Forty minutes! What could I do in that time to insure the safety of the prineess? Had I found her only a little sooner, I could have summoned soldiers and surrounded the building. They would not have killed her had they known they were going to be taken. But I must do something. The precious minutes were slipping by. There was nothing for it but to take the bull by the horns and do the best I could. I rose and felt my way to the corner of the room. On hands and knees I groped about in the darkness for the trap door, and at last I found it. Gingerly I tried it to learn if it were locked from below. It was not. I raised it quickly and jumped through, my pistol still in my hand. I heard it slam shut above my head as I touched the floor. Luckily, I did not fall; and my advent had been so sudden and so unexpected that for an instant Muso and his companion seemed unable to move or speak. I backed to the wall and covered them.
"Don't move," I warned, "or I'll kill you both."
It was then that I first saw two men in the far corner of the dimly lighted room as they leaped to their feet from a pile of rags upon which they had been lying asleep. As they reached for their pistols I opened fire on them. Muso dropped to the floor behind the table at which he had been sitting, but his companion now drew his own weapon and levelled it at me. I shot him first. How all three of them could have missed me in that small room I cannot understand. Perhaps the brains of two of them were dulled by sleep, and the other was unquestionably nervous. I had seen his hand shake as it held his weapon; but miss me they did, and the second and third went down before they could find me with the deadly stream of r-rays from their guns. Only Muso remained. I ordered him out from under the table and took his pistol from him; then I looked about for Nna. She was sitting on a bench at the far side of the room.
"Have they harmed you in any way, Nna?" I asked.
"No; but who are you? Do you come from my father, the jong? Are you a friend or another enemy?"
"I am your friend," I said. "I have come to take you away from here and back to the palace. She did not recognize me in my black wig and mean apparel.
"Who are you?" demanded Muso, "and what are you going to do to me?"
"I am going to kill you, Muso," I said. "I have hoped for this chance, but never expected to get it."
"Why do you want to kill me? I haven't harmed the princess. I was only trying to frighten Taman into giving me back the throne that belongs to me."
"You lie Muso," I said; "but it is not this thing alone that I am going to kill you for--not something that you may say you did not intend doing, but something you did."
"What did I ever do to you? I never saw you before."
"Oh, yes you have. You sent me to Amlot to my death, as you hoped; and you tried to steal my woman from me."
His eyes went wide and his jaw dropped. "Carson of Venus!" he gasped.
"Yes, Carson of Venus--who took your throne away from you and is now going to take your life, but not because of what you did to him. I could forgive that, Muso; but I can't forgive the suffering you caused my princess. It is for that that you are about to die."
"You wouldn't shoot me down in cold blood?" he cried.
"I should," I said, "but I am not going to. We'll fight with swords. Draw!"
I had laid his pistol on the bench beside Nna, and now I drew my own and placed it on the table at which Muso had been sitting; then we faced one another. Muso was no mean swordsman, and as our blades shattered the silence of that little room I commenced to suspect that I might have bitten off more than I could chew; so I fought warily and, I am free to admit, mostly on the defensive. That is no way to win any contest, but I knew that if I became too reckless in my attack he might easily slip cold steel through me. Yet something must be done. This could not go on like this forever. I redoubled my efforts; and because I had by now become accustomed to his mode of attack, which he seldom varied, I commenced to have the advantage. He realized it, too; and the yellow in him showed up immediately. Then I pressed my advantage. I backed him around the room, certain now that I could run him through almost at will. He stepped back against the table in what I took to be a last stand; then, suddenly, he hurled his sword directly im my face; and almost simultaneously I heard the br-r-r of an r-ray pistol. I had seen him reach for mine just as he hurled his sword at me. I expected to fall dead, but I did not. Instead, Muso slumped backward across the table and then rolled off onto the floor; and as I looked around, I saw Nna standing with Muso's pistol still leveled in her hand. She had robbed me of my revenge, but she had saved my life.
As I looked at her, she sat down very suddenly and burst into tears. She was just a little girl and she had been through too much in the past few hours. She soon regained control of herself, however; and looked up and smiled at me, rather wanly.
"I really didn't know you," she said, "until Muso called you by name; then I knew that I was safe--that is, safer. We are not safe yet. His men were to return here at the 2nd hour. It must be almost that now."
"It is, and we must get out of here," I said. "Come!"
I slipped my pistol back into its holster; and we stepped to the ladder that led up to the trap door, and at the same moment we heard the heavy tramp of feet in the building above us. We were too late.
"They have come!" whispered Nna. "What are we to do?"
"Go back to your bench and sit down," I said. "I think one man may hold this doorway against many."
Stepping quickly to the sides of the dead men, I gathered their pistols and carried them all to a point from which I could command the ladder with the least danger to myself. The footsteps approached the room above us, they entered it and crossed to the trap door; and then a voice called down, "Hello, there, Muso!"
"What do you want of Muso?" I asked.
"I have a message for him."
"I will take it for him," I said. "Who are you? and what is your message?"
"I am Ulan, of the Jong's Guard. The message is from Taman. He agrees to your demands provided you will return Nna to him unharmed and guarantee the future safety of Taman and his family."
I breathed a sigh of relief and sat down in a nearby chair. "Muso scorns your offer," I said. "Come down, Ulan, and see for yourself why Muso is no longer interested."
"No trickery he warned, as he raised the trap door and descended. When he turned at the foot of the ladder and saw the four corpses lying on the floor his eyes went wide as he recognized one of them as Muso; then he saw Nna and crossed to her.
"You are not harmed, Janjong?" he asked.
"No," she replied. "But if it had not been for this man I should have been dead by now."
He turned to me. I could see that he recognized me no more than others had. "Who are you?" he asked.
"Don't you remember me?"
Nna giggled, and I had to laugh myself.
"What is so funny?" he demanded. Ulan flushed angrily.
"That you should so soon forget a good friend," I said.
"I never saw you before," he snapped, for he knew we were making fun of him.
"You never saw Carson of Venus?" I asked, then he laughed with us as he finally pierced my disguise. "But how did you know where to find the princess?"
"When Taman gave the required signal of acquiescence," explained Ulan, "one of Muso's agents told us where she might be found."
We were soon out of that dank cellar and on our way to the palace, where we brushed past the guards under escort of Ulan and hastened through the palace to the jong's own quarters. Here Taman and Jahara sat waiting for word from the last of the searchers or from the emissary the former had dispatched to Muso at the urgings of Jahara and his own heart. As the door was thrown open we sent Nna in, Ulan and I remaining in a small antechamber, knowing that they would wish to be alone. A jong would not wish his officers to see him weep, as I am sure Taman must have wept for joy at Nna's safe return.
It was but a few minutes before he came out into the antechamber. His face was grave by now. He looked somewhat surprised to see me, but he only nodded as he turned to Ulan.
"When will Muso return to the palace?" he asked.
We both looked at him in surprise. "Didn't the janjong tell you?" asked Ulan. "She must have told you."
"Tell me what? She was crying so for joy that she could not speak coherently. What is there to tell me, that I may not already guess?"
"Muso is dead," said Ulan. "You are still jong."
From Ulan, and later from Nna, he finally got the whole story, pieced out with what I told him of my search through the city; and I have seldom seen a man more grateful. But I expected that from Taman; so I was not surprised. He always gave fully of himself to his friends and his loyal retainers.
I thought I should sleep forever when I went to bed that morning in my apartments in the jong's palace, but they didn't let me sleep as long as I could have wished. At the 12th hour I was awakened by one of Taman's aides and summoned to the great throne room. Here I found the grand council of nobles assembled around a table at the foot of the throne and the rest of the room crowded with the aristocracy of Korva.
Taman and Jahara and Nna sat in their respective thrones upon the dais, and there was a fourth chair at Taman's left. The aide led me to the foot of the dais before Taman and asked me to kneel. I think Taman is the only man in two worlds before whom I should be proud to kneel. Above all other men, he deserves reverence for his qualities of mind and soul. And so I knelt.
"To save the life of my daughter," commenced Taman, "I offered my throne to Muso with the consent of the grand council. You, Carson of Venus, saved my daughter and my throne. It is the will of the grand council, in which I concur, that you be rewarded with the highest honor in the power of a jong of Korva to bestow. I therefore elevate you to the rank of royalty; and as I have no son, I adopt you as my own and confer upon you the title of Tanjong of Korva." Then he rose and, taking me by the hand, led me to the vacant throne chair at his left.
I had to make a speech then, but the less said about that the better--as a maker of speeches, I am a fairly good aviator. There were speeches by several great nobles, and then we all trooped to the banquet hall and overate for a couple of hours. This time I did not sit at the foot of the table. From a homeless wanderer a few months earlier, I had been suddenly elevated to the second position in the empire of Korva. But that was all of lesser moment to me than the fact that I had a home and real friends. If only my Duare had been there to share it all with me!
Here at last I had found a country where we might live in peace and honor, only to be thwarted by that same malign fate that had snatched Duare from my arms on so many other occasions.
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