Still Kyral did not move, but held the three fingers out for a full minute. Finally he dropped them and bent to pick up the case instruments. Again the little swirl in the air, and the instruments vanished. In their place lay three of the blue gems. My mouth twitched in the first amusement I had felt since we entered this uncanny place. Evidently bargaining with the Silent Ones was not a great deal different than bargaining with anyone anywhere. Nevertheless, under the eyes of those shrouded but horrible forms--if they had eyes, which I doubted--I had no impulse to protest their offered prices.
I gathered up the rejected lenses, repacked them neatly, and helped Kyral recrate the tools and instruments the Silent Ones had not wanted. I noticed that in addition to the microscope lenses and surgical instruments, they had taken all the fine wire. I couldn't imagine, and didn't particularly want to imagine, what they intended to do with it.
On our way back through the streets, unshepherded this time, Kyral's tongue was loosened as if with a great release from tension. "They're psychokinetics," he told me. "Quite a few of the nonhuman races are. I guess they have to be, having no eyes and no hands. But sometimes I wonder if we of the Dry-towns ought to deal with them at all."
"What do you mean?" I asked, not really listening. I was thinking mostly about the way the small objects had melted away and reappeared. The sight had stirred some uncomfortable memory, a vague sense of danger. It was not tangible enough for me to know why I feared it, but just a subliminal uneasiness that kept prodding at me, like a tooth that isn't quite aching yet.
Kyral said, "We of Shainsa live between fire and flood. Terra on the one hand, and on the other maybe something worse, who knows? We know so little about the Silent Ones, and those like them. Who knows, maybe we're giving them the weapons to destroy us--" He broke off, with a gasp, and stood staring down one of the streets.
It lay open and bare between two rows of round houses, and Kyral was staring fixedly at a doorway which had opened there. I followed his paralyzed gaze, and saw the girl.
Hair like spun black glass fell in hard waves around her shoulders, and the red eyes smiled with alien malice, alien mischief, beneath the dark crown of little stars. And the Toad God sprawled in hideous embroideries across the white folds of her breast.
Kyral gulped hoarsely. His hand flew up as he clutched the charms strung about his neck. I imitated the gesture mechanically, watching Kyral, wondering if he would turn and run again. But he stood frozen for a minute. Then the spell broke and he took one step toward the girl, arms outstretched.
"Miellyn!" he cried, and there was heartbreak in his voice. And again, the cry making ringing echoes in the strange street: "Miellyn! Miellyn!"
This time it was the girl who whirled and fled. Her white robes fluttered and I saw the twinkle of her flying feet as she vanished into a space between the houses and was gone.
Kyral took one blind step down the street, then another. But before he could burst into a run I had him by the arm, dragging him back to sanity.
"Man, you've gone mad! Chase, in a nonhuman town?"
He struggled for a minute, then, with a harsh sigh, he said, "It's all right, I won't--" and shook loose from my arm.
He did not speak again until we reached the gates of Canarsa and they closed, silently and untouched, behind us. I had forgotten the place already. I had space only to think of the girl, whose face I had not forgotten since the moment when she saved me and disappeared. Now she had appeared again to Kyral. What did it all mean?
I asked, as we walked toward the camp, "Do you know that girl?" But I knew the question was futile. Kyral's face was closed, conceding nothing, and his friendliness had vanished completely.
He said, "Now I know you. You saved me from the catmen, and again in Canarsa, so my hands are bound from harming you. But it is evil to have dealings with those who have been touched by the Toad God." He spat noisily on the ground, looked at me with loathing, and said, "We will reach Shainsa in three days. Stay away from me."
Shainsa, first in the chain of Dry-towns that lie in the bed of a long-dried ocean, is set at the center of a great alkali plain; a dusty, parched city bleached by a million years of sun. The houses are high, spreading buildings with many rooms and wide windows. The poorer sort were made of sun-dried brick, the more imposing being cut from the bleached salt stone of the cliffs that rise behind the city.
News travels fast in the Dry-towns. If Rakhal were in the city, he'd soon know that I was here, and guess who I was or why I'd come. I might disguise myself so that my own sister, or the mother who bore me, would not know me. But I had no illusions about my ability to disguise myself from Rakhal. He had created the disguise that was me.
When the second sun set, red and burning, behind the salt cliffs, I knew he was not in Shainsa, but I stayed on, waiting for something to happen. At night I slept in a cubbyhole behind a wineshop, paying an inordinate price for that very dubious privilege. And every day in the sleepy silence of the blood-red noon I paced the public square of Shainsa.
This went on for four days. No one took the slightest notice of another nameless man in a shabby shirtcloak, without name or identity or known business. No one appeared to see me except the dusty children, with pale fleecy hair, who played their patient games on the windswept curbing of the square. They surveyed my scarred face with neither curiosity or fear, and it occurred to me that Rindy might be such another as these.
If I had still been thinking like an Earthman, I might have tried to question one of the children, or win their confidence. But I had a deeper game in hand.
On the fifth day I was so much a fixture that my pacing went unnoticed even by the children. On the gray moss of the square, a few dried-looking old men, their faces as faded as their shirtcloaks and bearing the knife scars of a hundred forgotten fights, drowsed on the stone benches. And along the flagged walk at the edge of the square, as suddenly as an autumn storm in the salt flats, a woman came walking.
She was tall, with a proud swinging walk, and a metallic clashing kept rhythm to her swift steps. Her arms were fettered, each wrist bound with a jeweled bracelet and the bracelets linked together by a long, silver-gilt chain passed through a silken loop at her waist. From the loop swung a tiny golden padlock, but in the lock stood an even tinier key, signifying that she was a higher caste than her husband or consort, that her fettering was by choice and not command.
She stopped directly before me and raised her arm in formal greeting like a man. The chain made a tinkling sound in the hushed square as her other hand was pulled up tight against the silken loop at her waist. She stood surveying me for some moments, and finally I raised my head and returned her gaze. I don't know why I had expected her to have hair like spun black glass and eyes that burned with a red reflection of the burning star.
This woman's eyes were darker than the poison-berries of the salt cliffs, and her mouth was a cut berry that looked just as dangerous. She was young, the slimness of her shoulders and the narrow steel-chained wrists told me how very young she was, but her face had seen weather and storms, and her dark eyes had weathered worse psychic storms than that. She did not flinch at the sight of my scars, and met my gaze without dropping her eyes.
"You are a stranger. What is your business in Shainsa?"
I met the direct question with the insolence it demanded, hardly moving my lips. "I have come to buy women for the brothels of Ardcarran. Perhaps when washed you might be suitable. Who could arrange for your sale?"
She took the rebuke impassively, though the bitter crimson of her mouth twitched a little in mischief or rage. But she made no sign. The battle was joined between us, and I knew already that it would be fought to the end.
From somewhere in her draperies, something fell to the ground with a little tinkle. But I knew that trick too and I did not move. Finally she went away without bending to retrieve it and when I looked around I saw that all the fleece-haired children had stolen away, leaving their playthings lying on the curbing. But one or two of the gaffers on the stone benches, who were old enough to show curiosity without losing face, were watching me with impassive eyes.
I could have asked the woman's name then, but I held back, knowing it could only lessen the prestige I had gained from the encounter. I glanced down, without seeming to do so, at the tiny mirror which had fallen from the recesses of the fur robe. Her name might have been inscribed on the reverse.
But I left it lying there to be picked up by the children when they returned, and went back to the wineshop. I had accomplished my first objective; if you can't be inconspicuous, be so damned conspicuous that nobody can miss you. And that in itself is a fair concealment. How many people can accurately describe a street riot?
I was finishing off a bad meal with a stone bottle of worse wine when the chak came in, disregarding the proprietor, and made straight for me. He was furred immaculately white. His velvet muzzle was contracted as if the very smells might soil it, and he kept a dainty paw outstretched to ward off accidental contact with greasy counters or tables or tapestries. His fur was scented, and his throat circled with a collar of embroidered silk. This pampered minion surveyed me with the innocent malice of an uninvolved nonhuman for merely human intrigues.
"You are wanted in the Great House of Shanitha, thcarred man." He spoke the Shainsa dialect with an affected lisp. "Will it pleathe you, come wis' me?"
I came, with no more than polite protest, but was startled. I had not expected the encounter to reach the Great House so soon. Shainsa's Great House had changed hands four times since I had last been in Shainsa. I wasn't overly anxious to appear there.
The white chak, as out of place in the rough Dry-town as a jewel in the streets or a raindrop in the desert, led me along a winding boulevard to an outlying district. He made no attempt to engage me in conversation, and indeed I got the distinct impression that this cockscomb of a nonhuman considered me well beneath his notice. He seemed much more aware of the blowing dust in the street, which ruffled and smudged his carefully combed fur.
The Great House was carved from blocks of rough pink basalt, the entry guarded by two great caryatids enwrapped in chains of carved metal, set somehow into the surface of the basalt. The gilt had long ago worn away from the chains so that it alternately gleamed gold or smudged base metal. The caryatids were patient and blind, their jewel-eyes long vanished under a hotter sun than today's.
The entrance hall was enormous. A Terran starship could have stood upright inside it, was my first impression, but I dismissed that thought quickly; any Terran thought was apt to betray me. But the main hall was built on a scale even more huge, and it was even colder than the legendary hell of the chaks. It was far too big for the people in it.
There was a little solar heater in the ceiling, but it didn't help much. A dim glow came from a metal brazier but that didn't help much either. The chak melted into the shadows, and I went down the steps into the hall by myself, feeling carefully for each step with my feet and trying not to seem to be doing so. My comparative night-blindness is the only significant way in which I really differ from a native Wolfan.
There were three men, two women and a child in the room. They were all Dry-towners and had an obscure family likeness, and they all wore rich garments of fur dyed in many colors. One of the men, old and stooped and withered, was doing something to the brazier. A slim boy of fourteen was sitting cross-legged on a pile of cushions in the corner. There was something wrong with his legs.
A girl of ten in a too-short smock that showed long spider-thin legs above her low leather boots was playing with some sort of shimmery crystals, spilling them out into patterns and scooping them up again from the uneven stones of the floor. One of the women was a fat, creased slattern, whose jewels and dyed furs did not disguise her greasy slovenliness.
Her hands were unchained, and she was biting into a fruit which dripped red juice down the rich blue fur of her robe. The old man gave her a look like murder as I came in, and she straightened slightly but did not discard the fruit. The whole room had a curious look of austere, dignified poverty, to which the fat woman was the only discordant note.
But it was the remaining man and woman who drew my attention, so that I noticed the others only peripherally, in their outermost orbit. One was Kyral, standing at the foot of the dais and glowering at me.
The other was the dark-eyed woman I had rebuked today in the public square.
Kyral said, "So it's you." And his voice held nothing. Not rebuke, not friendliness or a lack of it, not even hatred.
There was only one way to meet it. I faced the girl--she was sitting on a thronelike chair next to the fat woman, and looked like a doe next to a pig--and said boldly, "I assume this summons to mean that you informed your kinsmen of my offer."
She flushed, and that was triumph enough. I held back the triumph, however, wary of overconfidence. The gaffer laughed the high cackle of age, and Kyral broke in with a sharp, angry monosyllable by which I knew that my remark had indeed been repeated, and had lost nothing in the telling. But only the line of his jaw betrayed the anger as he said calmly, "Be quiet, Dallisa. Where did you pick this up?"
I said boldly, "The Great House has changed rulers since last I smelled the salt cliffs. Newcomers do not know my name and theirs is unknown to me."
The old gaffer said thinly to Kyral, "Our name has lost kihar. One daughter is lured away by the Toymaker and another babbles with strangers in the square, and a homeless no-good of the streets does not know our name."
My eyes, growing accustomed to the dark blaze of the brazier, saw that Kyral was biting his lip and scowling. Then he gestured to a table where an array of glassware was set, and at the gesture, the white chak came on noiseless feet and poured wine.
"If you have no blood-feud with my family, will you drink with me?"
"I will," I said, relaxing. Even if he had associated the trader with the scarred Earthman of the spaceport, he seemed to have decided to drop the matter. He seemed startled, but he waited until I had lifted the glass and taken a sip. Then, with a movement like lightning, he leaped from the dais and struck the glass from my lips.
I staggered back, wiping my cut mouth, in a split-second juggling possibilities. The insult was terrible and deadly. I could do nothing now but fight. Men had been murdered in Shainsa for far less. I had come to settle one feud, not involve myself in another, but even while these lightning thoughts flickered in my mind, I had whipped out my skean and I was surprised at the shrillness of my own voice.
"You contrive offense beneath your own roof--"
"Spy and renegade!" Kyral thundered. He did not touch his skean. From the table he caught a long four-thonged whip, making it whistle through the air. The long-legged child scuttled backward. I stepped back one pace, trying to conceal my desperate puzzlement. I could not guess what had prompted Kyral's attack, but whatever it was, I must have made some bad mistake and could count myself lucky to get out of there alive.
Kyral's voice perceptibly trembled with rage. "You dare to come into my own home after I have tracked you to the Kharsa and back, blind fool that I was! But now you shall pay."
The whip sang through the air, hissing past my shoulders. I dodged to one side, retreating step by step as Kyral swung the powerful thongs. It cracked again, and a pain like the burning of red-hot irons seared my upper arm. My skean rattled down from numb fingers.
The whip whacked the floor.
"Pick up your skean," said Kyral. "Pick it up if you dare." He poised the lash again.
The fat woman screamed.
I stood rigid, gauging my chances of disarming him with a sudden leap. Suddenly the girl Dallisa leaped from her seat with a harsh musical chiming of chains.
"Kyral, no! No, Kyral!"
He moved slightly, but did not take his eyes from me. "Get back, Dallisa."
"No! Wait!" She ran to him and caught his whip-arm, dragging it down, and spoke to him hurriedly and urgently. Kyral's face changed as she spoke; he drew a long breath and threw the whip down beside my skean on the floor.
"Answer straight, on your life. What are you doing in Shainsa?"
I could hardly take it in that for the moment I was reprieved from sudden death, from being beaten into bloody death there at Kyral's feet. The girl went back to her thronelike chair. Now I must either tell the truth or a convincing lie, and I was lost in a game where I didn't know the rules. The explanation I thought might get me out alive might be the very one which would bring down instant and painful death. Suddenly, with a poignancy that was almost pain, I wished Rakhal were standing here at my side.
But I had to bluff it out alone.
If they had recognized me for Race Cargill, the Terran spy who had often been in Shainsa, they might release me--it was possible, I supposed, that they were Terran sympathizers. On the other hand, Kyral's shouts of "Spy, renegade!" seemed to suggest the opposite.
I stood trying to ignore the searing pain in my lashed arm, but I knew that blood was running hot down my shoulder. Finally I said, "I came to settle blood-feud."
Kyral's lips thinned in what might have been meant for a smile. "You shall, assuredly. But with whom, remains to be seen."
Knowing I had nothing more to lose, I said, "With a renegade called Rakhal Sensar."
Only the old man echoed my words dully, "Rakhal Sensar?"
I felt heartened, seeing I wasn't dead yet.
"I have sworn to kill him."
Kyral suddenly clapped his hands and shouted to the white chak to clean up the broken glass on the floor. He said huskily, "You are not yourself Rakhal Sensar?"
"I told you he wasn't," said Dallisa, high and hysterically. "I told you he wasn't."
"A scarred man, tall--what was I to think?" Kyral sounded and looked badly shaken. He filled a glass himself and handed it to me, saying hoarsely, "I did not believe even the renegade Rakhal would break the code so far as to drink with me."
"He would not." I could be positive about this. The codes of Terra had made some superficial impress on Rakhal, but down deep his own world held sway. If these men were at blood-feud with Rakhal and he stood here where I stood, he would have let himself be beaten into bloody rags before tasting their wine.
I took the glass, raised it and drained it. Then, holding it out before me, I said, "Rakhal's life is mine. But I swear by the red star and by the unmoving mountains, by the black snow and by the Ghost Wind, I have no quarrel with any beneath this roof." I cast the glass to the floor, where it shattered on the stones.
Kyral hesitated, but under the blazing eyes of the girl he quickly poured himself a glass of the wine and drank a few sips, then flung down the glass. He stepped forward and laid his hands on my shoulders. I winced as he touched the welt of the lash and could not raise my own arm to complete the ceremonial toast.
Kyral stepped away and shrugged. "Shall I have one of the women see to your hurt?" He looked at Dallisa, but she twisted her mouth. "Do it yourself!"
"It is nothing," I said, not truthfully. "But I demand in requital that since we are bound by spilled blood under your roof, that you give me what news you have of Rakhal, the spy and renegade."
Kyral said fiercely, "If I knew, would I be under my own roof?"
The old gaffer on the dais broke into shrill whining laughter. "You have drunk wi' him, Kyral, now he's bound you not to do him harm! I know the story of Rakhal! He was spy for Terra twelve years. Twelve years, and then he fought and flung their filthy money in their faces and left 'em. But his partner was some Dry-town halfbreed or Terran spy and they fought wi' clawed gloves, and near killed one another except the Terrans, who have no honor, stopped 'em. See the marks of the kifirgh on his face!"
"By Sharra the golden-chained," said Kyral, gazing at me with something like a grin. "You are, if nothing else, a very clever man. What are you, spy, or half-caste of some Ardcarran slut?"
"What I am doesn't matter to you," I said. "You have blood-feud with Rakhal, but mine is older than yours and his life is mine. As you are bound in honor to kill"--the formal phrases came easily now to my tongue; the Earthman had slipped away--"so you are bound in honor to help me kill. If anyone beneath your roof knows anything of Rakhal--"
Kyral's smile bared his teeth.
"Rakhal works against the Son of the Ape," he said, using the insulting Wolf term for the Terrans. "If we help you to kill him, we remove a goad from their flanks. I prefer to let the filthy Terranan spend their strength trying to remove it themselves. Moreover, I believe you are yourself an Earthman.
"You have no right to the courtesy I extend to we, the People of the Sky. Yet you have drunk wine with me and I have no quarrel with you." He raised his hand in dismissal, outfencing me. "Leave my roof in safety and my city with honor."
I could not protest or plead. A man's kihar, his personal dignity, is a precious thing in Shainsa, and he had placed me so I could not compromise mine further in words. Yet I lost kihar equally if I left at his bidding, like an inferior dismissed.
One desperate gamble remained.
"A word," I said, raising my hand, and while he half turned, startled, believing I was indeed about to compromise my dignity by a further plea, I flung it at him: "I will bet shegri with you."
His iron composure looked shaken. I had delivered a blow to his belief that I was an Earthman, for it is doubtful if there are six Earthmen on Wolf who know about shegri, the dangerous game of the Dry-towns.
It is no ordinary gamble, for what the better stakes is his life, possibly his reason. Rarely indeed will a man beg shegri unless he has nothing further to lose.
It is a cruel, possibly decadent game, which has no parallel anywhere in the known universe.
But I had no choice. I had struck a cold trail in Shainsa. Rakhal might be anywhere on the planet and half of Magnusson's month was already up. Unless I could force Kyral to tell what he knew, I might as well quit.