Konar shivered. "I believe it. But why are they called 'transvisors'?"
"The name's somewhat descriptive, even if it is incomplete. As I said, visibility refraction doesn't work right in their case. Somehow, they pick up visual sensation right through a screen, regardless of its adjustment. But things seen through a screen are distorted, and look abnormal to them. Unless they're used to it, they get frightened when they see a person with a refracted body shield. That's when the trouble starts."
Konar nodded in understanding. "You mean, they transmit their fear?"
"They do. And they'll shock excite a mentacom, completely distorting its wave pattern. If they remain conscious and scared, their fear is deadly to its object." Meinora drew a deep breath.
"As I said, you were lucky. The girl fainted and let you get away." He shrugged and turned to Barskor.
"We'll have to change our mode of operation," he added. "We'll pick up the Earl's mentacom and belt at the hunt tomorrow. Find him alone, knock him out with a paralyzer, and give him parahypnosis afterward. It's not so good, but it's effective. But be sure you are alone, and don't try to use visual refraction under any circumstance. Be better to be seen, if it comes to that. There might be another transvisor around." He kicked gently at the seat beside him.
"This was just a secondary job, done in passing," he said, "but it's a good thing we found this out when we did. It'll change our whole primary plan. Now, we'll have to slog it out the hard way. On no account can anyone refract. It might be suicide. We'll have to talk to travelers. We want to know what abnormal or unusual developments have taken place in what country in the last twenty years. Then, we'll have to check them out. We've got a lot of work to do." He looked around. "Ciernar."
"Yes, sir?" The communications operator looked up.
"Send in a report on this to Group. Make it 'operational.'"
Konar tilted his head a little. "Say, chief, you said the transvisor's fear was amplified by my mentacom. What if I wasn't wearing one?"
"You wouldn't feel a thing," Meinora smiled. "But don't get any ideas. Without amplification, you couldn't control your shield properly. You'd have protection, but your refraction control's entirely mental, and levitation direction depends on mental, not physical control, remember?"
"But how about you? You don't use amplification. Neither do several of the other team chiefs."
Meinora shrugged. "No," he admitted, "we don't need it, except in abnormal circumstances. But we don't go around scaring transvisors. They can't kill us, but they can make us pretty sick. You see we're a little sensitive in some ways." He shook his head. "No, the only advantage I've got is that I can spot a transvisor by her mental pattern--if I get close enough. There's a little side radiation that can be detected, though it won't pass an amplifier. When you've felt it once, you'll never forget it. Makes you uncomfortable." He smiled wryly.
"And you can believe me," he added, "when I do get close to a transvisor, I'm very, very careful not to frighten her."
Winter passed, and spring, and summer came. Nal Gerda, Officer of the Guard, stood on the small wharf below the old watchtower. He looked across the narrows, examined the cliff opposite him, then looked upward at the luminous sky. There were a few small clouds, whose fleecy whiteness accentuated the clear blue about them. Brilliant sunshine bathed the wharf and tower, driving away the night mists.
It would not be long before the new guard came down the cliff. Gerda stretched and drew a deep breath, savoring the summer morning air. Now, it was pleasant, a happy contrast to the sullen skies and biting winter winds he had faced a few short months ago.
For a time, he looked at the green atop the cliffs, then he transferred his attention upriver, toward the bend where the Nalen came out of the pass to blow between the iron cliffs of Menstal. The water flowed swiftly in the narrows, throwing off white glints as its ripples caught the sunlight, then deepening to a dark blue where it came into the shadow of the cliffs.
A sudden call sounded from the lookout far above, and the officer wheeled about, looking to the great chain which stretched from tower to cliff, to block river traffic. It was in proper position, and Gerda looked back at the bend.
As he watched, a long, low barge drifted into sight, picking up speed as it came into the rapid current. Polemen balanced themselves alertly in the bow, their long sticks poised to deflect their course from any threatening rocks.
Gerda threw off the almost poetical admiration of beauty that had possessed him a moment before and faced the guard house, from whence came a scuffle of feet and the clank of arms, to tell of the guard's readiness.
"Turn out the Guard." Gerda drew himself up into a commanding pose.
A group of men-at-arms marched stiffly out, followed by a pair of serfs. The leader saluted Gerda with upraised hand.
"The Guard is ready, My Captain," he proclaimed. "May the tax be rich."
Gerda returned the salute. "It will be," he stated positively. "These merchants have learned by now that to insult Portal Menstal with poor offerings is unwise in the extreme. And, mark me, they'll not forget!"
The barge approached and swung in toward the wharf in obedience to Gerda's imperious gesture. One of the polemen jumped ashore, securing a line to a bollard.
The steersman climbed to the dock, to halt a pace in front of Gerda. He folded his hands and bowed his head submissively.
"Does Your Honor desire to inspect the cargo?"
"Of course." Gerda's haughty glance appraised the man from toe to crown. "Quickly now. I've little time to waste." He glanced back at his clerk, who had a tablet ready.
"Your name, Merchant?"
"Teron, of Krongert, may it please you, sir. I have been to----"
Gerda waved an impatient hand. "Save me your speech, Higgler," he said curtly. "What's your cargo value?"
"Six thousand teloa, Your Honor. We have----"
"Unload it. I'll look at it." Gerda waved the man to silence.
As the bales of goods were placed on the wharf, Gerda examined them critically. A few, he ordered set aside after a quick check and a few questions. Others, he ordered opened and spread out. At last, satisfied with his estimate of the cargo's valuation, he turned.
"Your choice, Merchant?"
"I would pay, Your Honor," said the man, "to the tenth part of my cargo." He extended a leather bag.
"Don't haggle with me," snapped Gerda. "The tax is a fifth of your cargo, as you should well know." His hand sought his sword hilt.
The merchant's face fell a little, and he produced a second bag, which he held out to the officer. "I must apologize," he said. "I am new to this land."
"See that you learn its customs quickly, then." Gerda handed the bags to his clerk.
"Check these, Lor," he ordered. "I make it a thousand, six hundred teloa."
An expression of dismay crossed the merchant's face.
"Your Honor," he wailed, "my cargo is of but six thousand valuation. I swear it."
Gerda stepped forward swiftly. His hand raised, to swing in a violent, back-handed arc, his heavy rings furrowing the merchant's face. The man staggered back, involuntarily raising a hand to his injured cheek.
As a couple of the men-at-arms raised their pikes to the ready, the merchant righted himself, folded his hands again, and bowed in obeisance. Blood trickled down his chin, a drop spattering on his clothing. He ignored it.
"You would dispute my judgment?" Gerda drew his hand up for a second blow. "Here is no market place for your sharp bargaining. For your insolence, another five hundred teloa will be exacted. Make speed!"
The merchant shook his head dazedly, but offered no word of protest. Silently, he dug into his possessions, to produce a third bag. For a moment, he weighed it in his hand, then reached into it, to remove a few loose coins. Without raising his head, he extended the bag to the officer of the guard.
Gerda turned. Lor had gone into the guard house, to count the other two bags. The officer raised his voice.
"Lor, get back out here. I've more for you to count."
He tossed the bag to the clerk, then stood, glaring at the unfortunate trader. At last, he kicked the nearest bale.
"Well," he growled, "get this stuff off the wharf. What are you waiting for?"
He watched the barge crew load, then turned. Lor came from the guard house.
"All is in order, My Captain."
"Very well." Gerda looked at him approvingly. Then, he swung to the merchant, fixing him with a stern glare.
"We shall make note of your name, Merchant. See thou that you make honest and accurate valuation in the future. Another time, we shall not be so lenient. The dungeon of Menstal is no pleasant place."
He watched till the last of the bargeload was stowed, then nodded curtly.
"You may shove off," he said. He turned his head toward the tower.
"Down chain," he ordered loudly.
The windlass creaked protestingly and the heavy chain dropped slowly into the river. The barge steered to the center of the channel, gathering speed as it passed over the lowered chain.
When the barge had cleared, serfs inside the tower strained at the windlass in obedience to the commands of their overseer, and the chain rose jerkily, to regain its former position across the stream.
Gerda watched for a moment, then strode toward the guard house. He went inside, to look at the bags of coin on the counting table.
"Cattle," he growled, "to think they could cheat the Baron Bel Menstal of his just tax."
He stepped back out for a moment, to watch the merchant barge enter the rapids beyond the chain. Then, he swung about and re-entered the tower.
Inside, he sat down at his counting table. He opened the bags, spilling their contents out on the boards, and checked their count.
There were forty-eight over.
He turned to his clerk.
"What was your count, Lor?"
"Two thousand, one hundred, sir, and forty-eight."
"Very good." Gerda smiled a little. "For once in his thieving life, the merchant was anxious to give full weight."
Lor spread his hands. "He'll get it back, and more, at Orieano, sir."
"Oh, to be sure." Gerda shrugged indifferently as he scooped the coins back into the bags. He chose three small scraps of wood, scrawled tally marks on them, and went over to a heavy chest.
Taking a key from his belt, he unlocked the chest and raised its lid. He looked at the bags lying within, then tossed the new ones on top of them. As he locked the chest again, he saw Lor go to his account board, to enter the new collection.
The Officer of the Guard straightened, stretched for a moment, then glanced critically in at the windlass room. The serfs had secured the windlass and racked their poles. Now, they were sitting, hunched against the wall, staring vacantly, in the manner of serfs. The guardroom, its commander noted, was properly clean. He shrugged and walked out again to the wharf. Once more, he looked at the iron cliffs opposite him, then glanced downriver. The merchant barge had disappeared.
Beyond Menstal, the cliffs closed in still farther, to become more rugged and to form a narrow gorge. Between them, the Nalen took a tortuous course, turbulently fighting its way over the rocks. Eventually, it would drop into the lowlands, to become a broad, placid river, lowing quietly under the sunshine to water the fields of Orolies. But during its passage through the mountains, it would remain a dark, brawling torrent.
The merchant barge swept through the rapids just beyond Menstal, her polemen deftly preventing disaster against the rocks. At last, as the gorge became a little wider, the steersman guided his course toward a small beach beneath the cliffs. With his free hand, he thoughtfully rubbed his injured cheek.
As the boat's keel grated against gravel, he shook his head and stepped forward. For a moment, he fumbled under a thwart, then he brought out a small case.
"Konar," he called, "fix this thing up for me, will you?" He opened the case and laid it on the thwart.
One of the polemen laid his stick down and came aft.
"Pretty nasty clip, wasn't it, sir?"
Meinora grinned. "Guy's got a heavy hand, all right," he admitted. "Made me dizzy for a second. Almost got mad at him."
Konar raised an eyebrow. "I felt it," he said. "Good thing Ciernar and I backed you up a little. Wouldn't help us much to knock out the baron's river detachment right now, would it?" He reached into the case.
"Looks as though the merchants weren't exaggerating, if you ask me," he added. He approached Meinora, a small swab in his hand.
"Hold still, sir," he instructed. "This'll sting for a few seconds." He dabbed at the cut cheek, then reached back into the case for an instrument.
"Ouch!" Meinora winced. "Did you have to use that stuff full strength? After all, I can wait a couple of hours for it to heal." He shook his head as his companion turned back toward him, then dashed involuntary tears from his eyes and blinked a few times to clear his vision.
"No," he added, "the merchants aren't exaggerating a bit on this one. Bel Menstal's a pretty rough customer, and he keeps rough boys. Now, we'll see whether he's the guy we've been looking for, the guy with our equipment."
Konar focused the small instrument on his superior's face, passing it along the line of the jagged cut. "You didn't explain that part."
"Simple enough." Meinora grinned wolfishly. "Those coins were a Vadris-Kendar alloy. Now that they're out of their force field, they'll start to sublimate. In a couple of hours or so, they'll be gone, and someone will be asking a lot of questions. Set up the detectors. If the baron is the boy we think he is, we should be getting a fairly strong reading shortly after that guard's relieved."
From somewhere atop the cliff, a bell tolled. The hoarse voice of the lookout drifted down to the wharf.
"Relieve the guard."
Nal Gerda looked up. A line of men were coming down the steep path, stepping cautiously as they wound about the sharp turns. Gerda nodded and walked back into the guard room.
"Draw up your guard," he ordered.
He beckoned to two of the serfs.
"Take the chest," he directed, "and stay close in front of me."
Herding the bearers before him, he went out to the wharf. His guard was drawn up in their proper station, facing upstream, so that they could view both the steps from the cliff and the river. No traffic was in sight in the long gorge.
The new guard came slowly down the trail, formed at the foot of the steps, and marched to the tower portal. Their commander dressed their ranks, motioned to his clerk, and came forward, saluting as he approached Gerda.