Swords of Mars (Barsoom #8)

Page 3

“Are you going to remain in Zodanga?” he asked.

“That depends upon whether or not I can find a living here,” I replied. “My money won’t last long; and, of course, leaving my last employer under the circumstances that I did, I have no papers; so I may have trouble in finding a place at all.”

While we were eating our meal, Rapas continued to drink; and the more he drank the more talkative he became.

“I have taken a liking to you, Vandor,” he announced presently; “and if you are the right kind, as I think you are, I can find you employment.” Finally he leaned close to me and whispered in my ear. “I am a gorthan,” he said.

Here was an incredible piece of good fortune. I had hoped to contact the assassins, and the first man whose acquaintance I had made admitted that he was one.

I shrugged, deprecatively.

“Not much money in that,” I said.

“There is plenty, if you are well connected,” he assured me.

“But I am not connected well, or otherwise, here in Zodanga,” I argued, “I don’t belong to the Zodangan guild; and, as I told you, I had to come away without any papers.”

He looked around him furtively to see if any were near who might overhear him.

“The guild is not necessary,” he whispered; “we do not all belong to the guild.”

“A good way to commit suicide,” I suggested.

“Not for a man with a good head on him. Look at me; I am an assassin, and I don’t belong to the guild. I make good money too, and I don’t have to divide up with anyone.” He took another drink. “There are not many with as good heads on them as Rapas the Ulsio.”

He leaned closer to me. “I like you, Vandor,” he said; “you are a good fellow.”

His voice was getting thick from drink. “I have one very rich client; he has lots of work, and he pays well. I can get you an odd job with him now and again. Perhaps I can find steady employment for you. How would you like that?”

I shrugged. “A man must live,” I said; “he can’t be too particular about his job when he hasn’t very much money.”

“Well, you come along with me; I am going there tonight. While Fal Sivas talks to you, I will tell him that you are just the man that he needs.”

“But how about you?” I inquired. “It is your job; certainly no man needs two assassins.”

“Never mind about me,” said Rapas; “I have other ideas in my head.” He stopped suddenly and gave me a quick, suspicious look. It was almost as though what he had said had sobered him. He shook his head, evidently in an effort to clear it.

“What did I say?” he demanded. “I must be getting drunk.”

“You said that you had other plans. I suppose you mean that you have a better job in view.”

“Is that all I said?” he demanded.

“You said that you would take me to a man called Fal Sivas who would give me employment.”

Rapas seemed relieved. “Yes, I will take you to see him tonight.”

 

II.— FAL SIVAS

For the balance of the day Rapas slept, while I occupied my time puttering around my flier in the public hangar on the roof of the hostelry. This was a far more secluded spot than the public sleeping room or the streets of the city, where some accident might pierce my disguise and reveal my identity.

As I worked over my motor, I recalled Rapas’s sudden fear that he had revealed something to me in his drunken conversation; and I wondered idly what it might be. It had come following his statement that he had other plans. What plans?

Whatever they were, they were evidently nefarious, or he would not have been so concerned when he feared that he had revealed them.

My short acquaintance with Rapas had convinced me that my first appraisal of his character was correct and that his sobriquet of Rapas the Rat was well deserved.

I chafed under the enforced inactivity of the long day; but at last evening came, and Rapas the Ulsio and I left our quarters and made our way once more to the eating-place.

Rapas was sober now, nor did he take but a single drink with his meal. “You’ve got to have a clear head when you talk to old Fal Sivas,” he said. “By my first ancestor, no shrewder brain was ever hatched of a woman’s egg.”

After we had eaten, we went out into the night; and Rapas led me through broad avenues and down narrow alleyways until we came to a large building that stood near the eastern wall of Zodanga.

It was a dark and gloomy pile, and the avenue that ran before it was unlighted.

It stood in a district given over to warehouses, and at this time of night its surroundings were deserted.

Rapas approached a small doorway hidden in an angle of a buttress. I saw him groping with his hands at one side of the door, and presently he stepped back and waited.

“Not everyone can gain admission to old Fal Sivas’s Place,” he remarked, with a tinge of boastfulness. “You have to know the right signal, and that means that you have to be pretty well in the confidence of the old man.”

We waited in silence then for perhaps two or three minutes. No sound came from beyond the door; but presently a very small, round port in its surface opened; and in the dim light of the farther moon I saw an eye appraising us. Then a voice spoke.

“Ah, the noble Rapas!” The words were whispered; and following them, the door swung in.

The passage beyond was narrow, and the man who had opened the door flattened himself against the wall that we might pass. Then he closed the door behind us and followed us along a dark corridor, until we finally emerged into a small, dimly lighted room.

Here our guide halted. “The master did not say that you were bringing another with you,” he said to Rapas.

“He did not know it,” replied Rapas. “In fact, I did not know it myself until today; but it is all right. Your master will be glad to receive him when I have explained why I brought him.”

“That is a matter that Fal Sivas will have to decide for himself,” replied the slave. “Perhaps you had better go first and speak to him, leaving the stranger here with me.”

“Very well, then,” agreed my companion. “Remain here until I return, Vandor.”

The slave unlocked the door in the far side of the anteroom; and after Rapas had passed through, he followed him and closed it.

It occurred to me that his action was a little strange, as I had just heard him say that he would remain with me, but I would have thought nothing more of the matter had I not presently become impressed with the very definite sensation that I was being watched.

I cannot explain this feeling that I occasionally have. Earth men who should know say that this form of telepathy is scientifically impossible, yet upon many occasions I have definitely sensed this secret surveillance, later to discover that I really was being watched.

As my eyes wandered casually about the room, they came to rest again upon the door beyond which Rapas and the slave had disappeared. They were held momentarily by a small round hole in the paneling and the glint of something that might have been an eye shining in the darkness. I knew that it was an eye.

Just why I should be watched, I did not know; but if my observer hoped to discover anything suspicious about me, he was disappointed; for as soon as I realized that an eye was upon me, I walked to a bench at one side of the room and sat down, instantly determined not to reveal the slightest curiosity concerning my surroundings.

Such surveillance probably meant little in itself, but taken in connection with the gloomy and forbidding appearance of the building and the great stealth and secrecy with which we had been admitted, it crystallized a most unpleasant impression of the place and its master that had already started to form in my mind.

From beyond the walls of the room there came no sound, nor did any of the night noises of the city penetrate to the little anteroom. Thus I sat in utter silence for about ten minutes; then the door opened, and the same slave beckoned to me.

“Follow me,” he said. “The master will see you. I am to take you to him.”

I followed him along a gloomy corridor and up a winding ramp to the next higher level of the building. A moment later he ushered me into a softly lighted room furnished with Sybaritic luxury, where I saw Rapas standing before a couch on which a man reclined, or I should say, crouched. Somehow he reminded me of a great cat watching its prey, always ready to spring.

“This is Vandor, Fal Sivas,” said Rapas, by way of introduction.

I inclined my head in acknowledgment and stood before the man, waiting.

“Rapas has told me about you,” said Fal Sivas. “Where are you from?”

“Originally I was from Zodanga,” I replied, “but that was years ago before the sacking of the city.”

“And where have you been since?” he asked. “Whom have you served?”

“That,” I replied, “is a matter of no consequence to anyone but myself. It is sufficient that I have not been in Zodanga, and that I cannot return to the country that I have just fled.”

“You have no friends or acquaintances in Zodanga, then?” he asked.

“Of course, some of my acquaintances may still be living; that I do not know,” I replied, “but my people and most of my friends were killed at the time that the green hordes overran the city.”

“And you have had no intercourse with Zodanga since you left?” he asked.

“None whatsoever.”

“Perhaps you are just the man I need. Rapas is sure of it, but I am never sure. No man can be trusted.”

“Ah, but master,” interrupted Rapas, “have I not always served you well and faithfully?”

I thought I saw a slight sneer curl the lip of Fal Sivas.

“You are a paragon, Rapas,” he said, “the soul of honor.”

Rapas swelled with importance. He was too egotistical to note the flavor of sarcasm in Fal Sivas’s voice.

“And I may consider myself employed?” I asked.

“You understand that you may be called upon to use a dagger more often than a sword,” he asked, “and that poisons are sometimes preferred to pistols?”

“I understand.”

He looked at me intently.

“There may come a time,” he continued, “when you may have to draw your long sword or your short sword in my defense. Are you a capable swordsman?”

“I am a panthan,” I replied; “and as panthans live by the sword, the very fact that I am here answers your question.”

“Not entirely. I must have a master swordsman. Rapas, here, is handy with the short sword. Let us see what you can do against him.”

“To the death?” I asked.

Rapas guffawed loudly. “I did not bring you here to kill you,” he said.

“No, not to the death, of course,” said Fal Sivas. “Just a short passage. Let us see which one can scratch the other first.”

I did not like the idea. I do not ordinarily draw my sword unless I intend to kill, but I realized that I was playing a part and that before I got through I might have to do many things of which I did not approve; so I nodded my assent and waited for Rapas to draw.

His short sword flashed from its scabbard. “I shall not hurt you badly, Vandor,” he said; “for I am very fond of you.”

I thanked him and drew my own weapon.

Rapas stepped forward to engage me, a confident smile upon his lips. The next instant his weapon was flying across the room. I had disarmed him, and he was at my mercy. He backed away, a sickly grin upon his face. Fal Sivas laughed.

“It was an accident,” said Rapas. “I was not ready.”

“I am sorry,” I told him; “go and recover your weapon.”

He got it and came back, and this time he lunged at me viciously. There would have been no mere scratch that time if his thrust had succeeded. He would have spitted me straight through the heart. I parried and stepped in, and again his sword hurtled through the air and clanked against the opposite wall.

Fal Sivas laughed uproariously. Rapas was furious. “That is enough,” said the former. “I am satisfied. Sheath your swords.”