"Why are all your people idling away their time? Where are your herdsmen and guards?"
The headman's face tensed with effort. He waved a hand southward and made meaningless noises. Faintly, the thought came through to Barra.
"In south forest, with herd. Not idle, is rest day. Few work."
Barra looked angrily at the man. Did this fool actually think he could evade and lie his way out of the trouble his obvious failure to supervise had brought? He jabbed a thumb northward.
"What about that herd drifting toward the north river?" The two green communicator crystals gleamed with cold fire.
The headman looked confused. "Not north," came the blurred thought. "No herd north. All south forest, near swamp. One-hand boys watch. Some guard. Is rest day."
Unbelievingly Barra stared at the pseudoman. He was actually persisting in his effort to lie away his failure. Or was he attempting some sort of defiance? Had his father and brother tolerated such things as this, or was this something new, stemming from the man's age? Or, perhaps, he was trying the temper of the Master Protector, to see how far he could go in encroaching on authority.
He would deal with this--and now!
Abruptly, he turned away, to direct his attention to the central surrogate. It was equipped with a projector crystal.
The air in the clearing glowed and a scene formed in the open space. Unmistakably, it was the northern part of Kira Barra. The lake was shown, and sufficient landmarks to make the location obvious, even to a pseudoman. Carefully, Barra prevented any trace of the blank, swirling null from intruding on the scene. Perhaps the subhuman creature before him knew something of its properties, but there was no point in making these things too obvious.
He focused the scene on the stream and brought the approaching herd into the picture, then he flashed in his own face, watching. And he brought the view down closely enough to indicate that no human creature was near the herd. Finally, he turned his attention to the headman again.
"There was the herd. Where were your people?"
The old man shook his head incredulously, then turned toward one of the few men who still remained in the clearing.
He made a series of noises and the other nodded. There were more of the growls and hisses, then the headman waved a hand southward and the other nodded again and turned away, to run into the trees and disappear.
The headman faced Barra again.
"Send man," he thought laboriously. "Be sure herd is still south." He pointed toward the area where the projection had been.
"That not herd," he thought. "That other herd. Never see before."
Barra scowled furiously.
"You incapable imbecile! You dare to call your master a liar?"
He swung about, his furious gaze scanning the village. The pile of stones he had noticed before caught his attention. He focused on it.
A few stones rose into the air and flew toward the headman.
The old man faced about, his eyes widening in sudden fear. He dodged one of the flying stones, then turned to flee.
Barra flicked a second control on him briefly and the flight was halted.
More stones flew, making thudding sounds as they struck, then sailing away, to gain velocity before they curved back, to strike again.
At last, Barra turned from the litter of rock about the formless mass on the ground. He stared around the village, the fury slowly ebbing within him.
A few faces could be seen, peeping from windows and from between trees. He motioned.
"All villagers," he ordered. "Here before me. Now!" He waited impatiently as people reluctantly came from their huts and out of the trees, to approach the clearing.
At last, the villagers were assembled. Barra looked them over, identifying each as he looked at him. Apart from the others, one of the younger herd guards stood close to his woman. Barra looked at him thoughtfully.
This man, he had noted, was obeyed by both herds and herdsmen. He had seen him at work, as he had seen all the villagers, and obviously, the man was capable of quick decisions--as quick, that was, as any pseudoman could be. He pointed.
"This village needs a new headman," he thought peremptorily. "You will take charge of it."
The man looked toward the huddled mass in the center of the litter of rocks, then looked back at his woman. A faint wave of reluctance came to Barra, who stared sternly.
"I said you are the new headman," he thought imperiously. "Take charge." He waved a hand.
"And get this mess cleaned up. I want a neat village from now on."
As the man lowered his head submissively, Barra turned away, rose from the ground, and drifted majestically toward the lake shore. He could check on the progress of the village from his view crystal back at the Residence.
The situation had been taken care of and there was no point in remaining in the depressing atmosphere of the village for too long.
Besides, there was that adventure projection he hadn't finished. Perhaps it would be of interest now.
As the projection faded, Barra looked around the study, then got out of his chair and picked the crystal from its pedestal. He stood, looking at it approvingly for a few seconds, then went over to the cabinet and set it back in its case. For a time, he looked at the rest of the assortment.
Finally, he shook his head. Some of them, he would sell unscanned. The others--well, they could wait.
Yes, he thought, the record crystals had better be left alone for a while. He hadn't finished his inspection of the Estates and the situation at Tibara might not be an isolated case. It would be well to make a really searching inspection. He sighed.
In fact, it might be well to make frequent searching inspections.
Shortly after his accession to the Estates, he had seen to the defense of Kira Barra. He smiled wryly as he thought of the expense he had incurred in securing all those power and control crystals to make up his surrogate installations. But they had been well worth it.
He had been most thorough then, but that had been some time ago. His last full inspection had been almost a year ago. Lately he had been satisfying himself with spot inspections, not really going over the Estates from border to border.
Of course, the spot inspections had been calculated to touch the potential trouble spots and they had been productive of results, but there might still be hidden things he should know about. This would have to be looked into.
He turned and went back to his chair, causing it to swivel around and face the view crystal.
There was that matter of Tibara, as far as that went. Possibly it would be well to count that herd and identify the animals positively.
Maybe the pasturage was getting poor and he would have to instruct the new headman to move to better lands. Those strays had looked rather thin, now that he thought of it.
Maybe some of the other long-necks had strayed from the main herd and he would have to have the headman send out guards to pick them up and bring them in.
He concentrated on the viewer, swinging its scan over to the swamp where he had driven that small herd.
They were still there, wallowing in the shallow water and grazing on the lush vegetation. He smiled. It would be several days before their feeble minds threw off the impression he had forced on them that this was their proper feeding place.
Idly, he examined the beasts, then he leaned forward, studying them more critically. They weren't the heavy, fat producers of meat normal to the Tibara herd. Something was wrong.
These were the same general breed as the Tibara long-necks, to be sure, but either their pasturage had been unbelievably bad or they had been recently run--long and hard. They looked almost like draft beasts.
He frowned. If these were from the Tibara herd, he'd been missing something for quite a while.
Thoughtfully, he caused the scan to shift. As he followed a small river, he noted groups of the huge, greenish gray beasts as they grazed on the tender rock ferns. Here and there, he noted herdsmen and chore boys either watching or urging the great brutes about with their noisemakers, keeping the herd together. He examined the scene critically, counting and evaluating. Finally, he settled back in his chair.
The herd was all here--even to the chicks. And they were in good shape. He smiled wryly.
Those brutes over in the swamp really didn't belong here, then. They must have drifted into the Estates from the null, and been on their way back. The headman-- He shrugged.
"Oh, well," he told himself, "it was time I got a new headman for Tibara, anyway. And the discipline there will be tighter from now on."
He started to shift scan again, then sat up. The view was pulsing.
As he watched, the scan shifted automatically, to pick up the eastern border of the Estates. Stretching across the landscape was a thin line of draft saurians, each with its driver straddling its neck. The train had halted and a heavily armored riding lizard advanced toward the surrogate. Its rider was facing the hidden crystals.
As Barra focused on him, the man nodded.
"That is correct." Barra activated his communicators. "I am Kio Barra, Master of the Estates Kira Barra."
The other smiled. "I am Dar Makun, independent caravan master," he announced. "The null turbulence forced me off route. Lost a few carriers and several days of time. I'd like to request permission to pass over your land. And perhaps you could favor me by selling some long-necks to fill my train again. The brutes I've got left are a little overloaded."
Barra considered. It was not an unusual request, of course. Certain caravans habitually came through, to do business with the Estates. Others were often detoured by the northern null and forced to come through Kira Barra.
Of course, the masters of the caravans were lacklanders, but they had given little trouble in the past. And this one seemed to be a little above the average if anything. In his own way, he was a man of substance, for an owner master was quite different from someone who merely guided another's train for hire.
The northern null was a menace, Barra thought, but it did have this one advantage. The regular caravans, of course, passed with the courtesy of the Estates, doing business on their way. But these others paid and their pasturage and passage fees added to the income of the Estates.
In this case, the sale of a few draft saurians could be quite profitable. He shifted the view crystals to allow two-way vision.
"To be sure." He waved a hand. "Direct your train due west to the second river. Cross that, then follow it southward. I will meet you at the first village you come to and we can kennel your slaves there and put your beasts to pasture under my herdsmen. From there, it is a short distance to the Residence."
"Thank you." Dar Makun nodded again, then turned and waved an arm. Faintly, Barra caught the command to proceed.
He watched for a few minutes and examined the long train as it moved over the rolling land and lumbered into a forest. Then he shifted his scan to continue his inspection of the rest of the lands. It would be several hours before that caravan could reach Tibara and he could scan back and note its progress as he wished.
He relaxed in his chair, watching the panorama as the Estates unrolled before him. Now and then, he halted the steady motion of the scanner, to examine village or herd closely. Then he nodded in satisfaction and continued his inspection.
The Estates, he decided, were in overall good condition. Of course, there were a few corrections he would have to have made in the days to come, but these could be taken care of after the departure of the caravan.
There was that grain field over in the Zadabar section, for example. That headman would have to be straightened out. He smiled grimly. Maybe it would be well to create a vacancy in that village. But that could wait for a few days.
He directed the scan back to the eastern section, tracing the route he had given the caravan master. At last, the long line of saurians came into view and he watched their deceptively awkward gait as the alien crawled through a forest and came out into deep grass.
They were making far better progress than he had thought they would and he would have to get ready if he planned to be in Tibara when they arrived.
He was more careful of his dress than usual. This time, he decided, he'd want quite a few protective devices. One could never be quite sure of these caravan masters.
Of course, so long as they could plainly see the futility of any treacherous move, they were good company and easy people to deal with, but it would be most unwise to give one of them any opening. It just might be he would be the one who was tired of wandering.
He waited patiently as his slave attached his shield brooches and placed his control cap on his head, then he reached into the casket the man held for him and took out a pair of paralysis rings, slipping one on each of his middle fingers. At last, he dismissed the man.
He floated out of the building and let himself down on the cushions in the rear of his speedboat. Critically, he examined the condition of the craft. His yardboys had cleaned everything up, he noted. The canopy was down, leaving the lines of the boat clean and sharp.
He turned his attention to the power crystal and the boat drew out of its shelter, gained speed, and cut through the water to the distant shoreline.
With only part of his mind concentrated on controlling the boat, Barra looked across the lake. It was broad in expanse, dotted with islands, and rich in marine life.
Perhaps he might persuade this Dar Makun to pick up a few loads of dried lake fish, both for his own rations and for sale along the way to his destination. Some of the warehouses, he had noted, were well stocked and he'd have to arrange for some shipments soon.
The boat was nearing Tibara pier. He concentrated on setting it in close to the dock, then made his way to the eastern edge of the village, summoning the headman as he passed through the village center.
His timing had been good. The head of the long train was nearly across the wide grassland. For a moment, the thought crossed his mind that he might go out and meet the caravan master. But he discarded it. It would be somewhat undignified for the master of the estate to serve as a mere caravan guide. He stood, waiting.
He could see Dar Makun sitting between the armor fins of his riding lizard. The reptile was one of the heavily armored breed he had considered raising over in the northwest sector.
They were, he had been told, normally dryland creatures. Such brutes should thrive over in the flats, where the long-necks did poorly. He would have to consider the acquisition of some breeding stock.
The caravan master drew his mount to a halt and drifted toward the trees. Barra examined the man closely as he approached.
He was a tall, slender man, perfectly at ease in his plain trail clothing. A few control jewels glinted from his fingers and he wore a small shield brooch, but there was no heavy equipment. His distorter staff, Barra noted, was a plain rod, tipped by a small jewel. Serviceable, to be sure, but rather short in range. Barra's lip curled a trifle.
This man was not of really great substance, he decided. He probably had his entire wealth tied up in this one caravan and depended on his fees and on the sale of some few goods of his own to meet expenses.
As Dar Makun dropped to the ground near him, Barra nodded.
"I have instructed my headman to attend to your drivers and beasts," he said. "You have personal baggage?"
The other smiled. "Thank you. I'll have one of the boys bring my pack while the drivers pull up and unload. We can make our stack here, if you don't mind."
As Barra nodded in agreement, Dar Makun turned, waving. He drew a deep breath and shouted loudly, the sounds resembling those which Barra had often heard from his slaves. The Master Protector felt a twinge of disgust.
Of course, several of the caravan masters who did regular business at Kira Barra shouted at their slaves at times. But somehow, he had never become used to it. He much preferred to do business with those few who handled their pseudomen as they did their draft beasts--quietly, and with the dignity befitting the true race.
He waited till Dar Makun had finished with his growls and hisses. One of the caravan drivers had swung down and was bringing a fiber cloth bundle toward them. Barra looked at it in annoyance.
"This," he asked himself, "is his baggage?" He recovered his poise and turned to Dar Makun.