It was a matter of only a few minutes before I reached my destination and dropped my flier gently to the roof of the building that housed the headquarters of the assassins’ guild of Zodanga.
Rapas’ statement that Ur Jan and his lieutenants were perfecting a plan aimed at my activities against them was the magnet that had lured me here this night.
I had decided that I would not again attempt to use the anteroom off their meeting-place, as not only was the way to it fraught with too much danger but even were I to safely reach the shadowed niche behind the cupboard, I still would be unable to hear anything of their proceedings through the closed door.
I had another plan, and this I put into immediate execution.
I brought my flier to rest at the edge of the roof directly above the room in which the assassins met; then I made a rope fast to one of the rings in her gunwale.
Lying on my belly, I looked over the edge of the roof to make sure of my position and found that I had gauged it to a nicety. Directly below me was the edge of a balcony before a lighted window. My rope hung slightly to one side of the window where it was not visible to those within the room.
Carefully I set the controls of my ship and then tied the end of a light cord to the starting lever. These matters attended to, I grasped the rope and slipped over the eaves of the roof, carrying the light cord in one hand.
I descended quietly, as I had left my weapons on my flier lest they clank against one another or scrape against the side of the building as I descended and thus attract attention to me.
Very cautiously I descended; and when I had come opposite the window, I found that I could reach out with one hand and grasp the rail of the balcony. I drew myself slowly to it and into a position where I could stand securely.
Shortly after I had dropped below the edge of the roof, I had heard voices; and now that I was close to the window, I was delighted to discover that it was open and that I could hear quite well nearly all that was going on within the room. I recognized Ur Jan’s voice. He was speaking as I drew myself to the balcony.
“Even if we get him tonight,” he said, “and he is the man I think he is, we can still collect ransom from the girl’s father or grandfather.”
“And it should be a fat ransom,” said another voice.
“All that a great ship will carry,” replied Ur Jan, “and with it a promise of immunity for all the assassins of Zodanga and their promise that they will not persecute us further.”
I could not but wonder whom they were plotting against now— probably some wealthy noble; but what connection there was between my death and the kidnaping of the girl, I could not fathom, unless, perhaps, they were not speaking of me at all but of another.
At this point, I heard a rapping sound and Ur Jan’s voice saying, “Come in.”
I heard a door open and the sound of men entering the room.
“Ah,” exclaimed Ur Jan, clapping his hands together, “you got him tonight! Two of you were too many for him, eh?”
“We did not get him,” replied a surly voice.
“What?” demanded Ur Jan. “Did he not come to the eating-place tonight?”
“He was there all right,” said another voice, which I recognized instantly as that of Rapas. “I had him there, as I promised.”
“Well, why didn’t you get him?” demanded Ur Jan angrily.
“When he left the eating-place,” explained one of the other men, “we followed him immediately; but he had disappeared when we reached the avenue. He was nowhere in sight; and though we walked rapidly all the way to the house of Fal Sivas, we saw nothing of him.”
“Was he suspicious?” asked Ur Jan. “Do you think that he guessed that you had come there for him?”
“No, I am sure he did not. He did not seem to notice us at all. I did not even see him look at us.”
“I cannot understand how he disappeared so quickly,” said Rapas, “but we can get him tomorrow night. He has promised to meet me there then.”
“Listen,” said Ur Jan; “you must not fail me tomorrow. I am sure that this man is John Carter. After all, though, I am glad that we did not kill him. I have just thought of a better plan. I will send four of you tomorrow night to wait near the house of Fal Sivas. I want you to take John Carter alive and bring him to me. With him alive, we can collect two shiploads of treasure for his princess.”
“And then we will have to hide in the pits of Zodanga all the rest of our lives,” demurred one of the assassins.
Ur Jan laughed. “After we collect the ransom, John Carter will never bother us again,” he said.
“I am an assassin, am I not?” demanded Ur Jan. “Do you think that an assassin will let a dangerous enemy live?”
Now I understood the connection between my death and the abduction of the girl they had mentioned. She was none other than my divine princess, Dejah Thoris.
From Mors Kajak, Tardos Mors, and myself, the scoundrels expected to collect two shiploads of ransom; and they well knew, and I knew, that they had not figured amiss. We three would gladly have exchanged many shiploads of treasure for the safety of the incomparable Princess of Helium.
I realized now that I must return immediately to Helium and insure the safety of my princess, but I lingered there on the balcony a moment longer listening to the plans of the conspirators.
“But,” objected one of Ur Jan’s lieutenants, “even if you succeed in getting Dejah Thoris——”
“There is no ‘even’ about it,” snapped Ur Jan. “It is already as good as accomplished. I have been preparing for this for a long time. I have done it very secretly so that there would be no leak; but now that we are ready to strike, it makes no difference. I can tell you that two of my men are guards in the palace of the princess, Dejah Thoris.”
“Well, granted that you can get her,” objected the former speaker skeptically, “where can you hide her? Where, upon all Barsoom, can you hide the Princess of Helium from the great Tardos Mors, even if you are successful in putting John Carter out of the way?”
“I shall not hide her on Barsoom,” replied Ur Jan.
“What, not upon Barsoom? Where, then?”
“Thuria,” replied Ur Jan.
“Thuria!” The speaker laughed. “You will hide her on the nearer moon. That is good, Ur Jan. That would be a splendid hiding-place—if you could get her there.”
“I can get her there all right. I am not acquainted with Gar Nal for nothing.”
“Oh, you mean that fool ship he is working on? The one in which he expects to go visiting around among the planets? You don’t think that thing will work, even after he gets it finished, do you—if he ever does get it finished?”
“It is finished,” replied Ur Jan, “and it will fly to Thuria.”
“Well, even if it will, we do not know how to run it.”
“Gar Nal will run it for us. He needs a vast amount of treasure to complete other boats, and for a share of the ransom he has agreed to pilot the ship for us.”
Now, indeed, I realized all too well how carefully Ur Jan had made his plans and how great was the danger to my princess. Any day now they might succeed in abducting Dejah Thoris, and I knew that it would not be impossible with two traitors in her guard.
I decided that I could not waste another moment. I must leave for Helium at once, and then Fate intervened and nearly made an end of me.
As I started to climb the rope and swung away from the balcony, a part of my harness caught upon one of its iron ornaments; and when I attempted to disengage it, the thing broke loose and fell upon the balcony.
“What was that?” I heard Ur Jan’s voice demand, and then I heard footsteps coming toward the window. They came fast, and an instant later the figure of Ur Jan loomed before me “A spy,” he yelled, and leaped onto the balcony.
X.— JAT OR
Were I prone to seek excuses outside of myself to explain the causes of misfortunes which overtake me, I might, at that moment, have inquired why Fate should throw her weight in favor of evildoers and against me. My cause was, unquestionably, a cause of righteousness, yet the trifling fact that an iron ornament upon a balcony in the city of Zodanga had been loose and that my harness had accidently caught upon it had placed me in a situation from which it seemed likely that I could not escape with my life.
However, I was not dead yet; and I had no intention of resigning myself to the dictates of an unkind and unjust Fate without a struggle. Furthermore, in the idiom of a famous American game, I had an ace in the hole.
As Ur Jan clambered out onto the balcony, I had swung away from it, clinging to the rope attached to my flier above; and, at the same time, I started to climb.
Like a pendulum, I swung; and, having reached the end of my arc, I swung back again, seemingly directly into the arms of Ur Jan.
It all happened very quickly, much more quickly than I can tell it. Ur Jan laid hold of the hilt of his sword; I drew my knees well up against my body; I swung toward him; then, as I was almost upon him, I kicked him with both feet full in the chest and with all my strength.
Ur Jan staggered back against another of the assassins who was following him onto the balcony, and they both went down in a heap.
Simultaneously, I pulled on the light cord that I had attached to the starting lever of my motor. In response, the ship rose; and I rose with it, dangling at the end of my rope.
My situation was anything but an enviable one. I could not, of course, guide the ship; and if it failed to rise rapidly enough, I stood an excellent chance of being dashed to death against some building as I was dragged across the city; but even this menace was by no means the greatest which threatened me, for now I heard a shot, and a bullet whirred past me—the assassins were attempting to shoot me down.
I climbed as rapidly as I could toward my flier; but climbing a small rope, while swinging beneath a rising airship, is not an enviable situation, even without the added hazard of being fired at by a band of assassins.
The ship carried me diagonally across the avenue upon which stood the building that harbored Ur Jan’s band. I thought surely that I must hit the eaves of the opposite building; and, believe me, I put every ounce of my strength and agility into climbing that rope, as I swung rapidly across the avenue.
In this instance, however, Fate favored me; and I skimmed just above the roof of the building.
The assassins were still firing at me, but I imagine that most of their hits in the past had been scored with daggers of poison, for their pistol practice was execrable.
At last my fingers closed over the gunwale of my ship, and a moment later I had drawn myself to her deck. Reaching for her controls, I opened the throttle wide and set her nose for Helium.
Perhaps I was reckless, for I ignored the threat of the patrol boats and made no effort to escape their vigilance. Nothing mattered to me now but to reach Helium in time to safeguard my princess.
How well my enemies knew where to strike at me! How well they knew my vulnerable parts! They knew that nothing I possessed, including my life, would I refuse to give for the preservation of Dejah Thoris. They must have known, too, the price that they would have to pay if harm befell her; and this fact marked them for the desperate men that they were. I had threatened their security and their lives, and they were risking all in this attempt to defeat me.
I wondered if any of them had recognized me. I had not seen Rapas at the window; and, in the darkness of the night, there seemed little likelihood that the other two assassins, who had seen me but momentarily in the eating-place, could have been sure that it was I whom they saw for a second dangling at the end of a twirling rope. I felt that they might have suspected that it was Vandor, but I hoped that they were not sure that it was John Carter.
My swift craft moved rapidly across the city of Zodanga; and I thought that I was going to get away without difficulty, when suddenly I heard the warning wail of a patrol boat, signaling me to stop.
It was considerably above me, and slightly ahead and to the starboard, when it discovered me. My throttle was open wide, and I was racing through the thin air of the dying planet at full speed.
The patrol boat must have realized instantly that I had no intention of stopping, for it shot forward in a burst of speed, at the same time diving for me. Its velocity in that long dive was tremendous; and though it was, normally, not as fast a craft as mine, its terrific speed in the dive was far greater than my craft could attain.
I was already too low to gain speed by diving, nor could I thus have equaled the great speed of the larger craft, the weight of which added to its momentum.
It was coming right down on top of me and overhauling me rapidly— coming diagonally from my starboard side.
It seemed futile to hope that I could escape it; and when it opened up on me with its bow guns, I almost had it in my mind to give up the fight and surrender, for at least then I should be alive. Otherwise, I should be dead; and dead I could be of no help to Dejah Thoris. But I was faced then with the fact that I would be delayed, that I might not be able to reach Helium in time. I was sure to be arrested, and almost certainly I would be imprisoned for attempting to escape the patrol boat. I had no papers, and that would make it all the harder for me. I stood an excellent chance of being thrown into slavery, or into the pits beneath the city to await the coming games.