The Chessmen of Mars (Barsoom #5)

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“Ten of these won through to U-Thor at The Gate of Enemies and were well received by him. Eight fell in the fighting upon the way. Val Dor and Floran live, I believe, for I am sure that I heard U-Thor address two warriors by these names.”

“Good!” exclaimed Gahan. “Go then, through the burrows of the ulsios, to The Gate of Enemies and carry to Floran the message that I shall write in his own language. Come, while I write the message.”

In a nearby room they found a bench and table and there Gahan sat and wrote in the strange, stenographic characters of Martian script a message to Floran of Gathol. “Why,” he asked, when he had finished it, “did you search for Tara through the spiral runway where we nearly met?”

“Tasor told me where you were to be found, and as I have explored the greater part of the palace by means of the ulsio runways and the darker and less frequented passages I knew precisely where you were and how to reach you. This secret spiral ascends from the pits to the roof of the loftiest of the palace towers. It has secret openings at every level; but there is no living Manatorian, I believe, who knows of its existence. At least never have I met one within it and I have used it many times. Thrice have I been in the chamber where O-Mai lies, though I knew nothing of his identity or the story of his death until Tasor told it to us in the camp of U-Thor.”

“You know the palace thoroughly then?” Gahan interrupted.

“Better than O-Tar himself or any of his servants.”

“Good! And you would serve the Princess Tara, Ghek, you may serve her best by accompanying Floran and following his instructions. I will write them here at the close of my message to him, for the walls have ears, Ghek, while none but a Gatholian may read what I have written to Floran. He will transmit it to you. Can I trust you?”

“I may never return to Bantoom,” replied Ghek. “Therefore I have but two friends in all Barsoom. What better may I do than serve them faithfully? You may trust me, Gatholian, who with a woman of your kind has taught me that there be finer and nobler things than perfect mentality uninfluenced by the unreasoning tuitions of the heart. I go.”

As O-Tar pointed to the little doorway all eyes turned in the direction he indicated and surprise was writ large upon the faces of the warriors when they recognized the two who had entered the banquet hall. There was I-Gos, and he dragged behind him one who was gagged and whose hands were fastened behind with a ribbon of tough silk. It was the slave girl. I-Gos’ cackling laughter rose above the silence of the room.

“Ey, ey!” he shrilled. “What the young warriors of O-Tar cannot do, old I-Gos does alone.”

“Only a Corphal may capture a Corphal,” growled one of the chiefs who had fled from the chambers of O-Mai.

I-Gos laughed. “Terror turned your heart to water,” he replied; “and shame your tongue to libel. This be no Corphal, but only a woman of Helium; her companion a warrior who can match blades with the best of you and cut your putrid hearts. Not so in the days of I-Gos’ youth. Ah, then were there men in Manator. Well do I recall that day that I—”

“Peace, doddering fool!” commanded O-Tar. “Where is the man?”

“Where I found the woman—in the death chamber of O-Mai. Let your wise and brave chieftains go thither and fetch him. I am an old man, and could bring but one.”

“You have done well, I-Gos,” O-Tar hastened to assure him, for when he learned that Gahan might still be in the haunted chambers he wished to appease the wrath of I-Gos, knowing well the vitriolic tongue and temper of the ancient one. “You think she is no Corphal, then, I-Gos?” he asked, wishing to carry the subject from the man who was still at large.

“No more than you,” replied the ancient taxidermist.

O-Tar looked long and searchingly at Tara of Helium. All the beauty that was hers seemed suddenly to be carried to every fibre of his consciousness. She was still garbed in the rich harness of a Black Princess of Jetan, and as O-Tar the Jeddak gazed upon her he realized that never before had his eyes rested upon a more perfect figure—a more beautiful face.

“She is no Corphal,” he murmured to himself. “She is no Corphal and she is a princess—a princess of Helium, and, by the golden hair of the Holy Hekkador, she is beautiful. Take the gag from her mouth and release her hands,” he commanded aloud. “Make room for the Princess Tara of Helium at the side of O-Tar of Manator. She shall dine as becomes a princess.”

Slaves did as O-Tar bid and Tara of Helium stood with flashing eyes behind the chair that was offered her. “Sit!” commanded O-Tar.

The girl sank into the chair. “I sit as a prisoner,” she said; “not as a guest at the board of my enemy, O-Tar of Manator.”

O-Tar motioned his followers from the room. “I would speak alone with the Princess of Helium,” he said. The company and the slaves withdrew and once more the Jeddak of Manator turned toward the girl. “O-Tar of Manator would be your friend,” he said.

Tara of Helium sat with arms folded upon her small, firm breasts, her eyes flashing from behind narrowed lids, nor did she deign to answer his overture. O-Tar leaned closer to her. He noted the hostility of her bearing and he recalled his first encounter with her. She was a she-banth, but she was beautiful. She was by far the most desirable woman that O-Tar had ever looked upon and he was determined to possess her. He told her so.

“I could take you as my slave,” he said to her; “but it pleases me to make you my wife. You shall be Jeddara of Manator. You shall have seven days in which to prepare for the great honor that O-Tar is conferring upon you, and at this hour of the seventh day you shall become an empress and the wife of O-Tar in the throne room of the jeddaks of Manator.” He struck a gong that stood beside him upon the table and when a slave appeared he bade him recall the company. Slowly the chiefs filed in and took their places at the table. Their faces were grim and scowling, for there was still unanswered the question of their jeddak’s courage. If O-Tar had hoped they would forget he had been mistaken in his men.

O-Tar arose. “In seven days,” he announced, “there will be a great feast in honor of the new Jeddara of Manator,” and he waved his hand toward Tara of Helium. “The ceremony will occur at the beginning of the seventh zode* in the throne room. In the meantime the Princess of Helium will be cared for in the tower of the women’s quarters of the palace. Conduct her thither, E-Thas, with a suitable guard of honor and see to it that slaves and eunuchs be placed at her disposal, who shall attend upon all her wants and guard her carefully from harm.”

* About 8:30 P. M. Earth Time.

 

Now E-Thas knew that the real meaning concealed in these fine words was that he should conduct the prisoner under a strong guard to the women’s quarters and confine her there in the tower for seven days, placing about her trustworthy guards who would prevent her escape or frustrate any attempted rescue.

As Tara was departing from the chamber with E-Thas and the guard, O-Tar leaned close to her ear and whispered: “Consider well during these seven days the high honor I have offered you, and—its sole alternative.” As though she had not heard him the girl passed out of the banquet hall, her head high and her eyes straight to the front.

After Ghek had left him Gahan roamed the pits and the ancient corridors of the deserted portions of the palace seeking some clue to the whereabouts or the fate of Tara of Helium. He utilized the spiral runway in passing from level to level until he knew every foot of it from the pits to the summit of the high tower, and into what apartments it opened at the various levels as well as the ingenious and hidden mechanism that operated the locks of the cleverly concealed doors leading to it. For food he drew upon the stores he found in the pits and when he slept he lay upon the royal couch of O-Mai in the forbidden chamber sharing the dais with the dead foot of the ancient jeddak.

In the palace about him seethed, all unknown to Gahan, a vast unrest. Warriors and chieftains pursued the duties of their vocations with dour faces, and little knots of them were collecting here and there and with frowns of anger discussing some subject that was uppermost in the minds of all. It was upon the fourth day following Tara’s incarceration in the tower that E-Thas, the major-domo of the palace and one of O-Tar’s creatures, came to his master upon some trivial errand. O-Tar was alone in one of the smaller chambers of his personal suite when the major-domo was announced, and after the matter upon which E-Thas had come was disposed of the jeddak signed him to remain.

“From the position of an obscure warrior I have elevated you, E-Thas, to the honors of a chief. Within the confines of the palace your word is second only to mine. You are not loved for this, E-Thas, and should another jeddak ascend the throne of Manator what would become of you, whose enemies are among the most powerful of Manator?”

“Speak not of it, O-Tar,” begged E-Thas. “These last few days I have thought upon it much and I would forget it; but I have sought to appease the wrath of my worst enemies. I have been very kind and indulgent with them.”

“You, too, read the voiceless message in the air?” demanded the jeddak.

E-Thas was palpably uneasy and he did not reply.

“Why did you not come to me with your apprehensions?” demanded O-Tar. “Be this loyalty?”

“I feared, O mighty jeddak!” replied E-Thas. “I feared that you would not understand and that you would be angry.”

“What know you? Speak the whole truth!” commanded O-Tar.

“There is much unrest among the chieftains and the warriors,” replied E-Thas. “Even those who were your friends fear the power of those who speak against you.”

“What say they?” growled the jeddak.

“They say that you are afraid to enter the apartments of O-Mai in search of the slave Turan—oh, do not be angry with me, Jeddak; it is but what they say that I repeat. I, your loyal E-Thas, believe no such foul slander.”

“No, no; why should I fear?” demanded O-Tar. “We do not know that he is there. Did not my chiefs go thither and see nothing of him?”

“But they say that you did not go,” pursued E-Thas, “and that they will have none of a coward upon the throne of Manator.”

“They said that treason?” O-Tar almost shouted.

“They said that and more, great jeddak,” answered the major-domo. “They said that not only did you fear to enter the chambers of O-Mai, but that you feared the slave Turan, and they blame you for your treatment of A-Kor, whom they all believe to have been murdered at your command. They were fond of A-Kor and there are many now who say aloud that A-Kor would have made a wondrous jeddak.”

“They dare?” screamed O-Tar. “They dare suggest the name of a slave’s bastard for the throne of O-Tar!”

“He is your son, O-Tar,” E-Thas reminded him, “nor is there a more beloved man in Manator—I but speak to you of facts which may not be ignored, and I dare do so because only when you realize the truth may you seek a cure for the ills that draw about your throne.”

O-Tar had slumped down upon his bench—suddenly he looked shrunken and tired and old. “Cursed be the day,” he cried, “that saw those three strangers enter the city of Manator. Would that U-Dor had been spared to me. He was strong—my enemies feared him; but he is gone—dead at the hands of that hateful slave, Turan; may the curse of Issus be upon him!”

“My jeddak, what shall we do?” begged E-Thas. “Cursing the slave will not solve your problems.”

“But the great feast and the marriage is but three days off,” pleaded O-Tar. “It shall be a great gala occasion. The warriors and the chiefs all know that—it is the custom. Upon that day gifts and honors shall be bestowed. Tell me, who are most bitter against me? I will send you among them and let it be known that I am planning rewards for their past services to the throne. We will make jeds of chiefs and chiefs of warriors, and grant them palaces and slaves. Eh, E-Thas?”

The other shook his head. “It will not do, O-Tar. They will have nothing of your gifts or honors. I have heard them say as much.”

“What do they want?” demanded O-Tar.

“They want a jeddak as brave as the bravest,” replied E-Thas, though his knees shook as he said it.

“They think I am a coward?” cried the jeddak.

“They say you are afraid to go to the apartments of O-mai the Cruel.”

For a long time O-Tar sat, his head sunk upon his breast, staring blankly at the floor.

“Tell them,” he said at last in a hollow voice that sounded not at all like the voice of a great jeddak; “tell them that I will go to the chambers of O-Mai and search for Turan the slave.”

 

CHAPTER XXI

A RISK FOR LOVE

“Ey, ey, he is a craven and he called me ‘doddering fool’!” The speaker was I-Gos and he addressed a knot of chieftains in one of the chambers of the palace of O-Tar, Jeddak of Manator: “If A-Kor was alive there were a jeddak for us!”

“Who says that A-Kor is dead?” demanded one of the chiefs.

“Where is he then?” asked I-Gos. “Have not others disappeared whom O-Tar thought too well beloved for men so near the throne as they?”

The chief shook his head. “And I thought that, or knew it, rather; I’d join U-Thor at The Gate of Enemies.”