She led them into the lower room that had been the Master's. There she sat idly in a deep chair of ancient craftsmanship, lit a black cigarette at the lamp, and thrust her slim legs carelessly before her, gazing at Hull. But he, staring through the window behind her, could see the dark blot that was Vail Ormiston weeping beside the body of her father.
"Now," said the Princess, "how would you like to die, Hull?"
"Of old age!" he snapped. "And if you will not permit that, then as quickly as possible."
"I might grant the second," she observed. "I might."
The thought of Vail was still torturing him. At last he said, "Your Highness, is your courage equal to the ordeal of facing me alone? I want to ask something that I will not ask in others' ears."
She laughed contemptuously. "Get out," she snapped at the silent guards. "Hull, do you think I fear you? I tell you your great muscles and stubborn heart are no more than those of Eblis, the black stallion. Must I prove it again to you?"
"No," he muttered. "God help me, but I know it's true. I'm not the match for Black Margot."
"Nor is any other man," she countered. Then, more softly, "But if ever I do meet the man who can conquer me, if ever he exists, he will have something of you in him, Hull. Your great, slow strength, and your stubborn honesty, and your courage. I promise that." She paused, her face now pure as a marble saint's. "So say what you have to say, Hull. What do you ask?"
"My life," he said bluntly.
Her green eyes widened in surprise. "You, Hull? You beg your life? You?"
"Not for myself," he muttered. "There's Vail Ormiston weeping over her father. Enoch, who would have married her and loved her, is dead in last night's ambush, and if I die, she's left alone. I ask my life for her."
"Her troubles mean nothing to me," said Margaret of N'Orleans coldly.
"She'll die without someone--someone to help her through this time of torment."
"Let her die, then. Why do you death-bound cling so desperately to life, only to age and die anyway? Sometimes I myself would welcome death, and I have infinitely more to live for than you. Let her die, Hull, as I think you'll die in the next moment or so!"
Her hand rested on the stock of the weapon at her belt. "I grant your second choice," she said coolly. "The quick death."
OLD EINAR AGAIN.
Black Margot ground out her cigarette with her left hand against the polished wood of the table top, but her right rested inexorably on her weapon. Hull knew beyond doubt or question that he was about to die, and for a moment he considered the thought of dying fighting, of being blasted by the beam as he flung himself at her. Then he shook his head; he revolted at the idea of again trying violence on the exquisite figure he faced, who, though witch or demon, had the passionless purity and loveliness of divinity. It was easier to die passively, simply losing his thoughts in the glare of her unearthly beauty.
She spoke. "So die, Hull Tarvish," she said gently, and drew the blunt weapon.
A voice spoke behind him, a familiar, pleasant voice. "Do I intrude, Margaret?"
He whirled. It was Old Einar, thrusting his good-humored, wrinkled visage through the opening he had made in the doorway. He grinned at Hull, flung the door wider, and slipped into the room.
"Einar!" cried the Princess, springing from her chair. "Einar Olin! Are you still in the world?" Her tones took on suddenly the note of deep pity. "But so old--so old!"
The old man took her free hand. "It is forty years since last I saw you, Margaret--and I was fifty then."
"But so old!" she repeated. "Einar, have I changed?"
He peered at her. "Not physically, my dear. But from the stories that go up and down the continent, you are hardly the gay madcap that N'Orleans worshipped as the Princess Peggy, nor even the valiant little warrior they used to call the Maid of Orleans."
She had forgotten Hull, but the guards visible through the half open door still blocked escape. He listened fascinated, for it was almost as if he saw a new Black Margot.
"Was I ever the Princess Peggy?" she murmured. "I had forgotten--Well, Martin Sair can stave off age but he cannot halt the flow of time. But Einar--Einar, you were wrong to refuse him!"
"Seeing you, Margaret, I wonder instead if I were not very wise. Youth is too great a restlessness to bear for so long a time, and you have borne it less than a century. What will you be in another fifty years? In another hundred, if Martin Sair's art keeps its power? What will you be?"
She shook her head; her green eyes grew deep and sorrowful. "I don't know, Einar. I don't know."
"Well," he said placidly, "I am old, but I am contented. I wonder if you can say as much."
"I might have been different, Einar, had you joined us. I could have loved you, Einar."
"Yes," he agreed wryly. "I was afraid of that, and it was one of the reasons for my refusal. You see, I did love you, Margaret, and I chose to outgrow the torture rather than perpetuate it. That was a painful malady, loving you, and it took all of us at one time or another. 'Flame-struck', we used to call it." He smiled reflectively. "Are any left save me of all those who loved you?"
"Just Jorgensen," she answered sadly. "That is if he has not yet killed himself in his quest for the secret of the Ancient's wings. But he will."
"Well," said Olin dryly, "my years will yet make a mock of their immortality." He pointed a gnarled finger at Hull. "What do you want of my young friend here?"
Her eyes flashed emerald, and she drew her hand from that of Old Einar. "I plan to kill him."
"Indeed? And why?"
"Why?" Her voice chilled. "Because he struck me with his hands. Twice."
The old man smiled. "I shouldn't wonder if he had cause enough, Margaret. Memory tells me that I myself have had the same impulse."
"Then it's well you never yielded, Einar. Even you."
"Doubtless. But I think I shall ask you to forgive young Hull Tarvish."
"You know his name! Is he really your friend?"
Old Einar nodded. "I ask you to forgive him."
"Why should I?" asked the Princess. "Why do you think a word from you can save him?"
"I am still Olin," said the aged one, meeting her green eyes steadily with his watery blue ones. "I still carry Joaquin's seal."
"As if that could stop me!" But the cold fire died slowly in her gaze, and again her eyes were sad. "But you are still Olin, the Father of Power," she murmured. With a sudden gesture she thrust her weapon back into her belt. "I spare him again," she said, and then, in tones gone strangely dull, "I suppose I wouldn't have killed him anyway. It is a weakness of mine that I cannot kill those who love me in a certain way--a weakness that will cost me dear some day."
Olin twisted his lips in that skull-like smile, turning to the silent youth. "Hull," he said kindly, "you must have been born under fortunate stars. But if you're curious enough to tempt your luck further, listen to this old man's advice." His smile became a grin. "Beyond the western mountains there are some very powerful, very rare hunting cats called lions, which Martin Sair says are not native to this continent, but were brought here by the Ancients to be caged and gazed at, and occasionally trained. As to that I know nothing, but I do say this, Hull--go twist the tail of a lion before you again try the wrath of Black Margot. And now get out of here."
"Not yet, Hull," snapped the Princess. "I have still my score to settle with you." She turned back to Olin. "Where do you wander now, Einar?"
"To N'Orleans. I have some knowledge to give Jorgensen, and I am homesick besides for the Great City."
He paused. "I have seen Joaquin. Selui has fallen."
"I know. I ride to meet him tonight."
"He has sent representations to Ch'cago."
"Good!" she flashed. "Then there will be fighting." Then her eyes turned dreamy. "I have never seen the saltless seas," she added wistfully, "but I wonder if they can be as beautiful as the blue Gulf beyond N'Orleans."
But Old Einar shook his thin white hair. "What will be the end of this, Margaret?" he asked gently. "After Ch'cago is taken--for you will take it--what then?"
"Then the land north of the saltless seas, and east of them. N'York, and all the cities on the ocean shore."
"Then South America, I suppose."
"And then, Margaret?"
"Then? There is still Europe veiled in mystery, and Asia, Africa--all the lands known to the Ancients."
"And after all of them?"
"Afterwards," she replied wearily, "we can rest. The fierce destiny that drives Joaquin surely cannot drive him beyond the boundaries of the world."
"And so," said Olin, "you fight your way around the world so you can rest at the end of the journey. Then why not rest now, Margaret? Must you pillow your head on the globe of the planet?"
Fury flamed green in her eyes. She raised her hand and struck the old man across his lips, but it must have been lightly, for he still smiled.
"Fool!" she cried. "Then I will see to it that there is always war! Between me and Joaquin, if need be--or between me and anyone--anyone--so that I fight!" She paused panting. "Leave me, Einar," she said tensely. "I do not like the things you bring to mind."
Still smiling, the old man backed away. At the door he paused. "I will see you before I die, Margaret," he promised, and was gone.
She followed him to the doorway. "Sora!" she called. "Sora! I ride!"
Hull heard the heavy tread of the fat Sora, and in a moment she entered bearing the diminutive cothurns and a pair of glistening silver gauntlets on her hands, and then she too was gone.
Slowly, almost wearily, the Princess turned to face Hull, who had as yet permitted no gleam of hope to enter his soul, for he had experienced too much of her mockery to trust the promise of safety Old Einar had won for him. He felt only the fascination that she always bound about him, the spell of her unbelievable black hair and her glorious sea-green eyes, and all her unearthly beauty.
"Hull," she said gently, "what do you think of me now?"
"I think you are a black flame blowing cold across the world. I think a demon drives you."
"And do you hate me so bitterly?"
"I pray every second to hate you."
"Then see, Hull." With her little gauntleted fingers she took his great hands and placed them about the perfect curve of her throat. "Here I give you my life for the taking. You have only to twist once with these mighty hands of yours and Black Margot will be out of the world forever." She paused. "Must I beg you?"
Hull felt as if molten metal flowed upward through his arms from the touch of her white skin. His fingers were rigid as metal bars, and all the great strength of them could not put one feather's weight of pressure on the soft throat they circled. And deep in the lambent emerald flames that burned in her eyes he saw again the fire of mockery--jeering, taunting.
"You will not?" she said, lifting away his hands, but holding them in hers. "Then you do not hate me?"
"You know I don't," he groaned.
"And you do love me?"
"Please," he muttered. "Is it necessary again to torture me? I need no proof of your mastery."
"Then say you love me."
"Heaven forgive me for it;" he whispered, "but I do!"
She dropped his hands and smiled. "Then listen to me, Hull. You love little Vail with a truer love, and month by month memory fades before reality. After a while there will be nothing left in you of Black Margot, but there will be always Vail. I go now hoping never to see you again, but"--and her eyes chilled to green ice--"before I go I settle my score with you."
She raised her gauntleted hand. "This for your treachery!" she said, and struck him savagely across his right check. Blood spouted, there would be scars, but he stood stolid. "This for your violence!" she said, and the silver gauntlet tore his left check. Then her eyes softened. "And this," she murmured, "for your love!"
Her arms circled him, her body was warm against him, and her exquisite lips burned against his. He felt as if he embraced a flame for a moment, and then she was gone, and a part of his soul went with her. When he heard the hooves of the stallion Eblis pounding beyond the window, he turned and walked slowly out of the house to where Vail still crouched beside her father's body. She clung to him, wiped the blood from his cheeks, and strangely, her words were not of her father, nor of the sparing of Hull's life, but of Black Margot.
"I knew you lied to save me," she murmured. "I knew you never loved her."
And Hull, in whom there was no falsehood, drew her close to him and said nothing.
But Black Margot rode north from Selui through the night. In the sky before her were thin shadows leading phantom armies, Alexander the Great, Attila, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Napoleon, and clearer than all, the battle queen Semiramis. All the mighty conquerors of the past, and where were they, where were their empires, and where, even, were their bones? Far in the south were the graves of men who had loved her, all except Old Einar, who tottered like a feeble grey ghost across the world to find his.
At her side Joaquin Smith turned as if to speak, stared, and remained silent. He was not accustomed to the sight of tears in the eyes and on the cheeks of Black Margot.
(All conversation ascribed to the Princess Margaret in this story is taken verbatim from an anonymous volume published in Urbs in the year 186, called "Loves of the Black Flame." It is credited to Jacques Lebeau, officer in command of the Black Flame's personal guard.) THE END.
by Stanley G. Weinbaum
The brown Maori in the bow of the outrigger stared hard at Austin Island slowly swimming nearer; then he twisted to fix his anxious brown eyes on Carver. "Taboo!" he exclaimed. "Taboo! Aussitan taboo!"
Carver regarded him without change of expression. He lifted his gaze to the island. With an air of sullen brooding the Maori returned to his stroke. The second Polynesian threw the zoologist a pleading look.
"Taboo," he said. "Aussitan taboo!"
The white man studied him briefly, but said nothing. The soft brown eyes fell and the two bent to their work. But as Carver stared eagerly shoreward there was a mute, significant exchange between the natives.
The proa slid over green combers toward the foam-skirted island, then began to sheer off as if reluctant to approach. Carver's jaw squared. "Malloa! Put in, you chocolate pig. Put in, do you hear?"
He looked again at the land. Austin Island was not traditionally sacred, but these natives had a fear of it for some reason. It was not the concern of a zoologist to discover why. The island was uninhabited and had been charted only recently. He noted the fern forests ahead, like those of New Zealand, the Kauri pine and dammar--dark wood hills, a curve of white beach, and between them a moving dot--an apteryx mantelli, thought Carver--a kiwi.
The proa worked cautiously shoreward.