I spat blood, trying to get the room in focus. For I was inside a room, a room of some translucent substance, windowless, a skylight high above me, through which pink daylight streamed. Daylight--and it had been midnight in Charin! I'd come halfway around the planet in a few seconds!
From somewhere I heard the sound of hammering, tiny, bell-like hammering, the chiming of a fairy anvil. I looked up and saw a man--a man?--watching me.
On Wolf you see all kinds of human, half-human and nonhuman life, and I consider myself something of an expert on all three. But I had never seen anyone, or anything, who so closely resembled the human and so obviously wasn't. He, or it, was tall and lean, man-shaped but oddly muscled, a vague suggestion of something less than human in the lean hunch of his posture.
Manlike, he wore green tight-fitting trunks and a shirt of green fur that revealed bulging biceps where they shouldn't be, and angular planes where there should have been swelling muscles. The shoulders were high, the neck unpleasantly sinuous, and the face, a little narrower than human, was handsomely arrogant, with a kind of wary alert mischief that was the least human thing about him.
He bent, tilted the girl's inert body on to a divan of some sort, and turned his back on her, lifting his hand in an impatient, and unpleasantly reminiscent, gesture.
The tinkling of the little hammers stopped as if a switch had been disconnected.
"Now," said the nonhuman, "we can talk."
Like the waif, he spoke Shainsan, and spoke it with a better accent than any nonhuman I had ever known--so well that I looked again to be certain. I wasn't too dazed to answer in the same tongue, but I couldn't keep back a spate of questions: "What happened? Who are you? What is this place?"
The nonhuman waited, crossing his hands--quite passable hands, if you didn't look too closely at what should have been nails--and bent forward in a sketchy gesture.
"Do not blame Miellyn. She acted under orders. It was imperative you be brought here tonight, and we had reason to believe you might ignore an ordinary summons. You were clever at evading our surveillance, for a time. But there would not be two Dry-towners in Charin tonight who would dare the Ghost Wind. Your reputation does you justice, Rakhal Sensar."
Rakhal Sensar! Once again Rakhal!
Shaken, I pulled a rag from my pocket and wiped blood from my mouth. I'd figured out, in Shainsa, why the mistake was logical. And here in Charin I'd been hanging around in Rakhal's old haunts, covering his old trails. Once again, mistaken identity was natural.
Natural or not, I wasn't going to deny it. If these were Rakhal's enemies, my real identity should be kept as an ace in reserve which might--just might--get me out alive again. If they were his friends ... well, I could only hope that no one who knew him well by sight would walk in on me.
"We knew," the nonhuman continued, "that if you remained where you were, the Terranan Cargill would have made his arrest. We know about your quarrel with Cargill, among other things, but we did not consider it necessary that you should fall into his hands at present."
I was puzzled. "I still don't understand. Exactly where am I?"
"This is the mastershrine of Nebran."
The stray pieces of the puzzle suddenly jolted into place. Kyral had warned me, not knowing he was doing it. I hastily imitated the gesture Kyral had made, gabbling a few words of an archaic charm.
Like every Earthman who's lived on Wolf more than a tourist season, I'd seen faces go blank and impassive at mention of the Toad God. Rumor made his spies omnipresent, his priests omniscient, his anger all-powerful. I had believed about a tenth of what I had heard, or less.
The Terran Empire has little to say to planetary religions, and Nebran's cult is a remarkably obscure one, despite the street-shrines on every corner. Now I was in his mastershrine, and the device which had brought me here was beyond doubt a working model of a matter transmitter.
A matter transmitter, a working model--the words triggered memory. Rakhal was after it.
"And who," I asked slowly, "are you, Lord?"
The green-clad creature hunched thin shoulders again in a ceremonious gesture. "I am called Evarin. Humble servant of Nebran and yourself," he added, but there was no humility in his manner. "I am called the Toymaker."
Evarin. That was another name given weight by rumor. A breath of gossip in a thieves market. A scrawled word on smudged paper. A blank folder in Terran Intelligence. Another puzzle-piece snapped into place--Toymaker!
The girl on the divan sat up suddenly passing slim hands over her disheveled hair. "Did I faint, Evarin? I had to fight to get him into the stone, and the patterns were not set straight in that terminal. You must send one of the Little Ones to set them to rights. Toymaker, you are not listening to me."
"Stop chattering, Miellyn," said Evarin indifferently. "You brought him here, and that is all that matters. You aren't hurt?"
Miellyn pouted and looked ruefully at her bare bruised feet, patted the wrinkles in her ragged frock with fastidious fingers. "My poor feet," she mourned, "they are black and blue with the cobbles and my hair is filled with sand and tangles! Toymaker, what way was this to send me to entice a man? Any man would have come quickly, quickly, if he had seen me looking lovely, but you--you send me in rags!"
She stamped a small bare foot. She was not merely as young as she had looked in the street. Though immature and underdeveloped by Terran standards, she had a fair figure for a Dry-town woman. Her rags fell now in graceful folds. Her hair was spun black glass, and I--I saw what the rags and the confusion in the filthy street had kept me from seeing before.
It was the girl of the spaceport cafe, the girl who had appeared and vanished in the eerie streets of Canarsa.
Evarin was regarding her with what, in a human, might have been rueful impatience. He said, "You know you enjoyed yourself, as always, Miellyn. Run along and make yourself beautiful again, little nuisance."
The girl danced out of the room, and I was just as glad to see her go. The Toymaker motioned to me.
"This way," he directed, and led me through a different door. The offstage hammering I had heard, tiny bell tones like a fairy xylophone, began again as the door opened, and we passed into a workroom which made me remember nursery tales from a half-forgotten childhood on Terra. For the workers were tiny, gnarled trolls!
They were chaks. Chaks from the polar mountains, dwarfed and furred and half-human, with witchlike faces and great golden eyes, and I had the curious feeling that if I looked hard enough I would see the little toy-seller they had hunted out of the Kharsa. I didn't look. I figured I was in enough trouble already.
Tiny hammers pattered on miniature anvils in a tinkling, jingling chorus of musical clinks and taps. Golden eyes focused like lenses over winking jewels and gimcracks. Busy elves. Makers of toys!
Evarin jerked his shoulders with an imperative gesture. I followed him through a fairy workroom, but could not refrain from casting a lingering look at the worktables. A withered leprechaun set eyes into the head of a minikin hound. Furred fingers worked precious metals into invisible filigree for the collarpiece of a dancing doll. Metallic feathers were thrust with clockwork precision into the wings of a skeleton bird no longer than my fingernail. The nose of the hound wabbled and sniffed, the bird's wings quivered, the eyes of the little dancer followed my footsteps.
"This way," Evarin rapped, and a door slid shut behind us. The clinks and taps grew faint, fainter, but never ceased.
My face must have betrayed more than conventional impassivity, for Evarin smiled. "Now you know, Rakhal, why I am called Toymaker. Is it not strange--the masterpriest of Nebran, a maker of Toys, and the shrine of the Toad God a workshop for children's playthings?"
Evarin paused suggestively. They were obviously not children's playthings and this was my cue to say so, but I avoided the trap. Evarin opened a sliding panel and took out a doll.
She was perhaps the length of my longest finger, molded to the precise proportions of a woman, and costumed after the bizarre fashion of the Ardcarran dancing girls. Evarin touched no button or key that I could see, but when he set the figure on its feet, it executed a whirling, armtossing dance in a fast, tricky tempo.
"I am, in a sense, benevolent," Evarin murmured. He snapped his fingers and the doll sank to her knees and poised there, silent. "Moreover, I have the means and, let us say, the ability to indulge my small fantasies.
"The little daughter of the President of the Federation of Trade Cities on Samarra was sent such a doll recently. What a pity that Paolo Arimengo was so suddenly impeached and banished!" The Toymaker clucked his teeth commiseratingly. "Perhaps this small companion will compensate the little Carmela for her adjustment to her new ... position."
He replaced the dancer and pulled down something like a whirligig. "This might interest you," he mused, and set it spinning. I stared at the pattern of lights that flowed and disappeared, melting in and out of visible shadows. Suddenly I realized what the thing was doing. I wrested my eyes away with an effort. Had there been a lapse of seconds or minutes? Had Evarin spoken?
Evarin arrested the compelling motion with one finger. "Several of these pretty playthings are available to the children of important men," he said absently. "An import of value for our exploited and impoverished world. Unfortunately they are, perhaps, a little ... ah, obvious. The incidence of nervous breakdowns is, ah, interfering with their sale. The children, of course, are unaffected, and love them." Evarin set the hypnotic wheel moving again, glanced sidewise at me, then set it carefully back.
"Now"--Evarin's voice, hard with the silkiness of a cat's snarl, clawed the silence--"we'll talk business."
I turned, composing my face. Evarin had something concealed in one hand, but I didn't think it was a weapon. And if I'd known, I'd have had to ignore it anyway.
"Perhaps you wonder how we recognized and found you?" A panel cleared in the wall and became translucent. Confused flickers moved, dropped into focus and I realized that the panel was an ordinary television screen and I was looking into the well-known interior of the Cafe of Three Rainbows in the Trade City of Charin.
By this time I was running low on curiosity and didn't wonder till much, much later how televised pictures were transmitted around the curve of a planet. Evarin sharpened the focus down on the long Earth-type bar where a tall man in Terran clothes was talking to a pale-haired girl. Evarin said, "By now, Race Cargill has decided, no doubt, that you fell into his trap and into the hands of the Ya-men. He is off-guard now."
And suddenly the whole thing seemed so unbearably, illogically funny that my shoulders shook with the effort to keep back dangerous laughter. Since I'd landed in Charin, I'd taken great pains to avoid the Trade City, or anyone who might have associated me with it. And Rakhal, somehow aware of this, had conveniently filled up the gap. By posing as me.
It wasn't nearly as difficult as it sounded. I had found that out in Shainsa. Charin is a long, long way from the major Trade City near the Kharsa. I hadn't a single intimate friend there, or within hundreds of miles, to see through the imposture. At most, there were half a dozen of the staff that I'd once met, or had a drink with, eight or ten years ago.
Rakhal could speak perfect Standard when he chose; if he lapsed into Dry-town idiom, that too was in my known character. I had no doubt he was making a great success of it all, probably doing much better with my identity than I could ever have done with his.
Evarin rasped, "Cargill meant to leave the planet. What stopped him? You could be of use to us, Rakhal. But not with this blood-feud unsettled."
That needed no elucidation. No Wolfan in his right mind will bargain with a Dry-towner carrying an unresolved blood-feud. By law and custom, declared blood-feud takes precedence over any other business, public or private, and is sufficient excuse for broken promises, neglected duties, theft, even murder.
"We want it settled once and for all." Evarin's voice was low and unhurried. "And we aren't above weighting the scales. This Cargill can, and has, posed as a Dry-towner, undetected. We don't like Earthmen who can do that. In settling your feud, you will be aiding us, and removing a danger. We would be ... grateful."
He opened his closed hand, displaying something small, curled, inert.
"Every living thing emits a characteristic pattern of electrical nerve impulses. We have ways of recording those impulses, and we have had you and Cargill under observation for a long time. We've had plenty of opportunity to key this Toy to Cargill's pattern."
On his palm the curled thing stirred, spread wings. A fledgling bird lay there, small soft body throbbing slightly. Half-hidden in a ruff of metallic feathers I glimpsed a grimly elongated beak. The pinions were feathered with delicate down less than a quarter of an inch long. They beat with delicate insistence against the Toymaker's prisoning fingers.
"This is not dangerous to you. Press here"--he showed me--"and if Race Cargill is within a certain distance--and it is up to you to be within that distance--it will find him, and kill him. Unerringly, inescapably, untraceably. We will not tell you the critical distance. And we will give you three days."
He checked my startled exclamation with a gesture. "Of course this is a test. Within the hour Cargill will receive a warning. We want no incompetents who must be helped too much! Nor do we want cowards! If you fail, or release the bird at a distance too great, or evade the test"--the green inhuman malice in his eyes made me sweat--"we have made another bird."
By now my brain was swimming, but I thought I understood the complex inhuman logic involved. "The other bird is keyed to me?"
With slow contempt Evarin shook his head. "You? You are used to danger and fond of a gamble. Nothing so simple! We have given you three days. If, within that time, the bird you carry has not killed, the other bird will fly. And it will kill. Rakhal, you have a wife."
Yes, Rakhal had a wife. They could threaten Rakhal's wife. And his wife was my sister Juli.
Everything after that was anticlimax. Of course I had to drink with Evarin, the elaborate formal ritual without which no bargain on Wolf is concluded. He entertained me with gory and technical descriptions of the way in which the birds, and other of his hellish Toys, did their killing, and worse tasks.
Miellyn danced into the room and upset the exquisite solemnity of the wine-ritual by perching on my knee, stealing a sip from my cup, and pouting prettily when I paid her less attention than she thought she merited. I didn't dare pay much attention, even when she whispered, with the deliberate and thorough wantonness of a Dry-town woman of high-caste who has flung aside her fetters, something about a rendezvous at the Three Rainbows.
But eventually it was over and I stepped through a door that twisted with a giddy blankness, and found myself outside a bare windowless wall in Charin again, the night sky starred and cold. The acrid smell of the Ghost Wind was thinning in the streets, but I had to crouch in a cranny of the wall when a final rustling horde of Ya-men, the last of their receding tide, rustled down the street. I found my way to my lodging in a filthy chak hostel, and threw myself down on the verminous bed.
Believe it or not, I slept.
An hour before dawn there was a noise in my room. I roused, my hand on my skean. Someone or something was fumbling under the mattress where I had thrust Evarin's bird. I struck out, encountered something warm and breathing, and grappled with it in the darkness. A foul-smelling something gripped over my mouth. I tore it away and struck hard with the skean. There was a high shrilling. The gripping filth loosened and fell away and something died on the floor.
I struck a light, retching in revulsion. It hadn't been human. There wouldn't have been that much blood from a human. Not that color, either.
The chak who ran the place came and gibbered at me. Chaks have a horror of blood and this one gave me to understand that my lease was up then and there, no arguments, no refunds. He wouldn't even let me go into his stone outbuilding to wash the foul stuff from my shirtcloak. I gave up and fished under the mattress for Evarin's Toy.
The chak got a glimpse of the embroideries on the silk in which it was wrapped, and stood back, his loose furry lips hanging open, while I gathered my few belongings together and strode out of the room. He would not touch the coins I offered; I laid them on a chest and he let them lie there, and as I went into the reddening morning they came flying after me into the street.
I pulled the silk from the Toy and tried to make some sense from my predicament. The little thing lay innocent and silent in my palm. It wouldn't tell me whether it had been keyed to me, the real Cargill, some time in the past, or to Rakhal, using my name and reputation in the Terran Colony here at Charin.
If I pressed the stud it might play out this comedy of errors by hunting down Rakhal, and all my troubles would be over. For a while, at least, until Evarin found out what had happened. I didn't deceive myself that I could carry the impersonation through another meeting.
On the other hand, if I pressed the stud, the bird might turn on me. And then all my troubles would be over for good.
If I delayed past Evarin's deadline, and did nothing, the other bird in his keeping would hunt down Juli and give her a swift and not too painless death.
I spent most of the day in a chak dive, juggling plans. Toys, innocent and sinister. Spies, messengers. Toys which killed horribly. Toys which could be controlled, perhaps, by the pliant mind of a child, and every child hates its parents now and again!
Even in the Terran colony, who was safe? In Mack's very home, one of the Magnusson youngsters had a shiny thing which might, or might not, be one of Evarin's hellish Toys. Or was I beginning to think like a superstitious Dry-towner?
Damn it, Evarin couldn't be infallible; he hadn't even recognized me as Race Cargill! Or--suddenly the sweat broke out, again, on my forehead--or had he? Had the whole thing been one of those sinister, deadly and incomprehensible nonhuman jokes?
I kept coming to the same conclusion. Juli was in danger, but she was half a world away. Rakhal was here in Charin. There was a child involved--Juli's child. The first step was to get inside the Terran colony and see how the land lay.
Charin is a city shaped like a crescent moon, encircling the small Trade City: a miniature spaceport, a miniature skyscraper HQ, the clustered dwellings of the Terrans who worked there, and those who lived with them and supplied them with necessities, services and luxuries.
Entry from one to the other is through a guarded gateway, since this is hostile territory, and Charin lies far beyond the impress of ordinary Terran law. But the gate stood wide-open, and the guards looked lax and bored. They had shockers, but they didn't look as if they'd used them lately.
One raised an eyebrow at his companion as I shambled up. I could pretty well guess the impression I made, dirty, unkempt and stained with nonhuman blood. I asked permission to go into the Terran Zone.
They asked my name and business, and I toyed with the notion of giving the name of the man I was inadvertently impersonating. Then I decided that if Rakhal had passed himself off as Race Cargill, he'd expect exactly that. And he was also capable of the masterstroke of impudence--putting out a pickup order, through Spaceforce, for his own name!
So I gave the name we'd used from Shainsa to Charin, and tacked one of the Secret Service passwords on the end of it. They looked at each other again and one said, "Rascar, eh? This is the guy, all right." He took me into the little booth by the gate while the other used an intercom device. Presently they took me along into the HQ building, and into an office that said "Legate."
I tried not to panic, but it wasn't easy! Evidently I'd walked square into another trap. One guard asked me, "All right, now, what exactly is your business in the Trade City?"
I'd hoped to locate Rakhal first. Now I knew I'd have no chance and at all costs I must straighten out this matter of identity before it went any further.
"Put me straight through to Magnusson's office, Level 38 at Central HQ, by visi," I demanded. I was trying to remember if Mack had ever even heard the name we used in Shainsa. I decided I couldn't risk it. "Name of Race Cargill."
The guard grinned without moving. He said to his partner, "That's the one, all right." He put a hand on my shoulder, spinning me around.
"Haul off, man. Shake your boots."
There were two of them, and Spaceforce guards aren't picked for their good looks. Just the same, I gave a pretty good account of myself until the inner door opened and a man came storming out.
"What the devil is all this racket?"
One guard got a hammerlock on me. "This Dry-towner bum tried to talk us into making a priority call to Magnusson, the Chief at Central. He knew a couple of the S.S. passwords. That's what got him through the gate. Remember, Cargill passed the word that somebody would turn up trying to impersonate him."
"I remember." The strange man's eyes were wary and cold.
"You damned fools," I snarled. "Magnusson will identify me! Can't you realize you're dealing with an impostor?"
One of the guards said to the legate in an undertone, "Maybe we ought to hold him as a suspicious character." But the legate shook his head. "Not worth the trouble. Cargill said it was a private affair. You might search him, make sure he's not concealing contraband weapons," he added, and talked softly to the wide-eyed clerk in the background while the guards went through my shirtcloak and pockets.
When they started to unwrap the silk-shrouded Toy I yelled--if the thing got set off accidentally, there'd be trouble. The legate turned and rebuked, "Can't you see it's embroidered with the Toad God? It's a religious amulet of some sort, let it alone."
They grumbled, but gave it back to me, and the legate commanded, "Don't mess him up any more. Give him back his knife and take him to the gates. But make sure he doesn't come back."