I shuffled slowly past the gates, observing from the corners of my eyes. It seemed useless to attempt to enter there. The guards were posted for a purpose, and that purpose must be to keep out those who had no business within.
What reason could I give for wishing to enter?—what reason that they would accept?
It was evident that I must seek some other means of ingress. If I failed to find any then I might return to the gates as a last resort, but I can tell you that the outlook seemed most hopeless.
I followed the high wall that inclosed the palace grounds, but nowhere did I find any place to scale it. It was about twelve feet high, just too high for me to reach the top with my fingers by a running jump.
I reached the rear of the palace without discovering any place where I might scale the wall, and I was convinced that there was no place. There was plenty of litter and rubbish in the filthy street that encircled the wall but nothing that I could make use of as a ladder.
Upon the opposite side of the street were mean hovels, many of which appeared deserted. In only a few, dim lights revealed a sign of—life. I was going to say—of occupancy. Directly across from me an open door sagged on a single hinge.
It gave me an idea.
I crossed the street. There were no lights in any of the near-by houses. That before which I stood appeared tenantless. Stealthily I crept to the doorway and listened. There was no sound from the gloom of the interior, but I must make sure that no one was there.
Scarcely breathing, I entered the house. It was a one-story hovel of two rooms. I searched them both. The house was unoccupied. Then I returned to the door and examined the remaining hinge. To my delight I discovered that I could easily remove the door, and this I did.
I looked up and down the street. There was no one in sight. Lifting the door, I crossed to the wall and leaned the door against it.
Again I searched the street with my eyes. All was clear.
Cautiously I crawled up the door. From its top, precariously gained, I could reach the top of the wall. Then I threw caution to the winds, drew myself up, and dropped to the ground on the opposite side. I could not take the chance of remaining even for an instant on the summit of the wall in plain view of the palace windows on one side and the street on the other.
I recalled the vicious kazars that Skor kept at his castle, and I prayed that he kept none here. But no kazar attacked me, nor did any evidence suggest that my entry had been noted.
Before me loomed the palace, dark and forbidding even though some lights shone within it. The courtyard was flagged, and as barren as that of the castle in the wood.
Crossing quickly to the building I walked along it seeking an entrance. It was three stories high. I saw at least two towers. Many of the windows were barred, but not all. Behind one of those barred windows, perhaps, was Nalte. The task before me was to discover which.
I dared not go to the front of the palace lest I be questioned by the guard. Presently I discovered a small door; it was the only door on this side of the building, but it was securely locked. Carrying my investigation further, I came to an open window. The room beyond was unlighted. I listened but heard no sound; then I vaulted quietly to the sill and dropped within. At last I was inside the palace of the jong of Morov.
Crossing the room, I found a door on the opposite side; and when I drew it open I saw a dimly lighted corridor beyond. And with the opening of the door sounds from the interior of the palace reached my ears.
The corridor was deserted as I stepped into it and made my way in the direction of the sounds I had heard. At a turning I came to a broader and better lighted corridor, but here dead men and women passed to and fro. Some were carrying dishes laden with food in one direction, others were bearing empty dishes in the opposite direction.
I knew that I risked detection and exposure, but I also knew that it was a risk I must take sooner or later. As well now, I thought, as any time. I noticed that these corpses were painted in the semblance of life and health; only their eyes and their shuffling gait revealed the truth. My eyes I could not change, but I kept them lowered as I shuffled into the corridor behind a man carrying a large platter of food.
I followed him to a large room in which two score men and women were seated at a banquet table. Here at last, I thought, were living people—the masters of Kormor. They did not seem a very gay company, but that I could understand in surroundings such as theirs. The men were handsome, the women beautiful. I wondered what had brought them and what kept them in this horrid city of death.
A remarkable feature of the assemblage was the audience that packed the room, leaving only sufficient space for the servants to pass around the table. These people were so well painted that at first I thought them alive too.
Seeing an opportunity to lose my identity in the crowd, I wormed my way behind the rear rank and then gradually worked my way around the room and toward the front rank of the spectators until I stood directly in rear of a large, thronelike chair that stood at the head of the table and which I assumed to be Skor’s chair.
Close contact with the men and women watching the banqueters soon disclosed the fact that I was doubtless the only living creature among them, for no make-up, however marvelous, could alter the expressionlessness of those dead eyes or call back the fire of life or the light of soul. Poor creatures! How I pitied them.
And now, from the lower end of the chamber, came a blare of trumpets; and all the banqueters arose and faced in that direction. Four trumpeters marching abreast entered the banquet hall, and behind them came eight warriors in splendid harness. Following these were a man and a woman, partially hidden from my sight by the warriors and the trumpeters marching in front of them. These two were followed by eight more warriors.
And now the trumpeters and the warriors separated and formed an aisle down which the man and the woman walked. Then I saw them, and my heart stood still. Skor and—Duare!
Duare’s head was still high—it would be difficult to break that proud spirit—but the loathing, the anguish, the hopelessness in her eyes, struck me like dagger to the heart. Yet, even so, hope bounded in my breast as I saw them, for they were expressions; and they told me that Skor had not yet worked his worst upon her.
They seated themselves, Skor at the head of the table, Duare at his right, scarce three paces from me; and the guests resumed their seats.
I had come for Nalte, and I had found Duare. How was I to rescue her now that I had found her? I realized that I must do nothing precipitate. Here, faced by overwhelming odds in the stronghold of an enemy, I knew that I might accomplish nothing by force.
I looked about the room. On one side were windows, in the center of the opposite wall was a small door, at the far end the large doors through which all seemed to be entering or leaving; and behind me was another small doorway. I had no plan, but it was well to note the things that I had noted.
I saw Skor pound on the table with his fist. All the guests looked up. Skor raised a goblet, and the guests did likewise.
“To the jong!” he cried.
“To the jong!” repeated the guests.
“Drink!” commanded Skor, and the guests drank.
Then Skor addressed them. It was not a speech; it was a monologue to which all listened. In it occurred what Skor evidently considered an amusing anecdote. When he had narrated it he paused, waiting. There was only silence. Skor scowled. “Laugh!” he snapped, and the guests laughed—hollow, mirthless laughs. It was then, with those laughs, that my suspicions were aroused.
When Skor finished his monologue there was another silence until he commanded, “Applaud!” Skor smiled and bowed in acknowledgment of the ensuing applause just as though it had been spontaneous and genuine.
“Eat!” he commanded, and the guests ate; then he said, “Talk!” and they commenced to converse.
“Let us be gay!” cried Skor. “This is a happy moment for Morov. I bring you your future queen!” He pointed to Duare. There was only silence. “Applaud!” growled Skor, and when they had done his bidding he urged them again to be gay. “Let us have laughter,” he bid them. “Starting at my left you will take turns laughing, and when the laughter has passed around the table to the future queen you will start over again.”
The laughter commenced. It rose and fell as it passed around the table. God, what a travesty on gayety it was!
I had passed closer until I stood directly behind Skor’s chair. Had Duare turned her eyes in my direction she must have seen me, but she did not. She sat staring straight before her.
Skor leaned toward her and spoke. “Are they not fine specimens?” he demanded. “You see I am coming closer and closer to the fulfillment of my dream. Do you not see how different are all the people of Kormor from the mean creatures at my castle? And look at these, the guests at my table. Even their eyes have the semblance of real life. Soon I shall have it—I shall be able to breathe full life into the dead. Then think what a nation I can create! And I shall be jong, and you shall be vadjong.”
“I do not wish to be vadjong,” replied Duare. “I only wish my liberty.”
A dead man sitting across the table from her said, “that is all that any of us wishes, but we shall never get it.” It was then his turn to laugh, and he laughed. It was incongruous, horrible. I saw Duare shudder.
Skor’s sallow face paled. He glowered at the speaker. “I am about to give you life,” cried the jong angrily, “and you do not appreciate it.”
“We do not wish to live,” replied the corpse. “We wish death. Let us have death and oblivion again—let us return to our graves in peace.”
At these words, Skor flew into a fit of rage. He half rose, and drawing a sword struck at the face of the speaker. The keen blade laid open an ugly wound from temple to chin. The edges of the wound gaped wide, but no blood flowed.
The dead man laughed. “You cannot hurt the dead,” he mocked.
Skor was livid. He sought words, but his rage choked him. Flecks of foam whitened his lips. If ever I have looked upon a madman it was then. Suddenly he turned upon Duare.
“You are the cause of this!” he screamed. “Never say such things again before my subjects. You shall be queen! I will make you queen of Morov, a living queen, or I will make you one of these. Which do you choose?”
“Give me death,” replied Duare.
“That you shall never have—not real death, only the counterfeit that you see before you—neither life nor death.”
At last the ghastly meal drew to a close. Skor arose and motioned Duare to accompany him. He did not leave the room as he had entered it; no trumpeters nor warriors accompanied him. He walked toward the small doorway at the rear of the room, the spectators giving way before him and Duare as they advanced.
So suddenly had Skor risen and turned that I thought he must surely see me; but if he did he did not recognize me, and a moment later he had passed me, and the danger was over. And as he and Duare moved toward the doorway I fell in behind and followed. Each instant I expected to feel a hand upon my shoulder stopping me, but no one seemed to pay any attention to me. I passed through the doorway behind Skor and Duare without a challenge. Even Skor did not turn as he raised the hangings at the doorway and let them fall again behind him.
I moved softly, making no noise. The corridor in which we were was deserted. It was a very short corridor, ending at a heavy door. As Skor threw this door open I saw a room beyond that at first I thought must be a storeroom. It was large and almost completely filled with a heterogeneous collection of odds and ends of furniture, vases, clothing, arms, and pictures. Everything was confusion and disorder, and everything was covered with dust and dirt.
Skor paused for a moment on the threshold, seemingly viewing the room with pride. “What do you think of it?” he demanded.
“Think of what?” asked Duare.
“This beautiful room,” he said. “In all Amtor there cannot be a more beautiful room; nowhere else can there be another such collection of beautiful objects; and now to them I am adding the most beautiful of all—you! This, Duare, is to be your room—the private apartment of the queen of Morov.”
I stepped in and closed the door behind me, for I had seen that but for us three there was no one else in the apartment; and now seemed as good a time to act as any.
I had not meant to make any noise as I entered. Skor was armed and I was not, and it had been my intention to throw myself upon him from the rear and overpower him before he could have an opportunity to use his weapons against me. But the lock of the door clicked as I closed it, and Skor wheeled and faced me.