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.
So I repeated: "I will bet shegri with you."
And Kyral stood unmoving.
For what the shegrin wagers is his courage and endurance in the face of torture and an unknown fate. On his side, the stakes are clearly determined beforehand. But if he loses, his punishment or penalty is at the whim of the one who has accepted him, and he may be put to whatever doom the winner determines.
And this is the contest:
The shegrin permits himself to be tortured from sunrise to sunset. If he endures he wins. It is as simple as that. He can stop the torture at any moment by a word, but to do so is a concession of defeat.
This is not as dangerous as it might, at first, seem. The other party to the bet is bound by the ironclad codes of Wolf to inflict no permanent physical damage (no injury that will not heal with three suncourses). But from sunrise to sunset, any torment or painful ingenuity which the half-human mentality of Wolf can devise must be endured.
The man who can outthink the torture of the moment, the man who can hold in his mind the single thought of his goal—that man can claim the stakes he has set, as well as other concessions made traditional.
The silence grew in the hall. Dallisa had straightened and was watching me intently, her lips parted and the tip of a little red tongue visible between her teeth. The only sound was the tiny crunching as the fat woman nibbled at nuts and cast their shells into the brazier. Even the child on the steps had abandoned her game with the crystal dice, and sat looking up at me with her mouth open. Finally Kyral demanded, "Your stakes?"
"Tell me all you know of Rakhal Sensar and keep silence about me in Shainsa."
"By the red shadow," Kyral burst out, "you have courage, Rascar!"
"Say only yes or no!" I retorted.
Rebuked, he fell silent. Dallisa leaned forward and again, for some unknown reason, I thought of a girl with hair like spun black glass.
Kyral raised his hand. "I say no. I have blood-feud with Rakhal and I will not sell his death to another. Further, I believe you are Terran and I will not deal with you. And finally, you have twice saved my life and I would find small pleasure in torturing you. I say no. Drink again with me and we part without a quarrel."
Beaten, I turned to go.
"Wait," said Dallisa.
She stood up and came down from the dais, slowly this time, walking with dignity to the rhythm of her musically clashing chains. "I have a quarrel with this man."
I started to say that I did not quarrel with women, and stopped myself. The Terran concept of chivalry has no equivalent on Wolf.
She looked at me with her dark poison-berry eyes, icy and level and amused, and said, "I will bet shegri with you, unless you fear me, Rascar."
And I knew suddenly that if I lost, I might better have trusted myself to Kyral and his whip, or to the wild beast-things of the mountains.
I slept little that night.
There is a tale told in Daillon of a shegri where the challenger was left in a room alone, where he was blindfolded and told to await the beginning of the torment.
Somewhere in those dark hours of waiting, between the unknown and the unexpected, the hours of telling over to himself the horrors of past shegri, the torture of anticipation alone became the unbearable. A little past noon he collapsed in screams of horror and died raving, unmarred, untouched.
Daybreak came slowly, and with the first streamers of light came Dallisa and the white chak, maliciously uninvolved, sniffing his way through the shabby poverty of the great hall. They took me to a lower dungeon where the slant of the sunlight was less visible. Dallisa said, "The sun has risen."
I said nothing. Any word may be interpreted as a confession of defeat. I resolved to give them no excuse. But my skin crawled and I had that peculiar prickling sensation where the hair on my forearms was bristling erect with tension and fear.
Dallisa said to the chak, "His gear was not searched. See that he has swallowed no anesthetic drugs."
Briefly I gave her credit for thoroughness, even while I wondered in a split second why I had not thought of this. Drugs could blur consciousness, at least, or suspend reality. The white nonhuman sprang forward and pinioned my arms with one strong, spring-steel forearm. With his other hand he forced my jaws open. I felt the furred fingers at the back of my throat, gagged, struggled briefly and doubled up in uncontrollable retching.
Dallisa's poison-berry-eyes regarded me levelly as I struggled upright, fighting off the dizzy sickness of disgust. Something about her impassive face stopped me cold. I had been, momentarily, raging with fury and humiliation. Now I realized that this had been a calculated, careful gesture to make me lose my temper and thus sap my resistance.
If she could set me to fighting, if she could make me spend my strength in rage, my own imagination would fight on her side to make me lose control before the end. Swimming in the glare of her eyes, I realized she had never thought for a moment that I had taken any drug. Acting on Kyral's hint that I was a Terran, she was taking advantage of the well-known Terran revulsion for the nonhuman.
"Blindfold him," Dallisa commanded, then instantly countermanded that: "No, strip him first."
The chak ripped off shirtcloak, shirt, shoes, breeches, and I had my first triumph when the wealed clawmarks on my shoulders—worse, if possible, than those which disfigured my face—were laid bare. The chak screwed up his muzzle in fastidious horror, and Dallisa looked shaken. I could almost read her thoughts:
If he endured this, what hope have I to make him cry mercy?
Briefly I remembered the months I lay feverish and half dead, waiting for the wounds Rakhal had inflicted to heal, those months when I had believed that nothing would ever hurt me again, that I had known the worst of all suffering. But I had been younger then.
Dallisa had picked up two small sharp knives. She weighed them, briefly, gesturing to the chak. Without resisting, I let myself be manhandled backward, spreadeagled against the wall.
Dallisa commanded, "Drive the knives through his palms to the wall!"
My hands twitched convulsively, anticipating the slash of steel, and my throat closed in spasmodic dread. This was breaking the compact, bound as they were not to inflict physical damage. I opened my lips to protest this breaking of the bond of honor and met her dark blazing stare, and suddenly the sweat broke out on my forehead. I had placed myself wholly in their hands, and as Kyral had said, they were in no way bound by honor to respect a pledge to a Terran!
Then, as my hands clenched into fists, I forced myself to relax. This was a bluff, a mental trick to needle me into breaking the pact and pleading for mercy. I set my lips, spread my palms wide against the wall and waited impassively.
She said in her lilting voice, "Take care not to sever the tendons, or his hands would be paralyzed and he may claim we have broken our compact."
The points of the steel, razor-sharp, touched my palms, and I felt blood run down my hand before the pain. With an effort that turned my face white, I did not pull away from the point. The knives drove deeper.
Dallisa gestured to the chak. The knives dropped. Two pinpricks, a quarter of an inch deep, stung in my palm. I had outbluffed her. Had I?
If I had expected her to betray disappointment—and I had—I was disappointed. Abruptly, as if the game had wearied her already, she gestured, and I could not hold back a gasp as my arms were hauled up over my head, twisted violently around one another and trussed with thin cords that bit deep into the flesh. Then the rough upward pull almost jerked my shoulders from their sockets and I heard the giant chak grunt with effort as I was hauled upward until my feet barely, on tiptoe, touched the floor.
"Blindfold him," said Dallisa languidly, "so that he cannot watch the ascent of the sun or its descent or know what is to come."
A dark softness muffled my eyes. After a little I heard her steps retreating. My arms, wrenched overhead and numbed with the bite of the cords, were beginning to hurt badly now. But it wasn't too bad. Surely she did not mean that this should be all....
Sternly I controlled my imagination, taking a tight rein on my thoughts. There was only one way to meet this—hanging blind and racked in space, my toes barely scrabbling at the floor—and that was to take each thing as it came and not look ahead for an instant. First of all I tried to get my feet under me, and discovered that by arching upwards to my fullest height I could bear my weight on tiptoe and ease, a little, the dislocating ache in my armpits by slackening the overhead rope.
But after a little, a cramping pain began to flare through the arches of my feet, and it became impossible to support my weight on tiptoe. I jarred down with violent strain on my wrists and wrenched shoulders again, and for a moment the shooting agony was so intense that I nearly screamed. I thought I heard a soft breath near me.
After a little it subsided to a sharp ache, then to a dull ache, and then to the violent cramping pain again, and once more I struggled to get my toes under me. I realized that by allowing my toes barely to touch the floor they had doubled and tripled the pain by the tantalizing hope of, if not momentary relief, at least the alteration of one pain for another.
I haven't the faintest idea, even now, how long I repeated that agonizing cycle: struggle for a toehold on rough stone, scraping my bare feet raw; arch upward with all my strength to release for a few moments the strain on my wrenched shoulders; the momentary illusion of relief as I found my balance and the pressure lightened on my wrists.
Then the slow creeping, first of an ache, then of a pain, then of a violent agony in the arches of feet and calves. And, delayed to the last endurable moment, that final terrible anguish when the drop of my full weight pulled shoulder and wrist and elbow joints with that bone-shattering jerk.
I started once to estimate how much time had passed, how many hours had crawled by, then checked myself, for that was imminent madness. But once the process had begun my brain would not abandon and I found myself, with compulsive precision, counting off the seconds and the minutes in each cycle: stretch upward, release the pressure on the arms; the beginning of pain in calves and arches and toes; the creeping of pain up ribs and loins and shoulders; the sudden jarring drop on the arms again.
My throat was intolerably dry. Under other circumstances I might have estimated the time by the growth of hunger and thirst, but the rough treatment I had received made this impossible. There were other, unmentionable, humiliating pains.
After a time, to bolster my flagging courage, I found myself thinking of all the ways it might have been worse. I had heard of a shegrin exposed to the bite of poisonous—not fatal, but painfully poisonous—insects, and to the worrying of the small gnawing rodents which can be trained to bite and tear. Or I might have been branded....
I banished the memory with the powerful exorcism; the man in Daillon whose anticipation, alone, of a torture which never came, had broken his mind. There was only one way to conquer this, and that was to act as if the present moment was the only one, and never for a moment to forget that the strongest of compacts bound them not to harm me, that the end of this was fixed by sunset.
Gradually, however, all such rational thoughts blurred in a semidelirium of thirst and pain, narrowing to a red blaze of agony across my shoulder blades. I eased up on my toes again.
White-hot pain blazed through my feet. The rough stone on which my toes sank had been covered with metal and I smelled scorching flesh, jerking up my feet with a wordless snarl of rage and fury, hanging in agony by my shoulders alone.
And then I lost consciousness, at least for several moments, for when I became aware again, through the nightmare of pain, my toes were resting lightly and securely on cold stone. The smell of burned flesh remained, and the painful stinging in my toes. Mingled with that smell was a drift of perfume close by.
Dallisa murmured, "I do not wish to break our bargain by damaging your feet. It's only a little touch of fire to keep you from too much security in resting them."
I felt the taste of blood mingle in my mouth with the sour taste of vomit. I felt delirious, lightheaded. After another eternity I wondered if I had really heard Dallisa's lilting croon or whether it was a nightmare born of feverish pain:
Plead with me. A word, only a word and I will release you, strong man, scarred man. Perhaps I shall demand only a little space in your arms. Would not such doom be light upon you? Perhaps I shall set you free to seek Rakhal if only to plague Kyral. A word, only a word from you. A word, only a word from you....
It died into an endlessly echoing whisper. Swaying, blinded, I wondered why I endured. I drew a dry tongue over lips, salty and bloody, and nightmarishly considered yielding, winning my way somehow around Dallisa. Or knocking her suddenly senseless and escaping—I, who need not be bound by Wolf's codes either. I fumbled with a stiff shape of words.
And a breath saved me, a soft, released breath of anticipation. It was another trick. I swayed, limp and racked. I was not Race Cargill now. I was a dead man hanging in chains, swinging, filthy vultures pecking at my dangling feet. I was....
The sound of boots rang on the stone and Kyral's voice, low and bitter, demanded somewhere behind me, "What have you done with him?"
She did not answer, but I heard her chains clash lightly and imagined her gesture. Kyral muttered, "Women have no genius at any torture except...." His voice faded out into great distances. Their words came to me over a sort of windy ringing, like the howling of lost men, dying in the snowfast passes of the mountains.
"Speak up, you fool, he can't hear you now."
"If you have let him faint, you are clumsy!"
"You talk of clumsiness!" Dallisa's voice, even thinned by the nightmare ringing in my head, held concentrated scorn. "Perhaps I shall release him, to find Rakhal when you failed! The Terrans have a price on Rakhal's head, too. And at least this man will not confuse himself with his prey!"
"If you think I would let you bargain with a Terranan—"
Dallisa cried passionately, "You trade with the Terrans! How would you stop me, then?"
"I trade with them because I must. But for a matter involving the honor of the Great House—"
"The Great House whose steps you would never have climbed, except for Rakhal!" Dallisa sounded as if she were chewing her words in little pieces and spitting them at Kyral. "Oh, you were clever to take us both as your consorts! You did not know it was Rakhal's doing, did you? Hate the Terrans, then!" She spat an obscenity at him. "Enjoy your hate, wallow in hating, and in the end all Shainsa will fall prey to the Toymaker, like Miellyn."
"If you speak that name again," said Kyral very low, "I will kill you."
"Like Miellyn, Miellyn, Miellyn," Dallisa repeated deliberately. "You fool, Rakhal knew nothing of Miellyn!"
"He was seen—"
"With me, you fool! With me! You cannot yet tell twin from twin? Rakhal came to me to ask news of her!"
Kyral cried out hoarsely, like a man in anguish, "Why didn't you tell me?"
"You don't really have to ask, do you, Kyral?"
"You bitch!" said Kyral. "You filthy bitch!" I heard the sound of a blow. The next moment Kyral ripped the blindfold from my eyes and I blinked in the blaze of light. My arms were wholly numb now, twisted above my head, but the jar of his touch sent fresh pain racing through me. Kyral's face swam out of the blaze of hell. "If that is true, then this is a damnable farce, Dallisa. You have lost our chance of learning what he knows of Miellyn."
"What he knows?" Dallisa lowered her hand from her face, where a bruise was already darkening.
"Miellyn has twice appeared when I was with him. Loose him, Dallisa, and bargain with him. What we know of Rakhal for what he knows of Miellyn."
"If you think I would let you bargain with Terranan," she mocked. "Weakling, this quarrel is mine! You fool, the others in the caravan will give me news, if you will not! Where is Cuinn?"
From a million miles away Kyral laughed. "You've slipped the wrong hawk, Dallisa. The catmen killed him." His skean flicked loose. He climbed to a perch near the rope at my wrists. "Bargain with me, Rascar!"
I coughed, unable to speak, and Kyral insisted, "Will you bargain? End this damned woman's farce which makes a mock of shegri?"
The slant of sun told me there was light left. I found a shred of voice, not knowing what I was going to say until I had said it, irrevocably. "This is between Dallisa and me."
Kyral glared at me in mounting rage. With four strides he was out of the room, flinging back a harsh, furious "I hope you kill each other!" and the door slammed.
Dallisa's face swam red, and again as before, I knew the battle which was joined between us would be fought to a dreadful end. She touched my chest lightly, but the touch jolted excruciating pain through my shoulders.
"Did you kill Cuinn?"
I wondered, wearily, what this presaged.
"Did you?" In a passion, she cried, "Answer! Did you kill him?" She struck me hard, and where the touch had been pain, the blow was a blaze of white agony. I fainted.
"Answer!" She struck me again and the white blaze jolted me back to consciousness. "Answer me! Answer!" Each cry bought a blow until I gasped finally, "He signaled ... set catmen on us...."
"No!" She stood staring at me and her white face was a death mask in which the eyes lived. She screamed wildly and the huge chak came running.
"Cut him down! Cut him down! Cut him down!"
A knife slashed the rope and I slumped, falling in a bone-breaking huddle to the floor. My arms were still twisted over my head. The chak cut the ropes apart, pulled my arms roughly back into place, and I gagged with the pain as the blood began flowing painfully through the chafed and swollen hands.
And then I lost consciousness. More or less permanently, this time.
When I came to again I was lying with my head in Dallisa's lap, and the reddish color of sunset was in the room. Her thighs were soft under my head, and for an instant I wondered if, in delirium, I had conceded to her. I muttered, "Sun ... not down...."
She bent her face to mine, whispering, "Hush. Hush."
It was heaven, and I drifted off again. After a moment I felt a cup against my lips.
"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."
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."
I found myself seized and frog-marched to the gate. One guard pushed my skean back into its clasp. The other shoved me hard, and I stumbled, fell sprawling in the dust of the cobbled street, to the accompaniment of a profane statement about what I could expect if I came back. A chorus of jeers from a cluster of chak children and veiled women broke across me.
I picked myself up, glowered so fiercely at the giggling spectators that the laughter drained away into silence, and clenched my fists, half inclined to turn back and bull my way through. Then I subsided. First round to Rakhal. He had sprung the trap on me, very neatly.
The street was narrow and crooked, winding between doubled rows of pebble-houses, and full of dark shadows even in the crimson noon. I walked aimlessly, favoring the arm the guard had crushed. I was no closer to settling things with Rakhal, and I had slammed at least one gate behind me.
Why hadn't I had sense enough to walk up and demand to see Race Cargill? Why hadn't I insisted on a fingerprint check? I could prove my identity, and Rakhal, using my name in my absence, to those who didn't know me by sight, couldn't. I could at least have made him try. But he had maneuvered it very cleverly, so I never had a chance to insist on proofs.
I turned into a wineshop and ordered a dram of greenish mountainberry liquor, sipping it slowly and fingering the few bills and coins in my pockets. I'd better forget about warning Juli. I couldn't 'vise her from Charin, except in the Terran zone. I had neither the money nor the time to make the trip in person, even if I could get passage on a Terran-dominated airline after today.
Miellyn. She had flirted with me, and like Dallisa, she might prove vulnerable. It might be another trap, but I'd take the chance. At least I could get hints about Evarin. And I needed information. I wasn't used to this kind of intrigue any more. The smell of danger was foreign to me now, and I found it unpleasant.
The small lump of the bird in my pocket tantalized me. I took it out again. It was a temptation to press the stud and let it settle things, or at least start them going, then and there.
After a while I noticed the proprietors of the shop staring at the silk of the wrappings. They backed off, apprehensive. I held out a coin and they shook their heads. "You are welcome to the drink," one of them said. "All we have is at your service. Only please go. Go quickly."
They would not touch the coins I offered. I thrust the bird in my pocket, swore and went. It was my second experience with being somehow tabu, and I didn't like it.
It was dusk when I realized I was being followed.
At first it was a glimpse out of the corner of my eye, a head seen too frequently for coincidence. It developed into a too-persistent footstep in uneven rhythm.
I had my skean handy, but I had a hunch this wasn't anything I could settle with a skean. I ducked into a side street and waited.
I went on, laughing at my imagined fears.
Then, after a time, the soft, persistent footfall thudded behind me again.
I cut across a thieves market, dodging from stall to stall, cursed by old women selling hot fried goldfish, women in striped veils railing at me in their chiming talk when I brushed their rolled rugs with hasty feet. Far behind I heard the familiar uneven hurry: tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap.
I fled down a street where women sat on flower-decked balconies, their open lanterns flowing with fountains and rivulets of gold and orange fire. I raced through quiet streets where furred children crept to doors and watched me pass with great golden eyes that shone in the dark.
I dodged into an alley and lay there, breathing hard. Someone not two inches away said, "Are you one of us, brother?"
I muttered something surly, in his dialect, and a hand, reassuringly human, closed on my elbow. "This way."
Out of breath with long running, I let him lead me, meaning to break away after a few steps, apologize for mistaken identity and vanish, when a sound at the end of the street made me jerk stiff and listen.
I let my arm relax in the hand that guided me, flung a fold of my shirtcloak over my face, and went along with my unknown guide.
I stumbled over steps, took a jolting stride downward, and found myself in a dim room jammed with dark figures, human and nonhuman.
The figures swayed in the darkness, chanting in a dialect not altogether familiar to me, a monotonous wailing chant, with a single recurrent phrase: "Kamaina! Kama-aina!" It began on a high note, descending in weird chromatics to the lowest tone the human ear could resolve.
The sound made me draw back. Even the Dry-towners shunned the orgiastic rituals of Kamaina. Earthmen have a reputation for getting rid of the more objectionable customs—by human standards—on any planet where they live. But they don't touch religions, and Kamaina, on the surface anyhow, was a religion.
I started to turn round and leave, as if I had inadvertently walked through the wrong door, but my conductor hauled on my arm, and I was wedged in too tight by now to risk a roughhouse. Trying to force my way out would only have called attention to me, and the first of the Secret Service maxims is; when in doubt, go along, keep quiet, and watch the other guy.
As my eyes adapted to the dim light, I saw that most of the crowd were Charin plainsmen or chaks. One or two wore Dry-town shirtcloaks, and I even thought I saw an Earthman in the crowd, though I was never sure and I fervently hope not. They were squatting around small crescent-shaped tables, and all intently gazing at a flickery spot of light at the front of the cellar. I saw an empty place at one table and dropped there, finding the floor soft, as if cushioned.
On each table, small smudging pastilles were burning, and from these cones of ash-tipped fire came the steamy, swimmy smoke that filled the darkness with strange colors. Beside me an immature chak girl was kneeling, her fettered hands strained tightly back at her sides, her naked breasts pierced for jeweled rings.
Beneath the pallid fur around her pointed ears, the exquisite animal face was quite mad. She whispered to me, but her dialect was so thick that I could follow only a few words, and would just as soon not have heard those few. An older chak grunted for silence and she subsided, swaying and crooning.
There were cups and decanters on all the tables, and a woman tilted pale, phosphorescent fluid into a cup and offered it to me. I took one sip, then another. It was cold and pleasantly tart, and not until the second swallow turned sweet on my tongue did I know what I tasted. I pretended to swallow while the woman's eyes were fixed on me, then somehow contrived to spill the filthy stuff down my shirt.
I was wary even of the fumes, but there was nothing else I could do. The stuff was shallavan, outlawed on every planet in the Terran Empire and every halfway decent planet outside it.
More and more figures, men and creatures, kept crowding into the cellar, which was not very large. The place looked like the worst nightmare of a drug-dreamer, ablaze with the colors of the smoking incense, the swaying crowd, and their monotonous cries. Quite suddenly there was a blaze of purple light and someone screamed in raving ecstasy: "Na ki na Nebran n'hai Kamaina!"
"Kamayeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeena!" shrilled the tranced mob.
An old man jumped up and started haranguing the crowd. I could just follow his dialect. He was talking about Terra. He was talking about riots. He was jabbering mystical gibberish which I couldn't understand and didn't want to understand, and rabble-rousing anti-Terran propaganda which I understood much too well.
Another blaze of lights and another long scream in chorus: "Kamayeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeena!"
Evarin stood in the blaze of the many-colored light.
The Toymaker, as I had seen him last, cat-smooth, gracefully alien, shrouded in a ripple of giddy crimsons. Behind him was a blackness. I waited till the painful blaze of lights abated, then, straining my eyes to see past him, I got my worst shock.
A woman stood there, naked to the waist, her hands ritually fettered with little chains that stirred and clashed musically as she moved stiff-legged in a frozen dream. Hair like black grass banded her brow and naked shoulders, and her eyes were crimson.
And the eyes lived in the dead dreaming face. They lived, and they were mad with terror although the lips curved in a gently tranced smile.
Evarin was speaking in that dialect I barely understood. His arms were flung high and his cloak went spilling away from them, rippling like something alive. The jammed humans and nonhumans swayed and chanted and he swayed above them like an iridescent bug, weaving arms rippling back and forth, back and forth. I strained to catch his words.
"Our world ... an old world."
"Kamayeeeeena," whimpered the shrill chorus.
"... humans, humans, all humans would make slaves of us all, all save the Children of the Ape...."
I lost the thread for a moment. True. The Terran Empire has one small blind spot in otherwise sane policy, ignoring that nonhuman and human have lived placidly here for millennia: they placidly assumed that humans were everywhere the dominant race, as on Earth itself.
The Toymaker's weaving arms went on spinning, spinning. I rubbed my eyes to clear them of shallavan and incense. I hoped that what I saw was an illusion of the drug—something, something huge and dark, was hovering over the girl. She stood placidly, hands clasped on her chains, but her eyes writhed in the frozen calm of her face.
Then something—I can only call it a sixth sense—bore it on me that there was someone outside the door. I was perhaps the only creature there, except for Evarin, not drugged with shallavan, and perhaps that's all it was. But during the days in the Secret Service I'd had to develop some extra senses. Five just weren't enough for survival.
I knew somebody was fixing to break down that door, and I had a good idea why. I'd been followed, by the legate's orders, and, tracking me here, they'd gone away and brought back reinforcements.
Someone struck a blow on the door and a stentorian voice bawled, "Open up there, in the name of the Empire!"
The chanting broke in ragged quavers. Evarin stopped. Somewhere a woman screamed. The lights abruptly went out and a stampede started in the room. Women struck me with chains, men kicked, there were shrieks and howls. I thrust my way forward, butting with elbows and knees and shoulders.
A dusky emptiness yawned and I got a glimpse of sunlight and open sky and knew that Evarin had stepped through into somewhere and was gone. The banging on the door sounded like a whole regiment of Spaceforce out there. I dived toward the shimmer of little stars which marked Miellyn's tiara in the darkness, braving the black horror hovering over her, and touched rigid girl-flesh, cold as death.
I grabbed her and ducked sideways. This time it wasn't intuition—nine times out of ten, anyway, intuition is just a mental shortcut which adds up all the things which your subconscious has noticed while you were busy thinking about something else. Every native building on Wolf had concealed entrances and exits and I know where to look for them. This one was exactly where I expected. I pushed at it and found myself in a long, dim corridor.
The head of a woman peered from an opening door. She saw Miellyn's limp body hanging on my arm and her mouth widened in a silent scream. Then the head popped back out of sight and a door slammed. I heard the bolt slide. I ran for the end of the hall, the girl in my arms, thinking that this was where I came in, as far as Miellyn was concerned, and wondering why I bothered.
The door opened on a dark, peaceful street. One lonely moon was setting beyond the rooftops. I set Miellyn on her feet, but she moaned and crumpled against me. I put my shirtcloak around her bare shoulders. Judging by the noises and yells, we'd gotten out just in time. No one came out the exit behind us. Either the Spaceforce had plugged it or, more likely, everyone else in the cellar had been too muddled by drugs to know what was going on.
But it was only a few minutes, I knew, before Spaceforce would check the whole building for concealed escape holes. Suddenly, and irrelevantly, I found myself thinking of a day not too long ago, when I'd stood up in front of a unit-in-training of Spaceforce, introduced to them as an Intelligence expert on native towns, and solemnly warned them about concealed exits and entrances. I wondered, for half a minute, if it might not be simpler just to wait here and let them pick me up.