I: The House of Kovas Morn
Kaor, friend, and welcome! Permit me to introduce myself. I am called Jor Komak, and I was once a slave in the house of Kovas Morn, cousin to the great Jeddara of the city of Dar. I was not always a slave, nor have I always born the name I now answer to. My tale is a long and strange one, although not entirely unfamiliar to some few of you who know of the fates of Ulysses Paxton, better known to his comrades as Vad Varo, or his predecessor, the renowned hero who still rightfully holds his title as Warlord of Barsoom. I will not belabor you with meaningless details of my former life upon that watery blue-green orb which here is called Jasoom, but which my former countrymen would better know as Earth. That life is lost to me, nor would I choose to return to it any more than any other Jasoomian who has been swept across the darkling void into the bosom of this strange and majestic world. My advent to this world from the sphere of my birth is meaningless, save as a matter of trivium, for I account myself a true son of Dar.
I was not a great hero or military veteran when I felt the inexorable pull of the red eye of Mars. In fact, as a child of the post-atomic era, I had always accounted myself a pacifist, and had suffered somewhat for my beliefs, inasmuch as many perceived my strength of principle to be rather manifestations of weakness or cowardice. Like so many others, I was a simple city dweller in one of the larger metropoli of the United States of America. I had lived a normal, unremarkable life up until the point that my better nature caused me to interfere in a robbery. I thwarted the criminal, but was paid in lead for my troubles. Wounded, I tried to stagger home, but could only travel a few blocks before my mortal clay failed me. As has been described by others, I mustered an intense effort of will, trying to force my injured and unresponsive body to move. I felt a kind of tension build, and then release as if an iron band had just snapped. Suddenly, I was no longer experiencing any sort of pain and found that I could freely move. My elation quickly melted away when I found that I was unclothed and stood next to my own cooling body, lying in a pool of its own blood that steamed in the chill night air.
Horrified, I cast about for some sign that I was still alive, when I saw a red star on the horizon, dimly visible through the glare of city lights. I remembered the fanciful tales I had read in my youth, and which had so influenced my choices on how to live, and eventually how to die. Like those who came before me, I raised up my arms in a sign of entreaty to the god of war whose crimson beacon hovered in the heavens like a guiding signpost. There was a vertiginous sensation as if the entire world were swirling down a drain, a momentary blackness that seemed to compress an instant, and when next my gaze had cleared, I was here on the soil of Mars.
Perhaps because I had departed from an urban area, I found myself in the midst of one of the great Martian cities. Though night time on earth, it was midday here, and I was in what appeared to be a thriving market or bazaar. I will not bore you with the details of my adjustment to this new environment, as many of them are embarrassing to me, and only of passing interest to you. I was alone, naked, unarmed, and unable to speak the language. My earthly muscles were attuned to a force of gravity far greater than they now experienced, and I underwent the same nearly comical process of adaptation as my predecessors. Just as with those before me, I was eventually forced to control my movement by reverting to a mere crawl. Unlike those who came before, I was in a great market, surrounded on all sides by the red men and women who composed the dominant race of this dying world. I could not answer their hails or inquiries, and my strange appearance, combined with my lack of any harness or metal, gave them cause for consternation.
The people of Mars are a belligerent and warlike race, prone to at least moderate xenophobia, for they never know when a stranger may be an assassin or scout from some unfriendly nation. I was soon challenged by the city guard, who made unintelligible demands of me while brandishing their rapier-like blades. I was, of course, unable to respond in any sensible manner, and felt for certain that my adventure would end before it had begun because of the reception I received. I was saved from their demands by a kindly gentleman who seemed to be of advancing middle age. He was dressed, after the fashion of all Barsoomians, in little more than a leather harness adorned with metal ornaments, from which hung a pouch for his personal belongings and of course his weapons. No Barsoomian alive ever willingly goes abroad, or even rests within the comfort of his home, without carrying at least a few weapons. Such is the nature of their warlike ways.
I was chagrined to find that my benefactor was nothing more than a merchant who deals in slaves. He saw in me the opportunity to make a quick profit and led me from the watchful eyes of the guards right to the auction block, where I was sold to the servant of Kovas Morn as a laborer to attend the household. Once I realized what was happening, I was shocked and somewhat afraid, but I knew that the red man of Mars, while proud, were an honorable and chivalrous race, and that in becoming a slave, I had also gained a protector and patron. I was rather disappointed when, after a small amount of haggling, the servant doled out only a few tiny oval coins for me, and for that price I was lumped in with several children and an old man. I later learned that what had caused my low value was the fact that, after a brief interview to which I was unable to respond in even the slightest intelligible way, the slave master categorized me as an imbecile of the lowest order, a freakishly strong mental midget whose brains were of such a low order as to be incapable of even rudimentary telepathic ability. It is true that the men of Earth lack the faculty for telepathy that is possessed by all Barsoomians, whether by some freak of environment or, as a Barsoomian would have it, due to the fact that we are a less advanced race than they. My mind is a cypher to any red man I might encounter, yet they are able to understand the rudimentary thoughts of even the lowest order of animal. Combined with the fact that I was unable to walk and made seemingly meaningless sounds, I suppose I should be grateful that I was not euthanized on the spot as an act of kindness on their part. However, while the red men are often a cruel race, they are never unjust.
Over the course of my durance, I managed to learn the language of the red men, although my masters took little time to school me in such things. I was taken merely as a porter, due to my great strength (in comparison to one of their own race), and my duties consisted of little more than picking up some heavy object and transporting it from one place to another. I got to see much of the master's palace in this way, as it seems the lady of the house was never satisfied with how the furniture was arranged. Having dismissed me as an imbecile, everyone spoke freely around me, and I slowly built up a crude vocabulary of words and phrases. While it is true that the Jasoomian mind is unreadable, we are quite competent at projecting our thoughts once the trick is learned, and even to read the thoughts of those around us. Thus, once I had deciphered the telepathic rosetta stone, my master's language came to me quickly. Once I had begun to develop a working vocabulary, I still remained silent, partly because I did not wish any further duties heaped upon me, and partly because I enjoyed eavesdropping on my betters. I also did not wish to reveal how much I knew, since it was in me to attempt an escape at some point in the future, once I had learned more about this place and the customs of its people.
I received all of the basic care that an owner of livestock would give to any beast in his paddock, and I had the advantage of not being sent to the mines or forced into some strenuous backbreaking labor, and for these facts I was grateful. I was dressed after Barsoomian custom, but clothing as we understand it is nearly unknown upon Barsoom. Only the people who live close to the north and south poles wear any clothing at all. Everyone else wears little more than a complex harness of leather straps, adorned with metal decorations which provide some heraldic evidence of the person's homeland and allegiance. Free people wore as much ornamentation as they are able to, and would go to great lengths to acquire gold and jewels in which to dress themselves. They wore little more that this during the day, when the sun beat hot upon everyone's backs. At night they would wear elegant robes or gowns of fine spun silk, or wrap themselves in capes of fur and feathers. A slave's harness, by contrast, was much simpler, and made from plain leather without ornamentation, save for a mark at the left shoulder indicating to whom they belong. Only the most churlish master would deny his slave a robe or cloak to fend off the chill night air, but such items were the cast offs of one's betters, and as I was a mere brute, I received only a threadbare patchwork shift which looked as if it were cobbled together from several other articles of clothing.
I was tenanted in a barracks-like room in one of the lower levels of my master's palace, where I shared my sleeping quarters with a dozen other lesser servants (all of whom, I should point out, were of higher status than me, a fact which they would not allow me to forget. Even a slave, it seems, needs someone to push around). The furnishings were meager, but no more so than would be typical of a fighting man's quarters. The typical Barsoomian is not driven by a desire to acquire material goods, and so few claim more than the articles they carry with them. While not so egalitarian as the savage green hoards who dwell in the abandoned cities which dot the dead sea bottom, Barsoomians do not concern themselves with the aggressive consumerism of my own people, and often consider discussion of money, finances, or business to be the height of rudeness. Common slaves and household servants frequently have no money or possessions of their own, but rather are clothed and equipped by the chieftain to whom they owe allegiance. Only the freelance panthans, mercenaries who traveled from city to city, selling their sword in times of war, had no lingering ties of allegiance to some chieftain, who in turn owed allegiance to a jed, who owed allegiance to a jeddak. These roles were often fixed by lines of heredity, and while a fighting man could gain recognition and thereby improve his lot in life, being made a prince or jed by the ruling jeddak, a jeddak was so proclaimed by a mandate of the people or the strange gods they worship, and always was of the bloodline of the ruling house. Such was the custom upon Barsoom, and the five races of Barsoom are creatures ruled by custom.
While I was relatively well cared for, in many ways my lot was a miserable one. I did not receive nearly as much food as I would like, and what I received left much to be desired. My typical meal consisted of a block of some flavorless tofu-like substance and a small amount of liquid, very much like milk in color and consistency, with a sour yogurt-like flavor. Both these substances were made from the milk-sap of the mantalia bush, a strange fern-like thing that grows in even the harshest Martian climate. Occasionally my meal might be supplemented with a sort of bread or an equally bland fruit that was in flavor and consistency like nothing so much as a potato. I showed no signs of malnutrition, so while my fare was far from interesting, it was at least providing the nutrients that my body needed. Water was a scarcity on ars, and such luxuries were not commonly afforded to lowly household slaves, nor were any of the more delicate viands upon which my betters supped. I was frequently beaten and bullied by the other slaves, who seemed intent on reminding me at every turn that I was the low man on the household totem pole. For the most part I did not mind the beatings, as the typical Martian has little more strength in his arm than a child might. My bones and muscles are made of earthly stuff, and I could survive a buffet or blow with might kill a man of Mars. I also knew that I could deliver such a blow, possibly without intending to, and the quiet knowledge of my power made it possible to suffer in silent stoicism.
I do not wish you to think my masters unnecessarily cruel or unjust by what I have said. Their failing was more a matter of negligence than malice. As a low order slave, and having been dismissed as an imbecile, I was left in the care of other servants, any of whom had a full workload of their own to deal with. My inability to respond to their commands quickly drove them to frustration, and after being shown how to do a task once, if I seemed slow or recalcitrant, they would often grow annoyed and cuff me to get my attention. As I said, they were not strong creatures, and so while the blows might be humiliating, they were rarely dangerous. Such reprimands did, however, serve to hasten the speed with which I learned their language, if only so that I could respond to their instruction with greater alacrity. During my days, I practiced the role of the mongoloid, wearing a vacuous expression and mumbling to myself in a sing-song gibberish of my own devising. It occurred to me that if I continued to speak an actual structured language, at some point someone would realize that my words had actual meaning and piece together my quiet deception. I was not yet ready to reveal how much I really knew, and so I applied myself to the role they had given me.
When I was not being watched, bullied, or told to move something from one place to another, I often wandered the palace and explored the many winding halls and corridors. My reputed mental infirmity was a useful aid if I wandered into a restricted or private area, as I could just babble at the guards in a friendly sort of way and they would gently guide me back to the slave quarters, helping me to memorize the swiftest route back to where I had been discovered. I also found that, lacking any metal or weapons on my harness, I was afforded a greater degree of stealth than others, and often heard an approaching freeman long before they turned the corner. With my earthly thews I was able to leap great distances, and so could often avoid detection by jumping up and gripping the ornamental frieze work which seemed to be a ubiquitous component of Martian architecture. My body only weighed one third as much as if I were on earth, and I was getting more exercise and fewer calories than in my previous life. As such, I was becoming lean, hard, and powerfully muscled, able to cling to the decorative ceiling by nothing more than my fingers and toes. I was no great fan of heights, although I did not suffer from vertigo or any similar phobia, so I did not go climbing often, nor without great need. Besides, I did not want anyone to discover my ability, partly so that I could rely upon its surprise value later, and also because I did not want to be put on display as a performing freak. I also continued the habits I had developed as an earthman, of practicing certain gentle meditative forms of physical conditioning, including a simple regimen of yoga and tai chi. My avowal of pacifism often placed me in conflict with my nobler nature, and if I could not run and I could not fight, then I had to learn how to defend myself without harming the aggressor. To this end, while I had received only informal schooling at it, I had become skilled at a variety of soft styles of martial art, whose forms I would also practice throughout the day, as time might permit.
During my perambulations, I came upon several ways of entering the "pits" beneath the palace, that complex of tunnels, basements, catacombs, dungeons, and cellars which seemingly undermine every city on Mars. I would occasionally go exploring down there, keeping to the well lighted section for the most part, but also occasionally venturing into the long disused and dust-choked areas where no man had willing set foot in hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of years. I had found several little cloisters where I might afford myself a modicum of privacy from time to time, and in one of these I concealed some of the concentrated food rations which all fighting men carry as part of their personal effects, a handheld light of the sort common upon Barsoom, a few decanters of precious water, and other useful odds and ends which might be helpful to me in my eventual bid for freedom. Acquiring these things was frighteningly easy, as Barsoomians are so unaccustomed to avarice or materialism, locks are nearly unheard of, and personal belongings are frequently left unattended. I found it shameful to have become a common thief, but I had no other means available to acquire those things I needed, and nothing that I took was of any significant value. I had stolen no jewels, no money, nor any weapons, but rather only those simple things which would clearly be applied to the immediate task of personal survival.
It was on one such occasion, as I happened to be wandering the pits, that I came upon a strange looking creature which I later learned to be a sorak. It was small, about the size of a large ferret. It was, like nearly every creature native to this world, seemingly reptilian in its overall form, although it had a small ruff of hair along its head, neck, and shoulders like a soft and furry horse's mane. Its overall shape was like that of a cat or weasel, but its body was elongated and sported eight sets of legs, the foremost four of which ended in clever paws almost like hands. Its trumpet like ears were perched at the top of its triangular head, and its eyes were wide set and able to move independently of one another. Like many creatures of this world, it could look forward and back simultaneously, and had almost 360 degrees of peripheral vision. I did not know it at the time, but the sorak is a domesticated animal common to most great houses. It fills the same basic role of house pet that might be expected of the tellurian feline. I did not know if this fearsome looking creature was friendly or not, but it evidenced no fear of me when I encountered it, nor did it show that unwholesome hunger that can be seen in the more dangerous beasts which make their home in the dark and disused labyrinths. It instead merely regarded me for half a moment, yawned broadly revealing many rows of sharp needle like teeth, and returned to the task of giving itself a dust bath.
Perhaps it was simply the isolation I had felt since my advent upon this world, but somehow, watching this strange scaly creature rolling about in a patch of dust seemed incredibly homey. I suppose its behavior reminded me of the cats I used to keep and care for back on earth. Uncertain if it was friendly or simply unafraid, I reached into my pouch for a bit of food (I had taken to breaking up my meals into smaller portions and snacking on them throughout the day in order to better assuage my hunger) and offered it to the creature, trying to project my friendly intentions telepathically as the red martians might. It responded enthusiastically, accepting the proffered morsel and then rubbing up against my body in much the same manner as a feline. I sat down cross legged on the floor and played with the animal, who seemed quite happy to clamber up onto my shoulder and tug at my hair or to stick its whuffling nose into my ear. It made a strange high pitched yowling sound not unlike the squeal of a rusty door hinge, which I took to be evidence of its pleasure. Its paws were every bit as clever as I had thought they might be, and I found myself waging a constant tug-of-war in an attempt to assert some control over my meager few belongings. Eventually I surrendered the remainder of my luncheon, breaking off a mouthful for myself, simply so that I might have my belt pouch back.
Just then I was startled by the sound of a feminine voice in the hallway behind me. I turned, my mouth full of tofu sandwich, to see a beautiful girl of indeterminate age (Barsoomians age very slowly, and retain the semblance of youth for many centuries). She was clad in the ornaments of the house of Kovas Morn, but I did not immediately recognize her. She was a petite creature, perhaps five and a half feet tall, and was dressed after the Barsoomian standard, which is to say she wore less clothing than a las vegas showgirl. Her skin was a beautiful shade of coppery red, a color similar to but almost entirely unlike that of any earthly race. The color was just a little too orange to be the terra cotta of north africa or central asia, but of course there were variations among the red men, just as among earthly humans. Her hair was a lustrous black, as was normal for her race, and her dark eyes held a hint of good natured humor and surprise at encountering me in such a dark and gloomy place. That she had been searching for her pet was obvious from her attitude and that of the animal, which immediately looked up when she spoke its name.
Still chewing on the mouthful of food, I smiled broadly and in my best idiot voice pointed to the sorak and said "Kitty". I petted the creature, then picked it up and stood, holding it in both hands and offering it to her. "You have kitty" I said, smiling as I swallowed the last bits of my meal. I was, of course, speaking english, and doing so in a fair (if somewhat less than politically correct) imitation of a functional moron. Slouched over as I was, my eyes were slightly below hers, and so I looked up at her from under raised eyebrows as she took the sorak from me. "Nice kitty" I said as the sorak clambered up to what seemed its preferred perch on her shoulder. I suddenly realized that I had just contextualised the word "kitty" for her by using it in three different sentences, but she seemed friendly (or at least she was not prone to abuse) and even if she had some grasp of what I was saying, she still would likely consider me a micro cephalic simply from my attitude and demeanor.
"Kitty" she repeated, smiling. I was right. She was a bit brighter than the others. "Kitty's name is Benvarius. Benvarius" she repeated, saying the syllables slowly so that I could understand her. She was of course speaking Barsoomian, and I could see from the puzzled look in her eye that she was having as much difficulty in reading my thoughts as all the others.
I smiled and asked "Bunny?"
She smiled in return and nodded. "Bunny. Now who do you belong to, and what are you doing here?"
Still using a very simplified english, I pointed up and replied "I go there. I work. Good worker. No talk you. Just work. I slave."
She furrowed her brow, trying to make sense of the gibberish that came to her. After a moment, I pointed to the mark on my harness. "I slave" I repeat, then pointing down the way she came, add "I go that way. That way, then up."
She recognized the mark on my harness, with the same heraldic design as her own ornamentation. Straightening up, then, she turned. In a peremptory tone of voice, she commanded me to follow her. I fell into stride behind her instinctively, no thought of games or passive rebellion in my mind. She had been kind to me, and tried to understand what I was saying. As I followed after, I tried to convince myself that the fact she was also incredibly beautiful had nothing to do with my desire to please her. We did not have far to go, however, before we were found by one of the female slaves who served as ladies in waiting for the household. The young mistress, whose name was Kayla Zo, was apparently quite young and was not supposed to be wandering about the palace like this. She was admonished by the servant who was, to the best of my ability to understand the dynamic, her nanny or nurse, for having been exploring the pits once more. I was pleased to hear that she apparently did this regularly, since this might give me the only chance to see her again. Kayla Zo was quickly whisked off to her quarters in some wing of the palace, while I was given a cuff behind the ear for shirking and ordered to get back to work.
II: A Slave's Honor
As luck would have it, my duties brought me into the presence of Kayla Zo only a few days later. I was called into the main hall as preparations were being made for a grand banquet in honor of Zamran Gauth, Jeddara of the city of Dar. I suppose that at this juncture I should take a brief moment to explain the few simple feudal titles used by the people of Barsoom. Chieftain is a simple rank of distinction, which can indicate any leader of others. While theoretically unisex, it is most frequently applied to a fighting man who has a number of other warriors who have sworn allegiance to him. Jed is the name of a community leader, one who has numerous chieftains sworn to him. Once again it is theoretically unisex, but most often applied to a male individual. Jeddak is the highest social rank upon Barsoom, and is analogous to the earthly king or emperor. The feminine version is jeddara when applied to a woman of equal rank, although in some places jeddara is also applied to the queen or consort of a jeddak. Queen, prince, and princess are titles of rank without implication of actual social status or function. Any member of the aristocratic class is a prince or princess, and the term is often used in a familiar form to denote a person for whom you feel such love and devotion that you would be willing to fight and die on their behalf. Other titles of rank and distinction also exist, but as I am not a military man, such appellations are meaningless to me.
On this occasion, the Jeddara had recently won a campaign against Jobar, a neighboring city with whom the people of Dar had been at war with for many centuries. Their city was captured after a protracted siege and the Jeddara was honoring every general who had fought for her by gracing them with her presence at some gala fete. As my master, Kovas Morn, was a prince of the city of Dar and a general in her armies, he was hosting one such grand ball where he expected the high point of the event to be some honor or dignity being conferred upon him by his cousin the Jeddara. To this end he had commissioned an elaborate marble centerpiece for the ballroom, a statue of the Jeddara standing victorious over a miniature Barsoomian city while tiny little airships seemingly flew about her head. It was a marvelous piece of sculpture, and a magnificent work of brown-nosing, for which he was certain to receive much acclaim. Unfortunately, as was so often the case in this house, his wife, the Lady Garras Jan, could not be satisfied as to where it should be placed. The artisans who had delivered the statue left it in the middle of the great hall, and I was called upon to attempt to move this marble monstrosity from place to place as she so ordered. On earth, such a thing would have weighed half a ton or more, and of course it would have been impossible for me to even budge. Even on Barsoom, it was still the equivalent of three hundred pounds, and I was simply not that athletic. However, I had the strength and leverage necessary to tilt or roll the statue, allowing others to place a sort of jack under it and move it as the mistress ordered. I, of course, was the one to actually push or pull the statue. After all, as one slave merrily put it, I was little more than a human zitidar.
Even with the mechanical convenience, it would normally take four or five men to do the work that I alone was given, and in a short span of time I was pouring sweat from every inch of my skin. Trembling, I was unable to push myself or that damned contraption any further, and lay there, leaning against the statue, my flanks heaving as I tried to quell the burning in my lungs. Jod, the major domo, airily informed the slave master to have the statue moved another foot or so to the left. The slave master curtly barked an order at me. I, exhausted, ignored him. The slave master stormed over to where I rested and slapped the back of my head, repeating his demand. This one time, I was unwilling to put up with any further abuse. I turned and looked at him, my habitual slouch making me seem just slightly shorter than he himself. The slave master looked me in the eye and ordered me to move the statue, pointing at where he wanted it to go. When I remained silent and unresponsive, he cuffed me again, this time delivering a very strong blow against my skull, hard enough to make my ears ring. He made a sound of displeasure and drew back, clutching his wrist. I inwardly smiled, knowing that hitting my skull would be very much like punching a tree - it has more effect on the hand than on the trunk. Without a word, I reached out, gripped him by the front of his harness, and lifted him into the air with one hand. I was so exhausted even this effort was costly, but I felt it necessary to make a point. Gently, so as not to actually harm him, I carried him over to the statue and hooked the back of his harness over the outstretched sword of the Jeddara, and then released him to helplessly dangle several feet from the floor. The other slaves laughed as I clapped him on the shoulder in a friendly sort of way and informed him (still in english) "I'm gonna take five now."
I promptly threw myself down on the ground, my back to the statue, and pulled from my pouch a flask of mantilla sap milk, which I sipped on as I rested. The slave master, of course, became purple with indignation. I knew I was going to receive a thorough beating for this act of insubordination, but I didn't care. As he futilely struggled to release himself, fumbling with the many straps and buckles in his harness, I heard a giggle from the doorway and was surprised to see mistress Kayla Zo covering her face to avoid directly laughing at the slave master's plight. Something about that smile made everything better, and I was no longer worried about the pain I would be suffering later. I pulled a last swallow from my flask and recapped it, stowing it in my pouch as the slave master finally freed himself. Standing up, I smiled pleasantly at him, saying "Break's over". Before he could unlimber his whip, I had already moved the statue to the place indicated by the major domo. I glanced up at Jod, who was conferring with the lady of the house. She had apparently understood my refusal to work for what it was and indicated that where the statue stood was acceptable. The slave master, still furious over his loss of face, cracked his whip across my shoulders even as the Lady had indicated that my labors were to stop.
"Enough!" she cried as the slave master drew back for another lash. "I'll not have you beating this dumb brute for only doing the work of five men rather than six! Let him rest, and we shall resume in a quarter of an hour."
The slave master sneered and fingered his whip menacingly. "It's not over between us" he growled, slowly coiling the lash and stowing it on his belt once more.
"Skwikee blickee fiddle dee dee" I grinned back at him, sticking one finger in my ear and swirling it around as if I had a thought I was trying to dislodge.
I noticed that mistress Kayla was watching me in an appraising sort of way. I was sure she could hear the difference between actual english and the nonsensical babble I used in front of the others. "Islayv" she called, in a fair approximation of the sounds I had used a few days before. "Come here" she ordered in Barsoomian. I looked up at her and furrowed my brow. I was torn between my desire to be in her company and the desire to keep secret my actual level of intelligence. "Come here" she repeated, this time pointing to a spot on the floor in front of her.
I did as she commanded, figuring that I would give approximately the same level of obedience to anyone else that said "go there" and pointed to a spot, thus implying no greater degree of understanding to the audience at large. I slouched before her, my head held lower than usual so that I was clearly at a lower eye line than she herself. Looking up searchingly into her eyes, I said "Hello lady".
Turning to the Lady Garras Jan, mistress Kayla asked, "Is he truly such a mindless creature? I'm sure there is some sensibility in those eyes, and I am just as certain that the jabberwocky he speaks is not entirely without meaning or understanding."
"Islayv" she added, turning to me and looking into my eyes. "Find Kitty. Do you understand me? Kitty. Find kitty."
"Kitty!" I cried in delight, straightening up to my full height and looking about the room. I then furrowed my brow and slumped back over. Looking up at her once again, I responded, "no kitty."
I couldn't believe I was playing this elaborate game with her. I was risking my cover, my entire possibility of escape, for what? For her eyes. I knew the answer even as I tried to resist it. As long as I could play this game, convincing her I was able to communicate in some rudimentary fashion, I had the chance to look into those eyes. Were she to command me to speak in her own tongue I might do it, and hang the consequences. When she ordered, I could not help but obey.
The Lady of the house came over, giving me an appraising stare. I smiled at her in my mongoloid way, hoping that I was not about to have my deception revealed. "I do believe you may be correct, my dear" she said to mistress Kayla. "He obviously understood that word you said and tried to obey. What do you think he was looking for?"
"My sorak, Benvarius. The first time I set eyes on this queer creature, it was after Benvarius had escaped from me and was lurking in the cellars below. He had found it and was sharing a portion of his meal with the creature. He very clearly called it 'Kitty', which I suppose is his name for the wicked little beast. He was also able to discern that Benvarius was mine, and promptly handed him over to me when I discovered them."
I smiled broadly, twirling my hair with one finger as they spoke. As mistress Kayla finished her explanation, they both glanced at me. I furrowed my brow again, and looking into her wine dark eyes asked, "Where bunny kitty?"
From that point on, I was given a slightly greater measure of respect, if only because I had come to the attention of one of the mistresses of the house. The casual brutality of the other slaves would not be tolerated by her or by the Master, now that they were aware of me as anything other than a curiosity, especially since I was obviously capable of only some limited and rudimentary form of communication, and therefore was mentally unable to defend myself from the other slaves. The slave master, forbidden to take his revenge out on me overtly, found innumerable new tasks for me to perform, and was always free with the lash or goad to expedite my labors. My strength became an epic thing, as I was forced to push myself beyond even earthly endurance under the driving sting of the overseer's whip. In some instances, my feats of manual prowess were a private spectacle, as the other slaves cheered me on and wagered among themselves as to whether I could lift or move a certain thing. In some instances, as when we labored in the gardens, the Master himself might come out to view my feats, as did the other free gentry who dwell under his roof. I found it strangely reassuring that mistress Kayla would, it seemed, take any opportunity to stand at a balcony or window overlooking the place where I was put to work. When I saw her there, I truly gained the strength of a zitidar, those baluchithermian beasts of burden used by the Martian people as draft animals and mounts much as elephants are used in some parts of India.
I once chanced to pass a mirror during one of my few rest periods, and for a moment thought I had passed a fellow earth man. His skin was pale like mine, and his hair was a shock of tangled brown curls unlike the coal black coifs of the red men. The confusion lay in the fact that this stranger was so heavily muscled as to be mistaken for a professional wrestler, and his body was covered in a tracery of scars that spoke of innumerable fights. Of course, once I turned to try and speak with him I realized my mistake, and was awestruck at the transformation wrought by the vicissitudes of my captivity. I stood up straight, an unfamiliar position for me now, and squared my shoulders, pulling the mop of bangs out of my eyes. The scars, of course, came from the lash, and from the occasional accident which happens to any laborer. The muscles were far beyond anything I had imagined. I had always been soft, rounded in the way of a modern American whose routine consisted of too much food and too little exercise. I was not fat, certainly, but neither was I slim nor athletic of build. The reflection that confronted me was that of a great barrel-chested man with arms and legs girded about by powerful muscles. I was of only average height, measuring three inches less than six feet when I stood straight, but my shoulders were now deep and broad, the chest massive, the belly flat and hard. I had the look of a weight lifter, and might well have weighed as much as two hundred and fifty pounds on earth.
I was shaken out of my reverie by the sound of mistress Kayla's voice. She was standing in a nearby doorway, watching me peer at my doppelganger. "Have you never seen your own reflection, Islayv?" she asked me. "No, that can't be it. I can see it in your eyes. You've changed, haven't you? When you first came here you were not so strong, nor so tall. I've seen you, how you act when you think no one is watching. You are not the inarticulate brute everyone mistakes you for."
I turned to face her, no longer slumping to keep my head lower than hers. "Simon Hill" I said, placing a hand on my chest to indicate that I was referring to myself. I then pointed to her, saying "Mistress Kayla Zo." I then pointed to the insignia on my harness. "Slave."
Her face lit up in a broad smile. "I knew it!" she exclaimed. "You're not so dumb as everyone thinks. You just act that way... but why?" she asked, looking searchingly into my eyes. "Why do you play the fool? Why this great ruse?"
I lowered my gaze, not daring to meet her eyes. Trembling, as vulnerable and exposed as I had ever felt, I quietly murmured the first words of spoken Barsoomian I had allowed to pass my lips. "I... learn. Not from here. Not from... this place. No speak. Is said I am fool, so I am fool. Until I learn, no way to prove am not."
I felt her soft hand on my chin, as she lifted my head up to meet her gaze. "Where are you from, Simon Hill, Slave?"
I pointed upwards, and answered, "Jasoom."
So far as I know, the young mistress informed no one of my admission, but often after found excuses to have me summoned to her presence. Among others, she treated me with the tone one might use to address a toddler, using only simple words and gestures to make her commands known. Once, when a visiting courtier commented that I might be dangerous or difficult to control, she smiled sweetly and informed him that I was harmless and would never disobey her, reinforcing this comment by slapping me across the face with the palm of her hand. Hardened as I had become, I do not think I even blushed at this affront, although I did allow my head to hang slightly lower, my eyes downcast. For the most part my labors were trivial, although on occasion she and a few of her cronies might make a game of loading me with every imaginable burden, to see how much I could carry. More often than not she called upon me for an unimaginably menial task - polishing the needle sharp teeth of her sorak Benvarius. While the overall shape and appearance of the sorak is like that of the weasel, its mouth upon closer inspection is very much like the crocodile, lipless with its backward curving fangs meant to grip some morsel of food and tear it into chunks small enough to swallow. Because of this, proper care and hygiene for a sorak included a regular regimen of tooth polishing, as much for the health of the sorak as for the improvement to its overall smell and appearance. Because this was a task known to cost clumsy servants their fingers, it was a duty happily afforded to me. I was happy to submit, both because I liked Benvarius, and because it gave me time near his owner. Unfortunately, we were rarely afforded any privacy. Mistress Kayla was a princess of a great house, the granddaughter of a jed who ruled an outlying province, and niece to Lady Garras Jan wife of Kovas Morn. She was always surrounded by ladies in waiting, body servants, guards, courtiers, and cronies, none of whom wished for me to be alone in the same room with her.
Despite being a curiosity, I was a slave and therefore practically invisible to the gentry, courtiers, and freemen who came to call on the mistress. I had the opportunity to overhear much gossip, and also to observe some of the gentleman callers who, due to her appearance, wealth, and political connections, were already wooing her at so early an age. Most of these were little more than social climbing dandies who came to her with pretty words and charming gifts, but who were simply unsuitable to her as potential mates. A few were grasping speculative merchants, the sort of men called "power brokers" on my native earth. They had a sort of direct forthrightness and power of personality to which she seemed drawn, but once again she could not lower herself to marry a plebeian seeking entry to the patrician class. A few were younger sons of nobles seeking to improve the status of their family by joining their metal to a greater house. They were, for the most part, callow and untried, although some few had received commendation for their valour and prowess in the recent war against Jobar. It was among these that she seemed most interested in receiving suitors, although of course she was wise enough to know that such courtship should happen slowly.
It had been the night of another grand ball when, after a long day of strenuously rearranging half-ton objet d'art, I was informed that I was to go upstairs to the mistress' quarters and attend to her sorak. I knew that mistress Kayla Zo would be attending the ball, but it was still a chance to rest in a pleasant environment and to play with Benvarius, who at this point was as happy to perch on my shoulder as upon the mistress'. I had taken the time to wash and groom myself, since I knew full well how powerful my sweat could become after a full day of work, and I most assuredly did not want to call attention to myself in such an offensive manner. When I got to the door to her apartments, I was greeted by one of her body slaves who saw the toothbrush in my hands and immediately told me that she would fetch the bandages. The body slaves who served in the private chambers were definitely of a better class than the rough laborers who slept in the pits. They were for the most part kindly and perceptive, and knew full well the reason for why I allowed myself to be humiliated at every turn. A few of them had even taken it upon themselves to give me vocabulary lessons, and among these people, whom I considered as close to friends as I had found in this strange and forbidding world, I was willing to let down my guard and act like an intelligent being. I did not speak much, in english or Barsoomian, but they knew full well I could make my needs known if necessary. My supposed imbecility was something of a private joke among us, and they played the same unkind jests as the mistress herself when we were in the company of others.
I was given some food to eat, a few morsels of fruit that had a flavor not unlike the earthly grape but a texture more like that of a cantaloup, some flavored variety of mantalia sap tofu, and bread of a much finer texture and consistency than the coarse flat bread given to the workmen. With it came a lovely cup of actual water, pure and clear and refreshing. Such fare was a frequent benefit of being summoned to the mistress' presence, as if I had any further reason to answer her summons.After I had refreshed myself, I then had the daunting task of finding Benarius and coaxing him to submit to having his teeth cleaned. The sorak is a creature who has adapted over the ages to be a companion of the red race. While it retains certain atavistic characteristics from its earlier predatory existence, it is now wholly adapted to its role as pet in a way that might make Darwin proud. One of those atavistic characteristics was the ability to climb walls like a lizard might. Another was its need to explore, which is an extension of its former need to hunt and find shelter. Its curiosity and playfulness are attributes which were bred into succeeding generations through the process of natural selection. Playful soraks were kept healthy and happy, able to beget further generations of sorak. Surly or violent soraks were put to sleep. Bensarius was a very friendly and curious sorak who enjoyed playful exploration. He also enjoyed playing a game that could only be described as hide-and-seek. If Benvarius was in a playful mood, I might have to hunt for him for an hour or more before he was willing to let me hold him. "Chasing a playful sorak" is a euphemism on Barsoom almost perfectly analogous with the earthly turn of phrase "herding cats".
On this particular instance, Benvarius had somehow made the discovery that I could climb, too. He had stolen my toothbrush from me and held it in one paw, clinging to the wall just beyond the scope of my grasp. I would cling to the baroque ornamentation and try to grab the little monster, and it would scurry out of my grasp and then wait, patiently, just out of my reach once more. By the time I caught the beast, I was twenty feet up and sitting on a ledge. Wasting no time with returning to my seat, I remained there, curled up in what was almost a decorative window box, petting Bensarius and playing with him before I got down to the task at hand. I think the other servants had lost track of my whereabouts, for which I was grateful. No doubt they thought I could be anywhere in the palace. It once took me three days to find the little weasel and give him his requisite grooming.
As I sat in my perch high above the main room, I heard the door slam open and soon after mistress Kayla Zo came rushing in. Her head was held high, her shoulders squared back and her cheeks flushed with anger that made her eyes flash like black diamonds. Having no desire to tempt her wrath when she was in this state I kept silent and continued to pet Benvarius, who had curled up in my lap and had half closed his eyes with pleasure. The mistress was obviously in a foul mood, throwing about pillows and demanding of the empty air "who does he think he is?!?" I could only assume that some suitor had overstepped the bounds of good taste and had offended the mistress, who was normally as patient and good humored a lady as one could ask to meet. Mere moments later one of the greasy merchants entered, a man whose name I recalled was Borath Veck. That he was the one who had given her offense was made immediately obvious by their heated exchange.
"You dare!" she demanded as he entered the room, her eyes flashing and her hand already gripping the dagger at her hip. It was not typical Barsoomian custom for man to slay woman or vice versa, but he had entered her chambers uninvited and without chaperone, which was more than sufficient cause for her to defend herself. I tensed, seeing the exchange below, and set the sorak aside on the ledge next to me, so that I could drop down if the lady was in need of assistance.
"Kayla Zo, I love you, don't you understand that?" he replied. "I must have you. I will give anything to be with you!"
"Think you Kayla Zo, granddaughter of Erron Zeth, Jed of Komal, is a tavern wench to be bought with trinkets?" she demanded hotly, her cheeks flushing prettily.
"I think you are a woman, and every woman has her price!" he proclaimed, the blood rushing to his face as well.
I went rigid at his statement, just as the princess herself paled beneath her dusky countenance from shock and rage. Suddenly, the doors below me were flung open and a group of men burst in from the balcony beyond. I was already dropping down to the floor below to answer the insult to mistress Kayla when they did so, and due to the slower speed that objects fall on Barsoom, I landed just as the last of them had filed in. Three of them drew swords and faced Borath Veck. Two more moved to take the mistress. One remained to ensure that no servants were there to raise an alarm. Borath Veck backed away, hands in the air, under the threat of those three swords. He never made any move to draw his blade. I however was already upon them, having coiled like a spring upon landing and redirecting my energy forward to overtake the two that were trying to take hold of the mistress. It was a simple thing for me, with my new athletic prowess and self defense training, to grip the men by their harnesses and whirl them both about, using their bodies to knock down two of the swordsmen who had their backs to me. The sixth man charged me, his blade drawn and ready, but was unprepared for my mode of evasion. I withdrew from the onslaught of his charge, allowing him to press me back until I was a few yards from the wall, at which point I leapt back and kicked off of the barrier, sailing easily over his head. Before he could wheel about and defend himself, I had caught him at the back of the head with a simple spin kick as I landed. At that point, the other four had regained their feet, and as the fifth continued to assure Borath Veck's passive compliance, they each moved to surround me with drawn blades.
Thankfully, they carried the broad bladed short swords favored by the lower class, rather than the long slim rapier of the noble warrior. Against four men armed with long swords, I would have had no chance at all. As it was, I was now faced with a moral dilemma: was my vow of pacifism more important to me than my own life, or the life of my mistress? I did not think I could defend myself and her from these ruffians without harming them. I may have already killed the sixth man with that blow to his head. I had always believed that violence solved nothing, that aggression was simply the weak man's way of appearing strong. As I faced these men, I understood that my beliefs were true, but that they did not preclude fighting. Rather, they defined the correct time and place for it. In my own defense when faced with men who intended to kill me, or in the defense of a woman who, though unattainable, I loved nonetheless, I could fight, and kill, with a clean conscience. This knowledge filled me and moved me, and I allowed my body to move without truly thinking about what it was doing. I was in a perfect meditative state, dancing to a harmony that could only be heard as the beating of my heart. I don't recall how the battle ended. I only remember grace, and movement, and flowing energy. In the end, my hands were covered in blood, and six corpses lay strewn about the chamber.
There was a moment of silence, as I faced mistress Kayla. As the last body slid to the floor with a wet, meaty thump, I knelt on one knee before her, my head low to the ground, my palms flat on the cold marble floor. At that exact moment, a regiment of guards came rushing in through the apartment entrance, and more came in through the balcony door. They surveyed the scene in silence as I knelt at my mistress' feet. One, whose voice I recognized as the captain of the guard, demanded of Borath Veck, "What has just happened here?"
"I saw that the princess had left the party abruptly and, being concerned, went to inquire after her sudden change of mood. I was about to knock at the door when I heard a crash. Alarmed, I entered to find these men attempting to abduct the princess. As I drew my blade, one of the household servants moved to defend his mistress, and between us, the lot of them were quickly dispatched."
"Is this true?" demanded another voice. I had looked up at Borath Veck, surprised at the boldness of his lie, and saw that the master of the house, Kovas Morn, had come in to find out what had happened. He looked at his wife's niece with concern in his eyes as she shook with furious rage.
"He lies" she hissed, her face taught and tight-lipped. "He was already in this room when they came, daring to affront me further after having been rebuked for being too forward at the ball. He made no move to defend me, only to save himself. He did not draw his sword until after all the men were busy fighting this one slave, and then if his blade tasted any blood at all, it was the blood of a dying man. He is a coward, a liar, and a calot! He should be thrown to the apes and his fields sown with salt!"
"Are you saying that one slave managed to slay all these men?" Borath Veck laughed incredulously, and I saw the cunning web he had woven with his words. "An imbecile with the brains of a potted plant who can't even defend himself from the stones and insults hurled at him by bored courtiers? Have you any witnesses who can attest to this, my lady?"
She turned to me, still kneeling on the floor before her. "Tell them" she snapped.
I nodded, and rose to my feet. I allowed myself to stand up straight, the first time any but she had seen me do so. I looked my master, Kovas Morn, straight in the eye and said "The mistress speaks the truth, sir. She entered the chamber several minutes ago, alone, and in a foul mood. It was apparant from her words that she had received some great insult. Moments after, this man entered, not even seeking permission before doing so, and boldly declared his love for her, proclaiming that he would give anything to have her. She rebuked him for his unwanted remark, and reminded him of her status as a highborn lady. He replied that she was a woman, and that all women have their price."
The guards stiffened at this report, and a gasp rippled through the ladies in waiting who had assembled by now to find out what was the matter. "It was at that exact moment when six men came in by way of the balcony overlooking the gardens. This man had a sword, but did not draw it, even as the men moved to take the mistress. I would not be so impertinent as to imply cowardice in one of such lofty station, but even to a common slave with the brains of a potted plant, it occurs to me that a man seeking to impress a highborn lady might wish to draw his sword in her time of need and come to the rescue. After that point, I am unable to tell whose story is true, as I was busy fighting. I have spoken."
"You wretch!" Borath Veck sputtered, reaching for his sword and moving towards me.
A dozen men drew their blades and moved to stop him, hemming him in with a ring of serried steel. Nearby, the lady Garrath Jan looked up from the body she was examining and reported to her husband, "My lord, this man's neck has been broken, as if struck by some terrible blow. Over here, we have a man whose shoulder was dislocated and his chest staved in, also by some man or brute possessed of terrible strength. There, we have a man with a sword wound, through his chest, yet we see little evidence of the blood spray such a wound should cause. Instead, we find that the back of his head was crushed by a powerful blow. In each case, the evidence points to the man having been killed after being struck once with terrific force. An unarmed man might make such wounds, if such a man were able to lift a marble statue and move it by the force of his own thews alone."
The captain of the guard had moved to where I stood as the Lady was saying this. He lifted up my bloody hand as he addressed his liege. "This evidence alone tells the tale. He is covered with blood, but little of it is his. The slave is barely wounded." He then looked me in the eye. "You speak well, for an imbecile." I simply smiled at him, and gave him the faintest of winks.
"How long have you been able to speak?" demanded Kovas Morn of me. "Why have you continued this masquerade? Who are you?"
"I have been able to speak for some time now my lord" I answered, dropping my gaze to look at the floor before him. "I have not played out any masquerade, sir. Many of the servants here know that I can speak your tongue, it is they who have assisted me in learning to do so. I simply did not feel that it was my place to correct my betters, and few have ever asked me if I was able to speak."
Kovas Morn was silent for a moment, seemingly stunned, and then threw his head back and laughed. "But who are you?" he asked again.
"I am a servant in the house of Kovas Morn" I replied. "My former life is unimportant, I can not go back to it. I was a stranger in this city, alone, unarmed, unable to speak the native tongue, and lacking any metal to call my own. You took me in, and I have been treated with kindness here. What honor I have comes from the pride due a servant of this house. All else is meaningless to me."
Kovas Morn smiled, and placed his right hand on my left shoulder in a sign of acceptance and friendship. Unclasping a gold bracelet from his own arm, he gave it to me, saying, "Then such honor is yours. If your old name is meaningless to you, you shall have a new one befitting your station. You are Jor Komak, son of the house of Kovas Morn."
I accepted his gift with the reverence it was due, clasping the bracelet about my left wrist. I then turned to mistress Kayla, and with the barest hint of a smile, apologized to her, explaining that I had not yet managed to polish her sorak's teeth. I begged her pardon, and asked if I might be allowed to clean myself before resuming the hunt.
III: The Temple of Bar-Darras
My status after that is difficult for me to describe in the words of my native tongue. I had become an orad, a slave or servant who has been embraced as a member of the family. As such, I had more status that the other, non-orad slaves, but less than a free man. I was still at the beck and call of my masters and was worked every bit as hard as before, but I was given greater freedom including the right to wear the metal of my house and to bear arms. I was given a dagger and short sword that had once been the property of one of the gorthans (professional assassins and/or kidnappers) whom I had slain, and many of my former tormentors were now unable to strike or insult me under penalty of flogging or worse. There were few servants in this house who were my equal, and it was in their company I found myself spending time. Jod the major domo, Sharee Dan and Qualtas Fie who were both ladies in waiting bound to Lady Garrath Jan, and Norad Zek, a former panthan (mercenary) who had been too deeply indebted to avoid slavery and too honorable to flee, were all orads in the house of Kovas Morn.
One morning at the breakfast table, the topic of conversation turned to my supposed mental infirmity. Norad Zek was incredulous that so few had discovered my little ruse. "You mean no one could tell that you spoke a real language?" he asked, as he bit into a pastry.
"I could tell" interjected Jod in a bored voice. "I was surprised to learn of your origins, however," he continued, taking a sip of tea. "I actually thought that you were the bastard offspring of an Okarian and a Thern. Both races are highly inbred and doubtless would produce inferior or damaged offspring. It accounted for your coloring and for that fur you grow on your chin, and as we all know, the Holy Therns speak their own language, which they kept secret for thousands of years until the advent of the Warlord into their domain."
I smiled at Jod, answering, "I see. You knew I spoke after some fashion, but merely thought me too stupid to be taught."
Jod looked up at the ceiling, his eyelids fluttering airily as he replied with a wave of his hand "well you did such a good job of playing the idiot, how was I to know that you were merely biding your time?"
Sharee Dan looked at me, her eyes wide with surprise. "Is this true? Were you plotting to escape?"
I nodded, turning my attention to the food on my plate. "I was at first. I was taken by an unscrupulous merchant who sold me the very same day that I arrived here. Slavery is not the institution on my world that it is here, and I was not treated very kindly at first. It would only be reasonable for me to seek my freedom."
"Well, I suppose I should apologize for that" muttered Jod. "I knew it was a mistake leaving you there, but I had no other place for you, and I didn't have the time to attend you myself. I have an entire palace to run, after all."
Again I smiled at Jod. "You have never been unkind to me, and I have seen you stop others from bullying me. Your efforts have been noted and appreciated, my friend."
"Why did you do that, Jor Komak?" Norad Zek inquired, looking at me earnestly. "Why allow common slaves to beat you? I saw the aftermath of your battle. I saw from their metal and the attitudes of their bodies that those were competent gorthans. Not the full flower of Barsoomian swordsmen, but skilled at their art. You slew them all in the time it took for the guard to run a few dozen yards down the hall."
"That is the very reason, my friend" I answered. "I knew that I was stronger than them, and that they could not hurt me. You saw the time when the slave master injured his hand from striking me? My bones and sinews are far tougher than yours. A few slaps won't do me any lasting harm."
"But your pride, man. How could you swallow your pride and allow such a thing?" he asked, adding "I would have slain them all, even though the master sent me to the great games for it."
"It was pride that stayed my hand" I told him, after taking a sip of water. "While their blows stung my ego, my pride would not allow me to harm a person who was weaker than myself, especially one whom I knew to be inferior."
Everyone at the table laughed and agreed that the reasoning was sound. After all, they were common slaves bullying a person of lesser rank, whom they believed to be no brighter than a beast of burden and thus incapable of defending himself. Whether on earth or Mars, such behavior denotes nothing but weakness and cowardice, traits for which the true Barsoomian has no respect.
I still suffered the same casual cruelties and demeaning commands of mistress Kayla, and she still played at treating me like a simpleton in front of others. If anything, now that it was known to all and sundry that I was able to understand her words as well as any other in the room, her language became more derogatory, and she would frequently cuff me lightly for the least mistake or error. My daily duties often involved the same back breaking labor, but I was also sent to accompany my betters as a body guard when they would travel abroad in the city. In many ways being an orad was held in higher regard than many kinds of freeman, as it indicated a person of such worth that they were gifted with their master's metal for some service or deed. As such, I was considered emblematic of a kind of chivalric virtue fairly worshipped by the red men of Mars, but sadly an almost dead concept on my native world. While I was still a slave and thus invisible for all intents and purposes, panthans would often nod when they saw me, and even noblemen showed me a degree of courtesy.
When not being called upon to be a pale muscular shadow at the heel of my masters, I was free to move about the city. I was given a small stipend of money by the major domo every few months with which to entertain myself. I had by this time become so accustomed to the spartan lifestyle of a lower class slave that the simple comforts and entertainments of an orad seemed decadent to me. As such, I frequently had a surplus of cash to my name when others such as Norad Zek had spent their last coin. Thus, he was often after me to loan him money, or at least to accompany him to various taverns and other establishments. Entertainment to a Martian most frequently consists of bloodsports, of one form or another. Wrestling, boxing, knife fighting, dueling, and animal acts were all featured spectacles at the sorts of establishments my friend wished to visit. I have never had any taste for such spectacles, and preferred to spend my free time at one of the many universities acquiring knowledge of the fantastic technology of the red Martians. I found it fascinating that they were so highly advanced as a race, and yet there was so little progress in their technology. They could, for example, manipulate light so that no glare reflected from a street lamp, yet they had nothing like the laser. It seemed that individual Martians might spend centuries developing some project in secret, only to reveal it in its final form. The byproducts of their research were often discarded as inconsequential, and thus many roads of technological progress were repeatedly discovered and lost as some invention was taken to its ultimate form.
Warfare was another example of this strange dichotomy of innovation and stagnation. Nearly a thousand years ago, some brilliant Martian inventor had found a means of harnessing a kind of electromagnetic energy still indescribable in earthly terms, which the Warlord calls the "eighth ray". By means of this energy, the Martians had found a means of counteracting the force of gravity. This energy was stored in banks or batteries, each of which generated a certain amount of lift, almost like a balloon. Thus, airships have been a major aspect of Barsoomian life for ten generations or more.
The airship is the backbone of the Barsoomian fighting force, and each nation state prides itself in the prowess of its navy. Nearly every nation upon the face of Mars is in a state of semi-perpetual war with some other nation. As the average Barsoomian lives for several centuries, grudges can take a very long time to play themselves out, and there is no race upon Barsoom who will accept peace at the expense of their honor. Despite this constant warfare, and the constant use of airships as a means of transporting soldiers and munitions to the battlefield, as well as engaging in strategic battles in their own right, the nature of the airship is nearly unchanged from the grand vessels which first plied the skyways a thousand years before. On earth, in the days of the Warlord, our fighting ships went from being wooden vessels with sails and fixed cannon emplacements to ironclad steamers with rotating turrets. In the hundred and fifty years hence, the nature of our war machines have become nearly unrecognizable. Battleships on Mars are, for all intents and purposes, the equivalent of open air zeppelins with fixed batteries mounted along their flanks. Their primary weapons are simple gravity bombs which they drop indiscriminately on the city below. Ship to ship combat is typically fought by boarding parties that swarm from one vessel to another and fight in hand to hand combat like sailors in an old pirate epic. The height of superiority of firepower upon Barsoom is nothing more than an old fashioned broadside delivered by a blimp.
Such paradoxes left me in an introspective mood. As the Warlord has mentioned in his annals, life is cheap on this world, where warfare is the favorite pastime and medicine has advanced to the point that only the most grievous of wounds prove fatal. I concluded that it was this love of warfare which led to a great deal of the stagnation in their technology. After all, if a race prefer to settle their disputes with blade in hand, looking their enemy in the eye as they battle for supremacy, and knowing that being shot or stabbed could well prove to be little more than an inconvenience, the equivalent of an earthly cold or stubbed toe, then warfare does not take on the grim spectre that it has on earth, where men bleed and die and doctors have been known, in their compassion, to find ways for one man to do the killing of an entire regiment. Perhaps Orwell was right. On Barsoom at least, war is peace, and freedom, slavery. Soon after I came to this conclusion, I began to accompany Norad Zek to his favorite gambling halls and fighting salons. When he asked about my change of heart, I simply answered that I had been discovering the differences between how his people and my own viewed war and violence.
Time passed, and I became more accomplished in my studies. While no academic in my earthly life, I understood enough basic principles of earthly science to grasp aspects of Barsoomian technology which they themselves seemed unaware. Many things my former people used which would never be embraced by the red men of Dar, but others made for useful tools or amusements. As a hobby, I had begun to use the Barsoomian technique of image projection and adapted it to allow for a thing still sought after by the men of earth - true holography. As a byproduct, I had also developed a powerful but hand-held tool laser which looked like little more than a common Barsoomian radium lamp. I later had much cause to bless the idle hands which led me to construct these things.
One day, I was called into the presence of my mistress, the Lady Garrath Jan. I was informed that it was time for the annual pilgrimage to the temple of Bar-Darras, and that I would accompany her niece, mistress Kayla Zo. I was informed that, as a son of the house of Kovas Morn, I would be expected to participate in those ancient rites, and that the young mistress would instruct me in what my duties were. My heart leapt into my throat as I heard her utter those words! I knew nothing of what transpired at the great temple, save that it was an honor for which men had petitioned the mistress and even fought duels over. I could see the barest shadow of a smile on the Lady's crimson lips as I bowed and thanked her for the opportunity to serve. I was dismissed, and veritably flew to the chambers I had been given. I spent the remainder of the day furiously grooming myself and polishing my few meagre possessions until even the worn and faded leather of my harness shone like it was new. That morning, I was awake before my alarm could activate itself. I glanced in the mirror as I tried to shape the wretched mass of curls on my head into some semblance of a form acceptable to the people of Dar. I quickly scraped a razor over my chin to remove the stubble which had grown there since the previous day, and then applied the wonderful lotion provided by Jor which almost instantly healed the knicks in my jaw, softened and moisturized my skin, and even added a pleasant but subtle odor, which was barely noticeable but I was told suited me admirably. I gave my hair one last pass of the comb, the straps of my sandals one last spit polish, and buckled the weapons to my harness. I stood at the mistress' door, quietly waiting, for nearly half an hour, as dawn broke abruptly over the Martian horizon.
I had thought the mistress beautiful before, but in retrospect, she did not primp and preen nearly as much as other women. Now, having spent the morning attended by her ladies in waiting, her hair appropriately coifed, her skin glowing like polished marble, she was absolutely radiant. I could not help myself. In the light of the smile that greeted me as a servant opened the door (she had just given orders to summon me), I knelt before her once again, as I had the day she was attacked by the gorthans. Head lowered (as much to save me from stammering as I looked upon her radiance) and hands pressed flat upon the floor before me, I spoke. "Jor Komak, your servant, awaits his mistress' command."
"Come in you dullard, and stop blocking the door" was her only reply.
We traveled in a grand cavalcade to the temple, which was in reality very nearly a city in its own right, some thirty miles west of Dar. Dar was an ancient city, one of the long dead seaports which the fair haired, fair skinned race of now long dead Martians had built during the height of their empire. Nestled among high mountains, the urban center was safe from many of the threats which endanger any community on Mars. Below the mountains is a vast plateau which once long ago was a shallow sea, on the edge of which the ancient mariners had built their city. The people of Dar were a proud race. Though they were not the military superpower that the Heliumites were, they accounted themselves as ancient and as honorable. They, too, had been among the builders of the great Martian waterways, and they, too, had labored to construct the massive atmosphere factory which kept all of Mars livable. The temple of Bar-Darras is built upon a huge spire of rock, brooding and massive, which once was an ancient volcanic island rising up out of the sea. The great temple itself is a palatial structure built into the bowl of that extinct volcano, while all around it nestled into the sides of the mountain are hanging gardens and palaces of lesser stature, meant for the comfort of the priests who tend the palace, and the nobles who come there to worship. No airship is permitted to fly over the spire of Bar-Darras, not even the Jeddara's own. All about the ancient pinnacle, lesser islands bristle with fortifications, their great guns pointed skyward. The orders given those batteries is to shoot first, and never ask questions.
The mistress and I traveled in a great three wheeled chariot which had been hitched to a team of thoats. Thoats were massive creatures, the smaller, gentler ones preferred by red Martians being the size of a clydesdale or greater. They were also exceptionally ill-tempered by earthly standards, the "gentle" ones having much the same temperament as a mule or camel. Supposedly the savage green men rode beasts of far greater size and ferocity, who were so dangerous and unpredictable they would often turn against their riders and attack them, tearing the hapless warrior to bits. We were accompanied by many of the mistress' servants and ladies in waiting, all of whom had taken the time to groom and dress themselves as best they might given their circumstances. Nearly all the house of Kovas Morn was making this pilgrimage, and in fact I was sure that nearly the whole of Dar had emptied itself for this religious festival. Only those garrisons sworn to defend the city and temple from invasion remained steadfast, and for this act they received the highest respect and accolade. Among our procession, the Lord and Lady rode upon the back of a gigantic zitidar, lounging within a brightly bedecked howda festooned with silks and jewels. So massive are these beasts of burden that the howda in which our masters rode was nearly the size of my quarters in the palace. Other gentry of the house of Kovas Morn rode in chariots like my own, surrounded by their slaves and attendants. In our midst, even the lowly workmen and household slaves walked in the dust, following after and chatting gaily amongst themselves, eager with anticipation for the festivities that were to follow. As we approached the great temple, I observed other processions entering the sacred precincts from all directions. Every community in the kingdom of Dar was emptying itself to attend this yearly ritual.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted by priests and heirodules bedecked in a colorful profusion of jewels and ornaments, who welcomed us warmly, and with great fanfare. We disembarked from our chariot and were ushered to a palace built from blocks of blue-green marble of a sort for which this region was famous. The palace was small, only about the size of an earthly chapel, and was a rambling structure whose architecture followed the traditional blueprint of Barsoomian estates. As airships were forbidden here, the flat roofs familiar in a modern city were replaced with the ancient domes and spires preferred by the long deserted habitations of the ancient people of Mars, the overall effect being rather like having been given a grand mosque for one's home. As was the case with every palace within the temple precincts, this one was given to the care of a priest and his servants, who was the master of the house and our host for the events which were to come. Commoners and slaves were sent to large rambling structures set aside for those of lesser status, and which were ruled by monastic collectives. Priests had no actual authority of their own in Dar, but the position was one of great respect, and deference was accorded as if he were a member of the aristocracy.
As we entered the great hall of the palace which was given over to us, we were greeted by a servant who informed us that the master of the house, Erzod Kolaris, would arrive to meet us shortly. The mistress told me to await her in the chamber beyond, while she dispatched her own servants to set up the apartments to her liking. I found myself in a small, sparsely furnished circular room without any windows, lit by the guttering radiance of only a few oil lamps (unlike the clean white light of the radium bulbs which are standard throughout almost every house and structure inhabited by the red men). I saw one additional doorway other than the one I entered through, and from its look I surmised that the corridor beyond wound about the circumference of the room, forming a ramp from some upper gallery to the vaults below. One of the peculiarities of Martian architecture, as has been commented on innumerable times by my betters, is of course the fact that the people of Barsoom have never developed stairs, but prefer gentle ramps or slopes to traverse from one level to the next, the ergonomic inefficiency of which lends itself to the grand scale of their architectural designs. Having nothing to do but wait, I gathered one of the silk cushions that were strewn about the room and placed it upon the floor, kneeling upon it and resting on my heels. There was but one chair and a single stool, and I surmised that the mistress might well be accompanied by the priest who is the master of the house. I stilled my mind and allowed myself to meditate, becoming completely relaxed as I waited for my mistress' arrival.
Unbeknownst to me, my actions were being monitored by a device concealed in the room, my choice of furniture and posture being judged according to certain archaic ritual standards. That I simply knelt and quietly awaited further instruction was noted, as was the fact that I remained still and silent during the long duration of my wait. It was, in fact, long after nightfall when my mistress entered the room, accompanied by the old priest. My eyes were closed, and it would be quite reasonable for them to assume that I was asleep, but as is often the case with states of deep meditation I was quite aware of my surroundings. I heard the soft pad of my mistress' sandals in the hall behind me and my heart quickened a tiny bit. I could hear the soft rustling of the voluminous silk robes worn by the priest, and the occasional soft chime of the mistress' ornaments. They stood in the doorway, silently regarding me for a moment, before the priest spoke.
"This one is to be your bull, then?" he asked in a soft voice, so as not to disturb me. "I believe I have heard of him. He may be virile as you claim, but is he not some sort of monstrous idiot, devoid of the ability to speak?"
"He is a dumb brute, but he is also unswerving in his loyalty" she assured the priest. "Is that not so, you dullard?"
"It is as you say, my lady" I answered her, without turning or opening my eyes.
"He speaks!" the priest exclaimed, sounding surprised. "I see that gossip has, as usual, distorted all fact into fiction."
I could hear my mistress enter the room, her stride confident as she moved to where I was facing. "Jor Komak, attend me" she commanded. I opened my eyes and bowed before her, placing my flat palms on the marble floor before me and lowering my head until it nearly touched my knuckles.
As I knelt, she continued. "This man is Erzod Kolaris, priest of Bar-Darras and master of this house. You will obey him in all things." In response, I sat up, turned to the priest, and bowed to him.
"You are a stranger to this temple, Jor Komak, orad of the house of Kovas Morn" the priest intoned an a grave voice. "Before you may be accepted into the house of Bar-Darras, you must be instructed in our ways. You must be cleansed and purified. You will suffer many ordeals in this house, before you are deemed worthy of entrance to the temple of our God. Although you are a mere slave, such a journey may not be undertaken lightly, save by your own will and request alone."
Instinctively, I glanced at my mistress, and saw the barest nod of approval from her. Addressing the priest, I replied "Master, that I wear the metal of Kovas Morn is my greatest honor and most cherished dignity. I submit myself to you to instruct me in whatever way is deemed just, that I may be worthy of the honor my masters have seen fit to bestow upon me."
"Then let your ordeal commence" the priest intoned. "Unbuckle your harness and leave behind all of your trappings. Take the door before you and descend into the pits beneath us. There my servant will instruct you further."
I complied with his instructions, and placed my belongings on the cushion upon which I had only recently sat. Even the gold bracelet given to me by Kovas Morn himself was unfastened and left behind. Naked and vulnerable, I descended into the depths, without even a candle to light my way. The ramp spiraled down in a smooth arc, boring deep into the bedrock like some gigantic corkscrew. Alone in the darkness, with no end in sight, it seemed to me as though I were descending into the very abyss itself. Eventually, however, I came to observe a pale green radiance below me, which soon revealed itself to be the bottom of the shaft. The tunnel ceased to curve about and instead bored straight, its angle of descent becoming far gentler. At the end was a chamber filled with sparkling golden light, which was caught and reflected by the polished bluegreen marble of the hall itself, creating the glow I had seen. I was unsure how far into the belly of Mars I had traveled, but I knew myself to be deep below the surface. Here, at the end of the corridor, was a natural cavern grotto which remained nearly pristine, and within it was a thing I had not expected to ever see again. Before me, filling the chamber with dancing reflections, was a vast pool of fresh water. In the midst of this subterranean reservoir was an island, upon which a small house of magnificent and typically opulent design had been built. It was this house that provided the dazzling light which filled the chamber with radiance. I quickly realized that it was not so very much light at all, but to my starved senses it had seemed a banquet of illumination.
I confess that in the presence of so much clean water I rather forgot myself. It had been a long day and my throat was parched from the dust kicked up by the animals in our cavalcade. The smell of water, so unaccustomed to me after so long in the desert climate of Barsoom, filled my nose and intoxicated me. With a cry of pleasure I rushed over to the water's edge and began to drink.
"Fool of a mortal!" cried a voice behind me. "If you drink from the well of knowledge, take care that you do not drown!"
Suddenly, I felt a boot on my backside, tipping me into the water! The pool wasn't very deep, only five feet or so, and I resurfaced quickly. Laughing, I sported in the water, splashing and diving as if I hadn't a care in the world. Taking a deep breath, I plunged beneath the surface and explored the bottom of the lake, swimming along what turned out to be a path from the edge of the lake to the island. On either side of the path, the pool was significantly deeper, and I was able to swim freely, before surfacing again to draw another breath. It had been many years since I last allowed myself the luxury of swimming on earth, and finally I simply rested, allowing myself to float to the surface where I lay on by back and lazily paddled over to the edge of the water. There, standing at the lip of the pool, was a man dressed in the simple harness of an orad, his metal signifying him as a servant of the temple. He stared at me, sporting in the water, as if I were doing the unthinkable. Chagrined, I dampened my enthusiasm and climbed back out of the water. I must confess, I was afraid that I had unintentionally committed some heresy. It was not until he spoke that I realized what was the matter.
"Are you man or fish to cavort in the water so?" he demanded of me as I clambered out of the pool.
I looked at him sharply, not expecting such a question, and then it flashed upon my memory something that had been mentioned in the memoirs of the Warlord. The oceans of Barsoom began dwindling many long aeons ago, and for the last ten thousand years there has been no free standing water upon the face of Barsoom, save for the sacred river Iss which flows to the lost sea of Korus, somewhere in the region of the south pole. Because of the aridity of their environment, to which the red man has adapted, they not only lack the skills necessary to swim, but are possessed of a deep abiding horror of drowning. Realizing that being plunged into a pool of deep water was supposed to be some sort of ordeal, I laughed, as sat down at the water's edge.
"I am a man of Jasoom, friend, and upon my world, such stuff covers almost three quarters of the orb!" I declared, grinning happily. Then, forcing a more solemn look upon my face, I added in graver tones, "I apologize if I have offended your ways, for I am not yet initiated into the mysteries of this temple. I am afraid my thirst got the better of me, and I forgot my proper place."
I learned that indeed this was meant to be an ordeal, wherein the floundering initiate had to learn to trust his guide, or else slip from the ledge into the deep waters below. Feeling quite content after my brief swim, I gallantly offered to carry the heirodule upon my shoulders, so that he need not immerse himself in the stuff. As we went, he explained the mysteries I was theoretically supposed to be traumatized into understanding. In essence, the philosophy of the temple was a kind of motivational hedonism. It was logical to their way of thinking that those things which are good give us pleasure, and those which are bad cause us pain and suffering. The paradox upon which their religious mystery is built comes from the fact that some things which are good seem to cause discomfort, while other things which are bad might appear to be superficially pleasurable. Water is the first significator of this mystery, in that it was a precious and highly coveted substance which held a deep and abiding terror to the red race, thus embodying the dichotomy of their deeper wisdom. While no scholar among my own people, I recognized an echo of the greek philosophers, who espoused a similar means of telling good from evil, right from wrong. The first lesson was, therefore, for me to find a bridge between my ancestors and my new home.
My learning took only a few days, as the slave instructed me in the mysteries and legends of their religion. It seems that the wealth of water comes from natural springs deep within the earth, which it is believed communicate with the lost sea of Korus within the valley Dor. The very similarity between the names Dar and Dor comes from this connection, I was told, and here flourished one of the oldest sects of ancestor worship which was at the core of the world-old religion promoted by the holy therns. I was surprised to learn this fact, since I clearly remembered learning that the Therns were a false priesthood, who manipulated the peoples of Barsoom in order to trick pilgrims into a final hajj from which there was no escape. I remarked upon my surpass, and was told that the news was no less shocking to the people of Dar.
It seems that the ancient methods of communication used by the Therns for thousands of years were somehow severed with the people of Dar long ago. Thus cut off from the actual central authority of their religion, the Darrians had developed their own theology, based upon the idea that the sacred river Iss was a metaphor for the journey of life, and the Valley Dor an allegory of how living a good life leads to its own rewards. The discovery half a century ago of the homeland of the Holy Therns was subject to great consternation, as it lent credible material reality to a thing of myth and legend. Many were disillusioned by this revelation and left the temple, but many more stayed, preferring the simple truths of good living and service which were the core tenets of the Bar-Darran way to the absolute and uncompromising atheism which is still tearing many of the nations of barsoom apart.
Once I had been sufficiently educated and had embraced the core tenets of the religion, I was ready to be prepared for service to the temple. The great paradox, I was told, was that a man finds pleasure in duty and obligation, even though such duty is often unpleasant in and of itself. So it was that I would be prepared for the coming festivities by undergoing numerous ordeals, which I would have to endure as my duty to the temple and to my mistress. I had no fear of any such ordeal as I considered this to be little more than an accurate description of my daily life, and I said as much to my keeper. He simply smiled knowingly and told me that my service would begin upon the morrow.
I will not go into any great detail concerning my lessons over the next few days, save to say that my ordeals bore less resemblance to the forced labor of my earlier incarceration, and were cast more in the mold of the writings of the Marquis De Sade. I was beaten, humiliated, and broken in ways that I can not fully describe. The same techniques which make Martian doctors nearly godlike as battlefield surgeons, also allow them access the most horrible of tortures. I was caused no lingering damage, but my endurance was pushed in ways that the overseers whip had never done. Throughout those dark days, chained in a pit beneath the temple of Bar-Darras, only one thought sustained me, and that was the thought of my mistress, in whose company I could spend a few pleasant hours after I had proven my metal to the priesthood. I found myself challenging the torturers, goading them into pushing me farther and farther along. It became a contest for me, and a spectacle for the priests, as I strove to surpass myself, just as I did in those days when the slave master set me to task laboring alone in the gardens. And just as in those days, I would occasionally look up to a high balcony, and see my mistress standing there, watching me as I suffered some indignity.
At the end of each day's torment, I would be cast in a cell, where some slave would tend my wounds and see to my needs. I would often fall asleep as I was ministered to, too exhausted to carry on. One night, I awoke in my cell, aware that there was someone in the room with me. I started, only to feel soft fingers pressed against my lips. I heard mistress Kayla's voice in the darkness, whispering for me to be silent.
"I have watched you, Jor Komak, for the many months you have dwelled in the house of my kin, and in that time I think I have come to know you. You do not speak what is in your mind, nor can the secret be plucked from your thoughts, but rather you communicate as a man should, by deeds and honor. I can not answer what your heart has silently spoken, for reasons you know full well. But this is a sacred place, where the customs of the outer world fall away, and we are free to do what is right, and just. I have noted your service, Jor Komak, and it is pleasing to me."
With those words, she was gone, no more than an apparition born from slumber-shrouded night. I was tempted to doubt my own memory of it, thinking it a dream brought on by stress and delirium. But that next day, as I was brought before the priests once more and forced to kneel before them, kissing the tails of the lash that was about to be used upon me, I saw her there on the balcony above, smiling.
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