"Yes, sir. It'll give a flicker indication for low levels and it'll fail to trip for unaided thought. Not too much chance of an overload, either."
"That's right. You're learning." Meinora nodded casually. "Well, let's keep watch on it." He sat down. "Audio alarm on?"
Konar glanced at the panel again. "I remembered it this time." He grinned, then looked curiously at his superior's cut cheek. The wound was healing nicely. In an hour or so, there would be no visible trace of the injury.
"Say, Chief," he asked, "how'd you happen to get slapped?"
"I asked for it." Meinora smiled thoughtfully.
"Yes, sir. I know that. But what was the purpose?"
"This continent has never been thoroughly checked, so we're sampling the culture. We know a lot about them now, but there's a lot we still have to know. For example, how do they react to various stimuli? And how much stimulus is necessary to produce a given action? Of course, we can't check every individual, but we can pick up a sample from each community we contact and extrapolate from them." Meinora spread his hands.
"So, I presented a minor irritation to that officer, and he reacted--fast. He didn't just slap me for effect. He was infuriated at the insult to his authority. Not only that, but his men expected him to react in just that manner. I noted that, too. He'd have lost face if he'd acted in any other way. And the men-at-arms were disappointed when we gave them no further excuse for violence. We really lost face with them. There, we have an indication that violence is the expected thing in this particular castle, which is a community of the duchy. Right?"
"Yes." Konar nodded thoughtfully. "They're not only violent themselves, but they expect violence from others. I see what you mean. You'll sample the other baronies?"
"Certainly. As many as we contact. They can tell us quite a bit. We----"
A buzzer interrupted him. Meinora snapped a switch and sat forward alertly.
A needle quivered, rose from its rest, and swung abruptly across the meter scale. With an audible ping, it slapped against the stop beyond the maximum reading.
Meinora looked sharply at the detector set, then turned a selector switch. The needle moved reluctantly away from the pin, but remained above the red line at center scale. Meinora grimaced, twisted the selector again, and adjusted another knob, till the needle came to rest at center.
He examined the dial readings, frowned incredulously, then turned.
"Look at it," he invited. "It's a wonder he hasn't burned that amplifier out. It's a heavy duty job, I know. But----"
Konar leaned over his chief's shoulder.
"What an overload! We've found it, all right. But what's going on?"
"Let's find out." Meinora flipped a switch. The two men tensed against the resultant shock and were silent for a time. At last, Konar reached out to snap the switch off.
"Just raw, crushing force," he said wonderingly. "A ferocious demand, with no regard for facts, no consideration of mental characteristics, no thought of consequence." He shook his head slowly. "Never experienced anything just like that before."
"With the power he's using," Meinora remarked, "it's a wonder he doesn't upset every mind in his castle." He snapped the detector off.
"Including his own." Konar nodded and looked at the dial settings. "One thing's sure. This boy never had any instruction." He stepped back. "Well, we know he has it. What's the procedure?"
Meinora was frowning thoughtfully. He stroked his injured cheek, then shook his head.
"We certainly let that guard officer in for something," he mused. "Have to pick him up and give him therapy, I think." He looked at Konar. "Oh, procedure?"
"Yes, sir. Do we catch him alone and proceed as we did with the last one? That worked with no trouble."
"No, I don't think it'd work out so well in this case. If I caught it right, this one's almost never by himself outside his apartment. Likes to impress his personality on people." Meinora looked at the detector set, then around at the younger man beside him.
"You know, I got some interesting side thoughts just now. Maybe we can do two jobs in one this time. It'll take a little longer, but it might save time in the long run."
The communications operator came over. "Not another of those?" he asked with a grin.
Meinora nodded. "I'm just dreaming up a nice, dirty trick," he admitted. "Tried something like it once before, on a smaller scale. It worked." He stood up, stretching.
"The fair's going to be on at Orieano in a little while, right?"
"Yes. Be a pretty big affair, too, I think. Why?"
"And the Duke'll be there, of course, along with most of his court and a good share of his fighting men?"
"Why, yes, sir. They tell me he's always been there. Don't suppose he'll skip it this time."
"So, it's perfect. We'll get this set of equipment in public, and with apparent legitimacy. And in the process, we'll set up social strains that'll result in this area reorienting itself." Meinora looked around with a grin.
"Look, call Barskor. Tell him to pick us up with the flier. We'll go down to the hills south of Orieano. Tell you about it on the way."
The last of the river guards was carried out, head dangling limply from the arms of one of the bearers. Bel Menstal sat back in his chair, frowning. Abruptly, he turned on his steward.
"None of them knew a thing," he snarled. "None of them. There's something funny going on here."
The steward's face was drawn. Dizzying forces had assailed him, and he had almost collapsed several times during the questioning. He tried to gather his hazy thoughts. Too many kept coming too fast.
"Yes, Excellency," he agreed. "Maybe it is witchcraft."
Bel Menstal's face darkened. "Nonsense," he growled, rising part way out of his chair. "Witchcraft be damned! There's some explanation to this, and I'm going to find out what it is."
The Baron looked up, then stared contemptuously at his man.
"Yes, Excellency," he mimicked in a singsong voice. "Always 'Yes, Excellency.' Haven't you an idea of your own?"
"Yes, Excellency, I----"
"Inept fool! There's an explanation to this, I tell you. And peasant superstition has no part in it. You should have found it. But no! You came, dragging a whole detachment of guards in for me to question. Me, the Baron! I have to do all the work--all the thinking. I tell you, I want men about me who can think and act."
He got out of his chair and circled the table, striding close to the steward.
"I'll give you one more chance, Weron. Go out and find what happened to that money. I don't care how you do it, and I'm not going to be bothered with your petty details. But find out where that money has gone. Is that simple enough for you to understand?"
"Yes, Excellency." Weron backed toward the door. "I'll----"
Reckless fury shook Florel. Suddenly, he felt an irresistible craving for direct, violent action. He picked a dagger from his belt.
"You're not only a fool," he shouted, "but a spineless one, as well. I think I'll have to get another steward. A good one." He raised the dagger, then paused.
"Here, weakling. You'd like to use this, wouldn't you? But you lack the will. That's why you're a mere lackey." Abruptly, he threw the weapon at Weron.
"Try it, fool. Try it, and see how a real man protects himself."
He stalked toward the steward.
The man cringed away, then, pressed by his master, suddenly sobbed with rage. He raised the dagger. Bel Menstal, protected by his body shield, brushed the stroke aside.
"Ha!" He snatched the weapon. "You would try it?"
Weron threw his arms before him, trying to ward off the blows, then slumped as the blade sank into his flesh.
Bel Menstal struck the sagging body a few more times with the dagger, then threw the weapon on top of the inert form.
"Ho, Guards," he shouted, flinging the door open.
He went back to his chair and watched as the guards came in. In obedience to his gesture, they carried the one-time steward from the room. The door closed, and Bel Menstal was alone. Slowly, the stimulation of the encounter faded, and he shook his head.
It had been pleasant for a few minutes, he thought, but he had solved nothing.
Could it be that searchers from his native land had at last found him? He frowned. No, they wouldn't use some devious method, even supposing they could find some way of corrupting his household. They would simply expose him and accuse him before the Duke. They'd storm his castle if necessary, to take him by force. This was something else. He would have to think. He put his elbows on the table, cupping his face in his hands.
The great market square at Orieano was crowded. Colorful tents hid most of the cobblestones, and the rest of the pavement was obscured from view by the droves of people. Merchants and their assistants hovered about, each endeavoring to outdo the rest in enticing the swarming crowd into his tent. Jugglers and mountebanks competed for attention, outdoing even themselves in their efforts to gain the ears, the eyes, and the coins of the mob of bargain hunters.
At one side of the square, the cattle mart was drawing many, who listened to the noise of the beasts and the shouts of the vendors. Some paused to bargain. Others simply strode about, still looking for the things they had come to seek out. Here and there, a cutpurse slunk through the crowd, seeking his own type of bargain--an unwary victim.
The Duke of Dwerostel rode into the market, conscious of a buzz which rose to a loud hum. The bellowing of beasts, the cries of vendors, the scuffling of many feet, all blended into one great sound--the voice of the fair.
The Duke listened contentedly. Here, he thought, was activity. Here, his chamberlain would find the things he had been ordered to get that the comfort of the castle might be furthered. And here was a certainty of tolls and taxes, which would enrich the duchy.
He continued at the head of his retinue, through the center of the square. Time enough to take close note of the market later. Now, he wished to get to the castle of Orieano, where he would take refreshment after his trip.
He looked up at the heights above the town. Pennants were flying from the stone battlements. And he could see the tiny figures of the guard. His presence in the town had certainly been noted. He rode to the other side of the square, and led his company up the steep, winding road to the castle's town gate.
The sentries grounded their pikes and stood rigidly as the ducal escort rode through the gate, the pennons on their lances flying with the breeze of their passage. The ducal party swept through the outer ward, through the inner wall, and came to a halt before the keep.
The Baron of Orieano waited before his keep. He came forward, bowing low before his liege, then steadied a stirrup as the Duke dismounted. He waved toward the dinning hall.
"Your Excellency will grace us with his presence at meat?"
The Duke gestured to a page, who took the charger's reins to guide the beast away.
"It would be pleasing to us," he said.
He nodded graciously and followed his vassal into the hall. He nodded in approval at the long tables, waited until the clanging of the welcoming salute subsided, and went to the elevated table set for his use and that of his Baron.
He sat down, looking over the company. A glint of gold caught his eye, and he looked curiously at two men who sat a little way down the table.
These two were elegantly turned out, their long cloaks thrown back to expose richly embroidered cloth. The Duke examined them closely. Obviously, here was one of the great western nobles, with an almost equally noble companion. The golden circlet proclaimed the identity of one, and the proud bearing and rich dress of both confirmed their station. Somehow, the Duke thought, these two presented a far more imposing appearance than his vassal, the Baron Bel Menstal, despite that Baron's overwhelming personality.
He thought of his hard fighting border protector. Of course, he had far to come, and the way through the mountains could be difficult. But it was a little strange he was not yet here.
The Duke remembered some of the resentful gazes he had noted during his passage through the fair. He must have words, he decided, with Bel Menstal. Possibly the man was a little too eager to collect his road and river taxes. Possibly this hard man of his was too hard, too grasping. Of course, he held a valuable bastion against the tribes of the Ajerical, but---- He shrugged away his thoughts and devoted his attention to the dishes before him.
As the Duke took up his food, the waiting company commenced reaching for dishes. Konar turned toward Meinora with a slight smile.
"Got 'em well trained, hasn't he?"
"That he has. Another note for our cultural information."
"When do you want me to talk to him?"
"After he's finished his main courses and got a few cups of wine in him. Our boy'll be delayed for a while, you know. We've plenty of time to let Orieano fill the Duke in before Bel Menstal arrives."
Klion Meinora turned his attention to the trencher before him for a moment, then looked toward his companion again.
"Notice the girl sitting by the Baron?"
"You mean Orieano's daughter?"
"Precisely. Don't give her any cause for fear. Don't even make a sudden move in her presence."
"I do. She could become Lady Death, if she got frightened."
Konar looked toward the elevated table. The girl looked harmless enough. She was slender, attractive, even delicate looking. But he remembered a horror-distorted face, a mind-shattering scream, and a blinding flash of light. He shuddered a little and turned his attention to his food.
Florel Bel Menstal strode into the hall, looking toward the table head. The Duke, he noted, was still at table, though he had finished his meal. Now, he was engaged in earnest conversation with Orieano.
This, Bel Menstal thought, must be checked. Haughtily ignoring the rest of the company, he paced to the head of the table, where he made perfunctory obeisance.
"Your Excellency," he greeted. He straightened. "I offer my apologies for my late appearance. My men had to clear a slide from the way." He turned toward Orieano.
"You would do well to instruct your serfs in the art of road building. Their work seems slack."
He faced the Duke again. The overlord set his cup down.
"Bel Menstal," he said gravely, "two nobles of your former land have come to me to present serious accusations." He rose. "You will accompany me to the chambers."
Bel Menstal hesitated. His men were outside the castle, of course. It was against etiquette to bring them inside, especially when the Duke was present. But there were plenty of them. Possibly he should fight his way out of here now. Once in his hilltop castle, he would be impregnable. And his raiding parties could keep the barony in supplies. Or possibly it would be better to---- He forced his panic down. After all, what could these two do? There could be little evidence they could offer. Well over twenty years had passed. He had adopted the ways of the land. Now, he was one of the Duke's powerful arms. And what could they give to offset that?
Here was no cause for fear. He could bluff his way out of this accusation, discredit the searchers, and make his position permanently secure. Possibly it was even better this way. He looked scornfully at the two men who moved toward him.