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Volume 1592
Torakar Thor of Mars
Den Valdron
An Extraordinary Adventure on John Carter's Mars 
A 100,000-Word Novel Serialized in 53 Chapters 
Part XII: Chapters 45-48


PART XII: Chapters 45-48


 It took a week to gather the tribes into the greatest assembly of White Apes Barsoom had ever witnessed.   Luckily, I had the enthusiastic support of my brothers, who proved able diplomats, and of Reflections in a Shallow Pool and Wind Makes a Sad Sound, who were both highly regarded.   We numbered almost two thousand in the end, and I lead them through badlands impassable for Red or Green Men, to the rear approaches of Mogel’s fortress.

 As we traveled, I would sometimes turn back to look upon my people, a sea of grunting white leathery bodies and feel a surge of pride.   We were an army, united in purpose.

 Finally, we reached a broken height and I sat and waited.   Far out on the plain the balance of my forces had appeared.   A combined horde of my freed slaves lead by Han Osar, and the Aztorians, lead by Kal Jor.  Azara was with them, wielding a sword.   I could do nothing to dissuade her, and simply settled for ensuring she was well guarded.  Gulan Tab lead her personal guard.

 I waited till midday, and then took my spyglass, using it to catch the light.   After a few moments, I received an answering flicker from the army down below.

 It was time to move.

 None but Great White Apes could have negotiated the fierce crags and rocks that lead us to the back of the fortress.   At times, the path was too much even for me, and my brothers had to carry me, passing me hand over hand.

 I slid down onto the walkway of the nearest building.   As my people gathered unobserved, I slipped inside, leading them.

 “Hey,” a Red Man officer walked up to me, “you aren’t supposed to be up here.  I know every-“

 His head tumbled from his shoulders and I wiped my blade without a wasted motion, and continued.

 We were half way through the building before we met serious opposition, and by then it was too late.   My White Apes had infiltrated too far and widely.   Alarms broke out everywhere, followed by the screams of men and the bellows and roars of the great apes.   These were hardened soldiers, we confronted, but they had been diverted by the apparent attack at their front gates, and had never imagined such an infiltration.

 In all the fortresses long history, which for all I knew stretched back to the days when the seas still flowed, the fortress had never been assaulted from behind.

 A squad of red men foolishly charged us.   My brothers and I bellowed challenge.   I parried a swordsman’s blow with my own blade, then leaped upon my foe and tore his throat out as he screamed.

 We rushed through the passageways, the bloodlust thick in our throats, howling and bellowing.   A pair of the false White Apes came out to see what the shouting was about.  The minute they saw us, they fled terrified, running clumsily as if they were red men.

 I laughed to hear them beg in human speech as my people beat and tore them to pieces.  We raged where we would, ripping doors from their hinges, roaring down passageways.   My face and hands were drenched with blood, as were my brothers muzzles and claws.

 We found a barracks full of unarmed men and slaughtered our way from one end to the other, leaving nothing alive.

 Once we came across one of the strange artificial creatures, like a human, but poorly proportioned and without symmetry.   We tore it apart and watched in amazement as the limbs continued to twitch and flex, so we tore the pieces apart until there was nothing but chunks of sluglike flesh, crawling helplessly.

 Mogel’s forces did not lack for bravery.  They fought with swords and pistols, fighting desperate rearguard actions, retreating where necessity demanded and making stands where they could.   Perhaps if they’d been fighting beasts that might have saved them.  But my people were not beasts, we understood the power of pistols and the cut of swords, and if we did not have those, we had our clubs and our speed and strength.   It was enough.

 A battery of fire and shouts from the walls of the fortress dragged me back to my human self.

 “Azara,” I cried out.   Purpose settled back on my shoulders.   I looked around, fixing our location against the blueprints in my mind.   Figuring out where we needed to be.

 “Come,” I barked to my brothers, and whoever we could rouse from the bloodlust.  “Come, we must find the gates and open them.”

 Surprise and speed were our allies.   Behind us, the Apes rampaged without purpose or direction, attacking enemies wherever they saw them.  But me and my followers had a special destination.   Rapidly, we ran through corridors and passages, ignoring those who fled us, barely stopping to engage those who challenged.

 Two armies of Free Men and Aztorians waited outside the fortress walls.   So long as they were without, they were vulnerable to the fire rained down upon them from the walls.   We had to open the gates.

 We took the gate guards by surprise.   Their attention focused on the enemy without, their numbers thinned as soldiers were dispatched to confront the Apes ranging within, there were barely a half dozen.   Having disposed of them, my brothers tore the door off the gatehouse, and, sword drawn, I leaped inside, my eyes seeking the vital machinery.

 A shot rang out, stones above my head chipped.

 I stared.
 The form that faced us was that of a perfectly formed red man, a veritable beauty of masculine, muscular perfection.  But atop that flawless form, instead of a head, the deformed body of Pew Mogel crouched like a giant parasite.

 “Cursed whore,” he snarled.   “Will you never cease to plague me?   You’ve plagued me since before you were Tul Axtar’s trained Calot.”

 “Plague you,” I roared in the ape speech, “I’ll end you and I’ll eat you.”

 He tried to fire again, but as so often happens, the shot went wild.  My apes rushed into the gate chamber, flinging themselves upon the defenders.   I drew my sword and rushed Pew Mogel.   For a moment, the freakish body he rode was hard pressed to draw its own sword and defend itself, and I anticipated a quick victory.

 That victory was not to be.  I do not know if it was the unnatural body or the diabolical genius controlling it, but by the third time our blades crossed, I knew I was facing one of the finest swordsmen on the whole of Barsoom.   With a series of ripostes, he threw back my attack and might nearly have skewered me, but for my own desperate defenses.

 “I’ll have you,” he crowed, “you bastard offspring of my hated enemies.  Tul Axtar, Phor Tak, Han Vidor, Aman Tuk, all dead, and soon you will be too.  Hate shall give me the strength to destroy you!”

 We danced around the room, fighting a personal duel that took us through combatants, untouched by them.   His strength was incredible, his sword thrusts were like hammer blows, but somehow, I parried them again and again.

 “I shall ravage your traitorous Princess,” he raved.

 A hot flush of passion went through me at the thought of Azara.  I could not let this fiend have her ever again.  The thought of her filled me.

 “Love gives me strength,” I cried out. 

 I leaped to the attack, forcing him on the defensive.  For full minutes, we traded blows, our blades a whirl of glistening steel.  We thrust and parried, cut and riposte, exerting our skills and strengths to the our utmost limits.

 Finally, just as I thought my strength would give out, he made a mistake.  Quickly, I struck the sword from his hand, sheering through his wrist.   But my next move almost undid me, for with speed borne of instinct, I reversed, drew and thrust my sword through his rotten body.

 Pew Mogel’s hideous face contorted with awful rage.

 “Damn you,” he shrieked, “damn you!”

 His unnatural body refused to die.  Instead, it leaped on me and seized my throat, its weight bearing me down.   I tried to pull his hands away, but his fingers were like iron vises on my neck.  His maddened head hovered above me, screaming incoherent curses, raining thick spittle upon my face.

 My vision began to dim, blackness creeping in at the edges.  I felt my strength waning rapidly.  I knew I was going to die.

 Suddenly, Pew Mogel’s face went slack with shock as Bent Toe reached down and tore him from the false body.   His infant limbs clawed at the air helplessly, he opened his mouth to howl.  The headless body atop me suddenly went slack, not dead, but no longer directed by his evil will.  Its movements became animalistic and unfocused.  I tore its hands from my throat and tried to shout out to Bent Toe to rip the little horror in half.   Instead, I produced only a tortured croak.  Bent Toe tossed the raving horror out the window into the courtyard below.

 He looked down at me.

 “You know,” he said, “usually they bleed more when you pull their heads off.”

 As he helped me up, I saw that the battle of the gatehouse was all but finished.  The Apes were rending the last of the red defenders.   I leaped to the gate pulleys and pulled the locks.   Massive weights began to fall and the great gate slowly opened to allow the entry of the Aztor and Freeman, their bodies draped with white sashes to enable my Apes to distinguish them from the enemy.

 If it had only been my force of Apes, Pew Mogel’s men might have had some small chance.  They might have sealed off the infiltrated sections, reinforced, organized and pushed back.

 But when the gates fell, they were lost.   Now they had two raging Banths devouring them from both sides.   Time and time again, they made desperate stands and died to a man.  Some tried to surrender but found no mercy.

 Through it all I hacked and slashed like a murdering goddess, laughing at the carnage, drinking the blood that fountained up all around me.   Sometimes I fought with Apes at my side, sometimes with men at my back.  But always I fought.   The one purpose besides bloodshed that animated me was to hunt the little freak Pew Mogel.

 Suddenly, a blade flashed down from the sky, nearly impaling me.  Startled, I looked up.  The heavy wings of a Malagor beat the air, and from its side, Pew Mogel’s screaming face looked down.  He was in the arms of a red warrior.

 Quick as a striking sith I drew my gun, aimed and pulled the trigger to blow that miserable head to pieces. 

 The chamber clicked dully, my pistol had misfired.   I bellowed with frustration.  He laughed, a faint cackle that came to my ears.

 “I’ll be back,” he shrieked. 
 His Malagor flew on.   I scanned the sky, a handful of other great birds accompanied it, their wings beating in tandem.

 A serpent of doubt crept into my heart.

 But then, I was accosted by a trio of desperate defenders and hard put to save my life.   Still, as soon as I could, I fought my way through to Kal Jor’s men, rushing to their front as they pushed their way through the rapidly dwindling resistance, seeking the upper levels that lead to the aerodromes.

 Here Mogel’s forces put up their most frantic defense.  Every step we took was bought with blood.  But bit by bit, they gave way.  I could only hope we were not too late.

 As we came out to the upper courtyards, I stopped.   My mouth filled with the taste of ashes.   Wearily, I let my sword fall from my fingers.

 “We’ve lost,” I whispered, as celebration filled the chambers below me.

 As far as the eye could see, every flier was wrecked.   Every malagor lay dead with its throat cut.

 Without flyers we could not strike.  We could only sit here and wait helplessly.   We’d taken Pew Mogel’s fortress.   But we barely had the manpower to hold it.   Sooner or later, Mogel would return to take it back.. 

 We had fought our way into a tomb.

 Azara came up behind me, giddy with joy.

 “You did it, Tora,” she said, “you’ve done it.  You’ve struck a blow against him.  We will win.”

 I had not the heart to tell her.


 There is little to say, the remnants of Pew Mogel’s forces were steadily obliterated.

 In the end, the Freemen and the Aztor backed away and the White Apes collected their prizes, the bodies of dead and wounded red men from Mogel’s forces.   There were thousands.  Each ape departed into the broken country, carrying men in their belly or arms.   A few of the wounded begged for death. 
 We merely watched in stony silence.

 “It has been a good hunt, my sister,” Throws Stones said to me, as they were leaving, a sobbing man tucked under his arm.   “We go to the place of stones to feed, these dwellings of yours are too fresh of man-stink for our comfort.   We shall watch from the rocks, for a fortnight, and if you need us, we will come again.”

 “Fly the white banner and we shall return,” Bent Toes agreed.   He grinned down at Azara, and repeated it.   Then he tousled her head playfully.   “Make sure your pet reminds you.”

 He ducked his head and whispered to Azara in the ape tongue, “she’s very forgetful, she’s been that way ever since she was little.”

 Azara understood none of this, of course, but grinned back just the same.

 “She’s not my pet,” I said.

 My brothers exchanged glances and grinned at each other.

 “We knew that,” and then they were gone, vanished into the rocks.   My Aztorians and Freemen had control of the fortress now.

 We sent messengers out by Thoat.   The news of our victory sparked an immediate uprising in Aztor.  Vulkan Volk retreated to the royal palaces for a time.  But reinforcements came in from the country, and aided by Pew Mogel’s flyers, the balance tilted back and forth.   The news made me grind my teeth in frustration, for if we’d had just a portion of the fortresses fleet, the matter would have been decided swiftly.

 There was a greater surprise in store for us.   The battle had not reached down to the basements, and in fact, many of Mogel’s followers who were not warriors had fled down there and sealed themselves in.

 These were interviewed one at a time and either granted parole or imprisoned, though we kept a close watch on all.

 But the most remarkable thing was that down in the dungeons were cells, and in these cells he’d kept prisoners.   At first, we paid little enough attention.   There was so much to do that the status and disposition of Pew Mogel’s prisoners took a low priority.   After all, they weren’t going anywhere.    We had them put under guard and fed, there would be time enough to sort them out.

 This, we all agreed, was simply appropriate caution.   I’d been to the Tower of Korvas after all.   While we might find friends and allies down there, we might also find people or things that Pew Mogel himself so feared or loathed that he needed to cage them.   There was no sense in letting such creatures out recklessly.

 So it was a blissful couple of days before a messenger came from Azara,  summoning me to the interrogation chambers.   I had found and was reading Pew Mogel’s Journal, self importantly titled “PEW MOGEL, HIS LIFE AND WONDERFUL WORKS.”

 The fortress, it seemed, had been a base of operations for the wretched genius.  We had found his laboratories and strange vats of tissue in one of the buildings, together with a suite of rooms seemingly adapted for his diminutive frame with tiny ladders and ramps everywhere.

 I gathered from his journal ,and from my and Azara’s experiences, that over the years, he had established multiple lairs.   The fortress, obviously, had been one.  I’d unknowingly destroyed another in Jahar those many years ago.  There had been the tower of Korvas, and the dead city of Horvas, and doubtless many others.   Like one of the three legged rats of desert, he seemed obsessed with establishing multiple bolt holes

 It was almost enough to make one despair of putting an end to him.   Destroy one lair, and he’d simply pop up somewhere else.   Even beheading had not been enough to stop him.

 His journal made for fascinating reading.   It was an intriguing portrait of the creature, at once boastful and self pitying.   His genius showed through like a lamp illuminating the pages, but showing as well was a childish insecurity and emotions that seemed to flow like turbulent water.   It chronicled his creation by yet another mad genius named Ras Thavas.   He claimed to be the first of the Hormads, made by Thavas as a sort of assistant.   He told of his master’s increasing jealousy as he effortlessly mastered Thavas teachings and exceeded them.   How much of this was true, and how much vainglorious bragging, I could not tell.   It made me want to set both him and Thavas in a room and interrogate them until I could decide who did what.

 At some point, he broke away from Thavas, fleeing the Toonolian Marshes and a place called Morbas, and retreating into the desert, where he hoped that the frail Thavas would never search for him.   The story became a tale of inquiries and experiments, of scientific triumphs as he worked out solutions to problems that had baffled his master.

 It also told wanderings and his ventures into the cities of Red Men.   He seethed with bitterness over early experiences, being taken for a freak, mocked and derided.   He vowed eternal vengeance over enemies real and imaginary, wept like a child over casual slights and raged at an uncaring world.   But nevertheless, he ventured again, learning the ways of the Red Cities, accumulating wealth and power by one subterfuge or another, rising, falling, rising again.  And through it all, a lonely grasping insecurity, a creature whose emotions were as infant-like as his body.

 I was surprised to note how often our paths did actually cross, though largely unknowingly on my part.   It was not too surprising to think of.   Our activities were both principally among the fragments of Jahar’s Empire and the borders of Helium.  He schemed in the background, and I, a wandering Panthan, was simply drawn to discord and strife wherever it broke out.   Our respective fascinations with Helium had tended to guarantee we would often have overlapping or crossing purposes.   Somewhere along the line, my frequent appearances in his plans had suggested to him some deliberate purpose directed against him.   It was a delusional notion, of course, and made me wonder how well grounded in reality his other notions were.

 And there was more.   Moments of compassion, of insight, of generosity and even wisdom.   The finer instincts took their place in him, right along with the basest urges, and he made almost no distinction between the two.   His mercurial personality described instances of towering rage or seething hatred, succeeded immediately by a compassionate impulse or a generous gesture.

 At one point, he had complained that his master, Ras Thavas, had no emotions.   It struck me that Pew Mogel had the opposite fault.  He had too many and that they were too raw and primitive.

 “Excuse me,” a voice coughed, “General?”

 I tore myself from the journal.

 “Yes,” I said.   It was Gulan Tab, quite out of breath.  He was Azara’s personal guard, and so I knew that only she could have sent him to me.   “You may speak.”

 He nodded.

 Yet he had waited for formal acknowledgment.   Obviously, although it was a matter of such import as to warrant her sending her personal guard so quickly he was out of breath, it was not a crisis, or he would not have waited on permission.  This was a mystery. 

 “The Princess Azara requests that you join her in the interrogation chambers,” he said formally.  “She wishes to share a remarkable discovery with you.”

 “What discovery might this be?”  I asked.

 “She has asked me to conduct you, that she might show you her discovery, herself.”

 I shrugged and shut the book.

 “Well,” I said, “why not?  Lead on.”

 We proceeded to the interrogation chambers, a series of large rooms above the dungeons.   I noticed with distaste the hanging hooks and the drains typical of such rooms.  I had never liked interrogation chambers, even back in Jahar.

 I glanced around.   Azara was waiting for me, her face beaming with happiness.   I smiled, for it always pleased me to see her this way.   The room was full of people, I took them in.   There was an older couple, a brash young man, a beautiful maiden, sundry others.   They all had that look I have always associated with the pampered nobility.   There’s a smoothness and a confidence that comes with a life of privilege which is unmistakable.

 “Torakar Thor,” she said formally, leading me to the older couple, “I am pleased to present you to Maz Marat, Jeddak of Aztor, my father, and also to Arala Tul, Jeddara of Aztor, my mother.” 
 I was absolutely stunned.   Astonishment showed on my face.

 “But....”  I protested, “the tower of Korvas?   The abominations?”
 “It is a miracle,” she told me, here eyes shining.   If she had been capable of tears, I do believe I would have seen them then.

 “But how?”

 “Pew Mogel did not destroy my parent’s bodies,” she said.   “When he had a use for them, as pawns to let his catspaw rule Aztor, he removed them from the abominations and restored them.”

 “He then placed other brains in the abominations,” the Jeddak said, “and amused himself by letting Azara think it was still us.   The brute often bragged of his cruel jokes upon her.”

 “But are you sure,” I demanded of Azara, “with no disrespect, your heart may play you false.  If he could transplant your parent’s brains into abominations, then surely he could have planted anyone’s brains into those bodies.”

 “I had considered that at length,” Azara said.  “I interrogated them, each of them, carefully, seeking knowledge that only the original person could know.   I am satisfied.”

 She could not help grinning with joy.  My heart surged.

 “Then I am nothing but happy for you, my darling.  You are no longer an orphan, you have your family back.”

 “Not all,” she said, her smile lessened, “my brother was destroyed.   My uncle and his children.  Friends are lost.   Now I must mourn them all over again.”

 “But I thought I’d lost them all,” she said, brightening again.   She took me by the hand, yanking me.  “Come, I must introduce you.”

 A panoply of names and faces passed before me.   Ardo Mar, Valla Mar, Tan Mator, Mota Haas, I soon lost track of them.   I simply smiled and greeted.

 Until she pushed me in front of a brash young man, full of casual arrogance.   Somehow, I found myself instinctively disliking him.

 “Prince Hastor Tal,” she said.

 I had an impulse to seize his neck and quickly twist his pretty head off.   I restrained my hand from seizing my dagger and plunging it into his breast.   Instead, with every bit of self control I had in me, my smile stayed bright, my eyes friendly, and when we exchanged hands, my grip was firm and true.  I did not shake at all.

 “Of course,” I said, and in that moment, it sounded as if some stranger was speaking with my voice and moving my lips.   “Your betrothed.   How fortunate.”

 I spent a period of time with Azara, greeting her friends and relatives, making small talk that I hardly remembered moments after it had departed my lips.   Azara’s parents, other people said things to me that I did not register and could not recall.

 At length, I found occasion to excuse myself and return to my duties, which by virtue of my position and our enemies eminent attack, were quite pressing.   Azara, happily chatting away, barely noticed when I departed.

 Well, I thought, it had turned out as I expected, more or less.   Her old life had called her back, as I knew it would.   Indeed, I could not object, as there was nothing else for which she was truly suited.

 It was, I told myself, a happy surprise that so much we thought lost, had been returned to her.   I was sure that she would be happy, with the existence that shaped itself around her.

 A pity that it did not include me.  But then again, her happiness was paramount to me, was it not?  I had no complaints.

 For the rest of the day, I busied myself.   And when I relaxed sufficiently to think of Azara, I determined that I would be very happy for her, and quickly found something else to busy myself with.

 The news came in.   The last Thoat messenger had arrived badly wounded and died before he could relay his message.

 It hardly mattered though.   The real message had been written in his blood.

 Pew Mogel was caging the she-Banth, and soon, as he gathered his forces he would come to try and kill her.

 I did not care.

 I climbed the battlements until I stood atop the highest tower.   My hair blowing wildly in the fierce Barsoomian wind, I bellowed the challenge call of the Great White Apes and waved my shining sword.

 Let him come, I could barely stand to wait.

 And if tears coursed down my cheeks, it was merely the grit carried in the wind stinging my eyes.


 The day began with good news, which was fine by me, because I was in the need for good news.
 I was called by our mechanics to the aerodromes where they stood around inspecting the disassembled remains of a small two man flyer.   I toed the chassis, it seemed strangely familiar.

 “This is what you’ve called me up here for,” I said irritably, “I have a thousand things to attend to.  I can see wrecks any time.”

 “This isn’t a wreck,” the chief mechanic said.  “It was disassembled for repairs.”

 “Same difference,” I said. 

 “Not quite,” he told me, “the buoyancy tanks are undamaged.   They missed this one.   They probably saw it dismantled and assumed it was already ruined.”

 That stopped me.

 “So we might have a flyer?”  I asked.   “You can restore this craft?”

 He nodded.

 “We have nothing but spare parts.”

 “How long?”

 “A day,” he said, “perhaps a little longer.   But it will only be a two man flyer.”

 I turned this remarkable news over in my head.   There was no military application.  Small flyers were lightly armoured at best and carried no inbuilt weapons.   In any event, Pew Mogel’s forces in the sky outnumbered it a thousand to one.

 But reconnaissance, perhaps?   Or to get a message out?  Perhaps requisition assistance?  I had a sudden vision of armies from Aztor marching to our rescue.   No, not Aztor.   If either side there won a critical victory, for good or ill, they’d already be marching.   Still, there must be someone we might enlist, or some use we could find for it.

 Or we could escape. 

 The thought leaped into my head unbidden.   I could take Azara and run, as I’d run so many times before, a half snap ahead of the jaws of destruction, careening from a violent reckless past into a violent reckless future.   But we’d be alive, I thought, and we’d be together.

 Hopeless.   Would she abandon her parents?  Betray her betrothed?   Leave her loyal followers behind to face certain death?   No, she wasn’t made of such stuff.

 Still...   I tucked the idea away.   Only one flyer?  But still, there might be some way to use it to rescue our situation.

 I returned to the days duties, pondering the subject.   There’s always too much to do to run an army, and even more when you are preparing to defend an attack.  I delegated to my officers of course, but even that added more work, as I had to supervise my officers and deal with their disputes.   I barely had time to see Azara.  But then again, she was running ragged with her own duties, so it was just as well.  The simple fact was that there was just far too much to do and rather too few of us to do it all.

 I wound up sitting at my desks going through munitions reports and making orders with respect to deployment.  There would be no resupply, so what we had we had to make best use of.  And in particular, we had to make best use when the attack came.  It called for planning.

 A person came into my office.  Lunch, I thought.

 “Just put it on the table over there,” I said, not bothering to look up, “I’ll get to it later.”

 They didn’t leave.   After a moment, I looked up irritably.

 “Was there someth–“ my voice trailed off.   The Jeddak of Aztor stood before me, looking down at me with a benign smile.

 “Your Highness,” I said.

 “Walk with me,” he said.

 “I’m quite busy.”

 He nodded.

 “A few minutes, I’m sure Pew Mogel will grant us that,” he said.

 I rose and followed him.   We walked down the corridors until we came to an officer’s sitting room.   He poured us both drinks and we sat.

 “Torakar Thor,” he said, pronouncing it carefully as if trying the name out, weighing and tasting it to see how he liked it,  “I’m sorry we’ve had so little time to know each other.”

 “There are so many things to do,” I said, “and hardly the time to do them in.”

 He nodded.

 “How imminent is the attack.”

 “It could come at any time,” I said.  “You’ve seen the forces he’s gathering out there...”

 “And what’s your judgement.”

 “Not yet,” I said.   “He’s waiting for something.  More and more troops perhaps.”

 The Jeddak nodded.

 “Azara speaks highly of you,” he said, “as do the other officers.  You have the reputation of being a highly competent general.   Did you really defeat Helium?”

 I shrugged.

 “One battle,” I said.   “The war with Raliad ended in a truce almost before it began, I was just a simple Panthan there.   When I was an officer for Valkis we fought to a stalemate, Valkis preserved its independence, which is a victory, I suppose.”

 “You’ve seen many campaigns,” he said.

 “Fighting has been my life,” I told him.

 He nodded.

 “You know of the arrangements that have been made for Azara?” he asked.

 “Yes,” I said, clipped and flat.

 “How do you feel about my daughter?”  he asked.

 I could not help it.  I flinched.

 “I was the leader of Tul Axtar’s black guard,” I said.

 He nodded.

 “I was part of his takeover of Aztor.   I was in Aztor.”

 He nodded again.

 “We know.  We knew your reputation then.”

 I barked a laugh.

 “Hardly something to endear me,” I said, “does it bothered you that your daughter’s friend murdered half your court.”

 “We knew your reputation,” he said, “and we knew other reputations.   You killed, yes.  But not as many as you might have and not without reason.  You did not abuse your privileges and were marked for your fairness.  You showed mercy to women, saved the lives of children.  We have no love for the things you did, but you were hardly the worst.”

 “Praising with faint damnations?”  I asked wryly.

 “Call it what you will,” he said.   “You did what you did.  At that time, it was called duty.   If it had not been you, then it would have been someone worse.”

 “Horrible things are done in the name of duty,” I whispered.

 “Then I hope that you are cured of the habit,” he told me.   “Conscience should ever be the master of duty and not its servant, else we are nothing but weeping monsters.”

 I reflected upon that.

 “Has she told you that my mother was a Great White Ape?”

 “Azara told us that you would work very hard to make me not like you,” he said.

 For a second, I was speechless.

 “How am I doing?” I asked, when I could put thoughts together in my head.

 He smiled.

 “Not well enough.”

 My lips quirked upwards and I blushed and looked away.

 “I shall have to work harder.”

 He stretched.

 “I wouldn’t bother, you’ve set yourself a hopeless task.   Azara thinks that the sun rises and sets merely to light your face.   Who am I to argue with that?”

 “I am not worthy,” I said quietly.

 He considered that.

 “For almost every day of her life,” he said, “I watched my daughter suffer unendurable pain.   There were so many nights I sat beside her bed, certain that she would not see the dawn.  And yet, somehow she survived.   She never surrendered to her pain, never let her crippled body break her spirit.   We were all in awe of her strength.”

 He stopped to collect his thoughts before he went on.

 “I would have done anything for her.  Anything at all.   So would her mother.   Together we would have traded our lives for a moment of happiness for her.  But with all the power and riches at our command, we could not give her that which she needed most.   She has told you of how Pew Mogel returned with her restored and whole and made his threats.   But she has not told you that we would have gladly surrendered all, to see her like that.   A kingdom’s price was worth it to free her from her suffering.   Pew Mogel was a monster, of that there is no doubt, but we shall forever be in his debt.    He tortured us, of course.   He usurped my nation.  He imprisoned us in the bodies of Abominations and might have left us there.   But do you know what?”

 “What?”  I asked with genuine curiosity.

 “I look at my daughter now,” he said, “and I see the look in her eyes when she gazes upon you, and I think to myself, it was all worth it.  All the suffering and hardship, it was all worth it to have her now as she is, and to have her look at someone the way she looks at you.”

 “I...”  I found myself stammering, “I don’t know what to say.”

 “You are an orphan are you not?” he said.  “Some sort of half-breed Thern?   That’s a prescription for a hard life right there, and from what Azara tells me, the fates piled their unkindnesses high.”

 “I have no complaints,” I said quietly.

 “Indeed not,” he chuckled, “you are the mirror of her in that way.   I would hazard a guess that you’re stubborn as well.”

 He sobered.

 “No one should have to endure life alone,” he said. “We have all suffered, but there can be a time for healing.   If you have no family to call your own, then I can do naught else but offer you ours.”

 I stared at him.

 “I should be honoured to call you my daughter.”

 For the second time in our conversation I found myself speechless.   My eyes glistened, my lip trembled.

 I cannot imagine what I might have said in that moment, but I was saved from answering.


 “Your highness?”

 We looked up.   It was Kal Jor.

 “One of the prisoners from the pits, he claims to have vital information, but he will share it only with the Jeddak and his generals.”

 The Jeddak looked up, his eyes narrowing.

 “Should we take it seriously?”

 “Perhaps,” Kal Jor said, “he was one of Pew Mogel’s men, who fled below.  He says he’s a spymaster, and before Pew Mogel’s service, he claims to have been in Tul Axtar’s employ.”

 The Jeddak sighed.

 “Torture him untill he gives it up,” he said. “We have no time for games.”

 “He says he will destroy himself if we torture him,” Kal Jor answered, “I do not know that we can prevent that.   We’ve stripped him down, but Spymasters are reputed to have cunning suicide devices concealed within their persons.   He says he will negotiate, but only with the Jeddak.”

 We exchanged a look.

 “It never ends, does it?” he said, a current of affection lay still in his voice.

 “Such is the burden of command,” I replied, with equal affection.   We shared a moment.

 “Well, come with me, daughter,” he said, offering his arm.  “We’ll see what the spymaster has to bargain with.”

 And so we proceeded to the interrogation room.   The Jeddara was already there, as was Azara and Hastor Tal standing possessively near her.  Gulan Tab attended, as did a pair of our most senior officers.   All attention was focused on a small, sneaky looking little man standing in chains in the middle of the room.   He looked up as we came in, and his features broke into an ugly grin.

 “Zan Tith,” Kal Jor announced.

 “Maz Marat,” he said, “you honour me with your presence.”

 “‘Your Highness’ will do as a form of address,” the Jeddak told him.  “Now, we are all busy, why are you taking up our time?”

 “Taking up your time?”  Zan Tith said, “Why not at all!  I have information, secrets, that I wish to freely share.   I possess a wealth of datums of insurmountable value waiting to be released.  But more than that, I offer up myself, Zan Tith, to your everlasting service.”

 “You take up masters freely,” the Jeddak challenged, “first Tul Axtar and then Pew Mogel.”

 “A man has to live,” Zan Tith coughed.  “Pew Mogel recognized the superlative quality of my service to Tul Axtar, and saw fit to retain my services.  I am sure that you too will do the same.”

 The Jeddak sighed heavily.

 Zan Tith seemed taken aback.   He rallied, smiling silkily.

 “I possess a secret,” he said, “such as was known only to Tul Axtar, Pew Mogel and a few others.   I came to this secret through Vobsis Aton, the legendary head of Tul Axtar’s secret service, relayed to me with his dying breath on the night Jahar fell.”

 The Jeddak glanced from me to Azara.  We shrugged almost simultaneously.  I felt a small pleasure at our synchronicity.

 “It is a secret,” he said, and glanced the Jeddak to me and back again, “that might have shattered empires, that would change the balance of powers forever.  Kingdoms might rise or fall on this secret, its value, incalculable, its consequences awe inspiring.   Simply put, it will change everything, and nothing shall be the same.”

 “Its build up, endless; its description, portentious,” Hastor Tal mocked.  I shot him a dirty look.

 “Enough,” the Jeddak held up his hand, “what price do you put on this secret?”

 “Not much,” replied Zan Tith, “my life, my freedom, a full pardon, a noble title, an estate, riches.”

 He named an outrageous sum.

 “What if your secret is not worth this price?”

 “Why then,” he said, “I have other secrets I’ll sell more cheaply.   But I’ll give you this one, if on your honour as a Jeddak, if you acknowledge this secret is everything I’ve said it was, you will honour my price.”

 The Jeddak contemplated it for a long moment, his eyes cold.

 “Done,” he said finally.   “Now out with it.”

 The evil little man sniggered.

 “That which I reveal now,” he said, “is Tul Axtar’s deepest secret, his greatest triumph, his darkest moment.   It was a secret so important that His kingdom might have fallen for the merest whisper of it.  Thus he guarded it with ruthless devotion.”

 “Yes,” Hastor Tal said, “we got that part.”

 “Be quiet,” I snapped.

 Zan Tith nodded to me in gratitude.   Hastor Tal sulked.
 “So what is this about,” I asked, “the formula for one of Phor Tak’s super-weapons?  Do you have the secret of invisibility?”

 “Even better,” he replied, “Tul Axtar coveted a bride from fabled Helium, and as the desire woke, he acted upon it.”

 “Sanoma Tora,” Hastor Tal groused, “that’s old news, ancient even.  And Jahar did actually fall because of it.   Your secret is old news, and badly out of date.”

 “No,” Zan Tith said quickly, “long before Sanoma Tora, he had stolen a chosen bride.  He stole an egg, and–“

 Zan Tith never spoke another word, for as hot thunder filled my ears, my vision went red and I crossed the three paces to him.   I moved so quickly that I took everyone by surprise so that none moved to stop me.  In a single smooth motion, I drew my sword, raising it up high and then plunging it straight down through Zan Tith’s wretched neck, bursting his rotten heart and shearing out through his hip.

 For a second, Zan Tith looked in my eyes, shock clouding his vision.   The life went out of him, as he seemed to hang, suspended on the axis of my steel.

 “Parasite, carrion eater, traitor, liar,” I whispered, “better for everyone you ever met if you had never lived, better that your egg had been smashed before you ever hatched.”

 Hot blood spurted all over me.  I yanked my sword from his body and he fell away.  I snarled, flinging spittle at his corpse.

 “A liar,” I said loudly, “and a traitor, sowing dissension and peddling worthless gossip to save his wretched life.   We’re well rid of him.”

 I swung on the Jeddak, he had gone pale with shock.  He stepped back.

 “You would have me for a daughter?” I spat.   “Look at me now.”

 I swung around, registering the shock on Azara’s face, the horror in the eyes of Tal Hastar as he wrapped his arms protectively around her.   They were all aghast.   To hell with them then, I thought to myself, they wanted me to save their lives, but they shrank from the blood that task demanded.   My lip curled in a fierce snarl.

 I turned and stormed out of the room, stalking through the fortress.   Something of my face must have betrayed my mood, for men and women rushed to get out of my way.

 I found my way to Pew Mogel’s laboratory and in a fit of rage destroyed it, turning over tables, smashing delicate instruments, breaking glass.

 And still it wasn’t enough.   I fled to the open hair, stalking across the wall until I found myself atop the watchtower, staring at my enemies forces as they gathered.
 You can trust your enemies, I thought.

 That’s all you can trust.

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