DURING the early watches of the night, Thorne, standing guard before Neva’s chamber door, reviewed the doings of the day. Before seeing the Dixtar’s daughter he had been firmly of the opinion that he loved Thaine. And he had resolved not to be overcome by the reputedly irresistible charms of Neva. But now her image was ever before him.
As he stood there, inwardly perturbed by his strangely conflicting emotions, he suddenly sensed that all was not as it should be—that some sinister, alien presence was quietly watching him.
Before retiring, one of the slave girls had pulled the levers which hooded all of the larger baridium globes, leaving only one tiny light uncovered. It shed a pale golden twilight that faintly revealed the outlines of the objects in the room.
Over all these objects Thorne’s eyes now roved, yet he could discern nothing amiss. The swinging chairs and divans, depending from the ceiling by their golden chains, were obviously unoccupied. And the shadows beneath them were not so dense as to form a hiding place for a human being. There was a tall, shelved case in which many metal cylinders were kept, containing the scrolls which on Mars answered for books. But nothing could hide there. And other than these, there were only a few large pots of flowers set here and there about the room.
Once more he settled to his former position, but this time he only pretended to be preoccupied. For some time nothing happened, yet though his face was held straight ahead, he kept eyes turned in the direction where he thought he had seen a stealthy movement. Suddenly, he saw it again. And to his astonishment, he discovered that it was a large pot of flowers which had moved. So far as he could see this pot and its contents were not markedly different from any of the others. It was about three and a half feet high and three in diameter at its center. And the two large handles projecting from sides were of the same angular pattern as the others. Without moving his head, he kept his eyes on this singularly mobile pot. Inch by inch it came toward him while he watched, fascinated. As it drew closer he examined it minutely, meanwhile stealthily loosening his sword in its sheath with his left hand. It seemed filled almost to the brim with rich black soil, from which the flower stalks projected.
Closer and closer it came until but a scant five feet separated them. Then it suddenly stood erect on two spindly legs and its handles turned into two spidery arms, one of which wielded a long, slim dagger. Straight for the Earthman it sprang, its weapon poised. But in that instant he had whipped his sword from its sheath, and whirling it over his head, brought it down with all his might on the amazing pot.
The hard vitreous shoulder of the pot withstood the blow of his slender weapon with ease, but the keen blade glanced downward, shearing off the spidery arm that held the dagger. At this there was a muffled shriek of pain from inside the pot, and turning, it fled swiftly for the doorway. As he set out in pursuit, Thorne shifted his sword to his left hand, and plucking his heavy mace from his belt, hurled it straight at the center of the pot.
The weapon went true to the mark. There was a resounding crash of broken crockery, and the spindle legs collapsed, precipitating everything onto the floor. Out of the tangle of crumpled flowers there rolled a round-bodied yellow man.
For some time pandemonium held sway in that quarter of the palace. Neva’s frightened girls and women screamed for help, and a company of guards from the outer corridors came clanking into the room. But Neva herself, clad in a filmy wrap, came out of her sleeping room, quite unperturbed.
“What has happened, Sheb Takkor Jen?” she asked.
“That attacked me,” Thorne replied, indicating the corpse, “disguised as a pot of flowers.”
By this time the room was filled with soldiers and slave girls, all staring curiously at the remains. Some one had unhooded the baridium globe, and the resulting light revealed every detail.
The yellow man’s disguise had been well adapted to his rotund body and spidery arms. The pot had a false bottom only two inches from the top, covered with a thin layer of soil. The flower stalks were set on narrow spikes projecting upward from this bottom. There were no handles, but holes through which the scrawny arms were thrust. Painted to resemble crockery and held akimbo, they had looked exactly like handles in the dim light. And the pot, with small holes bored in it for breathing and spying, formed an efficient body armor against sword and dagger thrusts.
“A diabolical attempt;” said Neva, shuddering. Then to the soldiers, “Take it away.”
Two men caught up the stiffening body and others cleared away the debris. Then, at a sign from Neva, all silently left the apartment.
She looked up into Thorne’s eyes.
“You have saved me from abduction, or perhaps assassination,” she said. “I am very grateful.”
“Perhaps,” he replied, “it is only myself I have saved. The fellow attacked me. And I have reason to believe he was the creature of Sel Han.”
“Because the Deputy Dixtar is said to be in league with the Ma Gongi.”
“There may be some truth in that,” she answered, “but don’t let anyone hear you say it. My father has unlimited faith in his deputy, and has beheaded two officers who were bold enough to accuse him of that very thing.”
“I am grateful for your warning,” Thorne replied, “and will be discreet.”
A slave girl drew back the curtain, and she reentered her sleeping room.
Morning found the Earthman exceedingly weary after a strenuous day and night without rest. Soon after he was relieved by Kov Lutas he was sound asleep in their apartment. It seemed that he had scarcely closed his eyes when the orderly awakened him.
“Your servant is commanded to prepare you to attend the Dixtar’s daughter at the state function this evening,” he said. “As the preparation will take some time, I was compelled to awaken you early.”