"My name is Dejah Thoris, Queen of Helium! And who are you?"
Well, wherever I was, it wasn't Kansas. Or anywhere in the domes (or under them, for that matter).
I was standing on a platform, arms hoisted in the air, with two other girls beside me. Our hands were bound to rings on some kind of scaffolding, our feet spreadeagled and tied. We were completely naked.
But somehow that didn't seem to matter much. The commanding figure addressing us was naked, too. Or as good as. She had a kind of leather harness tied around her, and there was a big jewel on her throat, but otherwise her athletic figure stood completely nude and untrammelled.
"I'm Luce - Lucy," I tried to mutter, after a while.
My two companions glared at me, and I saw with a start that each was gagged. Their mouths were filled with a kind of bit, like a horse's bridle. Looking around, I saw a weaselly kind of a guy standing to one side of the platform with a similar leather and metal harness in his hands. Could that be meant for me?
The queen was frowning.
"No, your Supreme Majesty ..."
It always pays to butter up the local dignitaries: especially those who've got you trussed up on what looks distressingly like a gallows. I learnt that much from school ...
"My name is Lucy, if it please you. My friends call me Luce, for short."
"Well, Loose-for-short, what are you doing in my kingdom? We have a short way with spies, as you will presently learn. I take it you're reporting to the Kaldanes?"
"No, your Majesty. I don't even know who they are. All I know is that I set out on a journey to find my mother and her friend, and then I ... fell asleep and woke up here."
Even to my ears it sounded a bit thin. Something impelled me to add a little to the story. I could see the weaselly man beginning to stroke his harness impatiently. Was that a whip hanging down from his belt? My companions seemed to think so; they were now eyeing him nervously as well.
"I met two companions on my journey, who helped me along my way. One said his name was Tars Tarkas, the other called himself John Carter of Nevada."
"John Carter! You have met John Carter. You are lying, slave. You know what that name means to me."
"No, your Majesty! I never heard the name before he told it to me. But he told me many stories of his past, and your name was in almost all of them. He said that you were beautiful, and the love of his life."
"He said that, did he? I still think you are lying, but the whip will tell us for sure."
"Hold, lady!" A talll, white-bearded figure intervened. "Let us hear the girl unprompted, at least at first. Once the cutting starts she'll tell us anything. Let her observe the fate of her ompanions first, then command her to speak again."
A sudden pain seized hold of me, and a taste of rust and sweat filled my mouth. I realised the man with the bridle had crept up behind and gagged me without warning.
The whipping of the two girls was brutal beyond anything I could have imagined. Their backs were soon striped with blood, puddling under their feet.
They bore it like stoics at first, but it went on and on beyond any possible endurance. Finaly, when both of them were hanging like ragdolls from their limp wrists, the Queen gave the signal to stop, and the bodies were cut down.
My gag was taken off.
"Now, child, speak," said the old man.