"Can you swallow this?"
I could and did. I couldn't taste it yet, but it was cold and wet and felt heavenly trickling down my throat. She bent and looked into my eyes, and I felt as if I were falling into those reddish and stormy depths. She touched my scarred mouth with a light finger. Suddenly my head cleared and I sat upright.
"Is this a trick to force me into calling my bet?"
She recoiled as if I had struck her, then the trace of a smile flitted around her red mouth. Yes, between us it was battle. "You are right to be suspicious, I suppose. But if I tell you what I know of Rakhal, will you trust me then?"
I looked straight at her and said, "No."
Surprisingly, she threw back her head and laughed. I flexed my freed wrists cautiously. The skin was torn away and chafed, and my arms ached to the bone. When I moved harsh lances of pain drove through my chest.
"Well, until sunset I have no right to ask you to trust me," said Dallisa when she had done laughing. "And since you are bound by my command until the last ray has fallen, I command that you lay your head upon my knees."
I blazed, "You are making a game of me!"
"Is that my privilege? Do you refuse?"
"Refuse?" It was not yet sunset. This might be a torture more complex than any which had yet greeted me. From the scarlet glint in her eyes I felt she was playing with me, as the cat-things of the forest play with their helpless victims. My mouth twitched in a grimace of humiliation as I lowered myself obediently until my head rested on her fur-clad knees.
She murmured, smiling, "Is this so unbearable, then?"
I said nothing. Never, never for an instant could I forget that--all human, all woman as she seemed--Dallisa's race was worn and old when the Terran Empire had not left their home star. The mind of Wolf, which has mingled with the nonhuman since before the beginnings of recorded time, is unfathomable to an outsider. I was better equipped than most Earthmen to keep pace with its surface acts, but I could never pretend to understand its deeper motivations.
It works on complex and irrational logic. Mischief is an integral part of it. Even the deadly blood-feud with Rakhal had begun with an overelaborate practical joke--which had lost the Service, incidentally, several thousand credits worth of spaceship.
And so I could not trust Dallisa for an instant. Yet it was wonderful to lie here with my head resting against the perfumed softness of her body.
Then suddenly her arms were gripping me, frantic and hungry; the subdued thing in her voice, her eyes, flamed out hot and wild. She was pressing the whole length of her body to mine, breasts and thighs and long legs, and her voice was hoarse.
"Is this torture too?"
Beneath the fur robe she was soft and white, and the subtle scent of her hair seemed a deeper entrapment than any. Frail as she seemed, her arms had the strength of steel, and pain blazed down my wrenched shoulders, seared through the twisted wrists. Then I forgot the pain.
Over her shoulder the last dropping redness of the sun vanished and plunged the room into orchid twilight.
I caught her wrists in my hands, prizing them backward, twisting them upward over her head. I said thickly, "The sun's down." And then I stopped her wild mouth with mine.
And I knew that the battle between us had reached climax and victory simultaneously, and any question about who had won it was purely academic.
During the night sometime, while her dark head lay motionless on my shoulder, I found myself staring into the darkness, wakeful. The throbbing of my bruises had little to do with my sleeplessness; I was remembering other chained girls from the old days in the Dry-towns, and the honey and poison of them distilled into Dallisa's kisses. Her head was very light on my shoulders, and she felt curiously insubstantial, like a woman of feathers.
One of the tiny moons was visible through the slitted windows. I thought of my rooms in the Terran Trade City, clean and bright and warm, and all the nights when I had paced the floor, hating, filled to the teeth with bitterness, longing for the windswept stars of the Dry-towns, the salt smell of the winds and the musical clashing of the walk of the chained women.
With a sting of guilt, I realized that I had half forgotten Juli and my pledge to her and her misfortune which had freed me again, for this.
Yet I had won, and what they knew had narrowed my planet-wide search to a pinpoint. Rakhal was in Charin.
I wasn't altogether surprised. Charin is the only city on Wolf, except the Kharsa, where the Terran Empire has put down deep roots into the planet, built a Trade City, a smaller spaceport. Like the Kharsa, it lies within the circle of Terran law--and a million miles outside it.
A nonhuman town, inhabited largely by chaks, it is the core and center of the resistance movement, a noisy town in a perpetual ferment. It was the logical place for a renegade. I settled myself so that the ache in my racked shoulders was less violent, and muttered, "Why Charin?"
Slight as the movement was, it roused Dallisa. She rolled over and propped herself on her elbows, quoting drowsily, "The prey walks safest at the hunter's door."
I stared at the square of violet moonlight, trying to fit together all the pieces of the puzzle, and asked half aloud, "What prey and what hunters?"
Dallisa didn't answer. I hadn't expected her to answer. I asked the real question in my mind: "Why does Kyral hate Rakhal Sensar, when he doesn't even know him by sight?"
"There are reasons," she said somberly. "One of them is Miellyn, my twin sister. Kyral climbed the steps of the Great House by claiming us both as his consorts. He is our father's son by another wife."
That explained much. Brother-and-sister marriages, not uncommon in the Dry-towns, are based on expediency and suspicion, and are frequently, though not always loveless. It explained Dallisa's taunts, and it partly explained, only partly, why I found her in my arms. It did not explain Rakhal's part in this mysterious intrigue, nor why Kyral had taken me for Rakhal, (but only after he remembered seeing me in Terran clothing).
I wondered why it had never occurred to me before that I might be mistaken for Rakhal. There was no close resemblance between us, but a casual description would apply equally well to me or to Rakhal. My height is unusual for a Terran--within an inch of Rakhal's own--and we had roughly the same build, the same coloring. I had copied his walk, imitated his mannerisms, since we were boys together.
And, blurring minor facial characteristics, there were the scars of the kifirgh on my mouth, cheeks, and shoulders. Anyone who did not know us by sight, anyone who had known us by reputation from the days when we had worked together in the Dry-towns, might easily take one of us for the other. Even Juli had blurted, "You're so much like--" before thinking better of it.
Other odd bits of the puzzle floated in my mind, stubbornly refusing to take on recognizable patterns, the disappearance of a toy-seller; Juli's hysterical babbling; the way the girl--Miellyn?--had vanished into a shrine of Nebran; and the taunts of Dallisa and the old man about a mysterious "Toymaker." And something, some random joggling of a memory, in that eerie trading in the city of the Silent Ones. I knew all these things fitted together somehow, but I had no real hope that Dallisa could complete their pattern for me.
She said, with a vehemence that startled me, "Miellyn is only the excuse! Kyral hates Rakhal because Rakhal will compromise and because he'll fight!"
She rolled over and pressed herself against me in the darkness. Her voice trembled. "Race, our world is dying. We can't stand against Terra. And there are other things, worse things."
I sat up, surprised to find myself defending Terra to this girl. After all these years I was back in my own world. And yet I heard myself say quietly, "The Terrans aren't exploiting Wolf. We haven't abolished the rule of Shainsa. We've changed nothing."
It was true. Terra held Wolf by compact, not conquest. They paid, and paid generously, for the lease of the lands where their Trade Cities would rise, and stepped beyond them only when invited to do so.
"We let any city or state that wants to keep its independence govern itself until it collapses, Dallisa. And they do collapse after a generation or so. Very few primitive planets can hold out against us. The people themselves get tired of living under feudal or theocratic systems, and they beg to be taken into the Empire. That's all."
"But that's just it," Dallisa argued. "You give the people all those things we used to give them, and you do it better. Just by being here, you are killing the Dry-towns. They're turning to you and leaving us, and you let them do it."
I shook my head. "We've kept the Terran Peace for centuries. What do you expect? Should we give you arms, planes, bombs, weapons to hold your slaves down?"
"Yes!" she flared at me. "The Dry-towns have ruled Wolf since--since--you, you can't even imagine how long! And we made compact with you to trade here--"
"And we have rewarded you by leaving you untouched," I said quietly. "But we have not forbidden the Dry-towns to come into the Empire and work with Terra."
She said bitterly, "Men like Kyral will die first," and pressed her face helplessly against me. "And I will die with them. Miellyn broke away, but I cannot! Courage is what I lack. Our world is rotten, Race, rotten all through, and I'm as rotten as the core of it. I could have killed you today, and I'm here in your arms. Our world is rotten, but I've no confidence that the new world will be better!"
I put my hand under her chin, and looked down gravely into her face, only a pale oval in the darkness. There was nothing I could say; she had said it all, and truthfully. I had hated and yearned and starved for this, and when I found it, it turned salty and bloody on my lips, like Dallisa's despairing kisses. She ran her fingers over the scars on my face, then gripped her small thin hands around my wrists so fiercely that I grunted protest.
"You will not forget me," she said in her strangely lilting voice. "You will not forget me, although you were victorious." She twisted and lay looking up at me, her eyes glowing faintly luminous in darkness. I knew that she could see me as clearly as if it were day. "I think it was my victory, not yours, Race Cargill."
Gently, on an impulse I could not explain, I picked up one delicate wrist, then the other, unclasping the heavy jeweled bracelets. She let out a stifled cry of dismay. And then I tossed the chains into a corner before I drew her savagely into my arms again and forced her head back under my mouth.
I said good-bye to her alone, in the reddish, windswept space before the Great House. She pressed her head against my shoulder and whispered, "Race, take me with you!"
For answer I only picked up her narrow wrists and turned them over on my palm. The jeweled bracelets were clasped again around the thinly boned joints, and on some self-punishing impulse she had shortened the chains so that she could not even put her arms around me. I lifted the punished wrists to my mouth and kissed them gently.
"You don't want to leave, Dallisa."
I was desperately sorry for her. She would go down with her dying world, proud and cold and with no place in the new one. She kissed me and I tasted blood, her thin fettered body straining wildly against me, shaken with tearing, convulsive sobs. Then she turned and fled back into the shadow of the great dark house.
I never saw her again.
A few days later I found myself nearing the end of the trail.
It was twilight in Charin, hot and reeking with the gypsy glare of fires which burned, smoking, at the far end of the Street of the Six Shepherds. I crouched in the shadow of a wall, waiting.
My skin itched from the dirty shirtcloak I hadn't changed in days. Shabbiness is wise in nonhuman parts, and Dry-towners think too much of water to waste much of it in superfluous washing anyhow. I scratched unobtrusively and glanced cautiously down the street.
It seemed empty, except for a few sodden derelicts sprawled in doorways--the Street of the Six Shepherds is a filthy slum--but I made sure my skean was loose. Charin is not a particularly safe town, even for Dry-towners, and especially not for Earthmen, at any time.
Even with what Dallisa had told me, the search had been difficult. Charin is not Shainsa. In Charin, where human and nonhuman live closer together than anywhere else on the planet, information about such men as Rakhal can be bought, but the policy is to let the buyer beware. That's fair enough, because the life of the seller has a way of not being worth much afterward, either.
A dirty, dust-laden wind was blowing up along the street, heavy with strange smells. The pungent reek of incense from a street-shrine was in the smells. The heavy, acrid odor that made my skin crawl. In the hills behind Charin, the Ghost Wind was rising.
Borne on this wind, the Ya-men would sweep down from the mountains, and everything human or nearly human would scatter in their path. They would range through the quarter all night, and in the morning they would melt away, until the Ghost Wind blew again. At any other time, I would already have taken cover. I fancied that I could hear, borne on the wind, the faraway yelping, and envision the plumed, taloned figures which would come leaping down the street.
In that moment, the quiet of the street split asunder.
From somewhere a girl's voice screamed in shrill pain or panic. Then I saw her, dodging between two of the chinked pebble-houses. She was a child, thin and barefoot, a long tangle of black hair flying loose as she darted and twisted to elude the lumbering fellow at her heels. His outstretched paw jerked cruelly at her slim wrist.
The little girl screamed and wrenched herself free and threw herself straight on me, wrapping herself around my neck with the violence of a storm wind. Her hair got in my mouth and her small hands gripped at my back like a cat's flexed claws.
"Oh, help me," she gasped between sobs. "Don't let him get me, don't." And even in that broken plea I took it in that the little ragamuffin did not speak the jargon of that slum, but the pure speech of Shainsa.
What I did then was as automatic as if it had been Juli. I pulled the kid loose, shoved her behind me, and scowled at the brute who lurched toward us.
"Make yourself scarce," I advised. "We don't chase little girls where I come from. Haul off, now."
The man reeled. I smelled the rankness of his rags as he thrust one grimy paw at the girl. I never was the hero type, but I'd started something which I had to carry through. I thrust myself between them and put my hand on the skean again.
"You--you Dry-towner." The man set up a tipsy howl, and I sucked in my breath. Now I was in for it. Unless I got out of there damned fast, I'd lose what I'd come all the way to Charin to find.
I felt like handing the girl over. For all I knew, the bully could be her father and she was properly in line for a spanking. This wasn't any of my business. My business lay at the end of the street, where Rakhal was waiting at the fires. He wouldn't be there long. Already the smell of the Ghost Wind was heavy and harsh, and little flurries of sand went racing along the street, lifting the flaps of the doorways.
But I did nothing so sensible. The big lunk made a grab at the girl, and I whipped out my skean and pantomimed.
"Dry-towner!" He spat out the word like filth, his pig-eyes narrowing to slits. "Son of the Ape! Earthman!"
"Terranan!" Someone took up the howl. There was a stir, a rustle, all along the street that had seemed empty, and from nowhere, it seemed, the space in front of me was crowded with shadowy forms, human and otherwise.
I felt the muscles across my belly knotting into a band of ice. I didn't believe I'd given myself away as an Earthman. The bully was using the time-dishonored tactic of stirring up a riot in a hurry, but just the same I looked quickly round, hunting a path of escape.
"Put your skean in his guts, Spilkar! Grab him!"
"Hai-ai! Earthman! Hai-ai!"
It was the last cry that made me panic. Through the sultry glare at the end of the street, I could see the plumed, taloned figures of the Ya-men, gliding through the banners of smoke. The crowd melted open.
I didn't stop to reflect on the fact--suddenly very obvious--that Rakhal couldn't have been at the fires at all, and that my informant had led me into an open trap, a nest of Ya-men already inside Charin. The crowd edged back and muttered, and suddenly I made my choice. I whirled, snatched up the girl in my arms and ran straight toward the advancing figures of the Ya-men.
Nobody followed me. I even heard a choked shout that sounded like a warning. I heard the yelping shrieks of the Ya-men grow to a wild howl, and at the last minute, when their stiff rustling plumes loomed only a few yards away, I dived sidewise into an alley, stumbled on some rubbish and spilled the girl down.
She shook herself like a puppy climbing out of water. Her small fingers closed like a steel trap on my wrist. "This way," she urged in a hasty whisper, and I found myself plunging out the far end of the alley and into the shelter of a street-shrine. The sour stink of incense smarted in my nostrils, and I could hear the yelping of the Ya-men as they leaped and rustled down the alley, their cold and poisonous eyes searching out the recess where I crouched with the girl.
"Here," she panted, "stand close to me on the stone--" I drew back, startled.
"Oh, don't stop to argue," she whimpered. "Come here!"
"Hai-ai! Earthman! There he is!"
The girl's arms flung round me again. I felt her slight, hard body pressing on mine and she literally hauled me toward the pattern of stones at the center of the shrine. I wouldn't have been human if I hadn't caught her closer yet.
The world reeled. The street disappeared in a cone of spinning lights, stars danced crazily, and I plunged down through a widening gulf of empty space, locked in the girl's arms. I fell, spun, plunged head over heels through tilting lights and shadows that flung us through eternities of freefall. The yelping of the Ya-men whirled away in unimaginable distances, and for a second I felt the unmerciful blackout of a power dive, with blood breaking from my nostrils and filling my mouth.
Lights flared in my eyes.
I was standing solidly on my feet in the street-shrine, but the street was gone. Coils of incense still smudged the air. The God squatted toadlike in his recess. The girl was hanging limp, locked in my clenched arms. As the floor straightened under my feet I staggered, thrown off balance by the sudden return of the girl's weight, and grabbed blindly for support.
"Give her to me," said a voice, and the girl's sagging body was lifted from my arms. A strong hand grasped my elbow. I found a chair beneath my knees and sank gratefully into it.
"The transmission isn't smooth yet between such distant terminals," the voice remarked. "I see Miellyn has fainted again. A weakling, the girl, but useful."