When I went into the house I found Duare, Nalte, and Kroona just sitting there in dazed silence. They couldn’t seem to realize that we had passed through the ordeal successfully.
“Well,” I said, “that’s over.”
My voice seemed to break the spell.
“Do you know what saved us?” demanded Nalte.
“Why, our disguises, of course,” I replied.
“Yes,” she admitted, “they helped, but our real salvation was the stupidity of the searchers. They scarcely looked at us. They were hunting for somebody who was hidden, and because we were not hiding they didn’t give us a second thought.”
“Do you think we might remove the paint now?” asked Duare. “It is very uncomfortable.”
“I think we should not remove it at all,” I replied. “As we know, they won’t find us in this search; so Skor may order another search, and next time we may not have time to disguise ourselves even if we are lucky enough to get the materials again.”
“I suppose you are right,” said Duare, “and after all the discomfort is not much by comparison to what we have already gone through.”
“The disguises have one advantage,” said Nalte. “We can move about more freely without danger of detection. We won’t have to sit in this stuffy little back room all the time, and I for one am going to the front of the house and get a breath of fresh air.”
It was not a bad suggestion, and Duare and I joined Nalte while Kroona went about some household duties. The front room on the second floor, to which we went, overlooked the street. We could hear the searchers ransacking the house next door, and we could see the pedestrians shuffling along the dusty street.
Suddenly Nalte seized my arm and pointed. “See that man?” she exclaimed in an excited whisper.
Shuffling along the street was a large corpse painted in the semblance of life. His trappings were finer than those ordinarily seen in Kormor. Only his peculiar gait revealed to the initiated eye the fact that he was not as alive as we.
“Yes, I see him,” I replied. “What about him?”
“He is the man that abducted me from Havatoo!”
“Are you sure?” I demanded.
“Absolutely,” replied Nalte. “As long as I live I shall never forget that face.”
A plan, perhaps I had better call it an inspiration, shot into my mind. “I am going to follow him,” I said. “I shall be back soon; hope for the best.” I turned and hurried from the room.
A moment later I was in the street. The fellow was only a short distance ahead of me. If my guess was correct he would lead me eventually to the entrance to the tunnel that leads to Havatoo. Perhaps not today, but if I learned where he lived today; then some other day.
His gait was more rapid than that of the average Kormoran, and he walked as though with a definite purpose in view. I judged that he was one of Skor’s more successful experiments and that for this reason he had been chosen as one of the jong’s agents in Havatoo, where the ordinary run of Kormoran corpses could not long have passed themselves off as living men.
As I followed him I noted carefully every detail of the street in which we were; so that I would not again be unable to return to my starting point. When presently he turned into a street leading toward the river my hopes rose, and I noted carefully the buildings at the intersection.
Near the river the fellow turned into a small alley, followed it to the next street, and then turned again toward the river. Directly ahead of us, even before he turned into it, I saw and recognized the building beneath which lay the Kormor end of the tunnel.
At the gateway leading into the yard before the house the man turned for the first time and looked behind him, I presume to see if he was being observed. Then he saw me.
There was nothing for me to do but keep on toward him. I kept my eyes on the ground and paid no attention to him as I approached him, though I could almost feel his gaze upon me. It seemed an eternity before I reached him. I was about to breathe a sigh of relief as I passed him, then he spoke to me.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” he demanded.
“I am looking for another house to live in,” I cackled. “The doors and the windows have all fallen off mine.”
“There are no houses here for you,” he snapped. Your kind is not allowed in this district. Get out of here and never let me see you here again.”
“Yes,” I replied meekly, and turned back.
To my great joy he let me go, and a moment later I had turned into the alley and was hidden from his view. But I had learned what I wanted to know, and my blood was tingling with happiness. Now only the worst of ill fortune could prevent me guiding Duare and Nalte back to the safety of Havatoo.
As I made my way through the streets of Kormor toward the house of Kroona my mind was filled with thoughts and plans for escape. I was determined to leave as soon as darkness fell, and already I was looking forward to and planning on what I should do upon my return to Havatoo.
As I entered Kroona’s house I saw immediately, even before any one had a chance to speak, that something was amiss. Duare and Nalte both rushed toward me, and it was evident that both were perturbed. Kroona and the old man who had brought us the pigments with which we had disguised ourselves were cackling together excitedly.
“At last you are back!” cried Nalte. “We thought that you would never come.”
“Perhaps it is not too late even now,” said Duare.
“I wanted them to come with me and let me hide them,” croaked Kroona, “but neither one of them would leave without you. They said that if you were to be taken then they would be taken too.”
“What in the world are you all talking about?” I demanded. “What has happened?”
“It is soon told,” said the old man who had brought us the make-up. “The cosmetician from whom I borrowed the materials to change you into old people has betrayed us in order to curry favor with Skor. A man heard him tell his servant to go to the palace and inform Skor that he would lead Skor’s men to this hiding place of yours. The man was a friend of mine and came and told me. Skor’s men may be here at any minute now.”
I thought rapidly; then I turned to Duare and Nalte. “Get your make-up off as quickly as you can,” I directed, “and I will do the same.”
“But then we shall be lost for certain,” exclaimer Duare.
“On the contrary,” I replied as I commenced to remove the pigment from my blond head.
“They will know us at once without our disguises,” insisted Duare, but I was glad to see that both she and Nalte were following my example and removing the paint from their hair and faces.
“Our own youth will be the best disguise we can adopt in this emergency,” I explained. “These creatures of Skor are none too intelligent, and having been sent to find three fugitives who have disguised themselves as very old people they will be looking only for those who appear very old. If we can get out of the house before they come I thihk we have a good chance to avoid detection.”
We worked rapidly and soon had the last vestiges of our disguises removed; then we thanked Kroona and the old man, bid them good-by, and left the house. As we entered the street we saw a body of warriors approaching from the direction of the palace.
“We were not quite in time,” said Nalte. “Shall we turn and run for it?”
“No,” I replied. “That would only arouse their suspicions immediately and they would pursue and most certainly overtake us. Come! We shall go and meet them.”
“What!” demanded Duare in astonishment. “Are we going to give ourselves up?”
“By no means,” I replied. “We are going to take a great chance, but there is no alternative. If they see three people walking away from them they will investigate, and if they do that we may be recognized; but if they see us approaching them they will believe that we do not fear anything from them and will be convinced therefore that we are not those whom they seek. Walk with the shuffling gait of the dead, and keep your eyes on the ground. Duare, you walk ahead, Nalte a few paces behind you; I shall cross to the other side of the street. By separating we shall attract less attention; they are looking for three people whom they expect to find together.”
“I hope your reasoning is correct,” said Duare, but it was evident that she was skeptical. I was none too enthusiastic about the plan myself.
I crossed the street to the side along which the warriors were approaching, knowing that there was less likelihood that any of them would recognize me than that they would know Duare, who had been in Skor’s palace for some time.
I must admit that I felt none too comfortable as the distance between me and the warriors steadily lessened, but I kept my eyes on the ground and shuffled slowly along.
As I came abreast of them their leader halted and addressed me. My heart stood still. “Where is the house of Kroona?” he asked.
“I do not know,” I replied and shuffled on my way. Momentarily I expected to be seized, but the warriors went on their way and let me go on mine. My ruse had been successful!
As soon as I felt that it was safe I crossed to the opposite side of the street, and as I caught up with the two girls I told them to follow behind me but not too closely.
It still lacked an hour until sunset, and I did not dare risk approaching the entrance to the tunnel until after dark. In the meantime we must find a place to hide and keep off the streets where every moment we were in danger of arousing suspicion.
Turning into a side street I soon found a deserted house, of which there are many in Kormor; and presently we were in hiding again.
Both girls were dejected. I could tell by their silence and listlessness. The future must have seemed hopeless to them, yet they voiced no complaints.
“I have some good news for you,” I said.
Duare looked at me with scarcely any indication of interest, as though there never could be any good news for her again. She had been unusually silent since our escape from the palace. She seldom spoke unless directly addressed; and she avoided speech with Nalte as much as possible, although her manner toward her was not definitely unfriendly.
“What is the good news?” demanded Nalte.
“I have found the entrance to the tunnel to Havatoo,” I replied.
The effect of that statement upon Nalte was electrical, but it seemed to arouse only passive interest in Duare. “In Havatoo,” she said, “I shall be as far as ever from Vepaja.”
“But your life will not be in danger,” I reminded her.
She shrugged. “I do not know that I care to live,” she replied.
“Don’t be discouraged, Duare,” I begged. “Once we are in Havatoo I am confident that I shall discover a way to find Vepaja and return you to your people.” I was thinking of the plane ready and waiting in its hangar on Kantum Lat, but I didn’t say anything about it. I wanted to save it as a surprise for her; and, anyway, we were not yet in Havatoo.
The two hours that we waited until complete darkness enveloped the city were as long a two hours as I have ever spent; but at last it seemed safe to attempt to reach the silent, deserted house near the river front, where all our hopes were centered.
The street was deserted when we left the building where we had been hiding; I was certain of my way to our destination, and without delay or adventure we at last came in sight of the decaying structure that hid the entrance to our avenue of escape.
I led the girls into the buildings, and there we huddled in the dark, listening. I regretted then that I had been unable to retrieve the sword I had taken from Skor and buried in the yard of Kroona’s home. It would have given me a feeling of far greater security than I now enjoyed.
Satisfied at last that we were the sole occupants of the building and that no one had followed us, I crossed to the doorway that hid the entrance to the tunnel, Duare and Nalte close behind me.
I had no difficulty in finding the latch, and a moment later we were descending into the dark corridor with liberty and safety almost in our grasp.
There was a chance that we might meet one of Skor’s creatures returning from Havatoo; but I felt that everything was in our favor inasmuch as one of them had just crossed in the opposite direction, and there had never been any evidence that they were in Havatoo in great numbers. It was my opinion that the two that set upon Nalte and me were alone in that venture, and if that were true it was also doubtless true that Skor never had more than a couple of his retainers in Havatoo at the same time. I certainly hoped that I was right.
In silence, through the utter darkness, we groped our way along the cold, moist corridor beneath the River of Death. I moved more rapidly than I had when I had come through it to Kormor, for I knew now that no pitfalls lay in my path.
At last I felt the stairs leading upward at the tunnel’s end, and a moment later I stopped behind the door that would let us into Havatoo. I did not wait; I did not listen. Nothing could have stopped me then. I would have grappled a dozen of the gruesome corpses of Kormor had they stood in my way, and I believe that I should have overcome them, so desperate was my mood.
But we met neither dead nor living as we stepped out onto the lower floor of the dismal building off the Havatoo Lat. Quickly we crossed to the front of the building and out through the door there to the street beyond, and a moment later we stood in the Havatoo Lat with its brilliant lights and its two streams of traffic.
We were a conspicuous trio in our mean garments of rags with which we had sought to disguise ourselves in Kormor, and many were the suspicious glances cast in our direction.
As quickly as I could I hailed a public conveyance and instructed the driver to take us to the home of Ero Shan, and as we settled down upon the cushions we relaxed for the first time in many a day.
We talked a great deal during the drive, particularly Nalte and I. Duare was very quiet. She spoke of the beauty of Havatoo and the wonders that surrounded us, all strange and new to her, but only briefly and then lapsed into silence again.
Our driver had eyed us suspiciously when we entered his car, and when he deposited us in front of the house of Ero Shan he behaved peculiarly.
But Ero Shan was delighted to see us. He ordered food and drink, and plied us with questions until he had had the whole story from us several times. He congratulated me upon finding Duare, but I could see that his greatest happiness lay in the return of Nalte.
The girls were tired and needed rest, and we were preparing to take them to Nalte’s home when the first blow fell that was to put the lives of two of us in jeopardy and plunge us all from the heights of happiness to the depths of despair.
There was a summons at the main entrance, and presently a servant entered the room. Behind him was a file of warriors commanded by an officer.
Ero Shan looked up in surprise. He knew the officer and called him by name, asking him what brought him here with armed men.
“I am sorry, Ero Shan,” the man replied, “but I have orders from the Sanjong itself to arrest three suspicious appearing people who were seen to enter your house earlier in the evening.”
“But,” exclaimed Ero Shan, “no one has entered my house but Carson Napier, whom you know, and these two young women. They are all my friends.”
The officer was eyeing our mean apparel and evidently not without suspicion. “These must be those I was sent to arrest if no one else has entered your house this evening,” he said.
There was nothing to do but accompany the warriors and this we did. Ero Shan came with us, and a short time later we were before an investigating board of three men. The complaining witness was the driver who had brought us from the house that hid the entrance to the tunnel to Ero Shan’s. He said that he lived in the neighborhood, and having known of the abduction of Nalte he was immediately suspicious when he saw three people, garbed as we were, in the vicinity of the place.
He accused us of being spies from Kormor and insisted that we were but painted corpses like the man I had grappled with at the time of the abduction of Nalte.
The examining board listened to my story; then they examined Nalte and Duare briefly. They questioned Ero Shan concerning us, and without leaving the room they discharged Nalte and myself and ordered Duare back for a further examination by the official examining board the following day.
I thought that they seemed a little suspicious of Duare; and so did Ero Shan, though he only admitted this after we had returned the girls to Nalte’s home and were alone.
“Justice sometimes miscarries in Havatoo,” he said gravely. “The loathing that we feel for Kormor and everything connected with it colors all our decisions in matters concerning it. Duare admits having been in Kormor for some time. She admits having resided in the palace of Skor, the jong. The examining board knows nothing about her other than what she claims and what you tell them, but they do not know that they can believe either of you. You will recall that the result of your examination was not such as to create considerable confidence in you.
“And you think that Duare may be in danger?” I asked.
“I cannot tell,” he replied. “Everything may come out all right; but, on the other hand, if the board has the slightest suspicion concerning Duare it will order her destroyed, for our theory of justice is that it is better to do an injustice to a single individual than to risk the safety and welfare of many. Sometimes that policy is a cruel one, but results have demonstrated that it is better for the race than a policy of weak sentimentalism
I did not sleep well that night. The weight of a great fear for the outcome of tomorrow’s trial oppressed me.