A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

Page 21

It was a nice thing for her to say and I certainly appreciated it, but I did not understand that little smile. However, I had no time then in which to solve riddles; the problem of our safety was the all important question, and then it was that I thought of the vial in my pocket pouch. I looked quickly about the room. In one comer I espied a pile of sleeping silks and furs; something there might answer my purpose; the contents of the vial might yet give us all freedom if I had but time enough. I ran quickly across the room and searched rapidly until I had found three pieces of fabric that were at least best suited to my purpose than any of the others. I opened my pocket pouch to withdraw the vial and at the same instant I heard the pounding of running feet and the clank and clatter of arms.

Too late! They were already at the door. I closed my pocket pouch and waited. At first it was in my mind to take them on in combat as they entered, but I put that idea aside as worse than useless, since it could result in nothing but my death, whereas time might conjure an opportunity to use the contents of the vial.

The door swung open, fully fifty warriors were revealed in the corridor without. A padwar of the guard entered followed by his men. “Surrender!” he commanded.

“I have not drawn,” I replied. “Come and take it.”

“You admit that you are the warrior who attacked the prince, Haj Alt?” he demanded.

“I do,” I replied.

“What have these women to do with it?”

“Nothing. I do not know them. I followed Haj Alt here because I thought that it would give me the opportunity that I have long sought to kill him.”

“Why did you want to kill him?” demanded the padwar. “What grievance have you against the prince?”

“None,” I replied. “I am a professional assassin and I was hired by others.”

“Who are they?” he demanded.

I laughed at him, for I knew that he knew better than to ask a professional assassin of Barsoom such a question as that. The members of this ancient fraternity are guided by a code of ethics which they scrupulously observe and seldom, if ever, can anything persuade or force one of their number to divulge the name of his principal.

I saw Tavia’s eyes upon me and it seemed to me that there was a little questioning expression in them, but I knew that she must know that I was lying thus to protect her and Phao.

I was hustled from the chamber and as I was being conducted along the corridors and down the ramps of the palace, the padwar questioned me in an endeavor to learn my true identity. I was greatly relieved to discover that they did not recognize me and I hoped that I might continue to escape recognition, not that it would make any difference in my fate for I realized that the direst would be inflicted upon one who had attempted to assassinate the prince of the house of Haj Osis, but I was afraid that were I to be recognized they might accuse Tavia of complicity in the attack upon Haj Alt and that she would be made to suffer accordingly.

Presently I found myself in the pits again and by chance in the very cell that Nur An and I had occupied. I experienced almost the sensations of a homecoming, but with variations. Once again I was alone, fettered to a stone wall. My only hope, the vial which they had overlooked and which still reposed at the bottom of my pocket pouch. But this was no time or place to use its contents, nor had I the requisite materials at hand even had I been unfettered.

I was not long in the pits this time before warriors came and, unlocking my fetters, conducted me to the great throne room of the palace, where Haj Osis sat upon his dais surrounded by the high officers and functionaries of his army and his court.

Haj Alt, the prince, was there and when he saw me being led up toward the throne he trembled with rage. As I was halted in front of the jed, he turned to his son. “Is this the warrior who attacked you, Haj Alt?” he asked.

“This is the scoundrel,” replied the younger man. “He took me by surprise and would have stabbed me in the back had I not managed to outwit him.”

“He drew his sword against you,” demanded Haj Osis—”against the person of a prince?”

“He did and he would have killed me with it, too, as he did kill Yo Seno, whose corpse I found in the corridor that leads from Yo Seno’s office to the tower.”

So, they had found the body of Yo Seno. Well, they would not kill me any deader for that crime than for menacing the life of the prince.

At this juncture an officer entered the throne room rather hurriedly. He was breathing rapidly as he stopped at the foot of the throne. He was standing right beside me and I saw him turn and look quickly at me, his eyes running rapidly up and down me between head and feet. Then he addressed the man upon the throne.

“Haj Osis, Jed of Tjanath,” he said, “I came quickly to tell you that the body of a warrior of the hangar guard was just found within the Jed’s hangar. His harness had been stripped from him and his weapons, while strange harness and strange weapons were left beside his corpse and as I approached your throne, Haj Osis, I recognized the harness of my dead warrior upon the body of this man here,” and he pointed an accusing finger at me.

Haj Osis was scrutinizing me very carefully now. There was a strange look in his eyes that I did not like. It betokened half recognition and then of a sudden I saw the dawning of full recognition there, and the Jed of Tjanath swore a loud oath that resounded through the great throne room.

“Breath of Issus!” he shouted. “Look at him! Do you not know him? He is the spy from Jahar who called himself Hadron of Hastor. He died The Death. With my own eyes I saw him, and yet he is back here in my palace murdering my people and threatening my son, but this time he shall die.” Haj Osis had arisen from his throne and with upraised hands that seemed to claw the air above me he appeared like some hideous Corphal pronouncing a curse upon its victim. “But first we shall know who sent him here. He did not come of his own volition to kill me and my son; behind him is some malignant mind that yearns to destroy the Jed of Tjanath and his family. Burn him slowly, but do not let him die until he has divulged the name. Away with him! Let the fire be hot, but slow.”

 

XII. — THE CLOAK OF INVISIBILITY

AS Haj Osis, Jed of Tjanath, pronounced sentence of death upon me I knew whatever I might do to save myself must be done at once, for the instant that the guards laid hold upon me again my final hope would have vanished for it was evident that the torture and the death would take place immediately.

The warriors forming the guard that had escorted me from the pits were lined up several paces behind me. The dais upon which Haj Osis stood was raised but a little over three feet above the floor of the throne room. Between me and the Jed of Tjanath there was no one, for as he had sentenced me he had advanced from his throne to the very edge of the platform.

The action that I took was not delayed as long as it has taken me to tell it. Had it been, it could never have been taken for the guards would have been upon me. Instantly the last word fell from his mouth my plan was formulated and in that instant I leaped cat-like to the dais, full upon Haj Osis, Jed of Tjanath. So sudden, so unexpected was my attack that there was no defense. I seized him by the throat with one hand and with the other I snatched his dagger from its sheath and raising it above him I shouted my warning in a voice that all might hear.

“Stand back, or Haj Osis dies!” I cried.

They had started to rush me, but as the full import of my threat came home to them, they halted.

“It is my life, or yours, Haj Osis,” I said, “unless you do what I tell you to do.”

“What?” he asked, his face black with terror.

“Is there an anteroom behind the throne?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied. “What of it?”

“Take me there alone,” I said. “Command your people to stand aside.”

“And let you kill me when you get me there?” he demanded, trembling.

“I shall kill you now if you do not,” I replied. “Listen, Haj Osis, I did not come here to kill you or your son. What I told the padwar of the guard was a lie. I came for another purpose, far transcending in importance to me the life of Haj Osis or that of his son. Do as I tell you and I promise that I shall not kill you. Tell your people that we are going into the anteroom and that I promise not to harm you if we are left alone there for five xats (about fifteen minutes).”

He hesitated. “Make haste,” I said, “I have no time to waste,” and I let the point of his own dagger touch his throat.

“Don’t!” he screamed, shrinking back. “I will do whatever you say. Stand back all of you!” he shouted to his people. “I am going to the anteroom with this warrior and I command you upon pain of death not to enter there for five xats. At the end of that time, come; but not before.”

I took a firm hold upon Haj Osis’ harness between his shoulders and I kept the point of his dagger pressed against the flesh beneath his left shoulder blade as I followed him toward the anteroom, while those who had crowded the dais behind the throne fell back to make an aisle for us. At the doorway I halted and turned toward them.

“Remember,” I said, “five full xats and not a tal before.”

Entering the anteroom I closed and bolted the door, and then, still forcing Haj Osis ahead of me, I crossed the room and closed and bolted the only other door to the chamber. Then I pushed the Jed to one side of the room.

“Lie down here upon your face,” I said.

“You promised not to kill me,” he wailed.

“I shall not kill you unless they come before the five xats are up and you do otherwise than as I bid you so as not to delay me. I am going to bind you, but it will not hurt you.”

With poor grace he lay down upon his belly and with his own harness I strapped his arms together behind his back. Then I blindfolded him and left him lying there.

As I had entered the room I had taken in its contents with a single, quick glance and I had seen there precisely the things that I most needed, and now that I had disposed of Haj Osis I crossed quickly to one of the windows and tore down a part of the silk hangings that covered it. It was a full length of fine, light silk and very wide, since it had been intended to hang in graceful folds as an under-drape with heavier hangings. At the ornate desk where the Jed of Tjanath signed his decrees, I went to work. First I took the vial from my pocket pouch and unstoppered it; then I wadded the silk into a ball and because of its wonderful fineness I could compress it within my two hands. Fastening the ball of silk into a loosely compressed mass with strips tom from another hanging, I slowly poured the contents of the vial over it, turning the ball with the point of Haj Osis’ dagger. Remembering Phor Tak’s warning, I was careful not to let any of the contents of the vial come in contact with my flesh and I could readily see why one had to be careful as I watched the ball of silk disappear before my eyes.

Knowing that the compound of invisibility would dry almost as rapidly as it impregnated the silk, I waited only a brief instant after emptying about half the contents of the vial upon the ball. Then, groping with my fingers, I found the strings that held it into its roughly spherical shape and cut them, after which I shook the silk out as best I could. For the most part it was invisible, but there were one or two spots that the compound had not reached. These I quickly daubed with some of the liquid remaining in my pocket pouch.

So much depended upon the success of my experiment that I almost feared to put it to the test, but it must be tested and there could be only a few xats remaining before the warriors of Haj Osis would burst into the antechamber.

By feel alone I draped the silk over my head so that it fell all about me. Through its thin and delicate meshes I could see objects at close range quite well enough to make my way about. I crossed to Haj Osis and took the blind from his eyes, at the same time stepping quickly back. He looked hurriedly and affrightedly about him.

“Who did that?” he demanded, and then half to himself, “he is gone.” For a moment he was silent, rolling his eyes about in all directions, searching every nook and comer of the apartment. Then an expression that was part hope and part relief came to his eyes.

“Quick!” he shouted in a loud voice. “The guard! He has escaped!”

I breathed a sigh of relief—if Haj Osis could not see me, no one could—my plan had succeeded.

I dared not return to the throne room and make my escape that way along corridors with which I was familiar for I could already hear the rush of feet toward the anteroom door and I was well aware that, although they could not see me, they could feel me and that unquestionably in the rush my mantle of invisibility, or at least a portion of it, would be torn from me, which would indubitably spell my doom.

I ran quickly to the other doorway and unbolted it and as I opened it I looked back at Haj Osis. His eyes were upon the doorway and they were wide with incredulity and horror. For an instant I did not realize the cause and looked quickly behind me to see if I could see what had caused Haj Osis fright and then it dawned upon me and I smiled. He had seen and heard the bolt shot and the door open as though by ghostly hands.

He must have sensed a vague suspicion of the truth, for he turned quickly toward the other door and screamed a warning in a high falsetto voice. “Do not enter,” he cried, “until the five xats are up. It is I who commands —Haj Osis, the Jed.”

Closing the door after me and still smiling, I hastened along the corridor, searching for a ramp that would carry me to the upper levels of the palace from which I could easily locate the guard room and the hangar where I had left my ship.

The corridor I had entered led directly into the royal apartments.