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From: Millennium

There are devices a high-level culture could produce that simply
don't belong in the hands of incompetents of lower cultural
evolution. The finest, and most civilized of tools can be made a
menace ...

Liewen Konar smiled wryly as he put a battered object on the bench.
"Well, here's another piece recovered. Not worth much, I'd say, but here
it is."

Obviously, it had once been a precisely fabricated piece of equipment.
But its identity was almost lost. A hole was torn in the side of the
metal box. Knobs were broken away from their shafts. The engraved
legends were scored and worn to illegibility, and the meter was merely a
black void in the panel. Whatever had been mounted at the top had been
broken away, to leave ragged shards. Inside the gaping hole in the case,
tiny, blackened components hung at odd angles.

Klion Meinora looked at the wreckage and shook his head.

"I know it's supposed to be what's left of a medium range communicator,"
he said, "but I'd never believe it." He poked a finger inside the hole
in the case, pushing a few components aside. Beyond them, a corroded
wheel hung loosely in what had once been precision bearings.

"Where's the power unit?"

Konar shook his head. "No trace. Not much left of the viewsphere,

"Well." Meinora shook his head resignedly. "It's salvage. But we got it
back." He stood back to look at the communicator. "Someone's been
keeping the outside clean, I see."

Konar nodded. "It was a religious relic," he said. "Found it in an
abbey." He reached into the bag he had placed on the floor.

"And here's a mental amplifier-communicator, personnel, heavy duty.
Slightly used and somewhat out of adjustment, but complete and
repairable." He withdrew a golden circlet, held it up for a moment, and
carefully laid it on the bench beside the wrecked communicator. Its
metal was dented, but untarnished.

"Don't want to get rough with it," he explained. "Something might be
loose inside."

He reached again into the bag. "And a body shield, protector type, model
GS/NO-10C. Again, somewhat used, but repairable. Even has its
nomenclature label."

"Good enough." Meinora held a hand out and accepted the heavy belt. He
turned it about in his hands, examining the workmanship. Finally, he
looked closely at the long, narrow case mounted on the leather.

"See they counted this unit fairly well. Must have been using it."

"Yes, sir. It's operative. The Earl wore it all the time. Guess he kept
up his reputation as a fighter that way. Be pretty hard to nick anyone
with a sword if he had one of these running. And almost any clumsy
leatherhead could slash the other guy up if he didn't have to worry
about self-protection."

"I know." Meinora nodded quickly. "Seen it done. Anything more turned

"One more thing. This hand weapon came from the same abbey I got the
communicator from. I'd say it was pretty hopeless, too." Konar picked a
flame-scarred frame from his bag, then reached in again, to scoop up a
few odd bits of metal.

"It was in pieces when we picked it up," he explained. "They kept it
clean, but they couldn't get the flame pits out and reassembly was a
little beyond them."

"Beyond us too, by now." Meinora looked curiously at the object. "Looks
as though a couple of the boys shot it out."

"Guess they did, sir. Not once, but several times." Konar shrugged.
"Malendes tells me he picked up several like this." He cocked his head
to one side.

"Say, chief, how many of these things were kicking around on this
unlucky planet?"

Meinora grimaced. "As far as we can determine, there were ninety-two
operative sets originally issued. Each of the original native operatives
was equipped with a mentacom and a body shield. Each of the eight
operating teams had a communicator and three hand weapons, and the
headquarters group had a flier, three communicators, a field detector
set, and six hand weapons. Makes quite an equipment list."

"Any tools or maintenance equipment?"

Meinora shook his head. "Just operator manuals. And those will have
deteriorated long ago. An inspection team was supposed to visit once a
cycle for about fifty cycles, then once each five cycles after that.
They would have taken care of maintenance. This operation was set up
quite a while ago, you know. Operatives get a lot more training now--and
we don't use so many of them."

"So, something went wrong." Konar looked at the equipment on the bench.
"How?" he asked. "How could it have happened?"

"Oh, we've got the sequence of events pretty well figured out by now."
Meinora got to his feet. "Of course, it's a virtually impossible
situation--something no one would believe could happen. But it did." He
looked thoughtfully at the ruined communicator.

"You know the history of the original operation on this planet?"

"Yes, sir. I looked it over. Planet was checked out by Exploration. They
found a couple of civilizations in stasis and another that was about to
go that way. Left alone, the natives'd have reverted to a primitive
hunter stage--if they didn't go clear back to the caves. And when they
did come up again, they'd have been savage terrors."

"Right. So a corps of native operatives was set up by Philosophical, to
upset the stasis and hold a core of knowledge till the barbaric period
following the collapse of one of the old empires was over. One
civilization on one continent was chosen, because it was felt that its
impact on the rest of the planet would be adequate to insure progress,
and that any more extensive operation would tend to mold the planetary

Konar nodded. "The old, standard procedure. It usually worked better
than this, though. What happened this time?"

"The Merokian Confederation happened."

"But their penetration was nowhere near here."

"No, it wasn't. But they did attack Sector Nine. And they did destroy
the headquarters. You remember that?"

"Yes, sir. I read about it in school. We lost a lot of people on that
one." Konar frowned. "Long before my time in the Corps, of course, but I
studied up on it. They used some sort of screen that scrambled the
detectors, didn't they?"

"Something like that. Might have been coupled with someone's
inattention, too. But that's unimportant now. The important thing is
that the sector records were destroyed during the attack."

"Sure. But how about the permanent files that were forwarded to
Aldebaran depository?"

Meinora smiled grimly. "Something else that couldn't happen. We're still
looking for traces of that courier ship. I suppose they ran afoul of a
Merokian task force, but there's nothing to go on. They just
disappeared." He picked up the mental communicator, examining the signs
of aging.

"One by one," he continued, "the case files and property records of
Sector Nine are being reconstructed. Every guardsman even remotely
associated with the Sector before the attack is being interviewed, and a
lot of them are working on the reconstruction. It's been a long job, but
we're nearly done now. This is one of the last planets to be located and
rechecked, and it's been over a period since the last visit they've had
from any of our teams. On this planet, that's some fifty-odd
generations. Evidently the original operatives didn't demolish their
equipment, and fifty some generations of descendants have messed things
up pretty thoroughly."

Konar looked at the bench. Besides the equipment he had just brought in,
there were other items, all in varying stages of disrepair and ruin.

"Yes, sir," he agreed. "If this is a sample, and if the social
conditions I've seen since I joined the team are typical, they have. Now

"We've been picking up equipment. Piece by piece, we've been accounting
for every one of those items issued. Some of 'em were lost. Some of 'em
probably wore out and were discarded, or were burned--like this, only
more so." Meinora pointed at the wrecked communicator.

"Local legends tell us about violent explosions, so we know a few
actually discharged. And we've tracked down the place where the flier
cracked up and bit out a hole the size of a barony. Those items are gone
without trace." He sighed.

"That introduces an uncertainty factor, of course, but the equipment in
the hands of natives, and the stuff just lying around in deserted areas
has to be tracked down. This planet will develop a technology some day,
and we don't want anything about to raise questions and doubts when it
does. The folklore running around now is bad enough. When we get the
equipment back, we've got to clean up the social mess left by the
descendants of those original operatives."

"Nice job."

"Very nice. We'll be busy for a long time." Meinora picked up a small
tape reel. "Just got this," he explained. "That's why I was waiting for
you here. It's an account of a mentacom and shield that got away.
Probably stolen about twenty years ago, planetary. We're assigned to
track it down and pick it up."

He turned to speak to a technician, who was working at another bench.

"You can have this stuff now. Bring in some more pretty soon."

* * * * *

Flor, the beater, was bone weary. The shadows were lengthening, hiding
the details in the thickets, and all the hot day, he had been thrusting
his way through thicket after thicket, in obedience to the instructions
of the foresters. He had struck trees with his short club and had
grunted and squealed, to startle the khada into flight. A few of the
ugly beasts had come out, charging into the open, to be run down and
speared by the nobles.

And Flor had tired of this hunt, as he had tired of many other hunts in
the past. Hunting the savage khada, he thought resentfully, might be
an amusing sport for the nobles. But to a serf, it was hard,
lung-bursting work at best. At worst, it meant agonizing death beneath
trampling hoofs and rending teeth.

To be sure, there would be meat at the hunting lodge tonight, in plenty,
and after the hunt dinner, he and the other serfs might take bits of the
flesh home to their families. But that would be after the chores in the
scullery were over. It would be many hours before Flor would be able to
stumble homeward.

He relaxed, to enjoy the short respite he had gained by evading the
forester. Sitting with his back to a small tree, he closed his eyes and
folded his thick arms over his head. Of course, he would soon be found,
and he would have to go back to the hunt. But this forester was a dull,
soft fellow. He could be made to believe Flor's excuse that he had
become lost for a time, and had been searching the woods for the other

The underbrush rustled and Flor heard the sound of disturbed leaves and
heavy footfalls. A hunting charger was approaching, bearing one of the
hunters. Quickly, Flor rose to his feet, sidling farther back into the
thicket. Possibly, he might remain unseen. He peered out through the

The mounted man was old and evidently tired from the long day's hunt. He
swayed a little in his saddle, then recovered and looked about him,
fumbling at his side for his horn. His mount raised its head and beat a
forefoot against the ground. The heavy foot made a deep, thumping noise
and leaves rustled and rose in a small cloud.

Flor sighed and started forward reluctantly. It was the Earl, himself.
It might be possible to hide from another, but Flor knew better than to
try to conceal his presence from the old nobleman. The Earl could detect
any person in his vicinity, merely by their thoughts, as Flor well knew
from past experience. He also knew how severe the punishment would be if
he failed to present himself immediately. He pushed a branch aside with
a loud rustle.

Startled by the noise, a husa, which had been hiding beneath a nearby
bush, raced into the open. The small animal dashed madly toward the
Earl, slid wildly almost under the charger's feet, and put on a fresh
burst of speed, to disappear into the underbrush. The huge beast
flinched away, then reared wildly, dashing his rider's head against a
tree limb.

The elderly man slipped in his saddle, reached shakily for his belt,
missed, and lost his seat, to crash heavily to the ground.

Flor rushed from his thicket. With the shock of the fall, the Earl's
coronet had become dislodged from his head and lay a short distance from
the inert form. Flor picked it up, turning it in his hands and looking
at it.

* * * * *

Curiously, he examined the golden circlet, noting the tiny bosses inset
in the band. Many times, he had watched from a dark corner at the
hunting lodge, neglecting his scullery duties, while the Earl showed the
powers of this coronet to his elder son. Sometimes, he had been caught
by the very powers the circlet gave to the old nobleman, and he winced
as he remembered the strong arm of the kitchen master, and the skill
with which he wielded a strap. But on other occasions, the Earl had been
so engrossed in explaining the device as to neglect the presence of the

He had told of the ability given him to read the thoughts of others, and
even to strongly influence their actions. And Flor had gone back to his
labors, to dream of what he would do if he, rather than the Earl, were
the possessor of the powerful talisman.

And now, he had it in his hands.

A daring idea occurred to him, and he looked around furtively. He was
alone with the Earl. The old man was breathing stertorously, his mouth
wide open. His face was darkening, and the heavy jowls were becoming
purple. Obviously, he was capable of little violence.

In sudden decision, Flor knelt beside the body. His hand, holding the
short club above the Earl's throat, trembled uncontrollably. He wanted
to act--had to act now--but his fear made him nauseated and weak. For a
moment, his head seemed to expand and to lighten as he realized the
enormity of his intent. This was one of the great nobles of the land,
not some mere animal.

The heavily lidded eyes beneath him fluttered, started to open.

With a sob of effort, Flor dashed his club downward, as though striking
a husa. The Earl shivered convulsively, choked raspingly, and was
suddenly limp and still. The labored breathing stopped and his eyes
opened reluctantly, to fix Flor with a blank stare.

The serf leaped back, then hovered over the body, club poised to strike
again. But the old man was really dead. Flor shook his head. Men, he
thought in sudden contempt, died easily. It was not so with the husa,
or the khada, who struggled madly for life, often attacking their
killer and wounding him during their last efforts.

Flor consigned this bit of philosophy to his memory for future use and
set to work removing the heavy belt worn by the Earl. This, he knew, was
another potent talisman, which could guard its wearer from physical harm
when its bosses were pushed.

The murderer smiled sardonically. It was well for him that the old
nobleman had failed to press those bosses, otherwise this opportunity
probably would never have been presented. He stood up, holding the belt
in his hand. Such a thing as this, he told himself, could make him a
great man.

He examined the belt, noting the long metal case, with its engraving and
its bosses. At last, he grunted and fastened it about his own waist. He
pressed the bosses, then threw himself against a tree.

Something slowed his fall, and he seemed to be falling on a soft mat. He
caught his balance and rested against the tree, nodding in satisfaction.
Later, he could experiment further, but now he had other things to do.

He examined the coronet again, remembering that there was something
about its bosses, too. He looked closely at them, then pressed. One boss
slid a little under his finger and he felt a faint, unfamiliar sense of

He put the coronet on his head and shuddered a little as the awareness
increased to an almost painful intensity. The forest was somehow more
clear to him than it had ever been. He seemed to understand many things
which he had heard or experienced, but which had been vague before. And
memory crowded upon him. He stood still, looking around.

At the edge of his mind was vague, uneasy wonder, obviously not his own
thought. There was a dim caricature of himself standing over the body of
the Earl. And there was a feeling of the need to do something without
understanding of what was to be done, or why.

He could remember clearly now, the Earl's explanations of the action of
the coronet. One incident stood out--a time when the old man, having
overindulged in the local wine, had demonstrated his ability to divine
the thoughts of others. Flor twitched a little in painful recollection.
The kitchen master had been especially enthusiastic in his use of the
strap that night.

The Earl's mount was eying Flor, who realized without knowing just how,
that the vague images and rudimentary thoughts were a reflection of the
beast's mind. He looked over at the thicket into which the little
animal which had started the charger, was hiding. It was still there,
and he could feel a sense of fearful wonder, a desire to be gone,
coupled with a fear of being discovered.

Again, he looked about the woods. In a way, the husa and he were akin.
It would be bad if he were caught here, too. To be sure, he would be
hard to capture, with his new protection, but many men would hunt him.
And some of them would be other Earls, or possibly some of the great
abbots, who had their own coronets and belts, and possibly other things
of great power. These, he knew, might be too much for him. He slunk into
the thicket, looked down the hill, and decided on a course which would
avoid the paths of the foresters.

As he walked, he plotted methods of using his new-found powers. He
considered idea after idea--then discarded them and sought further. With
his new awareness, he could see flaws in plans which would have seemed
perfect to him only a few short hours before.

First, he realized he would have to learn to control his new powers. He
would have to learn the ways of the nobility, their manners and their
customs. And he would have to find a disguise which would allow him to
move about the land. Serfs were too likely to be questioned by the first
passer-by who noticed them. Serfs belonged on the land--part of it!

He hid in the bushes at the side of a path as a group of free swordsmen
went by. As he watched them, a plan came to him. He examined it
carefully, finally deciding it would do.

* * * * *

The man-at-arms sauntered through the forest, swaying a little as he
walked. He sang in a gravelly voice, pausing now and then to remember a
new verse.

Flor watched him as he approached, allowing the man's thoughts to enter
his own consciousness. They were none too complicated. The man was a
free swordsman, his sword unemployed at the moment. He still had
sufficient money to enjoy the forest houses for a time, then he would
seek service with the Earl of Konewar, who was rumored to be planning a

The man swayed closer, finally noticing Flor. He paused in mid stride,
eying the escaped serf up and down.

"Now, here's something strange indeed," he mused. He looked closely at
Flor's face.

"Tell me, my fellow, tell me this: How is it you wear the belt and
coronet of a great noble, and yet have no other garment than the shift
of a serf?"

As Flor looked at him insolently, he drew his sword.

"Come," he demanded impatiently, "I must have answer, else I take you to
a provost. Possibly his way of finding your secret would be to your
liking, eh?"

Flor drew a deep breath and waited. Here was the final test of his new
device. He had experimented, finding that even the charge of a khada
was harmless to him. Now, he would find if a sword could be rendered
harmless. At the approach of the man, he had pressed the boss on his
belt. The man seemed suddenly a little uncertain, so Flor spoke.

"Why, who are you," he demanded haughtily, "to question the doings of
your betters? Away with you, before I spit you with your own sword."

The man shook his head, smiling sarcastically. "Hah!" he said,
approaching Flor. "I know that accent. It stinks of the scullery. Tell
me, Serf, where did you steal that----"

He broke off, climaxing his question with an abrupt swing of the sword.
Then, he fell back in surprise. Flor had thrust a hand out to ward off
the blow, and the sword had been thrown back violently. The rebound tore
it from its amazed owner's hand, and it thudded to the ground. The
man-at-arms looked at it stupidly.

Flor sprang aside, scooping up the weapon before the man could recover.

"Now," he cried, "stand quite still. I shall have business with you."

The expression on the man's face told of something more than mere
surprise which held him quiet. Here was proof of the powers of the
coronet. Flor looked savagely at his captive.

"Take off your cap."

Reluctantly, the man's hand came up. He removed his steel cap, holding
it in his hand as he faced his captor.

"That is fine." Flor pressed his advantage. "Now, your garments. Off
with them!"

The swordsman was nearly his size. Both of them had the heavy build of
their mountain stock, and the garments of the free swordsman would do
for Flor's purpose, even though they might not fit him perfectly. Who
expected one of these roving soldiers of fortune to be dressed in the
height of style? They were fighters, not models to show off the tailor's

Flor watched as his prisoner started to disrobe, then pulled off his own
single garment, carefully guiding it through the belt at his waist, so
as not to disturb the talisman's powers.

He threw the long shirt at the man before him.

"Here," he ordered. "Put this on."

He sensed a feeling of deep resentment--of hopeless rebellion. He
repeated his demand, more emphatically.

"Put it on, I say!"

As the man stood before him, dressed in the rough shift of a serf, Flor
smiled grimly.

"And now," he said, "none will worry too much about a mere serf, or look
too closely into his fate. Here."

He slashed out with the sword, awkwardly, but effectively.

"I shall have to find a new name," he told himself as he dressed in the
garments of his victim. "No free swordsman would have a name like Flor.
They all have two names."

He thought of the names he had heard used by the guards of the Earl.
Flor, he thought, could be part of a name. But one of the swordsmen
would make it Floran, or possibly Florel. They would be hunters, or
slayers of elk--not simply elk. He looked at the steel cap in his hands.
An iron hat--deri kuna.

"So," he told himself, "I shall be Florel Derikuna."

He inspected his new garments, being sure they hid the belt, and yet
left the bosses available to easy reach. At last, he put on the iron
cap. It covered the coronet, effectively hiding it.

Taking up the sword, he replaced it in its scabbard and swaggered
through the forest, imitating the man-at-arms' song.

At one stroke, he had improved his status infinitely. Now, he could roam
the land unquestioned, so long as he had money. He smiled to himself.
There was money in his scrip, and there would be but slight problems
involved in getting more. Tonight, he would sleep in a forest house,
instead of huddling in a thicket.

* * * * *

As the days passed, to grow into weeks and then, months, Florel wandered
over the land. Sometimes, he took service with a captain, who would
engage in a campaign. Sometimes, he took service with one of the lesser
nobility. A few times, he ran with the bands of the forest and road, to
rob travelers. But he was cautious to avoid the great Earls, realizing
the danger of detection.

Always, he kept his direction to the east, knowing that he would have to
reach the sea and cross to the eastern land before he could feel
completely safe. His store of money and of goods grew, and he hoarded it
against the time when he would use it.

Sometimes, he posed as a merchant, traveling the land with the caravans.
But always, he followed his path eastward.

* * * * *

Florel Derikuna looked back at the line of pack animals. It had been a
long trip, and a hard one. He smiled grimly to himself as he remembered
the last robber attack. For a time, he had thought the caravan guard was
going to be overwhelmed. He might have had to join with the robbers, as
he had done before. And that would have delayed his plans. He looked
ahead again, toward the hill, crowned with its great, stone castle.

This, then, was the land of the east--the farthest march of the land of
the east. It had taken him a long, cautious time to get here. And he had
spent his days in fear of a searching party from Budorn, even when he
had reached the seacoast itself. But here, he would be safe. None from
this land had ever been even to the mountainous backbone of his own
land, he was sure. And certainly, there would be no travelers who had
guided their steps from here to faraway Budorn and back.

None here knew Budorn, excepting him. Flor, the serf--now Florel
Derikuna, swordsman at large--was in a new land. And he would take a
new, more useful identity. He looked at the stone buildings of the town
and its castle.

They were not unlike the castles and towns of his native land, he
thought. There were differences, of course, but only in the small
things. And he had gotten used to those by now. He had even managed to
learn the peculiar language of the country. He smiled again. That
coronet he always wore beneath his steel cap had served him well. It had
more powers than he had dreamed of when he had first held it in his
hands in those distant woods.

Here in Dweros, he thought, he could complete his change. Here, he could
take service with the Duke as a young man of noble blood, once afflicted
with a restless urge for travel, but now ready to establish himself. By
now, he had learned to act. It had not been for nothing that he had
carefully studied the ways of the nobility.

The caravan clattered through the gate beneath the castle, twisted
through the streets just beyond the wall, and stopped in the market
place. Derikuna urged his mount ahead and confronted the merchant.

"Here is my destination," he said. "So, we'll settle up, and I'll be on
my way."

The merchant looked at him with a certain amount of relief. The man, he
knew, was a tough fighter. His efforts had been largely the cause of the
failure of bandits to capture the caravan only a few days before. But
there was something about him that repelled. He was a man to be feared,
not liked. Somehow, the merchant felt he was well rid of this guard,
despite his demonstrated ability. He reached into his clothing and
produced two bags.

"We hate to lose you, Derikuna," he dissembled. "Here is your normal
wage." He held out one bag. "And this second purse is a present, in
memory of your gallant defense of the caravan."

Derikuna smiled sardonically. "Thank you," he said, "and good trading."
He reined away.

He had caught the semi-fearful thoughts. Well, that was nothing unusual.
Everybody became fearful of the iron hat sooner or later. Here, they
would learn to respect him, too. Though their respect would be for a
different name. Nor would they be able to deny him aught. They might not
like him. That, he had no interest in. They'd do his will. And they'd
never forget him.

He rode to an inn, where he ordered food and lodging. His meal over, he
saw to his beasts, then had a servant take his baggage to his room.

* * * * *

Shortly after daybreak, he awoke. He blinked at the light, stirred
restlessly, and got out of bed. Rubbing his eyes, he walked to the other
side of the room.

For a few minutes, he looked at the trough in the floor and the water
bucket standing near it. At last, he shrugged and started splashing
water over himself. This morning, he spent more time than usual, being
sure that no vestige of beard was left on his face, and that he was
perfectly clean. He completed his bath by dashing perfumed water over
his entire body.

He opened his traveling chest, picking out clothing he had worn but few
times, and those in private. At last, he examined his reflection in a
mirror, and nodded in satisfaction.

"Truly," he told himself, "a fine example of western nobility."

He picked out a few expensive ornaments from his chest, then locked it
again and left the inn.

He guided his mount through the narrow streets to the castle gate, where
he confronted a sleepy, heavily-armed sentry.

"Send word to the castle steward," he ordered, throwing his riding cloak
back, "that Florel, younger son of the Earl of Konewar, would pay his
respects to your master, the Duke of Dwerostel."

The man eyed him for a moment, then straightened and grounded his pike
with a crash.

"It shall be done, sir." He turned and struck a gong.

A guard officer came through the tunnel under the wall. For a moment, he
looked doubtful, then he spoke respectfully and ushered Derikuna through
the inner court to a small apartment, where he turned him over to a

"You wish audience with His Excellency?"

"I do, My Man. I wish to pay him my respects, and those of my father,
the Earl of Konewar." Derikuna looked haughtily at the man.

Like the guard officer, the steward seemed doubtful. For a few seconds,
he seemed about to demur. Then, he bowed respectfully.

"Very well, sir." With a final, curious glance at the coronet which
shone in Florel's hair, the steward clapped his hands. A page hurried
into the room and bowed.

"Your orders, sir?"

"We have a noble guest. Bring refreshment, at once." The steward waved
to a table. "If Your Honor will wait here?"

Florel inclined his head, strode to a chair, and sat down. He looked
amusedly after the disappearing steward. The coronet of the old Earl, he
thought, was a truly potent talisman. Even the disdainful stewards of
castles bowed to its force. And, thought the impostor, so would his
master--when the time came.

* * * * *

The page reappeared with a flagon of wine and some cakes. Florel was
sampling them when the steward returned. The man bowed respectfully,
waited for Florel to finish his wine, and led the way through a corridor
to a heavy pair of doors, which he swung open.

"Florel, Son of Konewar," he announced ceremoniously.

The Duke flipped a bone to one of his dogs, shoved his plate aside, and
looked up. Florel walked forward a few paces, stopped, and bowed low.

"Your Excellency."

As he straightened, he realized that he was the object of an intense
scrutiny. At last, the Duke nodded.

"We had no notice of your coming."

Florel smiled. "I have been traveling alone, Excellency, and incognito.
For some years, I have been wandering, to satisfy my desire to see the
world." He glanced down at his clothing.

"I arrived in your town last evening, and delayed only to make myself
presentable before appearing to pay my respects."

"Very good. Punctuality in meeting social obligations is a mark of good
breeding." The Duke eyed Florel's costume.

"Tell me, young man, do all your nobility affect the insignia you wear?"

Florel's hand rose to his coronet. "Only members of the older families,

"I see." The nobleman nodded thoughtfully. "We have heard rumors of your
fashions in dress, though no member of any of the great families of
your realm has ever come so far before. We are somewhat isolated here."
He looked sharply at the younger man.

"Rumor also has it that this is more than mere insignia you wear. I have
heard it said that your ornaments give more than mortal powers to their
wearer. Is this true?"

Florel hesitated for an instant, then recognized the desired response.
Of course this eastern noble would not welcome the thought that there
were others who had greater powers than he. And he would certainly
resent any suggestions that a young visitor to his court had such

"Oh, that," he said easily. "Legends, really. The truth is that the
wearing of the coronet and belt is restricted to members of the older,
more honorable families. And even these must prove their ability at arms
and statecraft before being invested with the insignia. Too, knowledge
of long lineage and gentle birth makes a man more bold--possibly even
more skillful than the average." He smiled ingratiatingly.

"You, yourself, recognize your own superiority in all ways over your
retainers, your vassals, and your townspeople. And so are we above the
common man. This insignia is but the outward symbol of that

The Duke nodded, satisfied. He waved a hand.

"Sit down, young man. You must remain at our court for a time. We are
hungry for news of the distant lands."

Florel congratulated himself. Well embellished gossip, he had found, was
a popular form of entertainment in camp and court alike, and his store
of gossip was large and carefully gathered. Here at Dweros, far from the
center of the kingdom, his store of tales would last for a long
time--probably as long as he needed.

During the days and nights that followed, he exerted himself to gain the
favor of the Duke and his household. Much of his time, he spent
entertaining others with his tales. But he kept his own ears and eyes
open. He became a constant visitor at the castle, finally being offered
the use of one of the small apartments, which he graciously accepted.
And, of course, he was invited to join the hunts.

Hunting, he discovered, could be a pleasant pastime--so long as it was
another who was doing the hard work of beating. And his own experience
as a beater proved valuable. He was familiar with the ways and the
haunts of animals. What had once been a matter of survival became a road
to acclaim. He was known before long as a skillful, daring hunter.

* * * * *

At length, he decided the time was right to talk to the Duke of more
serious things. The duchy was at the very border of the kingdom. To the
north lay territory occupied only by barbaric tribes, who frequently
descended on the northern baronies, to rob travelers of their goods, or
to loot villages. Having secured their loot, the tribesmen retreated to
their mountains before a fighting force could come up with them.

Florel came upon the Duke while he was considering the news of one of
these raids.

"Your Excellency, these border raids could be halted. A strong hand is
all that is needed, at the right place. A determined knight, established
on the Menstal, could command the river crossing and the pass, thus
preventing either entry or exit."

"To be sure." The Duke sighed wearily. "But the mountains of Menstal are
inhospitable. Knights have occupied the heights, protecting the border
for a time, to be sure, but the land has always escheated to the duchy.
A small watchtower is kept manned even now, but it's a hungry land, and
one which would drain even a baron's funds. I have no knight who wants

Florel smiled. He had plans concerning the Menstal, and the great river,
the Nalen, which raced between high cliffs.

"The merchants, who use the Nalen for their shipments, would welcome
protection from the robber bands, I think, as would the travelers of the

"And?" The Duke looked at him thoughtfully.

"Possibly a small tax?" Florel smiled deprecatingly. "Sufficient to
maintain a garrison?"

"And who would collect the tax?"

"That, Excellency, I could arrange. I have funds, adequate to garrison
the tower of the Menstal, and even to make it livable for a considerable
force of men. And I believe I could maintain and increase a garrison
there that would serve to hold the barbarians at bay."

"Let me think this over." The Duke sat back, toying with his cup. "It is
true," he mused, "that Menstal is the key to the border. And the small
garrison there has proved expensive and ineffective." He tapped the cup
on the table, then set it down and looked about the apartment. Finally,
he looked up at Florel.

"You have our permission to try your scheme," he decided. "We will
invest you with the barony of Menstal."

* * * * *

Konar paused at the castle gate. It had been pure chance, he knew, that
they had noticed this bit of equipment. The east coast earldom was
known, of course, but somehow, searchers had failed to discover that the
Earl held any equipment. Konar shrugged. He probably hadn't inherited
it, but had gotten it by chance, and his possession of the mentacom and
shield weren't commonly known.

"Well," he told himself, "we know about it now. I'll make a routine
pickup, and he won't have it any more."

A pair of weary sentries stood just inside the heavy doors. One shifted
his weight, to lean partially on his pike, partially against the
stonework. Idly, he looked out at the road which led through the
village, staring directly through the place where Konar stood.

Konar smiled to himself. "Good thing I've got my body shield modulated
for full refraction," he told himself. "He'd be a little startled if he
should see me."

The sentry yawned and relaxed still more, sliding down a little, till he
sat on a slightly protruding stone. His companion looked over at him.

"Old Marnio sees you like that," he muttered warningly, "makes lashes."

The other yawned again. "No matter. He'll be drowsing inside, where it's
warm. Be a long time before he comes out to relieve."

Konar nodded amusedly. The castle guard, he gathered, was a little less
than perfectly alert. This would be simple. He touched the controls of
his body shield to raise himself a few inches above the cobblestones,
and floated between the two sentries, going slowly to avoid making a

Once inside, he decided to waste no more time. Of course, he would have
to wait inside the Earl's sleeping room till the man slept, but there
was no point in waiting out here. He passed rapidly through the outer
ward, ignoring the serfs and retainers who walked between the dwellings
nestled against the wall.

The inner gate had been closed for the night, so he lifted and went over
the wall.

He looked around, deciding that the Earl's living quarters would be in
the wooden building at the head of the inner courtyard. As he
approached, he frowned. The windows were tightly closed against the
night air. He would have to enter through the doors, and a young squire
blocked that way. The lad was talking to a girl.

There was nothing to do but wait, so Konar poised himself a few feet
from them. They'd go inside eventually, and he would float in after
them. Then, he could wait until the Earl was asleep.

After that, it would be a simple, practiced routine. The small hand
weapon he carried would render the obsolete body shield ineffective, if
necessary, and a light charge would assure that the man wouldn't awaken.
It would be the work of a few minutes to remove the equipment the man
had, to substitute the purely ornamental insignia, and to sweep out of
the room, closing the window after him. Konar hoped it would stay
closed. The Earl might be annoyed if it flew open, to expose him to the
dreaded night air.

In the morning, the Earl would waken, innocent of any knowledge of his
visitor. He would assume his talismans had simply lost their powers due
to some occult reason, as many others had during recent times.

Idly, Konar listened to the conversation of the two before him.

* * * * *

The squire was telling the girl of his prowess in the hunt. Tomorrow, he
announced, he would accompany the Earl's honored guest from the eastern

"And I'm the one that can show him the best coverts," he boasted. "His
Grace did well to assign me to the Duke."

The girl lifted her chin disdainfully. "Since you're such a great
hunter," she told him, "perchance you could find my brooch, which I lost
in yonder garden." She turned to point at the flower-bordered patch of
berry bushes at the other end of the court. In so doing, she faced
directly toward Konar.

She was a pretty girl, he thought. His respect for the young squire's
judgment grew. Any man would admire the slender, well featured face
which was framed within a soft cloud of dark, well combed hair. She
looked quite different from the usual girls one saw in this country.
Possibly, she was of eastern descent, Konar thought.

The girl's eyes widened and her mouth flew open, making her face
grotesquely gaunt. Abruptly, she was most unpretty. For a few
heartbeats, she stood rigidly, staring at Konar. Then she put her hands
to her face, her fingers making a rumpled mess of her hair. Her eyes,
fixed and with staring pupils, peered between her fingers. And she

Konar felt suddenly faint, as though the girl's horror was somehow
communicated to him. The scream reverberated through his brain, rising
in an intolerable crescendo, blotting out other sensory perception. He
fought to regain control of his fading senses, but the castle court
blurred and he felt himself slipping into unconsciousness. He started
sliding down an endless, dark chute, ending in impenetrable blackness.

* * * * *

Suddenly, the black dissolved into a flash of unbearably brilliant
light, and Konar's eyes closed tightly.

He was alertly conscious again, but his head ached, and he felt
reluctant, even unable, to open his eyes. Even closed, they ached from
the brilliant spots which snapped into being before them. He shuddered,
bringing his head down to his breast, gripping it with shaking hands,
and breathing with uneven effort.

This was like nothing he had ever met before. He would have to get back
to the others--find out what had happened to him--get help.

He concentrated on his eyelids, forcing them open. A crowd was
gathering, to look accusingly at the squire, who supported the fainting
girl in his arms. Her eyes fluttered weakly, and she struggled to regain
her feet.

"That awful thing! It's right over there!" She pointed at Konar.

Again, the unbearable ululation swept through his mind. Convulsively, he
swept his hand to his shield controls, fighting to remain conscious just
long enough to set his course up and away.

Before he was able to move and think with anything approaching
normality, he was far above the earth. He looked at the tiny castle far
below, noticing that from his altitude, it looked like some child's toy,
set on a sand hill, with bits of moss strewed about to make a realistic
picture. He shivered. His head still ached dully, and he could still
hear echoes of the horrified screaming.

"I don't know what it was," he told himself, "but I hope I never run
into anything like that again."

He located the hill which concealed the flier, and dropped rapidly
toward it.

As he entered, the pilot noticed him.

"Well, that was a quick mission," he commented. "How'd you----" He
looked at Konar's pain-lined face. "Hey, what's the matter, youngster?
You look like the last end of a bad week."

Konar tried to smile, but it didn't work very well.

"I ran into something, Barskor," he said. "Didn't complete my mission. I
don't know what happened, but I hope it never happens again."

Barskor looked at him curiously, then turned. "Chief," he called,
"something's gone wrong. Konar's been hurt."

* * * * *

Meinora listened to Konar's story, then shook his head unhappily.

"You ran into a transvisor, I'm afraid. We didn't think there were any
on this planet." He paused. "There were definitely none discovered to
the west, and we looked for them. But now, we're close to the east
coast, and you said that girl looked eastern. The eastern continent may
be loaded with 'em."

Konar looked curious. "A transvisor? I never heard of them."

"They're rather rare. You only find them under special conditions, and
those conditions, we thought, are absent here. But when you find one,
you can be sure there are more. It runs in families. You see, they're
beings with a completely wild talent. They can be any age, any species,
or of any intelligence, but they're nearly always female. Visibility
refraction just doesn't work right for their senses, and they can cause
trouble." He looked closely at Konar.

"You were lucky to get away. A really terrified transvisor could kill
you, just as surely as a heavy caliber blaster."

Konar shivered. "I believe it. But why are they called 'transvisors'?"

"The name's somewhat descriptive, even if it is incomplete. As I said,
visibility refraction doesn't work right in their case. Somehow, they
pick up visual sensation right through a screen, regardless of its
adjustment. But things seen through a screen are distorted, and look
abnormal to them. Unless they're used to it, they get frightened when
they see a person with a refracted body shield. That's when the trouble

Konar nodded in understanding. "You mean, they transmit their fear?"

"They do. And they'll shock excite a mentacom, completely distorting its
wave pattern. If they remain conscious and scared, their fear is deadly
to its object." Meinora drew a deep breath.

"As I said, you were lucky. The girl fainted and let you get away." He
shrugged and turned to Barskor.

"We'll have to change our mode of operation," he added. "We'll pick up
the Earl's mentacom and belt at the hunt tomorrow. Find him alone,
knock him out with a paralyzer, and give him parahypnosis afterward.
It's not so good, but it's effective. But be sure you are alone, and
don't try to use visual refraction under any circumstance. Be better to
be seen, if it comes to that. There might be another transvisor around."
He kicked gently at the seat beside him.

"This was just a secondary job, done in passing," he said, "but it's a
good thing we found this out when we did. It'll change our whole primary
plan. Now, we'll have to slog it out the hard way. On no account can
anyone refract. It might be suicide. We'll have to talk to travelers. We
want to know what abnormal or unusual developments have taken place in
what country in the last twenty years. Then, we'll have to check them
out. We've got a lot of work to do." He looked around. "Ciernar."

"Yes, sir?" The communications operator looked up.

"Send in a report on this to Group. Make it 'operational.'"

Konar tilted his head a little. "Say, chief, you said the transvisor's
fear was amplified by my mentacom. What if I wasn't wearing one?"

"You wouldn't feel a thing," Meinora smiled. "But don't get any ideas.
Without amplification, you couldn't control your shield properly. You'd
have protection, but your refraction control's entirely mental, and
levitation direction depends on mental, not physical control, remember?"

"But how about you? You don't use amplification. Neither do several of
the other team chiefs."

Meinora shrugged. "No," he admitted, "we don't need it, except in
abnormal circumstances. But we don't go around scaring transvisors. They
can't kill us, but they can make us pretty sick. You see we're a little
sensitive in some ways." He shook his head. "No, the only advantage I've
got is that I can spot a transvisor by her mental pattern--if I get
close enough. There's a little side radiation that can be detected,
though it won't pass an amplifier. When you've felt it once, you'll
never forget it. Makes you uncomfortable." He smiled wryly.

"And you can believe me," he added, "when I do get close to a
transvisor, I'm very, very careful not to frighten her."

* * * * *

Winter passed, and spring, and summer came. Nal Gerda, Officer of the
Guard, stood on the small wharf below the old watchtower. He looked
across the narrows, examined the cliff opposite him, then looked upward
at the luminous sky. There were a few small clouds, whose fleecy
whiteness accentuated the clear blue about them. Brilliant sunshine
bathed the wharf and tower, driving away the night mists.

It would not be long before the new guard came down the cliff. Gerda
stretched and drew a deep breath, savoring the summer morning air. Now,
it was pleasant, a happy contrast to the sullen skies and biting winter
winds he had faced a few short months ago.

For a time, he looked at the green atop the cliffs, then he transferred
his attention upriver, toward the bend where the Nalen came out of the
pass to blow between the iron cliffs of Menstal. The water flowed
swiftly in the narrows, throwing off white glints as its ripples caught
the sunlight, then deepening to a dark blue where it came into the
shadow of the cliffs.

A sudden call sounded from the lookout far above, and the officer
wheeled about, looking to the great chain which stretched from tower to
cliff, to block river traffic. It was in proper position, and Gerda
looked back at the bend.

As he watched, a long, low barge drifted into sight, picking up speed as
it came into the rapid current. Polemen balanced themselves alertly in
the bow, their long sticks poised to deflect their course from any
threatening rocks.

Gerda threw off the almost poetical admiration of beauty that had
possessed him a moment before and faced the guard house, from whence
came a scuffle of feet and the clank of arms, to tell of the guard's

"Turn out the Guard." Gerda drew himself up into a commanding pose.

A group of men-at-arms marched stiffly out, followed by a pair of serfs.
The leader saluted Gerda with upraised hand.

"The Guard is ready, My Captain," he proclaimed. "May the tax be rich."

Gerda returned the salute. "It will be," he stated positively. "These
merchants have learned by now that to insult Portal Menstal with poor
offerings is unwise in the extreme. And, mark me, they'll not forget!"

The barge approached and swung in toward the wharf in obedience to
Gerda's imperious gesture. One of the polemen jumped ashore, securing a
line to a bollard.

The steersman climbed to the dock, to halt a pace in front of Gerda. He
folded his hands and bowed his head submissively.

"Does Your Honor desire to inspect the cargo?"

"Of course." Gerda's haughty glance appraised the man from toe to crown.
"Quickly now. I've little time to waste." He glanced back at his clerk,
who had a tablet ready.

"Your name, Merchant?"

"Teron, of Krongert, may it please you, sir. I have been to----"

Gerda waved an impatient hand. "Save me your speech, Higgler," he said
curtly. "What's your cargo value?"

"Six thousand teloa, Your Honor. We have----"

"Unload it. I'll look at it." Gerda waved the man to silence.

* * * * *

As the bales of goods were placed on the wharf, Gerda examined them
critically. A few, he ordered set aside after a quick check and a few
questions. Others, he ordered opened and spread out. At last, satisfied
with his estimate of the cargo's valuation, he turned.

"Your choice, Merchant?"

"I would pay, Your Honor," said the man, "to the tenth part of my
cargo." He extended a leather bag.

"Don't haggle with me," snapped Gerda. "The tax is a fifth of your
cargo, as you should well know." His hand sought his sword hilt.

The merchant's face fell a little, and he produced a second bag, which
he held out to the officer. "I must apologize," he said. "I am new to
this land."

"See that you learn its customs quickly, then." Gerda handed the bags to
his clerk.

"Check these, Lor," he ordered. "I make it a thousand, six hundred

An expression of dismay crossed the merchant's face.

"Your Honor," he wailed, "my cargo is of but six thousand valuation. I
swear it."

Gerda stepped forward swiftly. His hand raised, to swing in a violent,
back-handed arc, his heavy rings furrowing the merchant's face. The man
staggered back, involuntarily raising a hand to his injured cheek.

As a couple of the men-at-arms raised their pikes to the ready, the
merchant righted himself, folded his hands again, and bowed in
obeisance. Blood trickled down his chin, a drop spattering on his
clothing. He ignored it.

"You would dispute my judgment?" Gerda drew his hand up for a second
blow. "Here is no market place for your sharp bargaining. For your
insolence, another five hundred teloa will be exacted. Make speed!"

The merchant shook his head dazedly, but offered no word of protest.
Silently, he dug into his possessions, to produce a third bag. For a
moment, he weighed it in his hand, then reached into it, to remove a few
loose coins. Without raising his head, he extended the bag to the
officer of the guard.

Gerda turned. Lor had gone into the guard house, to count the other two
bags. The officer raised his voice.

"Lor, get back out here. I've more for you to count."

He tossed the bag to the clerk, then stood, glaring at the unfortunate
trader. At last, he kicked the nearest bale.

"Well," he growled, "get this stuff off the wharf. What are you waiting

He watched the barge crew load, then turned. Lor came from the guard

"All is in order, My Captain."

"Very well." Gerda looked at him approvingly. Then, he swung to the
merchant, fixing him with a stern glare.

"We shall make note of your name, Merchant. See thou that you make
honest and accurate valuation in the future. Another time, we shall not
be so lenient. The dungeon of Menstal is no pleasant place."

He watched till the last of the bargeload was stowed, then nodded

"You may shove off," he said. He turned his head toward the tower.

"Down chain," he ordered loudly.

* * * * *

The windlass creaked protestingly and the heavy chain dropped slowly
into the river. The barge steered to the center of the channel,
gathering speed as it passed over the lowered chain.

When the barge had cleared, serfs inside the tower strained at the
windlass in obedience to the commands of their overseer, and the chain
rose jerkily, to regain its former position across the stream.

Gerda watched for a moment, then strode toward the guard house. He went
inside, to look at the bags of coin on the counting table.

"Cattle," he growled, "to think they could cheat the Baron Bel Menstal
of his just tax."

He stepped back out for a moment, to watch the merchant barge enter the
rapids beyond the chain. Then, he swung about and re-entered the tower.

Inside, he sat down at his counting table. He opened the bags, spilling
their contents out on the boards, and checked their count.

There were forty-eight over.

He turned to his clerk.

"What was your count, Lor?"

"Two thousand, one hundred, sir, and forty-eight."

"Very good." Gerda smiled a little. "For once in his thieving life, the
merchant was anxious to give full weight."

Lor spread his hands. "He'll get it back, and more, at Orieano, sir."

"Oh, to be sure." Gerda shrugged indifferently as he scooped the coins
back into the bags. He chose three small scraps of wood, scrawled tally
marks on them, and went over to a heavy chest.

Taking a key from his belt, he unlocked the chest and raised its lid. He
looked at the bags lying within, then tossed the new ones on top of
them. As he locked the chest again, he saw Lor go to his account board,
to enter the new collection.

The Officer of the Guard straightened, stretched for a moment, then
glanced critically in at the windlass room. The serfs had secured the
windlass and racked their poles. Now, they were sitting, hunched against
the wall, staring vacantly, in the manner of serfs. The guardroom, its
commander noted, was properly clean. He shrugged and walked out again to
the wharf. Once more, he looked at the iron cliffs opposite him, then
glanced downriver. The merchant barge had disappeared.

* * * * *

Beyond Menstal, the cliffs closed in still farther, to become more
rugged and to form a narrow gorge. Between them, the Nalen took a
tortuous course, turbulently fighting its way over the rocks.
Eventually, it would drop into the lowlands, to become a broad, placid
river, lowing quietly under the sunshine to water the fields of Orolies.
But during its passage through the mountains, it would remain a dark,
brawling torrent.

The merchant barge swept through the rapids just beyond Menstal, her
polemen deftly preventing disaster against the rocks. At last, as the
gorge became a little wider, the steersman guided his course toward a
small beach beneath the cliffs. With his free hand, he thoughtfully
rubbed his injured cheek.

As the boat's keel grated against gravel, he shook his head and stepped
forward. For a moment, he fumbled under a thwart, then he brought out a
small case.

"Konar," he called, "fix this thing up for me, will you?" He opened the
case and laid it on the thwart.

One of the polemen laid his stick down and came aft.

"Pretty nasty clip, wasn't it, sir?"

Meinora grinned. "Guy's got a heavy hand, all right," he admitted. "Made
me dizzy for a second. Almost got mad at him."

Konar raised an eyebrow. "I felt it," he said. "Good thing Ciernar and I
backed you up a little. Wouldn't help us much to knock out the baron's
river detachment right now, would it?" He reached into the case.

"Looks as though the merchants weren't exaggerating, if you ask me," he
added. He approached Meinora, a small swab in his hand.

"Hold still, sir," he instructed. "This'll sting for a few seconds." He
dabbed at the cut cheek, then reached back into the case for an

"Ouch!" Meinora winced. "Did you have to use that stuff full strength?
After all, I can wait a couple of hours for it to heal." He shook his
head as his companion turned back toward him, then dashed involuntary
tears from his eyes and blinked a few times to clear his vision.

"No," he added, "the merchants aren't exaggerating a bit on this one.
Bel Menstal's a pretty rough customer, and he keeps rough boys. Now,
we'll see whether he's the guy we've been looking for, the guy with our

Konar focused the small instrument on his superior's face, passing it
along the line of the jagged cut. "You didn't explain that part."

"Simple enough." Meinora grinned wolfishly. "Those coins were a
Vadris-Kendar alloy. Now that they're out of their force field, they'll
start to sublimate. In a couple of hours or so, they'll be gone, and
someone will be asking a lot of questions. Set up the detectors. If the
baron is the boy we think he is, we should be getting a fairly strong
reading shortly after that guard's relieved."

* * * * *

From somewhere atop the cliff, a bell tolled. The hoarse voice of the
lookout drifted down to the wharf.

"Relieve the guard."

Nal Gerda looked up. A line of men were coming down the steep path,
stepping cautiously as they wound about the sharp turns. Gerda nodded
and walked back into the guard room.

"Draw up your guard," he ordered.

He beckoned to two of the serfs.

"Take the chest," he directed, "and stay close in front of me."

Herding the bearers before him, he went out to the wharf. His guard was
drawn up in their proper station, facing upstream, so that they could
view both the steps from the cliff and the river. No traffic was in
sight in the long gorge.

The new guard came slowly down the trail, formed at the foot of the
steps, and marched to the tower portal. Their commander dressed their
ranks, motioned to his clerk, and came forward, saluting as he
approached Gerda.

"Anything unusual?"

"Nothing," Gerda told him. "Seven barges, this watch. Traders are
gathering for the fair at Orieano."

"I know," the other agreed. "We'll have rich collections for the rest of
the summer, what with fairs all down the valley. You'll be going to the
Orieano Fair?"

"Got my permission yesterday. I'm to ride with the Baron. Have to give
the merchants back part of their money, you know."

"Yes, I suppose so." The other grinned, then sobered. "I'll relieve you,

"Very good." Gerda saluted, then turned.

"March off the old guard," he ordered.

The men started up the steps. Gerda followed the serfs with the money
chest, bringing up to the rear.

Slowly, they toiled their way up the trail, halting at the halfway point
for a brief rest. At last, they were at the top of the cliff. Before
them, the castle gate opened. Within the tunnellike passage through the
wall, two sentries grounded their pikes.

Gerda nodded to his clerk, accepted the account tablet, and followed his
serfs, who still bore the money chest, into the castle.

Inside the main counting room, his bearers set the chest on a large
table. The castle steward came toward them.

"And how were collections?"

"Reasonably good, sir. Seven barges came through during the night, with
good cargoes." Gerda held out the tablet.

The steward looked at it, checking off the entries. "Meron, of
Vandor--Yes, he would have about that. And Borowa? A thousand?" He
nodded thoughtfully. "That seems about right for him." He tapped the
tablet a few times, squinting at the last name on the list. "But who is
this Teron? I never heard of him. Must have had a rich cargo, too."

Gerda laughed shortly. "He's a new one to me. He tried to get away with
a tenth, then protested the valuation. I fined him an extra five

"Oho!" The steward smiled thinly. "What then?"

Gerda shook his head. "Oh, he was suddenly so anxious to pay the right
amount, he gave me forty-eight teloa overweight. I'll know him next time
I see him, I'm sure. I marked him well for receipt."

He inspected his knuckles reflectively, then took the key from his belt
and opened the chest.

"You'll want to verify my count, of course?"

"Oh, yes. Yes, to be sure. Have to be certain, you know. And there's
your share of the fine and overpayment to be taken care of." The steward
reached into the chest, removing bags which clinked as they were dropped
to the table. He stopped, to look into the chest with a puzzled
expression on his face.

"And what are these?" He reached in, to withdraw three obviously empty
bags. He looked curiously at the thongs which tied their mouths, then
shook them and looked questioningly at Gerda.

"Why, I ... I don't know." Gerda looked incredulously at the bags.
"Certainly, I had no extra money bags."

"I should think not." The steward frowned, then beckoned behind him. Two
heavily armed guards approached.

"We'll have to examine into this."

As the guards came close to Gerda, the steward looked closely at the
bags on the table, then picked one up, opening it.

"Borowa," he muttered after looking inside and comparing the tally chip
with the count tablet. He weighed the bag in his hand. "Yes, it seems to
be about right. Certainly not overweight." He picked up another, then
still another. At last, he looked up.

"Of course, I shall have to count all of these carefully," he remarked
grimly, "but I see no coin from this Teron you have listed." He stared
coldly at Gerda. "And the tower lookout confirms that you had seven
barges. That was a considerable amount. What did you do with that

"Why, I counted it. It was all there." Gerda shook his head
unbelievingly. "My count agreed with that of my clerk, and I dropped
tallies in and closed the bags again." He looked uneasily at the two
guards who flanked him. "Surely, you don't think I'd be so foolish as to
tamper with the Baron's taxes? Think, man! I know the Baron's ways!"

"I'm not sure just what I think--yet." The steward shook his head. He
picked up one of the empty bags, opened it, and gave it a shake. The
small tally chip fell out and he picked it up, comparing it with the
list on the tablet. Frowning thoughtfully, he opened the other two bags.
More small blocks of wood fell out. He looked at the bags, then tossed
them aside and looked coldly at the guard officer.

"It's witchcraft," cried Gerda. "I had nothing----"

"We'll see." The steward motioned at the two guards. "Search this man."

* * * * *

Dazedly, Gerda stood still, submitting as one of the guards went through
his clothing while the other stood ready to deal with any resistance.
The searcher made a thorough examination of Gerda's clothing, muttered
to himself, and went over his search again. A pile of personal objects
lay on the table when he had finished. At last, he looked at the

Next: Egocentric Orbit

Previous: Indirection

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