AS the barge in which Thorne and Taask were prisoners was being rowed up the river, the former heard one of the warriors speak to a black galley slave in Swahili.
“Why did you take us prisoners?” he asked the warrior in command, speaking in Swahili; “and what are you going to do with us?”
“I took you prisoners because you were too near The Forbidden City,” replied the warrior. “No one may approach Ashair and return to the outer world. I am taking you there now. What will become of you rests in the hands of Queen Atka, but you may rest assured that you will never leave Ashair.”
Just ahead of the galley, Thorne saw the mighty wall of Tuen-Baka rising high into the blue African sky; and from a great, black opening in the wall the river flowed. Into this mighty natural tunnel the galley was steered. A torch was lighted and held in the bow, as the craft was rowed into the Stygian darkness ahead; but at last it emerged into the sunlight and onto the bosom of a lake that lay at the bottom of the great crater of Tuen-Baka.
Ahead and to the left, Thorne saw the domes of a small, walled city. To right and left, beyond the lake, were forest and plain; and in the far distance, at the upper end of the lake, another city was dimly visible.
“Which is Ashair?” he asked a warrior.
The man jerked a thumb in the direction of the nearer city at the left. “There is Ashair,” he said. “Take a good look at it, for, unless Atka sentences you to the galleys, you’ll never see the outside of it again.”
“And the other city?” asked Thorne. “What is that?”
“That’s Thobos,” replied the man. “If you happen to be sentenced to a war galley, you may see more of Thobos, when we go there to fight.”
As the galley approached Ashair, Atan Thome turned to Lal Taask, who sat beside him in the stern. Thorne had been looking at the city, but Lal Taask had been gazing down into the clear depths of the lake.
“Look!” exclaimed Thorne. “My dream come true! There is The Forbidden City; there, somewhere, lies The Father of Diamonds. I am coming closer and closer to it. It is Fate! I know now that it is written that I shall possess it.”
Lal Taask shook his head. “These warriors have sharp spears,” he said. “There are probably more warriors in Ashair. I do not think they will let you take The Father of Diamonds away with you. I even heard one say that we should never leave, ourselves. Do not get your hopes too high. Look down into this lake instead. The water is so clear, you can see the bottom. I have seen many fish and strange creatures such as I have never seen before. It is far more interesting than the city, and it may be the only time we shall ever look at it. By the beard of the prophet, Atan Thome! Look! There is a marvel, indeed, master.”
Thorne looked over the side of the galley; and the sight that met his eyes wrung an exclamation of surprise and incredulity from him, for, clearly discernible at the bottom of the lake, there was a splendid temple. He could see lights shining from its windows, and as he watched it, spellbound, he saw a grotesque, man-like figure emerge from it and walk on the bottom of the lake. The creature carried a trident, but what it was doing and where it was going Atan Thome was doomed not to discover, for the rapidly propelled barge passed over the creature and the temple; and they were lost to view, as the craft approached the quay of The Forbidden City.
“Come!” commanded the warrior in charge of the party, and Thorne and Taask were herded off the galley onto the quay. They entered the city through a small gateway, and were led through narrow, winding streets to a large building near the center of the city. Before the gate stood armed warriors who, after a brief parley, admitted the captives and their guard; then Atan Thome and Lal Taask were escorted into the building and into the presence of an official, who listened to the report of their captors and then spoke to them in Swahili.
The man listened to Thorne’s explanation of their presence near Ashair; then he shrugged. “You may be telling the truth, or you may be lying,” he said. “Probably you are lying, but it makes no difference. Ashair is a forbidden city. No stranger who enters Tuen-Baka may leave alive. What becomes of him here—whether he be destroyed immediately or permitted to live for what ever useful purpose he may serve—rests wholly with the discretion of the Queen. Your capture will be reported to her; when it suits her convenience, your fate will be decided.”
“If I might have audience with her,” said Thorne, “I am sure that I can convince her that my motives are honorable and that I can give Ashair valuable service. I have information of the greatest importance to her and to Ashair.”
“You may tell me,” said the official. “I will communicate the information to her.”
“I must give it to the Queen in person,” replied Atan Thome.
“The Queen of Ashair is not in the habit of granting audiences to prisoners,” said the man, haughtily. “It will be well for you if you give this information to me—if you have any.”
Atan Thome shrugged. “I have it,” he said, “but I shall give it to no one but the Queen. If disaster befalls Ashair, the responsiblity will rest with you. Don’t say that I didn’t warn you.”
“Enough of this impudence!” exclaimed the official. “Take them away and lock them up—and don’t overfeed them.”
“Master, you should not have antagonized him,” said Lal Taask, as the two men lay on cold stone, chained to the wall of a gloomy dungeon. “If you had information to impart to the Queen—and Allah alone knows what it might be—why did you not tell the man what it was? Thus it would have reached the Queen.”
“You are a good servant, Lal Taask,” said Thorne; “and you wield a knife with rare finesse. These are accomplishments worthy of highest encomiums, but you lack versatility. It is evident that Allah felt he had given you sufficient gifts when he gave you these powers; so he gave you nothing with which to think.”
“My master is all-wise,” replied Lal Taask. “I pray that he may think me out of this dungeon.”
“That’s what I am trying to do. Don’t you realize that it would be useless to appeal to underlings? This Queen is all-powerful. If we can reach her, personally, we place our case directly before the highest tribunal; and I can plead our case much better than it could be pled second hand by one who had no interest in us.”
“Again I bow to your superior wisdom,” said Lal Taask, “but I am still wondering what important information you have to give the Queen of Ashair.”
“Lal Taask, you are hopeless,” sighed Thorne. “The information I have to give to the Queen should be as obvious to you as a fly on the end of your nose.”
For days, Atan Thome and Lal Taask lay on the cold stone of their dungeon floor, receiving just enough food to keep them alive; and having all Atan Thome’s pleas for an audience with the Queen ignored by the silent warrior who brought their food.
“They are starving us to death,” wailed Lal Taask.
“On the contrary,” observed Atan Thome, “they appear to have an uncanny sense of the calorific properties of food. They know just how much will keep us from starving to death. And look at my waist line, Lal Taask! I have often had it in mind to embark upon a rigid diet for the purpose of reducing. The kind Asharians have anticipated that ambition. Presently, I shall be almost sylph-like.”
“For you, perhaps, that may be excellent, master; but for me, who never had an ounce of surplus fat beneath his hide, it spells disaster. Already, my backbone is chafing my navel.”
“Ah,” exclaimed Atan Thome, as footfalls announced the approach of some one along the corridor leading to their cell, “here comes Old Garrulity again.”
“I did not know that you knew his name, master,” remarked Taask; “but some one accompanies him this time—I hear voices.”
“Perhaps he brings an extra calorie, and needs help,” suggested Thorne. “If he does, it is yours. I hope it is celery.”
“You like celery, master?”
“No. It shall be for you. Celery is reputed to be a brain food.”
The door to the cell was unlocked, and three warriors entered. One of them removed the chains from the prisoners’ ankles.
“What now?” asked Atan Thome.
“The Queen has sent for you,” replied the warrior.
The two men were led through the palace to a great room, at the far end of which, upon a dais, a woman sat upon a throne hewn from a single block of lava. Warriors flanked her on either side, and slaves stood behind her throne ready to do her every bidding.
As the two men were led forward and halted before the dais, they saw a handsome woman, apparently in her early thirties. Her hair was so dressed that it stood out straight from her head in all directions to a length of eight or ten inches and had woven into it an ornate headdress of white plumes. Her mien was haughty and arrogant as she eyed the prisoners coldly, and Atan Thome read cruelty in the lines of her mouth and the latent fires of a quick temper in the glint of her eyes. Here was a women to be feared, a ruthless killer, a human tigress. The equanimity of the smug Eurasian faltered before a woman for the first time.
“Why came you to Ashair?” demanded the Queen.
“By accident, majesty; we were lost. When we found our way blocked, we turned back. We were leaving the country when your warriors took us prisoner.”
“You have said that you have valuable information to give me. What is it? If you have imposed upon me and wasted my tune, it shall not be well for you.”
“I have powerful enemies,” said Atan Thome. “It was while trying to escape from them that I became lost. They are coming to Ashair to attempt to steal a great diamond which they believe you to possess. I only wished to befriend you and help you trap them.”
“Are they coming in force?” asked Atka.
“That, I do not know,” replied Thorne; “but I presume they are. They have ample means.”
Queen Atka turned to one of her nobles. “If this man has spoken the truth, he shall not fare ill at our hands. Akamen, I place the prisoners in your charge. Permit them reasonable liberties. Take them away.” Then she spoke to another. “See that the approaches to Ashair are watched.”
Akamen, the noble, conducted Atan Thome and Lal Taask to pleasant quarters in a far wing of the palace. “You are free to go where you will inside the palace walls, except to the royal wing. Nor may you go beneath the palace. There lie the secrets of Ashair and death for strangers.”
“The Queen has been most magnanimous,” said Thorne. “We shall do nothing to forfeit her good will. Ashair is most interesting. I am only sorry that we may not go out into the city or upon the lake.”
“It would not be safe,” said Akamen. “You might be captured by a galley from Thobos. They would not treat you as well as Atka has.”
“I should like to look down again at the beautiful building at the bottom of the lake,” said Thorne. “That was my reason for wishing to go upon the lake. What is the building? and what the strange creature I saw coming from it?”
“Curiosity is often a fatal poison,” said Akamen.