Swords of Mars (Barsoom #8)

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“Yes, I know that,” she replied; “and I constantly pray that he will be successful. Were I a man, I should enlist under the banner of Ur Jan. I should be an assassin and search out John Carter myself.”

“They say he is a formidable swordsman,” I suggested.

“I should find a way to kill him, even if I had to descend to the dagger or poison.”

I laughed. “I hope, for John Carter’s sake, that you do not recognize him when you meet him.”

“I shall know him all right,” she said. “His white skin will betray him.”

“Well, let us hope that he escapes you,” I said laughingly, as I bade her good night and went to my sleeping silks and furs.

The next morning, immediately after breakfast, Fal Sivas sent for me. As I entered his study, I saw Hamas and two slaves standing near him.

Fal Sivas looked up at me from beneath lowering brows. He did not greet me pleasantly as was his wont.

“Well,” he snapped, “did you destroy Rapas last night?”

“No,” I replied; “I did not.”

“Did you see him?”

“Yes, I saw him and talked with him. In fact, I ate the evening meal with him.”

I could see that this admission surprised both Fal Sivas and Hamas. It was evident that it rather upset their calculations, for I judged that they had expected me to deny having seen Rapas, which I might have done had it not been for the fortunate circumstance that had permitted me to discover Hamas spying upon me.

“Why didn’t you kill him?” demanded Fal Sivas. “Did I not order you to do so?”

“You employed me to protect you, Fal Sivas,” I replied; “and you must rely upon my judgment to do it in my own way. I am neither a child nor a slave. I believe that Rapas has made connections that will be far more harmful to you than Rapas, himself; and by permitting him to live and keeping in touch with him, I shall be able to learn much that will be to your advantage that I could never learn if I destroyed Rapas. If you are not satisfied with my methods, get someone else to protect you; and if you have decided to destroy me, I suggest that you enlist some warriors. These slaves would be no match for me.”

I could see Hamas trembling with suppressed rage at that, but he did not dare say anything or do anything until Fal Sivas gave him the word. He just stood there fingering the hilt of his sword and watching Fal Sivas questioningly, as though he awaited a signal.

But Fal Sivas gave him no signal. Instead, the old inventor sat there studying me intently for several minutes. At last he sighed and shook his head. “You are a very courageous man, Vandor,” he said; “but perhaps a little overconfident and foolish. No one speaks to Fal Sivas like that. They are all afraid. Do you not realize that I have it within my power to destroy you at any moment?”

“If you were a fool, Fal Sivas, I might expect death this moment; but you are no fool. You know that I can serve you better alive than dead, and perhaps you also suspect what I know—that if I went out I should not go alone. You would go with me.”

Hamas looked horrified and grasped the hilt of his sword firmly, as though about to draw it; but Fal Sivas leaned back in his chair and smiled.

“You are quite right, Vandor,” he said; “and you may rest assured that if I ever decide that you must die, I shall not be within reach of your sword when that sad event occurs. And now tell me what you expect to learn from Rapas and what makes you believe that he has information that will be of value to me?”

“That will be for your ears, alone, Fal Sivas,” I said, glancing at Hamas and the two slaves.

Fal Sivas nodded to them. “You may go,” he said.

“But, master,” objected Hamas, “you will be left alone with this man. He may kill you.”

“I shall be no safer from his sword if you are present, Hamas,” replied the master. “I have seen and you have seen how deftly he wields his blade.”

Hamas’s red skin darkened at that; and without another word he left the room, followed by the two slaves.

“And now,” said Fal Sivas, “tell me what you have learned or what you suspect.”

“I have reason to believe,” I replied, “that Rapas has made connections with Ur Jan. Ur Jan, as you have told me, has been employed by Gar Nal to assassinate you. By keeping in touch with Rapas, it is possible that I may be able to learn some of Ur Jan’s plans. I do not know of course, but it is the only contact we have with the assassins, and it would be poor strategy to destroy it.”

“You are absolutely right, Vandor,” he replied. “Contact Rapas as often as you can, and do not destroy him until he can be of no more value to us. Then—” his face was contorted by a fiendish grimace.

“I thought that you would concur in my judgment,” I replied. “I am particularly anxious to see Rapas again tonight.”

“Very well,” he said, “and now let us go to the shop. The work on the new motor is progressing nicely, but I want you to check over what has been done.”

Together we went to the shop; and after inspecting the work, I told Fal Sivas that I wanted to go to the motor room of the ship to take some measurements.

He accompanied me, and together we entered the hull. When I had completed my investigation I sought an excuse to remain longer in the hangar, as there was half-formed in my mind a plan that would necessitate more intimate knowledge of the room in the event that I found it necessary or feasible to carry out my designs.

In pretended admiration of the ship, I walked all around it, viewing it from every angle; and at the same time viewing the hangar from every angle. My particular attention was riveted upon the great doorway through which the ship was to eventually pass out of the building. I saw how the doors were constructed and how they were secured; and when I had done that, I lost interest in the ship for the time being at least.

I spent the balance of the day in the shop with the mechanics, and that night found me again in the eating-place on the Avenue of Warriors.

Rapas was not there. I ordered my meal and had nearly finished it, though I was eating very slowly; and still he had not come. Still I loitered on, as I was very anxious to see him tonight.

But at last, when I had about given him up, he came.

It was evident that he was very nervous, and he appeared even more sly and furtive than ordinarily.

“Kaor!” I said, as he approached the table; “you are late tonight.”

“Yes,” he said; “I was detained.”

He ordered his meal and fidgeted about, uneasily.

“Did you reach home last night all right?” he said.

“Why, yes, of course.”

“I was a little bit worried about you,” he said. “I heard that a man was killed on the very avenue through which you must have passed.”

“Is that so?” I exclaimed. “It must have happened after I had passed by.”

“It is very strange,” he said; “it was one of Ur Jan’s assassins, and again he had the mark of John Carter upon his breast.”

He was eyeing me very suspiciously, but I could see that he was afraid even to voice what was in his mind. In fact, I think it frightened him even to entertain the thought.

“Ur Jan is certain now that John Carter, himself, is in the city.”

“Well,” I said, “why be so upset about it? I am sure that it does not concern either you or me.”

 

IX.— ON THE BALCONY

Eyes speak the truth more often than the lips. The eyes of Rapas the Ulsio told me that he did not agree with me that the killing of one of Ur Jan’s assassins was of no concern to either him or me, but his lips spoke otherwise.

“Of course,” he said, “it is nothing to me; but Ur Jan is furious. He has offered an immense reward for the positive identification of the man who killed Uldak and Povak. Tonight he meets with his principal lieutenants to perfect the details of a plan which, they believe, will definitely and for all time end the activities of John Carter against the guild of assassins. They——”

He stopped suddenly, and his eyes registered a combination of suspicion and terror. It was as though for a moment his stupid mind had forgotten the suspicion that it had held that I might be John Carter and then, after exposing some of the secrets of his master, he had recalled the fact and was terrified.

“You seem to know a great deal about Ur Jan,” I remarked, casually. “One would think that you are a full-fledged member of his guild.”

For a moment he was confused. He cleared his throat several times as though about to speak, but evidently he could not think of anything to say, nor could his eyes hold steadily to mine. I enjoyed his discomfiture greatly.

“No,” he disclaimed, presently; “it is nothing like that. These are merely things that I have heard upon the street. They are merely gossip. It is not strange that I should repeat them to a friend.”

Friend! The idea was most amusing. I knew that Rapas was now a creature of Ur Jan’s and that, with his fellows, he had been commissioned to kill me; and I had been commissioned by Fal Sivas to kill Rapas; yet here we were, dining and gossiping together. It was a most amusing situation.

As our meal drew to an end, two villainous-looking fellows entered and seated themselves at a table. No sign passed between them and Rapas, but I recognized them both and knew why they were there. I had seen them both at the meeting of the assassins, and I seldom forget a face. Their presence was a compliment to me and an admission that Ur Jan realized that it would take more than one swordsman to account for me.

I should have been glad to put my mark upon their breasts, but I knew that if I killed them, the suspicion that Ur Jan harbored that I might be John Carter would be definitely confirmed. The killing of Uldak and Povak and the marking of their breasts with the sign of the Warlord might have been a coincidence; but if two more men, sent to destroy me, met a similar fate, no doubt could remain even in a stupid mind but that all four had come to their end at the hands of John Carter himself.

The men had but scarcely seated themselves when I arose. “I must be getting along, Rapas,” I said; “I have some important work to do tonight. I hope you will forgive me for running off like this, but perhaps I shall see you again tomorrow night.”

He tried to detain me. “Don’t hurry away,” he exclaimed; “wait just a few moments. There are a number of things I should like to talk to you about.”

“They will have to wait until tomorrow,” I told him. “May you sleep well, Rapas,” and with that I turned and left the building.

I went only a short distance along the avenue in the opposite direction to that which led toward the house of Fal Sivas. I concealed myself in the shadows of a doorway then and waited, nor had I long to wait before the two assassins emerged and hurried off in the direction in which they supposed I had gone. A moment or two later Rapas came out of the building. He hesitated momentarily and then he started walking slowly in the direction taken by the assassins.

When all three were out of sight, I came from my hiding-place and went at once to the building on the top of which my flier was stored.

The proprietor was puttering around one of the hangars when I came onto the roof. I could have wished him elsewhere, as I did not particularly care to have my comings and goings known.

“I don’t see much of you,” he said.

“No,” I replied; “I have been very busy.” I continued in the direction of the hangar where my ship was stored.

“Going to take your flier out tonight?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Watch out for the patrol boats,” he said, “if you are on any business you wouldn’t want the authorities to know about. They have been awfully busy the last couple of nights.”

I didn’t know whether he was just giving me a friendly tip, or if he were trying to get some information from me. There are many organizations, including the government, that employ secret agents. For aught I knew, the fellow might be a member of the assassins’ guild.

“Well,” I said, “I hope the police don’t follow me tonight.” He pricked up his ears. “I don’t need any help; and, incidentally, she is extremely good-looking.”

I winked at him and nudged him with my elbow as I passed, in a fashion that I thought his low mentality would grasp. And it did.

He laughed and slapped me on the back. “I guess you’re worried more about her father than you are the police,” he said.

“Say,” he called after me, as I was climbing to the deck of my flier, “ain’t she got a sister?”

As I slipped silently out over the city, I heard the hangar man laughing at his own witticism; and I knew that if he had had any suspicions I had lulled them.

It was quite dark, neither moon being in the heavens; but this very fact would make me all the more noticeable to patrol boats above me when I was passing over the more brilliantly lighted portions of the city, and so I quickly sought dark avenues and flew low among the dense shadows of the buildings.