The Price of Monarchy Had Sime been able to follow and watch the girl he had kissed under such unusual circumstances on the night of his arrival on Mars, he would have been both puzzled and enlightened. After her final warning about Scar Balta she dashed into the luxurious gloom of the passage. At an intersection a maid was awaiting her. She curtseyed as she threw a cape over the girl's shoulder, and together they hurried out into the night.
A magnificently uniformed hotel servant called a private car, drew the vitrine curtains, and saluted as the car lifted sharply into the chilly night air. The car sped across the canal to the jeweled city across the water, to a residence district whose magnificence even the pale night light revealed.
The two women entered a mansion of glittering metal and came to a private apartment.
"Everybody's gone to bed," said the girl, addressing her maid. "That's one thing we can be thankful for."
"Yes, Your Highness. Did you discover anything of importance in the man's room?"
"No. Draw me a bath, Mellie. He--he caught me--and kissed me!"
The maid, with flasks of perfume and aromatic oils in her hand, paused, discreetly impudent.
"You seem not displeased, Your Highness."
"But of that he had no inkling." And Princess Sira laughed. "I left him standing, utterly at a loss. He took me for a common assassin, and yet he wanted to kiss me. That pleased me. But if he had valuable information he kept it. And I promised him death for his kiss."
As Princess Sira, claimant to the throne of a planet, slipped into the tepid waters of her bath, Mellie stood by, her smooth little Martian's face disturbed. For she loved her mistress, and could not comprehend the things she did under ambition's sway.
"Your Highness, couldn't you let your royal friends do these dangerous things for you?"
"For what? For fear? And how could a Martian princess who knows fear lay claim to a throne? No, Mellie, one gets used to it. The enemies of the house of Sira are ever alert. Didn't they murder my father and my mother, and my only brother? My peril in this palace is as great as in the room of a terrestrial detective. Only their fear of the people--"
She was interrupted by the tinkling of a bell. The maid left the alcove, and returned a moment later with the news that Joro, Prince of Hanlon, awaited the princess's pleasure in the ante-room.
"At this hour!" exclaimed the princess. "Did he say what brought him here?"
"Something about a new plot."
"Plots! They fall thicker than rain on Venus. Bid him wait."
Fifteen minutes later, swathed in a trailing orange silk robe that made her look like a Venus orchid, she greeted the prince.
"Greetings, Joro. We seem to have the unusual this night."
The prince, a thin, elderly man of medium stature, smiled admiringly. His sharp features and bright little button eyes gave some hint of the energy which suffused him. Here was a man both ruthless and loyal to his royal house. He addressed her by her given name.
"The hour seems to make no difference with you; Phobos has set, but as long as you are awake there is loveliness enough. I have come, dear one, to tell you that success is ours at last!"
Sira smiled. "I will restrain my joy, my good Joro, until I hear the price."
"Always the same!" Joro chuckled. "A price, 'tis true, but not too heavy, since you are, in a manner, fond of him."
"I've had vague promises from Wilcox," Sira said, with a wry smile. "I would rather trade places with Mellie than be espoused by that madman."
"Not Wilcox, but Scar Balta. He is badly smitten, for which I can not blame him. He has great political power, and the backing of the military. He could have dictated better terms, but for love of you has yielded, point after point. He wants nothing now but your hand in marriage, and is prepared to cede to the royal cause all the advantages he has gained--"
"Not to mention," Sira interjected, "the royal prestige he will gain with the common people."
Joro laughed, a little impatiently.
"True, true! But after all, what does the support of the people amount to? They are powerless. If you are ever to establish your royal house you must have other help."
"And I suppose," Sira continued sweetly, "that you have also arranged a deal with the central banks and the secret war interests?"
Joro coughed uncomfortably.
"As a matter of fact--you see, my dear princess, there are certain commercial interests--transportation, mining, and so forth. They have defied the power of the bankers. They are likely to upset our whole order of society. They need a set-back. And the military men are chafing at their inaction. The war will be ended before too much harm is done, by agreement of the interplanetary bankers. You see--"
"No!" Sira interrupted him coldly. "No! No! No! Oh, I'm sick of the whole thing! I'm sick of the men I know! I hate Scar Balta, and you too. I would rather be the wife of a common interplanetary patrolman than queen of Mars! I withdraw, now!"
Joro, struck by her vehemence, paled. The muscles of his jaw lumped. From a pocket he took a portable disk-radio, an inch in diameter, and spoke a few words. From outside there was a sudden uproar, shouts and curses. The draperies moved, as with an outrush of air caused by the careless handling of an airlock, and the temperature dropped suddenly.
Sira was irresolute only a split second. With a cat-like leap she seized a short sword from the wall, made a lunge at the prince. But Joro, the veteran of many a battle of wits and arms, parried the stroke with the thick barrel of his neuro-pistol, caught the girl's wrist and disarmed her. The screams of the maid went unheeded.
From the other parts of the palace came sounds of struggle, the clashing of sword on sword.
"Sira! Sira!" Joro panted, struggling to hold the girl. "You must give up your impractical ideas! Take the world as it is. Do as I tell you and you'll not be sorry."
"I relinquish my claims!" the girl cried fiercely. "To-morrow I will publicly announce that decision. All my life has been spent feeding that hopeless ambition. Now I will be free!"
"I am loyal to the monarchy," Joro grunted, pinioning her arms at last. "I will guard your interest against yourself."
He began to shout: "Hendricks, Mervin, Carpender, Nassus! Here, to the princess's chamber."
Several men, after further delay and fighting, responded. They wore civilian blouses and trousers, but there was that something in their alert carriage that proclaimed them trained fighting men. One of them sat down with a grunt on the threshold, holding his hand to a bleeding wound under his armpit. He appeared to be mortally wounded.
Most of the others carried minor wounds, showing that the palace guards had put up a good battle in the sword-play. Both sides had refrained from using the neuro-pistols for fear that the beams, which readily penetrated walls at short range, might injure the princess.
"Let go!" Sira wrenched herself free. "Where is Tolto? Has Tolto turned traitor? How did you get past Tolto?"
"Do not use that ugly word against me. I implore you!" Joro protested. "What we are doing is out of loyalty to the monarchy--not treason. The monarchy is of greater importance than individuals. Consider your duty to the rule of your fathers! As for Tolto--"
He issued a curt command, and there was the sound of movement. Presently four men staggered in, one to each leg, each arm, of the most impressive giant Mars had ever produced--Tolto, to whom there was no god but the one divinity: and Princess Sira was she. Slow of perception, mighty of limb, he had come into her service from some outlying agricultural region of the red planet. His tremendous muscles were hers to command or destroy, as she wished. He would not have consented to this invasion of her home, she knew!
And he had not. Joro had been too wise to try. A dose of marchlor in a glass of wine had done what fifty men could not have accomplished by main strength. Tolto was in a drugged sleep.
Joro said: "He isn't hurt. We will simply send him back to his valley, and you, my dear princess, will do your duty to your subjects!"
And there, though he probably did not know it, Prince Joro harked back to the youth of the human race--the compensatory, atavistic principle that gods, rulers, kings, must hold themselves in readiness as sacrifices for the good of their subjects. Joro might have been a tribal high priest invoking their dread rule in the dawn of time. The Martians were, for all their scientific advancement, still the descendants of those prehistoric human savages. Sira knew, instinctively, that the people who loved her would nevertheless approve of Joro's judgment.
Torture When Sime awoke it was to the rattling of the door. Murray stirred. The light was even weaker than before.
"If they offer you a drink, drink hearty!" Murray muttered, sitting up. "I've got an idea it's going to be a hard day."
But they were not offered any water. Instead they were again conducted before Scar Balta, who looked at them morosely. At last he remarked gruffly: "If you tin sojers weren't so cursed stubborn, you could get yourself a nice berth in the Martian army. Ever consider that?"
"Talk sense!" Sime said contemptously. "If I threw down the service how could you trust me?"
"That'd be easy," Balta rejoined. "Once the I. F. P. finds out you joined us you'd have to stick with us to save your skin."
He laughed at his prisoners' look of surprise.
"Come, come!" he bantered. "You didn't think that I was ignorant of your purpose here? You, Murray; your spying was excellent, I'll admit. You were the first to give away certain plans of ours. Well, well! We don't hold that against you. Wheels within wheels, eh? It would perhaps astonish certain braided gentleman of our high command to learn that I, a mere colonel, control their destinies. As our ancestors would say, it's dog eat dog.
"Now, how about it? I can make a place for you in my organization. It seems to run to secret service, oddly enough. You will be rewarded far beyond anything you could expect in your present career of chasing petty crooks from Mercury to Pluto and back again."
"Is that all?" Murray asked softly, with a bearded grin.
"Oh no. You will turn over to me all the information you can about the I. F. P. helio code. You will name and describe to me each and every plainclothes operative of the service--and you should have an extensive acquaintance."
"Before you answer," Murray said quietly at Sime's side, "let me suggest that you consider what's in store for us--or you--if you don't take up this offer."
"Why, you--" Sime whirled in astonished fury upon his companion. "Didn't you--"
But he did not complete his reference to last night's surreptitious conversation. It seemed that he saw the merest ghost of a flicker in Murray's left eye.
"--Didn't you say you'd stick no matter what they did?" he finished lamely.
Murray hung his head.
"I'm getting along," he muttered. "Not as young as I used to be. This life is getting me nowhere. Why be a fool? Come along with me!"
"Why, you dirty, double-crossing hound!" Sime's exasperation knew no bounds. For an instant he had believed that Murray was enacting a little side-play in the pursuit of a suddenly conceived plan. But he looked so obviously hangdog--so guiltily defiant....
Crack! Sime's fist struck Murray's solid jaw, scraping the skin off his knuckles, but Murray swayed to the blow, sapping its force, and came in to clinch. They rolled on the floor. Murray twisted Sime's head painfully, bit his ear. But in the next split second he was whispering: "Keep your head, Sime. Can't you see I'm stringing him? Take that!" And he planted a vicious short hook to Sime's midriff.
Balta had squalled orders, and now Martian soldiers were bursting the buttons off their uniforms in the scrimmage to separate the battlers. Bruised and battered, they were dragged apart. Murray's one eye was now authentically closed, and rapidly coloring up. Unsteadily he got to his feet. With mock delicacy he threw a kiss to his late antagonist.
"Farewell, Trueheart!" He bowed ironically, and the men all laughed.
Balta grinned too. "Still the same mind, Hemingway? All right, men, take him up to the observation post. Here, Murray, have a drink."
Sime was led up a seemingly endless circular staircase. After an interminable climb he saw the purplish Martian sky through the glass doors of an airlock. Then they were outside, in the rarefied atmosphere that sorely tried Sime's lungs, still laboring after the fight and long ascent. The Sun, smaller than on Earth but intensely bright, struck down vindictively.
"A good place to see the country," laughed the corporal in charge. "Off with his clothes!"
It was but a matter of seconds to strip Sime's garment from him. They dragged him to an upright post, one of several on the roof, and with his back to the post, tied his wrists behind it with rawhide. His ankles they also tied, and so left him.
It was indeed an excellent point of vantage from which to see the country. The fortress was high enough to clear the nearby cliffs of low elevation, and on all sides the Gray Mountains tumbled to the horizon. To the north, beyond that sharply cut, ragged horizon, lay the big cities, the industrial heart of the planet. To the south, at Sime's back, was the narrow agricultural belt, the region of small seas, of bitter lakes, of controlled irrigation. Here the canals, natural fissures long observed by astronomers and at first believed to be artificial, were actually put to the use specified by ancient conjecture, just as further north they had been preempted as causeways of civilization. Sime painfully worked his way around the post so that he could look south. But here too nothing met his eye but the orange cliffs with their patches of gray lichen. There was no comfort to be had in that desolate landscape. Nevertheless, Sime kept moving around, to keep the post between himself and the Sun. Already it was beginning to scorch his skin uncomfortably.
By the time it was directly overhead Sime had stopped sweating. The dry atmosphere was sucking the moisture out of his body greedily, and his skin was burned red. His suffering was acute.
The Martian day is only a little more than a day on Earth, but to Sime that afternoon seemed like an eternity. Small and vicious, with deadly deliberation, the sun burned its way down a reluctant groove in the purple heavens. Long before it reached the horizon, Sime was almost unconscious. He did not see its sudden dive into the saw-edge of the western mountains--knew only that night had come by the icy whistle of the sunset wind that stirred and moaned for a brief interval among the rocks. The keen, thin wind that first brought relief and then new tortures, to be followed by freezing numbness.
Above, in the blackness, the stars burned malignantly. Drug to his misery they were, those familiar constellations, which are about the only things that look the same on all planets of the solar system. But they were not friendly. They seemed to mock the motionless human figure, so tiny, so inconsequential, that stared at them, numerous tiny pinpricks of light, so remote.
There was no dawn, but after aeons Sime saw the familiar green disk of Earth coming up in the east, one of the brightest stars. Sime fancied he saw the tiny light flick of the moon. There would be a game of blackjack going on somewhere there about now. He groaned. The Sun would not be far behind now.
But he must have slept. The Sun was up before he was aware of it. A man with a caduceus on his blouse collar was holding his wrist, feeling his pulse. He seemed to be a medical officer of the Martian army. His smooth, coral face was serious as he prodded Sime's shriveled tongue.
"Water, quick!" he snapped,--"or he's done for."
His head was tipped back and water poured into his mouth, but Sime could not swallow. The soldier with the bucket poured dutifully, however, almost drowning the helpless man. It helped, anyway; and Sime returned to half-consciousness. A few minutes later, when Scar Balta came to inquire if he had changed his mind, Sime was able to curse thickly. And around noon, when Murray, jauntily dressed in the uniform of a Martian captain, bid him a cheerful good-by, Sime was almost fluent.
His torture had now reached the pitch of exquisite keenness that made it something spiritual. Solicitously they kept him alive, and far back in his mind Sime wondered why they bothered to do that. Couldn't they be satisfied with what they could learn from Murray?
So passed the second day, and the third.
On the fourth day Sime was able to drink water freely, and to eat the food they placed into his mouth, a fact which the medical officer noted. The torture was wearing itself out. Sime's body was emaciated, stringy, burnt black. But his extraordinary toughness was weathering conditions that would kill most men. Balta shook his head in wonderment when this was reported to him.
"Can't wait any longer for him. Must get back to Tarog. You might as well put him out of his misery. By the way, I'm convinced that Murray is double-timing me. But I'll attend to that personally."
From his post of pain Sime saw the official car leave toward Tarog. Had he known of Balta's remark he would not have been puzzled so much by what he saw.
As the ship was about to disappear over the ragged northern horizon, Sime's bleared eyes saw, or he thought they saw, a human figure silhouetted against the pitiless sky. It was a tiny-seeming figure at that distance, but it was clear-cut in the rare atmosphere. Then it plunged from sight.
"Somebody taken for a ride," he muttered, half grateful for the brief distraction from his own misery.