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19. Pirates

I never really had an opportunity to more than taste the honors and responsibilities that devolve upon a crown prince, for the next day I started outfitting my little fishing boat for the long trip to Vepaja.

Taman tried to dissuade me, as did Jahara and Nna and all my now countless friends in Korva; but I could not be prevailed upon to abandon the venture, however hopeless I myself felt it to be. The very ease and luxury of my new position in life made it seem all the more urgent that I search for Duare, for to enjoy it without her seemed the height of disloyalty. I should have hated it always had I remained.

Every assistance was given me in outfitting my craft. Large water tanks were installed and a device for distilling fresh water from sea water. Concentrated foods, preserved foods, dehydrated fruits and vegetables, nuts, every edible thing that could be preserved for a considerable time were packed away in waterproof containers. New sails were made of the strong, light "spider cloth" that is common among the civilized countries of Amtor, where spiders are bred and kept for the purpose of spinning their webs for commercial use, as are silkworms on Earth. They gave me weapons and ammunition and warm blankets and the best navigation instruments available; so that I was as well equipped for the journey as it was possible for anyone to be.

At last the time of my departure arrived, and I was escorted to the river with all the pomp and ceremony befitting my exalted rank. There were troops and bands and a hundred gorgeously caparisoned gantors bearing not only the nobility of Korva but its royalty as well, for Taman and Jahara and the Princess Nna rode with me in the howdah of the jongs own gantor. Cheering throngs lined the avenues and it should have been a happy event, but it was not--not for me, at least; for I was leaving these good friends, as I full believed, forever and with little or no hope of attaining my heart's desire. I shall not dwell further upon the sadness of that leave-taking. The pall of it hung over me as I sailed out upon the broad expanse of that vast and lonely ocean, nor did my spirits lift until long after the distant mountains of Anlap had dropped below the horizon; then I shook the mood from me as I looked with eagerness toward the future and set my mind solely upon success.

I had set a range of from ten to twenty days for the cruise to Vepaja, depending, of course, upon the winds; but there was always the possibility of missing the island entirely, not-withstanding the fact that it was a continent in size, being some four thousand miles long by fifteen hundred wide at its greatest width. Such a supposition might seem ridiculous on Earth, but here conditions were vastly different. Maps were inaccurate. Those available indicated that Anlap was scarcely more than five hundred miles from Vepaja, but I knew that at least fifteen hundred miles of ocean must separate them. Duare and I had learned that when we had flown it. The reason their maps must be inaccurate is due to their false conception of the shape of the planet, which they believe to be a flat disc floating on a sea of molten rock, and their further belief that the antarctic region forms the periphery and what I knew to be the equator, the center of the disc. This naturally distorts every possible conception of the shape and size of oceans and land masses. These people in the southern hemisphere of Venus have not the remotest idea of the existence of the northern hemisphere.

I shall not inflict upon you the monotony of the first week of that journey. The wind held steady, and at night I lashed the tiller and slept with a comparatively peaceful mind, as I had devised an alarm that sounded whenever the boat deviated from its course a certain number of points. It was a simple device electrically controlled by the needle of the compass. I was not awakened on an average of two or three times in a night; so I felt that I was keeping fairly well on my course, but I wished that I knew what, if anything, the currents were doing to me.

Since the coast of Anlap had dropped below the horizon I had seen no land, nor had a single ship appeared upon that vast watery expanse of loneliness. The waters often teemed with fish; and occasionally I saw monstrous creatures of the deep, some of which defy description and would challenge belief. The most numerous of these larger creatures must attain a length of fully a thousand feet. It has a wide mouth and huge, protruding eyes between which a smaller eye is perched upon a cylindrical shaft some fifteen feet above its head. The shaft is erectile, and when the creature is at rest upon the surface or when it is swimming normally beneath, it reclines along its back; but when alarmed or searching for food, the shaft springs erect. It also functions as a periscope as the beast swims a few feet beneath the surface. The Amtorians call it a rotik, meaning three-eye. When I first saw one I thought it an enormous ocean liner as it lay on the surface of the ocean in the distance.

At dawn of the eighth day I saw the one thing that I could have wished least of all to see--a ship; for no ship that sailed the Amtorian seas could conceivably contain any friends of mine, unless, perhaps the Sofal was still carrying on its piratical trade with the crew that had followed me so loyally in the mutiny that had given me command of it. That, however, was doubtful. The vessel was some distance to starboard and was moving in an easterly direction. Within an hour it would cross my course, which was due south. Hoping to avoid detection because of the insignificant size of my little craft, I lowered my sails and drifted. For half an hour the ship held to its course; then its bow swung in my direction. I had been sighted.

It was a small vessel of about the tonnage of the Sofal, and very similar in appearance. It had no masts, sails, stacks, nor funnels. Aft were two oval deck houses, a small one resting on top of a larger. On top of the upper house was an oval tower surmounted by a small crow's nest. At bow and stern and from the crow's nest rose staffs from which long pennons flew. The main staff, above the crow's nest, was supposed to fly the flag of the country to which the ship belonged; the flag at the bow, the city from which it sailed; the stern flag was usually the house flag of the owner. In the case of warships, his staff carried the battle flag of the nation to which it belonged. As the ship neared me, I saw but one thing--a ship without country or city was a faltar, a pirate ship. The flag at the stern was probably the personal flag of the captain. Of all the disasters that could have befallen me, this was about the worst, that I should run foul of a pirate ship; but there was nothing to do about it. I could not escape. As I had thought it best to wear my black wig through the streets of Sanara on my way to the boat, I still had it with me; and as my yellow hair had only partically grown out and as I had a black-tipped mane reaching from forehead to nape, I put the wig on now rather than take the chance that my weird coiffure might arouse suspicion aboard the pirate craft.

As the ship came close, it lay to. I saw its name painted along the bow in the strange Amtorian characters--Nojo Ganja. Fully a hundred men lined the port rail watching me, as were several officers upon the upper decks of the houses. One of the latter hailed me.

"Come alongside," he shouted, "and come aboard."

It was not an invitation--it was a command. There was nothing to do but obey; so I raised one sail and brought my craft under the lee rail of the pirate. They tossed me a rope which I made fast to the bow and another with knots in it up which I climbed to the deck; then several of them slid down into my boat and passed every thing in it up to their fellows above. After that, they cut my boat adrift and got under way. All this I saw from an upper deck where I had been taken to be questioned by the captain.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"I am called Sofal," I said. Sofal was the name of my pirate ship and means "the killer."

"Sofal!" he repeated, a little ironically I thought. "And from what country do you hail? and what are you doing out here in the middle of the ocean in a small boat like that?"

"I have no country," I replied. "My father was a faltargan, and I was born on a faltar." I was rapidly becoming a proficient liar, I who had always prided myself on my veracity; but I think a man is sometimes justified in lying, especially if it saves a life. Now the word faltargan has an involved derivation. Faltar, pirate ship, derives from ganfal, criminal (which is derived from gan, man, and fal, kill) and notar, ship--roughly criminal ship. Add gan, man, to faltar, and you have pirate-ship-man, or pirate; fal-tar'gan.

"And so I suppose you are a pirate," he said, "and that that thing down there is your faltar."

"No," I said, "and yes; but, rather, yes and no."

"What are you driving at?" he demanded.

"Yes, I am a pirate; but no, that is not a faltar. It is just a fishing boat. I am surprised that an old sailor should have thought it a pirate ship."

"You have a loose tongue, fellow," he snapped.

"And you have a loose head," I retorted; "that is why you need a man like me as one of your officers. I have captained my own faltar, and I know my trade. From what I have seen, you haven't enough officers to handle a bunch of cut-throats such as I saw on deck. What do you say?"

"I say you ought to be thrown overboard," he growled. "Go to the deck and report to Folar. Tell him I said to put you to work. An officer! Cut out my liver! but you have got nerve! If you make a good sailor, I'll let you live. That's the best you'll get, though. Loose head!" and I could hear him grumbling as I went down the companionway to the deck.

I don't know just why I had deliberately tried to antagonize him, unless it was that I had felt that if I cringed before him he would have been more likely to have felt contempt for me and killed me. I was not unfamiliar with men of his type. If you stand up to them they respect and, perhaps, fear you, for most swashbucklers are, at heart, yellow.

When I reached the deck I had an opportunity to inspect my fellow sailors more closely. They were certainly a prize aggregation of villainous-looking scoundrels. They eyed me with suspicion and dislike and not a little contempt, as they appraised my rich apparel and handsome weapons which seemed to them to bespeak the dandy rather than the fighting man.

"Where is Folar?" I asked of the first group I approached.

"There, ortij oolfa," he replied in an assumed falsetto, as he pointed to a huge bear of a man who was glowering at me a few yards away.

Those within earshot guffawed at this witticism--ortij oolja means my love. Evidently they thought my apparel effeminate. I had to smile a little myself, as I walked over to Folar.

"The captain told me to report to you for duty," I said.

"What's your name?" he demanded, "and what do you think you can do aboard a ship like the Nojo Ganja?"

"My name is Sofal," I replied, "and I can do anything aboard ship or ashore that you can do, and do it better."

"Ho! ho!," he pretended to laugh, "The Killer! Listen, brothers, here is The Killer, and he can do anything better than I can!"

"Let's see him kill you, then," cried a voice from behind him.

Folar wheeled about. "Who said that?" he demanded, but nobody answered.

Again a voice from behind him said, "You're afraid of him, you sailful of wind." It seemed to me that Folar was not popular. He completely lost his temper then, over which he appeared to have no control whatsoever; and whipped out his sword. Without giving me an opportunity to draw, he swung a vicious cut at me that would have decapitated me had it connected. I leaped back in time to avoid it; and before he could recover, I had drawn my own weapon; then we settled down to business, as the men formed a circle around us. As we measured one another's strength and skill in the first few moments of the encounter, I heard such remarks as, "Folar will cut the fool to pieces," "He hasn't a chance against Folar--I wish he had," and "Kill the mistal, fellow; we're for you."

Folar was no swordsman; he should have been a butcher. He swung terrific cuts that would have killed a gantor, could he have landed; but he couldn't land, and he telegraphed his every move. I knew what he was going to do before he started to do it. Every time he cut, he left himself wide open. I could have killed him any one of half a dozen times in the first three minutes of our duel, but I didn't wish to kill him. For all I knew he might be a favorite of the captain, and I had already done enough to antagonize that worthy. For the right moment to do the thing I wanted to do, I had to bide my time. He rushed me about here and there dodging his terrific swings until, at last, I got tired of it and pricked him in the shoulder. He bellowed like a bull at that; and, seizing his sword with both hands, came at me like a charging gantor. Then I pricked him again; and after that he went more warily, for I guess he had commenced to realize that I could kill him if I wished. Now he gave me the opportunity I had been awaiting, and in an instant I had disarmed him. As his weapon clattered to the deck, I stepped in, my point at his heart.

"Shall I kill him?" I asked.

"Yes!" rose in a thunderous chorus from the excited sailors. I dropped my point. "No, I shall not kill him this time," I said. "Now pick up your sword, Folar; and we'll call everything square. What do you say?"

He mumbled something as he stooped to retrieve his weapon; then he spoke to a one-eyed giant standing in the front row of spectators.

"This fellow will be in your watch, Nurn," he said. "See that he works." With that, he quit the deck.

The men gathered around me. "Why didn't you kill him?" asked one.

"And have the captain order me thrown overboard?" I demanded. "No. I can use my brains as well as my sword."

"Well," said Nurn, "there was at least a chance that he wouldn't have; but there is no chance that Folar won't stab you in the back the first chance he gets."

My duel with Folar had established me in the good graces of the crew; and when they found that I could speak the language of the sea and of the pirate ship, they accepted me as one of them. Nurn seemed to take a special fancy to me. I think it was because he hoped to inherit Folar's rank in the event the latter were killed, for several times he suggested that I pick another quarrel with Folar and kill him.

While talking with Nurn I asked him where the Nojo Ganja was bound.

"We're trying to find Vepaja," he said. "We've been trying to find it for a year."

"Why do you want to find it?" I asked.

"We're looking for a man the Thorists want," he said. "They've offered a million pandars to anyone who'll bring him to Kapdor alive."

"Are you Thorists?" I asked. The Thorists are members of a revolutionary political party that conquered the former empire of Vepaja which once spread over a considerable portion of the south temperate zone of Amtor. They are the bitter enemies of Mintep as well as of all countries that have not fallen into their hands.

"No," replied Nurn, "we are not Thorists; but we could use a million pandars of anybody's money."

"Who is this Vepajan they want so badly?" I asked. I assumed that it was Mintep.

"Oh, a fellow who killed one of their ongyans in Kapdor. His name is Carson."

So! The long arm of Thora had reached out after me. I was already in the clutches of its fingers; but, happily for me, I was the only one who knew it. However, I realized that I must escape from the Nojo Ganja before it touched at any Thoran port.

"How do you know this Carson is in Vepaja?" I asked.

"We don't know," replied Nurn. "He escaped from Kapdor with the janjong of Vepaja. If they are alive, it is reasonable to believe they are in Vepaja; that, of course, is where he would have taken the janjong. We are going to search Vepaja first. If he isn't there, we'll go back to Noobol and search inland."

"I should think that would be quite a man-size job," I remarked.

"Yes, it will," he admitted, "but he should be an easy man to trace. Here and there inland someone must have seen him, and if anyone once saw this Carson they'd never forget him. He has yellow hair, and as far as anyone ever heard no one else in the world has yellow hair." I was grateful for my black wig. I hoped it was on securely.

"How are you going to get into the tree cities of Vepaja?" I asked. "They don't care much for strangers there, you know."

"What do you know about it?" he demanded.

"I've been there. I lived in Kooaad."

"You did? That's just where we expect to find Carson."

"Then maybe I can help," I suggested.

"I'll tell the captain. No one aboard has ever been to Kooaad."

"But how do you expect to get into that city? You haven't told me that. It's going to be very difficult."

"They'll probably let one man go in to trade," he said. "You see, we've picked up a lot of jewels and ornaments off the ships we've taken. A man could go in with some of these and if he kept his ears and eyes open, he'd soon find out whether or not Carson was there. If he is, we'll have to find some way to entice him aboard the Nojo Ganja."

"That should be easy," I said.

Nurn shook his head. "I don't know about that," he said.

"It would be easy for me, knowing Kooaad as I do," I said. "You see I have friends there."

"Well, first we've got to find Vepaja," he remarked quite aptly.

"That's easy, too," I told him.

"How so?"

"Go tell the captain that I can pilot him to Vepaja," I said.

"You really can?"

"Well, I think I can. One never knows, what with the rotten maps we have."

"I'll go now and talk with the Captain," he said. "You wait here and, say, keep a weather eye open for Folar--he's the stinkingest mistal of all the stinking mistals on Amtor. Just keep your back against something solid and your eyes open."

Edgar Rice Burroughs