AS he stood, sword in hand, before his scar-faced opponent, Thorne was hooted by the multitude. A few who had heard of his supposed cowardice in his duel with Sel Han, quickly spread the word.
“Don’t puncture him too quickly, Sur Det,” called one.
“Slice him neatly,” shouted another. “Let us see how good a meat-cutter you are.”
They saluted. Then Sur Det, instead of engaging Thorne’s extended blade as was the custom, avoided it and attacked with a swift lunge. The Earthman was barely able to save his life by side-stepping the point.
But Sur Det had left himself completely uncovered. Thorne now had but to extend his point, and the duel would be over. He started the lunge, but instead of sending the blade home, with a deft motion of his wrist cut the Martian symbol for the digraph “sh,” a perpendicular line with a short hook to the right at the bottom.
A murmur of surprise went up from the crowd at this, for they knew he had his enemy at his mercy. Both men recovered. After a bewildering swirl of blades Thorne found a second opening, and instead of piercing the heart of his antagonist, slashed two horizontal lines beside the first character, the Martian symbol for “e.”
“He’s writing his name on the killer!” cried a spectator.
“Write him a love letter!” yelled another.
“Draw us a picture!” howled a third.
When Thorne marked his chest for the second time without inflicting death, Sur Det began to realize that this strange young swordsman from Takkor, whom he had expected to slay so easily, was only playing with him. With that realization, he went berserk with fear.
Thorne met the attack that followed, merely parrying and sidestepping until he felt his opponent’s wrist begin to weaken. Then with a graceful, easy lunge, he carved the last symbol of his Martian name on that barrel chest, the “b.”
At this, the crowd roared its applause, but Thorne had not yet finished; he suddenly beat down his opponent’s blade with a sharp blow close to the guard—then caught it, bound it with his own blade, and with a sudden twirling wrench, sent it flashing away over the heads of the spectators. For a moment the bewildered killer stood looking in blank amazement. Then, with a shriek of terror, he turned and fled. Thorne followed closely at his heels, spanking him loudly—with the flat of his sword until the creature fell down and begged for mercy.
“Puncture the boastful bladder and let out the wind,” a spectator shouted.
“Carve your name on his craven heart,” cried another. Satisfied that the killer had been sufficiently humbled, Thorne returned to where the young officer stood, and saluted. “I am obliged to you for this diversion,” he said, tendering the sword.
“The obligation is entirely ours,” replied the officer, taking the weapon. “I have never seen such marvelous sword-work, or, I am convinced, has any one in all Xancibar. And now, to the victor goes the reward. Ho, orderly!”
At this a man came up, bearing a steaming jar of pulcho, a cup and a great platter heaped with cakes.
“What’s this?” asked Thorne.
“The prize,” smiled the officer, taking the jar from the orderly and filling a cup which he handed to the Earthman. “I regret that so distinguished a swordsman and so gallant a gentleman may not be more suitably rewarded. But this, after all is a prison.”
“To your long life,” said Thorne, draining his cup. Then he turned to the orderly. “Distribute the cakes and the rest of the pulcho to the ten who were not served, including my defeated opponent.”
At this added evidence of the generosity of their new champion, the multitude shouted its approbation. More than a half hour elapsed before Thorne was able to get away from his numberous admirers and sit alone once more with Yirl Du.
“That was a marvelous fight, my lord,” said the Jen. “It will surely remove the stigma attached to your name by that unfortunate incident at the military school. The great pity of it is that it comes at a time when death by order of the Kamud is almost certain to be your lot.”
“It will be certain enough if Sel Han has his way.”
“We have many good reasons to kill that flat-nosed traitor,” replied Yirl Du, “and there are two which I have not related to you. One is, that among the men who attacked us in the air I recognized one of his henchmen. So it was he who sent those assassins to slay us.”
“What is the other?” asked Thorne.
“I have hesitated to tell you that one, as I would not give you needless pain on what may well be your last day of life. Know, then, that Sheb Takkor the elder was murdered. I was making my last round of the castle before retiring, to see if all was well, when I noticed him seated before the fireplace in his great swinging chair, hunched over in a most unnatural position. I called to him, but he made no response. I ran to his side, and saw that he was dead. A dagger had been driven into his back up to the hilt.”
“And you think it was Sel Han who struck the blow?”
“More likely one of his hired assassins. He, and no one else, had much to gain by the death of our beloved Rad. And he alone profited by it.”
“Perhaps there was an enemy with a grudge.”
“That is not likely. The Rad never left Takkor except to hunt in the marshes or the desert, or to secretly do what he could for our deposed sovereign and his daughter. So he had no opportnity to make enemies in other than his own raddek. And I’ll swear that there was not a man, woman or child among his people who did not love and revere him. Moreover, the dagger was of foreign make and delicate workmanship, not the plain sturdy kind our Takkor folk are wont to carry. I hid it in the castle, hoping that it might some day afford us proof of the identity of the assassin.”
At this juncture two guards with drawn swords in their hands stopped before Thorne.
“Are you he who calls himself Sheb Takkor?” asked one.
“I am,” Thorne replied.
“The Dixtar has sent for you. Come with us.” Thorne stood up, but as he did so Yirl Du flung himself between the Earthman and the guards. “Wait! Don’t take him! Take me! I am Sheb Takkor!”
One of the guards laughed contemptuously. “Out of the way, O great oaf, ere I cut you down. My comrade and I sat on the wall and saw this man defeat Sur Det, the killer. Do you think you could pass for him? Moreover, have we not eyes to read the numbers on your collars?”
Yirl Du turned to Thorne. “I fear it is the end, my lord,” he groaned. He saluted. “Farewell, my lord. Deza grant you life, yet if that be not His will, a brave death.”
Thorne returned the salute. “Farewell, my friend,” he answered.
The Earthman was led through a gate into what was obviously one of the streets of a large city. It was paved with a tough, resilient material of a reddish-brown color, and was thronged with people and strange vehicles of many descriptions. There was one thing, however, which the vehicles all had in common. They did not travel on wheels, but ran about on multiple sets of jointed metal legs shod with balls of the resilient reddish-brown substance. The smallest of these odd vehicles had only two pairs of legs, but some of the larger ones had so many that they reminded him of gigantic caterpillars, moving smoothly and swiftly along the thoroughfare.
In a moment an open vehicle with twelve pairs of legs drew up before the gate and stopped. There were three saddle-shaped seats with high backs, one in front and two side by side in the rear. A canopy overhead shaded the passengers. The front seat was occupied by a driver in military uniform. In one of the rear seats sat the Jen of the Prison Guards.
“The Dixtar has commanded that I bring you before him,” he said. “Give me your word that you will not attempt to escape while in the custody of Kov Lutas, and I will spare you the ignominy of chains.”
The Earthman thought for a moment. If he gave his word, once out of the custody of Kov Lutas, he could, with honor, make the attempt.
“I give my word that I will not try to escape while in your custody.”
The Jen ordered the guards to remove Thorne’s prison collar, and when this was done, dismissed them with a wave of his hand. “Get in,” he invited.
Thorne climbed into the vacant saddle. The driver, who sat holding two levers that projected up through the floor at either side of his saddle, now slowly moved these forward. At this, the vehicle started silently and was soon moving through the traffic at a considerable speed.
Thorne saw that when the driver wished to turn to the right he advanced the left lever and drew back the right, and he reversed the process to turn to the left. To increase the speed, he pushed both levers forward, and to decrease it drew them backward. When they were drawn back to a certain point, the vehicle came to a full stop.
Having satisfied his curiosity regarding the vehicle, Thorne turned his attention to the strange sights about him.
Noting the Earthman’s interest in his surroundings, Kov Lutas said: “Apparently this is your first visit to Dukor. Perhaps you would like to have me explain some of the sights of the city.”
“I should be grateful,” Thorne replied.
“Dukor is divided into four equal quarters by the intersecting triple canals, Zeelan and Corvid. We are now in the northwest quarter of the city, and about to cross the Zeelan Canal into the northeast quarter, where the palace which formerly belonged to the Vil, but is now occupied by the Dixtar, is located.”
“It must be a tremendous city.”
“There are approximately five million people residing in each quarter,” replied Kov Lutas, “or twenty million in all. Also, we have each day about ten million transients who come on commercial or state business, or simply to visit and to see the sights. Dukor is a fair-sized city as cities go. Of course it does not seem large in comparison with Raliad, capital city of Kalsivar, which commands the intersections of four great triple canals, for Raliad is said to have a population of a hundred million.”
While he was speaking they came to the approach of a tremendous arched bridge, so long they could not see the farther end of it. In a moment they were out upon it, and Thorne was looking down upon the surface of the first of the three canals which collectively bore the name of Zeelan because they occupied the same huge trench. This canal swarmed with craft of many sizes and shapes, a large number of which were discharging freight into the dock warehouses which lined its banks.
The huge central canal at the bottom of the great trench, which caught the drainage from the two upper irrigating canals, was lined with bathers of all ages who wore no clothing whatever.
The canal passed, they entered a section of the city quite similar to the one they had just left. After a drive of about half an hour in this section, they drew up before an immense and magnificent edifice.
“The Palace,” said Kov Lutas. “From this point we walk.”
After getting down from the vehicle, they mounted a broad flight of steps which led to the vast and ornate portico. Here they were halted and questioned by guards, who readily admitted them when shown the order of the Dixtar which Kov Lutas carried. Then, after crossing an immense busy foyer and traversing a long hallway, they came before a large circular doorway, closed by two purple curtains in which was embroidered with gold thread, the coat of arms of the Dixtar of Xancibar. Here an officer examined the order carried by Kov Lutas.
“The Dixtar is expecting you,” he said. Then he beckoned to one of the guards. “Announce Kov Lutas, Jen of the Guards of Prison Number 67,” he said, “and a prisoner.”