Carson of Venus by Edgar Rice Burroughs
9. I Become a Zani
Mantar took me immediately to the palace formerly occupied by the Jong, Kord, and now by Mephis and his lieutenants. "We shall go directly to Spehon," he said. "No use wasting time on underlings."
To Spehon! To the man whom Muso had advised to destroy me! I felt positive that the message must already be in his hands, as it must have been stolen by Zani spies who would have delivered it to him immediately, was going to my doom.
"Why do we go to Spehon?" I asked.
"Because he is head of the Zani Guard, which also includes our secret police. Zerka suggested that I find you a berth in the Guard. You are fortunate indeed to have such a friend as The Toganja Zerka; otherwise, if you had been given service at all, it would have been at the front, which is not so good since Muso enlisted the services of this fellow called Carson of Venus with his diabolical contrivance that flies through the air and rains bombs on everyone."
"Flies through the air?" I asked, in simulated surprise. "Is there really such a thing? What can it be?"
"We really don't know much about it," Mantar admitted. "Of course everyone at the front has seen it, and we learned a little from some prisoners we took who were members of a Sanaran party making a sortie against our first line. They told us the name of the fellow who flies it and what little they knew of him and of the thing he calls an anotar, but that really was not much. Yes, you will be fortunate if you get into the Guard. If you are an officer, it is something of a sinecure; but you'll have to watch your step. You must hate everything we Zanis hate and applaud everything that we applaud, and under no circumstances must you ever even look critical of anything that is Zani. To demonstrate what I mean: We were listening to a speech by Our Beloved Mephis one evening, when a bright light shining in his eyes unexpectedly caused one of my fellow officers to knit his brows and half close his eyes in what appeared to be a frown of disapproval. He was taken out and shot."
"I shall be very careful," I assured him, and you may believe me that I meant it.
The palace of the former jong was, indeed, a magnificent structure; but I'm afraid I didn't fully appreciate it as I walked through its corridors toward the office of Spehon--my mind was on other things. We arrived at last at a waiting room just outside the office of the great man, and there we waited for about half an hour before we were summoned into the presence. Men were coming and going to and from the waiting room in a constant stream. It was a very busy place. Most of them wore the Zani uniform and sported the Zani coiffure, and as they came and went the air was filled with "Maltu Mephises" and Zani salutes.
At last we were ushered into the presence of Spehon. Like nearly all civilized Amtorians, he was a handsome man; but his mouth was a shade too cruel and his eyes a little too shifty for perfection. Mantar and I each said "Maltu Mephis" and saluted; Spehon said "Maltu Mephis! Greetings, Mantar. What brings you here?" He barked the words like a human terrier.
"Maltu Mephis! This is Vodo," announced Mantar. "I bring him to you at the suggestion of the Toganja Zerka, his good friend. She recommends him for a commission in the Guard."
"But he is not even a Zani," expostulated Spehon.
"He is not even from Anlap," said Mantar, "but he wishes to be a Zani and serve Our Beloved Mephis."
"From what country do you come?" demanded Spehon.
"From Vodaro," I replied.
"Have you any Atorian blood in your veins?"
"Had I, I should have been killed in Vodaro," I cried.
"And why?" he asked.
"And why? may I ask, Spehon, do you kill Atorians?" I demanded.
"Naturally, because they have large ears," he replied. "We must keep the blood of Korvans pure."
"You have answered your own question, Spehon," I told him. "We Vodaroans are very proud of our pure blood; so we, too, kill the Atorians because they have large ears."
"Excellent!" he exclaimed. "Will you swear to love, honor, and obey Our Beloved Mephis, give your life for him, if necessary, and hold him and the Zani Party above all else?"
"I swear!" I said, but I had my fingers crossed; then we all saluted and said, "Maltu Mephis!"
"You are now a Zani," he announced. He saluted me, and said, "Maltu Mephis!"
"Maltu Mephis!" I said, and saluted him.
"I appoint you a tokordogan," said Spehon, saluting, "Maltu Mephis!"
"Maltu Mephis!" I replied, and saluted. A tokordogan is somewhat similar to a lieutenant. A kordogan is comparable to a sergeant and as the prefix to means either high or over, my title might be translated as oversergeant.
"You will be responsible for Vodo's training," Spehon told Mantar; then we all Maltu Mephised and saluted.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I quitted the office of Spehon. Evidently he had not received the message as yet. I still had a little lease on life.
Mantar now took me to the officers' quarters adjoining the barracks of the Zani Guard, which are situated close to the palace; and here a barber gave me an approved Zani haircut, after which I went with Mantar to be outfitted with the regulation uniform and weapons of a tokordogan of the Zani Guard.
On the way back from the outfitters I heard a great commotion ahead of us on the broad avenue along which we were walking. People lining the curbs were shouting something that I could not understand at first, but presently recognized as the incessant chant of the Zanis--Maltu Mephis! As the sound approached I saw that the shouts were being directed at a procession of giant gantors.
"Our Beloved Mephis comes this way," said Mantar. "When he approaches, stand at salute and shout Maltu Mephis as loud as you can until he has passed."
Presently I saw men standing on their heads in the street and along the curbs, and each of them was shouting Maltu Mephis at the top of his lungs. Only the women and the members of the Zani Guard did not stand on their heads; but everybody shouted, and everybody saluted who was not using his hands to keep him from falling down. They commenced when the first elephant came within a few yards of where they stood, and continued until the last elephant had passed them by the same distance. They all seemed absolutely devoid of any sense of humor.
When the procession came abreast of me I saw such ornately housed and trapped gantors as I had never before seen. In the gilded howdah of one of them sat a small, insignificant looking man in the uniform of a Zani kordogan. It was Mephis. He looked actually frightened; and his eyes were constantly darting from side to side, warily. I guessed, what I learned later, that he was in mortal fear of assassination--and with good reason.
After Mephis had passed I expressed a wish to Mantar to see something of the city. I told him that I would especially like to go down to the waterfront and look at the boats there. Immediately he was suspicious. I have never seen such suspicious people.
"Why do you want to go down to the waterfront?" he asked.
"We Vodaroans depend much on the sea for most of our food; therefore we are all familiar with boats and fond of them. I am naturally interested in seeing the design of the small boats of Anlap. As a matter of fact, I should like much to own one. I like to sail and fish."
My explanation seemed to satisfy him, and he suggested that we hail a passing gantor and ride down to the quay, which we did. I saw innumerable boats, most of which had evidently not been in use for some considerable time. Mantar explained that they probably belonged to men who were serving at the front.
"Do you suppose I could buy or rent one of them?" I asked.
"You do not have to buy or rent anything," he said. "You are now a member of the Zani Guard and can take anything you please from anyone who is not a member of the Guard." That was an excellent convention--for the Zani Guardsmen.
Having seen and learned what I had come to the waterfront for, I was ready to return into the city and commence my real training under Mantar. This lasted in an intensive form for about a week, during which time I did not visit Zerka nor receive any call from Spehon. Could it be that the message had not come mto his hands? I could scarcely believe it. Perhaps, I thought, he is not going to accept Muso's offer and is not, therefore, interested in destroying me. But that line of reasoning was not wholly satisfactory. Knowmg how suspicious they were and vindictive, I could not believe that Spehon would permit me to live or wear the uniform of a Zani Guardsman a day after he discovered how I had lied to him. I was compelled to consider the matter only as a wholly baffling mystery.
I cannot say that I enjoyed the companionship of my fellow officers, with the exception of Mantar. He was a gentleman. Most of the others were surly boors--an aggregation of ignorant thugs, bums, and gangsters. The men under us were of the same types. All seemed suspicious of one another, and I think especially of Mantar and me. They resented the fact that we were cultured; and the very fact that we were cultured seemed to feed their suspicions of us; and because they felt their inferiority, they hated us, too. Because of this atmosphere of suspicion it was difficult for me to learn anything about the one thing that kept me from escaping from Amlot at once--I refer to my belief that Mintep might be a prisoner in the city. I felt that I could easily escape by commandeering a small boat and sailing along the coast until I came to the island where my ship was hidden, but first I must assure myself of the truth or falsity of my suspicion. All that I might learn was what I overheard by accident. I could not ask direct questions nor reveal undue interest in any political or other controversial matter. As a result, my nerves were under constant strain, so watchful must I be of every word or act or even facial expresion or tone of voice. But it was like that with everyone else--I think even with Spehon and perhaps with Mephis himself, for every man knew that a spy or an informer was watching to pounce upon him at his first mis-step. The result was not conducive to garrulity--conversation, as such, did not exist except between occasional intimates; and even then I doubt that men dared speak what was in their hearts.
Ten days had passed, and I was no nearer my goal than on the day I arrived in Amlot. I was worried and was grieving over Duare. What must she think? Had Muso told her? Was she well? These unanswerable questions nearly drove me mad. They almost convinced me that I should abandon my self-imposed commission and return to Sanara, but when I thought of the happiness it would bring to Duare were she to be reunited with her father or her grief were she to know that he might be a prisoner in Amlot and in constant danger of being destroyed, I could only remain and do what I considered my duty. I was in such a mood when I received an invitation from Zerka to visit her. It was a welcome relief, and I went with pleasure.
We greeted each other with the usual "Maltu Mephis!" which, for some reason, seemed wholly out of place and incongruous between us. I always had a feeling that Zerka was hiding a laugh about something, and especially so when we went through the silly flubdub of Zani ritual. Hers was a most engaging personality that seemed to me to be wholly out of harmony with the stupidities of Zanism.
"My!" she exclaimed with a little laugh, "what a handsome Zani Guardsman we make."
"With this haircut?" I demanded, making a wry face. She put a finger to her lips. "Ssh!" she cautioned. "I thought that you would have learned better than that by this time."
"Mayn't I even criticize myself?" I asked, laughing.
She shook her head. "Were I you, I should criticize only Atorians and the enemy in Sanara."
"I don't even do that," I said. "I am what would be called in my wor--country a rubber stamp."
"That is a word I do not know," she said. "Can it be possible that the Vodaroans do not speak the same language as we?"
"Oh no; we speak the same language," I assured her.
"And read it, too?" she inquired.
"Why, of course."
"I thought so," she mused.
I couldn't imagine why she had thought otherwise, or why the matter was of any importance. Before I could ask her she veered off onto another track. "Do you like Mantar?" she asked.
"Very much," I said. "It is nice to have the companionship of one gentleman at least."
"Be careful," she cautioned again. "That is indirect criticism, but I can assure you it may be just as fatal. You needn't worry about me, however; I caution you only because there are always spies. One never may know who may be listening intently to his conversation in addition to the one to whom it is addressed. Suppose we go for a ride; then we can talk, and you can say anything you wish to. My driver has been with my family all his life. He would never repeat anything he heard.
It seemed a little strange that she should be encouraging me to talk openly, in view of the fact that she had previously warned me against it.
"I'm sure," I said, "that all the world might listen to what I have to say. I am most happy here."
"I am glad of that," she said.
"I have learned though that it is just as well not to talk too much. In fact, I am surprised that I have not forgotten how to talk."
"But of course you talk freely with Mantar?" she asked.
"I do not talk at all about anything I am not supposed to talk about," I said.
"But with Mantar, it is different," she urged. "You may trust him fully. Discuss anything you wish with him. Mantar would never betray you."
"Why?" I asked bluntly.
"Because you are my friend," she replied.
"I appreciate all that that implies," I said, "and am very grateful for your friendship. I wish that I might repay the obligation in some way."
"Perhaps you may have the chance some day--when I know you better."
A gantor was brought into the courtyard of the palace, and we mounted to the howdah. This time there were no armed guards--only ourselves and the driver.
"Where shall we go?" asked Zerka.
"Anywhere. I should like to see some more of the public buildings." I hoped in this way to discover the location of the Gap kum Rov, where the mysterious jong was imprisoned. I hadn't dared ask anyone; and I didn't dare ask Zerka, for notwithstanding her assurances that I might speak freely to her, I was not so sure that it would be wise. As far as I knew she might be a spy herself. The sudden friendship that she had fostered between us gave some color to this suspicion. I didn't want to believe it, for she seemed very sincere in her liking for me; but I could take no chances. I must suspect everyone. In that, I was becoming a true Zani.
She gave some directions to the driver; then she settled back. "Now," she said, "that we are comfortable and alone let's have a good talk. You see we really know very little about one another."
"I have wondered a great deal about you," I said. "You are such an important person, and yet you waste your time on a total stranger."
"I do not feel that I am wasting my time," she said. "It is not a waste of time to make new friends. I really have very few, you know. The war and the revolution took most of them--the war took my man." She said ooljagan--loveman. "I have lived alone ever since--rather a useless life, I am afraid. Now tell me about yourself."
"You know all there is to tell," I assured her.
"Tell me of your life in Vodaro," she insisted. "I should like to know something of the customs and manners of the people of that far country."
"Oh, I'm sure you wouldn't be interested. We are a simple people." I couldn't very well tell her that she probably knew more about Vodaro than I.
"But I would be interested," she insisted. "Tell me how you got here."
I was most uncomfortable. I feel that I am not a very convincing liar. This was really my first essay at really spectacular lying, and I was very much afraid that I might trip myself up. If I lied too much, I should have too many lies to remember. I already had enough to tax my memory as it was. My recollection of even the location of Vodaro was rather hazy. The country was shown on a map I had seen in the library of Danus at Kooaad. I remembered that fact concerning it; and that was about all, except that it was supposed to run far back into Karbol, the cold country.
I had to answer Zerka's question, and my explanation of how I got to Amlot would have to be uncheckable. It was necessary to do a lot of thinking in a split second.
"One of our merchants had chartered a small ship and had loaded it with furs with which he expected to trade for merchandise in foreign countries. We sailed north for a month without encountering land until we sighted Anlap. Here we were overtaken by a terrific storm which wrecked the ship, I was washed ashore, the sole survivor. A kindly farmer took me in, and from him I learned that I was in the Kingdom of Korva, on Anlap. He also told me about the war raging here, and brought me as far as the city gates with a load of farm produce. The rest, I have told you."
"And what was the name of this kindly farmer?" she asked. "He should be rewarded."
"I never learned his name," I said.
She looked at me with the oddest expression that made me feel that she knew I was lying; but perhaps it was only my guilty conscience that suggested that fear. Anyway, she didn't say anything more about the matter, for which I was deeply grateful. As we approached one of the main avenues of the city, I saw men standing on their heads shouting "Maltu Mephis!" and others saluting and shouting the same stereotyped mandatory laudative.
"Our Beloved Mephis must be abroad," I said.
She shot me a quick glance, but I maintained a perfectly serious demeanor. "Yes," she said, "and don't forget to stand up and salute and acclaim him. There is to be a review of troops outside the city. A new unit is going to the front. Our Beloved Mephis is on his way to review them now. Would you be interested in seeing it?"
I told her that I would; so after Mephis's cortege passed, we fell in behind and followed it out onto the plain beyond the city. After Mephis had taken his place and the shouting had died out and men had stopped standing on their heads, Zerka directed our driver to move to a point where we could watch the ceremonies advantageously. A large body of troops was massed at some distance to the left, and at a signal from Mephis, transmitted by trumpet to the waiting troops, they broke into columns of companies and advanced toward the great man so that they would pass before him at the proper distance. It was so similar to the passing in review of troops in civilized countries on Earth that it was rather startling; but when I gave the matter thought, I could not conceive any more practical way of reviewing troops.
When the first company was at about a hundred yards from Mephis, the step was changed. The entire company, in unison, took three steps forward, hopped once on the left foot, took three more steps forward, leaped straight up to a height of about two feet, and then repeated. They continued in this way until they had passed a hundred yards beyond Mephis; and all the time they shouted "Maltu Mephis!" in a sing-song chant.
"Is that not impressive?" demanded Zerka, at the same time watching me carefully as though to detect my exact reaction.
"Very," I said.
"It is an innovation sponsored by Our Beloved Mephis," explained Zerka.
"I could easily imagine that that might be so," I replied