A Fighting Man of Mars
Chapter 13: Tul Axtar's Women
Copyright© 2012 by Edgar Rice Burroughs
With propellers moving only enough to give us headway, we moved slowly and silently from the tower. I did not dare to rise to the altitude of the circling fliers for fear of almost inevitable collision, owing to the limited range of visibility permitted by the periscope, and so I held to a course that carried me only above the roof of the lower part of the palace until I reached a broad avenue that led in an easterly direction to the outer wall of the city. I kept well down below the roofs of the buildings, where there was little likelihood of encountering other craft. Our only danger of detection now, and that was slight indeed, was that our propeller might be overheard by some of the watchers on the roofs, but the hum and drone of the propellers of the ships above the city must have drowned out whatever slight sound our slowly revolving blades gave forth, and at last we came to the gate at the end of the avenue, and rising to top its battlements, we passed out of Tjanath into the night beyond. The lights of the city and of the circling patrol boats above grew fainter and fainter as we left them far behind.
We had maintained absolute silence during our escape from the city, but as soon as our escape appeared assured, Tavia unlocked the flood gates of her curiosity. Phao's first question was relative to Nur An. Her sigh of relief held as great assurance of her love for him as could words have done. The two listened in breathless attention to the story of our miraculous escape from The Death. Then they wanted to know all about the Jhama, the compound of invisibility and the disintegrating ray with which I had dissolved the bars from their prison window. Nor was it until their curiosity had been appeased that we were able to discuss our plans for the future.
"I feel that I should go at once to Jahar," I said.
"Yes," said Tavia in a low voice. "It is your duty. You must go there first and rescue Sanoma Tora."
"If there was only some place where I might leave you and Phao in safety, I should feel that I could carry on this mission with far greater peace of mind, but I know of no other place than Jhama and I hesitate to return there and let Phor Tak know that I failed to go immediately to Jahar as I had intended. The man is quite insane. There is no telling what he might do if he learns the truth; nor am I certain that you two would be safe there in his power. He trusts only his slaves and he might easily become obsessed with an hallucination that you are spies."
"You need not think of me at all," said Tavia, "for no matter where you might find a place to leave us, I should not remain. The place of the slave is with her master."
"Do not say that, Tavia. You are not my slave."
"I am a slave girl," she replied. "I must be someone's slave. I prefer to be yours."
I was touched by her loyalty, but I did not like to think of Tavia as a slave; yet however much I might loathe the idea the fact remained that she was one. "I give you your freedom, Tavia," I said.
She smiled. "I do not want it and now that it is decided that I am to remain with you" (she had done all the deciding), "I wish to learn all that I can about navigating the Jhama, for it may be that in that way I may help you."
Tavia's knowledge of aerial navigation made the task of instructing her simple indeed; in fact she had no trouble whatsoever in handling the craft.
Phao also manifested an interest and it was not long before she, too, took her turn at the controls, while Tavia insisted upon being inducted into all the mysteries of the disintegrating ray rifle.
Long before we saw the towers of Tul Axtar's capital, we sighted a one-man flier painted the ghastly blue of Jahar, and then far to the right and to the left we saw others. They were circling slowly at a great altitude. I judged that they were scouts watching for the coming of an expected enemy fleet. We passed below them and a little later encountered the second line of enemy ships. These were all scout cruisers, carrying from ten to fifteen men. Approaching one of them quite closely I saw that it carried four disintegrating ray rifles, two mounted forward and two aft. As far as I could see in either direction these ships were visible, and if, as I presumed, they formed a circle entirely about Jahar, they must have been numerous indeed.
Passing on beyond them we presently encountered the third line of Jaharian ships. Here were stationed huge battleships, carrying crews of a thousand men and more and fairly bristling with big guns.
While none of these ships was as large as the major ships of Helium, they constituted a most formidable force and it was obvious that they had been built in great numbers.
What I had already seen impressed me with the fact that Tul Axtar was entertaining no idle dream in his contemplated subjection of all Barsoom. With but a fraction of the ships I had already seen I would guarantee to lay waste all of Barsoom, provided my ships were armed with disintegrating ray rifles, and I felt sure that I had seen but a pitiful fraction of Tul Axtar's vast armament.
The sight of all these ships filled me with the direct forebodings of calamity. If the fleet of Helium had not already arrived and been destroyed, it certainly must be destroyed when it did arrive. No power on earth could save it. The best that I could hope, had the fleet already arrived, was that an encounter with the disintegrating ray rifles of the first line might have proved sufficient warning to turn the balance of the fleet back.
Far behind the line of battleships I could see the towers of Jahar rising in the distance, and as we reached the vicinity of the city I descried a fleet of the largest ships I have ever seen, resting upon the ground just outside the city wall. These ships, which completely encircled the city wall that was visible to us, must have been capable of accommodating at least ten thousand men each, and from their construction and their light armaments, I assumed them to be transports. These, doubtless, were to carry the hordes of hungry Jaharian warriors upon the campaign of loot and pillage that it was planned should destroy a world.
Contemplation of this vast armada prompted me to abandon all other plans and hasten at once to Helium, that the alarm might be spread and plans be made to thwart the mad ambition of Tul Axtar. My mind was a seething caldron of conflicting demands upon me. Countless times had I risked my life to reach Jahar for but a single purpose and now that I had arrived I was called upon to turn back for the fulfillment of another purpose--a larger, a more important one, perhaps, but I am only human and so I turned first to the rescue of the woman that I loved, determined immediately thereafter to throw myself wholeheartedly into the prosecution of the other enterprise that duty and inclination demanded of me. I argued that the slight delay that would result would in no way jeopardize the greater cause, while should I abandon Sanoma Tora now there was little likelihood that I would ever be able to return to Jahar to her succor.
With the great ghastly blue fleet of Jahar behind us, we topped the city's walls and moved in the direction of the palace of the jeddak.
My plans were well formulated. I had discussed them again and again with Tavia, who had grown up in the palace of Tul Axtar.
At her suggestion we were to maneuver the Jhama to a point directly over the summit of a slender tower, upon which there was not room to land the flier, but through which I could gain ingress to the palace at a point close to the quarters of the women.
As we had passed through the three lines of Jaharian ships, protected by our coating of the compound of invisibility, so we passed the sentries on the city wall and the warriors upon watch in the towers and upon the ramparts of the palace of the towers and upon the ramparts of the palace of the jeddak, and without incident worthy of note I stopped the Jhama just above the summit of the tower that Tavia indicated.
"In about ten xats (approximately thirty minutes) it will be dark," I said to Tavia. "If you find it impractical to remain here constantly, try and return when dark has fallen, for whether I am successful in finding Sanoma Tora I shall not attempt to return to the Jhama until night has fallen."
She had told me that there was a possibility that the women's quarters might be locked at sunset and for this reason I was entering the palace by daylight, though I should have much preferred not to risk it until after nightfall. Tavia had also assured me that if I once entered the women's quarters I would have no difficulty in leaving even after they were locked, as the doors could be opened from the inside, the precaution of locking being taken not for fear that the inmates would leave the quarters, but to protect them against the dangers of assassins and others with evil intent.
Adjusting the robe of invisibility about me, I raised the forward keel hatch, which was directly over the summit of the tower that had once been used as a lookout in some distant age before newer and loftier portions of the palace had rendered it useless for this purpose.
"Good-bye and good luck," whispered Tavia. "When you return I hope that you will bring your Sanoma Tora with you. While you are gone I shall pray to my ancestors for your success."
Thanking her, I lowered myself through the hatch to the summit of the tower, in which was set a small trap door.
As I raised this door I saw below me the top of the ancient ladder that long dead warriors had used and which evidently was seldom, if ever, used now as was attested by the dust upon its rungs. The ladder led me down to a large room in the upper level of this portion of the palace-- a room that had doubtless originally been a guard room, but which was now the receptacle for odds and ends of discarded furniture, hangings and ornaments. Filled as it was with specimens of the craftsmanship of ancient Jahar, together with articles of more modern fabrication, it would have been a most interesting room to explore; yet I passed through it with nothing more than a single searching glance for live enemies. Closely following Tavia's instructions I descended two spiral ramps, where I found myself in a most ornately decorated corridor, opening upon which were the apartments of the women of Tul Axtar. The corridor was long, stretching away fully a thousand sofads to a great, arched window at the far end, through which I could see the waving foliage of trees.
Many of the countless doors that lined the corridor on either side were open or ajar, for the corridor itself was forbidden to all but the women and their slaves, with the exception of Tul Axtar. The foot of the single ramp leading to it from the level watched over by a guard of picked men, composed exclusively of eunuchs, and Tavia assured me that short shrift was made of any adventurous spirit who sought to investigate the precincts above; yet here was I, a man and an enemy, safely within the forbidden territory.
As I looked about me in attempt to determine where to commence my investigation, several women emerged from one of the apartments and approached me along the corridor. They were beautiful women, young and richly trapped, and from their light conversation and their laughter I judged that they were not unhappy. My conscience pricked me as I realized the mean advantage that I was taking of them, but it could not be avoided and so I waited and listened, hoping that I might overhear some snatch of conversation that would aid me in my quest for Sanoma Tora; but I learned nothing from them other than that they referred to Tul Axtar contemptuously as the old zitidar. Some of their references to him were extremely personal and none was complimentary.