"If we hadn't been along," Connie grumbled, "Clixia and Kanty could have had a nice vacation. When they got back, they might have pulled off that story about Clixia being abducted. I think we upset the old apple cart..."
"We?" Tony frowned. "Try me. I spoke out of turn. Who knows what might have happened, babe? I just know what did happen. I'm the one who said too flippin' much!" Tony confessed; hurt and angry with himself.
"He knows?" For a moment Connie Wescott found it difficult to find words, but when she did, she spoke soothingly. "I'm sure Kanty and Clixia will understand. It just isn't fair, darling! You should have heard what Dejah was saying about Djor Kantos! Didn't sound much like the loving son to me--" Connie knew her words would not help much, but she had to say them. She refused to allow Tony to shoulder the burden of guilt he seemed so anxious to assume.
"The damage has been done," Tony said. "However, in spite of what I said, I got the feeling Carter was already looking for an excuse to get on Kanty's case."
"What?" Connie's interest was piqued. Tony's words reminded her of the Warlord's reception accorded Kantos Kan when they arrived at the palace. There was nothing positive to back her feelings, but she thought Tony was right.
The young woman found herself nodding through Tony's next statement. "I think Kantos Kan was prepared for this, Connie. Of course he's pissed as a wet cat with his tail in a light socket but I believe our friend was actually relieved to have it happen!"
"I hope you're right," Connie brushed wind-blown hair out of her eyes. She hugged Martin's hand at her waist. "I've grown so terribly fond of Kanty and Clixia..."
Connie suddenly became aware of the street traffic, the immensity of the city. "Where are we going?"
"Thought we'd pop by Kanty's and see if he can put us up for the night, or at least loan us the bucks to get a room somewhere. I'd rather stay with a friend or in a hotel instead of accepting the generosity of a bigot!"
"So you told a lie to the great John Carter?" Connie giggled. "You mean Kantos Kan didn't invite us?"
"Not in so many words, but I'm in no mood for the hospitality of a drooling, insufferable asshole who's convinced his way is the only way!"
Connie laughed in agreement as Tony studied the street signs carved into the corners of the buildings. Martin gave an soft-voiced exclamation of discovery and steered Wescott to the right. This side street was not as crowded as the Avenue of Jeddaks, though there were still a number of people hurrying to unknown destinations.
At the next intersection the brawny athlete, eyes turned upwards to locate a street sign, absent-mindedly forced his way through the crowd. Connie was not truly surprised when an irate red man complained at being shoved. The man, in a deliberately insulting manner, challenged Tony to a duel.
Tony's immediate apology to the Heliumite was unaccepted; the demand for satisfaction was made a second time. Martin, tired from the journey, upset with the meeting with John Carter and in a generally foul mood, responded with a roar that echoed between the stone buildings lining the street.
"I'm a Jasoomian, you little red freak! Want a piece of me, midget?" Tony drew himself to his full height and glared at the challenging party. The red man backed down one pace, his hand trembling on the hilt of his sword.
Martin snorted. "I'm the challenged party, whimp. I have the choice of weapons!" He quietly fingered the bow looped over his shoulder with steely eyes. "Or--" he loudly smacked one huge fist into the palm of his hand "--your choice, little one!"
The Martian's eyes grew round as he profusely apologized. The Heliumite allowed that the incident was entirely his own fault and could we please avoid a duel that might spill my guts all over the clean streets of Helium? The man quickly faded into the crowd without waiting to hear Martin's answer. The eager crowd which had gathered in anticipation of a fight shrugged their collective shoulders and went about their business.
Tony shook himself free of anger and turned away. He chose his path with more care as they proceeded, determined to avoid another such incident. Connie grinned hugely and whistled with admiration as they crossed an intersection where ground fliers moved east to west. "That's nothing like the Tony I knew when we first got to Mars! Yummy!"
"You approve?" Tony felt self-conscious. He lowered his embarrassed gaze to the pavement as they walked side by side. He chided himself for being huge, gross, and so stupid for having come that close to a duel, but on the other hand, he liked the sparkle in Connie's eyes. "Do you think it's an improvement?"
"If that aggressiveness extends to lovemaking--wow!--I'm all for it!"
"You naughty little nympho!" Tony chuckled as he leaned over to kiss the top of her unwashed brown curls. Connie grinned mischievously, her hand reaching up to tug playfully at his beard.
At the next crossing Tony asked Connie to wait. "No sense in walking out of the way if I got the directions mixed up, kitten. I'll be right back."
"Fine with me," Connie said, her eyes attracted by a nearby display. "I'll do a little lookie-but-no-touchie window shopping."
Martin was gone for only a few moments before the brunette became aware of a trio of men laughing coarsely and pointing in her direction. They made Connie sufficiently nervous she decided to join Tony instead of waiting. Her path, however, led past the rude-mannered men.
One of them made an obscene gesture Connie had no trouble recognizing: it was the same on Mars as on Earth. She stopped, glaring at the man in the uniform of the Jeddak's Guard, and demanded: "Got a problem, sleezeball?"
"We were wondering," the man chuckled. He did not finish his statement.
This angered Connie. "You were wondering what?"
The man rolled his eyes with mock fear, which made his companions roar with delight. Connie's hand wrapped about the hilt of her long sword, her temper rising.
"Rather strange attire for a woman," the man explained, barely able to control his mirth. "It has been said that women who dress as men have difficulty attracting the attentions of that sex and therefore seduce women. We were wondering how a woman makes love to another woman--"
He did not have a chance to finish his words: Connie's sword zinged from her sheath. "I'm not a Lezbo!"
The man grinned, shaking his head with amusement. "Run along. Don't waste my time."
"Time?" Connie sneered, the blood pounding in her veins. "You haven't much time left, shit-for-brains! Defend yourself, or I'll run you through where you stand!"
When he did not respond, the girl calmly delivered a series of insults, any one of which would have been sufficient to obtain the response she desired. "Ulsio! Silian! Hormad!" Rat! Lizard! Android!
Three hands descended to swords, but only one length of Martian steel ran free in the air. Cries of outrage and pain from his companions made the armed guardsman look back over his shoulder.
His companions were bent double, grimacing with pain, as Tony Martin effortlessly twisted arms against the grain of the elbow. The big man's face was a blank mask which made the Martian pause in indecision.
"The lady's called you out," Tony's voice was cold and as hard as the concrete forming the building at his back. "While I don't necessarily approve of dueling, you'll have to go it alone, my brave, stupid friend!"
If Tony Martin's calmly delivered statement was intended to unnerve the swordsman, it served exactly the opposite. With a shout, the guardsman leapt toward Connie Wescott, his deadly blade slashing down in a vicious over hand.
Connie adroitly parried and pressed her own attack. Tony's heart pounded in his chest as he watched the inter-play of steel between his lover and the irate guardsman. He was prepared to do the dastardly thing and bash the red man if things got out of hand but, to his amazement and that of Connie's opponent, the Martian soon realized he was not facing a mere female, but a master of the sword!
The warrior redoubled his efforts, determined to end the match as swiftly as possible. His eyes gleamed with fury as he directed the point of his weapon towards Connie's tender bosom. He lunged with an exuberant shout. "Die! Jasoomian bitch!"
XVIII JOURNEY'S END
"At least you didn't kill the poor bastard," Tony sighed as they walked away from the stunned and bleeding Martian being cared for by his equally amazed companions. "What got into you, dear? I've never seen you so angry!"
"I've had all the pseudo-moralistic bullshit of Barsoom I can take! Even John Carter's pass at me made it clear he thought I was a whore! I can handle a guy like Carter, no sweat, but when these bozos said I was a Lez, I just blew my cork! The next time that idiot speaks to another woman, he'll show some respect!"
Connie finished cleaning her blade of blood collected by giving a dozen or so scratches to her vanquished opponent. Connie settled the duel with the flat of her blade across the top of the guard's skull. She looked back over her shoulder where the dazed guard's companions were quickly escorting him off in the opposite direction.
Connie slipped her steel into the sheath with a swift gesture. She looked up to the towering youth with a sharp expression on her face. "You didn't have to butt in, Tony, I could have handled all three of them by myself."
"Did you think I'd let you hang your ass out on a limb? Did you even stop to think those guys aren't used to seeing a woman dressed like you? Women are supposed to be soft and cuddly..."
"Are you implying I'm not?" Connie stopped dead in her tracks and glared at the black-bearded man. Tony quickly back-pedaled; his hands spread wide in a gesture of no contest.
"I'm not trying to pick a fight with you, darling!"
"You better not," Connie replied, slightly placated. Then she chuckled. "I'll make a soprano out of you if you give me any shit!"
"Sure you will," Tony grinned cheerfully. "Tell me, just where will you find the same kind of loving I can give you?"
Connie bit her lower lip for a second before she ruefully shrugged. She laughed. "You're right. I wouldn't go that far. Besides," she added, smiling as she hugged his arm to her sweaty breast, "I have other ways of making your life miserable."
"I'm sure you do, darling." Tony chuckled, unoffended by her words. He knew the petite woman still felt the embarrassment and excitement of the duel. He had also become accustomed to Connie's sometimes off-beat sense of humor. At least he hoped she was joking.
With a radiant smile transforming her, Connie rested her forehead on Tony's thick biceps. "I love you, you big, stupid jock! You're just the sweetest thing on two planets!"
Connie Wescott sighed happily and let the grinning young man lead her through the streets of Helium, content to be with him, glad the hard journey was over, no matter how unhappy the ending.
The sun set and the radium street lights of the city revealed how much of her vanquished foe's blood was spattered on her sun-bronzed skin. "Last time I got like this," Connie recalled with an expression of disgust, "is when I killed that damn ape. I sure hope Kantos Kan has a shower!"
"We'll soon find out!" Martin chuckled, squeezing her gently, "Shouldn't be much farther."
"I can't wait! This old cut-and-slash business is too grubby for me!"
Tony paused at the next intersection and verified the street name. There were few people on the darkened avenue; the hooded radium lights only illuminated the streets themselves without shining upwards to the buildings or the heavens above. Tony chuckled to himself: How many little things had Burroughs put in his stories to make them seem plausible to his audience of 1911 to 1950? Street lights that couldn't be seen from space, for example. Connie felt his laughter instead of hearing it. When she asked, he told her his thought and she came up with a few more as they walked through the deserted district.
Connie made an observation that the area bore a startling resemblance to the condo and apartment complexes near their old neighborhood back on Earth. Few of the buildings were taller than five stories and there was an abundance of parks and open areas, far more frequent than the more densely populated downtown area of Greater Helium.
Connie observed the streets were nearly deserted and said, "At least we aren't likely to run into any yo-yos like that bastard--"
Tony suddenly pulled Connie into a darkened doorway and held her arms in his great hands. "Would you have really killed that man back there? Damn it, I know you were mad and you had every right to do what you did, but I would have stopped you from killing him. All this talk about the 'old cut and slash', I'm not sure I know you any more."
Wescott knit her brows together and gazed at Tony with bewilderment. She sputtered several times in shock. "Are you out of your mind?" Connie kept her voice low, her astonishment plain to read. She reached up and twisted her fingers in his beard and painfully pulled his face nearer. "I couldn't kill a sapient being if I wanted to! If I ever did there'd have to be some damn good reason! I'm even sorry I killed that white ape back at Zanthia. But don't try to tell me you wouldn't if you had no other choice!"
Tony smothered her other retorts with his own cry of relief and pressed his lips to hers. He lifted the girl's slight weight into his arms and kept kissing her as he moved down the street. The occasional passerby prudently minded their own business as the pair of Jasoomians made public spectacles of themselves. Tony carried the sweaty, grimy and glowing girl until they reached an ascending ramp for an apartment building. He bent low, setting Connie on her feet.
With a huge grin on his face, Martin patted Wescott's head."You're a big girl. You can walk the rest of the way."
"Are we here?" Connie leaned against Tony's apparently tireless strength, still weak-kneed and trembling from their passionately unrestrained kisses.
"Should be on the second floor and to the left," Tony responded.
They mounted the spiral ramp, turning left at Tony's silent gesture. They found themselves into a narrow corridor with a dozen or more doors opening onto it at regular intervals. Martin carefully examined each apartment number revealed by the dim overhead lighting until he found the proper door. He curled his knuckles and rapped softly. A few moments later he knocked again, louder. The door finally opened after a long interim.
Kantos Kan's dark scowl vanished, replaced with an instant grin. "I thought you kids were staying with J.C. this evening!" he said with pleasant surprise. "Come in! Please come in!"
The Martian held the front of his robe together with one hand as he ushered his guests into the apartment. The fine sheen of perspiration on his brow seemed to indicate unfortunate timing on the part of the Jasoomians, but that seemed unlikely to the Earthlings since Clixia left with her folks before they departed John Carter and Dejah Thoris. Unless Kantos Kan had someone else on the side they could not have interrupted amorous activity. And even if it were so, one could not tell it from Kantos Kan's genuinely warm reception.
The red man suddenly explained all with the shout he directed to the rear of the apartment. "Clixia, you'll never guess who's here!" He walked towards the half-open door on the opposite wall of the spacious living room.
"I don't have to," the beaming woman giggled as she stepped into the room, still catching her breath as she clutched a bed sheet about her voluptuous body. She offered a hug to Tony and then gave one of equal intensity to Connie. "I'm so glad to see you!"
"Uh--" Tony blushed. "We've come at a bad time." He started for the door with Connie demurely following. Clixia put a stop to that by trying to push Tony down on the couch and though she wasn't successful in man-handling Martin's bulk, but she did prevent the Jasoomians from leaving.
Clixia smiled, sitting on the couch beside the young couple. "We want you to stay! Isn't that right, Kanty?"
"Exactly!" the Martian heartily responded. Kantos Kan reached out and opened the hood of the over head radium bulb to dispel the dimness of the room.
As the light strengthened, Clixia cried out in alarm when she discovered blood on Connie's fair skin and costume. "Darling! What happened? Are you all right?" The woman was so concerned with examining the younger woman that her sheet slipped to the floor, forgotten.
"I'm fine," Connie gently pushed the hands away. She reached down to raise the crumpled fabric about the older woman's body. "You'll catch a death of cold," she chided with a giggle.
"What happened?" Clixia asked, pulling the sheet over her breasts and tucking the ends together. "You must tell me!"
"Yes," Kantos Kan added his plea, "you must!"
"I just had a little misunderstanding with a dumb ass. Nothing to worry about, but, I'd sure love a bath..."
"You come with me!" Clixia put her arm about the girl's waist and led Connie through the door leading to the sleeping chamber and bath.
Kantos Kan said, "Look through the closets, dear. Use whatever you like."
Clixia smiled, "Thank you, Kanty, we'll do just that." Clixia shut the door, leaving Kantos Kan and Tony Martin alone in the front room.
"Have any trouble finding the place?" Kantos Kan asked.
"Not really. The directions were excellent. I hope you don't mind us barging in like this."
"Not at all. I'm glad you came, Tony."
"Sure you are," Martin could not repress his smile, or the apologetic nod towards the closed door. "I didn't expect Clixia to be here. As soon as Connie gets her bath, we'll go find us a place. Can you lend me a few tanpi for a room at the inn?"
"I won't hear of that. You can stay here with us. As for the other, don't let it worry you, my friend. We weren't doing anything that we weren't going to be doing a lot more of in the future." Tony started to protest, but the red man hushed him with a gesture. "There's another reason why I'm glad you came. I want you to take a look at this..."
Kantos Kan went to the borrowed uniform and pulled a wad of paper from the belt pouch. "Remember when John Carter stepped out for a few moments this afternoon? Well this is why. He had a man give this to me before I left the palace. Read it."
Martin did, then looked up to the man he had come to call friend. Tony's disbelief was obvious from the hanging jaw and wide eyes. "You've got to be kidding, Kanty! Discharged? Booted out? He canned your ass? For what?"
Before Kantos Kan could reply, the men were surprised by a pair of startled gasps. Heads turned to find Connie and Clixia standing in the doorway. Clixia's features were etched with mortified shock, Connie was stunned.
"I knew this would happen!" Clixia cried in despair, fighting tears. "I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!"
Connie, with tears a positive threat in her own eyes, tried to comfort the older woman. She forced Clixia towards the divan and made her sit; Kantos Kan on one side, herself on the other. She stoked Clixia's copper-bronze hair sympathetically.
Anguished hands covered the red woman's lovely face and distorted words that were already strained by unhappy emotions. "I knew something like this would happen, Kanty! Now you know why I didn't want to come back! We'd have been better off if we'd died back there in the dead city--or at the hands of the Warhoons!"
"I had to come back, dearest," the red man responded with tortured sympathy. The cashiered warrior watched the Jasoomian woman console his lover with a slow, rocking motion. Kantos Kan expelled his breath in an explosive sigh. "It's just as well, Clixia. We knew what we were doing. We knew the consequences..."
Connie wasn't buying any of that. "It's a perfectly shitty way," she declared, "for John Carter to treat a friend he's known for years!"
Clixia put her arms about Connie's neck and buried her face against the Jasoomian's shoulder. She shook her head and wailed: "It's the code, Connie. There is nothing anyone can do to change it."
"Well, I sure as hell would try!" Connie's lips touched the woman's cheek. Her own eyes were moist, her despair evident. "It's not the end of the world, Clixia!"
"But it is!" Clixia drew away, her right hand rubbing at the wetness beneath her red-rimmed eyes. "There's more," she choked, looking at Kantos Kan until she could not hold that gaze.
"I lied to you tonight, dearest," she explained. "I suppose the same man who gave you that," she pointed at the note Tony held, "was the one who talked to my father." Clixia rose, went through the silks Dejah Thoris had given her and, with obvious reluctance, laid a parcel in Kantos Kan's lap. When he opened it, Clixia would have run from the room if Connie had not stopped her. The sun-browned swordswoman pulled the Martian lady to the divan and held her tightly, sensing a terrible disaster had overtaken the fine woman who'd become her best friend.
There was heavy silence in the room as the red man slowly read the top sheet before glancing through the rest of the thick parcel. In the end, he let it fall to his lap without comment. The tragic look on the red man's face prompted Tony Martin to take the package and discover its contents.
Tony Martin concluded his examination of the documents. He turned to Clixia, his sympathy quite plain. "I'm sorry, darling. This is really crazy! It doesn't make any sense!"
"No?" she cried. "No? Why not, Tony Martin? Remember where you are! This is Barsoom! Father Burroughs set the tone--set the examples--made us follow customs that are so idealistic, so--so impossible! Because of what I feel for Kantos Kan my family has disowned me! Cast out for my indiscretions! No one will champion me now!"
"I will!" Kantos Kan's vehement response was echoed by Tony Martin.
Connie Wescott had difficulty finding her voice, she was so filled with indignation. "If that doesn't beat all! It's okay to fuck around as long as you don't fuck? It seems to me that getting married in this society is as easy as saying 'my chieftain' and 'my princess', but apparently I'm wrong. What's all the anxiety over two consenting adults enjoying themselves? There's a damn sight worse going on all over Barsoom right now! Wars, slavery, rape and pillaging, paid assassins, thieves, pirates--is there any true so-called Fate Worse Than Death? Humankind operates on the basic principal that bad is to be expected and good is to be cherished. As far as I'm concerned a little of the in-and-out with someone I can love and respect is the best I'll ever hope for in this life!" Connie was so outraged she could not continue.
Clixia heard the impassioned words and took strength from them. "You're so right!" Clixia exclaimed, hugging the outraged swordswoman. Connie gladly accepted the affectionate embrace; the high flush on the Jasoomian's well-formed cheeks indicating the depth of her emotion.
Connie took a deep breath, holding Clixia close. Her eyes flashed with anger. "It strikes me that our old friend John Carter is so narrow-minded that two molecules passing between his Victorian thoughts'd be accused of public fornication!"
Dismayed, Clixia's head snapped erect at Connie's comment.
Connie met the distressed look with a challenge. "It's true, Clixia! That buggering fart spouts high ideals out one side of the mouth and then tries to get in my drawers the next. Wishy washy son-of-a-bitch! He's a lecherous prude! Jumps on you and Kanty for loving each other, and at the same time he wants to diddle my pussy! But you know what? He's such a 'gentleman' he probably makes appointments to lay that fine lady of his."
Clixia involuntarily snorted with amusement. Her hand rose to her lips and she began laughing with such animation she collapsed across the laps of the Jasoomians. The others found themselves joining her lively mirth.
Clixia gasped for air as she took hold of herself. "What the hell is so funny?"
Connie slapped her thigh, belatedly realizing it was Clixia's and not her own. "Nothing, dear. We're all crazy tired. Get off me, you big cow, and show me the bath!" Her voiced dropped a notch as she added with a desperate plea: "And if you don't hurry, I'm gonna pee all over myself!"
Clixia staggered to her feet. "All right, but you better be fast. I'm in the same shape!" The girls threw arms about each other and left the room, giggling and talking in secretive whispers.
Tony Martin set Clixia's parcel on the table and leaned back with a sigh. He made a small gesture towards the rear of the apartment. "I'm glad we can still laugh," he said. "Especially Clixia. That was a rotten thing to happen."
The red man nodded his agreement and rose to cross the room. Kantos Kan lifted a bottle of pale, yellowish liquid and a pair of beautifully wrought glasses from the top of a intricately carved chest. Kantos Kan returned to the divan. He poured a generous portion into one of the glasses and offered it to Tony.
Tony accepted the wine with a smile. "Thanks."
Kantos Kan filled his glass and for long moments they sat, listening to the muted voices of the women and the splashing spray of the shower. A second glass of wine was imbibed in the same quiet manner; the effects of the strong beverage easing the tenseness which previously filled the room. The wine, the pleasant atmosphere of Kantos Kan's apartment, the quiet domestic sounds of women bathing--all created a sense of peace. Tony chaffed under this feeling, his guilt plaguing him.
"I guess I really botched things up for you and Clixia. I'm sorry, Kanty, I just didn't think when Carter started asking questions. Because of me you've been cashiered from the navy and Clixia's been labeled a loose woman! My only excuse is stupidity, and my best friends are suffering because of that!"
"Ridiculous!" Kantos Kan denounced the apology with exasperation. "You and Connie had nothing to do with this!" He tossed off the last of his wine before re-filling the glass with slow deliberation.
"It was bound to happen sooner or later, my friend, the discharge I mean." Kantos Kan sipped his wine thoughtfully. "There are those who've been after my post for years. Frankly, I've had enough! I believe J.C. was about to replace me anyway. I'm only sorry Clixia got caught in the middle. You know, Tony," Kantos Kan stared at the rim of his glass, lost in thought, "I had the feeling that Clixia lied to me this evening. We've never met, alone, in the city before. I knew there was trouble when she wanted to make love. What surprises me the most is that she doesn't hate me for what happened."
"Why should she hate you?" Tony leaned forward and clapped a firm hand on the Martian's knee. "She loves you to pieces. You just saw that. Gods, what I'd give for that much love from a woman."
"Don't try to fool me, son. You've already got that. Yes," the ex-officer said with sudden determination, "perhaps, it's for the best. I'll have a talk with Clixia, tell her what's been going on with the High Command. I will not have her thinking she was the reason I was discharged. Like I said, it was inevitable. As for Djor Kantos, I can finally tell my son to suck green Martian eggs and stay out of my life!" Kantos Kan's wide smile anticipating that event made the Jasoomian chuckle.
Tony Martin finished his drink and accepted the re-fill Kantos Kan offered. The Martian was already well into his third. The beverage seemed to relieve some of the older man's bad humor. Slapping his knee, Kantos Kan grabbed Martin's brawny shoulder.
"One good thing has come of this, Tony Martin!" Kantos Kan saluted the Jasoomian with his glass before draining it. "We've had an adventure no one will believe!" The ex-naval officer spilled some of the wine on the low table when he poured. He wiped it from the smooth skeel wood surface with the hem of his robe before he continued.
"I haven't had this much fun in ages, dear fellow! Most adventures are blood and guts involving high motivations and chaste love. In a word--boring! And also," Kantos Kan waved a finger in the air as if he were fencing with an invisible opponent, "dangerous!" He paused to empty his glass.
Kantos Kan grinned. "We had a good time, Tony! It's absurd for you or you lovely lady to assume any guilt over the end results. Clixia and I won't allow that! I've grown very fond of you both, you are like a son and daughter, but much more, true friends! Kaor!"
Tony did not hide the tears which came in response to the older man's sincere words. He returned the toast with heartfelt emotion and poured the next round. He raised his glass on high. "Give'em hell, Kanty! We're behind you all the way!"
The Martian laughed and took a hearty pull at his wine. He sat the glass on the table and leaned back. "I'll never forget the first time I saw you, Tony," the red man chuckled, the beverage relaxing his usually tacit composure. "You and my Clixia were just about as close together as Connie's delightful statement about molecules and John Carter!"
Tony blushed. "Uh--I--uh--"
Kantos Kan roared with amusement. "Not to worry--I approve..."
"But don't try it again?" Tony's lips upturned slightly.
Kantos Kan's smile was contagious. "You just remember that when Connie wants to kiss this smooth face of mine. We'll just have to be gentlemen about the whole thing. Agreed?"
Tony laughed, nodding his head. He leaned forward, elbows on knees and played with the glass on the low table. "Did I tell you I fell out of a tree the first time I saw you?"
"You did?" Kantos Kan raised an eyebrow and chuckled heartily. "I wish I could have seen that."
"I wonder what happened to Cheta and Ghek?" Tony asked. "Do you suppose the little shit buggered those poor female rykors to death?"
The red man shrugged his shoulders with a grin as he noted the depleted condition of the decanter. Kantos Kan produced another bottle and pulled the stopper from the crystal container.
"There were many times I thought you were actually going to carry out your old threat through more than once, my friend. It would have been quite amusing to see the rambunctious chap munching his own appendages for breakfast!"
"Still," Tony remembered with a touch of respect, "you've got to hand it to the little guy. He did bail us out with the Warhoons and kept the apes in the dead city of Kanator from bothering us."
"Speaking of Warhoons--that Bar Novacs was as despicable a character as I've ever met," Kantos Kan declared, "Yet so unlike the usual Warhoon! He didn't kill us out of hand! You must admire the way he tricked you into performing the sakking demonstration."
Now that he was in civilization free from the worry of wondering where his next meal was coming from, Tony could afford to sit back and laugh at past events. "And good old Ghek! Poor bastard always had his head up his ass, or his ass up his head since he hasn't got a body of his own and his rectum is so close to his brain!" Tony contentedly sank back into the cushions. He laced fingers behind his head and felt the sand and grit in his hair. The tackle was suddenly determined to have a shower as soon as it was vacated by the women.
"I sure miss that old Throxeus," Tony's voice wistfully dropped a pitch. "Ghek and Cheta better have taken care of him." The Jasoomian's tone became thoughtful. "Everything on this 'adventure' worked out just fine except for the end. You get the boot; Clixia's labeled a whore; J.C. puts the make on Connie, and I'm a dumb ass. Know something else?" Tony added, showing the Martian he'd not lost his spirit, "There's no more wine left! Did we drink both of them?"
"There wasn't much to start off, Tony, me boy, but we can always get more!" Kantos Kan jumped to his feet and banged on the door leading to the rear of the apartment. "You girls decent? Tony and I have to take a shower!"
The portal opened and Clixia stood in the doorway, dressed fit to kill. Tony was blatantly appreciative of the revealing costume of soft pastel silks, a few odd pieces of jewelry, and a winning smile.
"You look fabulous!" Kantos Kan announced. "As soon as Tony and I are ready, we're going out for dinner and entertainment!"
"Do you think that's wise--" Clixia abruptly stopped herself with a wry laugh. "Who cares anymore? Sounds wonderful, Kanty! Don't you think so, Connie?"
Connie Wescott, blushing with self-conscious embarrassment, slowly came into view. The girl was wearing one of the 'gowns' she and Clixia had found in Kantos Kan's closet. Her abundant curves glowed from a vigorous scrub and the warmth of the bath. The body oils Clixia rubbed into the tiny brunette's healthy sun-browned skin had a pleasant fragrance. Connie's dark brown nipples were barely concealed beneath the silk scarf draped about her soft shoulders. The tiny brunette was so stunning both Kantos Kan and Tony Martin dropped their jaws.
"What?" Connie demanded. "Ridiculous?"
Tony grinned. "Not at all! You look terrific!"
"You're not just saying that, Tony?"
"If you think that, just take a look at Kantos Kan!" Tony told her. She did. She blushed under the ex-Overlord's smiling appreciation. Tony was openly pleased with Connie's delightful metamorphosis.
"Why thank you, Kind Sir. Now, will you do me a favor?" Connie fluttered her eyelashes, pleading with the grinning football tackle.
"Will Sir Stinky do something about his awful, nasty, self?"
"Right away!" Tony pushed past her, heading for the rear of the apartment.
"Across the room and to the left!" Connie shouted to his departing back. "Use plenty of soap!"
Connie turned to Kantos Kan with a mute thank you in her eyes. She had not felt properly feminine since she and Tony mysteriously appeared on Mars. "Were these your wife's?" she asked.
Kantos Kan smiled, "She was about your size. I didn't know what to do with her clothes until now. You must have them, Connie. I would be so happy for you to have them."
Connie was about to protest when Kantos Kan abruptly entered the bedroom. She turned to Clixia to ask if the red man was upset but Kantos Kan returned before she could speak. He carried something in his hand and asked Connie to turn around. She did and was startled when a thin gold chain with a single, perfectly-cut scintillating emerald was slipped over fresh-washed hair and about the young Jasoomian's throat.
"I want you to have this," Kantos Kan said when the flabbergasted girl spun about. "It matches your eyes."
"I can't accept this!" Connie cried, looking at the exquisite gem lying in the palm of her hand. She raised her eyes to the red man's. "You must take it back!"
"I will be offended if you insist, Connie. It's a lovely piece, but it's part of my past, not my future." Before Connie could say more, Kantos Kan turned to enter the bedroom to dress. Kantos Kan paused at the doorway. "I know this little club a few blocks from Hanger Tower, South. They have the best roast thoat and you'll never taste better honeyed wine. I hope you girls are hungry." The tall man did not wait for an answer as he shut the door.
Still in shock over Kantos Kan's extraordinary gift, Connie turned to Clixia. "I can't take this," she said, starting to lift the chain over her head.
Clixia stopped her with a gentle touch and tearful smile of joy on her face. "That is the closest Kanty will ever come to saying he loves me."
When Connie looked confused, the Martian woman explained with a vibrant tenderness in her voice. "That was his wife's, Connie. He loved her immensely and Kantos Kan has never been a man to love lightly. I know he loves me or we wouldn't have been out on the desert, but I don't think he could ever admit he loved me without first realizing she was no longer a part of his life--his memories, yes--but not his life. When Kanty gave that necklace to you, he gave something to me. He gave me his love. You must keep it. It really does become you." A momentary sadness touched her, one which lingered in the memory; yet no longer filled Clixia with uneasiness. "She was my friend and she had lovely green eyes like yours."
Connie chewed the inside of her cheek. She saw the hopefulness Kan's gift brought to Clixia and her eyes filled with tears of happiness for the red woman. She embraced Clixia. "I will keep it! Would you mind if I thank him?"
"I didn't hear you make a fuss when I thanked Tony," Clixia smiled, pushing the tiny woman towards the door.
When Tony Martin stepped out of the bath he was not surprised to find the petite swordswoman wrapped closer to Kantos Kan than bacon around filet mignon, especially after he saw the emerald. "Beautiful piece, Kanty," he said with genuine appreciation. He started to reach for his harness (the only thing in the apartment that would even come close to fitting him) and Wescott quickly took it away from him.
"Not until Clixia and I have a chance to clean it up! Ugh!"
Kantos Kan loaned Martin a cloak that served in lieu of a proper robe. They watched as the two women cleaned the ancient Orovarian harness as best they could. Connie handed it to Tony demanding a brief kiss as payment. When Martin reappeared from the bath fully dressed, his beard glistened with drops of water from the shower and his long hair lay slicked against his skull. Without further delay the two couples walked down the ramp, arm in arm. Kantos Kan hailed a passing ground flyer and gave the driver directions to the dining club.
In the darkness of the aft compartment, Tony fingered the sparkling gem suspended about Connie's neck. "I like this very much," he told her. "One day I'll give you all the jewels and clothes you can wear."
"Promises, promises," Connie teased.
Tony saw the shining light in the tiny woman's green eyes. He knew Connie didn't care if she were naked or dressed to the hilt, as long as they were together. The knowledge warmed his heart.
"You sure feel different!" he said, hugging her tightly.
Connie glanced to the front of the taxi, saw Kantos Kan and Clixia head to head, and eagerly returned Tony's embrace. "What do you mean?" she whispered after a long kiss. "Have I lost that much weight?"
"Not talking about weight, dearest," Tony's amused laugh evoked a smile from the swordswoman without knowing the reason for his impish humor. When he explained, running knowing hands over her narrow waist and the swell of her full hips, Connie giggled.
"I think I miss the swords," he began. Whatever else Tony Martin intended to say was left unsaid; Connie's full lips pressed against his.
XIX. UNEXPECTED DEVELOPMENTS
"The Rolling Stones they're not--" Tony commented on the quiet musical group entertaining the patrons of Kantos Kan's selected night spot "--but they do have a certain unique appeal. Dinner was great!" Tony's admiration was based on the residual remains of the main course--thoat roast. "So that's what old Throxeus would have tasted like!"
"Very delicious," Connie admitted, "but we couldn't have eaten dear, sweet Throxeus! He was too much a friend, Tony. I hope he's doing well, where ever he is."
Clixia delicately wiped her mouth before she joined the conversation. "Not only Throxeus," she sighed, "but Ghek and Cheta, too. I wonder how they're doing on the desert with the rykors?" The Martian lady lifted her goblet and proposed a toast. "Here's to the villains of our adventure! May they reach their destinations in safety and health!"
"Hear, hear!" Kantos Kan clinked his glass against Clixia's, gulping down the dregs before re-filling his cup. "I miss little Cheta--poor brute had such an amusing fixation for human women."
Connie laughed gaily, her hand resting on Martin's, "He needed to feel as big and mean and virile as my lovable lummox!"
Tony grinned, taking the good-natured jib in stride. "Cheta had to be a great lady-killer. He couldn't stand being the cute little ape. There ain't a mean bone in his body, excepting with female rykors."
Clixia denied the statement; though the wine she'd had with the dinner made her giggle. "Even then he wasn't vicious, Tony! Cheta was almost pathetic. I suppose," she added with a knowing wink, "Ghek was, too. Still, they were pretty nice, considering one's an ape and the other's a hideous flesh-eating kaldane. Things might have turned out differently if Ghek hadn't decided to leave because of you, Tony."
"Me?" Tony shook his head. "I never threatened the little guy!"
"I didn't say you did," Clixia quickly responded, "but you had him believing you weren't serious about this 'house' you talked about. He probably panicked when you said we couldn't take the rykors with us."
"True," Tony reluctantly agreed, "but Ghek's fear, or greed, left us stranded in Kanator. I suppose we ought to thank him for that: we found the Sith and got back to Helium in days instead of months. Maybe I will thank him, should we ever see him again, if I don't kill him out of hand for stealing Throxeus!"
Connie stared at the big youth, her eyes wide with shock. "You don't mean that, do you, Tony?"
"Of course not, kitten!" Martin shook his head, a resigned and weary smile on his craggy features. "I'm just a little pissed off about being ripped off in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere."
"This 'rip'," Kantos Kan interjected, "is that 'avaricious'? If so, Ghek was not the only one determined to profit from our misfortunes! Bar Novacs was just as interested; however, he hoped to do so without resorting to long campaigns of war and bloodshed. The Warhoon Jed merely," Kantos Kan chuckled, "wished to place you and Connie in slavery. That's my kind of green man!"
When the perplexed Jasoomian frowned, Kantos Kan explained. "Don't get me wrong, Tony. "Bar Novacs' plan was extremely inconsiderate of your desires, yet you have to admire his willingness to ignore the war-like nature of his society for the advancement of his tribe.
"I appreciate everything Tars Tarkas and his Tharks have done for Helium, please understand that. However, you must admit that the green men of Mars are taciturn and sullen at the best of times. I wonder why Bar Novacs is so radically different from the rest of the green barbarians?"
Tony didn't answer the Martian. He was intently examining the unusual trio just entering the club. With an ominous chill powering his deep basso, Tony quietly whispered to Kantos Kan. "Do you really want an answer to that question, Kanty? Why don't you ask the treacherous bastard yourself!"
Three heads immediately swiveled to see what held Tony's attention. The athlete's companions beheld a green warrior, imposing in a plain leather harness devoid of metal or insignia, who carefully negotiated his way between crowded tables. The great figure was concerned with moving his fourteen foot height beneath the thirteen foot ceiling without injury to himself. Bar Novacs had not, as yet, seen Tony Martin or his friends seated at the table.
Perched on the huge green warrior's shoulder was a diminutive white ape. The tiny creature drew comments and stares from the curious crowd, which made Bar Novacs very nervous. Tony struggled with the sudden nightmarish parody of Bar Novacs as Robert Lewis Stevenson's Long John Silver with a macabre white "parrot" on his shoulder.
Closely following Bar Novacs and Cheta was a breath-taking woman, her face concealed behind a whisper-soft veil. Martian women normally went unveiled, but the shimmer of cloth did little to obscure her more obvious assets, the sheer incredible perfection of the female's lithe form. Most of the low-voiced comments generated by the appearance of the unusual trio were on the woman's behalf, the rest were for the great barbarian green warrior with the astonishing miniature white ape perched on his shoulder.
Bar Novacs was unaware of Tony Martin's presence until the Earthman clamped strong fingers about the green man's harness strap. "Of all the gin joints in all the world, you had to come into mine!" Martin growled, his hand on the hilt of his sword. "What brings you to fair Helium, Bar Novacs?"
The Warhoon's instant reaction caught the Jasoomian off guard. "Shhh! Keep it down, Tony! Want to cause a fight? There's some Tharks sitting in the corner and they hate Warhoons. Okay?"
Martin stared at the ugly frog face and the four open palms devoid of weapons. The young man kept his voice low, yet the steel of his anger showed not only in his words, it was echoed by the white-knuckled grip on his sword hilt. "What do you want?" Tony's deep-pitched rumble caused Cheta to fearfully cling to the green Martian's harness.
"I came to find you, Tony." Bar Novacs slowly eased his immense form closer. "I had to apologize for my abominable behavior. I wanted to make sure you were well and you had arrived in Helium as planned."
The Jasoomians, the Overlord of Helium's navy, and his lovely companion was notable enough to draw the attention of patrons; add the appearance of an impressive green warrior, a unique miniature white ape and a stunning woman of incredible beauty and it was no wonder that Bar Novacs spoke swiftly in hushed tones. "Can we please sit down and talk?" the desert Jed begged.
Kantos Kan's silent gesture to one of the ever-present servants caused another bench to be brought to the table. Bar Novacs gratefully settled his huge bulk on the sorapus wood with a sigh. Cheta jumped from the Warhoon's shoulder to the table and scuttled across the surface to sit close to the mysterious red woman who demurely sat next to the nervous green Martian. Bar Novacs turned his great head, glancing over the night spot's clients, who rapidly lost interest; Barsoom, after all, abounded in the strange and unusual.
Bar Novacs quickly noted the green Tharks, deadly enemies of all Warhoons, had not expressed undue attention, but even so, this made his speech quite rapid and direct. "I did you a terrible wrong, Jasoomians, and I could not rest until I brought you safe to Helium, to beg your forgiveness..."
"Horse-pucky, Bar Novacs," Tony growled. "Play that tune somewhere else. What's the real reason, and how did you find us in this place?"
"It was a fortunate accident," the Martian replied. He would have said more but the little ape interrupted.
"Ghek and I were bad, Tony. We shouldn't have run off. We were really going to turn around and come back for you, but we ran into Bar Novacs. Bar Novacs convinced us of his sincerity in helping you to Helium so we returned to Kanator, but by then you'd gone. My big brothers said you'd found a sky thing and flown north. Bar Novacs suggested we ride for Tjanath. We caught the first public air transport and came directly to Helium." Cheta worried a scrap of flesh from the cold roast and crammed it in his mouth. "It was a long flight and we're hungry!"
"That doesn't answer my question," Tony narrowed his eyes, glaring at the hulking green Martian. "You'd better talk faster, Bar Novacs, or I'll shout 'Warhoon'!"
"By the First Born, Tony!" Bar Novacs trembled, his swords clanking together. "Did I anger you that much? Do you want to get me killed? Damn it, man! This is the first eatery we passed after getting off the transport at Hanger Tower, South! Pure, dumb, blind, stupid luck we found you the first time! Now--will you hear me out?"
"Just keep it funny, asshole!" Tony snarled.
"Like Cheta said, I found them on the way north. We took the rykors to Kanator where I left a few men to guard them for Ghek. Cheta told me everything that had happened, like how you got away from me and other things. Cheta was quite helpful--I guess he thought I was going to eat him..."
"You would have, too!" Cheta cracked a thoat bone with his sharp teeth. "Tony--he said something about skinning Jasoomians and I spilled my guts. He would have eaten me!" Cheta dropped his bone and scuttled over the surface of the table. He came to a stop before Connie. He jerked three of six possible thumbs in Tony's unyielding direction. "Make him believe me--"
"Come here, you silly!" Connie opened her arms and comforted the little ape. She raised her lovely green eyes and pleaded with the stern-faced Earthman. "Let's hear what Bar Novacs has to say."
"Why not?" Tony was grim, though willing to comply simply because Connie had asked. "He's dead meat if I don't get the straight stuff!"
"Tony!" the green man's voice held a note of injury. "I admitted I was wrong! I'm sorry!"
"Why'd you take a chance on coming to Helium?" Tony asked.
Kantos Kan started to rise on legs made unsteady by too much wine. He gave up and leaned forward (his elbow missing the edge of the table twice before he got it right) and pointed a finger at the desert barbarian. "I's like the ans-ther to that queshun, als-tho!" Clixia's ready strength supported the wavering ex-officer who'd consumed more of the potent Martian grape than was prudent.
Clixia stoked a pretty hand on the red man's cheek. "Let Tony handle this, darling." Kantos Kan offered a token argument then smiled with happiness as he gazed upon the woman he adored.
Tony waited until Kantos Kan had settled in his seat before repeating his question to Bar Novacs. The Jed of Warhoons shrugged all four shoulders. "I had no choice, Tony."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Bar Novacs dropped his voice to a whisper, "I've got a war on my hands!"
While Tony digested that startling statement, the veiled woman spoke for the first time. "Your pardon, sir," the lovely creature interrupted, "our journey has been long and we require nourishment, may we break our fast?"
Tony, mesmerized by the melodic voice, slowly relaxed the tense grip on the hilt of his sword. He stared at the great, protruding eyes of the Warhoon, then gazed at the tear-filled eyes of Cheta huddled within Connie's sheltering arms. Lastly, he looked in the direction of the beautiful woman. He was puzzled, confused, and a bit angry; though that had worn thin since their arrival in Helium. He found his desire to punch the Warhoon in his non-existent nose abruptly vanished.
A serving wench passed by the table and Tony stopped her with a small gesture. "More wine, another thoat roast--no, bring another full dinner since we have welcome guests joining us." When the girl acknowledged the order and left, Tony amicably spread his hands in a peaceful gesture. "We'll call a truce over dinner. Agreed?"
Bar Novacs smile' made Tony Martin reach for his sword. The green Martian was hurt. "I can't change the way my race has been depicted, Tony Martin! It's true our greatest humor is found in the suffering of the unfortunate, but please accept my word that whenever I smile in your presence it's from happiness and not the great, final comedy!"
"You better get your shit together, old son, or I'll be as paranoid as John Carter about green Martians and you know what he did to your tribe!"
Bar Novacs shuddered, knowing all too well the consequences of arousing a Jasoomian's ire. While the Warhoon was phrasing his possible reply, the serving girl delivered the dinner to the quiet table. Conversation ebbed to a standstill while the green man, ape, and veiled Martian lady consumed their meal.
Kantos Kan was obviously enchanted with the mysterious lady--he kept leaning in her direction. Conversational attempts on his part were politely declined, but he was so persistent, falsely emboldened by the wine, that Clixia was on the verge of braining him. Even Tony succumbed to the veiled lady's irresistible charms. The woman seemed to sense this morally deplorable state of manhood and took it upon herself to remedy the matter.
A slim, delicately turned hand, rose to lift the veil. Kantos Kan took one look and passed out. Tony Martin threw back his head and laughed with such gusto the patrons of the night club scowled in his direction. Martin, with a great deal of effort, lowered his voice. "Ghek! I'll go to hell in a hand-basket! Had me so hot and horny I almost forgot my own lady!"
"Good!" the kaldane crooned, its voice modulated in such a manner to rouse Kantos Kan from his swoon. "Not half bad, eh?"
"Half bad?" Connie giggled. "It's absolutely amazing! How do you like being a woman?"
"Been so many years, little one," Ghek's silky voice replied, "I can't tell for sure. After riding a stallion for so long I just feel utterly glorious!"
"You even look different--your head--I mean. Not so, so--" Connie blushed, unable to continue.
"Ugly?" Ghek inquired. "That's all right, dear. I know what I am. Do you realize how ridiculous you one-piece creatures seem to me? Absolutely disgusting!" Ghek's comment was delivered in such gentle and tender tones that no insult was possible.
Connie giggled, Clixia joining her. Clixia, who sat between Kantos Kan and the kaldane/rykor, put her arms about the splendid desert-bred mare. "There's something about you--" she blushed, quickly drawing back.
Connie leaned across the table. "Same here, Clixia!" She hugged herself and moaned: "Ohhh! I get shivers!"
Tony's attempt to bring some sort of rationality back to the conversation was almost lost as the women talked about Ghek. "Girls! Please! Bar Novacs and I have things to discuss!" Tony glared with unsuccessful intimidation toward the kaldane/rykor, "I've got things to discuss with you, Ghek! Where's Throxeus, you old thoat rustler?"
Bar Novacs swiftly interjected, "Like Cheta said, your thoat's with the others you stole--I mean, I gave to you. They're all back at Kanator, safe and sound in the care of a half dozen of my best warriors."
"That's good," Tony grit his teeth, the muscles beneath his beard jumping on his jaw-line. "Okay, now that you've hit the feed bag, give! I want to know why you're here!"
Tony Martin was denied an immediate reply because the made-over kaldane wriggled deliciously between the two human women, commanding its mare to place shapely arms about both. Ghek bent his/her/its head towards Connie Wescott with a light twitter of envy in his/her/its voice.
"You look absolutely stunning, darling! You simply must tell me where you got your clothes! I desperately need something chic for myself if I want to be successful in my new trade."
Ghek turned affectionately nuzzled the breathless red woman's cheek. "What do you know about wigs, Clixia? I've heard that Holy Thern wigs are simply marvelous! How would I look as a blonde? Do you know where I can get a Thern wig? Oh! I also want brown, black, brunette, and your own lovely, copper-bronze! I'll need about a dozen..."
Ghek abruptly stopped the excited rush of words, commanding the rykor to press a trembling, tapered hand to the mare's delectably alluring, delightfully heaving breast, imitating a very human gesture, "Do you really think I can get away with it, darlings?"
Clixia watched the delicate graceful movement of the rykor's hand lifting a tiny sliver of roast thoat to the kaldane's sphincter-like mouth. For an instant the woman visualized the hideous kaldane as it was unmounted but that horror quickly passed in the presence of this wonderful vision of femininity. Clixia was totally enthralled by this vivacious creature.
"Who cares if you're bald?" Clixia suddenly cried. "Tell me this: Why weren't you this attractive on the stallion? Why am I so attracted to you? Don't you dare repeat that to Kanty when he wakes up--I'd hate you forever! I--" Clixia stopped talking, a hot flush on her cheeks. "Why am I asking this question?" Clixia crammed three knuckles against her lips, eyes wide with bewilderment.
Ghek's gentle laughter soothed the woman. "I suppose," he/she/it confided, "it's because I've been the same old thing for so long, dearest. In Bantoom we had our pick of ranch-bred rykors everyday, both male and female. Maybe having the same mount for so many years took the spark out of role-playing. Us kaldanes are supposed to the be theoretical apex of intelligent thought, devoid of the baser physical emotions, but that's a lot of hype. Right now I feel gloriously female and I love it!"
Connie burst into the conversation. "I like you so much better as a woman, Ghek, but you stay away from my Tony!" The warning was accompanied with a gentle smile. "I still can't get over the incredible change--you're so delectable!"
Ghek commanded the rykor to lift a hand and tenderly caressed Connie's sun-browned cheek. "I was so worried about you, darling. I hated leaving you, and Tony, and Clixia, and Kantos Kan in Kanator! I was so afraid something horrible might happen to you after we left, even though Cheta assured me those great, hairy things would leave you alone. I'm so glad the whole terrible experience is over." Ghek gracefully shifted the veil over the rykor's soft, delightful shoulder and continued without pause.
"We ran into Bar Novacs while I was riding one of the mares. He's such a masterful brute! I enjoyed myself immensely with his immenseness--if you know what I mean--and later he told us why he needed to find you. Cheta and I decided to help. Except for that first, lovely, glorious night when he raped me a dozen times, Bar Novacs has been the perfect gentleman. He provided us with fresh thoats and made sure my rykors were well cared for in Kanator before he personally escorted us to Tjanath. That's why he's incognito," Ghek gestured to the titanic Warhoon's plain harness. "We had to pass through Thark territory and you know how incommodious Tharks and Warhoons are--constantly brawling! Despite this danger, Bar Novacs insisted on coming to Helium to find you and Tony. He begs your forgiveness and hopes you'll come back and do sakking exhibitions for the rest of the Warhoon tribes..."
"You can't serious!" Tony stared at the great green warrior with disbelief. He sputtered with outrage. "Is that what this is all about. Bar Novacs? You're playing with half-a-deck if you think Connie and I will go back to Warhoon after that stunt you pulled. You really got a lot of nerve!"
Bar Novacs cringed under the black-haired Jasoomian's verbal assault. He hastily swallowed his portion of thoat roast and pleaded with the Earthman. "Okay, I admit it! I was a thoat's ass! I was despicable! But it is also true I need your help, Tony." Bar Novacs paused, lowering his voice to a desperate plea. "I'm in a hell of a fix! Some of my warriors--stupid, dull-witted louts without the brains Issus gave soraks--shot off their mouths about the sakking exhibition you and Connie put on in our camp. Somehow it got around to the rest of the Warhoons that you would be doing this on a regular basis. That was before you got away. Now, I've got prospective clients beating at the door to see this wonderful thing and I've got nothing to show them. I'm on the verge of war with the rest of the Warhoon tribes since they think I've either lied to them, or I'm keeping you for myself. I'm caught in the middle. That's why I had to find you. I thought maybe we could start all over again, on your terms. War is so terribly expensive. Will you come back? For a little while?"
Tony felt no sympathy for the Jed of Warhoons. He crossed his arms and refused to answer. The mighty Jed all but grovelled on the hard marble floor.
"Can't you forgive me? We could negotiate a limited run contract. I'll give you and Connie 100% of the proceeds. It's a damn sight cheaper than the cost of a damnable war!"
Connie giggled, linking her arm beneath Tony's rigid elbow. She tugged at his beard with her free hand. "He's really serious, Tony. I have a feeling that when our greedy friend is so candidly willing to part with profits, he's in serious trouble!"
"Indeed he is," Ghek supplied. His/her/its shoulders rose in an unhappy shrug. "On our way back to Bar Novacs' camp we ran into a scouting party from another Warhoon tribe. They were quite boorish when Bar Novacs admitted he had no Jasoomians to exhibit at the time. We barely avoided a confrontation with them."
Ghek turned his/her/its attention on Martin. Tony received the strong impression of fluttering eyelids though kaldanes specifically lacked that anatomical feature. "You really should forgive him, dear," Ghek continued. "Let bygones be bygones, Tony. Poor Bar Novacs has suffered terribly these last few weeks."
"What about you and Cheta, Ghek? Can you offer an excuse for abandoning us to die in the desert?" Tony attempted to fuel his sense of outrage by verbally assaulting the attractive kaldane/rykor. "You and Cheta skipped out on us without any consideration of what might be our fate. You did all this because of some damn rykors and a silly notion of opening a house of ill-repute which, by the way, wasn't even your own idea!"
Ghek faced the Earthman and simpered, using all the stunning vital equipment and innate grace of the fantastically proportioned rykor mare. Guided by the intelligence of a Bantoom super-mind, Tony didn't stand a chance; the football player's love muscle tap-danced in his trousers.
"After seeing me, don't you think it was worth it?" Ghek sweetly challenged.
Tony Martin's breath caught in his throat. Convulsively the Jasoomian tore his eyes away from the kaldane emanating sex like nuclear reactors emitted radiation, with nearly identically devastating results. Tony fought to control his sudden arousal as the kaldane continued his/her/its astonishing telepathic exudation directed primarily at the baser instincts of the human species.
Connie and Clixia found themselves enthralled by the nearly hypnotic combination of kaldane and rykor. The greatest response from any at the table, however, was from Kantos Kan. The drunken officer rose to his feet, intending to put his arms about Ghek when Cheta, with a gentle shove of his finger against the unsteady Heliumite's chest, curtly warned the panting officer.
"Uh huh," the ape admonished sternly. "She's mine!"
Tony cleared his throat, embarrassed by the physical reaction stirring his breech cloth. Connie looked down and giggled licentiously. One of her hands rested on Tony's thigh beneath the table and she, too, had noticed the exigency of Tony's manhood as a result of Ghek's powerful allure. Tony's complexion crimsoned as darkly as a red Martian's normal pigmentation.
Connie leaned her lips close to Tony's ear and whispered. "It's incredible! I don't blame you, darling. I felt the same thing! Sure surprised the hell out of me!"
"Right--damn, that Ghek really has something! All right," he kept his voice for her ears only, "what if Bar Novacs is telling the truth? I wouldn't want a war fought because of us. I might even be tempted to help him out, but how," he avoided looking directly at Ghek while he wrestled with his questions, "can we trust them? Bar Novacs put us in cages. He intended to make slaves out of us. Ghek and Cheta gave no thought to stranding us in Kanator."
Tony spoke the last few sentences in a louder voice than intended and Bar Novacs was injured by the Earthman's words. "Tony!" he pleaded. "Why do you keep bringing up that unfortunate occurrence over and over again? What do you want from me? Blood?"
"That would do nicely!" Tony replied.
Connie Wescott slapped at the tackle's bare shoulder and scowled. "That's enough of that, Tony! Bar Novacs is truly sorry for what he did. If you don't leave this poor man alone, I'll never speak to you again!"
Connie rose and went to stand by Bar Novacs. She leaned against his side, her arm stretched across his olive green chest. "You are forgiven, Bar Novacs," she said, daring Martin to object her statement. "Tony forgives you, too. Don't you, darling?"
"Well," the young Jasoomian sighed, beaten, "as long as you put it that way, I guess so." He extended his hand and the Jed eagerly clasped it with gratitude.
"Thank you, Tony. You'll never regret this!"
"I already do," Martin chuckled as Connie kissed his cheek and resumed her seat beside him.
Wescott offered a final word of advice to the relieved Jed of Warhoon. "Don't push Tony too hard, Bar Novacs. You don't want to cross him. But, let's wait until later to hash this out, okay?"
"Fine with me," the green Martian smiled. He hastily realized the gesture might be misinterpreted, then smiled again when the Jasoomian laughed.
"If you ever," Martin's voice held a hint of cold promise that made the Jed's smile vanish, "try to put us in cages again I'll..."
"...tear your arms off," Cheta supplied, doing a wonderful mimic of Tony's favorite threat, "and feed them to you one by one!"
This unexpected statement by the little white ape restored the humor of the party. For the next five xats light conversation was enjoyed by all while the new arrivals finished their belated meal.
The humans, of course, were made to tell their adventures after the separation at Kanator. Most of the chatter, however, was between Ghek and the two women--mostly about clothes and other feminine frivolities.
When it came time to pay the bill prior to departing, Bar Novacs offered to settle accounts. However, the Jed of Warhoons, after looking into his belt pouch, exhibited acute embarrassment of being short of funds. Kantos Kan chuckled as he dipped into his own funds; neither he or Tony had been deceived by the green man's huckster ways. The red man paid the 'difference' and left a generous tip as well.
"I've got a great idea," Kantos Kan announced as he swayed unsteadily between Bar Novacs and Tony Martin. "Let's grab a few bottles of wine and go up to see the Sith. She's just around the corner and I want to see how much work the mechanics have done on her. What do you say?"
"Work?" Tony asked. "Why are you having work done on the old thing?"
"Because she's ours, Tony! Finders-keepers! It's the law of the land. The Sith is basically sound. With a few repairs and refinements she'll be outstanding. Should last us a few hundred years at the very least. Good investment. Beats the hell out of that little two-seater I lost on the desert. Plenty of room and comfort--we can go anywhere we want. By the way, Tony," Kantos Kan added with a serious tone, "the Sith is as much yours and Connie's as mine and Clixia's. Anytime you want to take her out, you just come and get her," he laughed, hugging Clixia, "the Sith that is!"
Ghek's mare timidly touched Tony on the arm. "I'd like to see the cruiser, too. Cheta and I haven't seen it yet. Please?" Tony quickly agreed in self-preservation of his libido (and dignity!) before the kaldane turned on any more charm.
"Right! To the Sith!"
Kantos Kan grinned. "You guys go on ahead. I'll bring the wine. Level Eight, Slip 31A." He turned and reentered the club. Bar Novacs gazed after the reeling figure. He bent his massive torso toward Clixia, who was standing beside him.
"I better stay with him," he generously offered.
"Thank you, Bar Novacs. He's not normally like this, you know..." Clixia didn't try to hide her distress. "It's all John Carter's fault!" The weeping woman ran into the thinning street crowd with Ghek and Connie in close pursuit.
The green martin watched the women for a perplexed moment before turning to Martin. "What did she mean? What happened?"
"I'll tell you later, Bar Novacs. You better stick with Kantos Kan while I catch up with the girls. We'll meet you at the hanger. Come on, Cheta," the Earthman extended a leg and offered an arm to allow the ape easy access to his shoulder. Tony Martin had to trot to catch up with the trio moving down the street; one of which was half-bent, tears running down her high, fine-boned cheeks.
XX ON BOARD THE Sith
The three women accompanied by the bearded man and tiny white ape entered the brightly lit lobby of Hanger Tower, South. The electro-magnetic elevator noiselessly whisked them to the cavernous maintenance bay on Level Eight, where a grease-smeared mechanic politely gave directions to the repair bay which held the Sith.
"My goodness!" Connie exclaimed when they rounded the stern of a hundred foot private freighter and saw their ship. Tony's jaw gaped as wide as his lady's. The Sith's appearance had changed dramatically just hours since their arrival at the great Martian metropolis.
All of the old flaking paint was gone and the Sith's sturdy aluminum-steel hull plating gleamed like burnished silver under the radium lights glare. Being the tallest, Tony could look over the cruiser's rail without climbing aboard. "Clean swept and recently washed down." The richly-grained sorapus wood planks fairly glowed, still damp, displaying a luster which astonished him. "Doesn't look a thing like when we found her," he said.
"She's beautiful!" Clixia breathed with amazement. The woman made a determined effort to ignore her personal unhappiness, having no desire to allow her gloomy mood to interfere with the remainder of the evening. She strolled along the hull, trailing a hand over the smooth, glistening surface. "I wonder if they've had a chance to balance number two and three engines? Kantos Kan thought the shafts might be bent."
"How much work is he planning to do?" Tony asked.
Clixia pursed her lips in thought, a lovely finger tapping the point of her chin as she enumerated the proposed renovations. "A directional compass, altitude apparatus, high-speed gearing for the drive shafts..."
The woman paused, a warm light igniting in her eyes. Clixia's voice took on a brighter note. "Kantos Kan's right. We can go anywhere we want in the Sith! Can we go aboard, Tony?"
"That's what we're here for, Clixia. Up you go!" The Jasoomian put his hands on her waist and effortlessly lifted the red-haired woman to the railing.
Tony watched with appreciative eye as Clixia's slim copper-bronze ankles swung over the railing. Clixia boarded the dry-docked flier without mishap and Tony lifted Connie upwards, pleased she allowed him to act the gallant gentleman when she could so easily board under her own power. Tony silently turned to Ghek, who'd already lifted Cheta to the rail. The white ape hung by left foot and left lower arm, head down, a stern look pinching his bestial features.
"Watch where you put your hands, Jasoomian!" the shrill ape voice warned.
Tony and Ghek laughed at Cheta's exhibition of jealousy. The Earthman courteously bowed to the miniature ape and complied with the request. The rykor's waist was thin, muscular, and quite delicious to Tony's touch. With a single motion, the athlete set the rykor's curvaceous posterior on the railing. After Ghek was aboard, the Earthling leapt to the deck.
"Okay, Cheta?" Tony inquired.
"Just fine," the ape replied as Ghek picked the ape up. Cheta reached out and patted the tackle's shoulder. "Now I know how you felt when I did this to your lady--" as an illustration, one of the creature's paws crudely palpated the rykor's generous breasts. Ghek shivered with a girlish giggle.
"Stop that! You'll have me all hot and bothered, you little imp!" Ghek demurely covered his/her/its face with the veil as he/she/it chided the tiny beast.
The three humans laughed at the scene; Cheta profusely apologizing while trying to grab more tit at the same time. Tony chuckled and put arms about Connie and Clixia. He nodded towards the prow of the cruiser. "Shall we see what's been done to the cabin?"
"Let's!" the girls cried in unison.
As the group entered the darkened cabin Clixia's shapely hand reached out to turn on the interior lights. When the newly replaced overhead radium bulb emitted its clear light, the women applauded the cruiser cabin's transmutation from the moribund to the magnificent.
All trace of sand was vacuumed away, the decks and woodwork waxed and gleaming; the metal-works burnished bright, free of tarnish everywhere; the broken porthole cover replaced with new glass and everything looked immaculate with the single exception of the shabby, torn cushions on bunks and divan. The sad state of the stained fabric coverings brought cries of distress from the women.
"It's horrible, Connie!" Clixia picked up one of the cushions and frowned. "We'll have to re-do the whole thing!"
Connie Wescott took the decrepit cushion from the older woman and instantly agreed. "I'm with you there, Clixia. What color do you think? Red? Green?"
Ghek stepped into the cabin. "How about a powder blue, dears? I mean," the hesitant kaldane paused, "that is if you want my opinion as a woman..."
"Just what are you, Ghek?" Connie asked, breathless with curiosity.
Tony supplied a quick answer: "Probably a triple schizophrenic!" He grinned and put his arm about the rykor's shoulder. In a whisper meant to be overheard, Martin asked the kaldane "If you'd help, I'd appreciate it. Dingy broads like those two need all the advice they can get..."
"I heard that!" Connie giggled. She hurled the ragged cushion at her lover. Tony deftly caught it, then placed it on the spotless decking. He sat down with a smile and listened to Connie regaling Clixia and Ghek with impossible prevarications regarding a jock's total lack of sensitivity.
The sounds of footsteps on the main deck forestalled Connie's additional comments. Kantos Kan, well- lubricated, entered the cabin. Behind the grinning, staggering Martian was the great bulk of Bar Novacs.
"Fighting again, children?" Kantos Kan chuckled. The red man slipped on the damp deck, nearly falling. He swiftly recovered his footing without any assistance. The ex-officer took a seat on the lower bunk beside the provisions locker. With a sigh of anticipation Kantos Kan produced a pair of bottles from under his cloak. He set one on the floor between his feet and opened the other.
"What do you think of the Sith now, Tony?" Kantos Kan asked. "Turned out even better than I expected--and I had high expectations. I knew she was a good ship!"
"She's a beaut for sure, Kanty."
Bar Novacs entered on all fours, his upper limbs cradled two more bottles of wine and a cloth sack. "More room than I would have thought. I can almost stand up in here..." The green Martian took a seat at the rear of the cabin where the roof was slightly higher. He handed the cloth sack to Clixia.
"What's this?" she asked.
"Can't be too barbaric can we?" Kantos Kan explained. "I bought some glasses so we could toast the Sith in a civilized manner!"
The glasses were produced and the red Martian began filling them. Cheta, on his own initiative, scurried about the cabin, delivering filled glasses to the humans, the kaldane, and the great, green warrior. Bar Novacs grinned as he produced a huge wedge of mantalia cheese from the bottom of the sack.
"Can't have wine without cheese," he chuckled. "It's uncivilized!"
Clixia expertly carved the cheese with Kantos Kan's belt knife. The sight of the woman using the knife reminded Kantos Kan of Ghek's theft in Kanator. His face clouded with anger as the red man turned on Ghek with a growl.
"Where are the weapons you stole from me?"
"Borrowed, my dear!" Ghek turned on the feminine charm which had a startling effect on Kantos Kan's anger--it evaporated. Ghek demurely added, "I brought them with me, dear. Your nasty swords are in our luggage locker at the top of this very hanger. Now don't get snippy with me, darling. Besides," his/her/its voice crooned soothingly, "you look very well armed to me right now."
"And so I am, damn your beautiful presence!" Kantos Kan roared with laughter.
Ghek twittered angelically. "I'll gladly pay for the swords, Kanty. I need some for my male rykors. I'm sure we can work something out," The kaldane's pause left nothing to the imagination regarding a possible alternative to exchanging cold, hard tanpi as payment for the weapons.
Ghek's super-mind directed the rykor's movements in such a way that Kantos Kan trembled with desperately repressed eagerness. He drained his glass in a single gulp. Kan hoarsely exclaimed, "You can have them if only you stop whatever it is you're doing!" The red man wiped his fevered brow, a huge grin on his handsome face.
Bar Novacs expressed sympathetic amusement at the over-heated red man's predicament. "Ghek practiced seduction on the passenger liner from Tjanath. I thought every man on the flight would end up fighting for her--or is it his?--hand!"
The Jed of Warhoons nibbled at his cheese then contemplated it with one of his independently movable eyes. "You know," he commented in a puzzled tone, "we get manatila cheese free on the dead sea bottoms. Here we had to pay 60 teepi! What is this world coming to?"
Until this moment of conversation Clixia had been silently cutting cheese and pouring wine. Suddenly, she tossed the knife aside and buried her face in her hands. "Who cares?" she wailed. "When your own family disowns you for doing something so natural, so beautiful--it isn't fair!"
"Darling!" Kantos Kan rapidly began to sober. He took the sobbing woman into his arms and comforted her with soft words, stroking her copper-bronze hair with a tenderness that seemed at odds to his usual grim manner.
"It's all over and done with, Clixia. There's nothing else we can do but go forward from here." His tone was filled with gentle pleading.
"She's right, Kanty," Connie butted in, feeling scandalized by the mores of Barsoom. "It isn't fair, to her, or you." The girl put a comforting arm about Clixia's shoulder. "There, there, dear. We love you and there's nothing will ever change that! No matter what happens, we love you and we'll stick by you."
Clixia raised her head, sniffing regretfully. "I'm sorry I've been so out of it. I thought I could laugh this off, but I can't. It hurts too much."
The woman stiffly sat up, brushing away tears with a shaking hand. Clixia's voice unexpectedly filled with contempt. "Thuvia was not disowned by her father Thuvan Dihn, Jeddak of Ptarth, because she was defiled by Sator Throg, the evil Holy Thern. No!" Clixia cried angrily. "This did not happen to Thuvia! It was okay because she was a slave at the time and she exacted her own revenge on the villain. And what about poor Phao, Nur An's mate? I've heard Tan Hadron of Hastor tell the tale many times: Phao was indecently visited by Yo-Seno in the East Tower of Tjanath, but she, like Thuvia, had been a slave at the time.
"Me? I am a free woman who instigated our assignation. I knowingly urged Kantos Kan into immorality and look at the result. Kanty's been discharged from the navy after so many years of loyal service!"
The longer she talked, the more sympathetic her companions became. Kantos Kan gently folded the woman's trembling body into his sheltering arms. Clixia discharged her anger and frustration for a few moments longer. When the tumultuous emotions began to subside, she became terribly embarrassed for the uncontrolled outburst. She begged Kantos Kan's forgiveness for being the cause of his disgrace.
"It's all because of me..." she began, then Kantos Kan tenderly kissed her recriminations away.
"Like Tony is fond of saying 'it takes two.'" Kantos Kan lovingly caressed the distraught woman. "If there is any guilt my love, then I gladly claim my share. After all, you now have no family and that would never have happened if I had not been so eager to be with you. I won't allow you carry the entire burden, dear Clixia, not when it causes you such pain, especially for something we both desire so fervently."
Kantos Kan knelt to the polished deck, holding Clixia's slim hands in his. "You have done no wrong, my dearest! I will never abandon you!"
"Nor I!" cried Connie and Tony in unison. Bar Novacs, Ghek and Cheta immediately echoed them.
Clixia openly displayed tears of gratitude as she gazed upon the circle of anxious faces. "My dear, considerate friends. You have made me the happiest woman alive!"
"Not yet--my Princess!" Kantos Kan declared with a huskiness that touched every listener. The red man ardently pressed the stunned woman's hands to his lips.
Clixia at first refused to accept the red man's declaration of love. "That's just the wine, Kanty. You're such a sweet dear."
"It is not!" Kantos Kan laid his heart at her feet. "What you see is what you get, but if you will have me, I am yours!" He waited expectantly.
"You're not proposing just to make an honest woman out of me? If that is what is on your mind you must know this: my father will never take me back. It makes no difference if we marry or stay just the way we are."
"It does to me!" Kantos Kan cried. "I don't give a damn what your father thinks. I want you. I don't want his approbation--or his money. I love you. I always have since the day we met. Will you do me the very great honor? Will you be my Princess?"
Six pairs of eyes watched the trembling Martian woman. Six pairs of ears strained to hear her reply and six voices shouted with resounding approval when Clixia cried: "My Chieftain!"
Glasses were raised in salute as Clixia's full lips eagerly sealed her affirmation of Kantos Kan's plea. It was a long moment before the delirious twosome separated amidst the cheers of their fellows.
"Friends," Kantos Kan lifted his glass. "Will you toast the most beautiful woman on Barsoom, my wife to be--Clixia!"
Cheta immediately took charge of the wine bottle. He filled empty glasses and kept them full while toast after toast was made. Occasionally--between each glass he served--the little ape took a pull from the mouth of the bottle. By the time four rounds had been consumed, Cheta was staggering. He swayed in the center of the deck and called for attention in a slurred voice.
"Fellow beings, on this happy occasion I wish to say our past association has been one of great enjoyment for me. Our adventure was one of heroic proportions and astounding dimensions--and on top of that--no one will ever believe us! Kaor!" Cheta lifted the heavy bottle, raised it to his lips, and fell smack on his rump.
Ghek gently relieved the drunken ape of the wine bottle. "Better let me have that. I think you can handle this with more ease, little one." The rykor's slim hand offered a cup of wine. The ape shrugged all four shoulders, accepted the beverage and promptly drained the contents.
"Cheta's right," Tony responded to the ape's comments. "We did have fun. Who needs all the bigotry and narrow-mindedness?"
Bar Novacs' laughed filled the cabin. "To the adventure no one will believe!" He raised his glass. "Not one single sapient being died!" The Jed tossed back a draught of wine which would have choked an ordinary man.
Tony reclined on one elbow and thoughtfully watched the faces of the strange assortment of friends that he and Connie gathered since their advent to Mars. His mood alternated between happiness and regret.
Their adventure and homecoming had turned out badly for Kantos Kan's career; yet, in spite of this, Tony was elated when the red man avowed his love for Clixia. It seemed that the two Heliumites had found all they would ever need in each other and that was, in many ways, the perfect ending.
Tony turned his attention toward Bar Novacs, who might be facing great trouble in his homeland. As he gazed at the misty eyed frog face of the huge green warrior, Tony realized the barbaric chieftain was unknowingly and openly sensitive to care about Kantos Kan and Clixia. Tony smiled to himself; maybe he would reconsider and help the old fraud out of his unhappy predicament. Cheta had inescapably found his personal happiness embodied in Ghek and his/her/its interchangeable rykors. The kaldane super brain was genuinely regretful for stranding the four humans in Kanator. Tony chuckled to himself, magnanimously forgiving the spider-man of Bantoom without reservation. Ghek was about to embark on a unique, if not so honorable, approach to the world's oldest profession and Tony wished the Bantoomian luck in the venture. But what about Connie and himself? Where did they fit in Barsoom's Grand Design? Moreover, despite the physical closeness they had shared since that first afternoon in the ape city, how did things actually stand between them? Tony Martin knew he was head over heels in love with the spunky swordswoman, had been since their second date, but what were her feelings towards him? There was no doubt there was shared affection, even lust, but was it love?
The Earthman's mood remained just shy of morose and he found it difficult to join the jubilation. He realized the wine failed to have the intended effect, he was brooding instead of celebrating. Tony was so engrossed in his thoughts that Connie startled him by her sudden presence on the cushion and the quiet-voiced question: "Something wrong, sweetheart?"
"Should there be?" Tony forced a grin, pulling her supple form into his lap. He embraced the tiny woman, his lips caressing her soft throat. "We're with friends in Helium and all's well with the world."
Connie's lips brushed the man's bearded cheek. "You seem preoccupied, darling. What's bothering you?"
"Do you really want to know?" At her nod, Tony Martin proceeded to speak his thoughts, without revealing his personal apprehensions concerning the petite woman's feelings towards him. The rest of the people quieted, following his conversation with sober expressions. Tony concluded his statements in a harsher tone than he intended.
"It just burns my butt that the great John Carter could so easily turn his back on his oldest and most trusted friend. Perhaps Connie and I influenced you and Clixia," Tony turned sad eyes towards his friend. "Maybe you took the wrong cues--where we come from consenting adults don't have to hide! We've brought you nothing but trouble!"
"I've had it up to here, you hard-headed, obstinate Earthman!" Kantos Kan cried. "If it hadn't been for you I would never have found the courage to ask Clixia to marry me! As for the rest, there have been few events in my long life that have been as enjoyable as the days we spent together with you and your lady. All of us in this room have wonderful memories which can never be diminished by short-sighted people like John Carter or Clixia's snobbish family. What can be more important than good friends and good times? That is what life is about. Besides," he added with a laugh, his temper easing, "think of all the fun we'll have re- telling the tale of an adventure no one will believe!"
Tony jolted upright. He had listened to Kantos Kan's words without comment primarily because the man was right, partly because he had no desire to argue with his friend, but the red man's last words sparked something in the athlete's nimble brain which, as the moments passed, filled him with a stunning prescience.
Connie watched with great curiosity as the black-haired man's lips turned upwards, revealing even, white teeth. Tony chuckled, an amusement that swiftly escalated to a roar. He laughed so hard that Connie became concerned. She grasped the big man by the shoulders and cried, "Tony?"
"I'm fine, kitten!" he gasped. "I'm better than fine. We're all going to be fine! I've got the answer to everything! We thought the adventure was over -- it's just beginning!"
Connie's worry evaporated under the infectious barrage of Tony's laughter. She found herself smiling, the others joining her. "What are you talking about, lover? Are you going to sit there and cackle, or are you going to share this great revelation with us?"
XXI. TO SHAKE A WORLD
Tony's reply was a rib-cracking hug. Several long seconds passed before he released Connie's gasping form. When he did, he found all eyes on him. His evident excitement lit every face with hope and expectation.
"Throughout the whole evening there has been one main thought concerning our adventure. I have heard several different people make the comment, and it was not until just now that I put it all together. Without exception, we all enjoyed the adventure itself. We saw strange sights, observed unusual customs, fought wild beasts; all of these were part of the excitement and sense of adventure. Every step of the way was fraught with danger, yet not a single one was seriously injured. Kantos Kan was right, no one would believe this if we told it as straight truth. Now," he paused, his face still smiling, "how many people in Helium would like to be able to say the same? Why stop at this city, why not include the whole planet? Would anyone be willing to pay for a bloodless fantasy journey such as we enjoyed?"
Kantos Kan shrugged his shoulders. His arm still about Clixia's magnificent form he chuckled: "Possibly, if they were able to experience the same type of companionship..."
Clixia giggled and patted her lover's arm. "It was the companionship which was the best part! But," she added "that's not normally done--"
"Exactly!" Tony beamed with satisfaction. "So, let us suppose that desirable, willing women are not a problem. Would a red-blooded red Martian man turn down the opportunity to have a mutually satisfying adventure with a beautiful maiden? If so, how many clients do you think an adventure tour company offering such an arrangement would reasonably be able expect in a month? Ten? Twenty? A hundred?"
"Try a thousand!" Kantos Kan exclaimed, the effects of the wine dissipating under his enthusiasm. It did not take the one-time Overlord of Helium's navy long to grasp Tony Martin's inspired plan.
Tony grinned, sweeping his hand in a gesture that included all those gathered in the Sith. "We have everything we need right here in this cabin. For instance, the Warhoons are known world-wide as the most vicious, nasty, ugly, treacherous, and uncouth villains on the planet..."
"Why, thank you!" Bar Novacs smiled. "Such wonderful praises!"
"You deserve everyone of them," Tony chuckled. "But you let four, helpless, unarmed little humans get away from your clutches and evil plans without anyone getting killed." Tony Martin raised his hand to still the protest from the Warhoon leader. "Hear me out, Bar Novacs, this will appeal to your mercenary soul, I promise."
Bar Novacs wiggled his cup-shaped antennae in agitation, but did as the Jasoomian asked. Martin turned to Cheta, drowsing in the arms of the kaldane/rykor.
"We have the famous talking apes of Barsoom, and their dread brethren, the giant white man-eating apes of Kanator! But once again, the humans escaped without spilling a drop of blood." Tony and Connie exchanged a quick glance at the half-truth of that statement. They had been forced to kill two apes when they arrived on Mars.
Cheta took a bow, spilling his wine. Ghek quickly wiped the liquid from the gleaming floor of the cabin. Cheta apologized. "Sorry, dear, I was going to tell Tony the only reason he got away is because my poor dumb relations are so limited in intelligence they merely followed my last orders. If they had followed their natural instincts they would have been more feared than the sith of the Kaol Forest or the fierce arctic apt!"
"I'm quite sure they would have," Ghek's sphincter mouth gave the impression of a warm condescending smile. "Hold still! Let me daub the rest of the wine out of your fur..."
"Thank you, Ghek," the ape stuttered. "You're such a dear."
"Precisely!" Tony grinned, shaking a stiffened forefinger to emphasize his words. He stared at the incomparable kaldane/rykor. "Ghek is a dear when decked out on a prime rykor mare! More sex appeal than Bridget Bardot, Barbara Bach, Raquel Welch and Dejah Thoris combined! Incredible, huh?
"Now we get to the good part. To make the tour company intriguing, how many clients do you think we could line up if they knew they could depend on the favors of a grateful wench without jeopardizing the social status of a Martian maid? See what I'm driving at?"
"I do! I do!" Connie and Clixia clapped their hands in appreciation. "And I!" Bar Novacs roared.
"I simply love it!" Ghek giggled.
Kantos Kan said nothing, but his smile was from ear to ear. Only Cheta frowned. "Would someone tell me what's going on?"
Ghek chuckled and putting his/her/its arms about the hiccuping ape. The kaldane squeezed Cheta with tender affection. "Will you be quiet? Let Tony explain."
Tony could sense the intense interest--the knowing smiles of some--while they waited for him to continue outlining his thoughts. "We've got it all right here, Kantos Kan: the Sith; green warriors and white apes courtesy of Bar Novacs and Cheta; two, maybe three deserted cities complete with picturesque barbaric splendor, all of which adds up to high adventure with long, languorous nights in the company of a grateful wench..." Tony raised his brows in askance. "What more would we need?"
"Banths would be nice!" Kantos Kan eagerly suggested. "Perhaps Carthoris isn't as thick-headed as his old man. His wife Thuvia might be talked into training a few banths for local color and thrills."
"Good idea!" Tony grinned. "Of course, we'll have to work out the specific details and the packaging, but I don't see how we can miss! First, we have to bail Bar Novacs out of trouble to get the ball rolling. We have to have the cooperation of the Warhoons to get this thing off the ground. I guess that means Connie and I will do sakking exhibitions for a while. In return Bar Novacs puts up all the thoat steaks we'll need to keep the apes of Kanator docile under Cheta's direction." Tony chuckled as he looked at the little ape sleeping soundly in Ghek's shapely arms.
"The little guy will finally be BMOC just like he's always wanted. We'll also have to talk with Takar about using the talking ape city. I don't anticipate any difficulties there, do you, Kantos Kan?"
"None," the man replied. "Takar is extremely interested in meeting the people of Barsoom. He'll cooperate."
"That brings us back to you, Ghek, honey," Tony chuckled. "Think you can handle it? The way you are right now you're so pleasantly lascivious, licentious, lecherous, lewd, lusty, liberal, bawdy, erotic and just plain sexy you'll get banged by gangs! Interested?"
"Oh, Tony, dear!" Ghek's voice trembled. The rykor's hand reached out, took the Jasoomian's, and drew it to the rykor's gorgeous breasts. Just before contact with that coppery, trembling flesh was made, Connie reached out and yanked Martin's hand free.
"Not so fast," Connie warned with a touch of she-cat and snake-venom, "You'll have plenty of your own. Hands off mine, okay?"
"Sorry, Connie," Ghek paused for a moment to control the quivering thighs and palpitating heart of the mare. "My fault for getting hot and bothered. You know how it is--" The rykor trembled for an instant before the super-brain of the Bantoomian regained control. "Won't happen again, Connie. To answer Tony's question: an unequivocal YES! I haven't been a 'woman' in over forty years and the prospect just fills me with delight! By the way, Connie," Ghek's voice was sweetly imploring, "will you and Clixia help me with a wardrobe? In Bantoom we kaldanes did not care for the finer things, we just mounted a rykor and did what was to be done. If I'm going to deal with red men, I need to know what is most attractive and seductive. I need help with wigs, cosmetics, jewelry, clothes, oh! everything! We'll have such fun, I know we will!"
"Ghek!" Tony half-shouted to be heard over the kaldane's excited words. "At this moment I wish you were riding a stallion instead of that over-developed mare! Can we at least stay on the subject at hand?"
"Certainly, honey..." the soft voice replied.
"Gods!" Tony threw his hands up in defeat. Connie Wescott snickered over her lover's obvious frustration. Clixia, on the other hand, dealt with a more practical impediment.
"We may have a slight problem. If I know my red men, not all of the clients will be interested in going all the way with our damsel in distress and what happens when we have several adventures going on at the same time? Ghek can't be everywhere."
"You've got a point there," Kantos Kan mused.
"We'll just have to have some more girls," Connie declared. "But how?"
"It's a sure bet," Bar Novacs declared sadly, "that neither one of you would be willing to be damsels in distress."
"You got that, Bar Novacs!" Connie shook her head.
"I think," Clixia rose to pace the sorapus wood decking, her fine brow furrowed in thought, "I may have a solution. My father did not dare toss me out without providing for my financial well-being. He left me quite a sum of tanpi which I can use as I desire. We'll be needing some sort of office staff to operate the company so I'll buy a few slaves, pretty ones. Perhaps we could find girls interested in playing the part of a damsel, though I don't believe we should require sexual performance from them unless they are willing; primarily because a forced, or worse, faked response would hurt the business."
"We ought to have three levels of gratification," Kantos Kan broke into Clixia's speech. "We might consider the damsel's gratitude based as," he shrugged his shoulders, searching for words, "The Sacred Untouchable Virgin; The Affectionate Lady; and of course, The Insatiable Slut. Clixia's pretty ladies could play whatever part they feel comfortable with--but we give Ghek first choice in all tours of the latter category."
Ghek applauded Kantos Kan's suggestion. "Thank you, Kanty."
"Hey!" Clixia whirled about, suddenly beaming with joy. "I just thought of something else! We all know the Barsoomian courtship: the warrior fights for the lady and wins her hand, if she'll have him. How better to prove a warrior's prowess than on a bloodless adventure? How many warriors might want to marry the damsels they save? Of course, we can't have our own girls getting married, but what about my girlfriends who've been pining away for some warrior to champion them? They could take any level of gratification they should chose, though most of them will, obviously, play the Untouchable Virgin."
Kantos Kan and Tony Martin laughed. The Earthling spoke first. "Now we've got a marriage broker business on the side!"
"What better way to use the silly customs of Barsoom to our own advantage?" Kantos Kan grinned. "I like the idea. Most of our clients will probably be from the navy and the vast majority of sailors are stiff-necked and properly decorous in their relationships with women. Clixia's little slaves and her girlfriends will most likely bear the brunt of the tour company's obligations with their chaste or affectionate capabilities. However, I imagine Ghek will have plenty of the down and dirty to handle. The income would be nice, but I think Ghek will stay busy merely because I've never seen a sexier woman in all my life!"
"What about me?" Clixia offered a pretty pout. Kantos Kan pulled the woman to the cushions and kissed her. Then he looked at Ghek and grinned. Connie asked the same question of her burly lover.
"I've got to agree with Kanty," Tony said, ogling Ghek. "Prettiest thing I ever saw..." then suddenly squirmed as he tried to find a way to get himself out of hot water as gracefully as possible. His words failed. In an effort to explain himself to Wescott, the tackle gestured to the kaldane.
Ghek drew back as the human girls' eyes bored across the cabin. "I can't help it!" the kaldane cried.
"You better learn," Connie said gently, without malice. "You're making me horny and I just got through cutting a guy to ribbons for suggesting I was attracted to women!"
"It's just been so long," Ghek pleaded forgiveness. "You know us kaldanes have been notoriously backwards in dealing with red men..."
"Don't worry about dealing with red men," Clixia's breath shuddered, her hand trembled over her breast as she admired Ghek. "Just remember which ones belong to whom. By the great god Burroughs, I have to agree with Connie. You're absolutely stunning!"
"Goes double for me," Connie added with a flushed smile. "Both thoughts."
"I'll get it worked out," Ghek promised. "Better control and all that--sorry..."
"DON'T BE!" every voice shouted. Their open smiles and nods pleased the flushed kaldane/rykor. Ghek sighed with relief.
Tony Martin thought it was time to bring the meeting back to order. He put his next question to Kantos Kan. "What kind of fees could we charge? We'd have to make expenses and show a profit."
Kantos Kan deliberately turned his attention to the question and his eyes away from Ghek. "The average than, or seaman, makes about 400 tanpi a month. To create an illusion of value I suggest a no-frills adventure at 200 or 225 tanpi for a five day excursion. Thans get leaves of five to ten days about three times a year. With the new drive shafts and high-speed gearing being installed in the Sith we'll have no trouble getting our client to the ape city over night.
"The client spends a day there, rescues the lady and 'escapes' to the foot of the mountain where he finds a thoat. On the thoat the client escapes into the desert where Bar Novacs 'captures' them. One to two days later they escape, find my little two seater which we'll have to get repaired and keep the direction compass locked on Kanator. We'll know exactly where they are going and approximately the time they will arrive. That way we don't have to worry too much about the girl, or something going wrong. The ship lands at Kanator where they have one to two nights in the city of white apes and we rescue them and have them back in Helium about nightfall. There, they have a complimentary dinner with wine and entertainment before parting at our office. Sound about what you had in mind, Tony?
"Yes," Tony grinned. "I can see why you were the Overlord of the Navy. You plan very well. That's almost exactly what I envisioned. So, how much is this 'no-frills' tour going to cost us?"
"I don't know about all aspects," Kantos Kan frowned, "but ship costs should be in the neighborhood of 40 tanpi both trips."
"We'll have to make sure they get fed," Clixia took over. "Most of the food stuffs can be found at the ape city and in Kanator, but we'll have to increase production with a caretaker at each, unless the apes might be interested."
"How much would you pay them?" Tony asked.
"Straight wages?" Clixia, who'd handled the household expenses for her father's house silently ticked off points on her lovely fingers before she answered. "About 20 tanpi a month. Takar might consider books or educational trips to Helium and abroad."
"That's a thought," Tony glanced at Cheta who was snoring with a high-pitched sound. "We'll ask Cheta when he recovers. Now, about the Warhoons, Bar Novacs. We'll need something impressive, but not too dangerous. Can't kill the clients."
'How about a duel fought between Warhoon warriors over the damsel?" Bar Novacs replied. "My men can stage something like that." Getting into the spirit of the discussion, he added: "Then there's the camping of a tribe--pretty impressive, right? We could have thoat races--with wagering of course. Later in the evening a sakking demonstration by a 'captive' Jasoomian, followed by dinner with a ferocious Jed of Warhoon." At this point the green man hesitated. "What about the cages? You have to admit that's a great touch..."
"Ugh!" Connie made a face which showed what she thought of the idea, but her next words belied the expression. "I didn't like it--but it ought to be in there at the very end of the Warhoon segment. Hey!" she became excited and clapped her hands together as she voiced her inspiration. "We should have a little ape chaperon--one who can 'free' the prisoners from the Warhoons. We ought to have a chaperon for the Virgin and Affectionate levels. The last thing we need is trouble from a client who decides the Virgin ain't sacred and Affectionate means 'let's fuck!' Could get us shut down in a hurry."
"Connie's correct," Ghek surprised everyone. "If the no-frills is what it should be, only Virgins go. What do you expect for 225 tanpi?"
"That's settled," Tony agreed. "What kind of expenses are we looking at on your end, Bar Novacs?"
"If you will," Tony grinned.
"None, really. We live out there. We ought to put a few tanpi in the hands of those who stage the fights, etc. About the only thing I can think of which will be a real expense will be having enough wines at hand. We can't ferment a whole lot of the stuff--we're nomadic, you know."
"So we supply the wine," Clixia said. She turned to Kantos Kan. "You have a stylus and paper? We better start taking notes."
"I think so," the man dug into his belt pouch and produced a small book and a pen. Clixia took them and started writing.
"Wines are about 2 tanpi for an acceptable grade. What do you think? Three bottles for three evening meals be enough?" When Kantos Kan agreed, she marked it down.
"While she's catching up," Connie rose to retrieve her glass and a half-full bottle of wine, "anyone else want to join me?"
Kantos Kan shook his head, "I've had enough, thanks."
Bar Novacs held out his. Connie's silks flowed entrancingly about her form as she came to fill the Jed's glass. When Connie knelt to fill Ghek's, the rykor's hand covered the rim, the kaldane's head shook on the gorgeous shoulders. "I better not," Ghek giggled. "I have enough trouble keeping this beast in check as it is..."
Connie smiled and sat down beside Tony. At that moment Clixia looked up from her notes, her lovely face briskly business-like. "I've got it all down, now where were we?"
"We were talking about Bar Novacs and local Warhoon color." Tony slapped an affectionate hand on the lower left shoulder of the green man. "He was giving us an idea of what our client might find on the dead sea bottom in the grasp of a green horde."
"I told you what I thought, Tony." Bar Novacs stared at the bottom of his glass. "But you didn't totally agree, I could sense that. The sakking--"
"I told you I'd sak, Bar Novacs, but just until we can get things straightened out between your tribe and the rest of the Warhoons. However, I have an alternative thought which just hit me. I think you'll like it."
"What? No sakking?" Bar Novacs was crestfallen. "I assure you we can make a bundle on that little piece of business! I was hoping to use the proceeds from that to supplement my income from the tour company."
"How'd you like to make even more?" Tony challenged.
"More than I could make with showing you and Connie to the tribes of Warhoon? I'd like to know what this might be!" Bar Novacs snorted in disbelief.
"What if I teach you a famous Jasoomian sport enjoyed by millions on my planet? Together, you and I, we could organize teams, set up franchises, institute a draft, develop coaching staffs--your team, of course, having the benefit of my personal expertise--we could make millions of tanpi! To top it off, the game is 99.99% non-fatal! We use the same players week after week!"
Bar Novacs twitched with interest as the Jasoomian waxed eloquent. Most impressive were the amounts of money under discussion. "And just what," Bar Novacs asked when Martin ceased, "is the name of this lucrative enterprise?"
Tony's simple statement set Connie off in a fit of convulsive laughter. She accidentally spilled her wine between her luscious breasts, some dribbling on Tony's crossed legs. The Jed of Warhoons noted her amused reaction and frowned as deeply as his pop-eyed frog-face would allow.
Bar Novacs had the impression he was being made a fool. His voice was gruff. "From Connie's reaction, you've been putting me on, right? I thought you were talking about a test of warriors!"
"Indeed I was," Tony's reply was amicable.
Connie rectified the green Martian's interpretation of her laughter. She explained as she wiped up the spilled wine. "It's a very exciting game, Bar Novacs. Tony is a football player and a damn good one. I've seen him play and I can guarantee you'll find this game is everything he has promised. I laughed because it took me completely by surprise. I don't know why I didn't think of it!"
Connie grabbed her man by the short hairs of his beard and turned his face towards hers. "Can you imagine how impressive it would be to see the mighty Warhoon Banths coming up from a three, four, or even five point stance and stopping a last minute goal attempt and winning the Super Bowl of Barsoom?" She shivered so delightfully that Tony roared with laughter. His embrace threatened to bulge the poor, straining girl's eyes out to the same dimensions as those of the confused Warhoon.
"You're beautiful!" Tony exclaimed.
"I know," Connie replied with a haughty mein and struggled with the loose hair the youth's exuberance shook from her coiffure. Connie settled back, her eyes luminous with excitement. "What about Baseball? Hockey in the north? And Polo and Cricket (Do you know the rules for Cricket? Never mind.) and we can't forget Soccer or Tennis or Racquetball or Ping Pong!" She grew more enthusiastic with every game mentioned. Eventually the rush of words choked her.
Tony experienced the same thrilling anticipation as the swordswoman. "We start with Baseball and Football before starting anything else. I'll also bet you there isn't a decent poker player on Mars. Think of the board games like Backgammon, Scrabble, Monopoly!" Tony shouted, "Black Jack, Bridge, Craps! Christ, we could make a fortune in game patents and franchises alone!"
Bar Novacs respectfully cleared his massive throat. When Tony and Connie stopped laughing and congratulating each other, the Warhoon spoke in a humble tone. "It seems I may have been a bit hasty in my assessment of this game of football, Tony Martin. But what I don't understand is how you can make any tanpi out of it."
"Well," Tony pulled Connie's head to his shoulder and looked over her sweet-smelling hair at the curious Warhoon and the others who were listening intently. "How many tribes are there in Warhoon? How many people?"
"There's fifteen tribes, roughly 100,000 in all."
"How many tribes with 10,000 or more?"
"How many with populations of 5,000 to 10,000?"
"Eleven, I think."
"We might have to pool a district to create a twelveth team. That would give us three divisions of four teams each. To get a full season of play we might go to three games each team by division, then on to divisional play for eliminations and then--the big one! That makes 42 to 45 games per season. Let's suppose only 5,000 spectators show for each game at 3 tanpi each that's--" Tony paused, trying to run the figures through his head. Clixia gave him the answer before he even got started with his multiplication.
"630,000 tanpi a season. Based on 5,000 per 42 games--that's some tanpi!"
Connie giggled and lifted her head. "On Earth," she told Bar Novacs, "we have great stadiums which hold fifty to sixty thousand per game! Imagine your entire population attending each game of the season!"
Clixia gasped as she announced: "12,600,000 tanpi! Tony! Could we?"
"I don't see why not!" the Jasoomian grinned. "Now, imagine this: The Tharks learn the game as well with the same number of teams. At the end of the season we have a true Super Bowl--" he was unable to finish because of the astonished bedlam. Even Ghek seemed excited about this game which was still a mystery.
"How do you know it will catch on?" Ghek asked.
"Green Martians like to fight, right? They like war, correct? What's better than controlled war where no one gets killed and the loser always has another chance to beat the other guy? They'll go for it, I guarantee it!" A word of caution crept into the grinning tackle's promises.
"Bear in mind it will take some time to get started and we'll have to deal with expenses such as coach and player salaries, stadiums and upkeep, referees, concessions and so forth, but we should show a profit the first year even if we only field six teams. As for getting the Tharks interested, we'll let them do that for themselves. Invite them to a couple games and they'll beg to be a part of it. What do you say, Bar Novacs?"
The green man stuck out his lower right arm and gripped the Earthman's hand. "Sounds like: When the hell do we get started?"
"Great! Now about Baseball, Connie's our expert there. She played on the women's team at school. She's a great first base and strong hitter to boot. Connie gets the commissioner's job. Think of it, babe!" Tony reached over and pinched the laughing woman's upper arm. "There must be at least twenty teams available! Helium's Hellcats against the Gathol Giants fighting it out in the Barsoomian Whirled Serious! Beer, popcorn, peanuts and hot dogs here we come! Clixia, since you've got such a head for figures and food and what all, we'll put you in charge of the concessions for each of the stadiums! Both baseball and football spectators get the munchies watching their favorite teams battle it out. Out be a cool million a year in that alone."
Kantos Kan sounded dejected. "What about me? Am I just going to be the pilot of the Sith?"
"Don't get your undies in a bundle, old man!" Tony chuckled. "How far do you think we'll get without a good front man? How does Kantos Kan, President of Unbelievable Adventures and Chairman of the Board sound? You'd handle PR, Tour Planning, you'd be our guiding force. Let me assure you that's not just because you're the retired Overlord of the Navy, it's because you know how to handle people. Connie and I might excel in sports, and Clixia," (Tony offered an aside to Connie: "She's fast with the math!" and saluted the lady under discussion), "will handle the offices, booking, concessions and procurement of ladies. But let's be honest, she'd be no good at selling the company--that's not what she does best. Ghek will have enough worries taking care of the entertainment and Cheta will have his hands full with the white apes and the talking apes--by the way, Clixia, make a note: Cheta should get the souvenir concession in Kanator.
"More than likely," Tony continued, "I'll be working the casinos and developing the games market, for which I'll have to have your help, Kantos Kan. Who the hell do I know? You know everybody."
"Not only have you satisfied my question," Kantos Kan sat back, a stunned expression on his face, "you have astounded me! I suppose Bar Novacs will end up with the Football League in Warhoon while you explore these other avenues?"
"Exactly. I'll coach his team during the playing season and the rest of the time I'll be involved with the tour company and the casinos."
"If this happens the way you predict," Clixia's eyes were wide with astonished disbelief, "perhaps I should turn my girls over to Ghek so she can teach them what they have to know. Of course," she added with a merry giggle, "I've got to get them first!"
Kantos Kan grinned. "You'll get them, darling. I know. You got me!"
"I may live to regret it," she teased. Kantos Kan kissed her soundly. When he let her go, Clixia covered a yawn with a delicate hand. "This is all so exciting, my friends," she pleaded, "but I'm very tired. Can we continue this talk tomorrow?"
"Yeah, Tony!" Connie admonished the excited youth. The brunette rose to carefully straighten the shimmering folds of her sheer silks. "It's time to call it a night."
"Right," Tony stretched cramped muscles and got to his feet.
The company stepped out on the main deck of the Sith. Tony snapped off the cabin lights and joined the people standing at the rail. Ghek perched her sensuously curved hips on the gunwale of the cruiser and stared thoughtfully into a far distant future which they could, as yet, only see in the depths of their hearts. She gracefully shifted Cheta's sleeping weight from one generous hip to the other. Ghek turned her gaze to the others. "This is going to fun," she announced.
"More than fun," Clixia sleepily agreed. "This will be an adventure none of us are going to forget." The Martian lady placed her head on Kantos Kan's shoulder and closed her weary eyes.
The newly elected president pulled his lady close with a satisfied sigh. "Let's get these girls home, Tony. I am not the great tower of strength you are. I have no intention of carrying this heavy old thing all the way back to the apartment."
Clixia opened her eyes, narrowed them, compressed her lips, and punched the officer in the biceps. Then she went limp, forcing Kantos Kan to quickly lift her into his arms. There was a happy sparkle in the man's eyes.
Tony chuckled. He offered to take Clixia ("Why stand on my own two feet when there were strong men around?") while Kantos Kan dropped over the side. Clixia giggled as she fought to remain in Kantos Kan's arms after Tony lowered her over the rail. The red man firmly set his lady on her feet and helped Connie then Ghek, who still clutched her tiny ape burden. Tony put one leg over the Sith's rail and was about to descend when Bar Novacs touched his shoulder.
"Is this football all you say it is?" the Warhoon asked.
"Of course!" Tony grinned, slipping the other leg over the gleaming gunwale. Just as the Jasoomian was about to drop to the ground Connie called up to the green man.
"You've known me long enough, Bar Novacs--I'm hell on wheels and I'll cut the heart out of a banth with dagger. I only speak what I think and I'll tell you this: I'm damn choosey about my men and I'm going to marry a football player. I won't have anyone else! That ought to convince you, you old fuddy-duddy!"
Connie's impassioned avowal of love came at precisely the moment Tony released his grip on the rail. Her words raced through his brain, short-circuiting his physical control. The next thing he saw was the radium bulb on the ceiling of Level Eight, Slip 31A. For the life of him Tony could not figure out how he landed on his back!
Connie giggled sweetly as she knelt to assist the black-bearded man to his feet. "Are you okay?" she asked. "Did you get the breath knocked out of you, my chieftain? You look stunned."
"I am!" Tony growled. "Did I hear you right?"
"You bet your sweet ass you did! Now, try and get out of it!"
"Who? Me? Not a chance! Just try to get rid of me, you hot little baggage!" Tony's lips covered her warm, open and willing mouth. It was the sound of cheering which brought the Jasoomians to their senses.
Tony kept his arm about Connie's waist, but he extended the other to the half circle of friends standing beside the hull of the Sith. "On my world," he told them, "we seal a deal with a handshake. I offer my hand. All those who want to be a part of this company--well, put it there!"
Kantos Kan was the first to grab Tony's outstretched hand, closely followed by the lovely digits of the three women. On top of the clasped hands Bar Novacs added his huge fist with a hearty laugh. Little Cheta, half-awakened by the commotion, placed two of his paws on the mighty grip of friends.
Tony shook his head with a chuckle. "One is enough," he informed the blinking ape, "to complete a handshake that will shake a world!"
ESCAPE THE DREAD GREEN WARRIORS OF WARHOON
Secret Hatching Grounds, Sadistic Tortures & Strange
Rituals of the Mysterious Green Martian!
Wild Thoat Races! A Night of Barbaric Splendor!
CONFRONT FEARSOME WHITE APES IN THE FABLED
LOST CITY OF KANATOR
Home to Hundreds of Vicious White Apes!
See CHETA, The Talking Ape, Jed of Kanator's Man-Eaters!
FIVE DAY BUDGET TOURS ARE STILL ONLY 225 TANPI
Ferocious Banths! Endangered Rykors! Wild Thoats!
Hideous Kaldanes, the super-brains of Mars!