by Den Valdron
“You ordered me put to death!” I complained.
We were standing in Hedo Lettus private throne room, as he lounged on a large cushioned dais with his concubines.
I was still trying to process whatever it was that had happened out there in the amphitheatre. I swung on Aspar Aguus.
“You! You! You.... Had those ....” I gestured mindlessly towards my breasts, pantomiming hands coming out of them. “...things!”
“Where? I mean, how?” I tried to focus. “What the hell?”
“We all have them,” Hedo Lettus said. “We are descended from the four armed green men, after all. But among the Orgus, the extra arms fail to develop properly, they grow withered and stunted, barely capable of movement among many of us.”
He glanced at Aspar Aguus.
“You must have been practicing quite a bit,” he said.
“Well, I never... I mean... you never showed me.”
“For the most part, they are small withered dangling bits of flesh. We cover and conceal them. I hear that the males of your kind do something similar,” he explained. “It's a social thing.”
Again, he glanced at Aguus.
“That, by the way, was quite a scandalous show you put on. I'm afraid many were quite shocked at your impropriety. Do be more careful in the future.”
Okay, thought. Okay. I would deal with this.
“But you sentenced me to death?” I said.
“Are you still on about that?” He asked. “How can you be a companion to Aspar Aguus and so utterly humourless.”
He sighed and turned to his majordomo.
“How many did I sentence to death that day?” He asked.
“Over thirty,” the bureaucrat responded.
“And how many were actually killed?”
“Including the one who fell from the thoat and broke his neck before you could commute his sentence? Two.”
Heddo Lettus turned to me.
“There, you see.”
“But why?” I asked. Appalled.
One of Hedo Lettus’ concubines popped a sweetmeat into his mouth.
“Are you sure she's royalty?” He asked.
Aspar Aguus shrugged.
“Whatever,” the Jeddak said dismissively. “For your information, there is absolutely nothing better to clear the air and simplify negotiations than to condemn someone to death at the outset. You have no idea how it cuts through nonsense. You should adopt the technique in your own rule.”
My mind boggled.
“I didn't know.”
Hedo Lettus shrugged. “Well, it works better that way.”
“But you had me chained out among the rocks.”
Hedo Lettus turned a long suffering look upon Aspar Aguus.
“Consider this,” he said, “the Orgus are in many ways, a mighty race. But in other ways, we are weak. Our numbers are small, our allies few, our territories poor. Barsoom is the graveyard of peoples mightier than us. We must survive by our wits as much as our courage and strength.”
“Along comes a maniac,” he continued. “Some jumped up despot, as these red men are overfond of producing. Well, in such a case, we endure. We flatter, we threaten, we bend as we must, resist where we may, and in time, the maniac goes away, wanting nothing we have, and unwilling to bear the price of taking it.”
“But let us say that this maniac, is somewhat extraordinary. Well, we have endured extraordinary maniacs. In times of desperation, we may retreat to Megas Ark, our sanctuary, where none may follow.”
“Ah, but this maniac has built a fleet of ships capable of laying waste our sanctuary. And even worse, he manages to seduce some of my Jeds from their loyalty. You see my problem? To resist brings extermination, we can only bow to his will, serve his designs, all the while watching for advantage.”
He paused while one of his concubines fed him a piece of fruit. He chewed noisily, the juices running down the side of his mouth, while regarding me with his good eye.
“This is the situation. Now into this situation, into my very throne room, comes an extraordinary being. A lost Princess, from a lost city none of us knew even existed until Markath Khan proceeded to loot it.”
“A Princess with a phantom army, which seems on its face ridiculous. But then again, the notion of an entire city sitting unknown is ridiculous. Ridiculous has recently been redefined. Now a Princess, that may have possibilities.”
“But what am I to do with a Princess so nakedly parading in my throne room. Well, my duty is clear, by rights I must notify Markath Khan and hand her over. But if I do this, then all possible advantage is lost.”
“But I cannot withhold her from Markath Khan, she is a slender and unknown thread. Should I risk the entire Orgus nation on her. Defy Markath Khan for the uncertain opportunities she may or may not bring. No, I cannot do that.”
“So what is the solution? Best to sentence her to death, and then put her out someplace where her phantom army could retrieve her, with the weakest and worst lock we can find, oh, and a skin of water. We cannot be faulted if nature takes its course.”
“From thence, we may, with clear conscience, report to Markath Khan that she has escaped, if he sends his agents quickly, or been duly executed, if he sends them slowly.”
“Happily, you were long gone by the time my men came to gather you up.”
“What,” I demanded, “if I'd still been there.”
Hedo Lettus chuckled. “Why then, you would have proven yourself so helpless, ineffectual and friendless, that it would have been a mercy killing.”
“Oh,” I had the appalling feeling that I was not the cleverest person in the room. It was humbling.
“Well,” I pouted, “I don't have to like it.”
“Did you send me to find Aspar Aguus?” I asked.
He grunted. Of course not, Matlass Kay and Konand Oyl had yet to show their hand. I had no idea I had nearly lost a Jed. That was pure fortune.
Well, that was some comfort, anyway.
“And what happened out in the amphitheatre,” I asked. “Did you and Aspar plan that out in advance?”
Hedo Lettus bellowed with laughter.
“Goodness, no,” he said, “that was sheer entertainment. No one, but our Jed here, had a plan coming in, and even then, he showed a remarkable talent for improvisation I had not seen before. I think you have been an influence on him. But my dear, do not imagine that you are the only one who thinks on their feet.”
“Apparently,” I deadpanned.
“Well,” he said, “we ow you our gratitude. He is both remarkable and frustrating, is he not?”
“None other,” Hedo Lettus complained, “a paragon of rectitude, honourable, fearless, endlessly capable. He makes us all look bad. Had I a hundred like him, I would be forced to conquer all Barsoom, if for no other purpose than to make them all feel useful.”
“Indeed,” I said.
“And contrarily foolish in such peculiar ways,” Heddo Lettus said. “Did you know he talks about me behind my back, to my face. Frustrating!”
“I know it,” I replied.
“You, from his reports, strike me as a most remarkable creature. It pleases me that we did not have you torn to pieces by wild beasts. You have astonished me with the trouble you have been able to cause.”
“Thanks,” I said. Keep it short, I thought, give away as little as possible. If I'd learned anything from the Amphitheatre, it was that these Orgus were clever and capricious in ways I'd never dreamed. They were like a monsters bedroom farce gone horribly wrong and saturated with blood and guts.
“And we owe you a debt of gratitude, for it is clear that you saved his live not once, but many times. I am told you sacrificed your honour and submitted to degradation intolerable for one of your race.”
What? What was he talking about?
Then it came back to me. Oh that! Well, it wasn't actually that bad. Pleasant really, in a mild lukewarm way.
“Oh that,” I said. Still, best to get some mileage out of it. “er... yes, it was a profound sacrifice.”
“We do appreciate it,” Heddo Lettus said. “But this brings up an awkward subject.”
“There is the matter of sex, which, as I recall you were most insistent upon.”
Oh that! Oh no!
“I would certainly oblige, as we are fast allies and I owe you a great debt, I feel that I am rather compelled to indulge your wishes, if for no other reason than gratitude.”
“Ohhhh,” I said, “it's okay, not to worry.”
“You are generous and gracious,” he replied, “but well do I know that the sexual capacities of the Orgus are both prodigious and irresistible to women of your race. We are legendary, in fact, and I have contributed my fair share to those legends. I cannot deny your request.”
“I'm sure you can,” I said desperately.
“But I must deny you!” He said. “I am mortified to say, your kind is not appealing to me. And as there is not a bag to find anywhere for you to wear on your head...”
“I'm pretty sure we can find a bag,” Aspar Aguus said.
“I'm pretty sure we can't,” Heddo Lettus snapped.
“No, I'm certain I saw an assortment in your wardrobe.”
“You must be mistaken.”
“No you must overlooked, I'm sure they're there, I'll just pop over and...”
“You can stop helping me now, Aspar Aguus,” Heddo Lettus said.
“As I was saying: No bag, no sex, my apologies.”
“I think I'll bear up,” I said dryly.
“I'm glad that's settled,” he replied, and then whispered a quiet aside to Aspar Aguus. “You see? Dodged that bullet. It's all a matter of finessing them properly.”
I rolled my eyes.
“So what now?” I said. “May I return to my Pinnace?”
“Of course,” Heddo Lettus smirked. “But there will be a caveat.”
Hedo Lettus straightened up, glaring at me.
“We have the sacred, secret jewels of power. We have found them and recovered them, and we hold them secure. We will not allow your kind, not even you, our valued ally, to control such power.”
I blinked in astonishment.
Hedo Lettus leaned back, oozing satisfaction. “Yes, you are shocked, it is plain on your face. You clearly thought to recover them at some point. But you have tarried to long. They are ours, and we will not surrender them.”
“I guess,” I said carefully.
“You,” he said, “will doubtless point out that they are useless in our hands, without someone of your blood to activate them. Perhaps we have such, perhaps we do not. But for our purposes, whether we can use them or not, it is sufficient for us to deny them to all others.”
“A balance then,” I ventured.
Hedo Lettus grinned.
“You take setbacks remarkably well.”
Was he mocking me? I couldn't be sure.
“So how am I to defeat Markath Khan without them?”
“As you have been doing. You have fomented uprisings in his city and his prize, stripped him of half his fleet, freed the Orgus from his grip. I understand that you have been to Shiaze. All of these are remarkable accomplishments.”
“You have allies,” he said, “you must unite them, marshall them. There are others who would resist him, conquered cities chafing under his rule, foreign cities who want him stopped. You must wield them together, keep the initiative, build ties.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
Heddo Lettus shrugged.
“For a person of your extraordinary capacities,” he said, “it is as nothing.”
“And I can rely upon the Orgus as allies now?”
“Of course,” said Heddo Lettus, “we are your most steadfast allies, so long as you require no assistance, make no demands, ask of us no treasure, so long as we are required to take no risk, and expend no lives.”
“Anything you ask,” Aspar Aguus said, “that is within our power, shall be yours to command. Tell us where and when to fight, command us as your own, and we shall obey. We only ask that you choose wisely.”
“You can stop helping now, Aspar Aguus,” Heddo Lettus growled. “Does he do this to you, too?”
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