I can't imagine what Heddo Letus was thinking when he made you a Jed.”

“Perhaps,” Aspar Aguus gritted, “we might ask him.”

The big Orgus boomed laughter again, grinning.

“Oh my!  Was that a comeback?  Perhaps your time among these humans has sharpened your wits.  No, I think Heddo Letus shall be too busy considering your crimes.”

“What crimes?”  Aguus demanded.

“Doesn't matter, I'll make some up,” his enemy chuckled.  “You always were so easy to play.  So simple and direct. Why....”

He paused.  Sensing what was coming, I put my hand on Aspar Aguus’ arm to restrain him.

“.... when you think about it, honestly, it really is your fault that B-Rok Olay died.”

He bellowed with raucous laughter.  Around him, his soldiers joined in, their grunts and bellows of hilarity ringing against the Canyon walls.   Could they, would they hear it back at the Pinnace, I wondered?  Would they realize something was up?   I could not see how.   Did these monsters know about the Pinnace?  I didn't think so.  We were well ahead of it, and the canyon was so shear and inhospitable that we could not have left spies in our wake.

Aguus stiffened slowly, his flesh becoming like stone under my hand.  His eyes blazed and his lips pulled away from his teeth, as his jaw dropped angling his tusks forward.  I sensed his knees pressing hard against the rodal's side, preparing it for a sudden, futile charge.

“No,” I whispered, “not now, its not the time.  You'd be dropped by a dozen bullets before you got half way to him.”

 A low rumble built in his throat.

“This is what he wants,” I whispered desperately.   Once the big Jed started to move, we'd all be slaughtered.  “A Jed may not slay another Jed, remember.  It doesn't count if he only watches while you get shot to pieces.  Hold steady and he'll have to take you to Heddo Letus, wait for your chance.”

Aguus glanced at me, his eyes madder and wilder than I had ever seen.

“Trust me,” I whispered.  “Listen to me.”

Slowly, he subsided.   With one free hand, he unbuckled his sword belt and let it fall to the ground.

Slowly, one by one, the other Orgus dropped their weapons away.   The big Orgus watching us grinned wider with each concession.

Finally, he strode forward, crossing the distance with easy bounds, his scimitar at the ready.  Reaching Aspar Aguus sheathed sword, he did not bend to retrieve it, but instead stomped upon it, stamping his blade.

“Oh Aspar Aguus,” he said, his eyes dancing with mirth, “I have humiliated you yet again, and still you restrain yourself.   You give me no excuse to kill you.   I am impressed.”

He turned towards me.

“Is this the source of you new cunning?”  he asked.  “How do you do?  I am Matlass Kay, I am sure that Aspar Aguus must have spoken a great deal of me.”

“Hardly anything actually,” I said, “I gather that you're some sort of stable hand?  With a taste for Rodal excrement?”

He chuckled at that.

“Excrement, no.  Eyes, yes.   I have a fondness for eating eyes.  And as it happens, you have two deliciously lovely ones that you will not be needing.   Sight will not be necessary for my uses of you.”

He dismissed me then, turning back to needle Aspar Aguus.

“This is the one, isn't it?”  He said.  “The one who has caused so much trouble?  The one with stories and tales and a lie for every occasion.  How wonderful of you to bring her to me.  I've been wanting a new toy.  They break so easily.”

He put his hand on me then, possessively caressing my thigh.

“You'll find, that my tastes run differently than Aspar Aguus’.   Your lips,” he chuckled, “will find no more use for lies.   But I'll find use for those lips, quite a lot of use.  For as long as you last.”

Oh damn.

To Chapter 65

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