WHEN the curtain was drawn aside, Thorne followed Kov Lutas through the doorway, and found himself in the presence of Irintz Tel.
The Dixtar, his hands clasped behind him, was pacing to and fro on a plush-padded dais that fronted a luxuriously cushioned throne, which hung on four heavy golden chains depending from the ceiling. He was a small man, sparely built and quite bald. Thin-lipped, sharp-nosed and beady-eyed, his face bore the unmistakable stamp of the zealot and reformer.
Irintz Tel paced up and down for some time without taking the slightest notice of Kov Lutas and his prisoner.
After a lapse of some minutes, Irintz Tel paused midway in his pacing and, swinging on his heel, faced Kov Lutas.
“Well?” he demanded, in a high-pitched, squeaky voice.
Kov Lutas raised both hands in salute, holding them before his face. “I shield my eyes in the glory of your presence, O mighty Dixtar of Xancibar and Commander of the Kamud.”
Thorne was astounded, for he had been told that under the Kamud all salutations of this sort had been abolished.
The Earthman suddenly noticed that Irintz Tel was looking sharply at him, evidently expecting him to follow the example of the Jen; but he kept his hands down.
“Who is this ill-mannered lout you have brought into our presence, Kov Lutas?” demanded the Dixtar.
“He is Sheb Takkor, whom I bring in accordance with the Dixtar’s command,” replied Kov Lutas.
“His manners are execrable,” said Irintz Tel, “but they can be mended, and we hear that he is a good swordsman. It may be that we will find employment for him. We are both blessed and cursed with a beautiful daughter, as you are no doubt aware.”
“I have heard of the great beauty of your excellency’s daughter,” replied Kov Lutas, cautiously.
“It is a fatal beauty that corrupts our most loyal followers and makes traitors of our stanchest patriots. And today we are constrained to part with two more of our best swordsmen. They were her guardsmen, but they chose to let their hearts rule their heads. For such a malady, where our daughter is concerned, we have a most effective form of surgery.”
“What is that, excellency?”
“In order that the heart may no longer rule the head, we separate them. A bit drastic, we will admit, but it never fails to cure. We sent for you and this prisoner because we must replace the two excellent swordsmen. Our daughter, as you know, must be well guarded.”
“We will first take the case of the prisoner, here. Word came to us today of his defeat of Sur Det, the killer, so we decided to personally examine into the charges against him. He is accused, we find, of impersonating the dead Rad of Takkor, of wearing a sword of the Ma Gongi, and of slaying a soldier of the Kamud, and as evidence there have come to us this Takkor family medal,” lifting it from a small taboret beside the throne, “and this sword which he was alleged to have been wearing when captured. What say you to these charges, prisoner?”
“I could not impersonate the Rad of Takkor without impersonating myself,” replied Thorne. “I was reported dead because my crippled gawr fell with me after I was attacked. But we fell into a small lake. After freeing myself from the safety chains and the weight of my weapons, I swam ashore. There I was attacked by a party of Ma Gongi, and after wrestng the sword from one of them, beat off the others.”
“We can well believe that. But why did you slay one of our soldiers?”
“Because he attacked me on my own doorstep. In answer to that charge I plead self-defense.”
The Dixtar paced the dais for some time, chin on chest. Then he suddenly turned and looked at Thorne.
“We hereby declare you innocent and discharged of all liability on all three counts,” he said brusquely.
“And as a recompense for the indignities which you have suffered, we raise you to the rank of Jen and appoint you night guard to our daughter Neva.”
He turned to the Jen of the Prison Guards. “You also, my worthy Kov Lutas, we have decided to honor. You, henceforth, will guard our daughter by day.”
The face of Kov Lutas went as suddenly pale as if a sentence of death had been passed on him.
Despite Kov Lutas’s dismay, he managed to retain control of his features. “I am deeply grateful that our Dixtar has chosen to distinguish me by this honor.”
Irintz Tel beckoned Thorne to him and handed him the medal. “Take back this badge of your ancient race and wear it with honor. We regret that we cannot return your title as well, but under the present social order there are no more rads. Nor can we make you our deputy, for upon hearing of your supposed death we immediately dispatched Sel Han to Takkor to represent us, as he knows our wishes and is high in our councils.”
“The Dixtar is most generous,” murmured Thorne. Irintz Tel now called to the officer at the door. “Ho, Dir Hazef, conduct these two to the officers’ quarters and see that they are suitably arrayed as palace Jens. On the way you will permit them to witness the fate which overtakes those who are unfaithful to their trust, and show them the Hall of Heads. Let a sword and dagger decked with the Takkor serpent be brought from the armory for the one who is weaponless, as he is entitled to carry them.”
The two men saluted, and Dir Hazef conducted them to a small balcony which overlooked one of the inner courts. In the center of the court stood an officer. Dir Hazef signaled to him, and he, in turn, signaled to some one in a nearby doorway. A moment later there emerged two soldiers, driving before them two young officers with their hands bound behind them. Following the soldiers came a tall fellow bearing a long, straight-bladed sword and accompanied by a boy who carried a basket.
The two prisoners were forced to kneel in the center of the courtyard. Then the tall man stepped behind them. Once, twice, his long blade flashed in the sunlight, and with each blow a head rolled to the pavement, to be garnered by the boy with the basket.
“Those two,” said Dir Hazef, “were the guards of Neva, daughter of the Dixtar. They had the good taste but the bad judgment to fall in love with her and contend for her favors.” He turned, and walking to a door behind them, opened it. “Enter.”
Thorne stepped through the doorway, followed by Kov Lutas and their conductor.
“This,” said Dir Hazef, “is the Hall of Heads, a monument to the Dixtar’s justice and a warning to those who would betray him.”
They were in a long, narrow room, lined wth shelves on both sides clear to the high ceiling. On the shelves stood row after row of crystal jars. Each jar was filled with clear liquid, and in the liquid floated a severed human head. There were thousands of heads of young men and old; even heads of women and children.
Thorne tore his eyes away from the exhibit with a shudder, and turning, saw that Kov Lutas had already preceded him through the doorway.
After locking the door and leading them down another corridor, Dir Hazef conducted them through a room where a number of officers sat in swinging chairs, sipping pulcho and conversing, or playing gapun, a game which consisted of rolling little engraved pellets of gold or silver at numbered holes in a board, the highest number winning all the pellets risked. Although he had never before seen Martian money, Thorne recognized at once that these pellets must be the medium of exchange.
A number of apartments opened into this officers’ club room, and into one of these Dir Hazef led them. “I’ll leave you here to bathe and change. Vorz, your orderly, will bring your new uniforms and weapons. You, Kov Lutas, are to go on duty at once, and Sheb Takkor will relieve you at the time of the evening meal.”
The apartment was plainly but comfortably furnished with a swinging bed and a swinging chair for each man, a wardrobe and an arms rack. In one corner was a metal box about eight feet in height, one side of which stood open. It was lined throughout with a gray metal resembling block tin, and this lining was perforated with many holes. Beside it was rack on which hung a number of wisps of what looked like dry moss.
As soon as Dir Hazef was gone, Kov Lutas began removing his clothing and weapons. “I’ll bathe now, if you don’t mind,” he said, “as I must go on duty first.”
“Of course,” replied Thorne. He was puzzled as he saw no sign of a tub or bathroom.
His curiosity was soon satisfied. Kov Lutas stepped into the square metal box in the corner and drew the side shut. Immediately there was the sound of rushing water, accompanied by much gurgling, blowing and gasping. A few moments later the side swung open, and the officer emerged, dripping and rubbing the water from his eyes. Then he reached for a bunch of the moss-like material and began briskly rubbing himself.
Thorne, who had meanwhile removed his clothing, now entered the box and drew the side shut. As he moved about, he accidentally trod on a round plate in the center of the metal floor. Instantly he was surrounded by a swirl of warm, scented water which came up to his chin. The water soon receded as suddenly as it had risen, and several jets opened overhead, deluging him with a fragrant creamy lather.
After about a minute of this there was a click as of some automatic mechanism, the jets ceased to spray, and the swirling water rose once more. While it rinsed off the lather this gradually grew cooler until it reached an almost icy temperature. Another click, and it drained away automatically. He opened the side, sputtering and gasping, and blindly reached for a bundle of drying material. As soon as he had the water out of his eyes he saw that an orderly had arrived with the new uniforms, and was helping Kov Lutas into his.
Thorne rubbed himself until his skin glowed warmly. Vorz, the orderly, then assisted him to don his new uniform and buckle on his weapons. His new sword and dagger hilts were fashioned like those he had found himself wearing on his first advent on Mars, but were of gold powdered with jewels instead of plain brasstemperatur the eyes of the serpents were large rubies.
The orderly, after bustling in with a three-legged stand on which were a pot of pulcho and two cups, hurried out. Kov Lutas filled the cups, and handing one to Thorne raised the other. “May we die like brave soldiers.”
Thorne joined him. “It is a strange toast. Why do you speak of death?”
“Because it is so near. To be appointed as guards to the Dixtar’s daughter is equivalent to a death sentence.”
“I don’t see why,” Thorne replied. “Certainly—every man who guards her isn’t going to be so foolish as to lose his head over her.”
“To lose his ‘head’ is indeed an apt expression. More than a hundred have already lost their heads, even as those two we saw this afternoon. Neva is said to be a heartless flirt, bent on conquest. Her father wants her to marry Sel Han, but she will not have him. And it is said that she flirts with every eligible male who crosses her path, just to spite them both. She is reputed to be irresistible, and her guards, of course, can’t run away from her. Nor dare they affect to despise her advances, for her anger is fully as terrible as that of her father.”
At this juncture an officer entered and saluted. “Which of you is Kov Lutas?”
“I am,” replied the young Jen, returning his salute.
“If you are ready you will come with me to relieve the temporary guard of the Dixtar’s daughter.”
“I am ready,” Kov Lutas told him. “Let us go.”
They went out, and Thorne, after pouring himself another cup of pulcho, sat down to reflect on the situation. But he had scarcely settled in his swinging chair when Vorz came to the door and announced, “Salute the Deputy Dixtar.”
Thorne sprang to his feet and raised his hand smartly in salute. Then he let it fall to his side as he recognized Sel Han.
“Greetings, Sheb Takkor Jen,” said the Deputy Dixtar with a grin. “You seem surprised at seeing me.”
“And to you, greetings, Sel Han,” replied Thorne coolly. “To what do I owe the—er—honor of this unexpected call?”
Without replying, Sel Han walked to the taboret and helped himself to a cup of pulcho. Then he seated himself in Kov Lutas’s chair. For a time, he sat there in silence, then spoke suddenly in English. “Shut the door.”
Thorne closed the door and returned to his chair.
Sel Han nodded. “I thought so. Understands English.”
“Perhaps when you have finished talking to yourself, you will explain your business,” Thorne said.
“Don’t get stuffy with me. I can put you on the spot, or I can make things good for you. I came to make you a proposition. What do you say, Harry Thorne?”
“I say you’re wasting your time, Frank Boyd.”
“Ah—I figured you knew. Well, I heard about your run-in with Sur Det. Pretty handy with a sword, aren’t you? There wasn’t another man in this country who could have made a monkey out of Sur Det the way you did.
“He was my teacher when I came here. I saw I needed to be handy with a sword, so I picked the best teacher I could find. Since I’m younger, faster, and have a longer reach, I got so I could beat him. Then I went and started to cut my way to the top. And I’m pretty close to it now.”
“Did you come to entertain me with this modest little sketch?”
“No, I came to get a line on you—and give you a break if you’re willing to play ball. I can cut you in on something big.”
“Such as what?”
“I’d be talking out of turn if I told you. First, you do what you want to do, then I’ll make things right for you.”
“I don’t think we can talk business, Mr. Boyd.”
“Don’t be an idiot. Get this—you’re taking orders, I’m giving them. Now this girl Neva is supposed to marry me, but she doesn’t see it yet. Right now, just to spite her father and me, she’s flirting with every man she meets. She’ll probably make a pass at you. If you don’t play, she’ll send you to the lines—if you do, her father will have your head. You’re on the spot unless you listen to me.
“What bums me now is that she won’t even talk to me—calls the guard and has me thrown out every time I drop in to see her. Now here’s all I want you to do. I’m going to drop in to see her tonight before I fly to Takkor. She’ll probably want you to throw me out. If she does, tell her you can’t in honor lay a hand on me, because I won that duel from you at the military school. That will let you out.”
At this moment the door opened and an orderly entered with Thorne’s evening meal. As he arranged the dishes on the taboret he noticed Sel Han. “May I get the Deputy Dixtar something to eat?” he asked.
“No, I’m dining with the Dixtar,” replied Sel Han, rising. He swung on Thorne. “Don’t forget I’m not asking you, I’m telling you—and you’d better come through.”
Without replying or looking up, Thorne drew his jeweled dagger and turned his attention to the food on the taboret which the orderly had set before him. A moment later he heard Sel Han leave the room. Soon after he finished his meal, an officer came in and saluted.
“It is time for you to relieve Kov Lutas in the apartments of the Dixtar’s daughter,” he said.