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A Forgotten Secret


David Bruce Bozarth

When Tan Hadron, Prince of Hastor, killed my husband I was glad. Tul Axtar was a brute of the worst sort, nor was he very bright. He had sought to conquer the world via the science of Phor Tak with ships of invisibility and disintigrating ray guns, but that had failed. I suffered long months in the slave harem in the Jahar palace until mere days before Tan Hadron and that boyish slave girl Tavia came to rescue me. I was rescued, then recaptured, and then compared the offer that Tul Axtar made to me while Tan Hadron slept if I assisted in his escape—becoming the jeddara of Jahar—with the offer of that honor-bound but destitute youth of Hastor's royal families. Though Tan Hadron was the more handsome of the two, he was a prince in a country with too many princes. In Jahar I would be queen and...

But this did not happen. Prince Hadron killed my husband. When I offered myself to him—who had pined long for my affection and searched half a world to find me after my abduction by Jaharian agents—he insulted me. "I love a slave," he had said. Never have I seen such scorn on a man's face before! Hadron departed and eventually rescued his little slave—which my husband had taken in flight instead of me! For this slight, and his brutality, I am well rid of Tul Axtar, once jeddak of Jahar, now nothing but a pile of bones bleaching on some desert between Jahar and Jhama.

I remember the day John Carter's fleet departed Jahar. "Will you come with us?" the Warlord had asked.

I considered the offer, still angry with Tan Hadron and his little slave girl. I thought of my father Tor Haten and his wealth and position in Helium, then realized that I, as jeddara of a nation had more wealth and power despite the screaming hordes of Jaharians who had stormed the palace crying for Tul Axtar's blood. Then, too, was the knowledge that Maxar Tul, my husband's eldest bastard, had great influence among the nobles of Jahar and his interest in me had been thinly disguised during my imprisonment.

"My dear Warlord, your offer is generous, but I will stay with my people. There is unrest in Jahar and I must do what I can to bring peace to the population."

Maxar Tul stood at my side, as tall as the Warlord but more stoutly built. He showed none of the dissipation of his unlamented sire. "It was my father who sought war with Helium," Maxar Tul said, bowing with reserved respect. "The people of Jahar have suffered enough from my father's rule and from the punishment of Helium. War we cannot make, but ammends are possible if Jahar is allowed time."

From that moment I knew Maxar Tul was as hungry for power as I, but far less stupid than Tul Axtar.

Helium's fleet departed, leaving my palace in the hands of starving thousands, but before he left, John Carter had turned over three of our captured vessels so that myself and whoever I could get aboard might relocate to a safe position to begin restoring civil peace in Jahar.

Peace was restored, violently, savagely, and without remorse. Left to our own devices—ignored by Helium—Maxar Tul and I removed all opposition to my rule by death and more death. Assassins were dispatched to remove the well-guarded. Death squads were sent to remove those less well-guarded. The savages of U-Gor were allowed to starve and perish by cutting off all food to that province. The females who had once been the population factories for Tul Axtar's millions strong army were collected into farms and put to work—and executed if they were ever found in a man's embrace. At my order all boyish-looking girls were sold into slavery in places as far away as Phundahl and Raxar to replace the losses to the national treasury.

Within a year four millions perished and starvation in Jahar was a thing of the past. By accident, not intent, Jahar began to flourish again, businesses profited, families cared for their own, and the military grew strong enough we managed to survive two invasions from nearby nations.

I bound Maxar Tul to me as might any woman—with my body and promises but never a commitment of marriage. He was very entertaining in bed but was far more useful as my hand of swift justice. Where his father had lacked personal courage there was an abundance of that within Maxar Tul's tall, handsome frame. Any slight that I perceived, any affront or question of my authority by those at court was addressed by his capable and strong sword arm. The cadre of dissenting nobles grew less, there being so many duels and murders in the audience hall by Maxar Tul on my behalf, that few had the will to voice an objection if that objection might be answered by the keen blade of Maxar Tul.

Still, late at night, even those nights when Maxar Tul's hard body covered mine with his usual enthusiasim and familiarity, I recalled again and again the shame Tan Hadron had given me. That little slave girl, who turned out to be a princess without a country, had turned his heart against me. I flushed with shame and anger—anger more frequently—until hatred consumed me.

One morning, as he rose from my bed, Maxar Tul said, "Sanoma Tora, you are troubled. What may I do to ease your heart?"

"Bring me the head of Tavia of Hastor, wife of that insolent Tan Hadron."

Maxar Tul stood naked beside the bed. His body rippled with muscles that attracted my gaze, my desire, my lust. He seemed unsurprised by my request. "That might result in war with Helium," he said in a casual tone.

I rose, leaning my naked body against his, caressing his face and neck with kisses. "I cannot have peace of mind as long as she lives."

Maxar Tul accepted my ministrations for a moment, then held me at arms length and his hands were not gentle in their grasp. "What about Tan Hadron? You cannot tell me you do not think of him. I know you do. I can tell when his name crosses your brain, even as we make love. As long as Tan Hadron lives he is my rival."

"You are all I want," I cried, shivering beneath Maxar Tul's baleful gaze. What I saw in his eyes frightened me. I said then what I had to say: "Bring also the head of Tan Hadron. He is no rival to you but if your heart is less troubled so you will know that my affections are for you and you alone then kill him at the same time you kill Tavia."

For a long moment Maxar Tul stared into my eyes. He suddenly laughed, tossing me to the bed and roughly following. "I knew we were alike, Sanoma Tora!"

Later, when he left the royal apartment, I lay in bed for some time. He was right that we were alike, for I had enjoyed him more at that moment than any time earlier. For the life of me I could not figure out why I had been reluctant to include Tan Hadron in the execution order!

Ten days later Maxar Tul returned to Jahar. I received him into my chambers, a high excitement blushing my features as I contemplated the two sacks he carried. He negligently placed them upon a polished ersite table then crushed me in his arms. His lips passionately covered mine and I responded with a will. When he bent to lift me, I pushed away.

"Not until I see what you have brought me," I said, breathlessly.

Grinning, Maxar Tul opened one sack then the other. I looked upon the skulls with rapid heartbeat, then sagged into a chair, my hand pressed upon my breast.

Maxar Tul advanced toward me. "I have done as you asked. Now you—"

"You have done nothing! That is not Tan Hadron and that is not Tavia! Do you know what you have done?" My voice rose to a shriek.

Maxar Tul stopped in mid-stride, the confident smile on his face erased by a mask of confusion. "These were the two in residence at Tan Hadron's estate. There were no slaves or retainers, only these two. I know I had the right place—this must be..."

"It is not! Damn! Damn you! Don't touch me!" I twisted away when Maxar Tul reached out. "You bring me the heads of Tan Hadron's parents! You—"

Through the window of my chambers came suddenly four men, swords unsheathed. Outside I saw the shadow of an airship and more men lining the bulwarks. John Carter, Carthoris, and Gahan of Gathol grimly strode forward. Next to them was Tan Hadron.

John Carter said, "My fleet lies below the horizon. We are here on a personal matter, but if either of you call for help it will be war. Maxar Tul, if you survive Tan Hadron, you will address each of us."

Tan Hadron crossed blades with Maxar Tul. The battle was furious but brief. Maxar Tul lay on the tiles, his bowels ripped open, his eyes looking to me. As the light faded in his eyes and his anguished body ceased to writhe, I realized that I had lost the only man who truly loved me!

Carthoris and Gahan handed the grievously wounded Tan Hadron to the waiting hands on the cruiser, for Maxar Tul had fully demonstrated his prowess with the sword during the battle. But that was of little consequence to me as I knelt to take Maxar Tul's bloody hand in mine.

John Carter jerked me erect, his hand a vise upon my arm. I started to scream, then felt the prick of his sword against my throat. "These people have suffered enough, Sanoma Tora. Do not make me go to war with them again. Get into the ship."

My cell in the dungeons of Helium is not uncomfortable. I have light and ventilation and soft furs upon which to recline. The food is good and I am treated with respect by my jailers who address me as "Jeddara Sanoma Tora."

At the trial in the Hall of Righteousness, after Tan Hadron recovered from his wounds to testify, he urged compassion to the tribunal. Why he should do that when my order had caused the death of his parents I shall never understand.

My father chose not to attend the trial and spoke no word in my behalf.

Tavia came to see me today. She remains as boyish as when I first saw her. I see now the beauty of her heart that turned Tan Hadron's head. Her words were gentle and comforting. It is unsettling to realize hatred is self-defeating, but to also realize that hatred misplaced is stupid by many factors of magnitude is even more astonishing. She even held my hand for a time.

They are coming for me now.

I will think of Maxar Tul when I face the executioner, for I did love him.

I wish I had told him.