Kingdom of the Silver Sea

by Sawyer Grey (UNEDITED PROOF)
 

Chapter 5
ASSASSINS OF EHNVAR DARSIC

 
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Chapter 1 - Trapped in Odusar
Chapter 2 - The Death of Kent
Chapter 3 - Return to Stanleyville
Chapter 4 - The Vengeance of Mor Teral
Chapter 5 - Assassins in Ehnvar Darsic
Chapter 6 - The Karthasa
Chapter 7 - The Silver Sea
Chapter 8 - Among the Martians
 

"What do we do now?" Hicks asked.

We sat in Aurora's small galley along with Commander Jackson and Hicks' soldiers, sipping hot coffee to revive us after our exertions of the day before. I looked at Mor Teral, but he continued to stare out over the empty wastes stretching out below us as though he had not heard. One of Jackson's men had patched up his cuts and gashes from the duel when we returned, but the wounds to his heart continued to bleed raw anguish so I was sure that he was beset by second thoughts of the beautiful girl he had turned away.

"The only clue I have to go on is something that one of the anarchist leaders said that night we overheard their conversation in their base, Hicks. The one they called Martin said that they had a new base in the south, which was supposed to be ready in some weeks."

The lieutenant winced. "But three-fourths of Mars is south of Odusar."

"Exactly."

I tried to keep the despair out of my voice, but I do not know how well I succeeded. There was simply no way for one man, no matter how driven, to search every place on Mars that the anarchists might have gone. I was determined to manage it, though, and I was going to find Charlotte if I had to tear Mars apart rock by rock to do so. Jackson gave me a pitying look and refilled my mug.

"It can't be hopeless, Captain" he said. "And Aurora is yours as long as you want her."

"Have you got a map of Mars?" I asked. When he nodded, I said, "Let's see if we can pick out some likely hiding places."

We rolled the long map out on the galley table and looked it over. The northern hemisphere was fairly detailed, with small black dots indicating Earth settlements or outposts sprinkled over the old sea basins, and a handful thrown across the mountains of Syrtis where Cavorite was mined. Except for the very largest physical features, the southern hemisphere was mostly blank space. Both the terrain and inhabitants of the south tended to be wilder than in the north, so it remained but little explored. More than half of the expeditions that set out for the south never returned, which did not exactly encourage further exploration.

"The region around the Hellas Sea seems like a good spot," said Hicks. "They would have easy access to food and water, and it's not too long a voyage by airship from Odusar."

I shook my head. "Margaret – Mrs. Wylie – says that there is a remnant Martian civilization holding out around the shores of Hellas, like the one in Tharsis where the High Emperor reigns. They would be hostile to any humans."

"What about the Argyre Sea?" Jackson asked.

"It's completely surrounded by those rings of high mountains, and it has been terra incognita since the Collapse. If they could get their airships through a pass to the interior, I suppose it would do nicely as a hideout."

We went on like that for some time. Unfortunately Mars is full of good places to hide; its vast unexplored regions and endless abandoned cities could swallow most of the inhabitants of Earth without a trace. After an hour Hicks slumped in his chair, thoroughly dejected, and even Commander Jackson looked grave at the scale of the task before us. I traced the line of the great equatorial valleys on the map with my fingertips and tried to decide which of the long list of possibilities would be the logical starting place for our search. As is often the case, the answer was not among the obvious choices. I tapped a solitary dot nestled in the old sea bottom near the remains of the Chryse Sea.

"Ehnvar Darsic. We'll start there."

Hicks looked puzzled. "Why?"

"Because the anarchists have to get supplies from somewhere. That's one of the few places on Mars they could go and buy whatever they need to set up and maintain a hidden base without attracting attention."

"I don't understand. What's so special about that place?"

"Well, on Mars pretty much nobody likes anyone else," Jackson told him. "Everyone – civilized Martians, barbarian Martians, human barbarians, and Earthmen – fight each other and among themselves wherever they meet. About fifteen years ago the chartered companies decided that this was really putting a crimp in their business, so Tharsis and Syrtis decided that what Mars needed was a neutral city where everyone was welcome to trade. They looked around and found Ehnvar Darsic; it's in a decent spot close to the equator, and it's about midway between the two company headquarters.

"Once they decided on it, they clubbed together a few regiments and conquered the city, and then spread the word that anyone who wanted to trade there would be welcome, and bad things would happen to anyone who started trouble. It was convenient for everyone, and after a couple of years the companies got all the different factions to set up a governing council, where all of them could participate in keeping the peace. Getting everyone else involved saved the companies a fortune, because each faction is required to provide troops for Ehnvar Darsic's town watch and defense."

"The companies still pull the strings behind the scenes, though, however loudly they like to protest that it's a joint venture," I said. "They control the governing council through bribery and assassination when anyone decides to be too independent."

"Sounds like another fun place," Hicks sighed. "Will everyone be shooting at us as usual?"

"I hope not. We'll go in disguised as barbarians looking to trade, and with a little luck no one will recognize us. We should be fairly safe inside the city. It's not as tame as the company towns, but the governing council does try to keep enough order so there are no serious disruptions in trade."

Two days' ride from Ehnvar Darsic we came across a small party of barbarian traders, who were willing to part with their animals and goods in exchange for half a dozen barrels of Aurora's fuel oil, two crates of canned and dried foodstuffs, and our two spare Lee-Metford rifles with one hundred rounds of ammunition for each. We quickly decided that Hicks, Mor Teral, and I would ride into the city with two of our soldiers, while Jackson would fly in separately with Aurora and keep ready in case we ran into any trouble and needed to leave quickly. Jackson determined to stay at an inn by the aerodrome called The Tabard, which mainly catered to airship crews, and see if he could pick up any news of the anarchists there. My group would look for an inn frequented by human barbarians and seek our quarry among the vendors and traders of the open marketplaces. Mor Teral and I had been working on Hick's Martian language skills since our departure from Odusar, so I thought we would be able to blend in fairly easily.

The city sits adjacent to the remains of an estuary that once fed into the Chryse Sea. Although only a fraction of the size of Odusar, many more people live in its slender towers, and unless you are one of the half-dozen diplomats with access to the handful of Martian cities that survived the Collapse, it is as close to the old native Martian civilization as you are likely to get. When the Tharsis and Syrtis Companies took it over, they talked of building a wall around the city to protect it from attacks by the barbarian tribes that wander the dry seabed. They balked at the enormous expense, however, and instead built high walls between the outermost ring of towers and barricaded all the outer-facing doors. The companies left three passages open for foot traffic, protected by massive gates and substantial garrisons of troops in the adjacent towers.

We rode through the northern gate about mid-day, the five of us on rinnians leading a train of twenty nilkurs laden with bundles of exotic furs and leather. Smaller boxes hidden within the bundles contained Martian jewelry made by the local human tribes and a few artefacts gleaned from the ruined cities. The British guards at the gate waved us through without comment, although I thought I caught an odd look from one of the officers standing atop the wall. When I faced back he had turned and was talking unconcernedly with one of his men, so I dismissed it as nerves on my part.

Our rinnians padded up streets of granite flagstones laboriously scraped clean of the detritus of centuries. Garishly dressed human barbarians swirled around us, interspersed with men in the more sober clothing of Earth. They all instinctively made room for the tall, fierce-looking Martians clad in ankle-length fur robes who glided among them like tall sailing ships in a harbor full of tugboats. Rickshaws darted past us, dodging pedestrians to ferry passengers of all stripes through the crowded streets. Small knots of soldiers wearing either khaki or red tunics topped off with white pith helmets stood watch at regular intervals, and twice we had to move aside to allow troops of cavalry to pass, one group in the dark blue uniforms of British lancers and the other in brilliant scarlet and gold of some barbarian tribe. As we neared the first major intersection traffic stopped as twenty Martians in gleaming black helmets and armor emblazoned with an iridescent red triangle flowed across the street, the strange, wickedly shaped rifles slung at their backs making our weapons look like Stone Age relics.

Hicks watched them with his mouth agape until they disappeared into a tower across the street. "Who are they?" he breathed.

shook my head, hardly able to believe it myself. "Those are soldiers of the Martian High Emperor. Mrs. Wylie showed me pictures after she visited Nix Olympica." I grinned at him. "I told you I'd show you Martians who wouldn't shoot at you."

Hicks quickly received another shock as we passed an open square filled with raised wooden platforms where naked men and women crouched chained to the railings. Humans and Martians alike crowded the space between the platforms, shouting out bids to bored looking overseers. Occasionally when the offers rose high enough one of the overseers would move a slave around for inspection by the audience, hoping to raise the price even higher. At last, to the accompaniment of hoots and jeers from the onlookers the slave would be unchained and led around to the rear of the square to settle the sale.

As we watched from our mounts at the edge of the square, the roar of bidding soared to a crescendo over a particularly pretty brunette girl about sixteen years old. Hicks went pale as death as the overseer unlocked her chains, and put his hand to his sword with an oath. He found his wrist pinioned in a grip of steel before he could move a muscle to draw the blade.

"Careful, lad," Mor Teral cautioned him.

"They can't do this."

"Let be, Lieutenant," I whispered. "You can't stop it. Please."

He took a deep breath and nodded as he regained his composure, though his lips remained pressed a tight, white line. "How can they get away with this? The companies are expressly forbidden to engage in slavery on Mars just as on Earth."

"As long as the companies maintain the fiction that they do not control Ehnvar Darsic, anything is permissible here. Much like East India Company calls their coolie trafficking on Earth indentured servitude rather than slavery to provide a fig leaf for popular sentiment."

Hicks' eyes followed the girl as she and the overseer disappeared into the throng behind the slave platforms. "Let's get out of here," he said, and urged his rinnian back into the stream of traffic at the edge of the square.

I shot a glance at Mor Teral, who shrugged and guided his mount after Hicks. Most of the barbarian tribes of Mars kept captives from enemy tribes as slaves, so he did not truly appreciate Hicks' outrage. I had come to know the young man quite well over the last few weeks, though, and I knew we had better keep an eye on him to make sure he did not attempt anything rash. The local authorities would consider freeing slaves to be nothing but theft, and they maintained severe penalties for that. I had no idea how much I could count on Mor Teral for help, either. He continued to slip into bouts of silent brooding where he barely noticed anything going on around him.

I finally found a caravanserai off the main thoroughfare that was able to accommodate all of our animals and put the lot of us up for our stay. Anxious to get about my real business, I only haggled cursorily with the proprietor, who was happy to take the gold coins I offered rather than having to work it out in trade with the goods we had brought. Once we settled in, I took Hicks and Mor Teral back out into the streets on foot to begin my search. We brought along a few bundles of furs as props for our trading cover.

A major trading house occupied the tower across the street from the caravansary, and I headed there knowing that would be the first place a bunch of real traders would go. Three hours spent inside of it and the other businesses near our lodgings proved quite successful in selling our stock of trade goods, but a total failure at picking up any news about the anarchists. No one we talked to had heard anything about airships coming in from the south, or of anyone buying the kinds of equipment I would imagine necessary to set up a major outpost in the Martian wilderness. I did learn that the Martian High Emperor had sent an envoy to monitor the activities in Ehnvar Darsic, which had everyone in the city on edge. Questions about anything other than the business at hand tended to be met with frowns and silence, as it was believed that the High Emperor had quietly inserted human agents as well as the more obvious Martian soldiers.

As the sun set and darkness crept through the streets I headed dejectedly back to the caravanserai. We met the two men we had left to guard our belongings in the common room, where we had a meal of Martian fowls and roast nilkur. I shared a bottle of wine made from berries that grow wild in the boreal forests of the north, while the others settled for locally brewed ceslin. Hicks and Mor Teral lapsed into moody silences, picking at their food and hardly touching their drinks. By the end of the evening I had begun to wish that they would tie on a good one and get it out of their systems.

Four days passed in this manner, combing through the bazaars and shops of Ehnvar Darsic until we had sold practically all of our merchandise with no information to show for it. The one bit of good news was that both of my companions had finally emerged from their brooding and mostly returned to normal. We sat drinking whiskey late that afternoon in a thoroughly disreputable-looking pub not far from the aerodrome, trying to decide what to do next. Our trade goods were long gone and we had sold the last of the nilkur pack animals an hour before.

"I think we need to admit that we have failed and move on," said Mor Teral, watching a patrol of khaki-clad soldiers marching by through the window.

I wanted to argue with him, but he was right. "All right, we'll finish our pass through this block since we're already here, and return to the caravanserai. Tomorrow we'll sell the rinnians and get back to Aurora."

"We should leave as quickly as we can," Mor Teral added. "A karthasa is coming, I can feel it." The Maatgon soldier with us nodded; he felt it, too.

"A what?" Hicks asked.

"A karthasa is one of the great planetary dust storms," I explained. Those storms could cover a third of the planet and last for weeks, making travel by airship impossible.

Outside the pub several small stores lined the street, mostly souvenir shops for the constant flow of airship crews that passed through the city, and we split up to get it over with faster. I headed for the one across the street, which looked every bit as slovenly as the pub we had just left. A coat of grime filmed the windows so there was no way to see inside. I thought about giving the place a miss, but squared my shoulders and pushed open the door. Dark wooden shelves crammed with all manner of junk cluttered every nook of the small room. A thin film of dust somehow made the place look even seedier in the dim light trickling through the windows. It looked like no one had been inside in months. I started to turn around but a hacking cough came from the back, followed by a thin old man dressed in barbarian style robes gripping a bottle of what I realized was very expensive whiskey.

"Welcome to Jacob's Junk. You buying or selling?"

I pulled out the box of Martian trinkets. I had held back some of the better pieces in hopes of enticing anyone I thought might have useful information, but I decided I might as well be done. "Selling," I said, and spread the items out on a bare section of a rickety table.

He knocked back a slug and sneered at my goods. "I'm flush with that junk."

That piqued my curiosity. "Some prospector got lucky?"

"Nah, got six crates of stuff just like that two weeks ago in payment from a bunch of loonies."

I felt my heart beating faster. "Really? Why would anyone pay you in relics?"

"They've got tons of the stuff." He took another long pull from the bottle. "Used to be a prospector myself. Started as a scientist, had too much fun knocking about in the old cities and playing with old Martian gadgets. Went native. Got to where I knew more about it than most anybody else. People started bringing me stuff they found to identify and try to fix it."

My eyes widened. "Jacob Wenz?" He was almost as famous on Mars as Margaret.

"Yeah." He brushed it aside.

"What makes you say they were loonies?"

"Who?"

"The people who paid you with six crates of Martian artefacts."

"Oh." The bottle was considerably less than full, now. "Well, who else would go off in the middle of nowhere on Mars and try to set themselves up on their own? Whole bunch of them, with women too. Bound to be some kind of religious foolery. Or one of those free love communes or something. Loonies." He grunted in disgust.

"What did they pay you for?"

"Expert assistance," he said, carefully annunciating each syllable. "I told you that I know more about Martian doohickeys than just about any other human on Mars. The loonies took over some Martian ruins, and wanted to get the lights and stuff going again. Flew me down there in an airship and I spent weeks getting it fixed. Biggest mess you've ever seen," he mumbled.

"Why would they do that? And where are these ruins?"

"Loonies, I tell you. Underground in the mountains. All isolated. Big ones, not sure exactly where. West," he gestured vaguely in that direction with the bottle. "They didn't let me look around much, or draw any maps. Got the impression they wanted to be left alone. Not supposed to talk about it." He did not seem especially bothered by that.

That was the last I got out of him. He had gone cross-eyed by then and could no longer focus. After a minute or so he slid to the floor and began snoring. I tucked the bottle under his arm and stepped back out onto the street.

The others were already waiting impatiently for me outside. Most of the stores around us had closed for the night and darkness blanketed the narrow streets. I filled them in on my conversation as we walked towards the caravanserai. None of them knew what to make of it.

"You're the expert on Mars, Captain," Hicks pointed out. "What do you think?"

"I think they must be in Tharsis. It's the right direction, and there are a number of abandoned Martian cities under the Tharsis Mountains. The southernmost one is even in the southern hemisphere, so the odds of anyone poking around there are very low."

"How far is Tharsis?" Hicks asked.

"It would take us a couple of days to get there by airship," I guessed. "Hopefully we can get there before the dust storm grounds us."

We turned a corner onto the street leading to the caravanserai. A hint of sound, the faintest whisper of cloth against a rough wall, gave us just enough warning to save us. Mor Teral and I flung ourselves aside as throwing knives carved glittering arcs through the air. The soldier with us slammed into Hicks and knocked him flying, saving the young Lieutenant's life at the cost of his own. Knives pierced his throat and stomach, and he tumbled bonelessly to the ground. Mor Teral and I jumped back to our feet and whipped out our swords to face our ambushers.

Five Martians slipped from the shadows to surround us, their long curved swords ringing coldly as they slid them from their sheaths. Bone ornaments gleamed palely against their striped black and grey fur robes. They moved with the fluid grace of dancers, without a single wasted motion, raising their swords to guard position and squaring off against us.

Two each came for me and Mor Teral while the last of them moved to where Hicks still lay gasping for air from the mighty blow he had taken. Mor Teral saw the Lieutenant's peril and hurled himself at his opponents, driving them back with a furious onslaught then wheeling to strike at the Martians pressing me. I made one slashing pass at them and jumped back to place myself between Hicks and his attacker just in time to catch his descending blade and thrust it aside. Mor Teral fought like a madman, holding three of the Martians at bay by himself. I managed to hold my own against the other two. While I am not the world's greatest swordsman, my fencing instructor knew what he was about and my old Martian friends Harnan Vitor and Mir Dalei had spent many hours teaching me Martian techniques on our expeditions together.

One of Mor Teral's opponents went down with his neck sliced nearly through. A second later I scored a hit on one of mine that laid his sword arm open to the bone, and while he was attempting to recover from that my sword point found his heart. The other three backed away, apparently thrown off by our unexpectedly fierce resistance. Three gunshots barked and the three Martians dropped to the street like puppets with their strings cut. We turned to see Hicks leaning against the wall behind us, his service revolver smoking in his hand.

I cursed and dashed forward to give the bodies a cursory search. "Check them for anything unusual," I told Mor Teral, "and be quick. The gunshots will have the town watch on us in minutes."

At first glance their fur robes looked like those of Martian barbarians, but when I opened them it was obvious that they had been tailored and never worn in the Martian wilderness. Their swords were of plain manufacture but unused, completely missing the nicks and scratches one would expect from barbarian equipment that had been passed down for generations.

"These weren't barbarians out to steal our gold," I told the others. "These are city Martians, and someone paid them to try to assassinate us and make it look like a robbery."

"Tharsis Company?" asked Hicks.

"Probably," I said, remembering the officer at the gate when we came in. It was not a stretch to believe that the companies had sent word to all of their outposts that I was to be eliminated if I showed my face, and then to make sure that everyone knew exactly what my face looked like.

"We've got to get out of here before the watch shows up. Hicks, you run for the aerodrome and tell Jackson to get Aurora ready to leave tonight. We'll go fetch your other man at the caravanserai."

Hicks saluted and dashed off into the night. Mor Teral and I cautiously made our way up the street to the caravanserai. Warm yellow light shone through the windows, but the usual friendly noise and bustle was conspicuously absent. We slipped through the door, going as soundlessly as we could manage. Inside, the place resembled a slaughterhouse. Bodies lay strewn everywhere in spreading pools of blood, cut down from behind as they ran or fallen wherever they made a stand. We found our man hacked to ribbons in a corner by the kitchen. He had used an overturned table as a shield and fought from behind it until he missed dodging a throwing knife.

Mor Teral and I shared a glance; it was time to leave. We did not even bother going upstairs to collect our things, we just made a dash for the door and the safety of the darkness outside. We had not gone a block before we heard whistles screaming behind us as the watch discovered the bodies we had left on the street. The whistles were answered by others to our front and to the right, towards the center of Ehnvar Darsic. In unison we turned and headed deeper into the edges of the city, where there were fewer lights and patrols to concern us.

After a while the sound of the whistles and shouts grew faint behind us, and we relaxed our pace to a brisk walk. We reached the aerodrome without incident, and strolled calmly out onto the brightly lit landing field as though we were simply out taking in the sights. I quickly spotted the Aurora and we angled towards her. Commander Jackson sat on a stool by the gangplank, nonchalantly sucking on the end of a cigar. As soon as he saw us he called quietly into the ship, and two crewmen emerged and headed for the mooring lines. Jackson took a quick look around, tossed aside his cigar, and vanished inside. Seconds later we followed him up, with the two crewmen close on our heels.

Jackson was already on the bridge. "Raise the gangplank and reel in the lines," he ordered, then turned to us. "Engines are hot, sir."

"So are we. Get us underway as soon as you can. Head due west for now, as fast as you can push her. Once we're free we'll adjust course for Balak Vinzor, the southernmost of the Tharsis mountains."

Aurora lurched sharply and I saw the lights outside slide past as we got underway. We had made it.