WHAT a strange contretemps! Its suddenness left me temporarily speechless; the embarrassment of Duare was only too obvious. Yet it was that unusual paradox, a happy contretemps--for me at least.
I advanced toward her, and there must have been a great deal more in my eyes than I realized, for she shrank back, flushing even more deeply than before.
"Don't touch me!" she whispered. "Don't dare!"
"Have I ever harmed you?" I asked.
That question seemed to bring her confidence. She shook her head. "No," she admitted, "you never have--physically. I sent for you to thank you for the service you have already rendered me; but I did not know it was you. I did not know that the Carson they spoke of was the man who--" She stopped there and looked at me appealingly.
"The man who told you in the garden of the jong that he loved you," I prompted her.
"Don't!" she cried. "Can it be that you do not realize the offensiveness, the criminality of such a declaration?"
"Is it a crime to love you?" I asked.
"It is a crime to tell me so," she replied with something of haughtiness.
"Then I am a confirmed criminal," I replied, "for I cannot help telling you that I love you, whenever I see you."
"If that is the case, you must not see me again, for you must never again speak those words to me," she said decisively. "Because of the service you have rendered me, I forgive you your past offenses; but do not repeat them."
"What if I can't help it?" I inquired.
"You must help it," she stated seriously; "it is a matter of life and death to you."
Her words puzzled me. "I do not understand what you mean," I admitted.
"Kamlot, Honan, any of the Vepajans aboard this ship would kill you if they knew," she replied. "The jong, my father, would have you destroyed upon our return to Vepaja--it would all depend upon whom I told first."
I came a little closer to her and looked straight into her eyes. "You would never tell," I whispered.
"Why not? What makes you think that?" she demanded, but her voice quavered a little.
"Because you want me to love you," I challenged her.
She stamped her foot angrily. "You are beyond reason or forbearance or decency!" she exclaimed. "Leave my cabin at once; I do not wish ever to see you again."
Her bosom was heaving, her beautiful eyes were flashing, she was very close to me, and an impulse seized me to take her in my arms. I wanted to crush her body to mine, I wanted to cover her lips with kisses; but more than all else I wanted her love, and so I restrained myself, for fear that I might go too far and lose the chance to win the love that I felt was hovering just below the threshold of her consciousness. I do not know why I was so sure of that, but I was. I could not have brought myself to force my attentions upon a woman to whom they were repugnant, but from the first moment that I had seen this girl watching me from the garden in Vepaja, I had been impressed by an inner consciousness of her interest in me, her more than simple interest. It was just one of those things that are the children of old Chand Kabi's training, a training that has made me infinitely more intuitive than a woman. "I am sorry that you are sending me away into virtual exile," I said. "I do not feel that I deserve that, but of course the standards of your world are not the standards of mine. There, a woman is not dishonored by the love of a man, or by its avowal, unless she is already married to another," and then of a sudden a thought occurred to me that should have occurred before. "Do you already belong to some man?" I demanded, chilled by the thought. "Of course not!" she snapped. "I am not yet nineteen." I wondered that it had never before occurred to me that the girl in the garden of the jong might be already married.
I did not know what that had to do with it, but I was glad to learn that she was not seven hundred years old. I had often wondered about her age, though after all it could have made no difference, since on Venus, if anywhere in the universe, people are really no older than they look--I mean, as far as their attractiveness is concerned.
"Are you going?" she demanded, "or shall I have to call one of the Vepajans and tell them that you have affronted me?"
"And have me killed?" I asked. "No, you cannot make me believe that you would ever do that."
"Then I shall leave," she stated, "and remember that you are never to see me or speak to me again."
With that parting and far from cheering ultimatum she quit the room, going into another of her suite. That appeared to end the interview; I could not very well follow her, and so I turned and made my way disconsolately to the captain's cabin in the tower.
As I thought the matter over, it became obvious to me that I not only had not made much progress in my suit, but that there was little likelihood that I ever should. There seemed to be some insuperable barrier between us, though what it was I could not imagine. I could not believe that she was entirely indifferent to me; but perhaps that was just a reflection of my egotism, for I had to admit that she had certainly made it plain enough both by words and acts that she wished to have nothing to do with me. I was unquestionably persona non grata.
Notwithstanding all this, or maybe because of it, I realized that this second and longer interview had but served to raise my passion to still greater heat, leaving me in a fine state of despair. Her near presence on board the Sofal was constantly provocative, while her interdiction of any relations between us only tended to make me more anxious to be with her. I was most unhappy, and the monotony of the now uneventful voyage back toward Vepaja offered no means of distraction. I wished that we might sight another vessel, for any ship that we sighted would be an enemy ship. We were outlaws, we of the Sofal--pirates, buccaneers, privateers. I rather leaned toward the last and most polite definition of our status. Of course we had not as yet been commissioned by Mintep to raid shipping for Vepaja, but we were striking at Vepaja's enemies, and so I felt that we had some claim upon the dubious respectability of privateerism. However, either of the other two titles would not have greatly depressed me. Buccaneer has a devil-may-care ring to it that appeals to my fancy; it has a trifle more haut ton than pirate.
There is much in a name. I had liked the name of the Sofal from the first. Perhaps it was the psychology of that name that suggested the career upon which I was now launched. It means killer. The verb meaning kill is fal. The prefix so has the same value as the suffix er in English; so sofal means killer. Vong is the Amtorian word for defend; therefore, Sovong, the name of our first prize, means defender; but the Sovong had not lived up to her name.
I was still meditating on names in an effort to forget Duare, when Kamlot joined me, and I decided to take the opportunity to ask him some questions concerning certain Amtorian customs that regulated the social intercourse between men and maids. He opened a way to the subject by asking me if I had seen Duare since she sent for me.
"I saw her," I replied, "but I do not understand her attitude, which suggested that it was almost a crime for me to look at her."
"It would be under ordinary circumstances," he told me, "but of course, as I explained to you before, what she and we have passed through has temporarily at least minimized the importance of certain time-honored Vepajan laws and customs.
"Vepajan girls attain their majority at the age of twenty; prior to that they may not form a union with a man. The custom, which has almost the force of a law, places even greater restrictions upon the daughters of a jong. They may not even see or speak to any man other than their blood relatives and a few well-chosen retainers until after they have reached their twentieth birthday. Should they transgress, it would mean disgrace for them and death for the man."
"What a fool law!" I ejacuated, but I realized at last how heinous my transgression must have appeared in the eyes of Duare.
Kamlot shrugged. "It may be a fool law," he said, "but it is still the law; and in the case of Duare its enforcement means much to Vepaja, for she is the hope of Vepaja."
I had heard that title conferred upon her before, but it was meaningless to me. "Just what do you mean by saying that she is the hope of Vepaja?" I asked.
"She is Mintep's only child. He has never had a son, though a hundred women have sought to bear him one. The life of the dynasty ends if Duare bears no son; and if she is to bear a son, then it is essential that the father of that son be one fitted to be the father of a jong."
"Have they selected the father of her children yet?" I asked.
"Of course not," replied Kamlot. "The matter will not even be broached until after Duare has passed her twentieth birthday."
"And she is not even nineteen yet," I remarked with a sigh.
"No," agreed Kamlot, eyeing me closely, "but you act as though that fact were of importance to you."
"It is," I admitted.
"What do you mean?" he demanded.
"I intend to marry Duare!"
Kamlot leaped to his feet and whipped our his sword. It was the first time that I had ever seen him show marked excitement. I thought he was going to kill me on the spot.
"Defend yourself!" he cried. "I cannot kill you until you draw."
"Just why do you wish to kill me at all?" I demanded. "Have you gone crazy?"
The point of Kamlot's sword dropped slowly toward the floor. "I do not wish to kill you," he said rather sadly, all the nervous excitement gone from his manner. "You are my friend, you have saved my life--no, I would rather die myself than kill you, but the thing you have just said demands it."
I shrugged my shoulders; the thing was inexplicable to me. "What did I say that demands death?" I demanded.
"That you intend to marry Duare."
"In my world," I told him, "men are killed for saying that they do not intend marrying some girl." I had been sitting at the desk in my cabin at the time that Kamlot had threatened me, and I had not arisen; now I stood up and faced him. "You had better kill me, Kamlot," I said, "for I spoke the truth."
He hesitated for a moment, standing there looking at me; then he returned his sword to its scabbard. "I cannot," he said huskily. "May my ancestors forgive me! I cannot kill my friend.
"Perhaps," he added, seeking some extenuating circumstance, "you should not be held accountable to customs of which you had no knowledge. I often forget that you are of another world than ours. But tell me, now that I have made myself a party to your crime by excusing it, what leads you to believe that you will marry Duare? I can incriminate myself no more by listening to you further."
"I intend to marry her, because I know that I love her and believe that she already half loves me."
At this Kamlot appeared shocked and horrified again. "That is impossible," he cried. "She never saw you before; she cannot dream what is in your heart or your mad brain."
"On the contrary, she has seen me before; and she knows quite well what is in my 'mad brain,'" I assured him. "I told her in Kooaad; I told her again today."
"And she listened?"
"She was shocked," I admitted, "but she listened; then she upbraided me and ordered me from her presence."
Kamlot breathed a sigh of relief. "At least she has not gone mad. I cannot understand on what you base your belief that she may return your love."
"Her eyes betrayed her; and, what may be more convincing, she did not expose my perfidy and thus send me to my death."
He pondered that and shook his head. "It is all madness," he said; "I can make nothing of it. You say that you talked with her in Kooaad, but that would have been impossible. But if you had ever even seen her before, why did you show so little interest in her fate when you knew that she was a prisoner aboard the Sovong? Why did you say that you thought that she was my sweetheart?"
"I did not know until a few minutes ago," I explained, "that the girl I saw and talked with in the garden at Kooaad was Duare, the daughter of the jong."
A few days later I was again talking with Kamlot in my cabin when we were interrupted by a whistle at the door; and when I had bade him do so, one of the Vepajan prisoners that we had rescued from the Sovong entered. He was not from Kooaad but from another city of Vepaja, and therefore none of the other Vepajans aboard knew anything concerning him. His name was Vilor, and he appeared to be a decent sort of fellow, though rather inclined to taciturnity. He had manifested considerable interest in the klangans and was with them often, but had explained this idiosyncrasy on the grounds that he was a scholar and wished to study the birdmen, specimens of which he had never before seen.
"I have come," he explained in response to my inquiry, "to ask you to appoint me an officer. I should like to join your company and share in the work and responsibilities of the expedition."
"We are well officered now," I explained, "and have all the men we need. Furthermore," I added frankly, "I do not know you well enough to be sure of your qualifications. By the time we reach Vejapa, we shall be better acquainted; and if I need you then, I will tell you."
"Well, I should like to do something," he insisted. "May I guard the janjong until we reach Vepaja?"
He referred to Duare, whose title, compounded of the two words daughter and king, is synonymous to princess. I thought that I noticed just a trace of excitement in his voice as he made the request.
"She is well guarded now," I explained.
"But I should like to do it," he insisted. "It would be a service of love and loyalty for my jong. I could stand the night guard; no one likes that detail ordinarily."
"It will not be necessary," I said shortly; "the guard is already sufficient."
"She is in the after cabins of the second deck house, is she not?" he asked.
I told him that she was.
"And she has a special guard?"
"A man is always before her door at night," I assured him.
"Only one?" he demanded, as though he thought the guard insufficient.
"In addition to the regular watch, we consider one man enough; she has no enemies aboard the Sofal." These people were certainly solicitous of the welfare and safety of their royalty, I thought; and, it seemed to me, unnecessarily so. But finally Vilor gave up and departed, after begging me to give his request further thought.
"He seems even more concerned about the welfare of Duare than you," I remarked to Ramlot after Vilor had gone.
"Yes, I noticed that," replied my lieutenant.
"There is no one more concerned about her than I," I said, "but I cannot see that any further precautions are necessary."
"Nor I," agreed Kamlot; "she is quite well protected now."
We had dropped Vilor from our minds and were discussing other matters, when we heard the voice of the lookout in the crow's nest shouting, "Voo notar!" ("A ship!") Running to the tower deck, we got the bearings of the stranger as the lookout announced them the second time, and, sure enough, almost directly abeam on the starboard side we discerned the superstructure of a ship on the horizon.
For some reason which I do not clearly understand, the visibility on Venus is usually exceptionally good. Low fogs and haze are rare, notwithstanding the humidity of the atmosphere. This condition may be due to the mysterious radiation from that strange element in the planet's structure which illuminates her moonless nights; I do not know.
At any rate, we could see a ship, and almost immediately all was excitement aboard the Sofal. Here was another prize, and the men were eager to be at her. As we changed our course and headed for our victim, a cheer rose from the men on deck. Weapons were issued, the bow gun and the two tower guns were elevated to firing positions. The Sofal forged ahead at full speed.
As we approached our quarry, we saw that it was a ship of about the same size as the Sofal and bearing the insignia of Thora. Closer inspection revealed it to be an armed merchantman.
I now ordered all but the gunners into the lower deck house, as I planned on boarding this vessel as I had the Sovong and did not wish her to see our deck filled with armed men before we came alongside. As before, explicit orders were issued; every man knew what was expected of him; all were cautioned against needless killing. If I were to be a pirate, I was going to be as humane a pirate as possible. I would not spill blood needlessly.
I had questioned Kiron, Gamfor, and many another Thoran in my company relative to the customs and practices of Thoran ships of war until I felt reasonably familiar with them. I knew for instance that a warship might search a merchantman. It was upon this that I based my hope of getting our grappling hooks over the side of our victim before he could suspect our true design.
When we were within hailing distance of the ship, I directed Kiron to order her to shut down her engines, as we wished to board and search her; and right then we ran into our first obstacle. It came in the form of a pennant suddenly hoisted at the bow of our intended victim. It meant nothing to me, but it did to Kiron and the other Thorans aboard the Sofal.
"We'll not board her so easily after all," said Kiron. "She has an ongyan on board, and that exempts her from search. It probably also indicates that she carries a larger complement of soldiers than a merchantman ordinarily does."
"Whose friend?" I asked, "Yours?" for ongyan means great friend, in the sense of eminent or exalted.
Kiron smiled. "It is a title. There are a hundred klongyan in the oligarchy; one of them is aboard that ship. They are great friends unquestionably, great friends of themselves, they rule Thora more tyranically than any jong and for themselves alone."
"How will the men feel about attacking a ship bearing so exalted a personages" I in- quired.
"They will fight among themselves to be the first aboard and to run a sword through him."
"They must not kill him," I replied. "I have a better plan."
They will be hard to control once they are in the thick of a fight," Kiron assured me; "I have yet to see the officer who can do it. In the old days, in the days of the jongs, there were order and discipline; but not now."
"There will be aboard the Sofal," I averred. "Come with me; I am going to speak to the men."
Together we entered the lower deck house where the majority of the ship's company was massed, waiting for the command to attack. There were nearly a hundred rough and burly fighting men, nearly all of whom were ignorant and brutal. We had been together as commander and crew for too short a time for me to gauge their sentiments toward me; but I realized that there must be no question in any mind as to who was captain of the ship, no matter what they thought of me.
Kiron had called them to attention as we entered, and now every eye was on me as I started to speak. "We are about to take another ship," I began, "on board which is one whom Kiron tells me you will want to kill. He is an ongyan. I have come here to tell you that he must not be killed." Growls of disapproval greeted this statement, but, ignoring them, I continued, "I have come here to tell you something else, because I have been informed that no officer can control you after you enter battle. There are reasons why it will be better for us to hold this man prisoner than to kill him, but these have nothing to do with the question; what you must understand is that my orders and the orders of your other officers must be obeyed.
"We are embarked upon an enterprise that can succeed only if discipline be enforced. I expect the enterprise to succeed. I will enforce discipline. Insubordination or disobedience will be punishable by death. That is all."
As I left the room, I left behind me nearly a hundred silent men. There was nothing to indicate what their reaction had been. Purposely, I took Kiron out with me; I wanted the men to have an opportunity to discuss the matter among themselves without interference by an officer. I knew that I had no real authority over them, and that eventually they must decide for themselves whether they would obey me; the sooner that decision was reached the better for all of us.
Amtorian ships employ only the most primitive means of intercommunication. There is a crude and cumbersome hand signalling system in which flags are employed; then there is a standardized system of trumpet calls which covers a fairly wide range of conventional messages, but the most satisfactory medium and the the most used is the human voice.
Since our quarry had displayed the pennant of the ongyan, we had held a course parallel to hers and a little distance astern. On her main deck a company of armed men was congregated She mounted four guns, which had been elevated into firing position. She was ready, but I think that as yet she suspected nothing wrong in our intentions.
Now I gave orders that caused the Sofal to close in upon the other ship, and as the distance between them lessened I saw indications of increasing excitement on the decks of our intended victim.
"What are you about?" shouted an officer from her tower deck. "Stand off there! There is an ongyan aboard us."
As no reply was made to him, and as the Sofal continued to draw nearer, his excitement waxed. He gesticulated rapidly as he conversed with a fat man standing at his side; then he screamed, "Stand off! or some one will suffer for this"; but the Sofal only moved steadily closer. "Stand off, or I'll fire!" shouted the captain.
For answer I caused all our starboard guns to be elevated into firing position. I knew he would not dare fire now, for a single broadside from the Sofal would have sunk him in less than a minute, a contingency which I wished to avoid as much as he.
"What do you want of us?" he demanded.
"We want to board you," I replied, "without bloodshed if possible."
"This is revolution! This is treason!" shouted the fat man at the captain's side. "I order you to stand off and leave us alone. I am the ongyan, Moosko," and then to the soldiers on the main deck he screamed, "Repel them! Kill any man who sets foot upon that deck!"