Somewhat of a friendship developed between Ptang and myself. He admired my swordsmanship, and used to brag about it to the other warriors. At first they had been inclined to criticize and ridicule him because he had been bested by a slave; so I suggested that he offer to let his critics see if they could do any better with me.
“I can’t do that,” he said, “without Xaxak’s permission; for if anything happened to you, I should be held responsible.”
“Nothing will happen to me,” I told him; “no one should know that better than you.”
He smiled a bit ruefully. “You are right,” he said, “but still I must ask Xaxak;” and this he did the next time that he saw the dator.
In order to win Ptang’s greater friendship, I had been teaching him some of the finer points of swordsmanship which I had learned in two worlds and in a thousand duels and battles; but by no means did I teach him all of my tricks, nor could I impart to him the strength and agility which my earthly muscles give me on Mars.
Xaxak was watching us at swordplay when Ptang asked him if I might take on some of his critics. Xaxak shook his head. “I am afraid that Dotar Sojat might be injured,” he said.
“I will guarantee that I shall not be,” I told him.
“Well,” he said; “then I am afraid that you may kill some of my warriors.”
“I promise not to. I will simply show them that they cannot last as long as Ptang did.”
“It might be good sport,” said Xaxak. “Who are those who criticized you, Ptang?”
Ptang gave him the names of five warriors who had been particularly venomous in their ridicule and criticism, and Xaxak immediately sent for them.
“I understand,” said Xaxak, when they had assembled, “that you have condemned Ptang because he was bested in a duel with this slave. Do any of you think that you could do better than Ptang did? If so, here is your chance.”
They assured him, almost in chorus, that they could do very much better.
“We shall see,” he said, “but you must all understand that no one is to be killed and that you are to stop when I give the word. It is an order.”
They assured him that they would not kill me, and then the first of them swaggered out to meet me. One after another, in rapid succession, I pinked each in the right shoulder and disarmed him.
I must say they took it very decently; all except one of them—a fellow named Ban-tor, who had been Ptang’s most violent critic.
“He tricked me,” he grumbled. “Let me at him again, my dator; and I will kill him.” He was so angry that his voice trembled.
“No,” said Xaxak; “he has drawn your blood and he has disarmed you, demonstrating that he is the better swordsman. If it were due to a trick, it was a trick of swordsmanship which you might do well to master before you attempt to kill Dotar Sojat.”
The fellow was still scowling and grumbling as he walked away with the other four; and I realized that while all of these First Born were my nominal enemies, this fellow, Ban-tor, was an active one. However, I gave the matter little thought as I was too valuable to Xaxak for anybody to risk his displeasure by harming me; nor could I see that there was any way in which the fellow could injure me.
“Ban-tor has always disliked me,” said Ptang, after they had all left us. “He dislikes me; because I have always bested him in swordsmanship and feats of strength; and, in addition to this, he is a natural born trouble maker. If it were not for the fact that he is related to Xaxak’s wife, the dator would not have him around.”
Since I have already compared myself to a prospective Derby winner, I might as well carry out the analogy by describing their Lesser Games as minor race meets.
They are held about once a week in a stadium inside the city, and here the rich nobles pit their warriors or their slaves against those of other nobles in feats of strength, in boxing, in wrestling, and in dueling. Large sums of money are wagered, and the excitement runs high. The duels are not always to the death, the nobles deciding beforehand precisely upon what they will place their bets.
Usually it is for first blood or disarming; but there is always at least one duel to the death, which might be compared to the feature race of a race meet, or the main event of a boxing tournament.
Kamtol has a population of about two hundred thousand, of which possibly five thousand are slaves. As I was allowed considerable freedom, I got around the city quite a bit; though Ptang always accompanied me, and I was so impressed with the scarcity of children that I asked Ptang what accounted for it.
“The Valley of the First Born will only comfortably support about two hundred thousand population,” he replied; “so only sufficient children are permitted to replace the death losses. As you may have guessed, by looking at our people, the old and otherwise unfit are destroyed; so that we have about sixty-five thousand fighting men and about twice as many healthy women and children. There are two factions here, one of which maintains that the number of women should be greatly decreased; so that the number of fighting men may be increased, while the other faction insists that, as we are not menaced by any powerful enemies, sixty-five thousand fighting men are sufficient.
“Strange as it may seem, most of the women belong to the first faction; notwithstanding the fact that this faction which believes in decreasing the number of females would do so by permitting a far greater number of eggs to incubate, killing all the females which hatched and as many of the adult women as there were males in the hatching. This is probably due to the fact that each woman thinks that she is too desirable to be destroyed and that that fate will fall to some other woman. Doxus believes in maintaining the status quo, but some future jeddak may believe differently; and even Doxus may change his mind, which, confidentially, is most vacillating.”
My fame as a swordsman soon spread among the sixty-five thousand fighting men of Kamtol, and opinion was most unevenly divided as to my ability. Perhaps a dozen men of Kamtol had seen my swordplay; and they were willing to back me against anyone; but all the remainder of the sixty-five thousand felt that they could best me in individual combat; for this is a race of fighting men, all extremely proud of their skill and their valor.
I was exercising in the garden with Ptang one day, when Xaxak came with another dator, whom he called Nastor. When Ptang saw them coming, he whistled. “I never saw Nastor here before,” he said in a low tone of voice. “Xaxak has no use for him, and he hates Xaxak. Wait!” he exclaimed; “I have an idea why he is here. If they ask for swordplay, let me disarm you. I will tell you why, later.”
“Very well,” I said, “and I hope it will do you some good.”
“It is not for me,” he said; “it is for Dator Xaxak.”
As the two approached us, I heard Nastor say, “So this is your great swordsman! I should like to wager that I have men who could best him any day.”
“You have excellent men,” said Xaxak; “still, I think my man would give a good account of himself. How much of a wager do you want to lay?”
“You have seen my men fight,” said Nastor, “but I have never seen this fellow at work. I would like to see him in action; then I shall know whether to ask or give odds.”
“Very well,” said Xaxak, “that is fair enough,” then he turned to us. “You will give the Dator Nastor an exhibition of your swordsmanship, Dotar Sojat; but not to the death—you understand?”
Ptang and I drew our swords and faced one another. “Don’t forget what I asked of you,” he said, and then we were at it.
I not only remembered what he had asked, but I now realized why he had asked it; and so I put up an exhibition of quite ordinary swordsmanship, just good enough to hold my own until I let Ptang disarm me.
“He is an excellent swordsman,” said Nastor, knowing that he was lying, but not knowing that we knew it; “but I will bet even money that my man can kill him.”
“You mean a duel to the death?” demanded Xaxak. “Then I shall demand odds; as I did not desire my man to fight to the death the first time he fought.”
“I will give you two to one,” said Nastor; “are those odds satisfactory?”
“Perfectly,” said Xaxak. “How much do you wish to wager?”
“A thousand tanpi to your five hundred,” replied Nastor. A tanpi is equivalent to about $1 in United States money.
“I want to make more than enough to feed my wife’s sorak,” replied Xaxak.
Now, a sorak is a little six-legged, cat-like animal, kept as a pet by many Martian women; so what Xaxak had said was equivalent to telling Nastor that we didn’t care to fight for chicken feed. I could see that Xaxak was trying to anger Nastor; so that he would bet recklessly, and I knew then that he must have guessed that Ptang and I were putting on a show when I let Ptang disarm me so easily.
Nastor was scowling angrily. “I did not wish to rob you,” he said; “but if you wish to throw your money away, you may name the amount of the wager.”
“Just to make it interesting,” said Xaxak, “I’ll bet you fifty thousand tanpi against your hundred thousand.”
This staggered Nastor for a moment; but he must have got to thinking how easily Ptang had disarmed me, for eventually he rose to the bait. “Done!” he said; “and I am sorry for both you and your man,” with which polite hypocrisy he turned on his heel and left without another word.
Xaxak looked after him with a half smile on his lips; and when he had gone, turned to us. “I hope you were just playing a little game,” he said, “for if you were not you may have lost me fifty thousand tanpi.”
“You need not worry, my prince,” said Ptang.
“I shall not worry unless Dotar Sojat worries,” replied the dator.
“There is always a gamble in such an enterprise as this,” I replied; “but I think that you got very much the best of the bargain, for the odds should have been the other way.”
“At least you have more faith than I have,” said Xaxak the dator.