The doors to the other sleeping room and bath were also open. Fal Sivas glanced at the book in my hand. “Rather heavy reading for a panthan,” he remarked.
I smiled. “I recently read his Theoretical Mechanics. This is an earlier work, I believe, and not quite so authoritative. I was merely glancing through it.”
Fal Sivas studied me intently for a moment. “Are you not a little too well educated for your calling?” he asked.
“One may never know too much,” I replied.
“One may know too much here,” he said, and I recalled what the girl had told me.
His tone changed. “I stopped in to see if everything was all right with you, if you were comfortable.”
“Very,” I replied.
“You have not been disturbed? No one has been here?”
“The house seems very quiet,” I replied. “I heard someone laughing a short time ago, but that was all. It did not disturb me.”
“Has anyone come to your quarters?” he asked.
“Why, was someone supposed to come?”
“No one, of course,” he said shortly, and then he commenced to question me in an evident effort to ascertain the extent of my mechanical and chemical knowledge.
“I really know little of either subject,” I told him. “I am a fighting man by profession, not a scientist. Of course, familiarity with fliers connotes some mechanical knowledge, but after all I am only a tyro.”
He was studying me quizzically. “I wish that I knew you better,” he said at last; “I wish that I knew that I could trust you. You are an intelligent man. In the matter of brains, I am entirely alone here. I need an assistant. I need such a man as you.” He shook his head, rather disgustedly. “But what is the use? I can trust no one.”
“You employed me as your bodyguard. For that work I am fitted. Let it go at that.”
“You are right,” he agreed. “Time will tell what else you are fitted for.”
“And if I am to protect you,” I continued, “I must know more about your enemies. I must know who they are, and I must learn their plans.”
“There are many who would like to see me destroyed, or destroy me themselves; but there is one who, above all others, would profit by my death. He is Gar Nal, the inventor.” He looked up at me questioningly.
“I have never heard of him,” I said. “You must remember that I have been absent from Zodanga for many years.”
He nodded. “I am perfecting a ship that will traverse space. So is Gar Nal. He would like not only to have me destroyed, but also to steal the secrets of my invention that would permit him to perfect his; but Ur Jan is the one I most fear, because Gar Nal has employed him to destroy me.”
“I am unknown in Zodanga. I will hunt out this Ur Jan and see what I can learn.”
There was one thing that I wanted to learn right then, and that was whether or not Fal Sivas would permit me to leave his house on any pretext.
“You could learn nothing,” he said; “their meetings are secret. Even if you could gain admission, which is doubtful, you would be killed before you could get out again.”
“Perhaps not,” I said; “it is worth trying, anyway. Do you know where they hold their meetings?”
“Yes, but if you want to try that, I will have Rapas guide you to the building.”
“If I am to go, I do not want Rapas to know anything about it,” I said.
“Why?” he demanded.
“Because I do not trust him,” I replied. “I would not trust anyone with knowledge of my plans.”
“You are quite right. When you are ready to go, I can give you directions so that you can find their meeting place.”
“I will go tomorrow,” I said, “after dark.”
He nodded his approval. He was standing where he could look directly into the bedroom where the girt was hidden. “Have you plenty of sleeping silks and furs?” he asked.
“Plenty,” I replied, “but I will bring my own tomorrow.”
“That will not be necessary. I will furnish you all that you require.” He still stood staring into that other room. I wondered if he suspected the truth, or if the girl had moved or her breathing were noticeable under the pile of materials beneath which she was hidden.
I did not dare to turn and look for myself for fear of arousing his suspicions further. I just sat there waiting, my hands close to the hilt of my short sword.
Perhaps the girl was near discovery; but, if so, Fal Sivas was also near death that moment.
At last he turned toward the outer doorway. “I will give you directions tomorrow for reaching the headquarters of the gorthans, and also tomorrow I will send you a slave. Do you wish a man or a woman?”
I preferred a man, but I thought that I detected here a possible opportunity for protecting the girl. “A woman,” I said.
He smiled. “And a pretty one, eh?”
“I should like to select her myself, if I may.”
“As you wish,” he replied. “I shall let you look them over tomorrow. May you sleep well.”
He left the room and closed the door behind him; but I knew that he stood outside for a long time, listening.
I picked I up the book once more and commenced to read it; but not a word registered on my consciousness, for all my faculties were centered on listening.
After what seemed a long time, I heard him move away; and shortly after I distinctly heard a door close on the level above me. Not until then did I move, but now I arose and went to the door. It was equipped with a heavy bar on the inside, and this I slid silently into its keeper.
Crossing the room, I entered the chamber where the girl lay and threw back the covers that concealed her. She had not moved. As she looked up at me, I placed a finger across my lips.
“You heard?” I asked in a low whisper.
“Tomorrow I will select you as my slave. Perhaps later I shall find a way to liberate you.”
“You are kind,” she said.
I reached down and took her by the hand. “Come,” I said, “into the other room. You can sleep there safely tonight, and in the morning we will plan how we may carry out the rest of our scheme.”
“I think that will not be difficult,” she said. “Early in the morning everyone but Fal Sivas goes to a large dining room on this level. Many of them will pass along this corridor. I can slip out, unseen, and join them. At breakfast you will have an opportunity of seeing all the slaves. Then you may select me if you still wish to do so.”
There were sleeping silks and furs in the room that I had assigned to her, and I knew that she would be comfortable; so I left her, and returning to my own room completed my preparations for the night that had been so strangely interrupted.
Early the next morning Zanda awoke me. “It will soon be time for them to go to breakfast,” she said. “You must go before I do, leaving the door open. Then when there is no one in the corridor, I will slip out.”
As I left my quarters, I saw two or three people moving along the corridor in the direction that Zanda had told me the dining room lay; and so I followed them, finally entering a large room in which there was a table that would seat about twenty. It was already over half filled. Most of the slaves were women—young women, and many of them were beautiful.
With the exception of two men, one sitting at either end of the table, all the occupants of the room were without weapons.
The man sitting at the head of the table was the same who had admitted Rapas and me the evening before. I learned later that his name was Hamas, and that he was the majordomo of the establishment.
The other armed man was Phystal. He was in charge of the slaves in the establishment. He also, as I was to learn later, attended to the procuring of many of them, usually by bribery or abduction.
As I entered the room, Hamas discovered me and motioned me to come to him. “You will sit here, next to me, Vandor,” he said.
I could not but note the difference in his manner from the night before, when he had seemed more or less an obsequious slave. I gathered that he played two roles for purposes known best to himself or his master. In his present role, he was obviously a person of importance.
“You slept well?” he asked.
“Quite,” I replied; “the house seems very quiet and peaceful at night.”
He grunted. “If you should hear any unusual sounds at night,” he said, “you will not investigate, unless the master or I call you.” And then, as though he felt that that needed some explanation, he added, “Fal Sivas sometimes works upon his experiments late at night. You must not disturb him no matter what you may hear.”
Some more slaves were entering the room now, and just behind them came Zanda. I glanced at Hamas and saw his eyes narrow as they alighted upon her.
“Here she is now, Phystal,” he said.
The man at the far end of the table turned in his seat and looked at the girl approaching from behind him. He was scowling angrily.
“Where were you last night, Zanda?” he demanded, as the girl approached the table.
“I was frightened, and I hid,” she replied.
“Where did you hide?” demanded Phystal.
“Ask Hamas,” she replied.
Phystal glanced at Hamas. “How should I know where you were?” demanded the latter.
Zanda elevated her arched brows. “Oh, I am sorry,” she exclaimed; “I did not know that you cared who knew.”
Hamas scowled angrily. “What do you mean by that?” he demanded; “what are you driving at?”
“Oh,” she said, “I wouldn’t have said anything about it at all but I thought, of course, that Fal Sivas knew.”
Phystal was eyeing Hamas suspiciously. All the slaves were looking at him, and you could almost read their thoughts in the expressions on their faces.
Hamas was furious, Phystal suspicious; and all the time the girl stood there with the most innocent and angelic expression on her face.
“What do you mean by saying such a thing?” shouted Hamas.
“What did I say?” she asked, innocently.
“You said—you said—”
“I just said, ‘ask Hamas.’ Is there anything wrong in that?”
“But what do I know about it?” demanded the majordomo.
Zanda shrugged her slim shoulders. “I am afraid to say anything more. I do not want to get you in trouble.”
“Perhaps the less said about it, the better,” said Phystal.
Hamas started to speak, but evidently thought better of it. He glowered at Zanda for a moment and then fell to eating his breakfast.
Just before the meal was over, I told Hamas that Fal Sivas had instructed me to select a slave.
“Yes, he told me,” replied the major-domo. “See Phystal about it; he is in charge of the slaves.”
“But does he know that Fal Sivas gave me permission to select anyone that I chose?”
“I will tell him.”
A moment later he finished his breakfast; and as he was leaving the dining room, he paused and spoke to Phystal.
Seeing that Phystal also was about ready to leave the table, I went to him and told him that I would like to select a slave.
“Which one do you want?” he asked.
I glanced around the table, apparently examining each of the slaves carefully until at last my eyes rested upon Zanda.
“I will take this one,” I said.
Phystal’s brows contracted, and he hesitated.
“Fal Sivas said that I might select whomever I wished,” I reminded him.
“But why do you want this one?” he demanded.
“She seems intelligent, and she is good-looking,” I replied. “She will do as well as another until I am better acquainted here.” And so it was that Zanda was appointed to serve me. Her duties would consist of keeping my apartments clean, running errands for me, cleaning my harness, shining my metal, sharpening my swords and daggers, and otherwise making herself useful.
I would much rather have had a man slave, but events had so ordered themselves that I had been forced into the role of the girl’s protector, and this seemed the only plan by which I could accomplish anything along that line; but whether or not Fal Sivas would permit me to keep her, I did not know. That was a contingency which remained for future solution when, and if, it eventuated.
I took Zanda back to my quarters; and while she was busying herself with her duties there, I received a call summoning me to Fal Sivas.
A slave led me to the same room in which Fal Sivas had received Rapas and me the night before, and as I entered the old inventor greeted me with a nod. I expected him to immediately question me concerning Zanda, for both Hamas and Phystal were with him; and I had no doubt but that they had reported all that had occurred at the breakfast table.
However, I was agreeably disappointed, for he did not mention the incident at all, but merely gave me instructions as to my duties.
I was to remain on duty in the corridor outside his door and accompany him when he left the room. I was to permit no one to enter the room, other than Hamas or Phystal, without obtaining permission from Fal Sivas. When he left the room, I was to accompany him. Under no circumstances was I ever to go to the level above, except with his permission or by his express command. He was very insistent in impressing this point upon my mind; and though I am not overly curious, I must admit that now that I had been forbidden to go to any of the levels above, I wanted to do so.
“When you have been in my service longer and I know you better,” explained Fal Sivas, “I hope to be able to trust you; but for the present you are on probation.”
That was the longest day I have ever spent, just standing around outside that door, doing nothing; but at last it drew to a close, and when I had the opportunity, I reminded Fal Sivas that he had promised to direct me to Ur Jan’s headquarters, so that I might try to gain entrance to them that night.
He gave me very accurate directions to a building in another quarter of the city.
“You are free to start whenever you wish,” he said, in conclusion; “I have given Hamas instructions that you may come and go as you please. He will furnish you with a pass signal whereby you may gain admission to the house. I wish you luck,” he said, “but I think that the best you will get will be a sword through your heart. You are pitting yourself against the fiercest and most unscrupulous gang of men in Zodanga.”
“It is a chance that I shall have to take,” I said. “Good night.”
I went to my quarters and told Zanda to lock herself in after I had left and to open the door only in answer to a certain signal which I imparted to her. She was only too glad to obey my injunction.
When I was ready to leave the building, Hamas conducted me to the outer doorway.
Here he showed me a hidden button set in the masonry and explained to me how I might use it to announce my return.
I had gone but a short distance from the house of Fal Sivas when I met Rapas the Ulsio. He seemed to have forgotten his anger toward me, or else he was dissimulating, for he greeted me cordially.
“Where to?” he asked.
“Off for the evening,” I replied.
“Where are you going, and what are you going to do?”
“I am going to the public house to get my things together and store them, and then I shall look around for a little entertainment.”
“Suppose we get together later in the evening,” he suggested.
“All right,” I replied; “when and where?”
“I will be through with my business about half after the eighth zode. Suppose we meet at the eating-place I took you to yesterday.”
“All right,” I said, “but do not wait long for me. I may get tired of looking for pleasure and return to my quarters long before that.”
After leaving Rapas, I went to the public house where I had left my things; and gathering them up I took them to the hangar on the roof and stored them in my flier. This done, I returned to the street and made my way toward the address that Fal Sivas had given me.
The way led me through a brilliantly lighted shopping district and into a gloomy section of the old town. It was a residential district, but of the meaner sort.
Some of the houses still rested upon the ground, but most of them were elevated on their steel shafts twenty or thirty feet above the pavement.
I heard laughter and song and occasional brawling—the sounds of the night life of a great Martian city, and then I passed on into another and seemingly deserted quarter.
I was approaching the headquarters of the assassins. I kept in the shadows of the buildings, and I avoided the few people that were upon the avenue by slipping into doorways and alleys. I did not wish anyone to see me here who might be able afterward to recognize or identify me. I was playing a game with Death, and I must give him no advantage.
When finally I reached the building for which I was seeking, I found a doorway on the opposite side of the avenue from which I could observe my goal without being seen.
The farther moon cast a faint light upon the face of the building but revealed to me nothing of importance.
At first, I could discern no lights in the building; but after closer observation I saw a dim reflection behind the windows of the upper floor. There, doubtless, was the meeting-place of the assassins; but how was I to reach it?
That the doors to the building would be securely locked and every approach to the meeting-place well guarded, seemed a foregone conclusion.
There were balconies before the windows at several levels, and I noticed particularly that there were three of these in front of windows on the upper story. These balconies offered me a means of ingress to the upper floor if I could but reach them.
The great strength and agility which the lesser gravitation of Mars imparts to my earthly muscles might have sufficed to permit me to climb the exterior of the building, except for the fact that this particular building seemed to offer no foothold up to the fifth story, above which its carved ornamentation commenced.
Mentally debating every possibility, by a process of elimination, I was forced to the conclusion that my best approach would be by way of the roof.
However, I determined to investigate the possibilities of the main entrance on the ground floor; and was about to cross the avenue for that purpose when I saw two men approaching. Stepping back into the shadows of my hiding-place, I waited for them to pass; but instead of doing so they stopped before the entrance to the building I was watching. They were there but a moment when I saw the door open and the men admitted. This incident convinced me that someone was on guard at the main entrance to the building, and that it would be futile for me to attempt to enter there.
There now remained to me only the roof as a means of entrance to the building, and I quickly decided upon a plan to accomplish my design.
Leaving my hiding-place, I quickly retraced my steps to the public house in which I had been lodging, and went immediately to the hangar on the roof.
The place was deserted, and I was soon at the controls of my flier. I had now to run the chance of being stopped by a patrol boat, but this was a more or less remote contingency; as, except in cases of public emergency, little attention is paid to private fliers within the walls of the city.
However, to be on the safe side, I flew low, following dark avenues below the level of the roof tops; and in a short time I reached the vicinity of the building that was my goal.
Here I rose above the level of the roofs and, having located the building, settled gently to its roof.
The building had not been intended for this purpose, and there was neither hangar nor mooring rings; but there are seldom high winds on Mars, and this was a particularly quiet and windless night.
Leaving the deck of the flier, I searched the roof for some means of ingress to the building. I found a single small scuttle, but it was strongly secured from within, and I could not budge it—at least without making far too much noise.
Going to the edge of the building, overlooking the avenue, I looked down upon one of the balconies directly below me. I could have lowered myself from the eaves and, hanging by my hands, dropped directly onto it; but here again I faced the danger of attracting attention by the noise that I must make in alighting.
I examined the face of the building just below me and discovered that, in common with most Martian buildings, the carved ornamentation offered handholds and footholds sufficient to my need.
Slipping quietly over the eaves, I felt around with my toes until I found a projection that would support me. Then, releasing one hand, I felt for a new hold; and so, very slowly and carefully, I descended to the balcony.
I had selected the place of my descent so that I was opposite an unlighted window. For a moment I stood there listening. Somewhere within the interior of the building I heard subdued voices. Then I threw a leg over the sill and entered the darkness of the apartment beyond.
Slowly I groped my way to a wall and then followed along it until I came to a door at the end of the room opposite the window. Stealthily I felt for the latch and lifted it. I pulled gently; the door was not locked; it swung in toward me without noise.
Beyond the door was a corridor. It was very faintly illuminated, as though by reflected light from an open doorway or from another corridor. Now the sound of voices was more distinct. Silently I crept in the direction from which they came.
Presently I came to another corridor running at right angles to the one I was following. The light was stronger here, and I saw that it came from an open doorway farther along the corridor which I was about to enter. I was sure, however, that the voices did not come from this room that I could see, as they would have been far more clear and distinct had they.
My position was a precarious one. I knew nothing at all about the interior arrangements of the building. I did not know along which corridor its inmates came and went. If I were to approach the open doorway, I might place myself in a position where discovery would be certain.
I knew that I was dealing with killers, expert swordsmen all; and I did not try to deceive myself into believing that I would be any match for a dozen or more of them.
However, men who live by the sword are not unaccustomed to taking chances, sometimes far more desperate chances than their mission may seem to warrant.
Perhaps such was the case now, but I had come to Zodanga to learn what I could about the guild of assassins headed by the notorious Ur Jan; and now that fortune had placed me in a position where I might gain a great deal of useful information, I had no thought of retreating because a little danger confronted me.
Stealthily I crept forward, and at last I reached the door. Very cautiously I surveyed the interior of the room beyond, as I moved, inch by inch, across the doorway.
It was a small room, evidently an anteroom; and it was untenanted. There was some furniture in it—a table, some benches; and I noticed particularly an old-fashioned cupboard that stood diagonally across one corner of the room, one of its sides about a foot from the wall.
From where I stood in the doorway, I could now hear the voices quite distinctly; and I was confident that the men I sought were in the adjoining room just beyond.
I crept into the anteroom and approached the door at the opposite end. Just to the left of the door was the cupboard that I have mentioned.
I placed my car close to the panels of the door in an effort to overhear what was being said in the room beyond, but the words came to me indistinct and muffled. This would never do. I could neither see nor hear anything under these conditions.
I decided that I must find some other point of approach and was turning to leave the room when I beard footsteps approaching along the corridor. I was trapped!