I watched Nurn as he crossed the deck and ascended the companionway leading to the captain's quarters. If the captain could be persuaded to trust me, here was such an opportunity to enter Kooaad as might never come to me again. I knew from the course that the Nojo Ganja was holding that she was paralleling the coast of Vepaja, but too far off shore for the land to be visible. At least I was confident that such was true. I really could not know it, as one could know nothing for certain about his position on one of these Amtorian seas unless he were in sight of land.
As I stood by the rail waiting for Nurn to return, I saw Folar come on deck. His expression was black as a thunder cloud. He came directly toward me. A man near me said, "Look out, fellow! He's going to kill you." Then I saw that Folar carried one hand behind him and that his pistol holster was empty. I didn't wait then to see what he was going to do or when he was going to do it. I knew. I whipped out my own gun just as he raised his. We fired simultaneously. I could feel the r-rays pinging past my ear; then I saw Folar slump to the deck. Instantly a crowd surrounded me.
"You'll go overboard for this," said a man.
"It won't be as easy as that," said another, "but in the end you'll go overboard."
An officer who had witnessed the affair came running down from the upper deck house. He pushed his way through the crowd of sailors to me.
"So you're trying to live up to your name, are you, fellow?" he demanded.
"Folar was trying to kill him," spoke a sailor.
"And after he'd spared Folar's life," said another.
"Folar had a right to kill any member of the crew he wanted to kill," snapped the officer. "You mistals know that as well as I do. Take this fellow up to the captain and throw Folar overboard.
So I was taken up to the captain's quarters. He was still talking with Nurn as I entered. "Here he is now," said Nurn.
"Come in," said the captain, rather decently; "I want to talk with you."
The officer who had accompanied me looked rather surprised at the captain's seemingly friendly manner. "This man has just killed Folar," he blurted.
Nurn and the captain looked at me in astonishment "What difference does it make?" I asked. "He wasn't any good to you, anyway, and he was just about to kill the only man who can pilot you to Vepaja and get into the city of Kooaad for you. You ought to thank me for killing him."
The captain looked up at the officer. "Why did he kill him?" he asked.
The officer told the story quite fairly, I thought; and the captain listened without comment until he had concluded; then he shrugged.
"Folar," he said, "was a mistal. Someone should have killed him long ago. You may go," he said to the officer and the sailors who had brought me up; "I want to talk with this man." When they had left, he turned to me. "Nurn says that you can pilot this ship to Vepaja and that you are acquainted in Kooaad. Is that right?"
"I am well acquainted in Kooaad," I replied, "and I believe I can pilot the Nojo Ganja to Vepaja. You will have to help me get into Kooaad, though. I'll be all right after I get in."
"What course shall we take?" he asked.
"What is your course now?"
"Due east," he replied.
"Change it to south."
He shook his head, but he gave the necessary orders. I could see that he was very skeptical of our chances of reaching Vepaja on the new course. "How long before we'll raise land?" he asked.
"That, I can't tell," I said; "but I'd keep a sharp lookout, and at night cut your speed down."
He dismissed me then, telling me that I'd be quartered with the officers. I found my new companions little different from the common sailors. They were all bravos and rascals; and, without exception, had been common sailors themselves. I found little in common with them, and spent most of my time in the crow's nest with the lookout watching for land.
It was right after the 1st hour the next morning that I discerned the black- appearing mass ahead that I knew to be the giant forest of Vepaja, those mighty trees that rear their heads five and six thousand feet to drink sustenance from the moisture of the inner cloud envelope that surrounds the planet. Somewhere in that black mass and a thousand feet above the ground was the great tree city of Kooaad. There, too, if she still lived, would be my Duare.
I went down to the captain's quarters myself to report sighting land, and as I reached the door I heard voices. I would not have stopped to listen; but the first word I heard was the name they knew me by, Sofal. The captain was speaking to one of his officers.
"--and when we are through with him, see that he's put out of the way. Let the men know that it was because he killed Folar. We can't let them think they can get away with anything like that. If I hadn't needed him, I'd have had him killed yesterday."
I walked away as noiselessly as I could; and returned a moment later, whistling. When I had reported land, they both came out. It was plainly visible by now, and shortly after the 2nd hour we were close in shore. We were a little too far east; so we came about and skirted the coast until I sighted the harbor. In the meantime I had suggested to the captain that he'd better lower his pirate flags and fly something more in keeping with his purportedly peaceful designs.
"What country are they friendly with?" he asked. "What far country, whose ships and men they might not be expected to recognize."
"I am quite sure that a ship from Korva would be welcomed," I told him; so the Korvan flag was run up at the bow and above the deck houses; while, for an owner's flag at the stern, he used one he had taken from a ship he had sunk. There was already a ship in the harbor, a vessel from one of the little islands that lie west of Vepaja. It was loading up with tarel. There was a strong company of Vepajan warriors on guard, for the port is quite some distance from Kooaad; and there is always danger of attack by Thorists or other enemies.
The captain sent me ashore to negotiate for entry into Kooaad as well as to assure the Vepajans that we were there on a friendly mission. I found the company in charge of two officers, both of whom I had known when I lived in Kooaad. One was Tofar, who had been captain of the palace guard and high in the confidence of Mintep; the other was Olthar, brother of my best friend in Kooaad, Kamlot. I fairly shook in my boots as I recognized them, for I did not see how it could be possible that they should fail to know me. However, as I stepped from the small-boat, I walked boldly toward them. They looked me straight in the face without a sign of recognition.
"What do you want in Vepaja?" they asked, their tones none too friendly.
"We are trading with friendly countries," I said. "We are from Korva."
"Korva!" they both exclaimed. "We had heard that the merchant marine of Korva had been destroyed in the last war."
"Practically all of it," I said. "A few ships escaped because they were on long cruises and knew nothing of the war until it was over. Our ship was one of these."
"What have you to trade?" asked Tofar.
"Ornaments and jewels, principally," I replied. "I should like to take them into one of your big cities. I think the ladies of the jong's palace would like to see them."
He asked me if I had any with me; and when I showed him some that I had brought along in my pocket pouch, he was much interested; and desired to see more. I did not want to take him aboard the Nojo Ganja for fear his suspicions might be aroused by the ruffianly appearance of the officers and crew.
"When do you go back to the city?" I asked.
"We leave here as soon as they finish loading that ship," he replied. "That should be within the hour; then we leave immediately for Kooaad."
"I'll get all my articles," I told him, "and go to Kooaad with you."
Olthar seemed rather taken aback by this, and looked questioningly at Tofar. "Oh, I think it will be all right," said the latter. "After all, he's only one man; and anyway he's from Korva--that will make a difference with Mintep. He and the janjong were well treated there. I have heard him speak in the highest terms of the jong of Korva and the nobles he met there."
I had difficulty in hiding my relief at this evidence that Duare was alive and in Kooaad. But was she alive? She had evidently reached Vepaja with her father, but she might already have been destroyed for having broken the taboo custom had laid upon her as janjong of Vepaja.
"You mention a janjong," I said. "I am glad to know that your jong has a daughter. He will wish to buy some of my jewels for her."
They made no reply, but I saw them exchange a quick glance.
"Go and get your stuff," Tovar said, "and well take you with us when we return to Kooaad."
The captain was delighted when he found what excellent progress I had made. "Try to persuade the man Carson to return to the ship with you, if you find he is in Kooaad," he said.
"I shall certainly find him in Kooaad," I told him. "I am sure of that."
A half hour later I set out with Tofar, Olthar, and their company through the great forest toward Kooaad. We had not gone far when Olthar told me that I should have to be blind-folded, and after that a soldier walked on either side of me to guide me and keep me from stumbling over obstacles. Knowing as I did how jealously the Vepajans have to guard the secret entrances to their tree cities I was not at all surprised at this precaution, but I may say that it made most awkward travelling. At last, however, we reached a spot where I was conducted through a doorway; and after the door was closed, the bandage was removed from my eyes. I found myself in the hollow interior of a great tree, standing in a cage with Tofar, Olthar, and some of the warriors. The others waited on the ground beside the cage. A signal was given, and the cage started to rise. For a thousand feet we were hoisted by a great windlass to the street level of Kooaad. Once again I stood on the highflung walkways of the first Amtorian city I had ever seen. Somewhere near me was Duare, if she still lived. I could feel my heart throb from the excitement of the moment.
"Take me to the palace," I said to Tofar. "I should like to get permission to show these beautiful things to the women of the jong's retinue."
"Come," he said, "I'll see if we can get permission."
A short walk brought us to the enormous tree from the interior of which the rooms of the palace of Mintep are carved. How familiar it all was! How it recalled my first days on Venus, and that day of days that I had first seen Duare and first loved her. Now I was coming again to the palace of her father, but with a price upon my head.
At the entrance to the palace was the familiar guard. I knew the captain of it well, but he did not recognize me. When Tofar stated my request, the captain entered the palace, telling us to wait. He was gone for some time, but when he returned he said that Mintep would be glad to welcome a Korvan merchant to his palace.
"He has sent word to the women that you will show your wares in the reception room inside the entrance," said the captain. "They will be gathering there soon; so you might as well come in."
"I'll leave him with you, then," said Tofar.
I reached into my package and selected a jeweled ring which I proffered to Tofar. "Please accept this for your kindness to me," I said, "and take it to your woman with my compliments."
If he had only known that Carson Napier--Carson of Venus--was the donor!
The women of the palace gathered in the reception room, and I spread my jewels and ornaments out before them. I had known many of them and most of the men who came with them or followed them in to see what I had to offer, but not a one knew me.
There was one particularly lovely girl whom I knew to have been very close to Duare, one of her ladies-in-waiting, in fact; and her I sought to draw into conversation. She was much interested in one piece, but said that she could not afford to buy anything so expensive.
"But your man," I said. "Certainly he will buy it for you."
"I have no man," she said. "I serve the janjong, and I may have no man until she takes one; or until she dies." Her voice broke with a sob.
"Take it," I whispered. "I have sold many already. I can easily spare this piece; then, when I come again, if you can, you may pay me.
"Oh, but I couldn't do that," she cried, a little startled.
"Please," I begged. "It will make me very happy to know that this lovely piece, which I myself so much admire, has a setting worthy of its beauty."
I could see that she wanted it very badly, and when a woman wants a piece of jewelry or apparel, she will stop at little to possess it.
"Well," she said, after a pause, during which she fondled and admired the bauble, "I suppose I might pay you some time; and if I couldn't, I could give it back to you."
"I am glad that you have decided to keep it," I said. "I have another piece here that I should like very much to show to the janjong. Do you suppose it would be possible?"
"Oh, no," she said. "That would be quite impossible; and anyway, she--she--" Again her voice broke.
"She is in trouble?" I asked.
She nodded. "She is going to die!" She spoke in an awed whisper.
"Die?" I asked. "Why?"
"The council of nobles has so decreed"
"You love her?"
"Yes, of course. I would give my life for her."
"Do you mean that?" I demanded.
She looked at me in surprise. I had let my emotions get the better of my caution.
"Why do you take such an interest?" she asked.
I looked at her for a full minute, I guess, trying to read her soul through her eyes. I could see nothing in them but truth and sincerity and love--love for my Duare.
"I am going to tell you why," I said. "I am going to trust you. I am going to put my life in your hands and the life of your janjong as well. I am Carson Napier--Carson of Venus."
Her eyes went wide and she caught her breath. She looked at me for a long time. "Yes," she said, "I see now; but you have changed so."
"Suffering and a black wig make a big change in one's appearance," I said. "I have come here to save Duare. Will you help me?"
"I told you once I would give my life for her," she said. "That was no idle speech. What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to get me into Duare's quarters in some way and hide me there. That is all I ask of you."
She thought for a moment. "I have a plan," she said, presently. "Gather up your things and prepare to leave. Say that you will return tomorrow."
I did as she bid, making several sales at the same time. I told the purchasers that I would take payment when I came back the next day. I almost smiled when I thought of the rage of the pirate captain could he have known that I was giving his treasure away. When I had at last gathered up what remained, I started toward the door. Then Vejara, the lady-in-waiting, spoke to me in a voice that all might hear.
"Before you go," she said, "I wish that you would bring your things to the anteroom of my apartments. I have a piece of jewelry which I should like to match if possible. I think I saw something of yours that would answer."
"Thank you," I said, "I'll come with you now;" so we walked out of the reception room, and she led me along corridors to a door which she opened with a key, after glancing quickly around to see if we had been observed. Quickly she whispered. "In here. These are the apartments of the janjong. She is alone. I have done all that I can. Goodby and good luck!"
She closed the door after me and locked it. I found myself in a very small waiting room, empty but for two long benches, one on either side. Later I learned that it was where servants waited to be interviewed by the janjong. I crossed to a door at the opposite end and opened it quietly. Before me was a beautifully furnished apartment. On a divan, reading, was a woman. It was Duare. I entered the room, and as I did so she turned and looked at me. Her eyes went wide with incredulity as she sprang to her feet and faced me; then she ran and threw herself into my arms. Of all, she alone had known me!
Neither of us could speak for a full minute; and then, though there was so much to say, I would not let her speak of but one thing, nor would I--a plan of escape.
"It will be simple, now that you are here," she said. "The council of nobles has condemned me to die. I suppose they could do nothing else. They do not wish my death. They are all my friends, but the laws that govern the jongs of Vepaja are stronger than friendship or their love for me or anything in the world--except my love for you and yours for me. They will be glad if I escape, for they have done their duty. My father will be glad, too."
"But not the jong of Vepaja," I said.
"I think he will be a little glad also," she said.
"Why couldn't you have escaped without me, if it is so easy to escape?" I asked.
"Because I have given my word not to violate my arrest," she replied. "But I cannot help it if someone takes me by force.
She was very serious, and so I did not smile--outwardly. Duare is very sweet.
We talked then and planned until after dark. When her food was brought, she hid me; and then she shared it with me. We waited until the city had quieted down; then she came close to me. "You will have to carry me out of my quarters," she said, "for I may not go of my own free will."
In the palace there is a secret shaft down the interior of the great tree to the ground. There is no lift there--only a very long and tiresome climb down a ladder. It was never intended to be used except in emergencies of life and death, and only the jong and his family know of its existence. Down this we clambered. I thought that we should never reach the ground, but at last we did.
Duare had told me that she had fastened the ship down not far from this tree, which is close to the edge of the forest. If it were still there, and unharmed, our escape would be assured. If it were not, we were lost. That was a chance we had to take, for Duare was to have died on the morrow. There was no time for me to investigate.
Leaving the base of the tree we groped our way through the darkness, constantly fearful of attack by one of the terrible beasts that roam the Vepajan forest. When I finally thought that we must have missed the anotar in the darkness, or that it had been taken away, I saw it looming in front of us; and I am not ashamed to admit that tears came to my eyes as I realized that my Duare was safe at last--safe and with me.
A few minutes later we zoomed into the Amtorian sky; and, leveling off, turned the nose of the ship out over the grey Amtorian sea toward the northwest and the kingdom of Korva--our kingdom. Toward peace and happiness and friends and love.
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