“Ah!” the lady exclaimed, as if his answer had enlightened her on some subject of great importance. “The show!” And it was as if the mention of the Show of Ensor had given her, or at least suggested to her, some profound idea.
“Yes’m, that’s it. The show.” Ben bowed again.
She relaxed a little, leaning back in her cushioned chair. He still had not been able to think of any good reason for this attractive young girl to be sitting alone in this chill place in the middle of the night. Unless it had something to do with magic.
Meanwhile she went on: “And you have come to Triplicane to put up posters-tell me, Maxim the Strong, have you been to visit the castle yet? Out on the island?”
“Oh, I know where the castle is, ma’am. But, no, ma’am, I haven’t been out there yet. Not this trip.”
“But you are going out there.” It was an eager assumption.
Ben took the cue. “Yes, my lady, I expect so. We’ve always been welcome at the castle in the past.”
“True. True. My father”-and here the young lady’s eyes blazed for an instant with some inward fire-“always enjoyed your shows.” This time the last word held unveiled contempt. One of her small hands, resting on the table before her, clenched itself into a white fist.
“Very true, my lady.” Ben decided to risk dropping some of the peasant speech and mannerisms. They had been natural to him at one time early in his life, but he was no longer sure he could maintain them steadily.
At the same time, after hearing that “My father” he was wondering if this could be the reclusive daughter of Honan-Fu. The evidence of wealth tended to confirm the suspicion. If so, he supposed she might be expected to welcome and help any enemy of the new regime. But Ben prudently withheld any announcements along that line until he could be sure.
The lady gave no sign of noticing any alteration in his speech. “So you do intend to go out to the castle? How?”
“I-don’t know, precisely, ma’am. I was noticing that boats do seem hard to come by in the town.”
“A boat can be arranged.” Again she leaned forward, and this time lowered her voice. “But you must take me with you. And we should go now. Tonight. At once.”
Ben opened his mouth, then closed it again.
His grand hostess, who Ben now thought must be even younger than Zoltan, stood up with a graceful and decisive movement. “There is someone out there whom I must see. And-they don’t call you Maxim the Strong for nothing, do they? How are you at fighting, Maxim?”
“Fighting, ma’am? Can’t say I care for it at all. But I can do it when I must.”
“Yes, you look like you can. There might be one or two people here at the dock who wouldn’t want us to take a boat. But you can deal with them, can’t you? Especially if I can bring them to you one at a time, and unsuspecting.” Her gaze ran appraisingly over Ben’s shoulders and down his arms.
Ben was thinking furiously-or at least he was furiously trying to think, despite a feeling that his tired brain was getting nowhere in the attempt. “I-I-I’ll do the best I can, my lady, of course. But-”
“Excellent!” The young lady’s eyes flashed again, appraising him. “Maxim the Strong-yes, excellent. Yes, I am guarded, Maxim. But I’ll have a gold piece for you if you can row me out to the island at once. The boats are just outside that gate back there.” And with a motion of her head she indicated a direction in the darkness.
In a moment she had left the arbor and the lantern light and was walking with deliberate, regal speed in that direction. Ben hastened to follow, keeping a couple of paces behind her in the darkness, his feet moving through well-kept grass that was wet with the recent rain. Apparently the young lady had eyes like a cat. Ben couldn’t see much of anything for forty paces or so, but then a high stone surface loomed ahead of them again, and presently they stood facing a small closed wooden gate that pierced the outer wall of the manor grounds.
The lady wasted no time. With word and gesture, she made Ben flatten himself against the wall, where he would be within reach of the gate, yet almost out of sight to anyone looking in. Then she rapped sharply on the wooden portal, using the massive rings on her soft hand, and called in an imperious voice.
Presently a small grating high in the gate, something like the spy hole in a prison cell, slid open, and a man’s voice outside mumbled something.
“What do you think I want?” the lady shrilled. “I want you to open up this gate, you fool! I cannot speak to you like this.”
There was another mumble, sounding disgruntled. But a moment later there was a rattling sound, as of bars being taken down. The gate opened and a guard, wearing the gray and red of the castle soldiers, stuck his head in.
“I want a boat,” the mistress of the manor demanded sharply of the sentry. “I want it now.”
“Oh, yeah? Really?” The man, with an insolence that Ben found utterly surprising, started to look around. “Is that all you made me open the gate for, to start that again? Because if-”
Ben had not lied about his dislike of fighting, but he had long ago trained himself not to be not in the least squeamish when violence became essential. In a brief flash of his mind’s eye, even as his hands reached out for the man’s neck, he saw a poor fisherman’s house, dark and quiet in the early dawn.
“Very good, Maxim!” the lady exulted almost silently, but with high good humor like a schoolgirl on some lark. “Oh, you are marvelously quick and efficient!” At her feet the uniformed body twitched once more and then was still, and Ben thought for a moment she was about to give it an exuberant kick.
But instead she went to peer cautiously out through the opened gate. Ben could see now that it had been strongly barred on the outside, as if to prevent a determined effort at escape, with less concern for entry. She said: “Evidently there was only one on guard tonight, I see no one else around. They’ve been so busy-come along, now we can get a boat.”
Then she turned back, gazing down at the dead man. “Bring him out, Maxim. We’ll stuff a rock into his jerkin; that’ll make him sink.”
That sounded like a practical idea to Ben; and he had known too many ladies, young and old, of high rank, to be surprised that one of them should demonstrate ruthlessness and efficiency. He scooped the body up.
The small docks that served the manor directly were just outside the gate. In the distance the castle on its island was speckled gaily with flecks of torchlight. The lady moved with Ben, guiding him through the darkness toward the little boathouse. Her clothing, a long, delicate-looking dress and frivolous shoes, wasn’t what he would have recommended for a night row across the lake, but this girl, whoever she was, was apparently as ready to ruin her finery as she was to kill, and Ben wasn’t going to be the one to bring the subject up.
The dead guard, duly weighted, went off the dock into what was probably reasonably deep water with only a small splash. They might think, when they found him, that he had broken his neck accidentally. Ben supposed they would have to be pretty stupid to think that, but the possibility couldn’t be ruled out.
There were two small rowboats waiting at the docks. Ben found a pair of oars just where his guide said they would be, inside the little boathouse, and started to put them into one of the boats.
His hostess meanwhile stood idle, waiting like a true lady to be helped into the boat when the time came. But before Ben could get to that, there were voices coming through the night across the water, and the sound of more than one pair of oars in locks.
She was as fiercely alert as he. “They’re coming right from the castle. Quick, Maxim, back inside!”
Muttering powerful but silent curses, Ben got back through the gate with his new young mistress, and pulled it shut and latched it on the inside. The real bar, the one that had been on the outside, of course could not be replaced. The implications of that were not too good. In a minute or two, boats, more than just a couple of them by the sound of it, began to arrive out there. So far there were no sounds of alarm, and Ben could begin to hope that he and the lady had not been seen out on the dock. Quite possibly the boathouse had screened them from the approaching craft while they were disposing of the sentry.