It happened that there was a service corridor close at hand. Down this she sped, into the darkness of a boat-house. The doors were barred and locked, of course, but the depths of the water showed a faint greenish glimmer of light. Sira dived in, unhesitatingly, and after an easy underwater swim she emerged in the open canal. There was a considerable swell, for there was a slight breeze blowing from the north across twenty miles of water, but this did not distress Sira at all. She undulated through the waves with perfect comfort. Phobos was just rising in the west, and orientating herself by this tiny moon she struck out in a north-easterly direction, seeking a favorable current to carry her toward Tarog.
Early explorers on Mars were astonished to find that the canals were not stagnant bodies of water, but possessed currents, induced by wind, by evaporation, and the influx of fresh water from the polar ice caps.
This was near the equator, however, and the water was not unreasonably cold, although the night air was, as usual, chilly. After a few minutes Sira discarded her clothing, and so settled down to a long swim.
Ten miles out she struck a brisk easterly current, flowing toward Tarog, and she gave herself up to it. Floating on her back she saw the lights of the prince's ships flying back and forth over the water in search of her--or her body. But none came near her, and she was content.
The abrupt tropical dawn found her in mid-canal, half-way to Tarog. She had no intention of swimming all the way to the capital city, to be fished ignominiously out of the canal by the police. She was in need, not only of clothing, but of clothing that would disguise her. Her coral pink body near the surface of the water would attract attention for considerable distance, and would lead to unwelcome inquiries.
She was glad when she saw a fishing scow anchored in the current ahead of her. The man who owned it had his back to her, fishing down-current. She approached the boat silently and worked her way around it by holding to the gunwale.
Sira now saw that the fisherman was old, gnarled and sunburned so dark that he was almost black, despite the dilapidated and dirty pith helmet he was wearing. His lumpish face was deeply seamed and wrinkled. His sunken mouth told of missing teeth, and his long, unkempt hair was bleached to a dirty gray.
"Have you an old coat you can lend me?" Sira asked, swimming into view.
The rheumy eyes rolled, settled on the water nymph. The old man showed no surprise, but pious disgust. His eyes rolled up, and in a cracked voice intoned: "Wicked, wicked! O great Pantheus, thy temptations are great--thy visions tormenting. In my old age must I ever and ever live over--"
"Foolish old man!" Sira snapped. "I'm not a vision!" She dragged down an old sack that hung over the gunwale, washed it, and tearing holes in the rotten fabric for her arms and head, slipped it on. It was a large sack, coming to her knees; satisfied, she climbed aboard, where she spread her black hair to dry.
"Not a vision?" the old man quavered. "Then thou art reality, come to gladden my old age--nay--to return youth to me! In my hut there is an old hag. She shall go--"
Sira did not answer. She was neither disgusted nor amused by the dark torrent that stirred in this decrepit old fisherman. She saw only that he had pulled in his nets and was bowing his long arms to the oars, pulling for shore.
It took about two hours before they reached the fisherman's hut, a nondescript, low-ceilinged shelter of logs, driftwood and untarnished metal plates off some wreck. Several times they were hailed by other fishermen, who addressed the old man as "Deacon" and asked jocularly about what kind of a fish he had there.
The deacon's wife awaited them. The old man's description of her as a hag had not been far wrong. She, was as diminutive and weakened as he was ponderous and heavy. She was acid. Her skin was like a pickled apple's; her expression sour, her voice sharp.
"Hoy there, you old hypocrite!" she hailed when they came in earshot. "So this is the way you lose a day! Who's the hussy with you?"
The deacon nosed the old and evil-smelling scow into the bank. His eyes rolled piously.
"The great Pantheus sent her. He said--"
The old woman came closer and inspected Sira, who endured her gaze calmly. That look was like the bite of acid that reveals the structure of crystal in metals.
"Why, she's a lady!" she exclaimed then. "Not fittin' to be on the same canal with you! Come in, my dear. You must be nearly dead!"
She conducted Sira into the hut, which was far neater and cleaner than its exterior suggested.
"A lady!" she repeated. "In that heat! Young woman, what made you do it? Look at those arms--near burnt! Let me take off that old sack. But wait!"
She tip-toed to the door, threw back the faded curtain sharply. The deacon, too surprised to move, was standing there in the attitude of one who seeks to see and hear at the same time. He lingered long enough to receive two resounding slaps before fleeing to his boat, followed by a string of curdling remarks.
Back inside, she proceeded to anoint Sira's body, exclaiming her pleasure at its perfection. The oil smelled fishy, but it was soothing, and it was not long before the claimant to the throne of Mars was deep in restful slumber.
Late that afternoon the deacon returned and hung his nets up to dry. He was dour, his fever having left him. But he had a strange story to impart.
"I think that girl I picked up is the Princess Sira," he told the old woman. "On the fish buyer's barge, in the teletabloid machine, I saw the forecast of her wedding to Scar Balta. And I'll swear it's the same girl!"
"And why," queried his wife, "would she be swimming in the middle of the canal if she was getting ready to marry Scar Balta?"
"That's just it!" the deacon exclaimed, and his eyes began to roll again. "They say it's not a love match! Oh, not in the teletabloid! They wouldn't dare hint such a thing. But the men on the barge. They say there's a rumor that she ran away. And she looks like the girl I picked up, though I thought--"
"Never mind what you thought!" she snapped. "It may be, I served the oligarchy and the noble houses--before I was fool enough to run away with a no-good fisherman--and I can see she is a lady. Well, she can trust in me."
"They say," the deacon hinted, "that if one went to Tarog, and inquired at the proper place, there would be a reward."
The little old woman chilled him, she looked so deadly.
"Deacon Homms!" she hissed. "If you sell this poor little girl to Scar Balta, your hypocritical white eyes will never roll again, because I'll tear them out and feed them to the fish. Understand?"
Considerably shaken, the deacon said he understood.
But the next morning, on the placid bosom of the canal, he forgot her warning. The fleshpots of Tarog called him. Tarog, where he had spent youth and money with a lavish hand. Tarog, where a reward awaited him.
He hauled in his anchor, gave the unwieldy boat to the current and bent to the oars.
Back in the hut, unsuspecting of treachery, Mrs. Homms and Sira were rapidly striking up a friendship. A shrewd judge, of character herself, Sira did not hesitate to admit her identity, and without any prying questioning the old woman soon had the whole story. It thrilled her, this review of the life she had once seen as a servant.
"I wonder if I will ever see Tarog again!" she sighed wistfully.
"You shall!" Sira promised, "if you help me."
"I will do what I can gladly."
"I need a workingman's trousers and blouse, and a sun-hat that will shade my face. I have a plan, but I must get to Tarog. Can you get me these things?"
"I have no money, but wait!" She rummaged with gnarled fingers in a chink in the wall, withdrew a small brooch-pin of gold, with a pink terrestrial pearl in its center.
"My last mistress gave me this," she said smiling sadly. "I will row to the trading boat and buy what you need. There will be a little money left to buy your passage on a freight barge."
And that was why, when the deacon arrived at the head of a squad of soldiers that evening, there was no girl of any description to be found. Ignoring the cowering and unhappy reward seeker, the old woman delivered her dictum to the sergeant in charge.
"Princess? Ha! The deacon, sees princesses and mermaids in every mud bank. His imagination grew too and crowded out his conscience. No, mister, there ain't any princess here."
In the Desert Mellie, Sira's personal maid, was too disturbed by her mistress's kidnaping to seek other employment. She saw the teletabloid forecasts of the wedding, made life-like by clever technical faking, but rumors of the princess' escape were circulating freely despite a rigid censorship. She imagined that lovely body down in the muck of the canal, crawled over by slimy things, and she was sick with horror.
Mellie lived with her brother, Wasil Hopspur, and her aged mother. Wasil was an accomplished technician in the service of the Interplanetary Radio and Television Co., and his income was ample to provide a better than average home on the desert margin of South Tarog. Here Mellie sat in the glass-roofed garden, staring moodily at the luxuriant vegetation.
She looked abstractedly at the young man coming down the garden walk, annoyed by the disturbance. There was something familiar in the sway of his hips as he walked.
And then she flew up the path. Her arms went around the visitor, and Mellie, the maid, and Princess Sira kissed.
Mellie was immediately confused. A terrible breach of etiquette, this. But Sira laughed.
"Never mind, Mellie. It is good for me, a fugitive, to find a home. Will you keep me here?"
"Will I?" Mellie poured into these words all her adoration.
"Mellie, the time has come for action. Not for the monarchy. I am sick of my claims. I would give it all--You remember the young officer of the I. F. P.? The one who kissed me?"
"Well, that comes later. First I must consider the war conspiracy. Have you heard of it?"
"There are rumors."
"They are true. Will Wasil help me?"
"He has worshiped you, my princess, ever since the time I let him help me serve you at the games."
"One more question." Sira's eyes were soft and misty. "My dear Mellie, you realize that I may be trailed here? What may happen to you?"
"Yes, my princess. And I don't care!"
As Murray parted from his brother-in-arms, Sime Hemingway, on the roof of the cylindrical fortress in the Gray Mountains, he felt the latter's look of bitter contempt keenly. He longed bitterly to give Sime some hint, some assurance, but dared not, for Scar Balta's cynical smile somehow suggested that he could look through men and read what was in their hearts. So Murray played out his renegade part to the last detail, even forcing his thoughts into the role that he had assumed in order that some unregarded detail should not give him away. He convinced the other I. F. P. man, anyway.
But Murray had an uneasy feeling that Balta was laughing at him, and when the shifty soldier politician invited him into his ship for the ride back to Tarog, Murray had a compelling intuition that he would not be in a position to step out of the ship when it landed on the parkway of Scar Balta's hotel.
Having infinite trust in his intuitions, Murray thereupon made certain plans of his own.
He noted that the ship, which was far more luxurious than one would expect a mere army colonel to own, had a trap-door in the floor of the main salon. Murray pondered over the purpose of this trap. He could not assign any practical use for it, in the ordinary use of the ship.
But he could not escape the conviction that it would be a splendid way to get rid of an undesirable passenger. Dropped through that trap-door a man's body would have an uninterrupted fall until it smashed on the rocks below.
Murray then examined the neuro-pistol that had been given him. It looked all right. But when he broke the seal and unscrewed the little glass tube in the butt, he discovered that it was empty. The gray, synthetic radio-active material from which it drew its power had been removed.
Murray grinned at this discovery, without mirth. It was conclusive.
At the first opportunity he jostled one of the soldiers, knocking his neuro-pistol to the floor--his own, too. And when he apologetically stooped and retrieved them the mollified soldier had the one with the empty magazine.
So far, so good. Murray noted that the wall receptacles were all provided with parachutes. It would be simple to take one of these, make a long count, and be on the ground before he was missed. Provided that he could leave unobserved.
The ship was now well in the air, and beginning to move away from the fort. But they were only ten miles away, and Murray had hardly expected that Balta would be in such a hurry.
"You get off here!" Balta said, and Murray felt the muzzle of the neuro-pistol on his spinal column.
A grinning soldier seized a countersunk ring and raised the trap-door.
"So you're going to murder me," Murray said, speaking calmly.
"I take no chances," was Balta's short answer. "Step!"
Murray stepped, swaying like a man in deadly fear. He lowered his feet through the hole. Looking down, he saw that they were about to pass over a bitter salt lake, occasionally found in the Martian desert. He looked up into the muzzle of the menacing neuro-pistol.
"Balta, you're a dog!" he stated coldly.
"A live dog, anyway," the other remarked with a twisted grin. "You know the saying about dead lions."
Murray's fingers clenched on the edge of the rug. It was thin and strong, woven of fine metal threads. They were just over the edge of the salt lake.
Murray dropped through, but retained his death-like grip on the rug. It followed jerkily, as the men above tripped, fell, and rolled desperately clear.
Murray's heart nearly stopped as he fell the first thousand feet. The rug, sheer as the finest silk, failed to catch the wind. It ran out like a thin rivulet of metal, following Murray in his unchecked drop.
But he had a number of seconds more to fall, and he occupied the time left to him. He fumbled for corners, found two, lost precious time looking for the others. He had three corners wrapped around one hand when the wind finally caught the sheer fabric, bellied it out with a sharp crack. The sudden deceleration nearly jerked his arm out.
Even so, he was still falling at a fearful rate. The free corner was trailing and snapping spitefully, and the greasy white waters of the lake were rushing up!
At any rate, the rug held him upright, so that he did not strike the water flat. His toes clove the water like an arrow, and the rug was torn from his grasp. The water crashed together over his head with stunning force. After that it seemed to Murray that he didn't care. It didn't matter that his eyes stung--that his throat was filled with bitter alkali. All of his sensations merged in an all-pervading, comfortable warmth. There was a feeling of flowing blackness, of time standing still.
Murray's return to consciousness was far less pleasant. His entire body was a crying pain: every internal organ that he knew of harbored an ache of its own. He groaned, and by that token knew that he was breathing.
As unwillingly he struggled back to consciousness he realized that he was inside a rock cave, lying on a thin, folded fabric that might well be the rug that had served as an emergency parachute. He could see the irregular arch of the cave opening, could catch hints of rough stone on the interior.
He sat up with an effort. There was a vile taste in his mouth, and he looked around for something to drink. There was a desert water bottle standing on the floor beside him. That meant he had been found and rescued by some Martian desert rat who had probably witnessed his fall. He rinsed out his mouth with clean, sweet spring water from the bottle, drank freely. His stomach promptly took advantage of the opportunity to clear itself of the alkali, and Murray, controlling his desire to vomit, crawled outside into the blinding light of the Martian afternoon. He saw that the cave was high up on the side of one of the more prominent cliffs. There were many such hollowed places, indicating that the sloping shelf on which he now lay had once been the beach of a vast sea which at some time must have covered all but the higher peaks of the Gray Mountains. It was, of course, the sea that had deposited the scanty soil which here and there covered the rocks. During geologic ages it shrunk until it all but disappeared, leaving only a few small and bitter lakes in unexpected pockets.
There was a succession of prehistoric beaches below Murray's vantage point, marking each temporary sea level, giving the mountain a terraced appearance. A thousand feet below was the white lake, sluggish and dead.
Murray was looking for the man who had saved him. He was able to discern him, after a little effort, toiling up the steep slopes. He was still nearly all the way down. He could see only that he seemed to be dressed in white desert trousers and blouse, and that he wore a broad-brimmed sun helmet. He was carrying something in a bag over his shoulder. He was making the difficult ascent with practiced ease, his body thrown well forward, making fast time for such an apparently deliberate gait.
The desert glare hurt Murray's eyes. He closed them and fell asleep. He awoke to the shaking of his shoulder, looked up into a black-bearded face, a beard as fierce and luxuriant as his own. But where Murray was bald, this man's hair was as thick and black as his beard. He had thrown off his helmet, so that his massive head was outlined against the sky. His torso was thick, his shoulders broad. Large, intelligent eyes and brilliant coral skin proclaimed the man to be a native of Mars.