WHEN Thorne, escorted by the palace officer, reached the apartments of Neva, the sun had set, and the luxuriously furnished rooms were lighted by the soft amber radiance of the half-hooded baridium globes which hung from the ceiling on golden chains. The size and magnificence of the suite reserved for the daughter of this apostle of simplicity who would make all citizens equal, was astounding.
The chamber in which he found himself opened onto a broad terrace which led to a private garden, separated from the rest of the palace grounds by a high wall. Kov Lutas, standing in the circular doorway, smiled at their approach.
“Greetings, Sheb Takkor,” he said, after exchanging salutes with the two officers. “She whom we guard is resting on the terrace. The orders are to stay always within sight and call, and when she sleeps to stand guard just outside her chamber door.”
Thorne took up Kov Lutas’s position in the doorway. “I’ll try to carry out orders. A good dinner and a sound rest to you.”
“And to you a pleasant vigil,” replied Kov Lutas.
Not until both officers had gone out did Thorne steal a glance at the girl he was to guard. He was unable to suppress a gasp.
Her eyes, languorous beneath the fringed curtains of their sleepy lids, were liquid pools of lapis lazuli. Her small nose was a most exquisitely chiseled bit of sculpture. Her red lips, sightly parted, revealed teeth that were matched pearls. And her hair was spun gold and sunbeams.
For some time she was motionless, gazing pensively out over the garden. Presently she crossed the terrace and descended to the garden. Watching her, Thorne stood bemused, wondering if it were possible that the scrawny, rat-faced Dixtar could be the father of so beautiful a daughter.
So potent was the spell cast over his senses that he lost sight of her in the shrubbery before he remembered his orders, and ran down the steps into the garden.
For some time Thorne hurried blindly about in the garden. Then the nearer moon, suddenly blinking above the rooftops to the west, came to his assistance. By its pale light he saw Neva not fifty feet from him, seated on the rim of a limpid pool in the center of which a fountain babbled.
Slowly he moved closer and halted at a distance of about twenty feet. As he stood there he was recalled to mundane considerations by a burning sensation in the region of his knees. Lowering his hand to investigate the cause, he discovered that heat rays were emanating from an ornate globe about two feet high which stood beside the path.
He had seen many such globes at various points around the garden and on the terrace. Although it had not occurred to him to wonder why the garden had not grown cold after nightfall, he now understood the reason.
In order to escape the discomfort caused by the proximity of the heating globe, he moved a few steps nearer the fountain. A dry twig snapped beneath his foot, and the girl looked up, a startled expression on her face.
“Have no fear,” said Thorne. “I am Sheb Takkor, your new guard.”
“I know,” she replied. “It was the noise that startled me. You see, I am expecting some one I am not at all anxious to meet.”
Though he felt quite sure he knew who that some one was, Thorne did not venture to say so.
Heavy footsteps sounded on the garden path. A shadow fell athwart the pool. Thorne glanced across to where the shadow began. Behind Neva stood Sel Han. “The Dixtar’s deputy salutes his fair daughter,” he said.
Without replying or even turning her head, Neva called to Thorne, “A trespasser has intruded upon my privacy, guardsman. Remove him.”
The Earthman strode forward and stood facing his enemy. “It seems you are not wanted,” he said quietly. “I trust that, under the circumstances, you will not have the bad taste to remain.”
Sel Han laughed contemptuously. “Out of my way, worm,” he ordered. “You dare not raise a hand against me.” He sat down familiarly beside Neva. “Your guardsman is a spineless coward. Once he faced me, sword in hand, but grew so frightened before a blow had been struck that he dropped his weapon and fainted.”
Thorne ground his teeth in impotent rage. He knew that under the Martian code he must suffer in silence any abuse which this fellow might choose to heap on him, physical violence or an assault with a weapon excepted.
“I would have you know, Sheb Takkor,” Neva said, ignoring the presence of Sel Han, “that all the details of that unfortunate affair of yours at the training school are known to me. It was cowardly of your opponent to slash you when you were weakened from loss of blood and numbed by the virus of a desert blood-fly. And in full accord with that craven blow is his present refusal to again meet you, while he relies on the passivity which his technical victory imposes on you.”
At this, the deputy forced a derisive laugh.
“Would it please the Dixtar’s daughter to have her guard slain before her eyes?”
“It would please her guard,” retorted Thorne, “to have the opportunity of defending himself.”
“No doubt it would,” grinned Sel Han. He moved closer to Neva. “Come,” he said, “send away this cowardly guard who is powerless to help you. There is something I want to ask you.”
Familiarly he passed his arm around her shoulders. And when, with blazing eyes, she would have leaped away from him, he held her tightly.
Thorne instantly whipped out his sword. “Release her or die,” he commanded, presenting his point at the deputy’s breast.
The deputy let her go, and stood erect, glaring. “Have you abandoned your honor?”
“I might ask you the same,” retorted Thorne, sheathing his sword, “but I know a man is incapable of abandoning that which he has never had.”
“It seems,” said Sel Han, a deadly glitter in his eyes, “that you have forgotten the code—and something else.”
“I am glad you have not forgotten that you are my guardsman, Sheb Takkor Jen,” interposed Neva. “And since you are acting in that capacity, and not in your own personal interests, it would seem that you are at liberty to treat this trespasser as you would any other.”
“I had hoped that the Dixtar’s daughter would confirm me in that belief,” relied Thorne. The Earthman’s fist shot up in a short arc that ended beneath Sel Han’s protruding chin. There was a tremendous splash as the deputy measured his length in the chilly pool.
Thorne leaped back and waited tensely, hand on hilt. His enemy came up sputtering and cursing luridly in English, then stepped over the rim. He bowed low before the girl.
“Permit me to congratulate the Dixtar’s daughter on the singular efficiency of her guardsman. It is only exceeded by his total lack of honor.”
Then he turned, and strode away with water sloshing in his boots and dripping from his clothing.
Thorne’s hand fell limply from his sword hilt. He was bitterly disappointed, for he had felt certain that Sel Han would come out of that enforced bath raging and eager to try conclusions with him.
“The coward! The miserable, slinking coward!”
Neva was speaking to herself, as she gazed after the departing figure. She turned and looked up at Thorne.
“He is afraid to measure swords with you,” she said, “but he will find some other way to be rid of you. He is cunning, oh, so cunning, and treacherous.” She laid a slim hand on the Earthman’s arm. “The deputy has considerable influence with the Dixtar, my father—but for that matter, so have I. And I will help you.”
In spite of his preconceived dislike of this little beauty, Thorne thrilled at her glance and touch.
“I am honored that the Dixtar’s daughter should be interested in preserving my worthless life,” he replied.
“He is a strange and terrible creature, this Sel Han,” she went on. “Did you notice the queer gibberish he used when he came up out of the water? Some incantation, perhaps, to a strange god. No doubt he is a sorcerer.”
Recalling the deputy’s lurid English curses, Thorne smiled to himself as he replied, “I doubt not that he was calling down the wrath of some deity on my head.”
Neva yawned prettily. “I am sleepy,” she said. “We will go in now, for I must retire. You may walk beside me.”
Slowly, side by side, stepping in perfect unison, they went up the path which led to the house.
At the steps which led up to the terrace she took his arm. Again he felt the thrill of her touch, and fought it with every ounce of will power at his command.
As they entered the doorway a slave girl hurried up to take her mistress’s cloak. Another moved the lever which uncapped the baridium light globes, making the room brilliant as day. And still another hurried in, bearing a tray on which was a tiny jeweled cup of steaming pulcho which she proffered to Neva.
“Bring another for the Jen,” she said.
The girl hurried out, and returned a moment later with a larger cup.
“I drink to my brave and efficient guardsman,” smiled Neva.
“And I to the lovely and precious jewel which he guards,” replied Thorne.