A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

Page 24

At her suggestion we were to maneuver the Jhama to a point directly over the summit of a slender tower, upon which there was not room to land the flier, but through which I could gain ingress to the palace at a point close to the quarters of the women.

As we had passed through the three lines of Jaharian ships, protected by our coating of the compound of invisibility, so we passed the sentries on the city wall and the warriors upon watch in the towers and upon the ramparts of the palace of the towers and upon the ramparts of the palace of the jeddak, and without incident worthy of note I stopped the Jhama just above the summit of the tower that Tavia indicated.

“In about ten xats (approximately thirty minutes) it will be dark,” I said to Tavia. “If you find it impractical to remain here constantly, try and return when dark has fallen, for whether I am successful in finding Sanoma Tora I shall not attempt to return to the Jhama until night has fallen.”

She had told me that there was a possibility that the women’s quarters might be locked at sunset and for this reason I was entering the palace by daylight, though I should have much preferred not to risk it until after nightfall. Tavia had also assured me that if I once entered the women’s quarters I would have no difficulty in leaving even after they were locked, as the doors could be opened from the inside, the precaution of locking being taken not for fear that the inmates would leave the quarters, but to protect them against the dangers of assassins and others with evil intent.

Adjusting the robe of invisibility about me, I raised the forward keel hatch, which was directly over the summit of the tower that had once been used as a lookout in some distant age before newer and loftier portions of the palace had rendered it useless for this purpose.

“Good-bye and good luck,” whispered Tavia. “When you return I hope that you will bring your Sanoma Tora with you. While you are gone I shall pray to my ancestors for your success.”

Thanking her, I lowered myself through the hatch to the summit of the tower, in which was set a small trap door.

As I raised this door I saw below me the top of the ancient ladder that long dead warriors had used and which evidently was seldom, if ever, used now as was attested by the dust upon its rungs. The ladder led me down to a large room in the upper level of this portion of the palace—a room that had doubtless originally been a guard room, but which was now the receptacle for odds and ends of discarded furniture, hangings and ornaments. Filled as it was with specimens of the craftsmanship of ancient Jahar, together with articles of more modern fabrication, it would have been a most interesting room to explore; yet I passed through it with nothing more than a single searching glance for live enemies. Closely following Tavia’s instructions I descended two spiral ramps, where I found myself in a most ornately decorated corridor, opening upon which were the apartments of the women of Tul Axtar. The corridor was long, stretching away fully a thousand sofads to a great, arched window at the far end, through which I could see the waving foliage of trees.

Many of the countless doors that lined the corridor on either side were open or ajar, for the corridor itself was forbidden to all but the women and their slaves, with the exception of Tul Axtar. The foot of the single ramp leading to it from the level watched over by a guard of picked men, composed exclusively of eunuchs, and Tavia assured me that short shrift was made of any adventurous spirit who sought to investigate the precincts above; yet here was I, a man and an enemy, safely within the forbidden territory.

As I looked about me in attempt to determine where to commence my investigation, several women emerged from one of the apartments and approached me along the corridor. They were beautiful women, young and richly trapped, and from their light conversation and their laughter I judged that they were not unhappy. My conscience pricked me as I realized the mean advantage that I was taking of them, but it could not be avoided and so I waited and listened, hoping that I might overhear some snatch of conversation that would aid me in my quest for Sanoma Tora; but I learned nothing from them other than that they referred to Tul Axtar contemptuously as the old zitidar. Some of their references to him were extremely personal and none was complimentary.

They passed me and entered a large room at the end of the corridor. Almost immediately thereafter other women emerged from other apartments and followed the first party into the same apartment.

It soon became evident to me that they were congregating there and I thought that perhaps this might be the best way in which to start my search for Sanoma Tora—perhaps she, too, might be among the company.

Accordingly I fell in behind one of the groups and followed it through the large doorway and a short corridor, which opened into a great hall that was so gorgeously appointed and decorated as to suggest the throne room of a jeddak, and in fact such appeared to have been a part of its purpose, for at one end rose an enormous, highly-carved throne.

The floor was highly polished wood, in the center of which was a large pool of water. Along the sides of the room were commodious benches, piled with pillows and soft silks and furs. Here it was that Tul Axtar occasionally held unique court, surrounded solely by his women. Here they danced for him; here they disported themselves in the limpid waters of the pool for his diversion; here banquets were spread and to the strains of music high revelry persisted long into the night.

As I looked about me at those who had already assembled I saw that Sanoma Tora was not among them and so I took my place close to the entrance where I might scrutinize the face of each who entered.

They were coming in droves now. I believe that I have never seen so many women alone together before. As I watched for Sanoma Tora I tried to count them, but I soon gave, it up as hopeless, though I estimated that fully fifteen hundred women were congregated in the great hall when at last they ceased to enter.

They seated themselves upon the benches about the room, which was filled with a babel of feminine voices. There were women of all ages and of every type, but there was none that was not beautiful. The secret agents of Tul Axtar must have combed the world for such an aggregation of loveliness as this.

A door at one side of the throne opened and a file of warriors entered. At first I was surprised because Tavia had told me that no men other than Tul Axtar ever were permitted upon this level, but presently I saw that the warriors were women dressed in the harness of men, their hair cut and their faces painted, after the fashion of the fighting men of Barsoom. After they had taken their places on either side of the throne, a courtier entered by the same door—another woman masquerading as a man.

“Give thanks!” she cried. “Give thanks! The Jeddak comes!”

Instantly the women arose and a moment later Tul Axtar, Jeddak of Jahar, entered the hall, followed by a group of women disguised as courtiers.

As Tul Axtar lowered his great bulk into the throne, he signaled for the women in the room to be seated. Then he spoke in a low voice to a woman courtier at his side.

The woman stepped to the edge of the dais. “The great Jeddak designs to honor you individually with his royal observation,” she announced in stilted tones. “From my left you will pass before him, one by one. In the name of the Jeddak, I have spoken.”

Immediately the first woman at the left arose and walked slowly past the throne, pausing in front of Tul Axtar long enough to turn completely about, and then walked slowly on around the apartment and out through the doorway beside which I stood. One by one in rapid succession the others followed her. The whole procedure seemed meaningless to me. I could not understand it—then.

Perhaps a hundred women had passed before the Jeddak and come down the long ball toward me when something in the carriage of one of them attracted my attention as she neared me, and an instant later I recognized Sanoma Tora. She was changed, but not greatly and I could not understand why it was that I had not discovered her in the room previously. I had found her! After all these long months I had found her—the woman I loved. Why did my heart not thrill?

As she passed through the doorway leading from the great hall, I followed her and along the corridor to an apartment near the far end, and when she entered, I entered behind her. I had to move quickly, too, for she turned immediately and closed the door after her.

We were alone in a small room, Sanoma Tora and I. In one corner were her sleeping silks and furs; between two windows was a carved bench upon which stood those toilet articles that are essential to a woman of Barsoom.

It was not the apartment of a Jeddara; it was a little better than the cell of a slave.

As Sanoma Tora crossed the room listlessly toward a stool which stood before the toilet bench, her back was toward me and I dropped the robe of invisibility from about me.

“Sanoma Tora!” I said in a low voice.

Startled, she turned toward me. “Hadron of Hastor!” she exclaimed; “or am I dreaming?”

“You are not dreaming, Sanoma Tora. It is Hadron of Hastor.”

“Why are you here? How did you get here? It is impossible. No men but Tul Axtar are permitted upon this level.”

“Here I am, Sanoma Tora, and I have come to take you back to Helium —if you wish to return.”

“Oh name of my first ancestor, if I could but hope,” she cried.

“You may hope, Sanoma Tora,” I assured her. “I am here and I can take you back.”

“I cannot believe it,” she said. “I cannot imagine how you gained entrance here. It is madness to think that two of us could leave without being detected.”

I threw the cloak about me. “Where are you, Tan Hadron? What has become of you? What has happened?” cried Sanoma Tora.

“This is how I gained entrance,” I explained. “This is how we shall escape.” I removed the cloak from about me.

“What forbidden magic is this?” she demanded, and, as best I might in few words, I explained to her the compound of invisibility and how I had come by it.

“How have you fared here, Sanoma Tora?” I asked her. “How have they treated you?”

“I have not been ill treated,” she replied; “no one has paid any attention to me.” I could scent the wounded vanity in her tone. “Until tonight I had not seen Tul Axtar. I have just come from the hall where he holds court among his women.”

“Yes,” I said, “I know. I was there. It was from there that I followed you here.”

“When can you take me away?” she asked.

“Very quickly now,” I replied.

“I am afraid that it will have to be quickly,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“When I passed Tul Axtar he stopped me for a moment and I heard him speak to one of the courtiers at his side. He told her to ascertain my name and where I was quartered. The women have told me what happens after Tul Axtar has noticed one of us, and I am afraid; but what difference does it make, I am only a slave.”

What a change had come over the haughty Sanoma Tora! Was this the same arrogant beauty who had refused my hand? Was this the Sanoma Tora who had aspired to be a jeddara? She was humbled now—I read it in the droop of her shoulders, in the trembling of her lips, in the fear-haunted light that shone from her eyes.

My heart was filled with compassion for her, but I was astonished and dismayed to discover that no other emotion overwhelmed me. The last time that I had seen Sanoma Tora I would have given my soul to have been able to take her into my arms. Had the hardships that I had undergone so changed me? Was Sanoma Tora, a slave, less desirable to me than Sanoma Tora, daughter of the rich Tor Hatan? No; I knew that that could not be true. I had changed, but doubtless it was only a temporary metamorphosis induced by the nervous strain which I was undergoing consequent upon the responsibility imposed upon me by the necessity for carrying word to Helium in time to save her from destruction at the hands of Tul Axtar—to save not only Helium, but a world. It was a grave responsibility. How might one thus burdened have time for thoughts of love? No, I was not myself; yet I knew that I still loved Sanoma Tora.

Realizing the necessity for haste, I made a speedy examination of the room and discovered that I could easily effect Sanoma Tora’s rescue by taking her through the window, just as I had taken Tavia and Phao from the east tower at Tjanath.

Briefly, but carefully, I explained my plan to her and bid her prepare herself while I was gone that there might be no delay when I was ready to take her aboard the Jhama.

“And now, Sanoma Tora,” I said, “for a few moments, goodbye! The next that you will hear will be a voice at your window, but you will see no one nor any ship. Extinguish the light in your room and step to the sill. I will take your hand. Put your trust in me then and do as I bid.”

“Good-bye, Hadron!” she said. “I cannot express now in adequate words the gratitude that I feel, but when we are returned to Helium there is nothing you can demand of me that I shall not grant you, not only willingly, but gladly.”

I raised her fingers to my lips and had turned toward the door when Sanoma Tora laid a detaining hand upon my arm. “Wait!” she said. “Someone is coming.”

Hastily I resumed my cloak of invisibility and stepped to one side of the room as the door, leading into the corridor, was thrown open, revealing one of the female courtiers of Tul Axtar in gorgeous harness. The woman entered the room and stepped to one side of the doorway which remained opened.

“The Jeddak! Tul Axtar, Jeddak of Jahar!” she announced.

A moment later Tul Axtar entered the room, followed by half a dozen of his female courtiers. He was a gross man with repulsive features, which reflected a combination of strength and weakness, of haughty arrogance, of pride and of doubt—an innate questioning of his own ability.

As he faced Sanoma Tora his courtiers formed behind him.

They were masculine looking women, who had evidently been selected because of this very characteristic. They were good looking in a masculine way and their physiques suggested that they might prove a very effective body guard for the Jeddak.