Derikuna smiled sardonically. "Thank you," he said, "and good trading." He reined away.
He had caught the semi-fearful thoughts. Well, that was nothing unusual. Everybody became fearful of the iron hat sooner or later. Here, they would learn to respect him, too. Though their respect would be for a different name. Nor would they be able to deny him aught. They might not like him. That, he had no interest in. They'd do his will. And they'd never forget him.
He rode to an inn, where he ordered food and lodging. His meal over, he saw to his beasts, then had a servant take his baggage to his room.
Shortly after daybreak, he awoke. He blinked at the light, stirred restlessly, and got out of bed. Rubbing his eyes, he walked to the other side of the room.
For a few minutes, he looked at the trough in the floor and the water bucket standing near it. At last, he shrugged and started splashing water over himself. This morning, he spent more time than usual, being sure that no vestige of beard was left on his face, and that he was perfectly clean. He completed his bath by dashing perfumed water over his entire body.
He opened his traveling chest, picking out clothing he had worn but few times, and those in private. At last, he examined his reflection in a mirror, and nodded in satisfaction.
"Truly," he told himself, "a fine example of western nobility."
He picked out a few expensive ornaments from his chest, then locked it again and left the inn.
He guided his mount through the narrow streets to the castle gate, where he confronted a sleepy, heavily-armed sentry.
"Send word to the castle steward," he ordered, throwing his riding cloak back, "that Florel, younger son of the Earl of Konewar, would pay his respects to your master, the Duke of Dwerostel."
The man eyed him for a moment, then straightened and grounded his pike with a crash.
"It shall be done, sir." He turned and struck a gong.
A guard officer came through the tunnel under the wall. For a moment, he looked doubtful, then he spoke respectfully and ushered Derikuna through the inner court to a small apartment, where he turned him over to a steward.
"You wish audience with His Excellency?"
"I do, My Man. I wish to pay him my respects, and those of my father, the Earl of Konewar." Derikuna looked haughtily at the man.
Like the guard officer, the steward seemed doubtful. For a few seconds, he seemed about to demur. Then, he bowed respectfully.
"Very well, sir." With a final, curious glance at the coronet which shone in Florel's hair, the steward clapped his hands. A page hurried into the room and bowed.
"Your orders, sir?"
"We have a noble guest. Bring refreshment, at once." The steward waved to a table. "If Your Honor will wait here?"
Florel inclined his head, strode to a chair, and sat down. He looked amusedly after the disappearing steward. The coronet of the old Earl, he thought, was a truly potent talisman. Even the disdainful stewards of castles bowed to its force. And, thought the impostor, so would his master--when the time came.
The page reappeared with a flagon of wine and some cakes. Florel was sampling them when the steward returned. The man bowed respectfully, waited for Florel to finish his wine, and led the way through a corridor to a heavy pair of doors, which he swung open.
"Florel, Son of Konewar," he announced ceremoniously.
The Duke flipped a bone to one of his dogs, shoved his plate aside, and looked up. Florel walked forward a few paces, stopped, and bowed low.
As he straightened, he realized that he was the object of an intense scrutiny. At last, the Duke nodded.
"We had no notice of your coming."
Florel smiled. "I have been traveling alone, Excellency, and incognito. For some years, I have been wandering, to satisfy my desire to see the world." He glanced down at his clothing.
"I arrived in your town last evening, and delayed only to make myself presentable before appearing to pay my respects."
"Very good. Punctuality in meeting social obligations is a mark of good breeding." The Duke eyed Florel's costume.
"Tell me, young man, do all your nobility affect the insignia you wear?"
Florel's hand rose to his coronet. "Only members of the older families, Excellency."
"I see." The nobleman nodded thoughtfully. "We have heard rumors of your fashions in dress, though no member of any of the great families of your realm has ever come so far before. We are somewhat isolated here." He looked sharply at the younger man.
"Rumor also has it that this is more than mere insignia you wear. I have heard it said that your ornaments give more than mortal powers to their wearer. Is this true?"
Florel hesitated for an instant, then recognized the desired response. Of course this eastern noble would not welcome the thought that there were others who had greater powers than he. And he would certainly resent any suggestions that a young visitor to his court had such powers.
"Oh, that," he said easily. "Legends, really. The truth is that the wearing of the coronet and belt is restricted to members of the older, more honorable families. And even these must prove their ability at arms and statecraft before being invested with the insignia. Too, knowledge of long lineage and gentle birth makes a man more bold--possibly even more skillful than the average." He smiled ingratiatingly.
"You, yourself, recognize your own superiority in all ways over your retainers, your vassals, and your townspeople. And so are we above the common man. This insignia is but the outward symbol of that superiority."
The Duke nodded, satisfied. He waved a hand.
"Sit down, young man. You must remain at our court for a time. We are hungry for news of the distant lands."
Florel congratulated himself. Well embellished gossip, he had found, was a popular form of entertainment in camp and court alike, and his store of gossip was large and carefully gathered. Here at Dweros, far from the center of the kingdom, his store of tales would last for a long time--probably as long as he needed.
During the days and nights that followed, he exerted himself to gain the favor of the Duke and his household. Much of his time, he spent entertaining others with his tales. But he kept his own ears and eyes open. He became a constant visitor at the castle, finally being offered the use of one of the small apartments, which he graciously accepted. And, of course, he was invited to join the hunts.
Hunting, he discovered, could be a pleasant pastime--so long as it was another who was doing the hard work of beating. And his own experience as a beater proved valuable. He was familiar with the ways and the haunts of animals. What had once been a matter of survival became a road to acclaim. He was known before long as a skillful, daring hunter.
At length, he decided the time was right to talk to the Duke of more serious things. The duchy was at the very border of the kingdom. To the north lay territory occupied only by barbaric tribes, who frequently descended on the northern baronies, to rob travelers of their goods, or to loot villages. Having secured their loot, the tribesmen retreated to their mountains before a fighting force could come up with them.
Florel came upon the Duke while he was considering the news of one of these raids.
"Your Excellency, these border raids could be halted. A strong hand is all that is needed, at the right place. A determined knight, established on the Menstal, could command the river crossing and the pass, thus preventing either entry or exit."
"To be sure." The Duke sighed wearily. "But the mountains of Menstal are inhospitable. Knights have occupied the heights, protecting the border for a time, to be sure, but the land has always escheated to the duchy. A small watchtower is kept manned even now, but it's a hungry land, and one which would drain even a baron's funds. I have no knight who wants it."
Florel smiled. He had plans concerning the Menstal, and the great river, the Nalen, which raced between high cliffs.
"The merchants, who use the Nalen for their shipments, would welcome protection from the robber bands, I think, as would the travelers of the roads."
"And?" The Duke looked at him thoughtfully.
"Possibly a small tax?" Florel smiled deprecatingly. "Sufficient to maintain a garrison?"
"And who would collect the tax?"
"That, Excellency, I could arrange. I have funds, adequate to garrison the tower of the Menstal, and even to make it livable for a considerable force of men. And I believe I could maintain and increase a garrison there that would serve to hold the barbarians at bay."
"Let me think this over." The Duke sat back, toying with his cup. "It is true," he mused, "that Menstal is the key to the border. And the small garrison there has proved expensive and ineffective." He tapped the cup on the table, then set it down and looked about the apartment. Finally, he looked up at Florel.
"You have our permission to try your scheme," he decided. "We will invest you with the barony of Menstal."
Konar paused at the castle gate. It had been pure chance, he knew, that they had noticed this bit of equipment. The east coast earldom was known, of course, but somehow, searchers had failed to discover that the Earl held any equipment. Konar shrugged. He probably hadn't inherited it, but had gotten it by chance, and his possession of the mentacom and shield weren't commonly known.
"Well," he told himself, "we know about it now. I'll make a routine pickup, and he won't have it any more."
A pair of weary sentries stood just inside the heavy doors. One shifted his weight, to lean partially on his pike, partially against the stonework. Idly, he looked out at the road which led through the village, staring directly through the place where Konar stood.
Konar smiled to himself. "Good thing I've got my body shield modulated for full refraction," he told himself. "He'd be a little startled if he should see me."
The sentry yawned and relaxed still more, sliding down a little, till he sat on a slightly protruding stone. His companion looked over at him.
"Old Marnio sees you like that," he muttered warningly, "makes lashes."
The other yawned again. "No matter. He'll be drowsing inside, where it's warm. Be a long time before he comes out to relieve."
Konar nodded amusedly. The castle guard, he gathered, was a little less than perfectly alert. This would be simple. He touched the controls of his body shield to raise himself a few inches above the cobblestones, and floated between the two sentries, going slowly to avoid making a breeze.
Once inside, he decided to waste no more time. Of course, he would have to wait inside the Earl's sleeping room till the man slept, but there was no point in waiting out here. He passed rapidly through the outer ward, ignoring the serfs and retainers who walked between the dwellings nestled against the wall.
The inner gate had been closed for the night, so he lifted and went over the wall.
He looked around, deciding that the Earl's living quarters would be in the wooden building at the head of the inner courtyard. As he approached, he frowned. The windows were tightly closed against the night air. He would have to enter through the doors, and a young squire blocked that way. The lad was talking to a girl.
There was nothing to do but wait, so Konar poised himself a few feet from them. They'd go inside eventually, and he would float in after them. Then, he could wait until the Earl was asleep.
After that, it would be a simple, practiced routine. The small hand weapon he carried would render the obsolete body shield ineffective, if necessary, and a light charge would assure that the man wouldn't awaken. It would be the work of a few minutes to remove the equipment the man had, to substitute the purely ornamental insignia, and to sweep out of the room, closing the window after him. Konar hoped it would stay closed. The Earl might be annoyed if it flew open, to expose him to the dreaded night air.
In the morning, the Earl would waken, innocent of any knowledge of his visitor. He would assume his talismans had simply lost their powers due to some occult reason, as many others had during recent times.
Idly, Konar listened to the conversation of the two before him.
The squire was telling the girl of his prowess in the hunt. Tomorrow, he announced, he would accompany the Earl's honored guest from the eastern land.
"And I'm the one that can show him the best coverts," he boasted. "His Grace did well to assign me to the Duke."
The girl lifted her chin disdainfully. "Since you're such a great hunter," she told him, "perchance you could find my brooch, which I lost in yonder garden." She turned to point at the flower-bordered patch of berry bushes at the other end of the court. In so doing, she faced directly toward Konar.
She was a pretty girl, he thought. His respect for the young squire's judgment grew. Any man would admire the slender, well featured face which was framed within a soft cloud of dark, well combed hair. She looked quite different from the usual girls one saw in this country. Possibly, she was of eastern descent, Konar thought.
The girl's eyes widened and her mouth flew open, making her face grotesquely gaunt. Abruptly, she was most unpretty. For a few heartbeats, she stood rigidly, staring at Konar. Then she put her hands to her face, her fingers making a rumpled mess of her hair. Her eyes, fixed and with staring pupils, peered between her fingers. And she screamed.
Konar felt suddenly faint, as though the girl's horror was somehow communicated to him. The scream reverberated through his brain, rising in an intolerable crescendo, blotting out other sensory perception. He fought to regain control of his fading senses, but the castle court blurred and he felt himself slipping into unconsciousness. He started sliding down an endless, dark chute, ending in impenetrable blackness.
Suddenly, the black dissolved into a flash of unbearably brilliant light, and Konar's eyes closed tightly.
He was alertly conscious again, but his head ached, and he felt reluctant, even unable, to open his eyes. Even closed, they ached from the brilliant spots which snapped into being before them. He shuddered, bringing his head down to his breast, gripping it with shaking hands, and breathing with uneven effort.
This was like nothing he had ever met before. He would have to get back to the others--find out what had happened to him--get help.
He concentrated on his eyelids, forcing them open. A crowd was gathering, to look accusingly at the squire, who supported the fainting girl in his arms. Her eyes fluttered weakly, and she struggled to regain her feet.
"That awful thing! It's right over there!" She pointed at Konar.
Again, the unbearable ululation swept through his mind. Convulsively, he swept his hand to his shield controls, fighting to remain conscious just long enough to set his course up and away.
Before he was able to move and think with anything approaching normality, he was far above the earth. He looked at the tiny castle far below, noticing that from his altitude, it looked like some child's toy, set on a sand hill, with bits of moss strewed about to make a realistic picture. He shivered. His head still ached dully, and he could still hear echoes of the horrified screaming.
"I don't know what it was," he told himself, "but I hope I never run into anything like that again."
He located the hill which concealed the flier, and dropped rapidly toward it.
As he entered, the pilot noticed him.
"Well, that was a quick mission," he commented. "How'd you----" He looked at Konar's pain-lined face. "Hey, what's the matter, youngster? You look like the last end of a bad week."
Konar tried to smile, but it didn't work very well.
"I ran into something, Barskor," he said. "Didn't complete my mission. I don't know what happened, but I hope it never happens again."
Barskor looked at him curiously, then turned. "Chief," he called, "something's gone wrong. Konar's been hurt."
Meinora listened to Konar's story, then shook his head unhappily.
"You ran into a transvisor, I'm afraid. We didn't think there were any on this planet." He paused. "There were definitely none discovered to the west, and we looked for them. But now, we're close to the east coast, and you said that girl looked eastern. The eastern continent may be loaded with 'em."
Konar looked curious. "A transvisor? I never heard of them."
"They're rather rare. You only find them under special conditions, and those conditions, we thought, are absent here. But when you find one, you can be sure there are more. It runs in families. You see, they're beings with a completely wild talent. They can be any age, any species, or of any intelligence, but they're nearly always female. Visibility refraction just doesn't work right for their senses, and they can cause trouble." He looked closely at Konar.
"You were lucky to get away. A really terrified transvisor could kill you, just as surely as a heavy caliber blaster."