A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

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My host, who was also my commanding officer, had never noticed me before this evening and I was surprised to note the warmth and cordiality of his greetings.

“We must see more of you here, Hadron of Hastor,” he had said. “I have been watching you and I prophesy that you will go far in the military service of the Jeddak.”

Now I knew he was lying when he said that he had been watching me, for Tor Hatan was notoriously lax in his duties as a commanding officer, all of which were performed by the senior Teedwar of the Umak. While I could not fathom the cause of this sudden interest in me, it was nevertheless very pleasing since through it I might in some degree further my pursuit of the heart and hand of Sanoma Tora.

Sanoma Tora herself was slightly more cordial than upon the occasion of our first meeting, though she noticeably paid more attention to Sil Vagis than she did to me.

Now if there is any man in Helium whom I particularly detest more than another it is Sil Vagis, a nasty little snob who holds the title of Teedwar, though so far as I was ever able to ascertain he commands no troops, but is merely on the staff of Tor Hatan, principally, I presume, because of the great wealth of his father.

Such creatures we have to put up with in times of peace, but when war comes and the great Warlord takes command it is the fighting men who rank and riches do not count.

But be that as it may, while Sil Vagis spoiled this evening for me as he would spoil many others in the future, nevertheless I left the palace of Tor Hatan that night with a feeling bordering upon elation, for I had Sanoma Tora’s permission to see her again in her father’s home when my duties would permit me to pay my respects to her.

Returning to my quarters I was accompanied by my friend, the Dwar, and when I commented on the warmth of Tor Hatan’s reception of me he laughed.

“You find it amusing,” I said. “Why?”

“Tor Hatan, as you know,” he said, “is very rich and powerful, and yet it is seldom, as you may have noticed, that he is invited to any one of the four places of Helium in which ambitious men most crave to be seen.”

“You mean the palaces of the Warlord, the Jeddak, the Jed and Carthoris?” I asked.

“Of course,” he replied. “What other four in Helium count for so much as these? Tor Hatan,” he continued, “is supposed to come from the lower nobility, but there is a question in my mind as to whether there is a drop of noble blood in his veins, and one of the facts upon which I base my conjecture is his cringing and fawning reverence for anything pertaining to royalty—he would give his fat soul to be considered an intimate of any one of the four.”

“But what has that to do with me?” I demanded.

“A great deal,” he replied; “in fact, because of it you were invited to his palace tonight.”

“I do not understand,” I said.

“I chanced to be talking with Tor Hatan the morning of the day you received your invitation and in the course of our conversation I mentioned you. He had never heard of you, and as a Padwar in the 5th Utan you aroused his interest not a particle, but when I told him that your mother was a princess of Gathol, be pricked up his ears, and when he learned that you were received as a friend and equal in the palaces of the four demigods of Helium, he became almost enthusiastic about you. Now do you understand?” he concluded with a short laugh.

“Perfectly,” I replied, “but none the less, I thank you. All that I wanted was the opportunity and inasmuch as I was prepared to achieve it criminally if necessary, I cannot quibble over any means that were employed to obtain it, however unflattering they may be to me.”

For months I haunted the palace of Tor Hatan, and being naturally a good conversationalist and well schooled in the stately dances and joyous games of Barsoom, I was by no means an unwelcome visitor. Also I made it a point often to take Sanoma Tora to one or another of the four great palaces of Helium. I was always welcome because of the blood relationship which existed between my mother and Gahan of Gathol, who had married Tara of Helium.

Naturally I felt that I was progressing well with my suit, but my progress was not fast enough to keep pace with the racing desires of my passion. Never had I known love before and I felt that I should die if I did not soon possess Sanoma Tora, and so it was that upon a certain night I visited the palace of her father definitely determined to lay my heart and sword at her feet before I left, and, although the natural complexes of a lover convinced me that I was an unworthy worm, that she would be wholly justified in spurning, I was yet determined to declare myself so that I might openly be accounted a suitor, which, after all, gives one greater freedom even though he be not entirely a favored suitor.

It was one of those lovely nights that transform old Barsoom into a world of enchantment. Thuria and Cluros were racing through the heavens casting their soft light upon the garden of Tor Hatan, empurpling the vivid, scarlet sward and lending strange hues to the gorgeous blooms of pimalia and sorapus, while the winding walks, graveled with semi-precious stones, shot back a thousand scintillant rays that, clothed in ever-changing colors, danced at the feet of the marble statuary that lent an added artistic charm to the ensemble.

In one of the spacious halls that overlooked the garden of the palace, a youth and a maiden sat upon a massive bench of rich sorapus wood, such a bench as might have graced the halls of the great Jeddak himself, so intricate its rich design, so perfect the carving of the master craftsman who produced it.

Upon the leathern harness of the youth were the insignia of his rank and service—a Padwar in the 91st Umak. The youth was I, Hadron of Hastor, and with me was Sanoma Tora, daughter of Tor Hatan. I had come filled with the determination boldly to plead my cause, but suddenly I had become aware of my unworthiness. What had I to offer this beautiful daughter of the rich Tor Hatan? I was only a Padwar, and a poor one at that. Of course, there was the royal blood of Gathol in my veins, and that, I knew, would have weight with Tor Hatan, but I am not given to boasting and I could not have reminded Sanoma Tora of the advantages to be derived because of it even had I known positively that it would influence her. I had, therefore, nothing to offer but my great love, which is, perhaps, after all, the greatest gift that man or woman can bring to another, and I had thought of late that Sanoma Tora might love me. Upon several occasions she had sent for me, and, although in each instance she had suggested going to the palace of Tara of Helium, I had been vain enough to hope that this was not her sole reason for wishing to be with me.

“You are uninteresting tonight, Hadron of Hastor,” she said after a particularly long silence, during which I had been endeavoring to formulate my proposal in some convincing and graceful phrases.

“Perhaps,” I replied, “it is because I am trying to find the words in which to clothe the most interesting thought I have ever entertained.”

“And what is that?” she asked politely, though with no great show of interest.

“I love you, Sanoma Tora,” I blurted awkwardly.

She laughed. It was like the tinkling of silver upon crystal— beautiful but cold. “That has been apparent for a long while,” she said, “but why speak of it?”

“And why not?” I asked.

“Because even if I returned your love, I am not for you, Hadron of Hastor,” she replied coldly.

“You cannot love me then, Sanoma Tora?” I asked.

“I did not say that,” she replied.

“You could love me?”

“I could love you if I permitted myself the weakness,” she said, “but what is love?”

“Love is everything,” I told her.

Sanoma Tora laughed. “If you think that I would link myself for life to a threadbare Padwar even if I loved him, you are mistaken,” she said haughtily. “I am the daughter of Tor Hatan, whose wealth and power are but little less than those of the royal families of Helium. I have suitors whose wealth is so great that they could buy you a thousand times over. Within the year an emissary of the Jeddak Tul Axtar of Jahar waited upon my father; he had seen me and he said that he would return, and, merely for love, you would ask me, who may some day be Jeddara of Jahar to become the wife of a poor Padwar.”

I arose. “Perhaps you are right,” I said. “You are so beautiful that it does not seem possible that you could be wrong, but deep in my heart I cannot but feel that happiness is the greatest treasure that one may possess, and love the greatest power. Without these, Sanoma Tora, even a Jeddara is poor indeed.”

“I shall take my chance,” she said.

“I hope that the Jeddak of Jahar is not as greasy as his emissary,” I remarked rather peevishly, I am afraid.

“He may be an animated grease-pot for all I care if he will make me his Jeddara,” said Sanoma Tora.

“Then there is no hope for me?” I asked.

“Not while you have so little to offer, Padwar,” she replied.

It was then that a slave announced Sil Vagis, and I took my leave. I had never before plumbed such depths of despondency as that which engulfed me as I made my unhappy way back to my quarters, but even though hope seemed dead I had not relinquished my determination to win her. If wealth and power were her price, then I would achieve wealth and power. Just how I was going to accomplish it was not entirely clear, but I was young and to youth all things are possible.

I had tossed in wakefulness upon my sleeping silks and furs for some time when an officer of the guard burst suddenly into my quarters.

“Hadron!” he shouted, “are you here?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Praised be the ashes of my ancestors!” he exclaimed. “I feared that you were not.”

“Why should I not be?” I demanded. “What is this all about?”

“Tor Hatan, the fat old treasure bag, is gone mad,” he exclaimed.

“Tor Hatan gone mad? What do you mean? What has that got to do with me?”

“He swears that you have abducted his daughter.”

In an instant I was upon my feet. “Abducted Sanoma Tora!” I cried. “Has something happened to her? Tell me, quickly.”

“Yes, she is gone, all right,” said my informant, “and there is something mighty mysterious about it.”

But I did not wait to hear more. Seizing my harness, I adjusted it as I ran up the spiral runway toward the hangars on the roof of the barracks. I had no authority or permit to take out a flier, but what did that mean to me if Sanoma Tora was in danger?

The hangar guards sought to detain and question me. I do not recall what I told them; I know that I must have lied to them, for they let me run out a swift one-man flier and an instant later I was racing through the night toward the palace of Tor Hatan.

As it stands but little more than two haads from the barracks, I was there in but a few moments, and, as I landed in the garden, which was now brilliantly lighted, I saw a number of people congregated there, among whom were Tor Hatan and Sil Vagis.

As I leaped from the deck of the flier, the former came angrily toward me. “So it is you!” he cried. “What have you to say for yourself? Where is my daughter?”

“That is what I have come to ask, Tor Hatan,” I replied.

“You are at the bottom of this,” he cried. “You abducted her. She told Sil Vagis that this very night you had demanded her hand in marriage and that she had refused you.”

“I did ask for her hand,” I said, “and she refused me. That part is true; but if she has been abducted, in the name of your first ancestor, do not waste time trying to connect me with the diabolical plot. I had nothing to do with it. How did it happen? Who was with her?”

“Sil Vagis was with her. They were walking in the garden,” replied Tor Hatan.

“You saw her abducted,” I asked, turning to Sil Vagis, “and you are here unwounded and alive?”

He started to stammer. “There were many of them,” he said. “They overpowered me.”

“You saw them?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Was I among them?” I demanded.

“It was dark. I could not recognize any of them, perhaps they were disguised.”

“They overpowered you?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said.

“You lie!” I exclaimed. “Had they laid hands upon you they would have killed you. You ran away and hid, never drawing a weapon to defend the girl.”

“That is a lie,” cried Sil Vagis. “I fought with them, but they overpowered me.”

I turned to Tor Hatan. “We are wasting time,” I said. “Is there no one who can give us a clue as to the identity of these men and the direction they took in their flight? How and whence came they? How and whence did they depart?”

“He is trying to throw you off the track, Tor Hatan,” said Sil Vagis. “Who else could it have been but a disgruntled suitor? What would you say if I should tell you that the metal of the men who stole Sanoma Tora was the metal of the warriors of Hastor?”