“What now? I wonder,” remarked Tarzan as they walked through the royal grounds toward the palace.
“No one ever knows why he is summoned to an audience with Nemone until he gets there,” commented Gemnon; “one may be going to receive an honor or hear his death sentence. Nemone is capricious. She is always bored and always seeking relief from her boredom. Oftentimes she finds strange avenues of escape that makes one wonder if her mind—but not such thoughts may not even be whispered among friends.”
When Tarzan presented himself he was immediately admitted to the ivory room, where he found Nemone and Erot much as he had found them the preceding night. Nemone greeted him with a smile that was almost pathetically eager; but Erot only scowled darkly, making no effort to conceal his hatred.
“We are having a diversion this morning,” Nemone explained, “and we summoned you and Gemnon to enjoy it with us. A party raiding in Thenar a day or so ago captured an Athnean noble; we are going to have some sport with him this morning.”
Tarzan nodded. He did not understand what she meant, and he was not particularly interested. He was thinking of M’duze and the night before; wondering what was in the mind of the strange, fascinating woman before him.
Nemone turned to Erot. “Go and tell them we are ready,” she directed, “and ascertain if all is in readiness for us.”
Erot flushed and backed toward the door, still scowling. “And you need not hurry,”. added the Queen; “we are not impatient to witness the entertainment. Let them take their time, and be sure to see that all is well ordered.”
“It shall be as the Queen commands,” replied Erot in a surly tone.
When the door had closed behind him, Nemone motioned Tarzan to a seat upon the couch. “I am afraid that Erot does not like you,” she said, smiling. “He is furious that you do not kneel to me, and that I do not compel you to do so. I really do not know, myself, why I do not; but I guess why. Have you not, perhaps, guessed why, too?”
“There might be two reasons, either of which would be sufficient,” replied the ape-man.
“And what are they? I have been curious to know how you explained it.”
“Consideration of the customs of a stranger and courtesy to a guest,” suggested Tarzan.
Nemone considered for a moment. “Yes,” she admitted, “either is a fairly good reason, but neither is really in keeping with the customs of the court of Nemone. And then they are practically the same thing; so they constitute only one reason. Is there not another?”
“Yes,” replied Tarzan; “there is an even better one; the one which probably influences you to overlook my dereliction. “
“And what is it?”
“The fact that you cannot make me kneel”
A hard look flashed in the Queen’s eyes; it was not the answer she had been hoping for. Tarzan’s eyes did not leave hers; she saw amusement in them. “Oh, why do I endure it!” she cried, and with the query her anger melted. “You should not try to make it so hard for me to be nice to you,” she said almost appealingly. “Why do you not meet me halfway? Why are you not nice to me, Tarzan?”
“I wish to be nice to you, Nemone,” he replied; “but not at the price of my self-respect; but that is not the only reason why I shall never kneel to you.”
“What is the other reason?” she demanded.
“That I wish you to like me; you would not like me if I cringed to you.”
“Perhaps you are right,” she admitted musingly. “Everyone cringes, until the sight of it disgusts me, yet I am angry when they do not cringe. Why is that?”
“You will be offended if I tell you,” warned the apeman.
“In the past two days I have become accustomed to being offended,” she replied with a grimace of resignation; “so you might as well tell me.”
“You are angry if they do not cringe, because you are not quite sure of yourself. You wish this outward evidence of their subservience that you may be constantly reassured that you are Queen of Cathne.”
“Who says that I am not Queen of Cathne?” she demanded, instantly on the defensive. “Who says that will find that I am and that I have the power of life and death. If I chose, I could have you destroyed in an instant.”
“You do not impress me,” said Tarzan. “I have not said that you are not Queen of Cathne, only that your manner may often suggest your own doubts. A queen should be so sure of herself that she can always afford to be gracious and merciful.”
For a while Nemone sat in silence, evidently pondering the thought that Tarzan had suggested. “They would not understand,” she said at last; “if I were gracious and merciful they would think me weak; then they would take advantage of me; and eventually they would destroy me. You do not know them. But you are different; I can be gracious and merciful to you and you will never try to take advantage of my kindness; you will not misunderstand it.
“Oh, Tarzan, I wish that you would promise to remain in Cathne. If you will, there is nothing that you may not have from Nemone. I would build you a palace second only to my own. I would be very good to you; we—you could be very happy here.”
The ape-man shook his head. “Tarzan can be happy in the jungle only.”
Nemone leaned close to him; she seized him fiercely by the shoulders. “I will make you happy here,” she whispered passionately. “You do not know Nemone. Wait! The time will come when you will want to stay—for me!”
“Erot and M’duze and Tomos may think differently,” Tarzan reminded her.
“I hate them!” cried Nemone. “If they interfere this time, I shall kill them all; this time I shall have my own way; she shall not rob me of all happiness. But do not speak of her; never speak her name to me again. And as for Erot,” she snapped her fingers. “I crush a worm beneath my sandal, and no one misses it. No one would miss Erot, least of all I; I have long been tired of him. He is a stupid, egotistical foal; but he is better than nothing.”
The door opened and Erot entered unceremoniously; he kneeled, but the act was nearer a gesture than an accomplished fact. Nemone flashed an angry look at him.
“Before you enter our presence,” she said coldly, “see to it that you are properly announced and that we have expressed a desire to receive you.”
“But your majesty,” objected Erot, “have I not been in the habit of—”
“You have gotten into bad habits,” she interrupted; “see that you mend them. Is the diversion arranged?”
“All is in readiness, your majesty,” replied the crestfallen Erot.
“Come, then!” directed Nemone, motioning Tarzan to follow her.
In the anteroom they found Gemnon waiting, and the Queen bid him accompany them. Preceded and followed by armed guards, the three passed along several corridors and through a number of rooms, then up a stairway to the second floor of the palace. Here they were conducted to a balcony overlooking a small enclosed court. The windows opening onto this court from the first story of the building were heavily barred; and from just below the top of the parapet, behind which the Queen and her party sat, sharpened stakes protruded, giving the court the appearance of a miniature arena for wild animals.
As Tarzan looked down into the courtyard, wondering a little what the nature of the diversion was to be, a door at one end swung open and a young lion stepped out into the sunlight, blinking his eyes and looking about. When he saw those on the balcony looking down at him; he growled.
“He is going to make a good lion,” remarked Nemone. “From a cub, he has always been vicious.”
“What is he doing in here?” asked Tarzan, “or what is he going to do?”
“He is going to entertain us,” replied Nemone. “Presently an enemy of Cathne will be turned into the pit with him, the Athnean who was captured in Thenar.”
“And if he kills the lion you will give him his liberty?” demanded Tarzan.
Nemone laughed. “I promise that I will, but he will not kill the lion.”
“He might,” said Tarzan; “men have killed lions before.”
“With their bare hands?” asked Nemone.
“You mean the man will not be armed?” demanded Tarzan incredulously.
“Why, of course not,” exclaimed Nemone. “He is not being put in there to kill or wound a fine young lion but to be killed.”
“And he has no chance then! That is not sport; it is murder!”
“Perhaps you would like to go down and defend him;” sneered Erot. “The Queen would give the fellow his liberty if he had a champion who would kill the lion, for that is the custom.”
“It is a custom that is without a precedent since I have been Queen,” said Nemone. “It is true that it is a law of the arena, but I have yet to see a champion volunteer to take the risk.”
The lion paced across the courtyard and stood directly beneath the balcony, glaring up at them. He was a splendid beast, young but full-grown.
“He is going to be a mean customer,” remarked Gemnon.
“He already is,” rejoined the Queen. “I was going to make a racing lion of him, but after he killed a couple of trainers I decided that he would make a better hunting lion for grand hunts. There is the Athnean.” She pointed down into the courtyard. “He is a fine-looking young fellow.”
Tarzan glanced at the stalwart figure in ivory standing upon the opposite side of the small arena bravely awaiting its fate; then the lion turned its head slowly in the direction of the prey it had not yet seen. At the same instant Tarzan seized the hilt of Erot’s dagger-like sword, tore the weapon from its sheath, and, stepping to the top of the parapet, leaped for the lion below.
So quickly and so silently had he moved that none was aware of his intent until it had been accomplished. Gemnon voiced an ejaculation of astonishment; Erot, of relief; while Nemone cried out in genuine terror and alarm. Leaning over the parapet, the Queen saw the lion struggling to tear the body that had crushed it to the stone flagging or escape from beneath it. The horrid growls of the beast reverberated in the narrow confines of the pit, and mingled with them were the growls of the beast-man on its back. One bronzed arm was about the maned neck of the carnivore, two powerful legs were locked around its middle, and the sharp point of Erot’s sword was awaiting the opportune instant to plunge into the savage heart. The Athnean was running toward the two embattled beasts.
“By Thoos!” exclaimed Nemone. “If the lion kills him, I will have it torn limb from limb. It must not kill himl Go down there, Erot, and help him; go, Gemnon!”
Gemnon did not wait, but springing to the parapet, he lowered himself by the stakes and dropped into the courtyard. Erot hung back. “Let him take care of himself,” he grumbled.
Nemone turned to the guard standing behind her. She was white with apprehension because of Tarzan and with rage and disgust at Erot. “Throw him into the pitl” she commanded, pointing at the cringing favorite; but Erot did not wait to be thrown, and a moment later he had followed Gemnon to the stone flagging of the courtyard.
Neither Erot nor Gemnon nor the man from Athne were needed to save Tarzan from the lion, for already he had sunk the sword into the tawny side. Twice again the point drove into the wild heart before the roaring beast collapsed upon the white stones, and its great voice was stilled forever.
Then Tarzan rose to his feet. For a moment the men about him, the Queen leaning across the parapet above, the city of gold, all were forgotten. Here was no English lord but a beast of the jungle that had made its kill. With one foot upon the carcass of the lion, the ape-man raised his face toward the heavens, and from the heart of the palace of Nemone rose the hideous victory cry of the bull ape that has killed.
Gemnon and, Erot shuddered, and Nemone drew back in terror; but the Athnean was unmoved; he had heard that savage challenge before. He was Valthor. And now Tarzan turned; all the savagery faded from his countenance as he stretched forth a hand and laid it on Valthor’s shoulder. “We meet again, my friend,” he said.
“And once again you save my life!” exclaimed the Athnean noble.
The two men had spoken in, low tones that had not carried to the ears of Nemone or the others in the balcony; Erot, fearful that the lion might not be dead, had run to the far end of the court, where he was cowering behind a column; that Gemnon might have heard did not concern Tarzan, who trusted the young Cathnean. But those others must not know that he had known Valthor before, or immediately the old story that Tarzan had come from Athne to assassinate Nemone would be revived and then only a miracle could save either of them.
His hand still upon Valthor’s shoulder, Tarzan spoke again rapidly in a whisper. “They must not know that we are acquainted,” he said. “They are looking for an excuse to kill me, some of them; but as far as you are concerned they do not have to look for any.”
Nemone was now calling orders rapidly to those about her. “Go down and let Tarzan out of the arena, Tarzan and Gemnon; send them to me. Erot may go to his quarters until I give further orders; I do not wish to see him again. Take the Athnean back to his cell; later I will decide how he shall be destroyed.”
She spoke in the imperious tones of one long accustomed to absolute authority and implicit obedience, and her voice carried plainly to the ears of the men in the arena. It brought the chill of sudden fear to the heart of Erot, who saw his influence waning and recalled tales he had heard of the fate of other royal favorites who had outlived their charm. Into his cunning brain flew a score of schemes to reinstate himself, and each was based upon the elimination of the giant that had supplanted him in the affections of the Queen. He would fly to Tomos, to M’duze; neither of these could afford to see the stranger take Erot’s place in the boudoir councils of Nemone and become a power behind the throne.
Tarzan heard the Queen’s commands with surprise and resentment, and, wheeling, he looked up at her. “This man is free by your own word,” he reminded her. “If he be returned to a cell, I shall go with him, for I have told him that he would be free.”
“Do with him as you please,” cried Nemone; “he is yours. Only come up to me, Tarzan. I thought that you would be killed, and I am still frightened.”
Erot and Gemnon heard these words with vastly different emotions; each recognized that they signalized a change in the affairs, of the court of Cathne. Gemnon anticipated the effects of a better influence injected into the councils of Nemone, and was pleased. Erot saw the flimsy structure of his temporary grandeur and reflected authority crumbling to ruin. Both were astonished by this sudden revealment of a new Nemone, whom none had ever before seen bow to the authority of another than M’duze.
Accompanied by Gemnon and Valthor, Tarzan returned to the balcony where Nemone, her composure regained, awaited them. For a moment, moved by excitement and apprehension for Tarzan’s safety, she had revealed a feminine side of her eharacter that few of her intimates might even have suspected she possessed; but now she was the Queen again. She surveyed Valthor haughtily and yet with interest.
“What is your name, Athnean?” she demanded.
“Valthor,” he replied and added, “of the house of Xanthus.”
“We know the house,” remarked Nemone; “its head is a king’s councillor; a most noble house and close to the royal line in both blood and authority.”
“My father is the head of the house of Xanthus,” said Valthor.
“Your head would have made a noble trophy for our walls,” sighed Nemone, “but we have given our promise that you shall be freed.”
“My head would have been honored by a place among your majesty’s trophies,” replied Valthor, the faintest trace of a smile upon his lips; “but it shall have to be content to wait a more propitious event.”
“We shall look forward with keen anticipation to that moment,” rejoined Nemone graciously; “but in the meantime we will arrange an escort to return you to Athne, and hope for better fortune the next time that you fall into our hands. Be ready then early tomorrow to return to your own country.”
“I thank your majesty,” replied Valthor; “I shall be ready and when I go I shall carry with me, to cherish through life, the memory of the gracious and beautiful Queen of Cathne.”
“Our noble Gemnon shall be your host until tomorrow,” announced Nemone. “Take him with you now to your quarters, Gemnon, and let it be known that he is Nemone’s guest, whom none may harm.”
Tarzan would have accompanied Gemnon and Valthor, but Nemone detained him. “You will return to my apartments with me,” she directed; “I wish to talk with you.”
As they walked through the palace, the Queen did not precede her companion as the etiquette of the court demanded but moved close at his side, looking up into his face as she talked. “I was frightened, Tarzan,” she confided: “It is not often that Nemone is frightened by the peril of another, but when I saw you leap into the arena with the lion my heart stood still. Why did you do it, Tarzan?”
“I was disgusted with what I saw,” replied the ape-man shortly.
“Disgusted! What do you mean?”
“The cowardliness of the authority that would permit an unarmed and utterly defenseless man to be forced into an arena with a lion,” explained Tarzan candidly.
Nemone flushed. “You know that that authority is I,” she said coldly.
“Of course I know it,” replied the ape-man, “but that only renders it the more odious.”
“What do you mean?” she snapped. “Are you trying to drive me beyond my patience? If you knew me better you would know that that is not safe, not even for you, before whom I have already humbled myself.”
“I am not seeking to try your patience,” replied the apeman quietly, “for I am neither interested nor concerned in your powers of self-control. I am merely shocked that one so beautiful may at the same time be so heartless. Were you a little more human, Nemone, you would be irresistible.”
The flush faded from the Queen’s face, the anger from her eyes; she moved on in silence, her mood suddenly introspective; and when they reached the anteroom leading to her private chambers, she halted at the threshold of the latter and laid a hand gently upon the arm of the man at her side.
“You are very brave,” she said. “Only a very brave man would have leaped into the arena with the lion to save a stranger; but only the bravest of the brave could have dared to speak to Nemone as you have spoken, for the death that the lion deals may be merciful compared with that which Nemone deals when she has been affronted. Yet, perhaps you knew that I would forgive you. Oh, Tarzan, what magic have you exercised to win such power over me!” She took him by the hand then and led him toward the doorway of her chambers. “In here, alone together, you shall teach Nemone how to be humanl” As the door swung open there was a new light in the eyes of the Queen of Cathne, a softer light than had ever before shone in those beautiful depths; and then it faded, to be replaced by a cold, hard glitter of bitterness and hate. Facing them, in the center of the apartment, stood M’duze.
She stood there, bent and horrible, wagging her head and tapping the stone floor with her staff. She spoke no word, but fixed them with her baleful glare. As one held in the grip of a power she is unable to resist, Nemone moved slowly toward the ancient hag, leaving Tarzan just beyond the threshold. Slowly and silently the door closed between them. Beyond it the ape-man heard, faintly, the tapping of the staff upon the colored stones of the mosaic.