Caste of Assassins
Here are relevant references from the Books where the Caste of Assassins is mentioned.
I make no pronouncements on these matters, but report them as I find them.
Arrive at your own conclusions.
I wish you well,
"A member of the Caste of Assassins," said the Older Tarl, gazing at the retreating speck in the distance. "Marlenus, who would be Ubar of all Gor, knows of your existence."
Tarnsman of Gor Book 1 Page 59
"The spies of Ar are effective," I said.
"More effective than the Assassins of Ar," she said.
"Pa-Kur, Ar's Master Assassin, was dispatched to kill you, but failed."
Tarnsman of Gor Book 1 Page 107
I noted with satisfaction that Pa-Kur, Master Assassin, proud leader of perhaps the greatest horde ever assembled on the plains of Gor, had need of Mintar, who was only of the Merchant Caste.
Tarnsman of Gor Book 1 Page 131
I had noticed that there was among the crowd one tall, somber figure who sat alone on a high, wooden throne, surrounded by tarnsmen. He wore the black helmet of a member of the Caste of Assassins.
Tarnsman of Gor Book 1 Page 133
"Were it not for the daughter of Marlenus," said Pa-Kur, his metallic face as placid as the quicksilver behind a mirror, "I would have slain you honorably. That I swear by the black helmet of my caste."
Tarnsman of Gor Book 1 Page 138
"On the highest ground in camp," said Mintar, "near the second ditch and across from the great gate of Ar. You will see the black banner of the Caste of Assassins."
Tarnsman of Gor Book 1 Page 175
I dyed my hair black and acquired the helmet and gear of an Assassin. Across the left temple of the black helmet I fixed the golden slash of the messenger.
Tarnsman of Gor Book 1 Page 176
Above them, at several places, flew the black banner of the Caste of Assassins.
Tarnsman of Gor Book 1 Page 182
It was as a warrior of Gor that I arose and donned the black helmet and the garments of the Caste of Assassins. I loosened my sword in its sheath, set my shield on my arm, and grasped my spear.
Tarnsman of Gor Book 1 Page 190
I wore the garb of the Caste of Assassins, and on the left temple of the black helmet was the golden slash of the messenger.
Tarnsman of Gor Book 1 Page 192
And, dark among these shapes, like shadows, I could see the somber black of members of the Caste of Assassins.
Tarnsman of Gor Book 1 Page 204
I had expected to be fired on immediately but suddenly remembered that I still wore the garb of the messenger. No Assassin would fire on me, and no one else would dare.
Tarnsman of Gor Book 1 Page 204
Those members of the Caste of Assassins, the most hated caste on Gor, who had served Pa-Kur, were taken in chains down the Vosk to become galley slaves on the cargo ships that ply Gor's oceans.
Tarnsman of Gor Book 1 Page 215
Since the siege of Ar, when Pa-Kur, Master Assassin, had violated the limits of his caste and had presumed, in contradiction to the traditions of Gor, to lead a horde upon the city, intending to make himself Ubar, the Caste of Assassins had lived as hated, hunted men, no longer esteemed mercenaries whose services were sought by cities, and, as often by factions within cities. Now many assassins roamed Gor, fearing to wear the somber black tunic of their caste, disguised as members of other castes, not infrequently as warriors.
Outlaw of Gor Book 2 Page 72
Without speaking the man took twenty pieces of gold, tarn disks of Ar, of double weight, and gave them to Kuurus, who placed them in the pockets of his belt. The Assassins, unlike most castes, do not carry pouches.
Assassin of Gor Book 5 Page 4
Not for many years had the black tunic of the Assassins been seen within the walls of Ar, not since the siege of that city in 10,110 from its founding, in the days of Marlenus, who had been Ubar; of Pa-Kur, who had been Master of the Assassins; and of the Ko-ro-ban Warrior, in the songs called Tarl of Bristol.
For years the black of the Assassins had been outlawed in the city.
. . .
From that time the black of the Assassins had not been seen in the streets of Glorious Ar.
Assassin of Gor Book 5 Page 6
Yet none would stand in the way of Kuurus for he wore on his forehead, small and fine, the sign of the black dagger.
When he of the Caste of Assassins has been paid his gold and has received his charge he affixes on his forehead that sign, that he may enter whatever city he pleases, that none may interfere with his work.
Assassin of Gor Book 5 Pages 6 - 7
A peasant moved away that the shadow of the Assassin might not fall across his own.
Assassin of Gor Book 5 Page 7
The men looked at the Assassin, who regarded them, one by one. Men turned white under that gaze. Some fled from the tables, lest, unknown to themselves, it be they for whom this man wore the mark of the black dagger.
Assassin of Gor Book 5 Page 8
Scarcely a quarter of an Ahn had passed and the men who drank in that room had forgotten, as is the way of men, that a dark one sat with them in that room, one who wore the black tunic of the Caste of Assassins, who silently drank with them.
Assassin of Gor Book 5 Page 9
He with the missing teeth laughed and looked about the crowd, his eyes bright, seeing that they waited with eagerness for his stroke.
But his laugh died in his throat as he looked into the eyes of Kuurus, he of the Caste of Assassins.
Kuurus, with his left hand, pushed to one side his bowl of paga.
Hup opened his eyes, startled at not yet having felt the deep, cruel movement of the steel. He too looked into the eyes of Kuurus, who sat in the darkness, the wall behind him, cross-legged, looking at him, no emotion on his face.
"You are a beggar?" asked Kuurus.
"Yes, Master," said Hup.
"Was the begging good today?" asked Kuurus.
Hup looked at him in fear. "Yes, Master," he said, "yes!"
"Then you have money," said Kuurus, and stood up behind the table, slinging the sheath of the short sword about his shoulder.
Hup wildly thrust a small, stubby, knobby hand into his pouch and hurled a coin, a copper tarn disk, to Kuurus, who caught it and placed it in one of the pockets of his belt.
"Do not interfere," snarled the man who held the hook knife.
"There are four of us," said another, putting his hand on his sword.
"I have taken money," said Kuurus.
The men in the tavern, and the girls, began to move away from the tables.
"We are Warriors," said another.
Then a coin of gold struck the table before the Assassin, ringing on the wood.
All eyes turned to face a paunchy man, in a robe of blue and yellow silk. "I am Portus," he said. "Do not interfere, Assassin."
Kuurus picked up the coin and fingered it, and then he looked at Portus. "I have already taken money," he said.
"May I ask, Killer," asked Portus, "if you come to make the first killing or the second?"
"The second," said Kuurus.
"Ah!" said Portus.
"I hunt," said Kuurus.
"Of course," said Portus.
"I come to avenge," said Kuurus.
Portus smiled. "That is what I meant," he said, "that it is good those in the black tunic are once again amongst us, that justice can be done, order restored, right upheld."
"You are of the Assassins?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, "it is my caste."
He pressed the piece of gold into my hand and turned away, stumbling from me, reaching out with his right hand to guide himself along the wall.
"Wait!" I cried. "You have won this! Take it!" I ran to him.
"No!" he cried, striking out wildly with a hand, trying to force me away. I stepped back. He stood there, panting, not seeing me, his body bent over, angry. "It is black gold," he said. "It is black gold." He then turned away, and began to grope his way from the place of the game.
I stood there in the street and watched him go, in my hand holding the piece of gold which I had meant to be his.
The man stood in the doorway, in the somber garb of his caste.
"I see you wear the scarlet of the warrior," he said. It was true. I had awakened in the tunic of my caste. The furs had been taken from me.
"And you, my friend," said I, "are clothed now in the proper habiliments of your caste." He wore now, brazenly, the black of the Assassin. Over his left shoulder, looped on a ringed strap, he wore a blade, the short sword.
"There is perhaps poison on your blade?" I said.
"My caste does not make use of poison," he said.
I then decided that it would not be easy to agitate him, perhaps impairing his timing, or making him behave in a hasty manner, too zealous for a quick kill.
"Fight," said the man at the side of the ring.
We met in the center of the ring. Our blades touched and parried.
"I received my early training in the city of Ko-ro-ba," I said.
Our blades touched one another.
"What is your Home Stone?" I asked.
"Do you think I am fool enough to talk with you?" he snarled.
"Assassins, as I recall," I said, "have no Home Stones. I suppose that is a drawback to caste membership, but if you did have Home Stones, it might be difficult to take fees on one whose Home Stone you shared."
I moved his blade aside.
"You are faster than I thought," I said.
Our blades swiftly met, a moment of testing. Then we stepped back, retaining our guard position.
"Some think the caste of assassins performs a service," I said, "but I find this difficult to take seriously. I suppose they could be hired in the service of justice, but it seems they could be as easily hired in the service of anything." I looked at him. "Do you fellows have any principles?" I asked.
He moved in, swiftly, too swiftly. I did not take advantage of it.
"Apparently staying alive is not one of them," I said.
He stepped back, startled.
"You were open there for a moment," I said. He knew it and I knew it, but I was not sure those in the tiers knew it. It is sometimes difficult to see these things from certain angles.
There were jeers from the tiered benches. They did not believe what I said.
I now stalked Drusus. He kept a close guard, covering himself well. It is hard to strike a man who elects defense. He limits himself, of course, in adopting this stratagem.
Now jeers against Drusus came from the benches. He began to sweat.
"Is it true," I asked, "that you, in attaining the black of your caste, once slew your friend?"
I pressed the attack, but in a courteous fashion. He defended himself well.
"What was his name?" I asked.
"Kurnock!" he suddenly cried out, angrily, and rushed toward me.
I sprawled him into the sand at my feet, and my blade was at the back of his neck.
I stepped back.
"Get up," I said. "Now let us fight seriously."
He leaped to his feet. I then administered to him, and to those in the tiers, a lesson in the use of the Gorean blade. They sat in silence.
Then, bloodied, Drusus, unsteadily, his sword arm down, wavered before me. He had been cut several times, as I had pleased.
He could no longer lift the blade. Blood ran down his arm, staining the sand.
I looked up to the mirror in the wall, that which I was confident was in actuality a one-way glass. I lifted my sword to that invisible window, in the salute of a Gorean warrior. I then turned again to face Drusus.
"Kill me," he said. "It is twice I have failed my caste."
I lifted the blade to strike him. "I will be swift," I told him.
I poised the steel.
"Let it be thus that an old debt owed to one named Kurnock is repaid," I said.
"That is the first time I failed my caste," said Drusus. I regarded him. "Strike," he said.
"I do not understand," I said.
"I did not kill Kurnock," he said. "He was no match for me. I could not bring myself to kill him."
I handed the sword to the third man on the sand.
"Kill me!" cried Drusus.
"Do you think a warrior can show less mercy than an Assassin?" I asked.
"Kill me," wept Drusus, and then, from the loss of blood, fell into the sand.
"He is too weak to be an assassin," I said. "Remove him."
"We have failed," said Drusus.
I nodded in agreement. The strange common project of two men, of diverse and antagonistic, yet strangely similar castes, an Assassin and a Warrior, had failed.
"What is now to be done?" he asked.
"We must attempt to reach the chamber of Zarendargar," I said.
"It is hopeless," he said.
"Of course," I said. "But I must attempt it. Are you with me?"
"Of course," he said.
"But you are of the Assassins," I said.
"We are tenacious fellows," he smiled.
"I have heard that," I said.
"Do you think that only Warriors are men?" he asked.
"No," I said. "I have never been of that opinion."
"Let us proceed," he said.
"I thought you were too weak to be an Assassin," I said.
"I was once strong enough to defy the dictates of my caste," he said. "I was once strong enough to spare my friend, though I feared that in doing this I would myself be killed."
"Perhaps you are the strongest of the dark-caste," I said.
"Let us see who can fight better," I said.
"Our training is superior to yours," he said.
"I doubt that," I said. "But we do not get much training dropping poison into people's drinks."
"Assassins are not permitted poison," he said proudly.
"I know," I said.
"The Assassin," he said, "is like a musician, a surgeon. The Warrior is like a butcher. He is a ravaging, bloodthirsty lout."
"There is much to what you say," I granted him. "But Assassins are such arid fellows. Warriors are more genial, more enthusiastic."
"An Assassin goes in and does his job, and comes out quietly," he said. "Warriors storm buildings and burn towers."
"It is true that I would rather clean up after an Assassin than a Warrior," I said.
"You are not a bad fellow for a Warrior," he said.
"I have known worse Assassins than yourself," I said.
The two Pani who had just entered the forest returned. One carried a crossbow.
"The assassin's weapon," said Lord Nishida.
"A weapon commonly employed by assassins," I granted him.
"We could not find the arm," said one of the Pani, he without the crossbow. "It was a sleen attack," said the other. "The beast must have carried it away, into the trees, to feed."
"We caught the scent of a sleen in the vicinity earlier," said a mercenary, one of the guards.
"Apparently the bowman did not," said a fellow.
"Nor would he," I said.
"Double the guard," said Lord Nishida.
"Behold," said one of the Pani, indicating with the shaft of his long glaive the figure brought recently to the road. "This man is dead."
"He bled to death," said a mercenary.
"Unfortunate," said Lord Nishida. "We might have learned much from him."
A man drew the wadded, blood-soaked cloth from the inert body.
"Well, Tarl Cabot, tarnsman," said Lord Nishida, "we have solved one of our problems."
"How is that?" I asked.
"We have discovered our assassin," said Lord Nishida. "This man, whose head is still muchly in his helmet, is Lykourgos, and this other, he with the crossbow, is Quintus, so one or the other, perhaps both, are of the Assassins."
"Both may have attempted the work of the assassin," I said, "but neither, I fear, are of the Assassins."
"How so?" asked Lord Nishida, interested.
"This man," I said, indicating he who had been caught beneath the chin by the edged buckler, "rushed clumsily from the darkness. He lacked the skill one would expect from a professional at dark work, and the other, he with the crossbow, did not risk a miss, preferring to leave the strike to the knife of his confederate, he himself then serving muchly as support, either for a second strike, or, more likely, to disconcert any who might too quickly approach, to cover the retreat of his companion. The professional assassin, I would suppose, would have trusted to his own quarrel, and not waited. Too, the professional assassin will usually choose to work alone, depending on himself, no others."
The two fellows in shabby garments had now approached, the talmits no longer bound about their foreheads. I saw on each forehead the simple mark, the sign of the black dagger. One of them rolled the body over, and then looked to the stranger.
"You have killed him," said the man, straightening up.
The stranger shrugged.
"Therefore," said the man, "the killing is yours."
Each of the men then, from their purse, removed a silver tarsk, and placed it in the hand of the stranger.
"I want no money for his blood," said the stranger. "I would rather he had found the gate, and fled the city."
"Still," said one of the fellows, "the killing is yours."
"Consider it yours," said the stranger, "as you hurried him onto my sword."
The two members of the Black Court of Brundisium regarded one another.
"Suppose," said the stranger, "one in fear of you, dreading discovery each day, unwilling to accept such misery longer, or to frustrate you, put himself upon his own sword, or, in fleeing, drowned, or fell from some cliff, would the killing not be yours?"
"It would," said one of the fellows, "and the fee might be kept."
"Keep it then," said the stranger, and returned the two coins, first one, and then the other.
Each returned the coin to his own purse, and then wiped from his forehead the dagger.
More than one man breathed then more easily, for those of the Black Court no longer wore the dagger.
"Light the torches, the lamps," said a fellow from a table across the sand. He wore the somber robes and dark chaplet of the others but seemed more dour, more formidable, more terrible, surely in a way the others did not. I had seen him enter the room, and the others, including my master, Tyrraios, had stood, acknowledging his presence, and did not resume their positions until he had taken his place on his couch, a higher couch than the others. I gathered his presence was not usual in this place, but that he was a guest of sorts, perhaps a visitor to these precincts. In entering, he had passed closely to me, so closely that his somber robe had touched me, and I had drawn back, chilled. He stopped, stood near me, and looked down at me. I looked away, quickly, putting my head down. His skin seemed unusual, grayish, his eyes were as unexpressive as glass, He was a large man, and moved easily. The head, a large head, had moved a little, gently swaying, as he had entered, scanning the room. It reminded me, oddly, of the movement of another form of life, the movement of the head of a snake.
Before he had taken his position, one of the men had said, "We are honored that you appear in our court."
"We are honored," had then said the others, including my master. Shortly after that the two men with daggers had entered the circle of sand. Both had bowed to the strange figure, and then withdrawn to opposite sides of the circle of sand.
Slaves, the two who were serving the supper, and some others, similarly lovely similarly long-haired, similarly clad and collared, hastened to kindle torches and lamps, and, shortly, the room was well lit.
The body of one of the two men who had trod the now-reddened sand was dragged away.
The other approached the high couch and knelt before it, head down.
"Bring him a robe, a supper robe, and a chaplet," said he on the high couch.
Slaves soon adorned the man.
"Come, join me on the high couch," invited he on the high couch.
This invitation was greeted with a murmur of surprise by several of those assembled. I gathered that this sort of recognition was unusual in this place.
The fellow from the sand, startled, awed, and elated, had soon ascended the high couch, to join the dark figure reclining there, as though enthroned.
"Give me the dagger," said the imposing figure on the high couch.
The dagger was instantly surrendered to him.
He of the high couch then reached to the head of the fellow and, by the hair, pulled him to the knife, which was thrust through the supper robe, to the heart.
"You were clumsy," said he of the high couch.
The eyes of the fellow were wide, and then empty and he expired without a sound, and was thrust from the supper table to the sand. I saw the blood, the staining of the rent garment, the dark chaplet fallen to the sand. The body was removed.
"Master," I whispered, in horror, to Tyrraios.
"The kill is to be clean," said Tyrraios. "We are not butchers."
"I had thought he would have reached the fourth step," said a man.
"No," said another.
"Master," I said.
"Yes," he said.
"This place," I said, "is the Black Court of Brundisium."
"Yes," he said.
"But what," I asked, "is the Black Court of Brundisium?"
"You are, indeed, a naive barbarian," he said.
"Please, Master," I said.
"It is little different from other black courts," he said.
"Master," I begged, looking up, the chain on my neck.
"This is a chapter house," he said, "of the black caste, the caste of Assassins."
It may be useful to speak briefly of the nature of a black court.
As you have doubtless surmised, there is, and remains, much on this unusual, perilous, lovely world of which I am unaware, or, at least, too little informed.
A black court, I gather, is named for the color of the caste of Assassins, which is black. The caste is sometimes spoken of, when men dare to speak of it, as the black caste, or the sable caste. In many Gorean cities it is unwelcome, even outlawed. For example, it is outlawed in Ar and in Market of Semris. Its outlawry in Ar, I gather, followed an unsuccessful attempt by an army led by Pa-Kur, a high Assassin, to seize that great city, the largest, richest, and most populous in Gor's northern hemisphere. The city it seems, was in disarray, and its Ubar challenged, following the temporary loss of its Home Stone, purloined by an unidentified tarnsman during the revels of the Planting Feast. Supposedly instrumental in the defeat of Pa-Kur and the restoration of the Ubar of the city to power was a figure known in the songs as Tarl of Bristol, which figure, as many such figures recounted in such songs, is presumably legendary. The hostile army, in some of the scrolls, is spoken of as the Horde of Pa-Kur, which disparaging epithet occurs in common parlance, doubtless reflecting the truism that history is likely to reflect the views of the victors. The outlawry of the caste of Assassins in Market of Semris may have been an independent act, or may have followed the example of Ar. In any event, it seems that "black courts" exist in a number of cities, though surely not all, either openly, as in Brundisium, or, one supposes, sometimes, where outlawed, secretly.
The existence of a "black caste," on a world such as Gor, is not as surprising, inexplicable, or unconscionable, as it might seem. Indeed, it is highly likely that, long ago, in the beginning, the caste was formed to supply a need, or perform a role within society that was perceived as being not only fully justified, but desirable. On Gor there are no, or few, "nations" in the sense that one of my former world would be likely to think of as nations. Similarly there is no international law. Law for most practical purposes, reaches no further than the swords of a given polity. The common Gorean polity is the town, village, or city, and whatever territory about the polity to which it can extend its hegemony. In this sense, polities may appear on maps but not borders. The territory controlled by a polity is likely, historically, to wax and wane with the fortunes of the polity. The nearest things to nations would seem to be the large island Ubarates, such as Tyros and Cos, where the sea forms natural barriers, or borders, so to speak, but even there power seems centered in particular cities, such as Kasra and Jad. A saying I have heard seems germane here, "the laws of Cos march with the spears of Cos." Two further aspects of the Gorean way might also be considered, first, the suspicion and hostility obtaining amongst diverse polities, which militates against cooperation and assistance, and the limits of Gorean law, even within a polity as Goreans tend to be radically independent and likely to resent the intrusion of others, even a polity, into what are regarded as their own concerns or affairs. For example, vendettas occasionally take place amongst families, in which the polity and others, respecting the wishes of the participants, decline to intervene.
Given such considerations, and the consequent difficulty, frequently recognized, of obtaining justice, satisfaction, or vengeance, as the case may be, one can well understand the existence of an order of men, itinerant, independent, dedicated, armed, and skilled, for hire. Such men may, for example, pursue a fugitive from city to city with impunity regardless of caste, warfare, and Home Stone. Few will interfere with the hunting Assassin, sable-clad, dagger on brow, passing amongst them, going quietly about his work. Similarly, few would challenge the wind, or the dark sky from which lighting might strike.
Some Assassins are particular in accepting their commissions, but, clearly, others are not. One might accept a handful of copper tarsks to do justice, at least as he understands it, whereas another, for a purse of gold, might kill an administrator, murder a business rival, or eliminate a competitive legatee. Some rich men pay local black courts not to accept commissions against them.
There seems little doubt that over the years the black courts became less scrupulous in the commissions they accepted. The original image of the elite mercenary, hired to do good and carry right into otherwise inaccessible precincts, supplying a needed service not otherwise available, became transformed into that of the contemporary black caste, an order of skilled, dangerous men particular about little else but their fees.
It might be noted, in passing, that the black caste is jealous of what it regards as its prerogatives. It will seek out and kill other hired killers. It does not favor competition, and wishes to maintain, in effect, its monopoly in that area. It might also be noted, again in passing, that the black caste, as a matter of policy, does not concern itself with members who might be slain while about their work. There is no notion of vengeance or seeking retribution involved. It might be regretted that a fee is lost, but nothing else. One who is slain in his work is regarded as having failed, and, in virtue of this, is denied any further consideration. It will, on the other hand, hunt an individual who might, in its view, have gratuitously slain one of its members.
In my time in the black court I occasionally witnessed the admission of clients who sought the services of the "dark sword." Other clients, by means of messengers, may request a discreet interview with a representative of the caste, in which fees might be negotiated and arrangements made. As is understandable, certain individuals would not wish to be noticed entering the precincts of the court. Slaves were not privy to such interviews, either within or outside the court.
As I suppose is clear, the caste of Assassins is not a typical caste. For example, there were no free women in the black court. Companionship is forbidden to members of the caste. Membership, as with the Warriors, with which caste the Assassins are often compared, is not earned by birth, but by deeds. In the case of the dark caste, however, there is no devotion to the codes of honor, which might spare a disabled foe, which might temper victory, say, with the recognition of opposed valor, no generous companionship of the blade, no brothers in arms. Friendship is frowned upon. Emotion is eschewed. Such things are alleged to weaken the will, to soften resolve, to stay the hand the fraction of an Ihn that might compromise the strike. The Assassin is to be much alone. Like the forest panther, he is commonly a solitary hunter. He is to have no associations, connections, interests, or entanglements that might distract, compromise, or impair his capacity to discharge the requirements of his office, the fulfillment of his commission. His life belongs to the caste. His allegiance is to be undivided. He is to devote himself to his skills, and to his tools, the dagger, the quarrel, the wire noose, the dart, the brewing of poisons, to deception, patience, disguise, and ruthlessness. One applies, one trains, one strives, and one is either accepted or rejected, and the rejected have commonly perished in trials of arms.
The black caste is generally feared, and loathed.
Who then would seek admission to such a despised caste?
Perhaps the feared, and loathed.
But, too, in some, is there not an attraction to dark power, and the gratification of inspiring apprehension?
But admission is not easily purchased. Few are permitted to compete, and of those who are permitted to compete, few live to don the sable tunic. It is not easy to climb the nine steps of blood.
There is no place in the caste, incidentally, for the inept and dull, for thugs, vandals, and bullies, for the naively, simplistically brutal, for the petty, or the merely cruel and greedy, for the refuse of a city's gutters, for those regarded as the unworthy. Few survive to carry the "dark sword."
Doubtless there are reasons why one, perhaps despairing and ruined, might seek entrance into dreaded precincts.
Amongst applicants might be found the dishonored and failed, the disappointed and abandoned, the despised and hated, the hopeless and resigned, the mocked and ridiculed, ones who have fled from Home Stones, who have repudiated codes, perhaps fugitives who seek a sanctuary behind dark walls, possibly seekers of thrills, possibly mercenaries intent on bartering steel for gold, without compunction, perhaps those seeking approval for their pathological instincts that, suitably exercised, will be condoned, even celebrated.
It is hard to say.
Much in the black court is secret. If they have codes, I do not know what they would be, saving perhaps a relentless fidelity to a commission. For example, slaves were not permitted to witness training, not that I would have cared to do so, certainly following the killing I had seen at the banquet, nor attend instructions, even while serving, addressed to the candidates. I have seen the plates of weapons and devices borne to the training chambers, the daggers, the balanced throwing knives, the easily concealed hook knife, the swords, the darts, the loops of wire, the chain garrotes, and, in particular, the crossbow and quarrel, the favored striking weapon of the caste, which may be easily concealed beneath a cloak, and in whose guide a quarrel may wait for Ahn, like the ost, before it strikes.
I was some days in the black court.
My master, for I was not owned by the court, frequently occupied himself in the city, I think in the vicinity of the wharves, presumably waiting for, or searching for, the mysterious shipment that was supposed to arrive at Brundisium, claimedly deriving from a "steel world." I had no idea what might be the contents of this shipment, or its importance, or what it might have to do with me, or with my first master, Kurik, of Victoria.
In the meantime I was kept busy in the court, cleaning, scrubbing, laundering, assisting in the kitchen, and serving at the common meals. The first girl was stern, but fair. She played no favorites. That I was a barbarian did not adversely affect my treatment, as it might easily have done in many situations. I was grateful to her. The slaves are at the disposal of the men, as one would expect, but I, as a private slave, a status envied by my collar-sisters, was reserved to my master. On the other hand, he made little use of me, apparently busying himself in various disguises, conducting inquiries in the city, attempting to garner useful gossip, or intelligence, at various taverns, and so on. Accordingly, most nights I lay in my kennel, untouched, and, I confess, as a slave, deprived, and miserable. We need the touch of our masters. Men have made us so. We are no longer ours, but theirs.
I will recount an anecdote, or two, which, in their way, might shed some light on the nature of a black court. First, let it be understood that the edifice that houses the black court is not large, but it does have a formidable, menacing aspect. It is like a small fortress in the city with high, dark walls, with a moat, a drawbridge, and a portcullis, a heavy, vertically barred, reinforced gate that may be raised or lowered by means of a windlass. The court's position is isolated, in a sense, as, even within the city, it occupies an area of unplanted ground on all sides. This area is several yards in width, and, as it is open, it affords no cover to any who might approach the court, and its moat.
"You two," said the first girl, "go to the salt market, at the east gate, to the vendor, Porus, and return with a stone of salt."
"As we are, in the black collar?" asked the other girl.
"I will have it so," said the first girl. "Here is the sack. When it is filled, have its contents weighed carefully."
"Porus switched you, yesterday, did he not?" asked the other girl, amused.
"Perhaps," said the first girl.
"Come along," said the other girl.
I had no idea, of course, of the best route to the east gate.
"Why am I coming along?" I asked her.
"Someone must carry the salt," she said.
"Why not you?" I asked.
"I am not a barbarian," she said.
"I see," I said.
This was the first time, since my arrival at the black court, that I had been allowed outside the court.
I did not think of escape, of course, as I was collared. Tunicked, collared, and marked, there is no escape for the Gorean slave girl. The best she might hope for would be to fall into the hands of a new master, who would know she has fled a former master. How heavy then would be her chains, how cruel the stroke of the lash! Too, the recovered slave girl risks at least a severe beating, but perhaps, as well, a hamstringing, or being disposed of, perhaps being fed to sleen, or being cast, naked and bound, amongst writhing, ravenous leech plants. But I did not even wish to escape, for I had found myself on this perilous, beautiful world. I had learned something on Gor, of which I had been unaware, or, better, not completely or fully aware, on my former world, that I belonged in a slave collar. How thrilled I was to be so reduced, so shamed, so owned! I dare not speak for other women, being a mere slave, but, for me, it was right. I wanted the collar, and belonged in it, and was in it. I loved that it was on my neck, closed and locked. It was there. I could not remove it. I did not wish to remove it. I was a slave.
Let other women scorn me, if they wish.
I loved being a slave.
How glorious to be a property, helpless, and owned by men!
How free I was!
I was a slave.
"Have you money?" I asked.
I had not seen the first girl hand her any money. Too, as far as I could tell, she had no coin, or coins, in her mouth, nor clutched in her hand.
"No," she said.
"I do not understand," I said.
"Do not concern yourself," she said.
We continued on for a time. I held the empty sack, four times folded. We turned onto a large street.
"Beware," I whispered, "a free woman approaches." She walked regally, and carried a switch.
"Keep your eyes down," my companion whispered. "Do not make eye contact. You do not see her. She does not see you."
"Let us go to the side of the street, and kneel, head down," I said. I had no wish to feel a switch.
"Now look up," she said, a moment later merrily.
I did so.
"She is gone," I said, looking about. "The free woman is gone."
"Not really," said my companion. "She merely went to the other side of the street."
"Why?" I asked.
"We wear the black tunic, the black collar," she laughed.
As we continued on our way, even men tended to avoid us. We did receive, as some passed us by, closely, dark looks, and we noted sneers of contempt, but no one seemed interested in interacting with us, neither free men nor free women.
"The men do not seem to regard us with appetition, frankly and appraisingly," I said, puzzled. Certainly this was muchly different from my former experiences on open streets, as in Ar, and was muchly different from the common experiences of slave girls on open streets. One of the pleasures of being a Gorean male, I had gathered, was the inspective perusal of frequently encountered kajirae, in markets, in the plazas, on the boulevards and in lesser thoroughfares, kajirae running errands, chained to public slave rings, conveniently located, awaiting the return of masters, and so on. Do not such slaves dress up a city? Indeed, when visiting dignitaries are about, citizens are encouraged to set their girls, attractively tunicked, wandering about the city that a suitable impression may be conveyed to the visitors. Surely these lovely slaves contribute, like parks and well-designed, colorful buildings, to the beauty of a city indeed, the number and quality of slave girls is taken as evidence of a city's taste, success, power, wealth, and prowess in warfare. Some of the girls so displayed may even have been obtained from the dignitary's
"No," said my companion. "They are uneasy with the black court, and many fear it."
"I do not like being ignored," I said.
"Vain slave," she said.
What slave is not pleased to be the object of interest and regard, to know that she is looked upon and desired, that she stirs and heats the blood of men, that they would like to have her at their slave ring?
"Surely we are not sent forth commonly as we are now," I said.
"Not at all," she said, turning left.
I recalled there was nothing on my collar, but that it would be recognized, for its black enamel, and that I would be returned to the court. I would be left, helplessly bound, by the court, presumably at the edge of the moat, before the then-raised drawbridge. Apparently no reward would be expected, or proffered. On the other hand, court slaves, when sent forth from the court, were commonly tunicked nondescriptly and opaquely, and put in a collar that did bear a legend. That legend, I was informed, would return me to an address unlikely to be recognized as having anything to do with the black court, from which address I would then be, in due time, returned to the court.
"Why now?" I asked.
"Our first girl," she said, "was not pleased to have been switched by Porus, the salt merchant."
"We are seldom pleased to be switched," I said.
"He is not even a desirable master," she said.
"Oh," I said.
"It is not far," she said.
The salt in the local markets is obtained from the sea. Large pans are set forth with a thin film of sea water, which, as it evaporates, leaves the salt behind, which is then scraped together, and sent to the markets of the city.
"We are here," she said.
The fellow looked up, quickly, shrewdly, from amongst the kegs of salt, amidst which he sat, and turned white.
"Tal, noble Master," said my companion, kneeling. "We would like a stone of salt."
I knelt, too.
"That is four tarsk-bits," he said, cautiously.
"It is to be weighed out, carefully," said my companion.
"Four tarsk-bits," he said.
"Give the noble master the sack, that he may weigh out the salt," said my companion.
I made to hand the sack to the fellow who was, I gathered, Porus, but he thrust it away.
"Four tarsk-bits," he said.
My companion then rose and I, decidedly uneasy, for we had not been given permission to rise, rose to my feet, as well. I knew nothing else to do.
"Come, Phyllis," she said. "There is nothing for us to do now but return to the court, and inform the masters that Porus, the salt merchant, he who deals near the east gate, declined to weigh salt for us."
She then backed away, a step or two, as did I, and turned to leave.
We had scarcely gone three steps when Porus called out to us, "Wait, sweet kajirae," he said, "I did but jest."
Shortly thereafter we left his impromptu place of business, amongst the kegs, I bearing a bulging bag of salt, one which, we noted, bore well over a stone's weight of the sparkling mineral, sometimes called the diamond of the sea.
"The first girl will be pleased," said my companion. "Her switching cost him four tarsk-bits."
"She was not recognized as being of the court," I said.
"Of course not," she said. "Even free women are unlikely to strike a girl in the black tunic."
"Surely," I said, "those of the black caste, as others, purchase goods."
"Commonly," she said, "but when they are in the dark habiliments, it is not unknown for merchants, and others, unrequested, to force goods upon them, as gifts."
"Beware!" I said. "My master is not blind. The bandage he wore is a hoax! His sight is as keen as that of the tarn! He is as dangerous as the larl in rutting time. He hunts you. He is of the black caste!"
"I thought," said he, "the black caste might be involved. They prove to be excellent agents, well worth their pay."
"He seeks you," I said. "He intends you harm, death. Do not loiter here! Run! He is of the dark caste! You are hunted! Neither dismiss nor ignore this threat! You are not dealing with an ordinary man! He is of the dark caste! He is one who has ascended the nine steps of blood."
"It would not matter much if you were an excellent swordsman, or not," said Tyrtaios. "It might take a moment longer, another parry, another thrust. My skills reach beyond excellent. I fear only two swords on Gor, that of the High Master of the Caste of Assassins, and that of an obscure warrior who, long ago, on the roof of the Central Cylinder of Ar, bested him."
"Then only one," said Kurik, "for the High Master, bested, defeated, must have been slain."
"No," said Tyrtaios. "He escaped."
"I trust those of the sable caste do not betray their fees," said the thing.
"Did we do so," said the man, "fees would not be forthcoming."
"On this world," said the man in the bow of the boat, "there is a quaint social artifact, taken seriously by some. Perhaps that is involved. It is called honor."
"Interesting," said the beast. "I trust you are not inhibited by such a pointless, mundane trammel."
"It is overcome in the third of the Nine Steps of Blood," said the man in the boat. "One betrays a comrade."
"I see," said the beast.
"It is done but once," said the man. "Else the sable caste could not prosper. To do it a second time means death."
"Then you, too, have an honor," said the beast.
"Of a sort, to the caste," said the man.
"A narrower, darker honor?" said the beast.
"If you like," said the man.
"Do not, mighty being, trust those of the sable caste," said Bruno of Torcadino. "They are treacherous, exploitative, and greedy for gold. They are thieves and killers, loathed and despised even at the World's End. They proffer empty promises and drain your resources. There is no search for men, no seeking of ships, no gathering of tools of war."
"Noble leader, great Pa-Kur, confederate of beasts, Lord of the Black Caste," said Addison Steele, "the slave will be of little use, as she cannot speak."
"You are unlikely to know me, kajira," said he at whose feet I knelt. "Do not be concerned. Many do not know me. Many have not even heard of me, save for brief, whispered words, spoken in private. I am Pa-Kur, of the Black Caste, the Caste of Assassins, Master of a hundred Black Courts. The Black Caste is the noblest and most essential of castes. It eschews borders and repudiates Home Stones. It knows no city as its own, and thus claims all cities. Without it, how could justice be done and wrongs righted Where law fails and judges err, what but the blade and quarrel can speak? Let insult be answered and slander avenged. The verdict of steel is sufficient and conclusive."
I knew too little of Gor to understand this. I had heard of the sable caste, of the black caste, but, until this night, I had never knowingly met a representative of the caste. Do they not mingle amongst men unnoted, until the hunt is nearly concluded, until the black dagger is placed on the forehead? Certainly he who called himself Pa-Kur spoke highly of the caste. Why then, if its aim was so exalted and its ideals so high, was it so dreaded, feared, and shunned?
"Yes," said Thurnock, satisfied. Then he added, "I do not care for crossbows."
"It is an ideal assassin's weapon," I said. "It is patient. It can wait, and then strike when it wishes."
"I still do not like it," said Thurnock.
"I know one who is a master of such a bow," I said.
"Its rate of fire is far inferior to that of the true bow, the great bow," said Thurnock.
"He of whom I think," I said, "would not expect to fire more than once."
I recalled a grayish cast of features, and eyes like glass.
This time I had detected sounds, soft, tiny encroachments on the silence, cautious, careful, almost inaudible sounds. I smiled to myself. He with whom I was now alone in the room was clearly untrained. The sounds were resultant from the movement of sandals on the wooden floor. Even a novice, climbing the third of the nine steps of blood, aspiring to membership in the Black Caste, would not wear sandals in such a business, but would go barefoot or wrap his feet in rags, his sandals tied about his neck or to his belt.
"Serve me well," says the assassin to his dagger, the woodsman to his ax, the fisherman to his net and trident, the scribe to his pen, the warrior to his sword.
"Perhaps," I said, "the noble Jurek is not the finest swordsman in Jad."
The gaunt man was shaking with fear.
"The next time you wish an Assassin," I said, "petition a Black Court, solicit the services of one of the Dark Caste."
In passing, one might note that Brundisium had one of the largest, most formidable, most notorious Black Courts in known Gor, such a court being a facility in which Assassins are recruited and trained, and from which they are hired.
He appeared strong, but his carriage suggested neither the ease nor the subtlety of an armsman. I assumed then it was not likely that he was either of the Scarlet Caste, the Warriors, or the Black Caste, the Assassins.
The garroting in the woods did not speak of the oarsman or of the Warrior. It spoke of another caste. And the shot in the clearing, from some forty paces away, striking between the eyes of the bandit, inches away from the woman, was no result one would expect from one new to, or unfamiliar with, the crossbow. It was a shot worthy of Pa-Kur, Master of the Assassins. And I knew, from Port Kar, that Pa-Kur himself, and, indeed, exiled Kurii on Gor, were interested in the capture of Talena, to access the exorbitant reward being offered, a reward that might assure its recipient of not only enormous wealth, but the influence and power which such wealth bestows.
I rose to my feet, to return to the road.
Xenon was not what he seemed, or wished to seem.
Xenon was an Assassin, and I did not think that he was alone.
"What oath have you uttered, by what have you sworn?" I asked.
"Oh, to draw the oar well, such things," he said.
"You have not sworn by the silent, bloody quarrel, or by the unsheathed knife, blade upward?" I asked.
"Be silent," said Seremides. "Xenon knows nothing of such things."
I noted that the three coins were, as I had expected, not of the mintage of Jad, or even of another polity on Cos, or of the Farther Islands, but of Brundisium, home to, after the Caste had been banned from Ar, the largest, richest, and most feared Black Court on Gor.
"Look," I said, "there!"
"What is it?" asked Xenon.
"There, passing," I said, "in betraying garb!"
"It cannot be," said Seremides.
"What?" asked Xenon.
"There, in black," I said, "openly, an Assassin."
"I have heard of them, I have never seen one," said Xenon.
The fellow then passed us.
"He is not hunting," I said. "The dagger is not painted on his forehead."
When the dagger is painted on the forehead, most Goreans will clear the way, standing aside, avoiding the Assassin, letting him be about his business. One often thinks of the Black Caste, the Assassins, as being little more than hired killers; but, in a sense, they are the nearest thing, on Gor, to an international police force. If a crime is committed in one city, say, a murder, and the murderer flees to a different city, the guardsmen of the first city are not going to pursue him, or at least not indefinitely and tenaciously. Their Home Stone is elsewhere. In this way, at least occasionally, the Assassin is a nemesis of the wrongdoer, and an instrument of, if not justice, at least retribution.
"You have never seen an Assassin before?" I asked Xenon.
"No," he said.
"Assassins are not always easily recognized," I said. "They are not always in the habiliments of their caste."
"Interesting," said Xenon.
"I do not understand it," said Seremides. "The Caste of Assassins was outlawed in Ar, after the time of the horde of Pa-Kur."
"Apparently something has changed," I said.
"He has passed through the gate," said Seremides. "He was not challenged."
"Something has changed, indeed," I said.
"Near the great gate," said Seremides, "I saw an Assassin, openly in the habiliments of that caste, which caste, I thought, was outlawed in Ar."
"No longer," said the Wood Worker.
"The horde of Pa-Kur was disbanded long ago," said the first Peasant.
"It was necessary to restore the legitimacy of the Assassins," said the Tarnkeeper. "Ar had become a refuge city, a shelter city, to which murderers and thieves from all over the world might flock, to be safe and unsought, to go unpunished for far crimes."
"It used to be," said the first Peasant, "that one who murdered and stole in Turia, and fled the laws of Turia, might reside untroubled in Ar and enjoy here the fruits of his unsavory labors."
"Not so easy for them now," said the second Peasant.
"Let them quail for they may be, unbeknownst to themselves, even now hunted by an Assassin," said the Tarnkeeper.
"With the Assassins," said the Wood Worker, "laws have claws, and can scratch in far places."
"I think," said the Tarnkeeper, "Marlenus wished, too, to apply the experiences and skills of the Assassins in the search for the villainous Talena, puppet of Cos, wickedly installed on the throne of Ar."
"The Assassin frightens me," said Hemartius.
"Justifiably," I said. "He is one of the most powerful and dangerous men on Gor. His power would be the envy of many Ubars. His tentacles unite a hundred Black Courts. His word can lift a knife in Schendi and speed a quarrel in Kassau. In the black dagger, unrestrained by city walls and common codes, resides much power."
"The laws of a city often stop at its pomerium," said Hemartius. "Were it not for the Black Caste many wrongs could not be righted. Sometimes gold can buy not only retribution but justice."
"Let me tell you a small story," said Pa-Kur. "Some years ago a prominent Assassin was discomfited on the roof of Ar's Cylinder of Justice. His unfortunate experience was not forgotten by the Assassin. It rankled. Had his pride not been injured? Had it not been dealt an unwelcome blow? In his memory, this misery remained as obdurate and unchanging as stone, as cold as steel. He was patient, an attribute of his caste. He wanted vengeance. Let me now continue the story. Some years ago, in the politics of a small city, following intrigues and clashes, a burning iron was brought to the fair thigh of its lovely, fallen Tatrix. She was subsequently purchased by a barbarian Warrior who, after putting her to appropriate slave use, foolishly freed her. So stupid was he. This warrior, interestingly, was the very man who had on the roof of Ar's Cylinder of Justice earlier discomfited the Assassin."
"I see," I said.
"To conclude our story, the freed slave eventually returned to the throne of her city, once more to wear the medallion of the Tatrix. It seems, however, that the slaver, one of ill repute, a man named Targo, had either omitted administering slave wine to the slave, perhaps so soon after her marking, or, more likely, had utilized an inferior or ineffective potion. After a due interval, the Tatrix gave birth to a baby boy. The Assassin, by means of confederates, was apprised of these matters and arranged for the theft of the child. Patience, as mentioned, is an attribute of his caste. He arranged that the infant, represented as a foundling, be placed in a professional dueling house, to be raised in, and eventually employed by, that community."
"With you and Master Seremides," he said, "I was respected and accepted. How could it be? But it was. Master Seremides, even, on the voyage from the Skerry of Lars to Jad, would have saved my life, whatever might have been his purpose or motive. One does not forget such things. I served Pa-Kur loyally and well until it seemed I should no longer do so. Perhaps somewhere between Jad and Ar, or even in Ar itself, I realized that the black dagger was not congenial to the grip of my hand. I do not know. It did not fit. I have left the caste."
"Beware," said Seremides, "one does not lightly put aside the sable cloak."
"That is well known to me," said Xenon. "When one wearing the black dagger seeks me, I, too, might then, for the last time, put that terrible stain upon my forehead."
"The amnesty accorded the Black Caste has been rescinded," said Aetius. "Once again the dark caste is forbidden within the walls of Ar."