There was nothing remarkable about the palace of the Jed of Tjanath. It was a poor place by comparison with the palaces of some of the great nobles of Helium, yet never before, I imagined, had I challenged with greater interest every detail of architecture, every corridor and doorway, or the manners, harness and decorations of the people that passed us, for, though in my heart was the hope that I was about to be free, yet I considered this place my prison and these people my jailers, and, as my one object in life was to escape, I was determined to let no detail elude my eye that might possibly in any way aid me if the time should come when I must make a break for liberty.
It was such thoughts that were uppermost in my mind as I was ushered through wide portals into the presence of a bejeweled warrior. As my eyes first alighted upon him I knew at once that I was in the presence of Haj Osis, Jed of Tjanath.
As my guard halted me before him, the Jed scrutinized me intently with that air of suspicion which is his most marked characteristic.
“Your name and country?” he demanded.
“I am Hadron of Hastor, padwar in the navy of Helium,” I replied.
“You are from Jahar,” he accused. “You came here from Jahar with a woman of Jahar in a flier of Jahar. Can you deny it?”
I told Haj Osis in detail everything that had led up to my arrival at Tjanath. I told him Tavia’s story as well, and I must at least credit him with listening to me in patience, though I was constantly impressed by a feeling that my appeal was being directed at a mind already so prejudiced against me that nothing that I might say could alter its convictions.
The chiefs and courtiers that surrounded the Jed evidenced open skepticism in their manner until I became convinced that fear of Tul Axtar so obsessed them that they were unable to consider intelligently any matter connected with the activities of the Jeddak of Jahar. Terror made them suspicious and suspicion sees everything through distorted lenses.
When I had finished my story, Haj Osis ordered me removed from the room and I was held in a small ante-chamber for some time while, I imagined, he discussed my case with his advisors.
When I was again ushered into his presence I felt that the whole atmosphere of the chamber was charged with antagonism, as for the second time I was halted before the dais upon which the Jed sat in his carved throne-chair.
“The laws of Tjanath are just,” proclaimed Haj Osis, glaring at me, “and the Jed of Tjanath is merciful. The enemies of Tjanath shall receive justice, but they may not expect mercy. You, who call yourself Hadron of Hastor, have been adjudged a spy of our most malignant enemy, Tul Axtar of Jahar, and as such I, Haj Osis, Jed of Tjanath, sentence you to die The Death. I have spoken.” With an imperious gesture he signalled the guards to remove me.
There was no appeal. My doom was sealed, and in silence I turned and left the chamber, escorted by a guard of warriors, but for the honor of Helium I may say that my step was firm and my chin high.
On my return to the pits I questioned the padwar in charge of my escort relative to Tavia, but if the fellow knew aught of her, he refused to divulge it to me and presently I found myself again fettered in the gloomy dungeon by the side of Nur An of Jahar.
“Well?” he asked.
“The Death,” I replied.
He extended a manacled hand through the darkness and placed it upon one of mine. “I am sorry, my friend,” he said.
“Man has but one life,” I replied; “if he is permitted to give it in a good cause, he should not complain.”
“You die for a woman,” he said.
“I die for a woman of Helium,” I corrected.
“Perhaps we shall die together,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“While you were gone a messenger came from the majordomo of the palace advising me to make peace with my ancestors as I should die The Death in a short time.”
“I wonder what The Death is like,” I said.
“I do not know,” replied Nur An, “but from the awe-hushed tones in which they mention it, I imagine that it must be very terrible.”
“Torture, do you imagine?” I asked.
“Perhaps,” he replied.
“They will find that the men of Helium who know so well how to live, know also how to die,” I said.
“I shall hope to render a good account of myself also,” said Nur An. “I shall not give them the satisfaction of knowing that I suffer. Still, I wish I might know beforehand what it is like that I might better be prepared to meet it.”
“Let us not depress our thoughts by dwelling upon it,” I suggested. “Let us rather take the part of men and consider only plans for thwarting our enemies and effecting our escape.”
“I am afraid that is hopeless,” he said.
“I may answer that,” I said, “in the famous words of John Carter: ‘I still live!’”
“The blind philosophy of absolute courage,” he said admiringly, “but yet futile.”
“It served him well many a time,” I insisted, “for it gave him the will to attempt the impossible and to succeed. We still live, Nur An; do not forget that—we still live!”
“Make the best of it while you can,” said a gruff voice from the corridor, “for it will not long be true.”
The speaker entered our dungeon—a warrior of the guard, and with him was a single companion. I wondered how much of our conversation they had overheard, but I was soon reassured, for the very next words of the warrior that had first spoken revealed the fact that they had heard nothing but my assertion that we still lived.
“What did you mean by that,” he asked, “‘remember, Nur An, we still live?’”
I pretended not to hear his question and he did not repeat it, but came directly to me and unlocked my fetters. As he turned to unlock those which held Nur An, he turned his back to me and I could not but note his inexcusable carelessness. His companion lolled at the doorway while the first warrior bent over the padlock that held the fetters of Nur An.
My ancestors were kind to me; little had I expected such an opportunity as this, yet I waited—like a great banth ready to spring I waited until he should have released Nur An, and then, as the fetters fell away from my companion, I flung myself upon the back of the warrior. He sprawled forward upon his face on the stone flagging, falling heavily beneath my weight, and as he did so I snatched his dagger from its sheath and plunged it between his shoulder blades. With a single cry he died, but I had no fear that the echo of that cry would carry upward out of the gloomy pits of Tjanath to warn his fellows upon the level above.
But the fellow’s companion had seen and heard and with a bound he was across the dungeon, his long sword ready in his hand, and now I was to see the mettle of which Nur An was made.
The affair had occurred so quickly, like a bolt of lightning out of a clear sky, that any man might have been excused had he been momentarily stunned into inactivity by the momentousness of my act, but Nur An was guilty of no fatal delay. As though we had planned the thing together it seemed that he leaped forward the instant that I sprang for the warrior and ran to meet his companion. Barehanded, he faced the long sword of his antagonist.
The gloom of the dungeon reduced the advantage of the armed man. He saw a figure leaping to meet his attack and in the excitement of the moment and in the dark of the cell, he did not know that Nur An was unarmed. He hesitated, paused and stepped back to receive the impetuous attack coming out of the darkness, and in that instant I had whipped the long sword of the fallen warrior from its scabbard and was charging the fellow at a slightly different angle from Nur An.
An instant later we were engaged and I found the fellow no mean swordsman; yet from the instant that our blades crossed I knew that I was his master and be must soon have realized it, too, for he fell back, fully on the defensive, evidently bent upon escaping to the corridor. This, however, I was determined not to permit and so I pressed him so closely that he dared not turn to run; nor did he call for help, and this, I guess, was because he realized the futility of so doing.
With the desperation of caged animals Nur An and I were fighting for our lives. There could be no question here of the scrupulous observance of the niceties of combat. It was his life or ours. Realizing this, Nur An snatched the short sword from the corpse of the fallen warrior and an instant later the second man was lying in a pool of his own blood.
“And now what?” asked Nur An.
“Are you familiar with the palace?” I asked.
“No,” he replied.
“Then we must depend upon what little I was able to glean from my observation of it,” I said. “Let us get into the harnesses of these two men at once. Perhaps they will offer a sufficient disguise to permit us to reach one of the upper levels at least, for without an intimate knowledge of the pits it is useless for us to try to seek escape below ground.”
“You are right,” he said, and a few moments later we emerged into the corridors, to all intents and purposes, two warriors of the guard of Haj Osis, Jed of Tjanath. Believing that up to a certain point boldness of demeanor would be our best safeguard against detection, I led the way toward the ground level of the palace without attempting in any way to resort to stealth or secrecy.
“There are many warriors at the main entrance of the palace,” I told Nur An, “and without knowing something of the regulations governing the coming and going of the inmates of the building, it would be suicidal to attempt to reach the avenue beyond the palace by that route.”
“What do you suggest then?” he asked.
“The ground level of the palace is a busy place, people are coming and going constantly through the corridors. Doubtless some of the upper levels are less frequented. Let us therefore seek a hiding place higher up and from the vantage point of some balcony we may be able to work out a feasible plan of escape.”
“Good!” he said. “Lead on!”
Ascending the winding ramp from the lower pits, we passed two levels before we reached the ground level of the palace, without meeting a single person, but the instant that we emerged upon the ground level we saw people everywhere; Officers, courtiers, warriors, slaves and merchants moved to and fro upon their various duties or in pursuit of the business that had brought them to the palace, but their very numbers proved a safeguard for us.
Upon the side of the corridor opposite from the point at which we entered it lay an arched entrance to another ramp running upward. Without an instant’s hesitation I crossed through the throng of people, and, with Nur An at my side, passed beneath the arch and entered the ascending ramp.
Scarcely had we started upward when we met a young officer descending. He accorded us scarcely a glance as we passed and I breathed more easily as I realized that our disguises did, in fact, disguise us.
There were fewer people on the second level of the palace, but yet far too many to suit me and so we continued on upward to the third level, the corridors of which we found almost deserted.
Near the mouth of the ramp lay the intersection of two main corridors. Here we hesitated for an instant to reconnoiter. There were people approaching from both directions along the corridor into which we had emerged, but in one direction the transverse corridor seemed deserted and we quickly entered it. It was a very long corridor, apparently extending the full length of the palace. It was flanked at intervals upon both sides by doorways, the doors to some of which were open, while others were closed or ajar. Through some of the open doorways we saw people, while the apartments revealed through others appeared vacant. The location of these we noted carefully as we moved slowly along, carefully observing every detail that might later prove of value to us.
We had traversed about two-thirds of this long corridor when a man stepped into it from a doorway a couple of hundred feet ahead of us. He was an officer, apparently a padwar of the guard. He halted in the middle of the corridor as a file of warriors emerged from the same doorway, and, forming in a column of twos, marched in our direction, the officer bringing up the rear.
Here was a test for our disguises that I did not care to risk. There was an open doorway at our left; beyond it I could see no one. “Come!” I said to Nur An, and without accelerating our speed we walked nonchalantly into the chamber, and as Nur An crossed the threshold, I closed the door behind him and as I did so I saw a young woman standing at the opposite side of the apartment looking squarely at us.
“What do you here, warriors?” she demanded.
Here, indeed, was an embarrassing situation. In the corridor without I could hear the clank of the accoutrements of the approaching warriors and I knew that the girl must hear it, too. If I did aught to arouse her suspicion, she had but to call for help, and how might I allay her suspicion when I had not the faintest conception of what might pass for a valid excuse for the presence of two warriors in this particular apartment, which for all I knew, might be the apartment of a princess of the royal house, to enter which without permission might easily mean death to a common warrior. I thought quickly, or perhaps I did not think at all; often we act rightly upon impulse and then credit the result to super-intelligence.
“We have come for the girl,” I stated brusquely. “Where is she?”
“What girl?” demanded the young woman in surprise.
“The prisoner, of course,” I replied.
“The prisoner?” she looked more puzzled than before.
“Of course,” said Nur An, “the prisoner. Where is she?” and I almost smiled for I knew that Nur An had not the faintest idea of what was in my mind.
“There is no prisoner here,” said the young woman. “These are the apartments of the infant son of Haj Osis.”
“The fool misdirected us,” I said. “We are sorry that we intruded. We were sent to fetch the girl, Tavia, who is a prisoner in the palace.”
It was only a guess. I did not know that Tavia was a prisoner, but after the treatment that had been accorded me I surmised as much.
“She is not here,” said the young woman, “and as for you, you had better leave these apartments at once for if you are discovered here it will go ill with you.”
Nur An, who was standing beside me, had been looking at the young woman intently. He stepped forward now, closer to her.
“By my first ancestor,” he exclaimed in a low voice, “it is Phao!”
The girl stepped back, her eyes wide with surprise and then slowly recognition dawned within them. “Nur An!” she exclaimed.
Nur An came close to the girl and took her hand in his. “All these years, Phao, I have thought that you were dead,” he said. “When the ship returned the captain reported that you and a number of others were killed.”
“He lied,” said the girl. “He sold us into slavery here in Tjanath; but you, Nur An, what are you doing here in the harness of Tjanath?”
“I am a prisoner,” replied my companion, “as is this warrior also. We have been confined in the pits beneath the palace and today we were to have died The Death, but we killed the two warriors who were sent to fetch us and now we are trying to find our way out of the palace.”
“Then you are not looking for the girl, Tavia?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, “we are looking for her, too. She was made a prisoner at the same time that I was.”
“Perhaps I can help you,” said Phao; “perhaps,” she added wistfully, “we may all escape together.”
“I shall not escape without you, Phao,” said Nur An.
“My ancestors have been good to me at last,” said the girl.
“Where is Tavia?” I asked.
“She is in the East Tower,” replied Phao.
“Can you lead us there, or tell us how we may reach it?” I asked.
“It would do no good to lead you to it,” she replied, “as the door is locked and guards stand before it. But there is another way.”
“And that?” I asked.
“I know where the keys are,” she said, “and I know other things that will prove helpful.”
“May our ancestors protect and reward you, Phao,” I said. “And now tell me where I may find the keys.”
“I shall have to lead you to the place myself,” she replied, “but we shall stand a better chance to succeed if there are not too many of us. I, therefore, suggest that Nur An remain here. I shall place him in hiding where he will not be found. I will then lead you to the prisoner, and, if possible, we will make our way back to this apartment. I am in charge here. Only at regular hours, twice a day, night and morning, does any other visit the apartment of the little prince. Here I can hide you and feed you for a long time and perhaps eventually we shall be able to evolve some feasible plan for escape.”
“We are in your hands, Phao,” said Nur An. “If there is to be fighting, though, I should like to accompany Hadron.”
“If we succeed there will be no fighting,” replied the girl. She stepped quickly across the room to a door, which she opened, revealing a large closet. “Here, Nur An,” she said, “is where you must remain until we return. There is no reason why anyone should open this door, and in so far as I know, it never has been opened since I have occupied these quarters, except by me.”
“I do not like the idea of hiding,” said Nur An with a grimace, “but—I have had to do many things recently that I did not like,” and without more words he crossed the apartment and entered the closet. Their eyes met for an instant before Phao closed the door, and I read in the depth of both that which made me wonder, remembering as I did the story that Nur An had told me of the other woman whom Tul Axtar had stolen from him. But such matters were no concern of mine, nor had they any bearing upon the business at hand.
“Here is my plan, warrior,” said Phao as she returned to my side. “When you entered this apartment you came saying that you were looking for the prisoner, Tavia. Although she was not here, I believed you. We will go, therefore, to Yo Seno, the keeper of the keys, and you will tell him the same story that you have been sent to fetch the prisoner, Tavia. If Yo Seno believes you, all will be well, for he will go himself and release the prisoner, turning her over to you.”
“And if he does not believe me?” I asked.
“He is a beast,” she said, “who is better dead than alive. Therefore you will know what to do.”
“I understand,” I said. “Lead the way.”
The office of Yo Seno, the keeper of the keys, was upon the fourth level of the palace, almost directly above the quarters of the infant prince. At the doorway Phao halted, and drawing my ear down to her lips, whispered her final instructions. “I shall enter first,” she said, “upon some trivial errand. A moment later you may enter, but pay no attention to me. It must not appear that we have come together.”
“I understand,” I said, and walked a few paces along the corridor so that I should not be in sight when the door opened. She told me afterward that she asked Yo Seno to have a new key made for one of the numerous doors in the apartment of the little prince.
I waited but a moment, and then I, too, entered the apartment. It was a gloomy room without windows. Upon its walls hung keys of every imaginable size and shape. Behind a large desk sat a coarse-looking man, who looked up quickly and scowled at the interruption as I entered.
“Well?” he demanded.
“I have come for the woman, Tavia,” I said, “the prisoner from Jahar.”
“Who sent you? What do you want of her?” he demanded.
“I have orders to bring her to Haj Osis,” I replied.
He looked at me suspiciously. “You bring a written order?” he asked.
“Of course not,” I replied, “it is not necessary. She is not to be taken out of the palace; merely from one apartment to another.”
“I must have a written order,” he snapped.
“Haj Osis will not be pleased,” I said, “when he learns that you have refused to obey his command.”
“I am not refusing,” said Yo Seno. “Do not dare to say that I refuse. I cannot turn a prisoner over without a written order. Show me your authority and I will give you the keys.”
I saw that the plan had failed; other measures must be taken. I whipped out my long sword. “Here is my authority!” I exclaimed, leaping toward him.
With an oath he drew his own sword, but instead of facing me with it he stepped quickly back, the desk still between us and, turning, struck a copper gong heavily with the flat of his blade.
As I rushed toward him I heard the sound of hurrying feet and the clank of metal from an adjoining room. Yo Seno, still backing away, sneered sardonically, and then the lights went out and the windowless room was plunged into darkness. Soft fingers grasped my left hand and a low voice whispered in my ear, “Come with me.”
Quickly I was drawn to one side and through a narrow aperture just as a door upon the opposite side of the chamber was flung open, revealing the forms of half a dozen warriors silhouetted against the light from the room behind them. Then the door closed directly in front of my face and I was again in utter darkness, but Phao’s fingers still grasped my hand.
“Silence!” a soft voice whispered.
From beyond the panels I heard angry and excited voices. Above the others one voice rose in tones of authority. “What is wrong here?”
There were muttered exclamations and curses as men bumped against pieces of furniture and ran into one another.
“Give us a light,” cried a voice, and a moment later, “That is better.”
“Where is Yo Seno? Oh, there you are, you fat rascal. What is amiss?”
“By Issus! he is gone.” The voice was that of Yo Seno.
“Who is gone?” demanded the other voice. “Why did you summon us?”
“I was attacked by a warrior,” explained Yo Seno, “who came demanding the key to the apartment where Haj Osis keeps the daughter of——.” I could not hear the rest of the sentence.
“Well, where is the man?” demanded the other.
“He is gone—and the key, too. The key is gone,” Yo Seno’s voice rose almost to a wail.
“Quick, then, to the apartment where the girl is kept,” cried first speaker, doubtless the officer of the guard, and almost at once I heard them hasten from the apartment.
The girl at my side moved a little and I heard a low laugh. “They will not find the key,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I have it,” she replied.
“Little good it will do us,” I said ruefully. “They will keep the door well guarded now and we cannot use the key.”
Phao laughed again. “We do not need the key,” she said. I took it to throw them off the track. They will watch the door while we enter elsewhere.”
“I do not understand,” I said.
“This corridor leads between the partitions to the room where the prisoner is kept. I know that because, when I was a prisoner in that room, Yo Seno came thus to visit me. He is a beast. I hope he has not visited this girl—I hope it for your sake, if you love her.”
“I do not love her,” I said. “She is only a friend.” But I scarcely knew what I was saying, the words seemed to come mechanically for I was in the grip of such an emotion as I never before had experienced or endured. It had seized me the instant that Phao had suggested that Yo Seno might have visited Tavia through this secret corridor. I experienced a sensation that was almost akin to a convulsion—a sensation that left me a changed man. Before, I could have killed Yo Seno with my sword and been glad; now I wanted to tear him to pieces; I wanted to mutilate him and make him suffer. Never before in my life had I experienced such a bestial desire. It was hideous, and yet I gloated in its possession.
“What is the matter?” exclaimed Phao. “I thought I felt you tremble then.”
“I trembled,” I said.
“For what?” she asked.
“For Yo Seno,” I replied, “but let us hasten. If this corridor leads to the apartment where Tavia is in prison, I cannot reach her to soon, for when Haj Osis learns that the key has been stolen he will have her removed to another prison.”
“He will not learn it if Yo Seno and the padwar of the guard can prevent,” said Phao, “for if this reached the ears of Haj Osis it might easily cost them both their lives. They will wait for you to come that they may kill you and get the key, but they will wait outside the prison door and you will not come that way.”
As she spoke she started to walk along the narrow, dark corridor, leading me by the hand behind her. It was slow work for Phao had to grope her way slowly because the corridor turned sharply at right angles as it followed the partitions of the apartments between which it passed, and there were numerous stairways that led up over doorways and finally a ladder to the level above.
Presently she halted. “We are there,” she whispered, “but we must listen first to make sure that no one has entered the apartment with the prisoner.”
I could see absolutely nothing in the darkness, and how Phao knew that she had reached her destination, I could not guess.
“It is all right,” she said presently, and simultaneously she pushed a wooden panel ajar and in the opening I saw a portion of the interior of a circular apartment with narrow windows heavily barred. Opposite the opening, upon a pile of sleeping silks and furs, I saw a woman reclining. Only a bare shoulder, a tiny ear and a head of tousled hair were visible. At the first glance I knew that they were Tavia’s.
As we stepped into the apartment Phao closed the panel behind us. Attracted by the sound of our entrance, quietly executed though it was, Tavia sat up and looked at us and then, as she recognized me, sprang to her feet. Her eyes were wide with surprise and there was an exclamation upon her lips, which I silenced by a warning forefinger placed against my own. I crossed the apartment toward her, and she came to meet me, almost running. As I looked into her eyes I saw an expression there that I have never seen in the eyes of any other woman—at least not for me—and if I had ever doubted Tavia’s friendship, such a doubt would have vanished in that instant, but I had not doubted it and I was only surprised now to realize the depth of it. Had Sanoma Tora ever looked at me like that I should have read love in the expression, but I had never spoken of love to Tavia and so I knew that it was only friendship that she felt. I had always been too much engrossed in my profession to make any close friendships so that I had never realized until that moment what a wonderful thing friendship might be.
As we met in the center of the room her eyes, moist with tears were upturned to mine. “Hadron,” she whispered, her voice husky with emotion, and then I put my arm about her slender shoulders and drew her to me and something that was quite beyond my volition impelled me to kiss her upon the forehead. Instantly she disengaged herself and I feared that she had misunderstood that impulsive kiss of friendship, but her next words reassured me.
“I thought never to see you again, Hadron of Hastor,” she said. “I feared that they had killed you. How comes it that you are here and in the metal of a warrior of Tjanath?”
I told her briefly of what had occurred to me since we had been separated and of how I had temporarily, at least, escaped The Death. She asked me what The Death was, but I could not tell her.
“It is very horrible,” said Phao.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I do not know,” replied the girl, “only that it is horrible. There is a deep pit, some say a bottomless pit, beneath the lower pits of the palace; horrible noises—groans and moans arise perpetually from it and into this pit those that are to die The Death are cast, but in such a way that the fall will not kill them. They must reach the bottom alive to endure all the horrors of The Death that await them there. That the torture is almost interminable is evidenced by the fact that the moans and groans of the victims never cease, no matter how long a period may have elapsed between executions.”
“And you have escaped it,” exclaimed Tavia. “My prayers have been answered. For days and nights have I been praying to my ancestors that you might be spared. Now if you can but escape this hateful place. Have you a plan?”
“We have a plan that with the help of Phao here may prove successful. Nur An, of whom I told you, is hiding in a closet in one of the apartments of the little prince. We shall return to that apartment at the first opportunity and here Phao will hide all three of us until some opportunity for escape presents itself.”
“And we should lose no more time in returning,” said Phao. “Come, let us go at once.”
As we turned toward the panel through which we had entered I saw that it was ajar, though I was confident that Phao had closed it after us when we entered and simultaneously I could have sworn that I saw an eye glued to the narrow crack, as though someone watched us from the dark interior of the secret corridor.
In a single bound I was across the room and had drawn the panel aside. My sword was ready in my hand, but there was no one in the corridor beyond.