Illustration by James D. Bozarth from a series of chapter headers for DEAD CITIES OF MARS
Additional Illustrations by David Burton Burton Art
David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 1997
The incubator was ordinary in every aspect; three feet by five by three. Crystalline panels supported by metal rails provided a nearly air-tight confinement while allowing the Barsoomian sunlight complete penetration. The egg nestled on a bed of yellow sand had already attained the size of a man's closed fist. The proud parents viewed their offspring at the beginning of each day and before retiring at night. Their hopes and aspirations were those of any other parent: good health, long life, and success wearing the metal of ——— but, who they were or where they lived is not important to this tale, as cruel fate stepped in and changed forever their lives and the life of their child.
"Get on with you, boy!" the hag admonished. The command was punctuated by a sharp cuff to the back of the half-grown youth's head. "Clean it up, you lazy good for nothing!"
Ke-lah—"thoat-turd"—staggered across the dirty floor of the disreputable inn. His stomach turned as he knelt by the vomit left by the drunk old Tolvan shoved out the door. Since Ke-lah's hatching Horla had ridden him harder than any of the ill-used thoats owned by the brigands patronizing this establishment. There were no other children, no friendly faces. Tolvan was not especially cruel to him—only Horla the Ugly, a woman who had been beautiful once but whose face was disfigured by a twisted scar left by the slash of a sharp-edged weapon. She never lost an opportunity to chastise her son.
The boy—half-grown to his future adult stature—was perpetually frightened of his parents. Tolvan never hit him, but Ke-lah had once watched the big man carve the heart from a drunken fool. "See that?" Tolvan had thrust the still beating flesh into Ke-lah's face. "The heart of an idiot who failed to keep his wits about him."
The man had been the sole patron of the inn at the time of his murder. Tolvan relieved the bloody corpse of all valuables then forced Ke-lah to help dispose of the body. Onto a hand cart the body was placed, then out into the desert beyond the lonesome road to Zodanga they went until they neared a calot tree at the bottom of a long slope. Tolvan tipped the cart and the dead man slid down until the body was within the reach of the calot tree. In a few days there would be nothing left but a few more bones bleaching under the Barsoomian sun.
As he cleared away the vomit, Ke-lah was grateful there were others in the inn. He did not want to participate in another murder—for he knew it was wrong even though no one had told him.
The door opened, letting in a breeze from the desert. Ke-lah looked up to see fine boots encasing sturdy legs. At the red man's waist was a fabulous sword of such beauty the boy's throat constricted. Up, up that tall frame his eyes traveled to light upon two dark eyes glistening in the flickering light from the gas lamp.
"Close the door!" Horla screamed.
Still looking at Ke-lah, the man kicked the panel shut. "Finish, sir," the voice was rich and vibrant as the stranger spoke to Ke-lah, "I choose this table."
Ke-lah hurried his mopping, careful not to splatter the man in the process. He backed away, bowing.
"Boy," the man stopped Ke-lah with a word.
From his belt pouch the stranger produced a coin. He flipped it to Ke-lah. Gold! For him! "Thank you, sir!"
Horla's voice softened, a deceptive thing as there was nothing soft about the embittered woman. "Your pleasure, warrior?"
"Food. Drink—water, mind you, none of that swill you pass as wine."
Horla scowled, which made the scar on her face twist like a serpent. She brought a slab of poorly-cooked thoat meat, bread and the dirtiest goblet she could find. The man narrowed his eyes, noting the insult, but said nothing as he began to eat.
At the other side of the inn an argument broke out. Three cut-throats flashed knives and one screamed loudly and fell to the floor. Tolvan whacked one of the attackers with a stout club, knocking him senseless. He pointed a radium pistol at the other. "Out—and take that carrion with you."
"You killed him," the man said. "Do you expect me to drag them both?"
"I see what you mean." Tolvan shrugged, then shot the man dead. "Ke-lah, lend a hand."
Again Ke-lah was forced to help his father dispose of bodies. By the time they returned, the stranger was gone. Horla grabbed Ke-lah by the shoulder and held out her hand.
"What?" the boy asked, confused.
"The tampi. Give it over."
"He gave it to—"
Horla slapped Ke-lah, who fell to his knees. Holding back tears of pain and despair, he gave Horla the tampi.
Ke-lah pushed the hand cart alone. The dead woman was not heavy and Tolvan did not feel like making the trip to the calot tree. She had been a tired woman, probably old, though Ke-lah knew little of such things. All he knew was suffering and hardship and confusion. This was his lot in life.
"Goodbye," he said, pushing the body over. He had not seen her die. He did not know how she died. Her head flopped curiously as the body rolled down to the calot tree.
Life was so hurtful Ke-lah had half-a-thought of running to embrace the tree of death—to put an end to his suffering. It would be so easy, he thought.
Startled, Ke-lah turned. He had thought himself alone on the wind swept rise. It was the stranger with the magnificent sword. "Sir," he stammered. "It has been a long time since you were here last."
"Business elsewhere," the man replied. "What are you doing?"
Ke-lah glanced toward the calot tree. The man saw the awkward sprawl of the woman.
"There are many bones there," the big man remarked.
Ke-lah did not dispute the fact.
"So, are you a little assassin in training?"
"No sir. I do as my parents tell me."
"Your parents?" The man laughed heartily. "You are no get of those two, boy. Do you not know who you are?"
"What do you mean, sir?"
"You are First Born—at least one of your parents is First Born. I'd say your mother."
A hard-calloused hand reached out and tilted Ke-lah's head from one side to the other. "Your father was Okarian. I'd stake my life on that."
"I do not understand."
"You're nothing like those two back there. Be proud of that."
"I have nothing to be proud of," Ke-lah said. "I am the son of murderers twice over."
"The witch slays, too?"
"Vile. Well, there's nothing for it. Come along."
"If you're to be the son of murderers, at least be a good one!"
"I do not understand."
"Better you learn from a professional than from a pair of unethical cut-throats."
An assassin! "You want me to become an assassin?"
The man smiled. "You can be whatever you want. Me—I'm an assassin."
Few joked about Ke-lah's name—and lived. His standing as a member of the Guild of Assassins was unquestioned. The young man's skill with sword, knife, rope or potion was unequalled, except by his mentor, the man with laughing eyes. Ke-lah had never heard his friend called any name other than "The Zodanga Assassin", which made his current quest more difficult.
His savior, the man who rescued him from Tolvan and Horla's deliberate cruelty, had disappeared. The mission had been a simple one—an unfaithful wife, a jealous husband; rough justice swiftly dispensed. The assignment had been completed; the woman died peacefully in her sleep and the adulterer lived on, minus his tongue, to more completely suffer the loss of the woman he had convinced to defile her marriage vows. The husband had unhesitantly paid for services rendered—Ke-lah had proof of that from various witnesses. So, then, where was his friend?
Returning to Zodanga, he took the old road, the one unused by most because it was rough and difficult for the traveler. It was a road that he had travelled only once before—away from that horrid little inn where a cruel and callous couple had tried to delude a hatchling that they were his parents.
Ke-lah knew the identity of his real parents. The theft of the egg of a high-placed official of a powerful nation was a story commonly circulated among the thieves of Barsoom—after all, how many offspring of a yellow Okarian and a black First Born have been stolen from a roof-top incubator? What made the story continue to be told was the fact that no ransom had ever been demanded.
Ke-lah never contacted his parents. By the time he knew his birthright the young man's path was well-committed. His friend had been good to him; raised him like a son, giving every advantage. The Zodanga Assassin had instilled within the boy's breast a belief in integrity and truth—as befit their age-old profession—and a healthy dose of the common decency most men expect from others. His parents would not understand his free choice to remain an assassin. Ke-lah was a respected individual among his peers and his employers feared him. It seemed less cruel to spare his parents a collision with harsh reality.
The years had brought great changes to Ke-lah. He had grown to a height exceeding the average. His hard-muscled body was bulky, yet he moved with a grace that belied the enormous strength of his chest and arms. An accident aboard an exploding flier had burned his face, distorting handsome features, though by some kind fate not in a grotesque fashion. His mental state was perpetually calm, almost icy, as one of his profession must have little conscience beyond that of honoring contractual commitments. Still, through it all, there had been his friend with the fancy sword, ready laugh, and wry outlook on life. If it had not been for the stranger, Ke-lah knew he would have perished at the hands of the innkeepers.
He had not realized his destination until the inn was in sight. Dismounting from the weary thoat the assassin noticed little difference from his memory of the place—perhaps more rundown, certainly as ill-favored.
Ke-lah left the thoat saddled. He made sure the beast had access to feed before going to the inn. The door squeaked as it opened.
One patron, drunk, snored across a table to the right. To the left, including the very table where he had knelt to wash vomit from the floor, the inn was vacant.
"Shut the door!" Horla screamed.
Tolvan stood behind the counter pushing a dirty rag over the filthy bar. "Your pleasure, sir?"
Ke-lah sat where his friend had sat. "Food. Drink...and none of that nasty swill you pass off as wine."
Tolvan's brow puckered as if distant memories struggled to surface. Scowling, the man shrugged. Ke-lah surmised the man had changed not at all, though Tolvan was older and heavier that underlying mean-spirit was the same.
Horla slammed a platter of under-cooked thoat and bread on the table. The goblet was misshapen and barely sat upright. "Anything else, sir?" she made the honorific a sneer.
Ke-lah said nothing. He drew a utility knife to carve the steak. Impaling a chunk with knife tip, he brought it to his mouth. Something in Horla's stance, the way she watched with repressed eagerness, caused Ke-lah to bring the meat to his nose instead. A sniff revealed the presence of an assassin's tool—as deadly a potion as any in his repertoire.
Horla saw the man's eyes and knew she had been discovered. She backed away, motioning Tolvan to come from behind the counter.
Tolvan, the casual murderer at uncounted similar events, drew sword and advanced on the seated man. "Would have been better if you ate and slept. Now—"
Ke-lah's eyes narrowed yet again. He recognized that sword; fabulous was his recollection of how it first appeared those many years before. Without a word, and with virtually no warning, Ke-lah's radium pistol blew Tolvan's left knee apart. Knocked backwards by the impact, the innkeeper fell upon his rump.
Horla screamed at the sudden violence and unforeseen variation to their old game. "Die, calot!" she shrieked, leaping forward with upraised dagger.
Ke-lah casually holstered his weapon and still had time to catch Horla's wrist. His grip ground bones together most painfully—and she cried out. Into her open mouth Ke-lah shoved the cut of poisoned thoat meat. He pushed it down her throat with a stiff finger. Gagging, she bent double. The assassin released her.
Wide-eyed, Horla wailed. "You have killed me!"
"Before you die," Ke-lah asked, "will you tell me why you took the egg?"
Tolvan's expression changed from pain to complete shock. "You!"
Horla went into convulsions. She died without speaking. Tolvan would last longer, though his life blood continued to pour from the shattered knee.
Ke-lah picked up his friend's sword. "He was a good man. Better than you. How did it happen?"
Tolvan chuckled, resigned to death, not caring what happened from that moment forward. "He came in wounded from a fight with a white ape."
"Even wounded, you could not have killed him easily."
"True," Tolvan admitted. "He had taken sufficient doses of poison to make himself immune. He did not know Horla had tried. He had no thought of danger when she offered to bind his wounds. She stabbed him through the heart."
Ke-lah sensed there was more. He was a patient man with no particular destination pressing. Tolvan shrank under the assassin's unwavering gaze.
"The vitality of a banth he had! He strangled Horla. He would have killed her ere he died had I not taken his sword and beheaded him."
"This sword?" Ke-lah asked, rising. The gleaming steel hung from his fist like an extension of the man's arm.
"That sword." Tolvan replied.
"And you used it like this?"