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15. Tragic Error

There is nothing more annoying than to commit an egregious error of judgment and have no one but yourself upon whom to blame it. As I was dragged into that room, I was annoyed. I was more than annoyed--I was frightened; for I saw certain death staring me in the face. And not death alone--for I remembered Narvon. I wondered if I would go to pieces, too.

And there was some reason for my apprehension, for besides a company of Zani Guardsmen and officers, there were a number of the great men of Zanism--there were even Mephis and Spehon themselves. And to one side, their wrists manacled, stood Zerka and Mantar. There was an expression almost of anguish in Zerka's eyes as they met mine. Mantar shook his head sadly, as though to say, "You poor fool, why did you stick your head into the noose again?"

"So you came back," rasped Mephis. "Don't you think that was a little unwise, a little stupid?"

"Let us say unfortunate, Mephis," I replied. "Unfortunate for you."

"Why unfortunate for me?" he demanded, almost angrily. I could see that he was nervous. I knew that he was always fearful.

"Unfortunate, because you would like to kill me; but if you do--if you harm me in any way or harm the Toganja Zerka or Mantar--you shall die shortly after dawn."

"You dare threaten me?" he roared. "You stinking mistal! You dare threaten the great Mephis? Off to the Gap kum Rov with him!--with all of them! Let Torko do his worst with them. I want to see them writhe. I want to hear them scream."

"Wait a minute, Mephis," I advised him. "I wasn't threatening you. I was merely stating facts. I know what I'm talking about, for I have given orders that I know will be carried out if I am not safely out of Amlot shortly after dawn."

"You lie!" he almost screamed.

I shrugged. "If I were you, though, I'd give instructions that none of us is to be tortured or harmed in any way until at least the third hour tomorrow--and be sure to have a boat ready that I and my friends can sail away in after you have released us."

"I shall never release you," he said; but nevertheless he gave instructions that we were not to be tortured or harmed until he gave further orders.

And so Zerka and Mantar and I were dragged away to the Gap kum Rov. They didn't abuse us, and they even took the manacles off Zerka and Mantar. They put us all together in a cell on the second floor, which surprised me; as the basement was reserved for Mephis's special hates as well as prisoners concerning whose incarceration he would rather not have too much known.

"Why did you do such a foolish thing as to come back?" asked Zerka, after we had been left alone.

"And right after I risked my life to get you out of here," said Mantar, laughingly.

"Well," I explained, "I wanted to see Zerka and find out if there is any way in which the loyal forces at Sanara may co-operate with you."

"They could," she said, "but now they'll never know. We need more weapons--you might have brought them in that flying boat you have told me about."

"I may yet," I assured her.

"Have you gone crazy?" she demanded. "Don't you know, regardless of that courageous bluff you tried to pull, that we are all lost--that we shall be tortured and killed, probably today."

"No," I said. "I know we may, but not that we shall. I was pulling no bluff. I meant what I said. But tell me, what caused them to arrest you and Mantar?"

"It was the culmination of growing suspicion on the part of Spehon," explained Zerka. "My friendship for you had something to do with it; and after Horjan informed on you and you escaped from the city, Spehon, in checking over all your connections, recalled this friendship and also the fact that Mantar and you were close friends and that Mantar was my friend. One of the soldiers in the detail that Mantar commanded the evening that he met you and let you proceed to the quay reported to Spehon that he thought your description, which he heard after he returned to the barracks, fitted the man with whom Mantar had talked. Then, these things having suggested my connection with you, Spehon recalled Narvon's last words--the same words that assured you that I was one of those who conspired with Narvon against the Zanis. So, all in all, they had a much clearer case against me than the Zanis ordinarily require; but Mephis would not believe that I had conspired against him. He is such an egotistical fool that he thought that my affection for him assured my loyalty."

"I was, until recently, in a quandary as to your exact sentiments and your loyalties," I said. "I was told that you were high in the esteem of Mephis, that you were the author of the 'Maltu Mephis!' gesture of adulation, that it was you who suggested having citizens stand on their heads while they cheered Mephis, that it was your idea to have The Life of Our Beloved Mephis run continuously in all theaters, and to have Zani Guardsmen annoy and assault citizens continually."

Zerka laughed. "You were correctly informed," she said. "I was the instigator of those and other schemes for making Zanism obnoxious and ridiculous in the eyes of the citizens of Amlot; so that it might be easier to recruit members for our counterrevolution. So stupidly egotistical are the chief Zanis, they will swallow almost any form of flattery, however ridiculous and insincere it may be."

While we were talking, Torko came stamping up the stairs to our cell. He had been absent from the prison when we were brought in. He wore one of his most fearsome frowns, but I could see he was delighted with the prospect of baiting and doubtless torturing such important prisoners as we. He stood and glowered at us a moment before he spoke. It was so evident that he was trying to impress and frighten us that I couldn't restrain a desire to laugh--well, perhaps I didn't try very hard. I knew how to bait such creatures as Torko. I also knew that no matter what attitude we assumed toward him he would give us the works, so to speak, the moment he was given the opportunity.

"What are you laughing at?" he demanded.

"I wasn't laughing before you came up, Torko; so I must be laughing at you."

"Laughing at me, are you, you stinking mistal?" he bellowed. "Well, you won't laugh when I get you in the courtroom tomorrow morning."

"You won't get me into the courtroom tomorrow morning, Torko; and even if I am there, you won't be. You'll be in one of these cells; and then, later, you'll have an opportunity to discover how effective are the ingenious devices for torture you bragged of having invented."

Zerka and Mantar looked their astonishment, the former smiling a little because she thought I was bluffing again. Torko stood there fairly boiling.

"I've a good mind to take you down there now," he threatened, "and get out of you what you mean by such talk."

"You wouldn't dare do that, Torko," I told him. "You already have your orders about us. And, anyway, you don't have to--I'll tell you without being tortured. It's like this: Mephis is going to be angry with you when I tell him you offered to give me liberties while I was stationed here if I would speak a good word about you to the Toganja Zerka, that she might carry it to him. He won't like it when he learns that you let me go fishing whenever I wanted to and thus permitted me to pave the way for my escape by boat; and, Torko, there is another thing that is going to make him so furious that--well, I just don't know what he will do to you when he discovers it."

Torko was commencing to look uncomfortable, but he came right through with the same argument that even great statesmen of our own Earth use when they're caught red-handed.

"They're a pack of lies!" he yelled.

"He won't think so when he learns about the other thing you have done--something that he can see with his own eyes," I baited him.

"That's the other lie," he demanded, his curiosity and fear getting the better of him.

"Oh, just that you unlocked the cell of Mintep, Jong of Vepaja, and let him escape," I said.

"That is a lie," he cried.

"Well, go and look for yourself," I suggested. "If he's gone, who else could have unlocked his cell? You have the only keys."

"He's not gone," he said; but he turned and ran down the stairs as fast as he could go.

"You seem to be having a good time," said Mantar, "and we might as well have all the fun we can while we may. It's not going to be so funny when morning comes-- not for us."

"On the contrary," I objected, "that may be the most amusing time of all."

"I am amused now," said Zerka. "How furious Torko will be when he discovers that you have hoaxed him into running all the way down to the basement."

"But it is not a hoax," I said. "He will find Mintep's cell door open and Mintep gone."

"How can you possibly know that?" demanded Zerka.

"Because I released Mintep myself, and he is on his way to safety right now."

"But how could you enter the Gap kum Rov and take a prisoner out under the noses of the Zani Guard?" demanded Zerka. "Why, it is simply impossible. You couldn't have even unlocked his cell if you had managed to get into the prison, which, in itself, would have been impossible."

I had to smile. "But I did," I said, "and it was very easy."

"Would you mind very much telling me how you did it?" she asked.

"Not at all," I assured her. "In the first place, I secured a duplicate master key to all the locks of Gap kum Rov while I was stationed here. Last night I came in a boat to the side of the prison and entered it through the chute that discharges the ashes from the furnace into the bay. I brought Mintep out the same way."

Mantar and Zerka shook their heads in astonishment. It could not have seemed possible to many inhabitants of Amlot that a prisoner might escape from the Gap kum Rov, for few of them knew anything about the prison except that no prisoner had ever escaped from it.

"And you have a master key to the locks?" asked Mantar.

I took it from my pocket pouch. "Here it is," I said. "If they had confined us in the basement, we might have escaped easily, at least as far as the waters of the bay; but with a guard watching constantly on the floor below there is no chance from here."

"But aren't you afraid they'll find the key on you?" asked Zerka.

"Yes, of course; but what can I do about it? I have no place to hide it. I shall simply have to take the chance that they won't search me--they are so stupid. Anyway, unless they confine us in the basement, it cannot possibly be of any use to us. Furthermore, I have an idea that we'll walk out of here without any need of a key."

"You are very optimistic," said Mantar, "but I can't see upon what food your optimism thrives."

"Wait for dawn," I counselled.

"Listen!" said Zerka.

From below we heard Torko's voice bellowing orders. Guards were running to and fro. They were searching the prison for Mintep. When they reached our floor they entered every cell and searched it carefully, although they could have seen the whole interior of each of them from the corridor. Torko's face was drawn and pale. He looked to me like a broken man. When he reached our cell he was trembling, as much, I think, from fright as from rage.

"What have you done with him?" he demanded.

"I?" I asked in feigned astonishment. "Now, how could I have gotten into this impregnable prison, so ably guarded by the great Torko--unless with the connivance of Torko? Mephis will be sure to ask that very question."

"Listen," Torko said, coming close and whispering. "I was good to you when you were here. Do not send me to my death. Do not tell Mephis that Mintep has escaped. If he is not told, he may never know it. The chances are he has forgotten all about Mintep by this time. If you do not tell him, I promise not to torture you and your accomplices unless I am forced to; and then I'll make it as easy as I can."

"If you do torture us, I'll certainly tell him," I replied. I certainly had Torko over a barrel.

Torko scratched his head in thought for a moment. "Say," he said at last, "of course you couldn't have let him out; but how in the world did you know he was gone?"

"I'm psychic, Torko," I told him. "I even know things are going to happen before they do. What is the hour?"

He looked at me rather fearfully as he replied. "It is the 1st hour," he said. "Why?"

"Presently you shall hear a great noise in the direction of the palace of Mephis," I said, "and then word will pass around that death and destruction are raining upon the Zanis from the sky because they hold me and my friends prisoners in Gap kum Rov. When Mephis sets us free, it shall stop."

"Rubbish!" said Torko, and went on to search other cells for Mintep, Jong of Vepaja. He didn't find him.

Time dragged leadenly after dawn crept slowly out of the east and its light sought to penetrate the dirty windows of the Gap kum Rov. I was tense from waiting for the first detonation of a bomb. The second hour came and then the third, yet still nothing had happened. What could the reason be? Had disaster overtaken Duare? I imagined a hundred terrible things that might have happened. A crack-up at the take-off seemed the most likely. I was still worrying when Torko came with a detail of the guard and took us down to the courtroom. There were Mephis, Spehon, and a number of other high Zanis. We were lined up before them. They glowered at us like ogres out of a fairy tale.

"It is the third hour," said Mephis. "I have waited, and because you have made me wait it shall go the harder for you. If any of you expect any mercy you will name all your accomplices in the low plot you have fostered to overthrow the state. Torko, take the woman first. We'll make her talk, and I'll save you for the last. Take that thing off his head, Torko." He pointed at me.

I looked at Torko, as he took off my flying helmet and threw it into a corner. The sweat was pouring down his face, although it was not hot. "Do not forget, Torko," I whispered.

"Mercy," he pleaded. "I must obey orders."

They laid Zerka upon a hideous thing that would have crushed her slowly, inch by inch, starting at her toes; and they brought a brazier containing a pot of molten metal and set it down on a table beside her. It was not difficult to guess how they intended to use it. I turned my head, for I could not look at the frightful thing they contemplated.

"Do you wish to confess?" asked Mephis.

"No," replied Zerka in a firm voice.

"Have you anything to say?" he inquired.

"Yes, this: I joined the Zani Party because I had learned that you tortured and murdered my man. I joined to undermine it; and for another, greater purpose--to kill you."

Mephis laughed. "And this is the way you kill me!" he taunted.

"No, not this way; nor the way I had hoped, but the only way I could find," replied Zerka.

"What do you mean?" demanded Mephis.

"I mean that I have avenged my husband, but you did not know it. Know it now, then. Before another day has passed, you will be dead."

"And how, please, am I to die at the hand of a dead woman?" jeered Mephis.

"You ate food in my home last night, Mephis. Do you recall? That food was poisoned. I have kept it there for a long time to cheat you of the pleasure of killing me, were I caught. Last night I had the opportunity I had never hoped for of letting you eat it instead. At any moment, now, you will die--certainly before another day has passed."

The face of Mephis turned livid. He tried to speak, but no words came to his white lips. He rose and pointed at Torko. He was trying to order the torture to proceed. Torko looked at me and trembled. The other Zanis were staring at Mephis; then, close by, came a shattering detonation that shook the walls of Gap kum Rov. Duare had come! But she was bombing the prison instead of the palace-- she must have mistaken the one for the other. It was possible.

"I warned you!" I shouted. "The city will be destroyed if you don't set us free and give us a boat."

"Never!" cried Mephis. "Destroy them all!" Then he gasped, clutched his throat, and fell forward across the bench.

The Zanis rushed forward, surrounding him. Another bomb burst so close that I was certain that it had struck the building. It threw us all to the floor. Spehon was the first to his feet.

"Mephis is dead!" he cried. "Spehon is ruler of Korva!"

"Maltu Spheon!" shouted the assembled Zanis; then a bomb exploded in the rear of the building, and again we were all thrown to the floor.

"Get them out of here!" screamed Spehon. "Get them a boat! Hurry!"

Well, they got us out of there in short order; but we were far from safe. Bombs kept bursting all around us. In the sky above, I saw the anotar circling like a great bird of prey; yet it looked sweet to me. They hurried us to a safer part of the bay side and found us a boat--a fair size fishing boat with two sails; then they hustled us into it. We made sail quickly and started tacking for the harbor entrance; and as we moved slowly away from shore, I saw the anotar drop in a graceful spiral toward us. Duare was coming to make sure that it was I. She didn't drop far enough to be in range of any r-ray or T-ray guns they might have trained on the ship, for I had warned her against this. She circled us a few times, and then flew back over the city. I wondered why she didn't follow us out to sea and pick us up. We were about the center of the harbor when I heard another bomb explode. In rapid succession five more fell. It was then that I guessed the truth--Duare had not recognized me! She must naturally have expected to see a man alone in a boat--a man wearing a flying helmet. Instead she had seen two men and a woman, and both men sported the Zani coiffure.

Briefly I explained our situation to Zerka and Mantar. It seemed almost hopeless. We could not return to shore because the Zanis would be furious at the continued bombing which I had promised them would stop if they set us free. If we waited around in the harbor on the chance that Duare might circle above us again and give me an opportunity to signal her, it was almost certain that the Zanis would send a launch out to recapture us.

"Perhaps," I suggested, "Duare may take another look, even out at sea. Suppose we round the headland and wait out of sight of the city?"

They both agreed that it would do no harm, and so I sailed the boat well out beyond the mouth of the harbor, where we would be hidden from the city by the headland. From that position we could see the anotar circling high over Amlot, and from time to time we heard the booming detonations of her bombs. Late in the afternoon we saw her turn her nose northeast in the direction of Sanara, and in a few minutes she was out of sight.

Edgar Rice Burroughs