With the desperation of caged animals Nur An and I were fighting for our lives. There could be no question here of the scrupulous observance of the niceties of combat. It was his life or ours. Realizing this, Nur An snatched the short sword from the corpse of the fallen warrior and an instant later the second man was lying in a pool of his own blood.
“And now what?” asked Nur An.
“Are you familiar with the palace?” I asked.
“No,” he replied.
“Then we must depend upon what little I was able to glean from my observation of it,” I said. “Let us get into the harnesses of these two men at once. Perhaps they will offer a sufficient disguise to permit us to reach one of the upper levels at least, for without an intimate knowledge of the pits it is useless for us to try to seek escape below ground.”
“You are right,” he said, and a few moments later we emerged into the corridors, to all intents and purposes, two warriors of the guard of Haj Osis, Jed of Tjanath. Believing that up to a certain point boldness of demeanor would be our best safeguard against detection, I led the way toward the ground level of the palace without attempting in any way to resort to stealth or secrecy.
“There are many warriors at the main entrance of the palace,” I told Nur An, “and without knowing something of the regulations governing the coming and going of the inmates of the building, it would be suicidal to attempt to reach the avenue beyond the palace by that route.”
“What do you suggest then?” he asked.
“The ground level of the palace is a busy place, people are coming and going constantly through the corridors. Doubtless some of the upper levels are less frequented. Let us therefore seek a hiding place higher up and from the vantage point of some balcony we may be able to work out a feasible plan of escape.”
“Good!” he said. “Lead on!”
Ascending the winding ramp from the lower pits, we passed two levels before we reached the ground level of the palace, without meeting a single person, but the instant that we emerged upon the ground level we saw people everywhere; Officers, courtiers, warriors, slaves and merchants moved to and fro upon their various duties or in pursuit of the business that had brought them to the palace, but their very numbers proved a safeguard for us.
Upon the side of the corridor opposite from the point at which we entered it lay an arched entrance to another ramp running upward. Without an instant’s hesitation I crossed through the throng of people, and, with Nur An at my side, passed beneath the arch and entered the ascending ramp.
Scarcely had we started upward when we met a young officer descending. He accorded us scarcely a glance as we passed and I breathed more easily as I realized that our disguises did, in fact, disguise us.
There were fewer people on the second level of the palace, but yet far too many to suit me and so we continued on upward to the third level, the corridors of which we found almost deserted.
Near the mouth of the ramp lay the intersection of two main corridors. Here we hesitated for an instant to reconnoiter. There were people approaching from both directions along the corridor into which we had emerged, but in one direction the transverse corridor seemed deserted and we quickly entered it. It was a very long corridor, apparently extending the full length of the palace. It was flanked at intervals upon both sides by doorways, the doors to some of which were open, while others were closed or ajar. Through some of the open doorways we saw people, while the apartments revealed through others appeared vacant. The location of these we noted carefully as we moved slowly along, carefully observing every detail that might later prove of value to us.
We had traversed about two-thirds of this long corridor when a man stepped into it from a doorway a couple of hundred feet ahead of us. He was an officer, apparently a padwar of the guard. He halted in the middle of the corridor as a file of warriors emerged from the same doorway, and, forming in a column of twos, marched in our direction, the officer bringing up the rear.
Here was a test for our disguises that I did not care to risk. There was an open doorway at our left; beyond it I could see no one. “Come!” I said to Nur An, and without accelerating our speed we walked nonchalantly into the chamber, and as Nur An crossed the threshold, I closed the door behind him and as I did so I saw a young woman standing at the opposite side of the apartment looking squarely at us.
“What do you here, warriors?” she demanded.
Here, indeed, was an embarrassing situation. In the corridor without I could hear the clank of the accoutrements of the approaching warriors and I knew that the girl must hear it, too. If I did aught to arouse her suspicion, she had but to call for help, and how might I allay her suspicion when I had not the faintest conception of what might pass for a valid excuse for the presence of two warriors in this particular apartment, which for all I knew, might be the apartment of a princess of the royal house, to enter which without permission might easily mean death to a common warrior. I thought quickly, or perhaps I did not think at all; often we act rightly upon impulse and then credit the result to super-intelligence.
“We have come for the girl,” I stated brusquely. “Where is she?”
“What girl?” demanded the young woman in surprise.
“The prisoner, of course,” I replied.
“The prisoner?” she looked more puzzled than before.
“Of course,” said Nur An, “the prisoner. Where is she?” and I almost smiled for I knew that Nur An had not the faintest idea of what was in my mind.
“There is no prisoner here,” said the young woman. “These are the apartments of the infant son of Haj Osis.”
“The fool misdirected us,” I said. “We are sorry that we intruded. We were sent to fetch the girl, Tavia, who is a prisoner in the palace.”
It was only a guess. I did not know that Tavia was a prisoner, but after the treatment that had been accorded me I surmised as much.
“She is not here,” said the young woman, “and as for you, you had better leave these apartments at once for if you are discovered here it will go ill with you.”
Nur An, who was standing beside me, had been looking at the young woman intently. He stepped forward now, closer to her.
“By my first ancestor,” he exclaimed in a low voice, “it is Phao!”
The girl stepped back, her eyes wide with surprise and then slowly recognition dawned within them. “Nur An!” she exclaimed.
Nur An came close to the girl and took her hand in his. “All these years, Phao, I have thought that you were dead,” he said. “When the ship returned the captain reported that you and a number of others were killed.”
“He lied,” said the girl. “He sold us into slavery here in Tjanath; but you, Nur An, what are you doing here in the harness of Tjanath?”
I am a prisoner,” replied my companion, “as is this warrior also. We have been confined in the pits beneath the palace and today we were to have died The Death, but we killed the two warriors who were sent to fetch us and now we are trying to find our way out of the palace.”
“Then you are not looking for the girl, Tavia?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, “we are looking for her, too. She was made a prisoner at the same time that I was.”
“Perhaps I can help you,” said Phao; “perhaps,” she added wistfully, “we may all escape together.”
I shall not escape without you, Phao,” said Nur An.
“My ancestors have been good to me at last,” said the girl.
“Where is Tavia?” I asked.
“She is in the East Tower,” replied Phao.
“Can you lead us there, or tell us how we may reach it?” I asked.
“It would do no good to lead you to it,” she replied, “as the door is locked and guards stand before it. But there is another way.”
“And that?” I asked.
“I know where the keys are, she said, “and I know other things that will prove helpful.”
“May our ancestors protect and reward you, Phao,” I said. “And now tell me where I may find the keys.”
I shall have to lead you to the place myself,” she replied, “but we shall stand a better chance to succeed if there are not too many of us. I, therefore, suggest that Nur An remain here. I shall place him in hiding where he will not be found. I will then lead you to the prisoner, and, if possible, we will make our way back to this apartment. I am in charge here. Only at regular hours, twice a day, night and morning, does any other visit the apartment of the little prince. Here I can hide you and feed you for a long time and perhaps eventually we shall be able to evolve some feasible plan for escape.”
“We are in your hands, Phao,” said Nur An. “If there is to be fighting, though, I should like to accompany Hadron.”
“If we succeed there will be no fighting,” replied the girl. She stepped quickly across the room to a door, which she opened, revealing a large closet. “Here, Nur An,” she said, “is where you must remain until we return. There is no reason why anyone should open this door, and in so far as I know, it never has been opened since I have occupied these quarters, except by me.”
“I do not like the idea of hiding,” said Nur An with a grimace, “but —I have had to do many things recently that I did not like,” and without more words he crossed the apartment and entered the closet. Their eyes met for an instant before Phao closed the door, and I read in the depth of both that which made me wonder, remembering as I did the story that Nur An had told me of the other woman whom Tul Axtar had stolen from him. But such matters were no concern of mine, nor had they any bearing upon the business at hand.
“Here is my plan, warrior,” said Phao as she returned to my side. “When you entered this apartment you came saying that you were looking for the prisoner, Tavia. Although she was not here, I believed you. We will go, therefore, to Yo Seno, the keeper of the keys, and you will tell him the same story that you have been sent to fetch the prisoner, Tavia. If Yo Seno believes you, all will be well, for he will go himself and release the prisoner, turning her over to you.”
“And if he does not believe me?” I asked.
“He is a beast,” she said, “who is better dead than alive. Therefore you will know what to do.”
“I understand,” I said. “Lead the way.”
The office of Yo Seno, the keeper of the keys, was upon the fourth level of the palace, almost directly above the quarters of the infant prince. At the doorway Phao halted, and drawing my ear down to her lips, whispered her final instructions. “I shall enter first,” she said, “upon some trivial errand. A moment later you may enter, but pay no attention to me. It must not appear that we have come together.”
“I understand,” I said, and walked a few paces along the corridor so that I should not be in sight when the door opened. She told me afterward that she asked Yo Seno to have a new key made for one of the numerous doors in the apartment of the little prince.
I waited but a moment, and then I, too, entered the apartment. It was a gloomy room without windows. Upon its walls hung keys of every imaginable size and shape. Behind a large desk sat a coarse-looking man, who looked up quickly and scowled at the interruption as I entered.
“Well?” he demanded.
“I have come for the woman, Tavia,” I said, “the prisoner from Jahar.”
“Who sent you? What do you want of her?” he demanded.
“I have orders to bring her to Haj Osis,” I replied.
He looked at me suspiciously. “You bring a written order?” he asked.
“Of course not,” I replied, “it is not necessary. She is not to be taken out of the palace; merely from one apartment to another.”
“I must have a written order,” he snapped.
“Haj Osis will not be pleased,” I said, “when he learns that you have refused to obey his command.”
“I am not refusing,” said Yo Seno. “Do not dare to say that I refuse. I cannot turn a prisoner over without a written order. Show me your authority and I will give you the keys.”
I saw that the plan had failed; other measures must be taken. I whipped out my long sword. “Here is my authority!” I exclaimed, leaping toward him.
With an oath he drew his own sword, but instead of facing me with it he stepped quickly back, the desk still between us and, turning, struck a copper gong heavily with the flat of his blade.
As I rushed toward him I heard the sound of hurrying feet and the clank of metal from an adjoining room. Yo Seno, still backing away, sneered sardonically, and then the lights went out and the windowless room was plunged into darkness. Soft fingers grasped my left hand and a low voice whispered in my ear, “Come with me.”
Quickly I was drawn to one side and through a narrow aperture just as a door upon the opposite side of the chamber was flung open, revealing the forms of half a dozen warriors silhouetted against the light from the room behind them. Then the door closed directly in front of my face and I was again in utter darkness, but Phao’s fingers still grasped my hand.