"He can put it in the boat," he told the man. "I'll have one of my people pick it up for you when we get to the island. Now, if you'll follow me, the pier is over this way." He turned and floated toward the dock.
As they pulled out into the lake, Dar Makun settled himself in the cushions.
"I never realized what a big lake this is," he remarked. "I've always made the northern swing through this part of the continent. Oh, I've seen the lake region from the hills, of course, but--" He looked at the water thoughtfully.
"You have quite a lot of fresh-water fish in there?"
Barra nodded. "We get a harvest."
Dar Makun closed his eyes, then opened them again. "I might deal with you for some of those," he commented. "People out west seem to like fresh-water stuff." He looked at Barra closely.
"I'll have to open my cargo for you," he went on. "Might be a few items you'd be interested in."
Barra nodded. "It's possible," he said. "I always need something around the place." He speeded the boat a little.
The boat came to the dock and Barra guided his guest into the Residence and on into the study, where he activated the view crystal.
"There's still light enough for you to get a look at some of the herds," he told Dar Makun. "I believe you said you might need some more draft beasts."
Makun watched as the hills of Kira Barra spread out in the air before him.
"It's a good way to locate the herds and make a few rough notes," he admitted. "Of course, I'll have to get close to the brutes in order to really choose, though."
"Fact. You see, these big lizards aren't all alike. Some of 'em are really good. Some of 'em just don't handle. A few of 'em just lie down when you drop the first sling on 'em." Makun nodded toward the projection.
"That big fellow over there, for instance," he went on. "Of course, he might slim down and make a good carrier. But usually, if they look like a big pile of meat, that's all they're good for. A lot of 'em can't even stand the weight of a man on their necks. Breaks 'em right down."
"A good carrier can handle a dozen tons without too much trouble, but some of these things have it tough to handle their own weight on dry land and you have to look 'em over pretty closely to be sure which is which. Can't really judge by a projection."
Barra looked at the man with slightly increased respect. At least, he knew something about his business. He shifted the viewer to the swamp.
Of course, he thought, there were draft animals over in the western sector. But this small herd was convenient.
"Well," he said, "I've got this little herd over here. They got away some time ago and lost a lot of weight before I rounded them up again."
Makun examined the projection with increased interest.
"Yeah," he remarked. "I'd like to get out there in the morning and look those fellows over. I just might get the five I need right out there. Might even pick up a spare or two."
The swamp was a backwater of the lake, accessible by a narrow channel. Barra slowed the boat, easing it along through the still water. Here, the channel was clear, he knew, and it would soon widen. But there were some gravel bars a little farther along that could be troublesome if one were careless. And his attention was divided. He glanced at his companion.
Makun leaned against the cushions, looking at the thick foliage far overhead. Then he turned his attention to the banks of the channel. A long, greenish shape was sliding out of the water. He pointed.
"Have many of those around here?"
"Those vermin?" Barra looked at the amphibian. "Not too many, but I could do with less of them."
He picked up his distorter from the rack beside him and pointed it ahead of the boat. The sapphire glowed.
There was a sudden, violent thrashing in the foliage on the bank. The slender creature reared into the air, tooth-studded jaws gaping wide.
It rose above the foliage, emitting a hissing bellow. Then it curled into a ball and hung suspended in the air for an instant before it dropped back into the shrubbery with a wet plop.
Barra put the jewel-tipped rod back in its hanger.
"I don't like those nuisances," he explained. "They can kill a slave if he gets careless. And they annoy the stock." He tilted his head forward.
"There's the herd," he went on, "at the other end of this open water. I'll run up close and you can look them over if you wish."
Makun looked around, then shrugged. "Not necessary. I'll go ahead from here. Won't take me too long."
He lifted himself into the air and darted toward one of the huge saurians. Barra watched as he slowed and drifted close to the brute's head, then hovered.
A faint impression of satisfaction radiated from his mind as he drifted along the length of the creature. He went to another, then to another.
At last, he returned to the boat.
"Funny thing," he commented. "A couple of my own carriers seem to have wandered clear through that null and mixed with your herd." He smiled.
"Stroke of luck. Too bad the rest didn't manage to stay with 'em, but you can't have everything. I'll pay you trespass fees on those two, of course, then I'd like to bargain with you for about four more to go with 'em. Got them all picked out and I can cut 'em out and drive them over to the train soon's we settle the arrangements."
"Now, wait a minute," he protested. "Of course, I'll bargain with you for any or all of this herd. But I'm in the breeding and raising business, remember. I certainly can't give away a couple of perfectly good beasts on someone's simple say-so. I'd like a little proof that those two belong to your train before I just hand them over."
"Well, now, if it comes to that, I could prove ownership. Legally, too. After all, I've worked those critters quite a while and any competent psionic could--" Makun looked at Barra thoughtfully.
"You know, I'm not just sure I like having my word questioned this way. I'm not sure I like this whole rig-out. Seems to me there's a little explaining in order about now--and kind of an apology, too. Then maybe we can go ahead and talk business."
"I don't see any need for me to explain anything. And I certainly don't intend to make a apology of any kind. Not to you. I merely made a reasonable request. After all, these brutes are on my land and in my herd. I can find no mark of identification on them, of any kind." Barra shrugged.
"As a matter of fact, I don't even know yet which two you are trying to claim. All I ask is indication of which ones you say are yours and some reasonable proof that they actually came from your train. Certainly, a mere claim of recognition is ... well, you'll have to admit, it's a little thin."
Makun looked at him angrily.
"Now, you pay attention to me. And pay attention good. I'm not stupid and I'm not blind. I can see all those jewels you're loaded down with and I know why you're wearing them. They tell me a lot about you, you can be sure of that. Don't think I haven't noticed that patronizing air of yours, and don't think I've liked it. I haven't and I don't.
"I know you're scared. I know you're worried to death for fear I'm going to pull something on you. I spotted that the first time I talked to you." He paused.
"Oh, I've been trying to ignore it and be decent, but I've had about enough. I've been in this caravan business for a long time. I've dealt square and I'm used to square dealing. Now, you've been putting out a lot of side thoughts about thievery and I don't appreciate being treated like some sneak thief. I'm not about to get used to the idea, either.
"Now, you'd better get the air cleared around here and then we can talk business. Otherwise, there's going to be a lot of trouble."
Barra felt a surge of fury rising above his fear. This lacklander clown actually dared to try to establish domination over a member of the ruling class? He breathed deeply.
"I don't have--"
"All right, listen to me, you termite. You've come way too far out of your hole. Now, you just better crawl back in there fast, before I turn on the lights and burn your hide off."
The surge of mental power blazing at Barra was almost a physical force. He cringed away from it, his face wrinkling in an agony of fright. Makun looked at him contemptuously.
"All right. Now, I'll tell you--"
Smoothly, Barra's hand went to the haft of his distorter. The jewel seemed to rise of its own accord as it blazed coldly.
For an infinitesimal time, Makun's face reflected horrified comprehension before it melted into shapelessness.
Barra put the distorter back in its rack, looking disgustedly at the mess on the cushions. There was nothing for it, he thought. He'd have to destroy those, too. Cleaning was out of the question. He shook his head.
Like all these strong types, this Makun had neglected a simple principle. With fear as his constant companion, Barra had been forced to learn to live with it.
Extreme mental pressure was merely another form of fright. It could paralyze a braver soul--and often did. It merely made Barra miserably uncomfortable without disturbing his control. And the hatred that was always in him was unimpaired--even amplified by the pounding terror.
The more thoroughly Barra was frightened, the more effectively he attacked.
He leaned back in his seat, letting the drumming of his heart subside. Eventually, he would recover enough to guide the boat out of the swamp and back to the Residence.
Tomorrow? Well, he would have to inventory the freight the man had carried. He would have to check those draft beasts. Perhaps he could discern the hidden identification Makun had mentioned.
And he would have to make disposition of some twenty slaves. He summoned up a smile.
Now that he thought of it, this affair could be turned to profit. After all, Dar Makun had been diverted from his route and he had lost some of his train. And caravans had been known to disappear in the vicinity of turbulent nulls.
All he had to do was deny knowledge of the fate of Dar Makun's caravan if there were any inquiry. Oh, certainly, he could tell any inquirer, Dar Makun had arrived. He had stayed overnight and then taken his departure, saying something about cutting around the null and back to his normal, northern swing.
He was feeling better now. He turned his attention to the control crystal and the boat swung about, to make its way back toward the lake.
It took longer than he had thought it would. It was evening of the day after the death of Dar Makun when Barra turned in his seat and raised his hand, then waved it in a wide circle.
A quickly directed thought halted his mount and he looked about once more, at the thick forest.
This clearing was as close to the village of Celdalo as he wanted to come. The villagers never came into this heavy screen of trees, but beyond the forest, there might be some who would watch and wonder. He smiled grimly.
Of course, it didn't make too much difference what slaves might think--if they could think at all, but there was no reason to leave unnecessary traces of the day's work.
He swung about in his cushions and looked back at the line of draft beasts. They were swinging out of line now, to form a semicircle, facing the trees ahead.
He impressed an order on his mount to stand, then lifted himself out of the cushioned seat between the armor fins. For a few seconds, he hovered, looking down at the beast he had been riding.
Yes, he thought, he would do well to raise a few of these creatures. They were tractable and comfortable to ride. A good many caravan masters might be persuaded to get rid of their less comfortable mounts in exchange for one of these, once they had tried a day's march.
One by one, the big saurians came to the forest edge and entered the clearing, then crouched, to let their drivers swing to the ground. Barra looked at the lead driver.
"Make your cargo stack over here," he ordered, "at this side of the clearing. You will wait here for your master."
The man looked confused. A vague, questioning thought came from him. It wasn't really a coherent thought, but just an impression of doubt--uncertainty. Barra frowned impatiently.
It had been much the same when he had ordered this man to load up back at Tibara. Perhaps it was no wonder Dar Makun had been forced to learn vocalization if this was the best slave he could find to develop into his headman.
Carefully, he formed a projection. It showed the carriers gathering in their unloading circles. He made one of the projections turn and drop its head over another's back. The wide mouth opened and stubby, peg teeth gripped the handling loop of a cargo sling. Then the long-neck swiveled back, to repeat the performance.
Barra watched as the man before him nodded in obedient understanding. He shot out a sharp, peremptory order.
"Do it, then! Do it as shown."
The man made noises, then turned, shouting at the other drivers.
Barra watched as the stack of cargo grew. At last, the final sling was positioned and a heavy cloth cover was dropped over the great piles. Barra looked at the headman.
"Bring your drivers close," he ordered. "I have something for them to see."
Again, there was the moment of confusion, but this time the man had gathered the main sense of the command. He turned again, shouting.
The drivers looked at each other questioningly, then moved slowly forward, to form a tight group before Barra, who watched until they were in satisfactory position.
He concentrated on the group for a few seconds, starting the formation of a projection to his left.
As the air glowed and started to show form, the eyes of the drivers swung toward it. Barra smiled tightly and swung his distorter up. The crystal flamed as he swept it across the group of slaves.
He kept the power on, sweeping the distorter back and forth until all that remained was a large pool of slime which thinned, then oozed into the humus. At last, he tucked the rod back under his arm and examined the scene.
There was the pile of goods. There were the carrier beasts. But no man or pseudoman remained of the caravan. His smile broadened.
Once he had sorted this cargo and moved it to the Residence and to various warehouses about the Estates, all traces of Dar Makun and his train would be gone.
To be sure, a few villages would find that their herds had increased, but this was nothing to worry about. He sighed.
It had been a hard day and it would be a hard night's work. He would have to forget his dignity for the time and do real labor. But this was necessity. And there was plenty of profit in it as well.
So far as the rest of the world might know, Dar Makun and his caravan had left Kira Barra to cut back to the northern swing. And the turbulent null had swallowed them without trace.
He turned away. He would have to bring work boats in to the nearby beach. Their surrogates were already attuned and ready, and one of them had been equipped with an auxiliary power crystal. He would need that.
As the boats arrived at village piers, the various headmen would merely follow instructions as given by the boat's surrogates. He would be done with this operation in a few hours.
The days went on, became weeks, then hands of weeks. Little by little, Barra changed his attitude toward caravan masters. Once, he had been cautious about dealing with them, allowing only a chosen few to do business within his borders.