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Solo Paxis glared up at the cold black sky. The silent stars frowned down on him.
Just the previous afternoon he had been laboring as the newest addition to a crew of workers tasked with the fortification of an ancient stretch of wall bordering a great waterway, when a commotion ensued following the unexpected collapse of a section of newly laid stones onto the unhappy workmen below.
Coincidentally, the portion of the wall that had given way was that for which Solo Paxis had been assigned the responsibility of mixing adhesive mortar.
Rather than lingering for what was bound to be a tedious discussion involving recriminations and culpability, he had taken advantage of the chaos precipitated by the frantic cries of those now trapped beneath the stones to quietly take his leave of what had clearly been an occupation well below his level of expertise, and struck out for new domains.
To facilitate his eventual transition to a more suitable vocation, and in lieu of the payment due him for half a day’s labor, Solo Paxis had appropriated a satchel of sophisticated implements and measuring devices previously in the possession of the foreman of the crew.
The question of how to expeditiously extract himself from the scene of calamity was quickly resolved. Pleased to discover an unattended skiff moored nearby, he had tossed the satchel onto the floorboards. Leaping lightly after it, he loosed the rope and glided off onto the canal.
Solo Paxis had little in common with the seafaring men of old Barsoom; travel on the waterway was a novel experience for him, at once unnatural and serene. Two pairs of slender oars lay beneath the forward seat, yet the sluggish current bore the craft away from the scene of turmoil with no apparent need for guidance by its occupant. Solo Paxis was soothed by the gentle rocking motion and soon drifted into a tranquil sleep.
He was awakened abruptly by a series of rocking jolts to find that some hours had elapsed. Afternoon had faded into evening and the sky was darkening rapidly above an unfamiliar landscape. The skiff, which had apparently exited the canal through a narrow side channel, was just emerging onto a broader and much more swiftly moving waterway, this one bordered by high, inward-sloping cliffs rather than a manmade wall.
The sedately drifting craft seemed suddenly to have gained a destination. As Solo Paxis surveyed the scene with consternation, the boat was seized by the powerful current and borne toward the cliffs with gathering speed.
“Slow your pace!” Solo Paxis commanded as the rock wall loomed, frantically smacking the side of the craft with his palm as if remonstrating with a recalcitrant thoat. “Halt, I say!”
No more or less obedient than the average thoat, the skiff continued its headlong rush toward the rocky shore.
Vibrating with panic, Solo Paxis snatched up an oar and lurched to his feet. The action was ill-advised: the boat swayed to starboard, Solo Paxis pitched to port, and suddenly he found himself bobbing and spluttering in the cold water, still clutching the oar, some yards from the refractory craft.
Despite having become well acquainted through the pages of a charming picture book he had owned as a child with the habits of many a sleek and colorful fish, Solo Paxis had never learnt to swim like one. He thrashed wildly in the chill water till chance lodged the tip of his flailing oar in something hidden among the shadows in the rock wall.
Thus anchored, he glowered at the traitorous skiff, now gyrating several yards away, until it finally flipped over and sank out of sight, leaving the satchel to float on the surface for a few tantalizing seconds before it also sought the depths.
Solo Paxis had presumed the oar to be wedged in a crevice in the rock. To his amazement, it was suddenly yanked deeper into the shadows. Clinging stubbornly, he was hauled out of the water and deposited sprawling on a rough stone ledge.
The hairs rose on the nape of his neck as he gazed up at a massive shape shrouded in black from crown to toe.
“You are early by several hours,” the apparition accused in sepulchral tones. “Dawn’s first light was the time agreed upon for your arrival!”
Solo Paxis squinted at the face beneath the hooded robe, but a thin mesh of black gauze obscured the features.
Having no knowledge of the subject under discussion, Solo Paxis was nonetheless stung by the implied criticism, and assumed as much of an air of cold hauteur as was possible while lying in the center of a spreading puddle.
“I am afraid the current was with me,” he retorted, as icy water dripped steadily from his nose and chin. “No doubt my solicitous ancestors quieted the waves in order to assist my passage to your welcoming shore.”
The dark figure grunted, but whether in skepticism of this claim or approbation Solo Paxis could not discern.
“I was moreover advised to expect a party of four,” the other persisted. “Am I to deduce from the ease with which you capsized your vessel that you have also managed to misplace your traveling companions along the way?”
“I am as you behold me, a solitary wayfarer,” Solo Paxis said through clenched teeth. The stranger’s censorious tone had begun to grate on him. “Your informant is apparently fully as reliable as the faulty craft that bore me here. I came close to meeting an unpleasant end in the incident you just witnessed, and must now huddle here in the chill of evening, shedding moisture like an ulsio pulled from the cistern. Truly, this is not the standard of hospitality I had been led to anticipate!”
As his eyes adjusted to the shadows, Solo Paxis could see that the ledge upon which he currently reclined constituted a sort of porch-like projection at the base of a steeply rising passage carved into the very wall of the cliff. With a peremptory shake of his hooded head, the stranger stepped through the tunnel opening and disappeared.
Solo Paxis squatted in the shadows and essayed an inventory of his remaining possessions, the investigation perforce conducted more by fingers than by eyes.
Long-sword, short-sword and pistol had all deserted his harness during his recent period of vigorous aquatic exertion. His pocket pouch, though still affixed to its clasp, was so barren of coin as to be practically weightless.
Solo Paxis shifted position with a sniff of irritation, his sandals squelching unpleasantly with each small motion, while his sodden cape pressed against his bare back like a dead fish. His ancestors had not smoothed their favorite son’s way upon the water, Solo Paxis reflected, so much as they had spat upon his head.
He was scowling up at the night sky when the wan circle of light cast by a small radium torch heralded the reappearance of his erstwhile savior.
Stepping out onto the ledge, the other thrust a bundle of black cloth at Solo Paxis.
“You may wrap yourself in these spare garments while your own dry,” the hooded man said gruffly. “No matter your zealous determination to swiftly attain an exalted level of existence, we can go nowhere until my compatriots have delivered to us a new means of transport to replace that which you saw fit to discard.”
Pondering this cryptic utterance, Solo Paxis stripped off his water-soaked harness, sandals and short cape, and hung them from a row of small metal hooks that had been inserted into the cliff wall near the tunnel entrance.
He wrinkled his nose at the indications of prolonged previous use emanating from the strange costume, which consisted of a long black woolen robe, as well as footed leggings, a blouse whose arms terminated in attached gloves, and a separate covering for the head that stretched from crown to collar, all of the latter woven of a thin, black mesh. But the night was growing quickly chill, and he drew on the various undergarments with a fastidious grimace before shrugging into the hooded robe. Obviously designed for a larger man, the inner coverings drooped like an odorous second skin from his sparer frame.
“At least I shall not perish of cold this night,” Solo Paxis muttered. “Though the olfactory assault may well bring about my eventual demise.”
His benefactor regarded him with head tilted to one side.
“You display a nature both obstinate and contumacious,” the large man observed sourly. “Unexpected in one who has recently made the decision to terminate his worldly existence and undertake the final voluntary pilgrimage down the River Iss. A word of caution: the Goddess of Life Eternal is not accustomed to the rough manners and petulant niggling deemed acceptable in tavern or gambling house. Pray remember this when she greets you in the sacred grove beneath the Golden Cliffs.”
The River Iss! Solo Paxis was glad for the black mesh that now concealed his own features as he turned to regard the broad waterway in slack-jawed surprise.
So this unprepossessing expanse of dark liquid was the fabled Iss, River of Mystery, River of Death, down whose sacred length countless generations of men both red and green alike had floated when their long lives grew wearisome, to behold at its terminus nothing less than the beauteous Valley Dor, that peerless paradise of peace and plenty forever hidden from mortal eyes at the South Pole.
“My sojourn in the water has left me somewhat out of sorts,” Solo Paxis explained with a curt bow. “A sound night’s sleep in these excellent garments will no doubt restore to me the cheery demeanor for which I am renowned both far and wide. Might you remind me of the schedule for tomorrow?”
The priest, for that is what Solo Paxis now recognized his black-swathed host to be, seemed mollified by this speech.
“The plan is simplicity itself,” he replied. “I have communicated a request for a new skiff to replace the one you consigned to the bottom of the Iss. When that craft arrives you shall set out on the final leg of your voyage, with myself at your side to aid in the negotiation of several turbulent stretches in which it might be possible to lose one’s way. We stand now upon the first of four waystations before the river passes beneath the surface, at which point deviation from the course is no longer possible. Age-old custom dictates that I disembark at the last waystation and return to continue my good work here in the land of the living.” He gave a small, deprecatory cough. “As you are no doubt aware, custom also strongly supports presenting one’s guide with those mortal possessions deemed superfluous to a man whose feet will shortly tread the shores of paradise.”
“Mortal possessions of considerable value, in my own case,” Solo Paxis interposed smoothly. “Which, thanks to the careless construction of that craft initially supplied me, lie now in soggy disarray at the bottom of the river.” He spread his hands. “Alas, you must usher me towards paradise with no promise of reward beyond the satisfaction gleaned from a competent performance of your few light duties.”
The priest’s expression remained unreadable behind the mesh. Without further comment, he placed the softly glowing torch in a small niche in the stone wall and settled himself on the rock floor to one side of the tunnel opening. Soon the black-shrouded head drooped in an attitude of slumber.
Solo Paxis lowered himself onto the rim of the platform and dangled his legs out over the River of Death.
Paradise . . . . He felt a mighty tug of curiosity. As recent events had attested, life upon dying Barsoom was all too often chill, damp, and less than accommodating for a person of high refinement such as himself. Might it not be time to put an end to persecution and the constant scrabbling for survival and seek his own well-earned last reward in the Blessed Valley?
He leaned back with a frown as a new thought invaded his musings. What guarantee did he have, after all, that the afterlife awaiting him in the Valley Dor would live up to his considerable expectations? Indeed, the delights that transported the common man might well seem tawdry and banal to someone of his rarefied tastes.
If only he could take a peek at the heavenly valley before committing himself to an eternity in residence! A single glimpse of the promised bliss and he might resume his life of noble privation, secure in the knowledge that what lay far ahead was worth the daily discomfiture. Unfortunately, there was but a single unavoidable consequence meted out to those who dared make their way back from heaven, and that was a swift death—to be succeeded not by eternal paradise but by oblivion.
Perhaps, Solo Paxis conceded with a shiver, it were better to remain in the land of the living with all of its familiar imperfections for yet a while longer.
The day’s adventures had left him fatigued. Edging back from the river, he curled himself into an awkward half circle around the little puddle of presumably sacred water that still remained from his rescue. The sleep that ensued was punctuated with vivid dreams in which he lolled in a grove of flowering trees while a succession of beautiful women paraded past him bearing platters of aromatic delicacies. He had just made his final selections of both feminine pulchritude and gastronomic appeal when he suddenly jerked awake.
Irritated, he examined his surroundings. He could discern no movement, but a soft glow to the east indicated that dawn was imminent. He gazed thoughtfully at the priest, who continued to snore steadily.
It would be no great trick to creep past the fellow and up through the tunnel, which presumably led beyond the forbidding cliffs to new lands and opportunities unknown.
Solo Paxis plucked at the mesh that obscured his face. He was obviously due something in exchange for his harrowing experience in the river. No doubt this odd garment could be traded for a new harness and an assortment of fine accoutrements.
Something sparkled out on the water.
Solo Paxis narrowed his eyes at a glimmering dot that appeared to be moving slowly in his direction across the still dark Iss. This must be the replacement craft of which the priest had spoken. He rose carefully to his feet.
Now would be an excellent time to make his departure, assuming he did not wish to be bundled into the skiff and propelled inexorably down the River Iss to the uncertain joys of a premature afterlife.
Quietly, Solo Paxis collected his garments from the hooks on the wall, donned his harness, cape and sandals over the black mesh, then covered all with the capacious robe.
He set out for the tunnel opening. As he tiptoed past the recumbent priest, his eye fell on a sizeable bulge visible at the other man’s side through an opening in his garments.
He stopped in his tracks. The excrescence was a pocket pouch, one that by the looks of it contained more than a few gifts of monetary tribute ceded to the priest on recent voyages.
Solo Paxis thought again of his lost wages and the satchel of fine tools no doubt already beginning to gather rust at the bottom of the river. Kneeling, he deftly opened the clasp that fastened the pouch to the other’s harness. He slipped the weighty object under his cloak and attached it to his own belt. As he straightened, his left foot brushed lightly against the side of the sleeping form.
The effect was instantaneous: with a muttered oath, the priest heaved himself into a sitting position, then sprang to his feet and turned at once to inspect the river.
“A craft approaches!” he observed. “You did well to rouse me. Soon shall you feast at the table of Issus and caper to the music of paradise. But hold . . . .”
Fumbling inside his robe, the priest withdrew a narrow, finger-length tube and clapped it against the mesh over one eye.
“What is this?” he cried. “Here is not the ship I requisitioned, manned by my own followers, but a skiff bearing additional pilgrims! Four of them, to be precise.”
He swung around and examined Solo Paxis in the pale glow of the rising sun. “But if four pilgrims now arrive as previously promised by dawn’s first light—then who and what are you?”
Solo Paxis folded his arms across his chest.
“In truth, I was on the verge of revealing my true identity. As a consequence of several disparaging reports lately received in the Blessed Valley, I was dispatched by our mutual masters to covertly evaluate your professional conduct. It pains me to affirm that your performance since my arrival has been sadly lacking in several key dimensions.”
“What? But I have been the very definition of congeniality!”
The larger man had assumed a defiant stance with hands on hips, his gloved fingers grazing the empty belt hook from which had recently depended his pocket pouch. He glanced down in surprise, his gaze quickly shifting to the prominent bulge now visible at the side of Solo Paxis’ own waist.
“Liar!” he exclaimed, “Rascal!”
With a roar, he launched himself at Solo Paxis, who stepped adroitly to one side.
Slipping on the damp patch in the center of the rock, the priest sailed gracefully off the ledge and plunged with an astonished cry into the swift current swirling at the base of the cliffs. A black-clad arm fluttered above the surface for an instant and then vanished.
Solo Paxis took two steps toward the tunnel opening, paused at a sudden notion and turned back to face the water.
Hefting the priest’s pocket pouch in his palm, he peered thoughtfully across the River of Mystery at the approaching skiff, within which he could now clearly make out the silhouettes of several passengers. Four pilgrims, he mused, each potentially burdened with a weighty sack of tribute for their priestly guide . . . .
Raising his arms in benevolent greeting, he strode confidently to the edge of the rock shelf, where he gestured helpfully as the occupants employed their oars to guide the boat in.
One of the passengers tossed a length of rope onto the ledge and Solo Paxis fastened it to a small ring driven into the stone.
He inspected the new arrivals. Of the three faces peering up at him from the rocking skiff, two were male and one female, and each bore the evidence of advanced age usually found only in those red Barsoomians who had attained a thousand years or more. The fourth member of the group remained in shadow, partially hidden behind the plump and bejeweled old woman whose seat was nearest to the landing.
“Greetings, fortunate travelers!” exclaimed Solo Paxis. “This morning finds you but a short voyage from the attainment of ultimate bliss. Ere long you shall be dining on sweetmeats with the Goddess Issus and cavorting to the music of paradise!”
“Is all in order here?” inquired one of the superannuated males in a quavering voice. Regarding him through the black mesh, Solo Paxis doubted privately that the fellow would be capable of much cavorting without snapping a leg bone. “I thought to see someone tumble from this ledge into the water as we approached.”
“Your world-weary eyes deceive you, father,” Solo Paxis assured him with a sympathetic chuckle. “I did merely offer the tastier portion of my humble morning meal to the river as tribute to Issus. The Goddess is well-known to appreciate such small gestures of devotion.”
“Ah,” said the old man. “Perhaps that was it.” He gazed about the little ledge as if hoping to find further evidence of surplus victuals. “Are we to disembark?”
“No need to inconvenience yourself by clambering from the boat only to hop back in again in an eyeblink,” Solo Paxis told him. “This stop is a mere formality. In moments you shall resume your voyage, spurred on by my good wishes and potent prayers. As much as I yearn to usher you to the shores of paradise in person, age-old tradition dictates that this final leg of the pilgrimage must be accomplished on your own, while I remain behind to continue my good work here in the land of the living.”
Solo Paxis nodded in the direction of the several compact parcels he had spied peeking out from beneath the seats of the skiff.
“As you are no doubt aware, it is also the wish of the Goddess that you leave in my care those material possessions judged no longer essential to those who will shortly gambol in the fields of paradise.”
Hands folded behind his back, he gazed out across the water in a pose of benign indifference, while the occupants of the skiff muttered uneasily among themselves.
Turning back at the sound of an unexpectedly melodious voice, Solo Paxis caught his breath as he beheld the individual now rising into view out of the shadows behind the portly dowager.
With coal black hair falling in waves about finely molded features, the fourth pilgrim was a vision of youthful female perfection. Dawn’s light cast a rosy halo about her slender form, the copper skin bare of raiment but for her leather harness and several bracelets of jewel-encrusted gold.
Moving past her seatmate to stand at the railing of the boat, the girl smiled timidly up at Solo Paxis.
“Dear priest, surely you may accompany us on a portion of our final journey? I have heard tell there are treacherous stretches up ahead, where the current grows unpredictable and a knowledgeable hand is required in order to avert disaster.”
“But of course, my child!” purred Solo Paxis, squatting close to the skiff. “I fear you misheard me above the raucous chatter of your shipmates. It will be both my duty and my pleasure to guide you on the next leg of your voyage to the Blessed Valley.”
He reached forth with avuncular familiarity and cupped her silken cheek in his palm.
“I am Sarinnor Inn, most devout of priests and particular favorite of the Goddess Issus herself. But pray tell me your own name, that I may send especial notice of your imminent arrival to the Daughter of the Lesser Moon.”
“You would do that for me?” The girl’s cheeks flushed prettily.
“Most assuredly! Why, a single word from me will all but guarantee you an honored place at Issus’ dinner table.”
“A thousand thanks, kind sir.” She simpered up at him through heavy lashes. “I am called Yotala.”
“A mellifluous name for a radiant maiden! If you would pardon me for a single moment . . . .” Rising to his feet, Solo Paxis stepped into the dark tunnel opening, where he noticed a small room to the left of the upward sloping ramp. He ducked within, discovering a pile of sleeping silks and furs on the floor and a small table on which rested a bowl of somewhat overripe sompus fruit.
Stuffing two of the somps into an inner pocket of the black robe, he counted to fifty under his breath and strode back to the edge of the landing.
“It is done,” he confirmed. “The Goddess eagerly anticipates your arrival in the Valley Dor!”
Ignoring the murmurs of the other pilgrims, who seemed eager to supply him with their own names, he stepped gingerly down from the ledge and began a critical inspection of their skiff and its contents.
At Solo Paxis’ behest, the occupants rearranged themselves and their belongings several times before he proclaimed himself satisfied.
“Success!” he announced with a clap of his hands from his seat in the bow next to Yotala. “We have achieved optimal distribution for the safe operation of a craft of this size and configuration.”
The four sacks now occupied the area between the two of them and the prow of the boat, while the three older pilgrims were crowded onto the single bench in the aft section, from which their grumbling plaints were thankfully barely audible.
Solo Paxis had positioned the two old men on either side of the rotund dowager and furnished them each with an oar. Loosing the mooring line, he encouraged the two ancients to row vigorously as they glided out onto the Iss, reminding them that soon they would be occupying a state of bliss in which physical toil would be little more than a fond memory.
As they floated down the brightening river, Yotala shared with Solo Paxis an anxious moment she had experienced during the previous leg of their journey. Mysteriously, the skiff originally set aside for their party had been nowhere to be seen when they reached the mooring place the previous evening, and they had been obliged to wait while another was procured.
“Perhaps it is foolish to fear arriving late for an appointment of this nature,” she said, leaning her fragrant form lightly against his side. “But then I have never been one to place my own needs above those of another, and I did not wish to keep you waiting.”
“Considerate as well as comely,” Solo Paxis observed. He slipped his arm unobtrusively behind her shoulders. “My dear, you are as conspicuous in this company as a gloresta bloom in a thicket of withered thorns. What strange and morbid whim could prompt so lovely a maiden to set out upon the final pilgrimage?”
Yotala’s exquisite features at once assumed an expression of noble melancholy.
“My father is a powerful jed in a land not far from here,” she told him. “As you can imagine, I have been pursued almost since I broke the shell by suitors from the far corners of Barsoom, men drawn first by a lust for my father’s wealth and position, and then, as word of my great beauty spread, by desire of a different sort.” She smoothed her lustrous hair unconsciously. “Over the years they have appeared regularly at our gates, an endless stream of suitors eager to compete for my hand with long-sword, dagger or pistol. As time went by, I soon lost count of the number of brave souls who met a violent end while attempting to win me as their mate. Finally, having had enough of daily bloodshed, I determined to abridge my own life in hopes of preventing the loss of any more of theirs. To that end, I crept from my father’s palace one night not long ago and made my way in secret to the nearest embarkation point for those seeking the final pilgrimage, where I met my traveling companions.”
“Your desire to curtail a further harvesting of bellicose swains bespeaks a sensitive heart,” Solo Paxis told her solemnly. “Yet I must inquire why you never thought to end the cycle of gore by choosing a mate from amongst the legions who came to woo you?”
Yotala’s perfect mouth drooped in a pout. “Because it was wealth, position and flawless beauty they were wooing, dear priest—never my own true self. Morning after morning they would gather in my father’s court, each swearing that his lips would be the only ones to call me Princess. Ere long, I was forgotten, swords were drawn, and the blood would begin to spurt.” She sighed at the memory with a mixture of regret and nostalgia. “Yet not one of them ever took the time to inquire after my favorite color or compose a simple ode to my gentle nature, let alone sneak into my chambers at night.”
“A travesty,” Solo Paxis commiserated. “This is not love!”
Settling more comfortably against his encircling arm, Yotala continued her tale as they traversed the river, the words tumbling breathlessly from her lips as she described in lugubrious detail the many courageous young men who had perished—each more horrifically than the last, it seemed—in vain attempts to win her hand.
Though he had a growing appreciation for the supple body nestled against his own, Solo Paxis’s ears had begun to ache in the prolonged absence of silence, and more than once he found himself gazing longingly over his shoulder at the aft bench and its huddle of taciturn elders.
His mind lost in gloomy contemplation of the hordes of warriors that had fallen in pursuit of Yotala’s hand, he wondered if there might not be occasions when a quick sword thrust was to be preferred over the slow, erosive agony of being talked to death.
They had passed almost half the day on the river when their small skiff encountered the first stretch of potentially dangerous water, where considerable turbulence was caused by a pair of lesser waterways that poured simultaneously into the Iss from both sides. Solo Paxis clung white-knuckled to his bench and barked orders to the two old men, who strove valiantly at their oars under his direction till both were breathing in alarming gasps, eyes bulging from their shrunken faces.
Their dire appearance led Solo Paxis’s mind down a new path, as he speculated on the fate that would befall a pilgrim unlucky enough to expire just before completing the final journey, and on what protocol might be involved in delivering the recently deceased to the Valley Dor.
Was some special ritual mandated, he wondered, or did one merely fling the fresh corpse onto the sacred shores to be miraculously reanimated? For that matter, would the newcomer awaken in the same decrepit and moribund body, or return in a state of youthful vigor? And if rejuvenation were provided for the newly deceased, then what of those frail, aged souls who managed to creep into the Blessed Valley only barely alive?
Religion was a complicated enterprise indeed, decided Solo Paxis: one best left to the gods, or to those fortunate mortals who possessed sufficient leisure time to devote to its intricacies.
His musings were interrupted when they sighted the first of the three remaining waystations he had been told to expect before the river plunged underground and departed the mortal realm forever.
It was by now mid-afternoon. The cramped pilgrims craned their necks longingly toward the humble stone ledge, even as Solo Paxis exhorted the elderly oarsmen to keep to the center of the river—this to the evident consternation of the black-robed priest who signaled energetically to them from the landing as they sped past, his hoarse cries lost in the rush of water.
“It is our private priestly cant,” Solo Paxis informed Yotala, flapping his own arms at the landing in a series of outré gestures. “My brother’s eloquent hand signs wish us good speed, and urge us to continue on without stopping.”
It was not long before they encountered another side channel emptying into the Iss. As the ancient oarsmen steeled themselves for the inevitable turbulence, a craft twice the length of their own emerged from the mouth of the tributary a short distance in front of them. Half a dozen six-limbed green men and women squatted in the larger vessel, their grotesque heads sprouting above the tangle of legs and arms like overgrown flowers in a neglected garden.
A lone black-clad priest sat in the prow of the boat, his stature dwarfed by that of his green-skinned charges. Solo Paxis held his breath as the fierce company moved onto the river ahead of them, but the occupants took no notice of their presence and the other boat, propelled by the might of six great oars, soon left them far behind.
Yotala prattled on, seeming to relish the detailed descriptions of this skewered panthan and that decapitated prince. Solo Paxis attempted to distract himself with visions of great wealth, unobtrusively prodding the sacks in the bow of the skiff with the toe of his sandal till one fell partially open, revealing a dazzle of precious gemstones.
Curious to witness the moment when the Iss plunged into subterranean depths, he had intended to wait for the final waystation before disembarking with his tribute. However, by the time the second landing hove into view, he was ready to take his leave of the maiden and her inexhaustible store of tales of death and mutilation. Even the sompus fruit, which he had covertly shared with Yotala, had prevented her from speaking only for that time required to take four large bites, as she had seemed to swallow the pulpy flesh without pausing to chew it in her haste to resume her tale.
Once he had assured himself that no black-clad priests stood on this ledge, he commanded his rowers to bring them into the waystation.
Solo Paxis tied the rope to the mooring ring, nonchalantly gathered up the four sacks and extricated himself from the skiff with a grunt of effort.
The three ancients moved restlessly on their bench in the late afternoon sunlight. “May we not disembark?” asked the old woman plaintively. “We have been sitting for so long.”
“And in three blinks of an eye you shall be frisking and prancing to your heart’s content in the gardens of Issus,” he reassured her briskly. “This is the last voyage of your lives! Pray sit quietly and savor the experience.”
This landing appeared to be twin to the one on which he had first found himself. Leaving the sacks of tribute in a neat row on the ledge, Solo Paxis went to the opening in the cliffside and peered into the shadows, assuring himself that both upward-sloping tunnel and small antechamber were untenanted.
He found himself humming under his breath as he strode back to the end of the landing. He need only unwind the mooring line, recite a few parting words of benediction, and he would be alone with his earnings in blessed silence, while Yotala and her ancient shipmates resumed their journey to the afterlife with light hearts and an even lighter skiff.
Yotala smiled up at him with great, guileless eyes as he knelt alongside the boat.
“Thank you again, dear priest, for offering me your companionship this day.” Her tone was wistful. “Your friendly attention has made it somewhat easier for me to end my mortal existence, despite never having known the love—nor for that matter the touch—of a man.”
“Never having known . . . ?” Solo Paxis husked. He stared at her through the black mesh, fingers twitching at his sides. He cleared his throat.
“My dear child,” he declared, his voice low but urgent, “as a devout servant of the gods for lo these many years, I have naturally lived my life completely immune to the allure of power, wealth and physical beauty. Yet in less than a single day by your side, I have found myself both astonished by the erudition of your conversation and captivated by your vivacious personality.”
The only sharp object the river had not stolen from Solo Paxis was a small paring knife that still swung from its clasp on his harness. Snatching the tiny implement from beneath his robe, he deposited it ceremoniously on the stone before her.
“Yotala,” he continued in a throaty bass, “it is rank folly to oppose the will of fate.” Rising to his feet, he threw back his hood with a flourish and yanked the concealing mask of black mesh from his head. “In short, I am transformed by love and cannot go on without you!”
Yotala inspected him in silence, her head tilted to the side. “You seemed taller when your face was covered,” she commented at last.
“A trick of the setting sun!” Solo Paxis protested, elevating his chin and smoothing back his shock of disordered hair. “I have been assured I cut quite an imposing figure in full daylight.”
Yotala shrugged her smooth shoulders.
“No matter. The most physically appealing of my suitors discarded their lives as carelessly as the least attractive. It is frankly refreshing to encounter a man who does not wish to die immediately after laying eyes upon me.” She turned a thoughtful glance downriver. “Besides—the closer we come to the Valley Dor, the more I am reminded of what this world may still offer the living.”
She plucked the tiny knife from the stone with her thumb and forefinger and returned it to him hilt first. “Why not? Sarinnor Inn, henceforth you may address me as your Princess.”
Solo Paxis clasped her hand and drew it swiftly to his lips.
Leaning forward, he addressed her in an urgent whisper: “Felicitously, we priests keep a quantity of sleeping silks and furs in our rough chambers at each waystation. Your ancient companions will have no difficulty making their way to the Blessed Valley from here. Disembark with me now, that we may seize this opportunity to attain our own private paradise!”
Yotala frowned in gentle reproach.
“But, my dear Chieftain, surely you would not expect me to disport myself with you while we two remain unmarried,” she said.
Solo Paxis was silent for a heartbeat.
“Of course not, my flower!” he told her. “How could a man entertain such ignominious thoughts and still retain his honor? As a priest of Issus, I had naturally planned to perform our marriage ceremony myself. Then, as soon as we two are one, I shall renounce my vocation and you and I will be free to sample the unknown delights of wedded bliss!”
Yotala considered this, perfect teeth biting gently on her full lower lip.
“It seems an unorthodox approach to the situation, yet I can discern no flaw in your reasoning,” she confessed at last.
Solo Paxis helped her from the skiff and ushered her to the doorway in the cliffside. He had just succeeded in extricating himself from the complicated priestly undergarments when their attention was attracted by a commotion from beyond the tunnel entrance.
Yotala slipped from his grasp and ducked outside. Shrugging the black robe around his shoulders once more, Solo Paxis followed unenthusiastically at her excited outcry.
Another craft had appeared around the bend upriver and was now making for the landing. Six black-robed figures bent at the oars, while a seventh stood in the bow.
“Behold!” cried Yotala. “By happy coincidence your priestly brothers approach. Now is your opportunity to inform them of your decision to leave the order, that we may receive their wishes for a long life of wedded bliss! Why, perhaps they will even be willing to relieve you of the awkward burden of performing our wedding ceremony yourself.”
Squinting at the approaching craft, Solo Paxis he recognized in the bow the unmistakable bulk of the priest he had last glimpsed disappearing beneath the surface of the River of Mystery. He stifled a groan.
The boat swept up to the ledge. Finding the landing blocked by the craft still occupied by the aged pilgrims, they drew up parallel to it and fastened their mooring lines securely to the railing that ran along the outer side of the smaller boat, effectively binding the two vessels.
Yotala skipped forward, dragging the reluctant Solo Paxis behind her.
“Greetings, brother!” he called with forced heartiness. “I am delighted to find you looking so well after your untimely misstep! As I am sure you are aware, I did my best to succor you from the river’s grasp this morning, but the waters proved an inexorable foe. Naturally I then took it as my duty to shepherd these pilgrims on their road to paradise—though only after I had fallen to my knees to perform a protracted and heartfelt prayer to Issus for your safe return.” He inclined his head modestly. “I am gratified to see that the Goddess saw fit to heed my entreaty and spared your life.”
The massive priest had moved to the side of his boat, where he stood with legs apart, staring in silence at Solo Paxis.
“My pocket pouch,” he said in a flat voice.
Solo Paxis looked to his belt in apparent surprise.
“Certainly! Did I neglect to mention that I had taken it into my charge for safekeeping, in response to a vision I received from the Goddess shortly before you awoke, in which I saw you drop it inadvertently into the river?”
He slipped the object from his robe and tossed it over the heads of the pilgrims. The priest caught the pouch in mid-air, weighed it in his hand for a moment and returned it to his own belt. He shifted his gaze to the sacks at Solo Paxis’ feet. One of them still sat open at the top, revealing the glitter of polished gemstones.
“The tribute as well,” the priest commanded.
Solo Paxis grimaced.
“I have spent the entirety of this long day battling the currents with a shipload of unruly passengers,” he protested. “As two fair-minded sons of Issus, surely we can come to an equitable division of these few baubles.”
In response, the priest raised a black-gloved hand. At once his followers abandoned their benches, rising as one to gather just behind him in a menacing line.
“Men and their trinkets!” With a cluck of her tongue, Yotala knelt gracefully and began tightening the drawstring on the open sack.
“What need have we now for material wealth, my Chieftain?” she asked Solo Paxis. “You and I have our newfound deep affection and mutual regard to sustain us!”
As he stood gaping in dismay, she gathered up the parcels and began to fling them one after the other toward the second boat. Yotala possessed a surprisingly powerful arm for such a slender maiden: the four sacks arced above the cowering ancients to land in a neat pile at the feet of the head priest, who still stood with arm imperiously upraised.
“And now the girl!” he instructed hoarsely. “The voyage to the last waystation is not long but it is monotonous, and we are but men.”
Yotala pressed her lissome form close to Solo Paxis’ side.
“Have no fear, Sarinnor Inn,” she said with a contemptuous smile. “These lowborn calots are obviously lesser priests and would not dare raise arms against the favored son of Issus!”
The head priest emitted a bark of incredulous laughter. His upraised hand tightened into a black fist and his minions unsheathed their long-swords in unison. They surged forward, the long boat dipping under their combined weight till its hull scraped that of the smaller craft.
Solo Paxis paled.
“Coins! Jewels! Maidens!” he cried. “For a holy man, you seem a creature of prodigious and inappropriate appetites!”
The head priest took a ponderous step over the side of his craft and into that of the huddled pilgrims. Drawing his own long-sword, he made a sudden lunge at the ledge that set both boats rocking.
Solo Paxis leaped back from the edge of the landing, grasped the startled Yotala by her elbows, and swung her in front of him in the manner of a shield. With a sudden powerful shove, he propelled her off the ledge and into the arms of the black-clad priest, who dropped his weapon and lurched back in consternation, tripping over the side of the smaller boat and plunging backwards into his own. Yotala fell with him, their combined impact sending the priestly minions sprawling to either side.
Solo Paxis took advantage of the confusion to unwind the mooring line. He delivered a prodigious kick to the stern of the nearer craft which sent both boats bobbing and spinning away from the ledge.
He was not sure if the priests were armed with spears in addition to their swords. With a menacing wave of his paring knife, he retreated to the shadows of the tunnel opening, from which he was able to look on safely as the tangled vessels drifted out into the powerful current.
Shrill cries floated back from the larger boat. From what he was able to comprehend above the din of waves and men, Solo Paxis judged that Yotala possessed a command of invective as unexpectedly overdeveloped as her throwing arm.
He emerged from the shadows when he felt certain that the conjoined boats were incapable of making their way back against the current. Locating a small radium torch in its niche next to the tunnel entrance, he adjusted it to a soft white light and went to the edge of the landing to watch as the boats, now a pair of rotating dots, disappeared around a bend far downriver.
Solo Paxis sat down on the ledge and thought darkly of lost wealth and jewels and the untouched Yotala—as well as of the paradise that was her destination. Priests were notorious for their long memories when it came to slights and misunderstandings: Solo Paxis feared that many years would have to pass before he would be welcome in the glorious precincts of the Valley Dor.
Something caught his eye on the landing next to him. Balancing the torch on its flat base, he bent his head to discover a flattened oblong of leather lying on the rough stone. It was his own pocket pouch, which must have become dislodged when he removed the priest’s pouch from his belt. A single copper oval fell from the mouth of the limp bag as he lifted it from the ledge. Cradling the coin in his palm, he rose to his feet with a cry of vindication.
Was he not still architect of his own Destiny? Here was a sure sign that he could yet snatch opportunity from the yawning maw of despair, and pry the success due him from the grasp of an ill-tempered world. His heart swelled with confidence. At the very least, this coin would ensure a handful of meals and a safe place to sleep in the days to come. Beyond the tunnel entrance lay all of Barsoom, ripe for the harvesting!
Where to first? Touching the coin to his lips for luck, Solo Paxis spun it jauntily into the air. If it landed with the head of the jed turned up, he would strike out at once for the east; if the thoat’s tail appeared, then west was where his fortune lay!
Bouncing from his outstretched palm, the copper piece glanced off the edge of the stone landing and fell into the water with a hollow plop. Solo Paxis made an involuntary lunge to intercept it, lost his footing and somersaulted forward. His left hand came down painfully hard on the mooring ring and he clung to it in desperation as the lower half of his body was plunged into the frigid waters.
The sky had grown quite dark by the time he managed to drag himself shivering back onto the landing. His legs were numb, his muscles ached and the skin of his hands and arms had been scraped raw. Solo Paxis crawled into the welcome circle of radiance cast by the torch.
After a few moments he raised his chin with grim resolution and pushed himself up from the rock and into a sitting position.
Omens, he told himself, were for the credulous and weak-minded, while currency was only required by those too timid to take what they wanted.
“I am Solo Paxis!” he declared aloud to the night. “So long as I possess my boundless courage and a single light against the darkness, I shall never be defeated!”
At that moment the harsh roar of a distant hunting beast sounded as if in response from somewhere beyond the wall of high cliffs.
Emitting a yelp of terror, Solo Paxis started spasmodically. His outflung elbow struck the upturned torch and sent it rolling over the edge of the landing and down into the River of Mystery, where it flashed like a dying ember and went out.
Solo Paxis glared up at the cold night sky. The silent stars frowned down on him.
Notes on the untranslated words:1. thoat: Barsoomian steed and beast of burden, noted for its
stubborn nature (literally carry + I)
2. ulsio: carrion-eating, rodent-like creature
(lit. decaying + biting)
3. somp: sweet citrus-like fruit of the sompus tree
4. gloresta: flowering bush (lit. painted face)
5. jed: ruler of a city-state or small nation (lit. king)
6. panthan: traveling mercenary fighter
(lit. wandering + fighting)
7. calot: Barsoomian watchdog (lit. watching + all)
Solo Paxis translates literally to Maddened by Curiosity.
Sarinnor Inn means Bended Knee.
Yotala is most accurately rendered as Loquacious One.
PO MADOWEH BARSOOMI
On Barsoomian Names
By John Grey Calvert and Talo Thoran
Part I: ERBzine 5157
Part II: ERBzine 5158
HONEY FROM THE SUN: A TALE OF SOLO PAXIS
The English version, the “original” Barsoomian version, and a “translated” English gloss.
A Barsoomian Folktale in English Text
A Barsoomian Folktale Version 2
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