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7. Zerka

Horjan gave me a little room on the court and told me to stay there so that no one would see me; then he and Lodas left me. It was not long before Lodas returned to say that he was going to take his produce to market and then start home. He wanted to say goodby to me and wish me luck. He was a fine, loyal fellow.

The hours dragged heavily in that stuffy little room. At dusk Horjan brought me food and water. He tried to find out what I had come to Amlot for, but I evaded all his questions. He kept repeating that he would be glad to get rid of me, but at last he went away. After I had eaten I tried to sleep, but sleep didn't seem to want to come. I had just finally started to doze when I heard voices. They came from the adjoining room, and the partition was so thin that I could hear what was said. I recognized Horjan's voice, and there was the voice of another man. It was not Lodas.

"I tell you it is bad business," Horjan was saying. "Here is this man about whom I know nothing. If it is known that he is hiding here I shall get the blame, even though I don't know why he is hiding."

"You are a fool to keep him," said the other.

"What shall I do with him?" demanded Horjan.

"Turn him over to the Zani Guard."

"But still they will say that I had been hiding him," groaned Horjan.

"No; say that you don't know how he got into your house--that you had been away, and when you came back you found him hiding in one of your rooms. They will not harm you for that. They may even give you a reward."

"Do you think so?" asked Horjan.

"Certainly. A man who lives next to me informed on a neighbor, and they gave him a reward for that."

"Is that so? It is worth thinking about. He may be a dangerous man. Maybe he has come to assassinate Mephis."

"You could say that that was what he came for," encouraged the other.

"They would give a very big reward for that, wouldn't they?" asked Horjan.

"Yes, I should think a very big reward."

There was silence for several minutes; then I heard a bench pushed back. "Where are you going?" demanded Horjan's visitor.

"I am going to tell the Zanis," said Horjan.

"I shall go with you," announced his companion. "Don't forget that the idea is mine--I should have half the reward. Maybe two-thirds of it."

"But he is my prisoner," insisted Horjan. "It is I who am going to notify the Zani Guard. You stay here."

"I rather guess not. If I told them what I know, they would arrest you both, and I'd get a great big reward."

"Oh, you wouldn't do that!" cried Horjan.

"Well, I certainly shall if you keep on trying to rob me of the reward."

"Oh, I wouldn't rob you of it. I'll give you ten per cent."

The other laughed. "Ten per cent nothing. I'll give you ten per cent--and that's much more than you deserve--plotting against Mephis and Spehon and the rest of them.

"You can't put that over on me," shouted Horjan. "Nobody'll believe you anyhow. Everybody knows what a liar you are. Hey, where are you going? Come back here! I'm the one that's gong to tell them."

I heard the sound of running feet, the slamming of a door, and then silence. That was my cue to get out of there, and I can tell you that I didn't waste any time acting on it. I didn't know how far they'd have to go to find a member of the Zani Guard. There might be one at the next corner for all that I knew. I found my way out of the house in short order, and when I reached the avenue my two worthy friends were still in sight, quarrelling as they ran. I turned and melted into the shadows of the night that fell in the opposite direction.

There was no use running. I didn't even hurry, but sauntered along as though I were an old resident of Amlot going to call on my mother-in-law. The avenue I was in was dark and gloomy, but I could see a better lighted one ahead; so I made for that. I passed a few people, but no one paid any attention to me. Presently I found myself in an avenue of small shops. They were all open and lighted, and customers were coming and going. There were lots of soldiers on the street, and here I caught my first sight of a member of the Zani Guard.

There were three of them together, and they were swaggering down the sidewalk elbowing men, women and children into the gutter. I felt a little nervous as I approached them, but they paid no attention to me.

I had been doing a great deal of thinking since I had overheard the conversation between Horjan and his accomplice. I couldn't forget that the latter had linked Spehon's name with that of Mephis. The message that I carried in my pocket was addressed to Spehon. What could Muso be communicating secretly with a leader of the Zanis for? It didn't make sense, and it didn't sound good. It worried me. Then I recalled the inexplicable secrecy of my departure and the fact that Muso had warned me against telling Lodas the name of the person I was bearing a message to. Why was he afraid to have that known? and why had he been so relieved when he assured himself that I could not read Amtorian? It was a puzzle that was commencing to clear itself up in my mind, or at least I was beginning to suspect something of the solution. Whether I were right or not, I might never know; or I might learn it tomorrow. That depended largely upon whether or not I delivered the message to Spehon. I was almost minded to try to get out of the city and back to my ship; then fly to Sanara and lay the whole matter before Taman, whom I trusted. But my sometimes foolish sense of duty to a trust imposed in me soon put that idea out of my head. No, I would go on and carry out my orders--that was my duty as a soldier.

As I proceeded along the avenue the shops took on a more prosperous appearance, the trappings and jewels of the people on the street became richer. Gorgeously trapped gantors carried their loads of passengers to and fro or stopped before some shop while master or mistress entered to make a purchase. Before one brilliantly lighted building twenty or thirty huge gantors waited. When I came opposite the building, I looked in. It was a restaurant. The sight of the bright lights, the laughing people, the good food attracted me. The meager meal that Horjan had brought me had only served to whet my appetite. I entered the building, and as I did so I saw that it was apparently filled to capacity. I stood for a moment looking about for a vacant table, and was about to turn and walk out when an attendant came up to me and asked me if I wished to dine. I told him I did, and he led me to a small table for two where a woman was already seated.

"Sit here," he said. It was a trifle embarrassing.

"But this table is occupied," I said.

"That is all right," said the woman. "You are welcome to sit here."

There was really nothing else for me to do but thank her and take the vacant chair. "This is very generous of you," I said.

"Not at all," she assured me.

"I had no idea, of course, that the attendant was bringing me to someone else's table. It was very presumptuous of him."

She smiled. She had a very lovely smile. In fact she was a very goodlooking woman; and, like all the civilized women of Amtor that I had seen, apparently quite young. She might have been seventeen or seven hundred years old. That is what the serum of longevity does for them.

"It was not so presumptuous as it might seem," she said; "at least not on the part of the attendant. I told him to fetch you."

I must have looked my surprise. "Well, of course, that was very nice of you," was the only banality I could think of at the moment.

"You see," she continued, "I saw you looking for a table, there was a vacant chair here, I was alone and lonely. You don't mind, do you?"

"I'm delighted. You were not the only lonely person in Amlot. Have you ordered?"

"No; the service here is execrable. They never have enough attendants, but the food is the best in town. But of course you have eaten here often--everyone eats here."

I didn't know just what position to take. Perhaps it would be better to admit that I was a stranger rather than pretend I was not and then reveal the fact by some egregious error that I would be certain to make in conversation with any person familiar with Amlot and the manners and customs of its people. I saw that she was appraising me closely. Perhaps it would be more correct to say inventorying me--my harness, my other apparel, my eyes. I caught her quizzical gaze upon my eyes several times. I determined to admit that I was a stranger when our attention was attracted to a slight commotion across the room. A squad of Zani Guards was questioning people at one of the tables. Their manner was officious and threatening. They acted like a bunch of gangsters.

"What's all that about?" I asked my companion.

"You don't know?"

"It is one of the many things I don't know," I admitted.

"About Amlot," she concluded for me. "They are looking for traitors and for Atorians. It goes on constantly in Amlot nowadays. It is strange you have never noticed it. Here they come now."

Sure enough, they were heading straight across the room for our table, and their leader seemed to have his eyes on me. I thought then that he was looking for me in particular. Later I learned that it is their custom to skip around a place, examining a few people in each. It is more for the moral effect on the citizens than for anything else. Of course they do make arrests, but that is largely a matter of the caprice of the leader unless a culprit has been pointed out by an informer.

The leader barged right up to me and stuck his face almost into mine. "Who are you?" he demanded. "Give an account of yourself."

"He is a friend of mine," said the woman across the table. "He is all right, kordogan."

The man looked at her, and then he wilted. "Of course, Toganja," he cried apologetically; then he marched his men away and out of the restaurant.

"Perhaps it was very well for me, in addition to having your company, that this was the only vacant chair in the restaurant; although I really had nothing to fear. It is just disconcerting for a stranger."

"Then I guessed correctly? You are a stranger?"

"Yes, Toganja; I was about to explain when the kordogan pounced on me."

"You have credentials though?"

"Credentials? Why, no."

"Then it is very well for you that I was here. You would certainly have been on your way to prison now and probably shot tomorrow--unless you have friends here."

"Only one," I said.

"And may I ask who that one is?"

"You." We both smiled.

"Tell me something about yourself," she said. "It doesn't seem possible that there is such an innocent abroad in Amlot today."

"I just reached the city this afternoon," I explained. "You see, I am a soldier of fortune. I heard there was fighting here, and I came looking for a commission."

"On which side?" she asked.

I shrugged. "I know nothing about either side," I said.

"How did you get into the city without being arrested?" she demanded.

"A company of soldiers, some workers, and a few farmers were coming through the gate. I just walked through with them. Nobody stopped me; nobody asked me any questions. Did I do wrong?"

She shook her head. "Not if you could get away with it. Nothing is wrong that you can get away with. The crime is in getting caught. Tell me where you are from, if you don't mind."

"Why should I mind? I have nothing to conceal. I am from Vodaro." I remembered having seen a land mass called Vodaro on one of Danus's maps. It extended from the southern edge of the south temperate zone into the terra incognita of the antaretie. Danus said that little was known of it. I hoped that nothing was known of it. Nothing less than I knew of it could be known.

She nodded. "I was sure you were from some far country," she said. "You are very different from the men of Korva. Do all your people have grey eyes?"

"Oh, yes, indeed," I assured her. "All Vodaroans have grey eyes, or nearly all." It occurred to me that she might meet a Vodaroan some day who had black eyes. If she got to inquiring around right in this restaurant she might find one. I didn't know, and I wasn't taking any chances. She seemed to be quite an alert person who liked to seek after knowledge.

An attendant finally condescended to come and take our order, and after the dinner arrived I found that it was well worth waiting for. During the meal she explained many things about conditions in Amlot under the rule of the Zanis, but so adroit was she that I couldn't tell whether she was a phile or a phobe. While we were in the midst of dinner another detachment of the Zani Guard entered. They went directly to a table next to us where a citizen who accompanied them pointed out one of the diners.

"That is he," he cried accusingly. "His great-grandmother was nursed by an Atorian woman."

The accused rose and paled. "Mistal!" cried the kordogan in charge of the detachment, and struck the accused man heavily in the face, knocking him down; then the others jumped on him and kicked and beat him. Finally they dragged him away, more dead than alive. (A mistal is a rodent about the size of a cat. The word is often used as term of approbrium, as one might say "Pig!").

"Now what was all that about?" I asked my companion. "Why should a man be beaten to death because his great-grandmother nursed at the breast of an Atorian woman?"

"The milk and therefore the blood of an Atorian entered the veins of an ancestor, thereby contaminating the pure blood of the super race of Korva," she explained.

"But what is wrong with the blood of an Atorian?" I asked. "Are Atorians diseased?"

"It is really rather difficult to explain," she said. "If I were you I should just accept it as fact while in Amlot--and not discuss it."

I realized that that was excellent advice. From what I had seen in Amlot I was convinced that the less one discussed anything the better off he would be and the longer he would live.

"You haven't told me your name," said the Toganja, "mine is Zerka."

I couldn't safely give her my own name, and I didn't dare use Homo any longer because I was sure I had been reported by Horjan and his good friend; so I had to think of another name quickly.

"Vodo," I said quickly, thinking that Vodo of Vodaro sounded almost colossal.

"And in your own country you must be a very important man," she said. I could see she was trying to pump me, and I saw no use in saying I was a street car conductor or an author or anything like that. They wouldn't sound important enough; and, anyway, as long as I was launched on a career of deception I might as well make a good job of it."

"I am the Tanjong of Vodaro," I told her, "but please don't tell anyone. I'm travelling incognito." A tanjong is the son of a ruling jong--a prince.

"But how in the world did your government ever permit you to travel alone like this? Why, you might be killed."

"From what I have seen of Amlot I can readily agree with you," I said, laughing. "As a matter of fact, I ran away. I got tired of all the pomp and ceremony of the court. I wanted to live my life as a man."

"That is very interesting," she said. "If you want to take service here, perhaps I can help you. I am not without influence. Come and see me tomorrow. The driver of any public gantor knows where my palace is. Now I must be going. This has been quite an adventure. You have kept me from utter boredom."

I noticed that she said utter.

I walked to the door with her, where two warriors saluted her and followed us to the curb, one of them summoning the driver of a gantor--her private conveyance.

"Where do you stop?" she asked me, as she waited for her gantor.

"I haven't stopped yet," I told her. "You know I am a stranger here. Can you suggest a good place?"

"Yes, come with me; I'll take you there."

The ornate howdah on the broad back of her gantor seated four in the front compartment--two and two, facing one another; behind this was another seat where the two armed guards rode.

As the great beast strode majestically along the avenue, I watched with interest the night life of this Amtorian city. Previously I had been in Kooaad, the tree city of Vepaja, in the Thorist city of Kapdor, in Kormor, the city of the dead, and in lovely Havatoo. The latter and this city of Amlot were, of all of them, the only cities in the true sense of the word; and while Amlot could not compare with Havatoo, it was yet a city of life and activity. Though the hour was late, this main avenue was thronged with people; lines of gaily caparisoned gantors moved in both directions carrying their loads of passengers gay and laughing, grave and serious. Everywhere the Zani Guardsmen were in evidence, their strange headdress distinguishing them from all others--a two-inch ridge of hair from forehead to nape. Their apparel was distinctive too, because of its ornateness. Shops and restaurants, gambling houses and theaters, brilliantly lighted, lined the avenue. Amlot did not seem like a city at war. I mentioned this to Zerka.

"It is our way of keeping up the morale of the people," she explamed. "As a matter of fact, the last war, which brought on the revolution, left us disillusioned, bitter, and impoverished. We were compelled to give up our entire navy and merchant marine. There was little life and less laughter on the avenues of Amlot; then, by decree of Kord, the jong, every public place was required to reopen and the people, in some instances, actually driven into the streets to patronize them. The effect was electrical, and after the revolution the Zanis encouraged the practice. It has been most helpful in maintaining the spirit of the people. Well, here we are at the travellers' house. Come and see me tomorrow."

I thanked her for her courtesy to me and for the pleasant evening she had given me. The driver had placed the ladder against the gantor's side, and I was about to descend, when she laid a hand on my arm. "If you are questioned she said, "tell them what you told me; and if they do not believe you, or you get in any trouble, refer them to me. Tell them I have given you permission to do so. Here, take this and wear it," and she slipped a ring from one of her fingers and handed it to me; "it will substantiate your claim to my friendship. And now, one other thing. I would not mention again that you are a tanjong. Royalty is not so popular in Amlot as it once was; why, is immaterial. A very great jong came here recently in search of an only daughter who had been kidnaped. He is still imprisoned in the Gap kum Rov--if he is yet alive."

A very great jong whose only daughter had been kidnaped! Could it be possible?

"What great jong is that?" I asked.

Her eyes narrowed a little as she replied, "It is not well to be too inquisitive in Amlot during these times."

"I am sorry," I said; then I descended to the sidewalk, and her great gantor moved off down the avenue.

Edgar Rice Burroughs