The grand festival of Bar-Darras takes place but one day a year. There are rituals and preparations which take up several weeks of time before that, however. I was released from the dungeons and anointed as an initiate of the temple nearly a full week before the great festival was to begin. My endurance was at this point the stuff of such renown that I had once again become a spectacle among the faithful, who would frequently bribe their way into the pits so that they might observe me in my travail. As such, upon returning to the surface world, I found myself possessed of a strange sort of celebrity, as others smiled and nodded at me on the street, or greeted me as a friend. The normal customs and etiquette which ruled Barsoomian society were in abeyance here, and I was treated as a friend and equal by all save mistress Kayla herself, who it seemed was intent on redoubling her efforts to humiliate me.
IV: Submission and Service
"Come along, you dimwitted lummox!" she might say as I chanced to meet some noble on the street. "What are you doing polluting me with your gaze?" she might demand if I chanced to glance her way. She had taken to carrying a thoat goad with her, and striking me with it across the shoulders or thighs for the slightest infraction, or simply as a means of attracting my attention. It seemed that I was ever by her side, called for some trivial duty which did not require my attention at all, but which she insist that I perform. A dozen slaves were at her beck and call, and yet I was the one gotten out of bed to fetch her a glass of water. I had always suspected that the trivial labors she had demanded of me in the past were but a pretext. At first, I thought she was being kind, rescuing me from the torment of lesser souls who were quite willing to use a whip or truncheon to display their malcontent. Then, I came to hope that it was an excuse, that perhaps she had come to enjoy my company. During those days leading up to the festival of Bar-Darras, however, I came to understand that it was something more. I had impressed her with my valor, as any hot blooded woman of mars will find her pulse quicken when a man fights incredible odds for her behalf, but I was a slave. Even as an orad, I was beneath her notice, literally untouchable. By tormenting me, abusing me, even by beating me, she was allowing me to prove myself to her, and gracing me with the pleasure of her company, without ever breaching the strange dance of custom and etiquette which ever dictates the way of men and women upon mars. I could not speak, and she could not listen, but we both knew the truth, and so did everyone around us.
I am not at liberty to speak in any great detail concerning the strange and bachanalic rituals which were the high point of the festival of Bar-Darras, but I will say that it quickly became apparent to me why I was being referred to as a "bull", and why every citizen of Dar was so gay with anticipation of this event. In the great festival, the pleasures represented by the mythical paradise of Dor were enacted for the edification of the audience, along with other queer fertility rites which have been hinted at by scholars as part of the past of earthly custom and superstition, and which may yet be practiced in some fashion by the fecund inhabitants of my former home. My world of birth was a place of overwhelming fertility, where life sprang up in myriad confusing abundance. Barsoom was an ancient and dying world, where only the most successful of species still survive in any measure, and resources are so few that even those creatures must be at their best or face being eaten by some stronger beast.
As the men of earth die of old age after fifty martian years, and are frequently grandparents before half that span of days have come to pass, it is obvious that the earthly man is a creature of immediate need and passion, often thought of as little more than civilized brutes rutting out of season, swelling their ranks to the point that war, famine, or disease are needed to thin the ranks to reasonable number. The martian race, through breeding and application of their superior medicine, may have lives that span a thousand years, although typically they die of violence before they are 300. Thus, virility is not as major an aspect of the Barsoomian life cycle as it is among earth men, and so I was in high demand during the festival and after.
It was every bit as humiliating and shameful to be so used and put on display for the amusement of my betters as one might assume, and worse for they often chose to dress me for the part. The coupling itself was part of the sacred mysteries and involved pairing "bulls" with "cows" from various houses, thereby symbolically uniting the houses as one community in the eyes of their queer gods and the ancestors who have watched over them since time immemorial. Great significance was placed on the ominous meaning of how a given bull or cow performed, as it augured for the success of the house to which it answered. Thus, my earthly appetites, so much greater than the Barsoomian slaves who frequently had to be drugged into a passionate stupor, gave much prestige to the house of my master.
There were other parties and functions which my mistress was invited to, and as I seemed to be at her continual beck and call, where she went, so went I. That I performed admirably in my role as slave, companion, and beast of burden was apparent in the glances and comments of those whom we met, and their accolades would frequently cause my mistress to seek new ways of testing me, to prove (or so I believed) that I was worth more than even their approval might indicate. I was insulted, slapped, whipped, and forced into uncomfortable and demeaning positions. I was led about on a leash like a dog, forced to crawl on all fours. On more than one occasion, my mistress commanded me to carry her, and she would goad me to greater speeds with her cruel little whip as she clung to the harness straps that I wore. Yet, whenever it seemed that it was too much, that I could endure no more, she would give me some sign of affection, some indication of praise which inflamed my senses and convinced me that I could do all these things she asked of me and more. The smell of her hair was constantly in my nostrils, and the feel of her soft hand seemed always lingering on my arm or shoulder. She ordered me to sleep on the floor of her bedchamber, to better attend her needs, and I did so, without silk or fur to keep out the chill of the marble floor. Every so often, I would catch one of the other servants watching us together, and they would smile in that knowing sort of way. All too soon, however, the festival came to an end, and we were required to return to that life of obligation and custom which dominated the lives of all the people, great and small. On that last night, before bedding down for the evening, my mistress kissed me, telling me to go sleep in my own bed, and be ready to depart on the morrow.
I could still feel that kiss on my lips days after we had returned home, and my routine returned to some semblance of normalcy. I was given a great deal of free time in the weeks following the festival, and I rather had the suspicion that Mistress Kayla and I were intentionally being kept apart by the master of the house. It did not matter the least bit to me, as I still had the memory of her smiling down at me, the time she spent with me. I had the words she whispered in my cell, and that brief, furtive kiss delivered while the other servants were distracted by other duties. I applied myself to learning the customs and etiquette of the people of Dar. I knew it was possible for a slave to become a free man, and for a commoner to become a nobleman. I could not woo her so long as I was a mere orad, but I had hope so long as the memory of that kiss burned on my lips.
The fastest means of advancement in rank for a man of Barsoom was through skill at arms. Bravery and prowess were always accorded the highest laurels by any race upon this dying planet. Unfortunately, while I had bravery and prowess to spare, I was not a free man and therefore could not become a soldier, and even if I did, the nation was still resting after a victorious siege, and it might be decades before the next war occurred. Even so, I took it upon myself to learn from Norad Zek all that I might about arms and military tactics. His advice to me was simple and to the point. He told me to forget about Mistress Kayla.
"You haven't got a chance" he told me, his hand upon my shoulder. "For every romance you hear about with the young impetuous fighting man battling his way to glory and winning the princess' heart, there are a thousand unsung tales of dashed hopes and bloody corpses. All those men that the Warlord of Mars has killed had their own lives and loves, whom they wished to impress just as much as you or he. Besides," he added with a sympathetic smile, "You are a man of deep and abiding principle. Though you respect our ways, our customs are not yours, and the clash of arms will never be the music to your ears that it is to us. Do not seek to be what you are not, Jor Komak. After all, as we are fond of saying, a warrior may change his metal, but not his heart."
I heard his words and understood the advice offered, but I still held out hope that perhaps I might be given the chance at some act of valor. After all, this was the planet named for the bloody god of war, and even in times of peace there were still assassins and dire beasts to contend with. He assented to this logic with a smile, and began schooling me in the ways of sword and rifle. I was quickly discovered to be a fair marksman, and Norad Zek himself proposed to Kovas Morn our master that I be given better schooling for my talent. I was as surprised at this revelation as they, as I had never handled a firearm before, but then I remembered that it was a form of entertainment on my world to play shooting games with simulated guns, many of which were designed to buck and kick like the real thing. My stronger grip held the gun steady, and I had been practicing this sort of hand-eye coordination since I was a young child. Thus it was that I had aim that was considered deadly and accurate. My swordsmanship, alas, left something to be desired. Despite my years of training in other martial arts, I could not pick up the science of fighting with sword or lance. My parries were clumsy, my lunge inadequate, and my timing completely off. Only my great strength, stamina, and agility lent me any credibility with the blade.
I also applied myself to my technical studies. I hoped that I could perhaps gain my freedom by designing some useful device which might prove my worth as a citizen. Such hope was forlorn at best, but I had many ideas culled from the theories and science fiction of my home world, which might be applied by Barsoomian science, to create tools or devices whose worth might provide me the laurels I sought. Thus, in spite of my better nature, I wound up designing war machines. Most of the military technology used by my people relied upon sophisticated electronics, which I lacked the skills necessary to construct, and for which there was no equivalent already present on this world. There were, however, several simple design innovations which I culled from the great airships of the second world war, and other weapons which my people believed theoretically possible but the mechanism for which still eluded our scientists. Of course, my designs were pointless without some patron capable of building them, but I had many sheets of paper bedecked with plans and drawings tucked away in my quarters in the hopes of one day having an opportunity to impress someone of influence with them.
That opportunity came to me at a party in the palace of the Jeddara herself. I and Norad Zek were acting as body guards to our masters when I found myself being confronted by a very drunk red man whose acquaintance I did not recall ever making. His name was Car Than, and he was an expatriated prince of Zodanga, a brother to Sab Than who was slain by the Warlord. In his drunken state he saw me and mistook me for the Warlord of Barsoom, or perhaps his son Carthoris, but in either event was intent upon wreaking vengeance for the death of his father, brother, and kinsmen, not to mention the looting and conquest of Zodanga at the hands of the savage Thark hoard and the armies of Helium. Were I a more belligerent man, or one given to greater egotism, I might have killed the drunkard easily and not been blamed for it. Rather, my pacifist ways reasserted themselves, and I managed to disarm the fellow without seeming to injure his dignity, and then managed with a few kind words to turn him into a friend.
His friendship did not get lost in the haze of the next morning's hangover, and I found myself receiving a guest, the first such occurrence since my advent upon this world. He came to apologize to me for his earlier behavior, for which I had already forgiven him. There were so few Jasoomians, I assured him, that such a mistake was easy to make, although by all accounts the Warlord passes easily for a red man himself, where at best I appear to be the bastard get of some Okarian adventurer. He laughed at my self-deprecating jest and insisted that I accompany him that very evening to the great games that were scheduled to occur. This world series of bloodshed was an almost universal facet of life in any Barsoomian city, and while the thought repelled me, at the same time there was a certain ghoulish appeal. Besides, he was a highborn gentleman, and held in much esteem by the nobles of this kingdom. I could not easily refuse an invitation from a man such as him.
Later, as I tried on the new harness I purchased that afternoon, Jod saw me primping in a mirror. He looked at me and shook his head with an exasperated sigh.
"How is it," he asked me, "that a man like yourself, a slave and common laborer, can manage to become friends with a powerful nobleman after one chance encounter?"
Glancing over my shoulder at him, I flashed a smile. "I did not kill him when I had the chance" I joked, as I took a final dab at the new buckles with a polishing cloth. Frowning at my reflection in the mirror, I asked him, "It's not too much, is it? I'm still not very good at interpreting these things, and I don't want to appear to be putting on airs."
Jod walked over to where I could see his face next to mine in the mirror. "You are a man who knows his place, Jor Komak. Such a one could never put on airs, whatever metal he wore."
The games were every bit as brutal as I had been led to believe, and I spent a great deal of the evening feeling slightly nauseated. I was interested to finally observe some of the great white apes which haunt the abandoned cities of the dead sea bottoms. They were strange creatures, nearly twelve feet tall with skin nearly the same pale peach color as my own, and surmounted by a shock of bristly white hair on the tops of their heads. They had four arms, the lower set doubling for legs much as with an earthly gorilla, while the upper set was equipped with hands that were remarkably human like. Their faces were more like a gorilla than a man's, despite the lack of fur, and a savage gleam in their eye clearly communicated the ferocity that I observed in them when they fought. White apes were a perennial favorite in the games of Dar, and it was not uncommon to see young martians carrying dolls manufactured to look like cuddly plush versions of the savage brutes who fought and died for their amusement.
In Dar, the games took a form not unlike some accounts of the roman arena. Animal acts typically came first, and then death matches ordered as a form of public execution, pitting condemned criminals against each other until only one survivor remained. There was a tournament match later in the program, in which free warriors pitted themselves against challengers for fame and glory. Supposedly the purse was quite substantial as well. This would happen weekly during a given season, at the end of which those few criminals who had fought with distinction might have their sentences commuted, and some free warrior was crowned champion of the games for having victoriously defeated all opposition in the tournament matches. The tournaments I did not mind so much, and even the criminal games could be appreciated for the skill and bravery shown by the warriors, but animal matches were upsetting to me, as I could see no good reason why a calot might be set upon a white ape in the name of wholesome family amusement. Thankfully, the season was short, and occurred during an unproductive period in the agricultural cycle. It was really only meant to give the masses something to do during that short period when farm work was insufficient, thus preventing a large segment of the population from becoming disruptive.
My new benefactor, being a man of some means and connection, had of course a box seat near to the action itself. We sat and supped on delicacies the likes of which my poor palate was unprepared for, and we talked between bouts or when the action had grown, as he put it, dull and tiresome. Car Than was obsessed with the navy of Helium and the technological superiority they possessed. I was incredulous, that they should maintain such superior firepower for so many decades, when surely some nation must have made the effort to steal her secrets. He lamented sadly that few nations were left with the will to oppose Helium, who also had the technological might to do so. Nearly all others had fallen before the Warlord's sword, or else were cowed into submission by the threat of the unbelievable force he could bring to muster.
"After all" he commented, after his fourth glass of spiced wine, "He has the Tharks, who thanks to him now number three hundred thousand strong. He has the many nations which fly under Helium's banner. He has the Okarians, and the First Born under his command. His assassins are among the greatest in the world, and while they are invested primarily in breaking the other assassin guilds, that is enough. No nation has airships to surpass those of Helium, no city has walls high enough to fend of the Thark, and no army has men enough to go to war with such a power."
"And so you are here," I comment sympathetically, "In one of the few great nations remaining which has no allegiance to Helium."
"Had I the means I would make war upon the Heliumites myself, and greet my Ancestors with the cry, I have done my best to avenge you father! All that and more in the name of Zodanga and her people." He regarded his cup and paused before taking another gulp, adding, "It is a dream I have had."
Not actually expecting any active response, but more in the vein of casual conversation, I told him of the designs I had made, the improvements I had conceived of by hybridizing tellurian and Barsoomian science. I had plans for a ship that could fly higher and faster than anything Helium yet had built, with a new cannon design that would make it a veritable juggernaut. I had designs for weapons that could allow a small group of footsoldiers to wreak havoc on a battleship, and devices that could make sections of the sky impassable to any ship. I had no intention to brag, and in fact informed my friend that these designs were untested, merely theoretical applications of basic engineering principles which I still did not fully comprehend. In spite of my protest, however, he insisted that I show him these plans right away. We left the arena before the criminal acts could begin, and were back at the palace of Kovas Morn before night had fallen. I showed Car Than my sketches, and even a couple of crude models I had constructed in my free time to better illustrate certain principles of gearing and construction. He agreed that my designs were crude and required polish, but even so he saw great potential in my work.
Afterward I thought nothing more of it, and in fact my routine returned to normal. Mistress Kayla had gone on a journey to visit her grandfather, the jed of Komal, and in her absence the masters thought it wise to resume my normal duties. That I should so precipitously return to the task of moving great slabs of marble mere hours after the Mistress' flyer should have taken off confirmed my suspicions about why I was given so much free time beyond any doubt. I took some pride in my abilities, and the exertion did wonders for taking my mind off of my troubles, and so I found myself volunteering to help with tasks that did not need my attentions. I threw myself into my work, and the masters were all too willing to oblige my enthusiasm.
Five days after Mistress Kayla had left for the province of Komal, I was told by Jod the major domo that I had received a summons to the palace of the Jeddara, and that I was to bring with me my plans and models. He then asked me what plans and models, to which I responded by telling him in brief that I had been playing around with new airship designs.
With a grin, Jod ventured, "I suppose the Jeddara travels in such rarefied circles she would not have heard that you are an imbecile."
Grinning back at him, I replied "You mean I am not?"
Shaking his head, he laughed "No, I mean she is going to be very disappointed when she meets you!"
I began packing up my notebooks, most of which were unfortunately written in english as I had not yet fully mastered the written language of Dar. Once again I groomed myself as best as I ws able, still painfully conscious of the shock of brown hair on my head which was so unlike anyone else's. I was no longer the pale creature I had been, long hours in the garden having nicely tanned my skin, but now my complexion was of an olivine shade unlike any other martian. Unlike such heroes as the Warlord of Mars or Vad Varo, I could never pass as a red man. To my surprise, Jod returned to my quarters bearing an armload of accouterments. He helped me to groom myself in an acceptable fashion, and gave me a brief refreshment in my manners and etiquette. Several ornaments of a modest fashion were added to my costume and a pistol to go with my dagger and short sword. My metal now included a mark from the Darrian Academy showing that I was a skilled marksman (I had earned the metal, but was uncomfortable with it, and so only wore it at Jod's behest) and another which marked me as an initiate in the temple of Bar-Darras. I was assured that all these things were my own accomplishments, and that it was not only acceptable to display them, but expected of me. I was given a fine cloak of silk and fur, and an appropriate amount of makeup was applied to make me as fashionable as possible. Nothing could be done with my hair to make it seem normal, so Jod took it upon himself to accentuate the uniqueness of it, quickly trimming it into an attractive shape that feathered away from my lean face, softening my overall appearance. I had to admit, looking in the mirror, that this was the best looking I had ever been in my life. With a word of thanks to my friend, I turned and made my way to the grand palace of Zamran Gauth, Jeddara.
When the servants announced me, I was greeted warmly by Car Than, who ushered me into the presence of the Jeddara. I immediately knelt before her, although Jod assured me that a waist-high bow was all that would be required. I felt her hand upon my head as she told me to rise, and startled I looked up, accidentally meeting her eyes as she gazed down at me. There was a faint smile playing on her lips as she greeted me, and assured me that she would not stand on such formality for this meeting. Car Than was an intimate of hers, who had fought in her service many times over the last twenty years. He had told her of my designs, and the descriptions had intrigued her. She called in several of her best naval architects and had me show them my plans. I was hindered by a breakdown in vocabulary - there were concepts that I knew in English, but for which I had no Barsoomian equivalent. Even so, we quickly came to an understanding, as where my knowledge failed me, theirs did not. There were many mechanical problems with the designs I had made, but in the end they all agreed that the core principles were sound, and the modifications could be made. The Jeddara commanded that plans be drawn up at once, and then smiled at me, commending me for my efforts.
"I am a servant of Kovas Morn," I replied to her compliment, "any praise should go to my master, for having seen fit to allow me my education."
She looked at me piercingly for a moment, before commenting, "You are a strange creature, Jor Komak. Your humility seems to know no bounds, yet you obviously strive to better your position. Either you are satisfied as a servant, or you wish to be a free man. You can not be both, so which is it?"
I matched her gaze for but a moment, before looking away with downcast eyes. "It might be that I could know satisfaction as I am, but for one thing. There comes a time when a man must seek to better himself, for no other course is open to him."
For a brief moment, I saw reflected in her thoughts the image of Mistress Kayla. I looked up at her sharply, but as quick as the impression was there, it was gone. Her expression softened, and she turned away from me. Striding over to a grand window which overlooked the city, she gazed out at her domain. After a moment, she spoke, saying "There are some quirks of fate which can not change, some destinies which can not be avoided. Your service to your Jeddara has been noted, Jor Komak, and due honor shall be given to the house of your master, but you are and shall remain a slave. I have spoken."
V: A Better Man's Metal
Upon returning home that evening, I was surprised to note how the servants seemed to be watching me and whispering among themselves. I was afraid I had gone too far and alienated those people whom I had come to think of as friends. None of them were willing to meet my gaze, and several of the ladies in waiting, who had often been my partners in crime in finding excuses to linger in Mistress Kayla's quarters, turned away and refused to look at me. Concerned, I changed into my usual harness, and then went to find Jod, who was familiar with all of the household servants and aware of the latest gossip. He was not in his quarters, which was unusual for such a late hour. Normally the master would have dismissed him hours ago, and he would be in his chamber relaxing or perhaps taking in some simple entertainment. As I turned to look elsewhere, I came upon Norad Zek, who had such a queer look in his eye I thought my impertinence had gotten me sentenced to the Games.
"Kaor, Jor Komak" he greeted me, placing his right hand on my left shoulder after the fashion of the red men. He looked deep into my eyes, and I thought I saw a hint of tears glistening there. "I am so sorry, my friend" he said to me. "You were so close, you might have had a chance. I suppose it was not meant to be."
Nearly witless from mounting fear I demanded of him, "What has happened, Norad Zek? Have I angered my master in some way? You sound as though I am to be thrown to the apes in next week's games!"
He shook his head and draped his arm across my neck, resting his brow upon his shoulder. I realized that he had been drinking more than was usual even for him as he leaned close to me and said, "It is the princess, Kayla So. She was on her way home when her ship was attacked by pirates. They plundered the ship and then left it to drift. There were no survivors."
This, then was the reason for the furtive glances, the quiet whispers. This was why the major domo was not in his quarters and why the maids had looked away. Word had come in while I was out, and none of them could bear to tell me. I felt a chill grip me to my very marrow.
"You mean they left no one on the ship" I corrected him fiercely. "You told me yourself, no Barsoomian man would slay a woman. She is the daughter of a jed, they would take her to hold for ransom!"
"I'm sorry, my friend" he said, looking up at me, the tears now clearly welling in his eyes. "The pirate fleets which have plied the skies of late are without mercy. They are the dispossessed warriors of a dozen nations, loyal to kingdoms which have been conquered by the Warlord. They demand no ransom or tribute for fear that they will be found out, their hiding places discovered. They slay all aboard the ships they take, and then set fire to the decks and cast the vessel adrift, where it is eventually lost to the airless void of space. They are no better than ulsios, they are devoid of honor."
"I refuse to believe you!" I snarled, stalking towards my own quarters. "You red men are so thick with tradition you're slowly choking to death on it! Until I see her lifeless body I will not believe her dead. She has been kidnapped, and she is in peril. If no one else will seek her then it is up to me!"
"How?" laughed Norad Zek as I began to gather my belongings. "You can not fly, you can not ride. You have only a little money and your only friends know you to be a slave! You have never traveled beyond this city, save once, and that was only to visit the sacred precincts of the great temple. No one knows where the pirates make their lair, and if they did, you don't know our geography well enough to get there!"
Buckling my pistol to my hip, I answered him in a voice grim with determination. "I think I know where to start, and I know how to find my way there. If these pirates are, as you say, partisans displaced by Helium, then there is one place where they might gather. I begin my search in the city of Zodanga, and whither I go from there I can not say."
"The master has foreseen some such rashness on your part, Jor Komak" he told me, shaking his head. "The guards are under order not to let you leave. They may not want to kill you, but they will if they must, and even your might is of little consequence against a pistol."
"Then I leave as I had intended to" I snap, marching down the ramp which led from the small set of apartments set aside for orads and similarly esteemed servants, down to the lower levels where the barracks of the common laborers were to be found. "Long ago I explored the pits beneath this place with the knowledge that I would one day need to escape from here. It was during just such an expedition that I came upon a little sorak, who led me to the first person to show me real kindness and consideration. I have only one reason for staying here, Norad Zek, and her life is in peril. Aid me, or stand aside, for by your first Ancestor I will go through you if need be."
"As much as I wish to aid you my friend," he said sadly, "you know as well as I where my duty lies."
"I know" I answered, as my fist connected with his chin.
I bound him with straps taken from his own harness and left him in a storage closet where he would, in all likelihood, not be found until morning when the cleaning staff began their rounds. I quickly sped down the hall to where I knew an entrance to the pits to be. In the cellar below the kitchen a great steel door opens to the pits beyond. That door is normally locked and the only key is in the possession of Jod, who is no doubt in the company of our master and a dozen or more guardsmen. The metal is an alloy which the Warlord claims to be mainly of aluminum, but from its properties I think titanium is a more likely guess.
Thankfully I had in my kit a device that could cut through such stuff. It had originally been a matter of curiosity, using what I had learned of Barsoomian light-bending techniques to make a simple laser, but as my studies progressed, I came to realize how incredibly useful such a thing was as a tool, and with it I was able to do much with far less than would otherwise be required of me. I had only recently perfected a modified radium torch which could be set to lase at a variety of different frequencies and intensities, allowing me to use it for a number of functions, many of which were too arcane to trouble you with in these pages. The simplest application of it, however, was to burn holes in things, and it made short work of the locking mechanism of that great metal door.
I made my way to the little cloister I had long ago discovered, and found there the gear I had stowed what seemed like a lifetime ago. Among the other things in the kit was a set of simple cosmetics which I hoped would dye my skin a reasonable shade of terra cotta red. My hair I resolved to deal with by simply removing it. It was the work of a few hours covering myself head to toe in pigment after first shaving my head bald. I looked at my reflection in the blade of my short sword and decided that while I might look disreputable, I could pass for a red man. Only one thing was left then, and it pained me to do this thing. I removed my harness and all of the metal that I had earned. From out of its hiding place I took a harness of different design and buckled it about me, and to it strapped my weapons and equipment. It was battered and scarred, having seen a hundred conflicts. The man who once wore it needed it no longer, having run afoul of a better swordsman in a den of iniquity on the streets above. I wore the metal of a better man, and with it, I was no longer a slave, but a free fighting man of mars.
They are called panthans, and they are the adventurers and soldiers of fortune ubiquitous to all parts of mars. Sellswords, they enlist in whatever military they find, and serve until their services are no longer required. In times of peace they simply discard the metal of their former nation and move on, taking up new metal as it suits them to do so. To cast aside the metal of Dar was too painful for me to bear, and I left the little closet in a state of disarray, my old harness laying among the tufts of hair which fell to the floor in great piles. It was spoor that could be used to track me, but I did not care. If I did not turn away now, I might never manage to leave the city before weakening and returning to my master, begging forgiveness for what I had done.
I followed one of the routes I had memorized, taking disused corridors that were but infrequently patrolled. This way led to a public house, which would afford me cover I needed to escape the city unmolested, and would also cover my tracks by allowing me to disappear among a great many other transients. The public house was in a rough section of town, not unlike the poorer neighborhoods where I had lived on earth. I came up through the cellars into a basement tavern, and found myself behind the bar, staring at the proprietor. Without batting an eye I ordered a drink and wandered over to the only empty table I could find. A moment later a slave came over with the drink I had ordered.
"Many men have left through that door, but you are the first I have seen to enter by it" said the slave as I tossed a coin onto his tray. I grunted something about a merchant's business trip having been shorter than his wife anticipated, to which the slave cackled with delight. I noticed that he had short changed me, but pocketed the oval coins without a glance. I didn't care about a few slivers of change, and if I made a fuss I would likely have to hurt somebody.
"Kaor, friend" spoke a man next to me, after an appraising glance at my harness. He turned and unclasped an ornament from his belt, offering it to me.
"Kaor" I responded, unbuckling an ornament from my own harness and exchanging it for his. "I am called Dim Sum" I told him, giving the only name I could think of off the top of my head.
"Call me Pak Chee" responded the stranger, who from his metal was also a Panthan. This simple ceremony was the equivalent of a polite introduction, and only in the most formal of circumstances did such an introduction ever get more complex. "Have you been here long?" he inquired, taking a sip from his beverage.
"No, and it looks like I'm not staying. They just had a war a few months ago, and all the panthans are looking for work."
"I might be able to help you with that" he answered. "I am a body guard to a merchant named Borath Veck, who is soon to be traveling to the city of Zodanga. There are a fair number of pirates haunting the skylanes here, and a few extra fighting men are always welcome. You could trade your sword for working passage."
I smiled at Pak Chee, saying, "Friend, I had only just this afternoon resolved to make my way to the city of Zodanga. I hear they have a serious assassin problem there, meaning that there is always work for a body guard."
"Then it's settled" replied Pak Chee, as he finished his drink. "Meet me at the docks tomorrow morning, and I'll make arrangements with my master." He gave me a berth number and we parted ways, he having finished his drink and I left to brood in my dark thoughts.
Borath Veck. Only a few months ago he swore to have Mistress Kayla's hand by whatever means necessary. I had heard that, while he was made unwelcome in the house of Kovas Morn, there was no evidence to link him with the gorthans who had attacked the Mistress. Now he makes a journey to Zodanga, where I suspect the pirates to be. I left a few minutes after Pak Chee, my drink untouched. I wished to have a clear head for the morrow. The building which this establishment tenanted the lowest floors was a skyscraper-like structure that rose some forty stories into the air. A brief word with the doorman gave me directions to the public house which was on the thirty third through thirty eighth floors. Above that was the docking berths for various flyers, light craft moored in special garages on the upper floors, larger merchant vessels and yachts tethered to a special mooring platform above. Such structures were common in the urban centers of Barsoom, and constituted little more than the parking garage of earthly cities. I found my way to the offices of the public house and paid a few coins for a place to bed down. I was awake and waiting at the berth long before Pak Chee had arrived, my habitual routine as a slave requiring that I be dressed and ready long before the sun had arisen.
I was introduced to Borath Veck, who showed no indication of recognizing me. I was not surprised. Household servants are very nearly invisible, and my distinguishing characteristics of skin and hair were carefully concealed. Thankfully, unlike the Warlord, my eyes are a decent shade of brown, and so I could pass in that respect. The homeopathic remedies of the red men are so perfected that they have no use for contact lenses. His interview was brief. I informed him that my swordsmanship was somewhat lacking, but that I was considered an excellent marksman and sniper. This seemed to please him, and he remarked that swordsmen were easy to find, but on a ship some times marksmen were of better use. His craft was of the common civilian variety, a great flat thing with all the aerodynamic properties of a highly polished brick. Such vessels were a common sight plying skyways between the cities of Barsoom. It's means of thrust came from a set of propellers in the aft section, two of which could be tilted up or down to provide lift, while the third rotated left to right to act as a sort of rudder. When properly tuned, these vehicles were whisper quiet, but if in even slight disrepair the fans would buzz like great hornets. This vehicle was so noisy that it was almost impossible to converse once the vessel was underway. I began to wonder if perhaps Borath Veck's vast fortune came from little cost cutting measures like neglecting regular overhauls for his transport ships.
It was nearly a thousand miles to Zodanga from Dar, and the barge was not built for any great speed. The fastest scout and courier ships of the Heliumitic navy could go but four hundred miles per hour, and elsewhere the state of the art was far less. This great wobbling bulk was little faster than an earthly automobile, and while the lack of traffic hazards and the freedom to plot a straight line course made movement somewhat easier, we still had a journey of several days on our hands. For the most part I played the part of a taciturn warrior, keeping to myself and spending much of my time maintaining my equipment. I had always had a talent for learning and imitating dialects, and while my speech in the house of Kovas Morn was always in the even and temperate tones of a nobleman or courtier, I had learned enough rough language among the lesser slaves to be able to pass myself off as a much lower class of individual. I took to wearing a simple headdress to keep the sun off of my scalp, and also to hide my ever renewing stubble. The paints I had used to change my complexion were quite good, but eventually the skin to which the dye had bonded would exfoliate, requiring that I apply a touchup every few days. As the other martian men did not shave or otherwise groom themselves, my sullen reticence was the only method at my disposal for gaining the requisite privacy necessary to maintain the facade.
After a few days, we chanced to espy one of the grand, world-old dead cities which littered the dry sea beds of Barsoom. I was told by one of the crewmen as we sailed past it that it was called Jahal. As soon as we were in sight of it I readied my weapon, remembering how Deja Thoris had been captured by the green men of Thark when her convoy passed too near the dead city of Korad. The theoretical range of a sniper rifle went far beyond the curve of the horizon, thanks to the perfectly honed design of bullet and barrel. The queerly shaped explosive projectiles of the martian people had been designed so as not to diminish in velocity while passing through the thin atmosphere, and in fact could keep a flat trajectory to a range of nearly two hundred miles, although of course on mars as on earth most gun battles happen at significantly closer range. When we were within thirty miles of Jahal and I could see the gleam of gold upon its spires with my naked eye, I fixed the telescopic sight of my rifle upon the city and watched for any signs of movement. What I saw surprised me, for I was sure I could see several airships being pulled down below the skyline, as if the occupants did not wish us to observe them.
"Do green men dwell in that city below us?" I asked the fellow next to me. He answered in the negative, but supposed that it was as likely to be a nomadic way stop as any other dead city. The savage green hoards roamed all the wastelands of mars, so why not Jahal? His answer matched with what I already knew of these ancient and abandoned communities, and gave rise to suspicion on my part. Jahal was in the large empty measure of wasteland between Zodanga and Ptarth. Partisan rebels fleeing Heliumitic forces might well make their home in such a place. Jahal was also fairly close to the lands of Dar, and thus might explain why the Darrian people were so plagued by them of late. Doubtless any ships that were attacked while flying above the dead sea bottom would be thought the victims of green raiders, especially if they came so close to an abandoned outpost city. The green men had never any use for airships, but they were known to burn ships after looting them, just as the pirates were said to do. There were airships inside the city, where green men typically left the ship where they found it, holding it fast with anchors or mooring lines before swarming aboard to plunder. Most significant to my mind, however, was the simple fact that I had seen movement within the city, but no shot challenged us. Even if they had just victoriously taken one or more vessels, so warlike were the green warriors who swarmed upon the dead sea bottoms, they would be eager for the opportunity to capture further booty. I still wished to know what business Borath Veck had in Zodanga, but my next stop was most assuredly Jahal.
"Do you see anything?" asked a person next to me. I looked up to see Borath Veck standing at my side, watching the city pass slowly along the horizon.
I raised my weapon and shook my head. "I thought I saw some movement," I answered him, and he raised an eyebrow, "but it must have been a trick of the light" I added, and he seemed to relax by the barest trifle. "Were any green men lurking there, they would most assuredly have fired upon us by now" I concluded, and he clapped a hand upon my shoulder.
"You're a doughty man, Dim Sum" he said to me. "I commend your vigilance" he added, as he turned to walk away.
I returned to my position on the deck, and moodily began to polish my short sword. He knew, I was certain of that fact. He knew that something was amiss in Jahal, and so did his crew. That was why I was the only one to become alert when we drew close to the city. The others knew it to be no threat to them. As sure as I was of my love for Mistress Kayla, Borath Veck was in league with the pirates!
VI: In the City of Zodanga
We reached Zodanga without further incident. As we circled above the tall spires, awaiting entrance from the patrol boats which challenged every stranger to the city, I chanced to observe a spectacle of barbaric splendor upon one of the great white highways which led to the gates of the city. It was a grand procession of mounted warriors astride their bull thoats, their harness and panoply of war glittering in the bright sunlight. Pennons depended form their lances, bearing the hieroglyphic insignia of the houses which they served. Each bore two pennons, one for their nation, and another for the house of their jeddak or jed. I espied one particular pennon that seemed unlike any other, carried by a proud looking warrior accompanied by a brutish looking calot, the wild beasts of mars who served much the same function as dogs might on earth.
"Heliumites" spat one of the crewmen as we watched the procession below.
"Then is that not the Warlord himself?" I asked, pointing to the one unusual rider at the head of the column.
"You have a good eye, Dim Sum" remarked the sailor. "It is no wonder you are such an excellent marksman. That is indeed the banner of the so-called Jeddak of Jeddaks, the alien prince of Helium called the Warlord of Mars."
"He is said to be the finest swordsman upon the face of Barsoom" I commented, trying not to let the sound of hero worship creep into my voice.
"Of that there is no doubt" spat the sailor. "By his sword Helium has grown fat upon the plunder of a hundred cities."
"You are not an admirer, then?" I asked, glancing aside at him. "I have never fought for or against Helium, but I have heard his battles to be honorable ones, that he did not lay siege without just cause."
"That may have been true in the beginning" said the sailor quietly. "I myself received this souvenir during the battle for Okar," he added, pointing to a livid scar upon his face, "but in the decades hence, he has become colder and more belligerent, until now all of Barsoom trembles to hear of his name. He still fights for the greater glory of Helium, and the people heap laurels on his name, but not so the folk he has conquered. Come with me after we enter Zodanga, and you will see what I mean."
From the air, Zodanga is a beautiful city, with proud towers rising high above the marble-paved streets. Every building is decorated to the point of being baroque, with friezes, frescoes, gilding, mosaics, and other ornamentation abounding. Nothing like the earthly bauhaus movement has ever intruded upon the stately elegance of Mars, and so her many cities lay festooned like gothic cathedrals or art deco masterworks. Lacking the great disturbances of earthquake and hurricane which challenge earthly designers, the towers of Barsoom rise to unparalleled heights, with every city boasting a skyport or two in the form of grant towers almost a mile tall, about which airships flock like birds at a feeder. From my vantage point high in the air, the city was a magnificent representation of every aspiration for the future I had ever seen in old depression-era movies and comic books.
The reality in the streets was far different. While litter and the defacement of property were not the eyesores on Barsoom that they were to the men of earth, these were a people conquered. Few freemen I saw proudly wearing the metal of Zodanga alone, but always the mixed metals of Helium triumphant. I saw many who wore the plain harnesses of slaves, who chafed at their costume, and seemed ever trying to reach for a sword or gun that they no longer were permitted to carry. I saw alleyways in which furtive individuals offered to sell drugs, weapons, slaves, or almost anything else that could be imagined. I saw squalor and urban decay, as plainly as if I were walking through the slums of my own home. And everywhere I looked, I saw the banner of Helium flying overhead.
"This isn't right," I told my companion, before we had gone a few blocks. "These people should not live like this. They are like half-starved calots, ready to prey upon their own to still their own hunger pangs."
"Zodanga has been the heart of the resistance for almost a hundred years" commented the sailor as he watched my gaze linger on a sullen youth watching us from a shadowed doorway. "Ever has the arm of the Warlord come here to root out those seditionists who seek to wrest his grasp from this fair city. It has gotten so bad, nearly all the civil servants and members of the watch are born of Helium, for every son of Zodanga is suspect."
"A fight against such tyranny I would be proud to join!" I cried, my eyes flashing with echoes of wrongs I had seen in the past on earth, and how very different life was for the free peoples of Dar.
"I thought as much," smiled my companion. "As your service to Borath Veck has ended, perhaps you should seek out a new master." As he said this, he unfastened an ornament from his harness, adding, "go to the house of Al Quark, and show to the servant there this metal. He will know it to be from me, though it has no significance in and of itself. When he asks you your business, tell him that you are a panthan in search of a new master, and that I directed you to him. He will know what to do."
In truth I was appalled at what I had seen. The commoners on the street had that same shell-shocked look of sullen resentment which was to be seen on the face of every refugee I had been shown in our earthly news programs. These people knew the horror of war, where elsewhere the red man knows only the glory of it. That was not my sole reasoning, however. I was fairly certain that he was recruiting me for a resistance cell, and a resistance cell was what I had come here to find. Alone I had no hope of rescuing my Mistress, outnumbered, outmatched, and without even access to swift transport. My best hope was to somehow find a way of being introduced to the pirates and thereby to infiltrate their ranks, and I was now certain that the pirates were only one arm of a far more organized resistance movement. This sense of organization, and even of nobility, which I had gotten from my recruiter, also gave me hope for the well-being of the Mistress. These were no mere vagabonds and ruffians, whatever pose they may strike to better enshroud their true purpose.
Unfortunately, the streets of Zodanga were not laid out at all like those of Dar, and I quickly became lost trying to find my way through winding alleys and concrete canyons. The shadows were long upon the ground when I finally stopped and allowed myself to rest, leaning against the marble facade of a building as I tried to remember the directions I had been given. It was well that I had done so, for it gave me the chance for an encounter which I had dreamt of my entire life. As I happened to scan the nearby streets for some sign, however futile, that I was at least nearing my quarry, I noted a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. A dozen men had gathered on the ledge of a building, and were waiting for a lone man to pass under them on the street below. Forgetting the fact that I had died my first death under very similar circumstances, I shouted a warning to the man, crying out "Assassins!" even as I drew my short sword and leapt into the fray.
I should not have worried, as the man was an accomplished swordsman, and even the element of surprise and the advantage of numbers would not have been enough to defeat him. Even so, I could not stand to see so cowardly an attack, and while I used my sword only to parry, several times my hard fist made a pointed argument as to the error of their ways. Between us, the fight was ended before the man's bodyguards could arrive to assist. He turned to thank me, and I found myself looking into a pair of piercing steel gray eyes.
"Who are you?" he asked, noting my blank metal. "I have never before seen such a display of fisticuffs, nor such a strange fighting style. From what land do you originally hail?"
Sheathing my sword, I addressed him in my native tongue. "I am Simon Hill, formerly a citizen of California. On this world I am called Jor Komak, save here in Zodanga, where I am known as the metalless panthan Dim Sum. You are known to me, as you might be known to any earthman who chances to come here. You are the Warlord, former gentleman of Virginia, and Warlord of Barsoom."
He smiled warmly at me, and we clasped hands after the fashion of our own people. "What brings you to Zodanga, and how may I help, Dim Sum?" he asked me, as his soldiers goggled at this strange display of affection.
"I seek to infiltrate a confederacy of criminals" I told him, still speaking English, as was he. "They have taken a princess of my master's house, and I have reason to believe I might be able to make contact with them here. Unfortunately, you can not help me, Warlord, as much as I might appreciate the assistance, for they know you well, and merely standing here in the street with you places my mission in jeopardy."
"I may yet be able to help you, Dim Sum, if you are willing to trust me" he answered, then his face turned hard. Switching to the Barsoomian tongue, he called out "Guards, take this one for questioning!"
Alarmed, I tried to pull away, but his grip on my hand was firm. My years of training came to the fore then, and without thinking, I dropped down and planted my sandaled foot on his midriff, breaking his grip on me with a sacrifice throw. I was surrounded, then, by a ring of serried steel, as a dozen guardsmen sought to convince me not to struggle. Already on my back, I scissor kicked, spinning on the smooth pavement as I knocked aside the weapons of nearly a quarter of them. The others sprang forward to subdue me, but I had made my opening and I completed my move by reversing into a handspring and then vaulting onto the head of one of the disarmed guards. I stayed on that precarious perch for but a moment, however, as it was but a launching point for my next leap, which carried me out of that circle of swordsmen. As I arced gracefully through the air, I drew my pistol and let fly a half dozen bullets before my feet touched the pavement. I was careful to not aim directly for any of the men, but rather to cause the masonry under their feet to explode, creating noise and distraction without significant harm to them. A night with a martian surgeon would cure even the worst of their injuries, leaving them fit and in fighting trim upon the morrow. I did not wait to see the result of my barrage but made a half twist while still in the air, and sprang for a nearby alley before the last shell had burst. I did not get far, however. What I had mistaken for a pillar of green marble reached out, and with a single punch from one of its lower extremities, rendered me unconscious.
I awoke in a pitch-black cell, suffering a pounding headache. For a brief moment I was confused, and thought myself once again in the dungeons below the temple of Bar-Darras. I realized that I was chained, that a strap of metal about my waist was connected to a chain whose other end was bolted to the wall. From this belt two more chains were connected to my wrists and ankles, limiting my overall options of mobility. I could stand, but only if I kept my hands at my waist. I could reach over my head, but only if my heel was pressed against my thigh. Once I had determined this much, I began to check my harness to see how much they had chosen to confiscate.
"Its no use" came a voice in the darkness near me. "The lock is too fine to pick, the chains to heavy to break. The wall is newly mortared so there is no chance of undoing the bolt, and they have guards stationed at the exit to this dungeon."
"And who might you be, to know so much of their security?" I asked, as I noted that my belt pouch was still with me, only my weapons having been taken.
"I have been a prisoner here before, and am a prisoner here again. Having escaped once, they have seen fit to redouble their efforts to guard me, and as you are my cell mate, the same efforts now apply to you."
"And have you a name, or shall I simply call you prisoner?" I asked, as I opened my pouch, hoping that my laser torch was still there.
"I am Car Than, former prince of Zodanga. For seeking to wrest rulership of my family's city from the hands of her ancient enemy, I have been awarded the death penalty. Be proud you have made my acquaintance, for tomorrow I go to meet my Ancestors."
"Perhaps not, friend. My captors were not so thorough in stripping my harness as they ought. Since I am accused of being a spy, I am certain my fate is no more pleasant that your own. You have escaped these pits once before. If you had help, could you do it again?"
"Could you find some way of unlocking these chains, then surely we might be able to escape through the pits, which I know verily as well as the gardens of my father's palace. Have you a name, stranger, or shall I call you the voice of the darkness?"
"Forgive me. My name is Dim Sum, and I am but a metalless panthan who came here seeking a new master. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and observed a band of gorthans attacking the Warlord. For trying to aid him, I was accused of being a spy. I do not know what cause he has for such accusations, but I have no intention of remaining here to be put to the question." Dialing my laser torch by feel alone (how I blessed the day I chose to put raised markers on the force and frequency dials), I warned my friend "Look away, do not search for the sound of my voice. There will be a very bright light and it may damage your eyes if you look at it."
As I cut into the chains using the torch, I reflected on the strange quirk of fate which had me in a cell with my friend the prince, whom I hoped could not recognize me by the sound of my voice alone. Perhaps it would be best to admit to him who I really was, I thought, as he was my friend and ally, and would surely understand my reasons for casting aside the metal of my house. Plausible though that sounded, I did not wish to admit my treason to anyone, for treason it was in my mind. My conscience pained me at every turn to be forced into such a dilemma, but now that I had set foot upon this path, there was nothing but for me to follow it, come what may. Soon I was free, and I then turned my attentions to my friend's chains.
"What manner of invention is this?" he demanded, as my torch cut through his bonds like a sharp knife through leather.
"It is a sort of blade, invented by the artisans of my home," I answered. "They have found a way to focus the light of a radium element into a focused beam which is powerful enough to burn through nearly anything. We are still experimenting with them, but have come to the conclusion they are second rate weapons at best, but as tools they are incredibly useful."
"And such a thing was left in your kit?" he demanded suspiciously, as he rubbed his hands to restore circulation from where the shackles had bit too tightly.
I switched the dials to an inactive position and made a simple adjustment. The torch lit up in exactly the manner of a radium lamp, of the sort that might be found in any personal kit. As the cell was flooded with light, I grinned at Car Than. "Have you heard of such a thing?" I asked him, then with a quirk of the eyebrow added, "neither have they."
It was at that moment that we heard the sound of keys rattling at the cell door. I promptly snuffed the light, and moved to stand by the cell door. The jailer never knew what hit him, nor did the two warriors who accompanied him. So slowly did they fall in the low martian gravity, in fact, that I managed to catch each of them before he hit the ground, thereby preventing any further noise which might raise an alarm. I quickly realized that this had been the Warlord's plan from the very beginning. The jailer bore the keys to our cell and chains, and the warriors provided weapons and a disguise to assist our escape. Having seen first hand my technique at hand to hand combat, he doubtless surmised that I could fight while chained (I did not know if this was true, but I wanted to believe that he had such confidence in my ability) and the guards were essentially ordered to "take a dive" as the earthly colloquialism goes. As we undid the last of our bonds and stripped the unconscious bodies of the guards, I smiled at my friend and apologized to him for having ruined his last supper. He laughed and forgave me, clapping his hand on my broad back and saying that he had partaken of them before and found them not to his liking.
As we reached the end of the corridor, I thought I knew what we would find there. Turning to Car Than, I asked, "Does this seem perhaps too easy to you?"
"Now that you mention it," he replied with a frown, "it does. What do you propose?"
"How many others are imprisoned here?" I asked him, glancing at the other cell doors.
"I wouldn't know, truthfully, but many I would assume," he replied, turning back the way we came. "Are you thinking we should enlist some allies?"
"I was thinking that we should share our good fortune with other needy folk, who might oblige us by diverting a portion of the guard's attention" I answered, unlocking the door nearest to me.
In all, we freed about a dozen prisoners, ranging from thieves and cutthroats to political dissidents who would have thrown their swords at the feet of Car Than, had they the means to so pledge their service. I cut lengths of chain from the walls to use as weapons for those whom we could not equip with real blades. Despite the insistence of Car Than and several other warriors, I took neither blade nor gun for myself.
"I am such a friendly sort of a man," I said with a smile as yet another rogue volunteered his blade for my benefit, "I would rather give the guardsmen a nice big hug." As I spoke, I punctuated my comment by flexing my muscles, which bulged impressively. "Besides," I continued "I suspect there are many guards waiting for us elsewhere, as this entire thing stinks of a trap."
"Why would they try to entrap us, who already were prisoners?" asked one warrior, puzzled.
"I don't know, but I have a feeling," I replied with a grimace. "This all seems too easy, too convenient. If I thought the Warlord had something to gain from it, I might suspect that he had arranged this meeting. I don't like it when I get a feeling like this. It makes my stomach sour."
Without further digression, we made our way to the only exit, a door beyond which I was assured by Car Than should be a compliment of guards. I burned the lock, not bothering to test it first, and we charged en masse as quickly as I kicked the door in. Our battle was brief and bloody, the guards taken wholly by surprise. I noticed that they were conveniently arranged with their backs to the door, and that there was an exit which we might take without arousing their notice. We took their weapons and added them to our own, giving us enough to go around. I took from one of the others a short sword taken originally from my jailer, which looked suspiciously like my own, including a unique nick in the blade from an accident I had had at arms practice. So armed, we chose to take the exit the guards were watching, as all agreed that the convenience of six guards, none of whom were watching the other door, was too suspicious to be coincidental. Our exit led to an elevator, which Car Than informed me could be used to reach a docking berth on the roof, where it might be possible to find flyers. We reached the roof without incident, and overwhelmed the few guards there without difficulty. More weapons were disbursed among the escapees, and I laid claim to a pair of pistols and a dagger that I might call my own. We found several small light craft, none of which could carry the lot of us, and it was agreed that at this point we should all make our individual ways. We parted with solemn words and promises of everlasting friendship, which in a few cases at least, I truly believed were heartfelt. Car Than claimed the largest flyer for himself, and hand picked a small crew from the other dissidents that had been incarcerated with us.
Turning to me, he said, "Have you learned yet how to operate one of our flying machines, Jor Komak, or were you intending to leap from rooftop to rooftop to effect your escape?"
That I was surprised was an understatement. A stood there on that rooftop stunned, my jaw agape, as I spluttered senselessly for a moment. "But... I... I'm not... that is... how?!?" I finally managed, after a few false starts.
Car Than laughed and clapped me on the shoulder. "I know of no other man who would divest himself of his own weapons for the betterment of a complete stranger, and then make light of it as if such a gesture were nothing at all."
I hung my head, grinning. "When you put it like that, it is rather unusual, isn't it?" I said as I climbed aboard his ship.
"Why were you really imprisoned, Jor Komak?" he asked me, as we set off into the night sky.
"As I told you, the Warlord was attacked by assassins. He was alone and I could not read his metal, so I did not know him until I saw the color of his eyes. We spoke shortly in the language of our mutual nation, and I told him in brief who I was and why I had come here, but not to what nation I owe my allegiance. He had me placed in your cell deliberately. I think he means to use you to discover the whereabouts of the pirates that have been plaguing the trade lanes of late."
Car Than nodded gravely at this news. "And this is why you suggested the route that we took?"
"I am no enemy of Helium," I answered, "but neither am I her friend. You, however, have shown me kindness, and I would not have you be used as a panthan in another man's game of jetan."
Unlit, our flyer attracted little attention, and we escaped the borders of Zodanga without raising an alarm. We flew for most of the night, our passage lit by the two moons of mars which so magically transform the landscape as they hurtle past. As we flew, Car Than asked me of my mission. I spoke only in general terms, telling him that Kayla Zo was on an airship which had been raided by pirates. I had been told that she was dead, but I remained unconvinced. I left my home that same night he and I had last seen each other, and by strange coincidence believed that I had discovered the malefactor who had taken her, and where I believed him to be hiding. I had been in Zodanga seeking further evidence when our paths had crossed, and I was no nearer to my goal.
"Whom do you suspect of taking her?" he asked me, "and where is it you think their base to be?"
I told him of the queer freak of fate that had me taking passage with Borath Veck, and of the things I had seen in the dead city of Jahal. I spoke of his interest in the Mistress, and the lack of concern he and his crew showed for the threat of green men attacking from the cover of those deserted buildings.
"In fact," I concluded, "he seemed more interested in what I had seen, than whether any threat existed. I think he is hiding something there, or else knows someone who does."
By the light of the instrument panel, I could see Car Than's face go rigid with carefully controlled emotion. "Borath Veck," he said to me, "is the man I was supposed to meet in Zodanga, when I was ambushed by the Heliumitic guard. He is, among other things, a merchant who sells arms and munitions. I had sought to purchase a large number of rifles and heavy cannons with which to outfit the fleet I was building, the bulk of which is concealed amidst the ruins of Jahal."
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