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17. Fourty Minutes!

When word was taken to Taman that I had returned to Sanara, he had us brought to him at once. He had known the Toganja Zerka well in Amlot, and after he had listened to her story he promised that both she and Mantar should be rewarded for the hazardous work they had performed in the stronghold of the Zanis. Upon me he conferred nobility, promising me palaces and land also as soon as the seat of government should have been reestablished in Amlot. When he learned of the attitude of the Sanarans toward us because of our Zani appearance, he ordered black wigs for Mantar and me and new apparel for all of us; then he turned Zerka and Mantar over to members of his household staff and took me to see Jahara, his queen. I knew that he wanted to talk to me in private and tell me about Duare, the one subject upper most in my mind but of which neither of us had spoken. The little Princess Nna was with her mother when we entered the apartments of the queen, and they both welcomed me with great cordiality and real friendship. Fortunately for Nna, she was not fettered by the ridiculous customs of Vepaja that had made of Duare a virtual prisoner in her own apartments in her father's palace; but could mingle as freely with the court as other members of the royal family. She was a sweet young girl and the pride of Taman and Jahara. Shortly after I was received by the latter, Nna was taken away by a lady-in-waiting; and I was not to see her again until after a harrowing episode and a dangerous adventure.

As soon as Taman, Jahara, and I were alone I turned to the former. "Tell me about Duare," I begged. "I saw the anotar leave Sanara this morning and head out over the ocean. No one but Duare could have been at the controls, for only she and I know how to fly the ship."

"You are right," he replied, "it was Duare."

"And she was flying her father back to Vepaja?" I asked.

"Yes. Mintep practically forced her to do so. She had not given up hope that you might be alive, and she wanted to remain. She was planning on flying back to Amlot with more bombs and a message that she would continue to bomb the city until you were released, but Mintep would not let her do so. He swore that if you did live, he would kill you on sight, for while, as a father, he owed you a debt of gratitude for all that you had done for his daughter, as Jong of Vepaja he must destroy you for having dared to love his daughter and take her as your mate. Finally he commanded her to return to Vepaja with him and stand trial before the nobles of Kooaad for having broken one of the oldest taboos of Vepaja."

"That may mean death for her," I said.

"Yes, she realized that; and so did Mintep, but the dynastic customs and laws of Vepaja are so ingrained in every fibre of their beings that, to them, it was almost unthinkable to attempt to evade them. Duare would have had she known that you lived. She told me that, and she also told me that she would return to Vepaja willingly because she preferred death to life without you. I do not know what Mintep would have done had she refused to return to Kooaad; but I think he would have killed her with his own hands, notwithstanding the fact that he loved her. I was, however, prepared for such an eventuality; and I should have protected Duare even to the extent of imprisoning Mintep. I can tell you that we were all in a most unhappy situation. I never before saw a man of such unquestioned intelligence so fanatical as Mintep, but on this one subject only. Otherwise he seemed perfectly normal and lavished upon Duare all the love of a devoted father. I have often wondered what he would have done if Duare had found you at Amlot. I can't imagine him in the anotar with you. But, tell me, what went wrong with your plans? Duare said that you did not put off from the city in a boat as you should have done were you released."

"I put off just as had been planned; but I had Zerka and Mantar with me, and Duare would have been looking for a lone man in a boat. Also, my flying helmet had been taken from me in the courtroom of the prison; so there was nothing by which she could identifv me. We must have looked like three Zanis to her."

"Then she saw you," said Taman, "for she told me that she saw three Zanis put off into the harbor. When you did not come as she had hoped, she assumed that the Zanis had killed you; and she bombed the city until she had exhausted her supply of bombs. Then she flew back with Mintep, Ulan, and Legan; and remained in the vicinity of Sanara for several days until we sent up three balloons to indicate that it was safe for you to enter Sanara--of course, at that time, we did not know that you were not in the ship."

"And what of Muso? I was told at the gate that he had been deposed."

"Yes, and imprisoned," replied Taman; "but he has a number of followers whose lives will not be safe in Korva now that Muso is no longer jong. They are desperate. Last night they succeeded in liberating Muso from prison, and he is hiding now somewhere in the city. We do not believe that he has been able to leave Sanara as yet, though that is his plan. He believes that if he can reach Amlot, the Zanis will make him jong; but he does not know what we know--that Mephis is dead and that after his death the counterrevolutionists struck and completely routed the Zani overlords, of whom the people, including the majority who claimed to be Zanis, were heartily sick. The word must have reached the troops before Sanara yesterday morning, for it was then that they evacuated their positions and started on the long march back toward Amlot."

"Then the long civil war is over," I said.

"Yes," replied Taman, "and I hope soon to reestablish the capital at Amlot. I have already sent word that I would extend amnesty to all except ringleaders and those whose acts have been definitely criminal. I expect to follow my messenger in person in a few days with a powerful army. And, my friend, I hope that you will accompany me and receive in my capital the honors that are your due."

I shook my head. "Do not think that I don't appreciate your generosity," I said, "but I think you will understand that they would be empty honors indeed without my princess to share them."

"But why not?" he urged. "You must live, and here you may live in comfort and in honor. What other plans may you have?"

"I am going to follow Duare to Vepaja."

"Impossible!" he exclaimed. "How can you hope to reach Vepaja? Every Korvan vessel was taken or destroyed by the enemy during the last war."

"I have a boat that brought me safely from Amlot," I reminded him.

"What is it? a fishing boat?" he demanded.

"Yes."

"A mere cockleshell," he cried. "You would not last through the first storm."

"Nevertheless, I shall make the attempt," I said.

He shook his head sadly. "I wish that I might dissuade you," he said, "not alone because of my friendship for you, but because you could be of such great value to Korva."

"How?" I asked.

"By showing us how to build anotars and training my officers to fly them."

"The temptation is great," I admitted, "but I shall never rest in peace until I know that I have done all that man can do to rescue Duare."

"Well, you can't leave at once; so we shall make the most of the time that you are with us; and I shall not annoy you with further importunities."

He called an aide then, and had me shown to the quarters he had assigned me. There I found new apparel and a black wig; and after a hot bath I felt like a new man; and looked like one, too, as my mirror revealed in a startling manner. I should not have known myself, so greatly did the wig change my appearance.

Zerka, Mantar, and I dined that night in the great banquet hall of the jongs palace with Taman and Jahara and a company of the great nobles of Korva. They had all known me, some of them quite well; but they all agreed that they would never have recognized me. This, I realized, was not entirely due to the black wig. I had lost considerable weight during my hazardous adventures in Amlot; and I had undergone considerable mental suffering, with the result that my face was haggard and lined, my cheeks sunken.

During the long dinner, we three from Amlot fairly monopolized the conversation, but not through any desire on our part. The other guests insisted upon hearing every detail of what we had observed there and what we had experienced. They were especially interested in Zerka's description of the devious methods whereby the counterrevolutionists had carried on their operations despite the highly organized Zani spy system and the ruthless extermination of all who became suspected. They were still listening to her, spellbound, when a highly agitated aide entered the banquet hall and approached Taman. As he whispered in the jongs ear, I saw the latter turn suddenly pale; then he rose and, taking Jahara's hand, led her from the hall. While the jong's departure left us free to depart if we wished, no one did so. We all felt that Taman was in trouble, and I think that as one man our only thought was to remain, in the event that we might be of service to our jong. We were right, for presently the aide returned and asked us to remain until Taman could speak with us. A few moments later he returned to the banquet hall; and, standing at the head of the long table, spoke to us.

"In this hall," he said, "are many of my most loyal subjects and trusted friends. I have come to you in a moment of great trouble to ask your aid. The Janjong Nna has been abducted from the palace."

An involuntary exclamation of shock and sorrow filled the great room.

"She was taken with the connivance of someone in the palace," continued Taman, "but not before two loyal guardsmen had been killed attempting to defend her. That is all I know."

A voice murmured, "Muso!" It reflected the thought in every mind; and just then an officer hurried into the hall and up to Taman, handing him a message.

"This was just found in the janjong's apartments said the officer.

Taman read the message through; then he looked up at us. "You were right," he said. "It was Muso. This is a threat to kill Nna unless I abdicate in favor of Muso and swear allegiance to him."

We all stood there voiceless. What was there to say? Could we advise a father to sacrifice a loved daughter? Could we permit Muso to become jong of Korva? We were upon the horns of a dilemma.

"Does the message state any time when your decision must be reached?" asked Varo, the general.

Taman nodded. "Between the first and second hours in the morning I must send up balloons from the palace roof--one, if I refuse; two, if I accede."

"It is now the 26th hour," said Varo. "We have eleven hours in which to work. In the meantime, Taman, I beg that you refrain from making any reply. Let us see what we can accomplish."

"I shall leave the matter in your hands, Varo," said Taman, "until the 1st hour tomorrow. Keep me advised of any progress, but please do not jeopardize the life of my daughter."

"Her safety shall be our first concern," Varo assured the jong.

Taman sat with us while we discussed plans. There seemed nothing more practical than a thorough search of the city, and Varo issued orders that routed out every soldier in Sanara to prosecute such a search as few cities ever have been subjected to.

I asked permission to join the searchers, and when Varo granted it I went at once to my quarters and summoned the servant who had been detailed to attend me. When he came I asked him if he could quickly procure for me the apparel such as a poor man might wear, but one who might also reasonably carry a sword and pistol.

"That will be easy, sir," he said. "I have only to go to my own quarters and fetch the apparel that I wear when I am not in the livery of the jong's household."

In ten minutes I was attired in the clothing of an ordinary citizen of the lower class, and was soon on the street. I had a plan--not a very brilliant one but the best I could think of. I knew some rather disreputable haunts of the underworld of Sanara where men might foregather who could be bribed to commit any crime however heinous, and it occurred to me that here I might overhear much discussion of a crime with which such men would be familiar and possibly a hint that would lead me on the right trail. I really didn't have much enthusiasm for the idea, but I had to do something. I liked little Nna, and I couldn't just sit still and do nothing while she was in danger.

I wandered down toward the lower end of the city where the fish markets had been and where the sailors had gathered to carouse and fight in the days before the war that had wiped out the merchant marine and most of the fishing industry of Sanara. Now it was almost deserted, but there were still many of the old drinking places eking out a mean existence by catering to the men and women of the underworld. I went from one to the other of them, buying drinks here, gambling there, and always listening for any chance scrap of conversation that might lead to a clue. There was much talk on the subject of the abduction of the princess, for the matter was uppermost in all minds; but nothing was said in any of the places I went right up to the 38th hour that would have indicated any knowledge of the whereabouts of Nna or of her abductors.

I was discouraged and about hopeless as the 36th hour saw me sitting in a dive near the river wall of Sanara, where I pretended to be slightly under the influence of the vile drink that is popular there and tastes something like a mixture of gin and kerosene oil, of neither of which am I very fond--as a beverage. I let myself be enticed into a gambling game that somewhat resembles fan-tan. I lost consistently and paid with great good humor.

"You must be a rich man," said an ugly looking customer seated beside me.

"I know how to make money," I said. "I have made a lot this night. I may hang for it; so I might as well spend it."

"That's the idea," he applauded. "But how did you make so much money so easily?"

"That I should tell--and get my neck twisted," I said.

"I'll bet I know how he made it," offered another man, "and he will get his neck twisted for it, too--unless--"

"Unless what?" I demanded truculently.

"You know and so do Prunt and Skrag. They've gone for the rest of theirs now."

"Oh, they have, have they?" I demanded. "I haven't got the rest of mine. I don't know where to go to get it. They'll probably cheat me out of it. Oh, well, I've got plenty anyway." I got up from the table and walked toward the door, staggering just a little. I hadn't the remotest idea that I was on a trail that would lead where I wanted to go, but there was a chance. This was probably the biggest crime that had been committed in Sanara since it was founded; and when a great deal of money was exhibited under the conditions and in the manner that I had exhibited mine, it would naturally suggest connection of some kind with the criminals, for a man of my apparent walk of life would not have come suddenly upon great wealth honestly.

I had scarcely reached the door of the dive when I felt a hand on my arm. I turned to look into the cunning face of the man who had spoken to me last. "Let us talk together, my friend," he said.

"What about?" I asked.

"You have some money coming to you," he commenced. "What would you give me if I should show you where you could collect it?"

"If you can do that, I might give you half," I said.

"Very well," he said, "for half I will do it. But this is a bad night to be about on work of this kind. Since they stole the jong's daughter the city is being searched and everyone being questioned. The boys got a lot of money for that. What you got for choking the old villain, Kurch, would be nothing beside what Muso paid to have the daughter of the jong brought to him."

So I was off on a wrong trail! But how to get on the right one? The fellow was obviously drunk, which accounted for his loose tongue; and he knew something about the abduction of Nna, but how much? And how was I to switch him from one trail to another? I saw that I would have to take the bull by the horns.

"What made you think I had anything to do with murdering Kurch?" I demanded.

"Didn't you?" he asked.

"Of course not," I assured him. "I never said I did."

"Then how did you come by so much money?" he demanded.

"Don't you suppose there were other jobs besides the Kurch job," I demanded.

"There were only two big jobs in town tonight," he said. "If you were in on the other, you ought to know where to go."

"Well, I don't," I admitted. "I think they're tryin' to beat me out of mine. They said they'd bring me the rest of mine down here, but they aren't here. They wouldn't tell me where they took the girl, either. I'd give anything to know. If I did, you can bet they'd come through, or--" I touched my sword significantly.

"How much would you give?" he asked.

"What difference does that make to you?" I demanded. "You don't know where she is."

"Oh, I don't, don't I? Just show me how high your money stacks. I know lots of things for a tall stack."

Korvan money is all of the same metal, round pieces of different thicknesses, their centers punched out with different size circles, squares, ovals, and crosses; but all of the same outside diameter. Their value is determined by the weight of the metal each contains. They stack easily, and the thicker pieces of greatest value naturally stack higher, giving usage to the common expression "a tall stack" meaning a considerable amount of money.

"Well, if you really showed me where she is," I said, "I might give you five hundred pandars." A pandar has about the purchasing power in Korva that a dollar would have in America.

"You haven't got that much," he said.

I shook my pocket pouch so that the money in it rattled. "Doesn't that sound like it?" I asked.

"I like to feel money, not listen to it," he said.

"Well, come outside where no one will see us; and I'll show it to you."

I saw the cunning glint in his eyes as we passed out into the avenue. Finding a spot that was deserted and also dimly lighted by a lamp in a window, I counted out five hundred pandars into his cupped palms, definitely defeating for the moment any plan he had to murder me; then, before he could transfer the money to his pocket pouch, I drew my pistol and shoved it into his belly.

"If there's any shooting to be done, I'll do it," I told him. "now take me to where the girl is, and no funny business. When you have done that, you may keep the money; but if you make a single break, or fail to show me the girl, I'll let you have it. Get going."

He grinned a sickly grin, and turned away down the dark street. As he did so, I jerked his pistol from its holster; and shoved the muzzle of mine mto the small of his back. I wasn't taking any chances.

"You're all right, fellow," he said. "When this job's over, I'd like to work with you. You work quick, and you know what you're doing. Nobody ain't going to fool you."

"Thanks," I said. "Be at the same place tomorrow night, and we'll talk it over." I thought this might keep him from trying to double-cross me, but I still kept my gun in his ribs.

He led me along the river wall to an old, abandoned building at one end of which was a huge incinerator within a firebox large enough to hold half a dozen men. He stopped here and listened, looking furtively in all directions.

"She's in here," he whispered. "This firebox opens into the inside of the building, too. Now give me back my pistol and let me go."

"Not so fast," I cautioned him. "The agreement was that you were to show me the girl. Go on in!"

He hesitated, and I prodded him with my gun.

"They'll kill me," he whimpered.

"If you don't show me the girl, they won't have to," I threatened. "Now don't talk any more--we may be overheard. If I have to go in alone, I'll leave you out here, dead."

He said no more, but he was shaking as he crawled into the great incinerator. I laid his pistol on the ledge of the firebox and followed directly behind him. It was dark as a pocket in the firebox and not much better in the room into which we stepped--so dark that I had to hold onto my companion's trappings to keep him from eluding me entirely. We stood in silence, listening for a full minute. I thought I heard the murmur of voices. My guide moved forward cautiously, feeling his way step by step. It was evident that he had been here before. He crossed to the side of the room, where he found a bolted door.

"This is for our getaway," he whispered, as he drew the bolt. I knew from the direction we had come that the door opened out onto the street.

He turned and moved diagonally across the room again to the opposite wall. Here he found another door which he opened with the utmost caution. When it was opened, the murmur of voices became more distinct. Ahead of us, I could see a tiny ray of dim light coming apparently from the floor of the room. My guide led me forward to it, and I saw that it came through a hole in the flooring-- possibly a knothole.

"Look!" he whispered.

As I had to lie down on my stomach to look through the hole, I made him lie down, also. In the circumscribed range of my vision, I could not see much of the room below; but what I did see was almost enough. Two men were sitting at a table, talking--one of them was Muso. I could see no girl, but I knew that she might be there outside the little circle that was visible to me. I could hear the men talking.

"You don't really intend killing her, do you?" asked Muso's companion.

"If I don't get a favorable reply from Taman before the 2nd hour, I most certainly shall," replied Muso. "If she would write her father as I have asked her to, she would be free to go at once; for I know that Taman would not see his daughter die if she herself begged him to save her."

"You'd better do it, Nna," said the other man. "The time is getting short."

"Never!" said a girl's voice, and I knew that I had found Nna.

"You may go now," I whispered to my companion. "You will find your pistol on the ledge of the incinerator. But wait! How can I get into that room?"

"There is a trap door in the corner, to your right," he replied. He moved away so silently that I did not hear him go, but I knew that he had. Only a fool would have remained with me.

Faintly into the darkness of the room came a suggestion of growing light. The sun was rising. The first hour had come. In forty minutes of Earth time the second hour would strike--strike the death knell of Nna, the daughter of Taman.

Edgar Rice Burroughs