My eyes drifted casually to the blank, cold stare of the old Jivro, to the mournful liquid eyes of the Schree, on to the apparently disinterested gaze of the queen's friend. The only ominous feeling I got was from the eyes of the aged insect-man, and my deduction that they were the source of the evils of these people was strengthened. The chills ran down my back, and something within me thrilled as I understood that this queen was playing a part to please the Jivros, that her interests were actually divergent. Her voice was saying: "You could help us greatly by explaining your life to us, who are so different; make it possible that in the future trade and cultural intercourse might spring up between the two alien ways of life. There will be no peace without understanding, you realize!"
"I quite agree with your views, and will help you in any way that I can," I said loudly, for the old Jivro seemed to be hearing with difficulty. He leaned back at my words, seemed to relax as if pleased.
The queen turned to her companion, smiled and said: "Genner, you will see that he is taken care of as a guest, and endeavor to learn what you can from him. I will hold you responsible for the success of this experiment."
"Very well," Genner murmured, "but it seems to me, Wananda Highest, that we can never allow the wall of secrecy between ourselves and the people of this planet to be breached. To consider doing otherwise ..." for an instant his eye hesitated upon hers, then he went on, "... could hardly be logical, but of course, there is much we could learn from them, and they from us. That, I see, as the only purpose of this exception."
Just then a great hullabaloo broke out in the corridors outside, the door burst open, and into the room three captives were borne, half-carried, half-pushed. I stood back out of the way, and the three were prodded into a row in front of the low table. Among them I recognized with a start my erstwhile guard, Holaf, of the Zervs.
Wananda leaned forward, her eyes glittering with sudden triumph, her voice thrilling with a cruel mocking note.
"More of the skulking Zervs fail to avoid our warriors! Where did you find them, Officer?"
"They were attempting to release the captive Croen female in the crystal prison of the cave of the Golden statue, your highness. Our spies among the Zervs informed us of the attempt."
Wananda's eyes blazed at Holaf. Her voice became more shrill with something almost like fear. The three men shrank back visibly from her fury.
"So it is not enough you plot treason, you must also turn against your Gods? You know the Croen powers, you know what she would do to us all, you included. But so that you can overcome the Schrees, nothing else to you is sacred, nothing too vile for you to do. Away with them, let them become the least among the mindless men."
The tall Schree warriors, their long faces expressionless, started to hustle the three captives toward the door again. Holaf wrenched free, turned, his face contorted with hatred.
"You have hounded us until we are but few, Wananda the Faithless, but you will never conquer us. We still have your doom in our hands, and it will find you out. Death to you, woman without mercy, creature without soul! These sacred Jivros plot your downfall, and your people pray that they will succeed. The ancient Jivro rule would be better than the justice you administer, you snake in a woman's flesh!"
The Schree holding Holaf's arms let go, tugged a weapon from his belt, struck Holaf over the head with it. He slumped unconscious, with blood running over his face from the blow. The three were taken out, and Wananda leaned back. Seeing my intent face, she waved a hand to her companion, Genner, who rose to his feet and motioning to me, preceded me from the room by another door than that which I had entered. I followed him.
Apparently I was on my honor, for no guard followed, and Genner bore no weapons I could see but a little jeweled dagger in his belt.
As he walked a step ahead of me, I asked: "Who is this Croen that Holaf spoke of, in the crystal column. I saw her, wondered at her, in the room of the golden goddess. Why do they think she could be released?"
"The Croen are a powerful race of wizards, Carlin Keele. They live far off from our home planets in space, and they have a code of conduct that makes them monitors, doctors, interferers in all matters of other races' business. If she were released, she would at once attempt to overthrow our power, to set up a state after the Croen pattern. It is their way. They consider themselves as superior to all others, and they do have a knowledge of nature which they use to impose their will upon all peoples. They are worshipped as Gods by many primitive people, and so consider themselves above all laws but their own. She was captured many years ago in an attempt to overthrow the rule of Wananda upon a small satellite planet. Wananda did not kill her, but placed her in suspended animation within the protective crystal plastic. Our queen intends to revive her and study her mind for her wisdom, but we have not had time because of the press of events. Soon, now, she will become a tool in our hands to build greater the eminence of Wananda."
"Peculiar looking creature, yet attractive," I murmured.
"The Croens are physically beautiful, but they are warlike and cruel, they do not desire peace and the way of life of the Schrees and Jivros is an irritant to them. They hate and despise us, and we return them the favor."
I did not reply, but my heart seemed to throb in sympathy with the Zerv attempt to free the beautiful creature from her living tomb.
"Could she turn the tables for the Zervs if they had succeeded?"
"I really don't know," answered Genner, opening a door and motioning me into the apartment. "These are my quarters. There is plenty of room, the place is usually empty of all but slaves. I seldom sleep here myself, preferring more congenial and less lonesome sleeping accommodations. I think you will find it comfortable. I will see you at the evening meal time."
As I walked in, the door closed and I heard the lock click. I was a "guest" with reservations.
Curiously I examined the place, the unreadable books kept in niches behind transparent sections of the wall, the strange furnishings, at once exotic and comfortless to me. The books I could not get at, finding no way to open the transparent panels which seemed an integral part of the wall. I could not feel comfortable in the seats and lounges, as they were very low, requiring an oriental squat at which I am not adept. I compromised by stretching out along a hard couch raised some six inches above the floor. There were no gadgets to tinker with, the place was to me barren of necessary appurtenances ... strange people, indeed.
As I was dozing off, the lock clicked in the door, and I sat up, startled to see Wananda glide in and close the door quickly behind her. She was alone, and there was something furtive about her.
"Welcome to my abode, beautiful one."
The woman smiled, an almost human smile; reserved, yet with an unexpected warmth. I waited with intense curiosity for her explanation of her visit.
"I come to you for aid, for I can talk to none of my own. I am in trouble which perhaps no one but you could remedy. Will you give me your honor, will you do what I ask without question, will you be my friend?"
I was taken aback that this apparently powerful personage should be seeking aid of me, a prisoner. I answered: "I see no reason why you should not trust me, as I know no one here to betray you to. But are you not the supreme power here? Why should you want my aid?"
"Because you do not understand my position does not mean that I am not in trouble. These Jivros are difficult allies for one with blood in her veins. I was raised to be a ruler. The Jivro priests were my tutors and my administrators before I came of age. It is only reluctantly they have followed the orders from the rulers of our home planets to obey me. They intend to slay me, and report my death as an accident. I live in fear, and I have long awaited their treachery. There is but one hope for me and that is Cyane, the Superior One whom I saved only by enclosing her in that living coffin. That is what I ask of you--to succeed where the Zervs have failed, and to release her and guide her in flight from here. She can lead your people, save them from these monstrous Jivros who have made of my race the things which you see. I would save your people as well as myself. Will you try to release her?"
I leaned back against the cushions, crossed my legs, took out my pipe. This was not exactly a surprise, but I had not realized the rift between her and the peculiar insect-men was such as to cause her to fear for her life.
"How does one release a person from such a death?" I asked. "In my people's understanding of life, death comes with the stopping of the breath."
"She can be released by an injection of a stimulant which I can obtain for you. She is not dead, but in a condition very near to death, like a spider stung by a wasp. If she were free, she would soon scour your earth clean of the Jivros. Our race needs her even more than your own, yet I must pretend to be her enemy. I must pretend to be your seductress, and worm from you the knowledge which the Jivros will use to conquer and enslave your planet and your people. I must play this part, unnatural to me, of a cruel and heartless ruler, or they will have me killed by some subtle poison which they will call illness. You see, the Jivros are our doctors. Much of the wisdom of our race is in their hands. They are our priests and our administrators. They leave to us only useless occupations which will not allow us to be dangerous. For centuries they have been taking over every vital function of our life. I am allowed to live only so long as I am a willing tool, and foolish enough to wreak their evil will upon my people. It is a part I cannot continue to play. Every instinct of my being shrinks from what I am forced to order done daily, from what I am forced to allow them to do to human beings."
This was a different kettle of fish than I had expected. This slender, lovely creature, with her hands wrung together in pain and sorrow for her brutally maltreated people, this tear-streaked lovely face contorted with an agony which she had not spoken of to anyone else--this actress supreme, who for all her life had pretended to approve of the alien Jivro's sabotage of her own racial stock--was a heart-rending picture, and her own face told me with its extreme tension that what she said was a fact. But perhaps this alien from space could act that well? I preferred to believe her.
"I don't see how you expect me to get a chance to release Cyane of her crystal coffin? I will have no opportunity."
"I will make an opportunity. I am not yet alone or helpless, much as the insects would like me to be. This is my only power, that I am the same blood as the people, and not a Jivro. They know that, and constantly try to destroy this strength of mine by making me commit cruelties which I cannot always avoid for fear of such of them as the old Jivro whom you met at the council. So long as I retain his favor, I live. When he raises his finger in the death signal, my days will be few thereafter."
"I think I understand your position. I have heard of puppet rulers before--woman whom I am delighted to learn has a human heart after all. I am wholly with you, and want you to feel that you can trust me to the hilt."
She smiled and dried her eyes. After a moment she leaned forward, and the glory of her beauty, the near nudity of her utterly graceful body struck at me as she fixed my eyes with her own, her face now intent with will to make me completely understand quickly what she knew must be very obscure to me.
"The Jivros fear the power of Cyane, the Croen captive, as they fear death! The Croens have fought to destroy their power for centuries, on many planets in our area of space. Cyane is one of their greatest. She is a scientist of vast wisdom, and one who has developed a technique of increasing the vitality of life within herself, as well as in anyone she chooses to favor. You could well win from her such gifts, if you should release her. It is one reason I wish to release her, in order to win from her that secret of long life which she holds. The Croens are masters of warfare and she would be able, with only a little help, to develop an attack which they could not withstand."
"If they are so powerful, how is it they have not defeated the Jivros?"
"The Jivros are a very ancient, very widespread race. The Croens came into our space-area recently, as time goes, only three centuries by your time. They were lost. There were only a few hundred in a great ship, and they settled upon a small uninhabited and airless satellite of our home planet, were there for many years before they were discovered. When the Jivros attacked them to destroy them, they found in spite of their innumerable ships and countless warriors they could not harm them. But their attacks angered the superior ones, and they began a campaign of extermination against the insect men's empire. Since the Croen were few, they began to recruit from among the Zervs and other groups who were subservient to the Schrees. The Schrees were the ancient tools of the Jivros, and have always held positions as tributary rulers, since the insect-men themselves found subject peoples obeyed the Schrees more readily. They have always kept the priest-like power and, by poisoning and other devices, remove any Schree puppet who displeases them."
"Go on," I said huskily, her rapt face and intent manner, her utterly lovely ivory body, glittering everywhere with the shining powder which she used, the subtle penetrative scent of her--I was hard put to concentrate upon her words.
"I plan to have the crystal pillar opened, perhaps, have Cyane brought to my own chambers, and I will pretend to set up apparatus to read her sleeping mind and so learn from her. Naturally the Jivros will become suspicious of me if I do so, as they fear the knowledge of the Croen which has always proved too great for them. There will be but a few days time between my action in bringing her here, and my own death or her confiscation by the Jivros. But in order to overrule me in this, they will have to make a pretext, charge me with infidelity, convince the old Jivro that I intend harm to him and his. During that time you must find a way to release Cyane and escape with her."
"Why don't you yourself release her and escape with her?" I asked.
"Because I can be useful to her when she attacks us. Besides, I am constantly under the Jivro eyes, and they know me so well they would see my perturbation, they would know something was wrong and forestall me. You alone could do it, and, too, I depend upon your alien knowledge to provide a barrier or two to their overcoming you. Your weapons which you bore when we captured you--do they fear them?"
"I never shot any of them; I don't know."
"Perhaps I will send you with the party to get Cyane. That way you can find a chance to inject the stimulant when they are not looking. They must remove the crystal from about her to move her; it is too heavy to carry otherwise. Then when she awakes, you can find a way to divert their pursuit, provide a false trail. Do you understand?"
"I could try, but I cannot tell if I could outwit them or not."
"They are really very stupid things, the Jivros. Like an insect, their patterns are fixed and repetitive. They are almost incapable of original thought. Once you know them, you can always outwit them. With you will go my brother, Genner. He may be successful where you are not."
"It is agreed then." I stood up; this low couch made my knees stiff. She took my movement as a dismissal of her, and flushed deeply. I smiled at her embarrassment, and went down on one knee to bring my face level with hers where she half reclined on the bench-like lounge.
"Dear lady," I said in English, not finding the necessary Schree words in my artificial memory for a term of respect--then in Schree phrases, "I will do my utter best to help you and your people. It is my duty to my own race, too, as it is yours to yours. Trust me, so far as good-will may go. Together, we will rid ourselves of these unclean Jivros of yours!"
She rose then, and I stood too, still holding her hand that I had seized in my own to impress her with my sincerity. For an instant she looked at our two hands clasped together, then she placed an arm on my shoulder, leaning against me and trembling slightly with emotion. Tears sprang out in her eyes. She brushed them aside.
I did not know what to do. For fear of offending her, I restrained the impulse to take her in my arms, and it took great willpower.
Something about her aroused my deepest admiration. Here was a woman who had been playing a difficult part for years, whose heart was sore with sorrow for her blighted people, and who must yet seem to approve. The signs of long strain were very plain on her face. I understood that this was one of her greatest fears, that her mind would give way and betray her true emotions to the Jivros.
Clumsily I patted her bare shoulder. For an instant her wet cheek was pressed against my own, then she went gliding swiftly away, her face once again proud and empty of all human feeling. At the door she turned, swept her palm once over her face, removing the tears and as the hand passed upward she smiled as sweetly as a young girl, with a pathetic and utterly charming mischievous expression. Then the palm passed downward, and her face was left again stiff and masklike, the lips twisted a little into a cruel thinness, her eyes hard as agates on my own. She was superb, and I silently applauded. Then she was gone.
As I stood there, musing on the nature and the strange life of Wananda, a mocking, sultry laugh made me whirl, for I had thought I was alone.
Standing beside the tall, open window--a window I had examined and found impossible of exit because beneath it was a straight drop of some seventy or eighty feet--was my erstwhile companion and prisoner, the Zoorph, Carna!
Still in her hand was the long, fantastically ornamented drape behind which she had been concealed during my "secret" interview with the puppet queen.
"You!" I exploded. "Where did you come from and what did you hear?"
"Very interesting things, friend Keele. She is a fascinating woman, is she not?" Carna made a pretty mouth, as if kissing something, and with her fingers a gesture new to me, but one unmistakable in meaning. "She now has your simple heart in her hand, to do with as she wishes. You are a fine fool, you!"
"I thought you had psychic powers. You claim to read minds and foretell the future, and you do not understand that she is fine and honest and utterly admirable! You are the fool, Carna!"
"You are right, and not so simple. I said that only to know if your perceptions were keen enough to know that what she said was true."
"Now you know. How did you get here, what do you want, what have they done to you?"
She snapped her fingers, and gave the Zerv equivalent of "pouf."
"They gave me their tongue, as they did you, I notice. They questioned me much longer than you, as they thought I knew the Zervs might be caught. I did not tell them much. But it was my fault that poor Holaf was caught. I did know he was going to try to revive the Croen captive. They wrung that out of me, and then put me in a room directly above this one. I knew that you were below me from the talk of the guards. I made a rope from the hangings and slipped down to see you. I may go back up when I get ready."
She came toward me as she spoke, her hips undulating exquisitely, that sultry smile of completely improper intent on her beautiful face. She wore still the silkily gleaming black net in which I had first met her. It was torn now and even more revealing.
I fixed my eyes on the wide web of linked emeralds at her throat to keep my eyes from hers, for she had a disturbing power to make a man's head swim and his will disappear. It was perhaps no greater power than many another woman possesses, but to me she was particularly devastating. I moved back as she came toward me, smiling a little, and said in spite of my liking for her: "Keep away from me, Zoorph! You will destroy my soul!"
She laughed huskily.
"What is a soul or so to the passion that could burn us, my Carl? Do you really fear me, stranger from a strange people? Don't you know how much I thirst to drink of your lips! Look at me, you coward. Are you afraid of a woman? Don't you know how curious I am as to how you of this planet make love? I who am a student of love, am most curious about you. Stand still. Here we are prisoners, about to die, perhaps, and you refuse me one sup of pleasure before we die? You are a cruel, and a spineless creature. I despise you, and yet I want you very much."
I kept backing away, around the room, and she pursued me at arm's length, her long graceful legs dramatically striding, making of her pursuit a humorous burlesque, yet I knew she was quite serious about it. If little Nokomee had not warned me against her, I might have succumbed then and there, for, as she said--"What good is a tomorrow that may never exist for us?"
"What did you come for, Carna? To make a fool of me?"
"I thought we might try to escape again, but this pretty queen of the accursed Schrees has charmed you to her will, and I must await a better opportunity. But that does not prevent me from trying to outdo her attraction for you. Do you love her already, Carl?"
"Of course not, I just met her."
This was utterly ridiculous, yet it was a lot of fun and I could see no real reason why I should resist Carna's advances. To me she was about the most attractive woman I had ever met, and I might never see her again. I gave up my retreat, seized the girl almost roughly in my arms, bent her back with a savage, long-drawn kiss and embrace. Then I released her, to see what she would make of an earthman's kiss.
She stood for an instant, her hand pressed to her lips, her eyes wide with surprise, one hand raised as if to push me away. Then she giggled like a young girl, and put both hands on my shoulders.
"So that is what you call love, strange one? Shall I show you how we of far-off Calmar do the first steps of courtship?"
"That would be interesting," I said huskily, my lips burning.
Her voice became low and penetrating.
"You will be two, yet alone, above the all." She said other words whose meanings I did not know. My head swam, my soul seemed to be floating in a sea of new and strange emotions. I sank into a dream state, and with her low suggestive words in my ears, a new world came gradually into form about us, we were two lovers walking among plumed fern-trees, beside deliciously tinkling streams, the songs of birds rang like little bells all about. I was conscious of her warm lips upon my own and of her eyes like two deep dark pools in which my own gaze swam and sank and rose.
Suddenly a rude, loud voice broke in, the dream of paradise vanished from about us.
Before us stood Genner, his face angry, and in the wall I saw the panel by which he had entered where I had thought was only blank wall. He cried: "You, Zoorph, I had thought not to interfere. But you are not going to enslave this man to your will. We need him, and your people need him too, and what you do is not right, for you know as well as I that if he falls entirely under your spell he will be left no will of his own!"
Carna, not even abashed at the intrusion, almost spit as she angrily retorted: "What is the difference whose will he obeys so long as it is what we all desire that gets accomplished? He would be better off with my experienced direction than with his own ignorance of our ways, in anything you plan. Do you think I want to be left out? Do you think I do not desire freedom from the Jivros, too? Do you think I want to be made into a mindless thing when I fail to please them?"
"Never mind; get back where you came from. This man is our ally, not our slave, and your behavior is bad. I will hold this against you. Go!" He pointed at the window with one rigid, outstretched arm, and Carna moved slowly away, saying: "No, Prince, do not think me an enemy! It is only that my heart is moved toward this strange one, I wanted him very much, and how else can a Zoorph love than as she has been taught?"
The prince smiled at her words, his arm fell to his side.
"Very well, little temptress. Kiss your love goodbye. It may be a long time before I let you see him again. If he desires it, you may meet later on. But I will warn him, so that he does not become your slave."
"I would not rob him of his self, my Prince. I have an affection for this one!"
"We will see that you do not, sweet Carna. Now get out, and be quick. The time approaches."
She darted to my side, where I sat still bewildered by the eerie yet utterly delightful experience with the witchery of a Zoorph, pressed burning lips to my own, caressed my cheek with her fingertips, gave my hand a quite American squeeze. Then I watched her slender legs swing up and out of sight as she went up her improvised ladder hand over hand. She was athletic as a dancer.
"Whew," I said, passing my hand over my heated face, and grinning at the Prince.
"Yes, whew! If it had not been for me you would have become her property, for they are very accomplished in making people do what they want."
"Hypnotism, developed beyond anything I ever heard of! It must be hereditary, such power!" I mused aloud. Genner answered as if I spoke to him.
"The word hypnotism I know not, I guess you mean what we call Zoorph. It is a cult, teaching the art of enslaving others to your will. But she is a good girl, and her Zoorph qualities are not evil. For your own sake, remember always to hold yourself in check, or she will automatically become your mistress. A man does not like to be a slave even to so charming a mistress."
I did not say anything. I saw nothing wrong with the idea just then.
"Were you there behind the panel while your sister and I talked?" I asked.
"Of course. To make sure nothing went amiss. If some curious Jivro had come to the door, she would have joined me in the passage."
The Prince sat down across from me on a low stool.
"I will lead this group she will send to bring the Croen. You will naturally accompany us, as I am to keep an eye on you. Wananda will give you the fluid to inject into her veins. You must not be seen making the injection. Somewhere along the way she will revive. She is an extremely strong creature, and will immediately make her escape. I will order none to shoot at her with vibro guns, as we do not wish her harmed. We will hurry back to get ships to pursue and capture her. But we will be unable to capture her.
"If you can manage to keep up with her in her flight, do so. You should be able to outrun a Jivro; they are not very fast. But whether you can keep up with the Croen, that I doubt. However, make the attempt, and when you are alone with her, explain why we want her to escape, who her friends are. If you do not do that, she may elect to make her way through the wilderness, which would be fatal for her. Knowing she has allies among us, she will find a way to attack us."
I grunted. I did not see how they expected one lone woman, however fantastically gifted with wits and know-how, to overcome the ships, armament and organization of the Jivros, even with Wananda working to neutralize their power.
"She must be a wizard; you expect such wonders of her!"