As I put out to sea from the beach in front of the palace of the Toganja Zerka, my mind was filled with such emotions as beggar description. My beloved Duare was in grave danger in Sanara--the greatest danger being that she might be forced to die by her own hand, which I knew she would do rather than mate with Muso. And in Amlot I was leaving behind a good friend who was in equal danger, and in the Prison of Death lay Duare's father. If ever a man's mind was beset by apprehension of dire import, it was mine that night.
Standing out from shore, I caught a brisker breeze, which finally veered into the northeast and drove me along at a spanking pace. As the wind rose, so did the seas, until I began to have doubts as to the ability of my frail craft to weather them. It was an almost following wind, and constantly I was expecting to be engulfed by the growing seas that pursued me. The lightness of my boat, however, kept me just out of danger from that cause; but there was always the possibility of striking a submerged rock or a reef in this sea of which I knew nothing. I was compelled to stay always too close to land for safety, lest I pass my little island without recognizing it as such; but at last I saw it; and, without a great deal of difficulty, made the little cove where I had previously been taken off by Lodas.
The fear that now assailed me was as to the safety of my ship. Would I find it where I had left it? What if some prowling fishermen had discovered it? I thought of a dozen reasons why it should be missing or destroyed as I drew my canoe safely out of the water and hastened across the island toward the spot where I had fastened the anotar down. At last I saw it dimly through the night, and then I was beside it. The reaction and the relief left me weak for a moment, as I realized that the ship was just as I had left it.
Casting off the ropes and throwing them into the rear cockpit, I taxied out into open meadow that formed the greater part of the island. A moment later I was in the air and heading straight for Sanara. I saw lights in Lodas's cottage as I sped past, and a moment later the lights of Amlot shown on my right. After that I saw no sign of life until the campfires of the Zani army flickered below me; and then, ahead, I could see the glow of the lights of Sanara. My Duare was there! In a few minutes I should be holding her in my arms again. I tried to open the throttle wider, only to find that it was open as far as it would go--I had been running the engine at maximum all the way from Amlot without realizing it; but I had made good time. I had left the Zani barracks and started for the quay about the 20th hour, it was now approaching only the 26th hour. In six Amtorian hours, which are equivalent to four Earth hours, I had made my escape from Amlot, sailed about ten miles along the coast, and flown to Sanara. That little gale had helped me on my way, and my light craft had practically flown the distance.
I approached Sanara without lights and at a high altitude; then I spiralled down from directly above the landing field that I had previously used. I knew every bump and depression in it, so many times had I used it. With my noiseless motor, I came in as quietly as a falling leaf; and taxied to the hangar that Muso had had built for me. The field was deserted; and the hour being late and few people on the streets in this district, I believe that no one saw my ship or saw me land. That was as I wished it, for I wanted to see Duare and Taman before I talked with anyone else.
I kept my flying helmet on to hide my Zani haircut, hoped that no one would notice my Zani trappings, and set out on foot in the direction of Taman's palace. As I approached it, I saw Muso's palace across the avenue brilliant with a thousand lights. Many gorgeously trapped gantors were waiting patiently along both sides of the avenue. Strains of music floated out into the night from the interior of the palace. I could also hear the murmur of many voices. It was evident that Muso was entertaining.
One of the sentries in front of Taman's palace stepped up to me as I stopped at the entrance.
"What do you want?" he demanded. I guess putting a man in front of a door anywhere in the universe must do something to him. The tremendous responsibility implicit in such a cosmic assignment seems to remove all responsibility for good manners. I have seldom known it to fail. When it does, they must immediately transfer the man to some other form of activity.
"I want to go in," I said; "I am Carson of Venus."
The fellow stepped back as though he had seen a ghost, as I imagine that he thought he had, for a moment.
"Carson of Venus!" he exclaimed. "We thought you were dead. Muso issued a proclamation of mourning for you. You must be dead."
"I am not, and I want to go in and see my wife and Taman."
"They are not there," he said.
"Where are they?"
"Across the street." He looked a bit uncomfortable as he said it, or was it my imagination?
"Then I'll go over there," I said.
"I do not think Muso will be glad to see you," opined the sentry; but I had already started, and he did not attempt to detain me.
Once again, at Muso's palace, I was stopped by a sentry. He wouldn't believe that I was Carson of Venus, and was going to have me carted off to jail. But I finally prevailed on him, by means of a small bribe, to call an officer. He who came, I had known quite well and had liked. I had taken him up in my ship a number of times, and we were good friends. When he recognized me, he looked mighty uncomfortable. I laid a hand on his arm, reassuringly.
"Please don't be embarrassed," I begged. "I have heard. Am I in time?"
"Thank the good fates, you are," he replied. "It was to be announced at the 27th hour this night. It is almost that now."
"And I may go in?" I asked, out of courtesy; for I intended going in, if I had to kill someone doing it.
"I would be the last man to stop you," he said, "even if I lost my head for it."
"Thanks," I said, and ran up the broad stairway beyond the ornate portals.
I could see down the center corridor to the great throneroom. It was packed with the aristocracy of Sanara. I knew that whatever of interest was taking place in the palace was taking place there; so I hurried along the corridor toward the doorway. Over the heads of the assembly I could see Muso standing on a dais beside the throne. He was speaking.
"A jong," he was saying, "must take his woman before the eyes of all men; so that all may know whom to honor as their vadjong. Being without a woman, I have chosen to honor one whose man gave his life in the service of Korva and myself. It is the highest award of merit that I can confer upon his memory."
I was elbowing my way through the crowd to the discomfiture of ribs and toes and to the accompaniment of scowls and muttered imprecations. Finally an officer seized me by the shoulder and swung me around facing him. When he saw who I was, his eyes went wide; and then a wry smile twisted his lips as he let me go and gave me a push forward. As I came m full view of the dais, I saw Duare sitting on a low bench, her eyes staring straight ahead, that noble little head of hers unbowed. A strapping warrior of the jong's guard sat on either side of her. That was the only reason she was there.
"And now," said Muso, "lives there any man who says I may not take Duare, Janjong of Vepaja, to be my queen?"
"There does," I said in a loud voice, stepping forward. Duare looked quickly down at me; then, before the warriors could prevent, she had leaped to the floor and flung herself into my arms.
Muso stood there with his mouth open, his arms hanging limply at his side. If the saying about having the starch taken out of one was ever appropriate, it was then. Here was a situation with which it seemed impossible for him to cope. Here was a problem without a solution. Finally he forced a sickly smile.
"I thought you were dead," he said. "This is indeed a happy moment."
I just looked at him, and made no reply. The silence in the room was deathlike. It must have lasted for a full minute, which is a very long time under such circumstances; then someone started for the doorway, and like a funeral procession the guests passed out. I felt a hand on my arm, and turned to see whose it was. It was Taman's. Jahara was at his side. She looked both frightened and pleased.
"Come," he said, "you had better get out of here."
As we reached the doorway, I turned and looked back. Muso was still standing there beside his throne like one in a trance. We left the jong's palace and crossed directly to Taman's, nor did any of us breathe freely until we were seated in Jahara's boudoir.
"You will have to leave Sanara at once," said Taman--"tonight, if possible."
"I don't want to leave Sanara," I said. "At last Duare and I have found a place where we might live in peace and happiness. I shall not let one man drive me out."
"But you cannot fight the jong," he said; "and until Kord is restored, Muso is jong."
"I think I can," I said, "and I think I can create a new jong. Kord is dead."
"Kord dead? How do you know?"
"I saw Mephis kill him," and then I told them the story of the assassination of the Jong of Korva.
"And the new jong?" asked Jahara. "Who is he to be?"
"Taman," I said.
Taman shook his head. "That cannot be. I owe allegiance to Muso, if Kord be dead."
"Even if he were proved to be a traitor to his people?" I asked.
"No, not in that event, of course; but Muso is no traitor to the people of Korva."
"How many high officers of the army and officials of the government would feel as you do?" I asked.
"All but a few who owe everything to Muso," he replied.
"How many of them can you gather here tonight," I asked.
"Twenty to thirty of the most important," he said.
"Will you do it? I ask you to trust me. It will be for the best good of Korva-- the country that I would wish to make my own."
He summoned several aides and gave instructions; then Taman, Jahara, and Duare settled down to listen to the story of my adventures in Amlot while we awaited the coming of the invited guests. I did not tell Duare that I had found her father a prisoner in a Zani prison until after we were alone together the next morning after the guests had left. She was very brave about it, and was confident that I would rescue him eventually.
At last the great men commenced to arrive. There were generals and councillors of state and great nobles of the realm, the flower of Korvan aristocracy that had escaped the Zani massacres. We met in the large audience chamber and were seated at a great table that had been brought into the room for the occasion. Taman was seated at the head of the table; I, being without nobility or rank, sat at the lower end. When all were seated, Taman rose.
"You all know Carson of Venus and what he has done for Sanara?" he said. "He has asked me to call you together at this late hour because a national emergency exists. I trust him, and have taken his word that such is the case. I feel that we should listen to him. Are you all agreed?"
Thirty heads nodded gravely; then Taman turned to me. "You may speak, Carson of Venus," he said; "but you must have proof of what you have insinuated to me, for though you are my friend, my first duty is to my jong. Do not forget that. Proceed."
"Let me put a hypothetical question to you gentlemen before I lay my information before you," I commenced. "If it were proved beyond doubt that your jong had sought to conspire with the enemy to cause the defeat of the forces holding Sanara and turn the city over to the Zanis at a price, would you feel that you were relieved of your oaths of allegiance to him and be warranted in replacing him with one of royal blood in whom you had the utmost confidence?"
Many a face was clouded by a resentful scowl. "You are suggesting a grievous charge," said a great general.
"I am asking you a hypothetical question," I replied. "I have made no charge. Do you care to answer?"
"There is no question as to what I should do," said the general, "if such an emergency confronted me. I should be the first to turn against any jong who did such a traitorous thing as that, but that is something that no jong of Korva would do."
"And you other gentlemen?" I asked.
Without exception they all concurred in the sentiments of the general.
"Then I may tell you that such an emergency exists," I said. "I shall shock you by my disclosures, but I must have your assurance that you will hear me through and consider impartially the evidence I have to offer."
"I can assure you that we shall," said Taman.
"Muso, swearing me to secrecy, sent me to Amlot with a message for Spehon, Mephis's chief lieutenant. He chose me for two reasons. One was that he thought I could not read Amtorian, and therefore could not know what was in the message; and the other you had proof of in his palace this night--he wanted my woman. But I can read Amtorian; and after I got to Amlot, I became suspicious and read Muso's message to Spehon. In it he offered to open the gates of Sanara to Zani troops in return for the throne of Korva, and he agreed to accept Mephis as his advisor and to reward the Zanis. He also suggested that it would be best if Carson of Venus were destroyed in Amlot."
"This is preposterous!" cried a great noble. "The man must be mad to make such charges. They are prompted by jealousy, because Muso desires his woman."
"They cannot be true," exclaimed another.
"Taman," cried a third, "I demand this man's arrest."
"You are not keeping your promise to me," I reminded them. "Is this what I am to expect of Korvan nobility? And do you think I am such a fool as to make charges of this kind without ample evidence to substantiate them? What would I have to gain? I would be signing my own death warrant. I may be doing so anyway; but I am doing it for the only country on Amtor that I can call my own, the one country in which my princess and I feel that we have a chance to live happily among friends."
"Go on," said the great general. "I apologize for my confreres."
"Where are your proofs?" asked Taman.
"Here," I said, and drew Muso's message from my pocket pouch. "Here, in his own handwriting, Muso convicts himself." I handed the envelope to Taman. He opened it and read it through carefully to himself; then he passed it to the man to this right. Thus it passed around the table, each man reading it carefully. It left them silent and sober-faced. Even after the last man had read it and passed it back to Taman, they sat in silence. It was the great general who spoke first.
"I do not doubt the integrity of this man or his belief in the duplicity of Muso," he said. "It is sufficient to shake the confidence of each of us. In addition, he knows that Muso sought his life. I cannot blame him for anything he may think; I should think as he does, were I he. But he is not a Korvan by birth. There is not bred in him the reverence and loyalty to our jongs that is part of every fiber of our beings. For him, this document is sufficient proof. As I have said, it would be for me, were I he; but I am not. I am a Korvan noble, the first general of the jong's armies; and so I must give Muso the benefit of every doubt. Perhaps this message was a ruse to lure the Zani troops from some part of the line, that Muso might order an attack upon that weakened part. It would have been excellent strategy. Now I suggest that we prove conclusively whether such was his intent, or whether he did intend to open the gates to the enemy."
"How may that be done?" asked Taman.
"We shall try to arrange to have the enemy shoot three blue rockets into the air before the main gates of Sanara on three successive nights; then wait and see what Muso does."
"But how can we get the enemy to co-operate?" asked another.
"I shall commission Carson of Venus to drop a message behind their lines, telling them that I should like to hold a parley with them and asking them, if they are agreeable to the suggestion, to shoot the blue rockets."
"An excellent suggestion," said Taman.
"But," I objected, "seeing me returned alive, Muso may be suspicious, for he definitely asked Spehon to have me destroyed."
"Write a report," said the general, "stating that after you delivered the message you became fearful and escaped."
"That would certainly arouse Muso's suspicions," said Taman.
"I might tell him the truth," I suggested, "and that is that the very night I arrived in Amlot the message was stolen from me. The very fact that I remained there so long should convince Muso that I had no suspicion of what the note contained."
"I think your idea is the best one," said the general; "but why did you stay so long in Amlot--if you could have escaped?"
"I had several reasons," I replied. "I suspected that Mintep, Jong of Vepaja and father of my princess, was a prisoner there. I also wanted to gather what information I could for the Sanaran high command. Lastly, I had to establish myself before I could safely make an effort to escape. I became an officer in the Zani Guard and was, for a while, acting governor of The Gap kum Rov."
"And you absorbed some information?"
"Much," I replied. "I have learned that a counter-revolution is about to be launched, the proponents of which hoped to restore Kord to his throne."
"You say 'hoped'," commented a noble. "Have they now given up the idea?"
"Kord is dead," I said.
I might as well have thrown a bomb among them. They leaped to their feet almost as one man. "Kord dead?" It was the same stunned reaction that I had seen before.
"But," cried one, "we have heard that rumor often before, but it has never been substantiated."
"I saw him die," I told them; then I had to go all over that harrowing episode again.
Well, at last they prepared to go; but before they did I propounded another question. "And now, gentlemen," I said, "just who is going to protect my princess and me from Muso. If I am not mistaken, I stand a good chance of being assassinated the first time I go on the streets."
"He is right," said the general.
"He should certainly be protected, General Varo," agreed Taman.
"Well," said Varo, "I know of no safer place for them than where they are now, under the protection of the man who is next in line for the throne of Korva, after Muso."
There was a subdued cheer at that, but I was not surprised. Taman was the most popular man in Sanara. He sat for a moment with his head bowed, and then he looked up at Varo. His face showed traces of mental strain; his manner was tinged with embarrassment.
"I wish that I might agree with you in that," he said; "but, unfortunately, I cannot. As a matter of fact, I believe that my palace would be the least safe place for Carson of Venus and the Janjong of Vepaja. During the past ten days three attempts have been made upon my life--twice by poison, once by dagger."
The disclosure so shocked the assembled nobles, that, for a moment, there was deep silence; then Varo spoke.
"Were the scoundrels apprehended?" he asked. "Do you know who they were?"
"Yes," replied Taman, "but they were only the instruments of another."
"And you know whom that may be?" asked a noble.
"I can only surmise," replied Taman. "Unfortunately, my retainers killed all three before I had an opportunity to question them."
"Perhaps I had better remain here, then," I said, "as additional protection for the next jong of Korva."
"No," said Taman. "I appreciate your generosity; but I am well protected by my own people, and there are more important things for you to do."
"You may come to my palace," said Varo. "I swear no one shall take you from there, even if I have to protect you with the entire army of Sanara."
I shook my head. "Muso will unquestionably send for me," I said. "Should you refuse to give me up, his suspicions would be aroused; and our entire plan might come to nothing. I think I have a solution of the problem."
"What is it?" asked Taman.
"Let Varo prepare his message to the enemy at once. At the same time I shall write my report to Muso. Get two officers to volunteer for extra hazardous duty. I shall want them to accompany me. As soon as Varo's message is ready, Varo can order me out on special duty. I shall take my princess and the two officers with me, drop the message behind the enemy lines, and remain away until you shall have had time to determine Muso's guilt or assure yourselves of his innocence. When I return above Sanara, liberate one balloon if it is unsafe for me ever to return to Sanara; liberate two if I am to return another day for further advice; liberate three if it is safe for me to land. In the event that I cannot land in safety to myself, I shall land the two officers the night that I get the message; and I must have your assurance now that I shall be permitted to do so and take off again in safety."
"The entire plan is excellent," said Taman. "Please put it in writing; so that there shall be no misunderstanding of the signals."
"May I ask why you wish to have two of our officers accompany you?" asked Varo.
"One of them will have to go with me into Amlot while I attempt to liberate the Jong of Vepaja from the Gap kum Rov; the other will remain with my princess and the ship while I am away in Amlot."
"I shall have no difficulty in obtaining volunteers," said Varo. "Now, if we are to get you away before dawn, we must get to work."
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