Now, however, he had found a whole, new source of income. And a new sense of power had come to him. Caravans were more than welcome at Kira Barra.
He leaned back on his new chair, enjoying the complete ease with which it instantly shaped to fit his body. It was precisely like hovering a short distance above the floor, yet there was no strain of concentration on some control unit. He allowed himself to relax completely and turned his attention to the viewer crystal.
It was new, too. The old one of his father's which he had brought to the new Residence had seemed quite inadequate when the Residence was redone. This new viewer had been designed for professional use. It was a full two feet in diameter and could fill thousands of cubic feet with solid projection.
Animals, trees, pseudomen, all could be brought before him as though physically present in the study. Too, it was simpler than the old one and much more accurate in its control. He sighed.
The Estates had prospered. Of course, he had been cautious. Many caravans had come to Kira Barra and left again, their masters highly pleased with the fair dealings of the Estates. Several had returned, time and time again.
There had been others who had come through during times when the null was in turbulence and it was from these that he had taken his harvest. He had been particular in his choices, making careful evaluation before taking any action.
By this time, his operation was faultless--a smooth routine which admitted of no error. He smiled as he remembered his fumbling efforts with the first caravan and his halting improvements when he had dealt with the next. What were those fellows' names?
He shrugged. He could remember that first fellow practically begging him to take action and he could remember his own frightened evaluation of the situation after the first step. He had gone over a whole, long line of alternative choices, rejecting them one by one until the inevitable, ideal method of operation had come out. He smiled.
When he had finally settled on his general method, it had been elegantly simple. But it had been very nearly perfect. Basically, he was still using the same plan.
Now, of course, it was smoother and even more simplified. There were two general routines involved.
Most caravan masters were treated with the greatest of consideration. They were allowed to pass through the Estates with only nominal fees and invited to avail themselves of the courtesy of the Estates at any time in the future. If trades with the Estates were involved, the fees were waived, of course. And many of them had returned, bringing goods and information, as well as taking away the produce of the Estates.
Then, there were those caravans which came during turbulences in the null and which seemed worthwhile to the now practiced eyes of Kio Barra. These were the ones ripe for harvest. Their owners had been offered the courtesy of the Estates--and more.
They had been taken for sightseeing tours--perhaps of the lake--perhaps to see valuable carrier stock which could be had at bargain rates.
Then, in complete privacy, a distorter beam had made neat disposition of them.
Their goods had been distributed through the various warehouses and later disposed of through the safe channels which Barra had carefully cultivated. Their slaves, of course, had been eliminated.
Barra regretted this waste of valuable property, but this way there could be no leak of information and no inquiry could be successful.
There had been an inquiry at one time, but that had been in the earlier days.
The inquirer had gone away with no suspicion in his mind. He had examined the null from the hills and had agreed with Kio Barra that it was indeed a menace. He had listened sympathetically to Barra's rueful comments about slaves and stock which had drifted into the null, never to be heard from again.
Barra activated the view crystal. It was time for another inspection of the Estates.
The projection formed and Barra was suddenly in a wood, looking across a wide field. Grain waved in the breeze and here and there, the silhouettes of both long-neck and fin-back could be seen, half hidden by grass and trees.
The scanner progressed, crossing the field and continuing to another forest, operating on the route impressed on it. Barra relaxed as he watched. As the scan progressed through field, swamp and forest, he nodded in satisfaction. The Estates were in far better shape than ever before.
Suddenly, he halted the scan, looking critically at the scene. He was in the central clearing of Tibara. And the village didn't match with the standards he wanted.
He looked critically at the huts. They were becoming run-down. It had been too long since the roof thatches had been replaced. Uprights were bending a little here, a trifle out of plumb there.
There were broken stones again in the well curb and the pile of stone brought for repair wasn't neatly stacked. He frowned.
This was not the first time he'd had to take a firm hand in Tibara. Of course, he had replaced headmen in other villages--more than once in some cases. But Tibara was working on its third headman. There was something really wrong in that village.
To be sure, Tibara was the village where most caravan slaves were quartered. A lodge had been built there for that purpose and it was in frequent use. Naturally, it was maintained by the villagers. But that was even less excuse for shoddiness. This should be the neatest, best kept village in all Kira Barra. It wasn't.
The frown deepened. This time, Tibara was going to be cleaned up, and he'd keep his attention on it. The village would stay clean if the villagers had to spend every second of their time on it when they weren't taking care of their herds, their boats, and their guest lodge.
And there'd be no slacking in those other areas, either.
He looked around the clearing. There were, he was forced to admit, no idlers about at the moment. The only people he could see were women and children. And the women were busily occupied.
Again, he studied the scene. The men would be coming in from their fields and from the lake in another hour. He would examine a few other villages, then return his attention to Tibara.
Wearily, Retonga, headman of Tibara, pulled himself to a sitting position. He looked over to the other side of the room. Mir was already on her feet. She smiled at him uncertainly.
"It's morning," she said. "Rest day, at last."
"Yes." Retonga closed his eyes for an instant. It had been bad for her, too, he knew. He'd probably been pretty hard to live with these past few days. He sighed.
"Rest day," he mused. "But it means nothing. There's still work. There's always work these days." He got to his feet.
"I wish I were just a herd boy--in some other village." He went to the door and looked out.
Someone had disturbed the pile of building stones. Children had been playing in the clearing the night before and the earth was scuffed up. Bits of wood and cloth lay scattered here and there.
He looked at the houses. Folshan's roof was sagging a trifle, he noticed. And there were a couple of dolls lying outside his door. He shook his head and went out into the clearing.
Old Tamiso was squatting by the well. Retonga walked over to him.
"Your stone pile," he said. "A few of the stones are scattered."
The old man looked over, then shrugged.
"I just picked this one out," he explained. "When I get it laid, I'll have to get another. I'll straighten the pile when I finish here."
Retonga smiled wearily. "And if the master sees your pile now?"
Tamiso pushed himself to his feet, rubbing his back thoughtfully.
"Yes," he said. "The master can give great pain, and it seems he is always watching these days." He walked over to the stones.
For a moment, Retonga watched as he rearranged his pile, then he turned, tilting his head back.
"Awaken," he shouted. "For the sun looks down and shall he find us asleep?"
A head poked out of a door.
"It's a rest day. We'll be at it soon enough, but what's the hurry?"
Retonga shook his head. "I know it's rest day. You know it's rest day. But there's one who forgets these things. Remember the other evening?"
Folshan winced and Retonga pointed.
"Better get those dolls picked up. And there's that roof of yours. I'll give you a hand with it."
Folshan came out of his hut, then looked back.
"No," he said slowly. "You're headman. Remember how that happened? Let the master catch you helping with the work and we'll need yet another headman." He shook his head.
"This time, it could be me." He bent over to pick up the toys his daughter had left.
"Kina," he called, "tell Chama to keep her toys picked up, or she might be needing a new father." He turned again.
"I'll get Kesonta to help with that roof. It'll be straight in an hour or so."
Retonga looked after him for a moment, then caught the eyes of a couple of the women. He made a sweeping motion toward the earth of the clearing, then walked back to his own door.
He turned, inspecting each detail of the village.
"Let's see. Is there anything else for the master to find wrong?" Again, he examined each house closely.
At last, he turned away, walking toward a path.
"He'll probably be looking at the waterfront, too," he told himself, "and at the lodge."
He walked slowly along the path, checking the forest floor as he went. As he got to the beach, he looked toward the pier, then winced.
A few hundred yards out in the lake, a high wedge of water was sweeping toward him. At the apex of the vee, he could see the shape of a boat, its bow riding high over the water.
"Oh, no," he groaned to himself. "Trouble again!" He waited.
As the wave splashed to the pier, he dashed forward to secure the boat. Kio Barra merely glanced at him. Briefly, he caught the impression of a wide field. A line of great beasts were crossing it, their long necks bobbing as they walked. He nodded in understanding.
A caravan was coming in. That would be trouble, of course, but of minor nature. He turned, to follow the glittering figure as it floated toward the path and on, into the village.
As the caravan came to a stop, Naran's beast bent its knees and crouched. He swung himself to the ground.
He was getting the hang of this, he told himself. At first, he had been forced to fight an almost uncontrollable compulsion to float down normally, but now it seemed quite sensible to grab the heavy fiber strands and swing forward till his feet were solidly on the ground. He spun about.
"All right," he shouted. "Take your reins. Form your unloading circles on me. We'll be here for a day or two."
He watched as the slings were lifted from the brutes' backs, then turned his attention to the man who was greeting Dar Girdek.
So this was the Lord of the Mountain Lake. He shook his head. The fellow glittered almost from head to foot. Naran examined the jewelry appraisingly. He wore a fourth-order cap. They didn't make them any heavier than that one. And if there was a device that had been left out, he had never heard of it.
In addition, he could identify three heavy-duty shields, a power levitator, a handful of destructor and paralysis rings, and a projector medallion capable of forming several hundred cubic feet of solid, detailed illusion. He shook his head.
This man must have spent the entire income of his estate for several years in assembling this array. There was enough there to outfit a battle group of competent psionics.
"If this guy needs all that stuff just to get by, he's as near to psionic zero as you can get," Naran told himself. "Either that, or he's loaded with a power compulsion that's never been equalled." He frowned.
"Or both," he added thoughtfully.
He looked again at the blaze of jewelry.
Faintly, he could sense the sour feel of fear. It acted as a carrier for a mixture of hatred, envy, and contemptuous hauteur. Naran whistled softly. There was more, too. He wished he dared try a probe, but with all that arsenal of psionic crystalware, it would be unwise.
"Hit those shields of his and I'd bounce off with a noise like a million bells," he thought. He turned away.
He'd have to keep his own mind fully hooded around here. He looked back again, glancing at the distorter rod Barra carried. His eyes widened a little.
"Given adequate drive, that thing would stop a Fifth Planet battleship." He grinned.
"Arm a couple of hundred men with those things and they could go out and take the Fifth apart, bit by bit. Then we wouldn't have to worry about those people and their mechanical gadgets."
He dragged his attention back to the business at hand, tapping in on Dar Girdek's thoughts.
"... And we can tour the Estates later today," Barra was saying. "I may be able to show you some worthwhile goods, as well as a few good draft beasts to carry them."
Naran risked a light probe, taking advantage of Barra's diverted attention.
He had been right, he thought. It was the "or both." He shook his head. The guy was almost pathetic. Obviously, he wanted to be the greatest man on the planet. And equally obviously, without his amplifier jewels, he'd be little stronger psionically than one of Dar Girdek's drivers.
As Dar Girdek followed his host toward the village, Naran turned his attention back to his drivers. He would have to make camp and then get together with that village headman. There'd be plenty of arrangements they would have to make.
He was surprised at the arrangements Retonga had already made. There wasn't much question about it, the entertainment of caravans was familiar business with this headman. He knew all the problems--and their answers.
Of course, Dar Girdek had told him about the hospitality of Kira Barra, but this had to be seen to be believed. He spent his first really restful night in weeks.
The next morning, he walked slowly along the path to the drivers' lodge, paying little attention to his surroundings. Somehow, in spite of the reception given the caravan, he was uneasy.
He recalled his conversation with Retonga the night before.
The man had asked questions about the conditions of the trail. He had been curious about the treatment of the drivers by the master of the train. Then he had shaken his head, looking out over his village.
"It is far different here. This is an estate of death and terror, and our master is the very lord of these. I was a child when his father died, but I think things were different then." He had looked searchingly at Naran.
"I've never mentioned these things before," he went on. "But there's something--" He had looked down at the ground, then up again.
"Our master became Kio through the death of his brother," he went on, "and it was through the deaths of other headmen that I was placed in charge of this village." He had glanced back into the door of his hut.
"I had no part in causing those deaths. The life of a headman here in Tibara is short and none but a fool would fight for this position of mine. It is not a good one. The master's demands are heavy and his hand is even heavier."
This didn't match with the reputation of Kio Barra as a considerate host--a fair man to do business with. It made him wonder.