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Volume 3194
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

I could not breathe.  I felt as if I could faint or vomit.   My legs felt like water.  My heart was smashing itself against my ribs with enough force to break out.   I risked a glance around.  Latta's captains and officers had all gone pale and stiff, sharing my horror.   Admiral Latta lay dead in a spreading pool of his own blood.

Criers continued to loudly proclaim the amnesty.   Markath Khan finished wiping the blood from his hands and tossed the towel away, a stiff breeze caught it, and it fluttered beyond the deck, falling away into the sky.

“You murdered him!”  I said.   “We all saw you, you murdered him in cold blood.”

“Really?” he asked.   “The Admiral was seduced and deceived by the Demon Princess.   As we met, the scales fell from his eyes, and he realized the enormity of his crimes.  Even the Admiral knew his death could be the only outcome.  He knew that the rebellion had to be paid for with blood.  He chose to take the sins of all upon himself.  His blood washes away the crimes of his followers.  He was a good man, and I shall miss his wise counsel.”

“He came to you in good faith, and you stabbed him!”

“Nonsense,” he said, “lies and deception from the Demon Princess.”

He paused.

“The Demon Princess, Kam Asutra,” he announced, “masquerading as High Priestess Linka Lans, seduced and deceived Admiral Latta, and has been exposed.”

“But you murdered him.  We all saw you.”

“Did they see that?”   He asked.    He cleared his throat.  “Admiral Latta,” he announced loudly, “overcome with shame at his own treachery, has taken his own life.  With his dying words, he assumed full responsibility for the rebellion and all misdeeds.  His sins are expiated, he will be given a hero's funeral, and his family will receive all honours.”

He paused.   The criers took this up and added it to their announcements of amnesty.

“There will be no consequences for those who obeyed their Admiral, it was his mistake alone.  Provided that they swear their loyalty to me.   Of course, those who would follow the Admiral, will be free to do so.”

I looked around, boldly this time.  Everyone stood as if rooted.  What was that, signs of relief on faces?

“You can't possibly get away with this.”

“Of course I can,” he said, “I already have.   It is merely the truth.”

“The truth?”

“Truth is power,” he said, “power is truth.  Whatever I say becomes truth.  Latta was seduced, mislead by the Demon Princess.  In the last moments of his life, he realized his sin and redeemed himself, he dies a hero by his own hand and choice.  That is truth.”

“What,” he said, “is the alternative, for these men?   That the Admiral was played for a fool all along by a two bit actress, that she lead him by his prick into mad folly, that he died like a dog, bleeding out on his own deck while they all stood around doing nothing.  And where does that lead them, to the battle of the fleets, their own lives thrown away for a cause already lost?   Is that the truth you want?   Is that the truth they want?  A sordid story of betrayal and foolishness, of pathetic old men and conniving women, and their own ruin and agony in a pointless, shameful bloodbath?”

“Which will they choose?   Look around, they've already chosen.   Listen to the criers, the story is travelling all over the fleet, everyone will believe it.”

“But we saw you!”

“Now you're being tedious,” he said.   “It doesn't matter.   They are happy to have their lives and their honour, and that is the truth they will embrace.  The truth is not entertainment, it is not comedy or tragedy,  it is not abstract notions of honour or virtue leading nowhere, that's just the nonsense of drama.   Life is hardship and suffering, life is danger and the avoidance of pain and suffering, of shame and humiliation.  The truth is whatever people need it to be to get through the day, to keep their throats from slitting, to look in a mirror and face what looks back.”

How could he say these things, how could he be so nakedly cynical.  In front of Latta's Captains.  They stood there.

“You are a murderer,” I announced, “and a tyrant.”

I stepped boldly forward.   “I accuse you.”

“And you are the Demon Princess,” he snapped loudly.  “The mother of lies and deceit, sewer of discord, agent of rebellion and strife.  You are exposed.   Who will they choose?”

We waited several heartbeats.  I did not dare turn around.  I listened, but there was not a footstep behind me.

“Well,” he said, “so much for that.”

Then he seemed to dismiss me.

“Captains,” he said, “senior officers, come forward and kneel.   After you have sworn to me we will discuss deployments and the return of the fleet to Diome.  I will be appointing a new Admiral.”

“But the fleet traditionally nominates the Admiral,” someone beside me said.

“And they shall,” he replied smoothly.  “But under the circumstances, a temporary appointment is required.”

One by one, Captains came forward to kneel.   I was being left alone.   The fleet was slipping through my fingers.

He favoured me with a smirk.

“You see,” he said.

He turned away, raising his hand up to a kneeling officer, as if in blessing or benediction.   I looked around, no one would meet my eyes.   Several of Markath Khan's guardsmen were closing in on me.  I stepped back, moving away from them.

“You're just play acting, this is all a cynical game to you,” I said.  “This is all a farce.”

“I tire of her,” he said.  “Have her removed please, but make sure she is not harmed.”

He looked at me.

“You will live a very long time,” he told me, “and you will spend every moment of it wishing for death, I promise you.”

Then, as we looked at each other, his expression shifted.  For an instant, he showed his true face to me, full of raw, unreasoning malevolence, an empty devouring hatred and contempt for all things.

A surge of raw fear went through me, I almost fell to my knees.  But his men were too close.  Instead, I leaped backwards towards men who seemed to cringe away from me.  I turned, wheeling, searching faces which would not meet my gaze.  I leaped, snatching a sword.

“This ends now,” I said dramatically, holding the sword high,   “I am still High Priestess, and I am also the Princess Kam Asutra.  I will not kneel.  I will never kneel.  It is you who will kneel.  I name you traitor and tyrant, madman, cannibal, murderer and rapist.  It ends now, rise up, let us cast this pretender from the throne!”

For a second, everyone froze.  No one moved.

“Don't you ever give up?”   Markath Khan asked.  “That was just terrible.  Overblown and melodramatic.  You're just an awful actress.  I have no idea how you've somehow managed to get as far as you have.”

“You know,” he said, “once everything has settled down, I think I will have all actresses hanged.  I think we have had enough of the breed.  Female roles can be played by boys from now on.”

“I'm not afraid of you,” I snapped.

“Of course you are,” he replied.  “But it doesn't matter, one way or the other.”

He glanced around.

“I tire of these distractions, would someone do something about it.”

His men came forward.

He spared me one last look.

“By the way, you're holding your sword upside down.”

And turned away.


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