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The Travellers' house, or hotel, to which Zerka had brought me was really quite magnificent, indicating that Amlot had been a city of considerable wealth and importance in this part of Amtor. The lobby served the same purpose that a lobby in an Earthly hotel does. The desk was a large, circular booth in the center. There were benches, chairs, divans, flowers; small shops opened from it. I felt almost at home. The lobby was crowded. The ubiquitous Zani Guard was well represented. As I stepped to the desk, two of them followed me and listened while the clerk questioned me, asking my name and address.
"Where are your credentials?" barked one of the Zanis.
"I have none," I replied. "I am a stranger from Vodaro, seeking military service here."
"What! No credentials, you mistal? You are probably a dog of a spy from Sanara." He bellowed so loud that the attention of everyone in the lobby was attracted, and all about us there fell a silence that seemed to me the silence of terror. "This is what you need," he yelled, and struck at me. I am afraid I lost my temper, and I know I did a very foolish thing. I parried his blow and struck him heavily in the face--so heavily that he sprawled backward upon the floor fully ten feet from me; then his companion came for me with drawn sword.
"You had better be sure what you are doing," I said, and held out the ring Zerka had given me so that he could see it.
He took one look at it and dropped the point of his weapon. "Why didn't you say so?" he asked, and his tone was very different from what that of his fellow had been. By this time the latter had staggered to his feet and was trying to draw his sword. He was quite groggy.
"Wait," his companion cautioned him, and went and whispered in his ear, whereupon they both turned and left the lobby like a couple of whipped dogs. After that the clerk was the personification of courtesy. He inquired about my luggage, which I told him would arrive later, then he called a strapping porter who had a chairlike contraption strapped to his back. The fellow came and knelt before me and I took my seat in the chair, for it was obvious that that was what was expected of me; then he stood up, took a key from the clerk and ran up three flights of stairs with me--a human elevator, and the only sort of elevator known to Amlot. The fellow was a veritable composite of Hercules and Mercury. I tried to tip him after he had set me down in my room, but he couldn't understand my good intentions. He thought I was trying to bribe him to do something that he shouldn't do. I am sure he reported me as a suspicious character after he returned to the desk.
My room was large and well furnished; a bath opened from it. A balcony in front overlooked the city out to the ocean, and I went out there and stood for a long time thinking over all that had occurred to me, but mostly thinking of Duare. I also thought much on my strange encounter with the Toganja Zerka. I couldn't quite convince myself that her interest in me was wholly friendly, yet I really had no reason to doubt it; except, perhaps, that she seemed a woman of mystery. It is possible that I doubted her sincerity because of my own deceitfulness; yet what else could I have done. I was in an enemy city, where, if the truth about me were even suspected, I should have received short shrift. As I could not tell the truth, I had to lie; and while I was lying, I might as well make a good job of it, I reasoned. I was sure that I had completely deceived her. Had she also deceived me? I knew the city was full of spies. What better way to entice a stranger into unwary admissions than through a beautiful woman--it is as old as espionage itself.
The possibility that Duare's father, Mintep, might be a prisoner here gave me the most concern and resolved me to remain until I had definitely established the truth or falsity of my suspicions. The reference to Spehon, made by Horjan's companion, that linked closely with the leader of Zanism the name of the man to whom I bore a message from Muso was also good for considerable conjecture. I was frankly apprehensive that all was not as it should be. There was a way to discover, perhaps. I took the leather envelope containing Muso's message from my pocket pouch, broke the seals, and opened it. This is what I read:
Muso, the Jong,
Addresses Spehon at Amlot.
May success attend your ventures and old age never overtake you.
Muso dispatches this message to Spehon by Carson of Venus, who cannot read Amtorian.
If Sanara were to fall into the hands of Mephis, this unfortunate civil war would be ended.
That would be well if Muso were to be jong of Korva after the fall of Sanara.
If Mephis wishes all this to happen, let three blue rockets be shot into the air before the main gate of Sanara on three successive nights.
On the fourth night let a strong force approach the main gate secretly, with stronger reserves held nearby; then Muso will cause the main gates to be thrown open for the purpose of permitting a sortie. But there will be no sortie. The troops of Mephis may then enter the city in force. Muso will surrender, and the bloodshed may cease.
Muso will make a good jong, conferring always with Mephis.
The Zanis shall be rewarded.
It would be regrettable, but best, if Carson of Venus were destroyed in Amlot.
May success be yours. Muso
I turned a little cold at the thought of how near I had been to delivering that message without reading it. I hadn't realized that I had been carrying my death warrant around on me as innocently as a babe in the woods. I looked around for some means of destroying it, and found a fireplace in one corner of the room. That would answer the purpose nicely. I walked to it, carrying the document; and, taking my little pocket fire-maker from my pouch, was about to set fire to it when something caused me to hesitate. Here was a valuable document--a document that might mean much to Taman and to Korva if it were properly utilized. I felt that it should not be destroyed, yet I didn't like the idea of carrying it around with me. If I could but find a hiding place. But where? No place in this room would answer if I were even slightly under suspicion, and I knew that I already was. I was positive that the moment I left the room it would be thoroughly searched. I put the message back in its leather container and went to bed. Tomorrow I would have to solve this problem; tonight I was too tired.
I slept very soundly. I doubt that I moved all night. I awoke about the 2nd hour, which would be about 6:40 A.M. Earth time. The Amtorian day is 26 hours, 56 minutes, 4 seconds of Earth time. Here it is divided into thirty-six hours of forty minutes each, the hours being numbered from 1 to 36. The 1st hour corresponds roughly with mean sunrise, and is about 6 A.M. Earth time. As I rolled over and stretched for a moment before arising, I felt quite content with myself. I was to call on Zerka this very morning with the possibility of obtaining service of some nature with the Zanis that might make it possible for me to ascertain if Mintep were really in Amlot. I had read Muso's message to Spehon; so that that was no longer a menace to me. My only real problem now was to find a suitable hiding place for it, but I have so much confidence in myself that I did not apprehend any great difficulty in doing so.
Stepping out of bed, I walked to the balcony for a breath of fresh air and a look at the city by daylight. I saw that the travellers' house stood much closer to the waterfront than I had imagined. There was a beautiful landlocked harbor lying almost at my feet. Innumerable small boats lay at anchor or were moored to quays. They were all that the enemy had left to the conquered nation.
A new day was before me. What would it bring forth? Well, I would bathe, dress, have breakfast, and see. As I crossed to the bath, I saw my apparel lying in disorder on the floor. I knew that I had not left it thus, and immediately I became apprehensive. My first thought, naturally, was of the message; and so the first thing that I examined was my pocket pouch. The message was gone! I went to the door. It was still locked as I had left it the night before. I immediately thought of the two Zani Guardsmen with whom I had had an altercation in the lobby. They would have their revenge now. I wondered when I would be arrested. Well, the worst they could do would be to take me before Spehon, unless he had already issued orders for my destruction. If I were not immediately arrested, I must try to escape from the city. I could not serve Mintep now by remaining. My only hope was to reach Sanara and warn Taman.
I performed my toilette rather perfunctorily and without interest; then I descended to the lobby. It was almost empty. The clerk on duty spoke to me quite civilly, for a hotel clerk. No one else paid any attention to me as I found the dining room and ordered my breakfast.
I had made up my mind that I was going to see Zerka. Maybe she could and would help me to escape from the city. I would give her a good reason for my wishing to do so. After finishing my breakfast, I returned to the lobby. The place was taking on an air of greater activity. Several members of the Zani Guard were loitering near the desk. I determined to bluff the whole thing through; so I walked boldly toward them and made some inquiry at the desk. As I turned away, I saw two more of the guardsmen enter the lobby from the avenue. They were coming directly toward me, and I at once recognized them as the two with whom I had had the encounter the preceding night. This, I thought, is the end. As they neared me both of them recognized me; but they passed on by me, and as they did so, both saluted me. After that I went out into the street and window shopped to kill time; then about the 8th hour (10:40 A.M.E.T.) I found a public gantor and directed the driver to take me to the palace of Toganja Zerka. A moment later I was in the cab of my amazing taxi and lumbering along a broad avenue that paralleled the ocean.
Shortly after we left the business portion of the city we commenced to pass magnificent private palaces set in beautiful grounds. Finally we stopped in front of a massive gate set in a wall that surrounded the grounds of one of these splendid residences. My driver shouted, and a warrior opened a small gate and came out. He looked up at me questioningly.
"What do you want?" he asked.
"I have come at the invitation of the Toganja Zerka," I said.
"What is your name, please?" he asked.
"Vodo," I replied; I almost said Homo.
"The Toganja is expecting you," said the warrior as he threw open the gates.
The palace was a beautiful structure of white marble, or what looked like white marble to me. It was built on three sides of a large and beautiful garden, the fourth side being open to the ocean, down to the shore of which the flowers, shrubbery, and lawn ran. But just then I was not so much interested in scenic beauty as I was in saving my neck.
After a short wait, I was ushered into the presence of Zerka. Her reception room was almost a throne room, and she was sitting in a large chair on a raised dais which certainly carried the suggestion of sovereignty. She greeted me cordially and invited me to sit on cushions at her feet.
"You look quite rested this morning," she observed. "I hope you had a good night."
"Very," I assured her.
"Any adventure after I left you? You got along all right in the hotel?"
I had a feeling she was pumping me. I don't know why I should have, unless it was my guilty conscience; but I did.
"Well, I had a little altercation with a couple of the Zani Guardsmen," I admitted; "and I lost my temper and knocked one of them down--very foolishly."
"Yes, that was foolish. Don't do such a thing again, no matter what the provocation. How did you get out of it?"
"I showed your ring. After that they left me alone. I saw them again this morning, and they saluted me."
"And that was all that happened to you?" she persisted.
"All of any consequence."
She looked at me for a long minute without speaking. She seemed either to be weighing something in her mind or trying to fathom my thoughts. Finally she spoke again. "I have sent for a man to whom I am going to entrust your future. You may trust him implicitly. Do you understand?--implicitly!"
"Thank you," I said. "I don't know why you are doing these things for me, but I want you to know that I appreciate your kindness to a friendless stranger and that if I can serve you at any time--well, you know you have only to command me."
"Oh, it is nothing," she assured me. "You saved me from a very bad evening with myself, and I am really doing very little in return."
Just then a servant opened the door and announced: "Maltu Mephis! Mantar!"
A tall man in the trappings and with the headdress of a
Zani Guardsman entered the room. He came to the foot of the dais, saluted and said, "Maltu Mephis!"
"Maltu Mephis!" replied Zerka. "I am glad to see you, Mantar. This is Vodo," and to me, "This is Mantar."
"Maltu Mephis! I am glad to know you, Vodo," said Mantar.
"And I am glad to know you, Mantar," I replied.
A questioning frown clouded Mantar's brow, and he glanced at Zerka. She smiled.
"Vodo is an utter stranger here," she said. "He does not yet understand our customs. It is you who will have to inform him."
Mantar looked relieved. "I shall start at once," he said. "You will forgive me, then, Vodo, if I correct you often?"
"Certainly. I shall probably need it."
"To begin with, it is obligatory upon all loyal citizens to preface every greeting and introduction with the words Maltu Mephis. Please, never omit them. Never criticize the government or any official or any member of the Zani Party. Never fail to salute and cry Maltu Mephis whenever you see and hear others doing it. In fact, it will be well if you always do what you see everyone else doing, even though you may not understand."
"I shall certainly follow your advice," I told him; but what my mental reservations might be I wisely kept to myself, as he probably did also.
"Now, Mantar," said Zerka, "this ambitious young man is from far Vodaro, and he wishes to take service as a soldier of Amlot. Will you see what you can do for him! And now you must both be going, as I have many things to attend to. I shall expect you to call and report to me occasionally, Vodo."
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